Lent Four Sermon 2004|Galatians 4:21-31| March 21, 2004
The French have a saying: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” This is especially true when it comes to religious matters. The same old quarrels and controversies arise throughout the history of the church. As Solomon said, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Some of the debates are rather senseless. Debates about authority in the church are often just carnal arguments about who gets to have his way and who has to give in. Sometimes people think they’re arguing over substance when they’re really just debating style. And, of course, people like to disagree just to be disagreeable.
But it is also true that many people don’t want to take a stand for the truth because they are more interested in living a peaceful and uncomplicated life than they are in contending for what might get them into trouble. There are some conflicts that cannot be avoided. The central religious debate of all ages is the debate that St. Paul addresses in our text. In his Epistle to the Galatians, the apostle Paul argues for the teaching that a sinner is justified by God through faith in Christ alone, not by obeying the law. To be justified means to be reckoned or counted righteous by God. God does not reckon to us our own good works as righteousness. We are not justified by obeying the law. God justifies us on account of Christ’s obedience and suffering, not on account of our own. St. Paul makes this teaching crystal clear. Those who depend on their obedience to the law are under a curse. The law pronounces a curse on everyone who fails to continue in everything it demands. So we cannot trust in what we do. We can only trust in what God promises. He promises us forgiveness for Christ’s sake. Since Jesus bore the curse of the law for us all, we are justified or forgiven of our sins for Christ’s sake. After setting forth this fundamental Christian teaching, the apostle Paul uses an allegory to illustrate it for us.
An allegory is a bit like a parable, but they are different. A parable is a story that did not actually happen. It is told to illustrate a spiritual truth. Usually a parable has one central truth. An allegory is a spiritual explanation of the historical fact. Each element in the historical record assumes a spiritual significance. While many people have allegorized biblical history over the centuries, there are very few allegories in the Bible itself. This is one of them.
You may be familiar with the story. Abraham had a wife, Sarah, who was barren. She could not conceive a child. Yet God promised to Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation out of which the Savior of the world would be born. It was a promise upon which Abraham and Sarah rested their faith. But it appeared over time that Sarah would not be a part of the divine fulfillment of the promise since she was past the age of childbearing and God had not given her a child. So Sarah devised her own plan. She offered her slave, Hagar, to Abraham so that he could father a child through her. The child would be Abraham’s legal son and heir. Abraham agreed to Sarah’s plan and Hagar bore him a son that they named Ishmael.
Hagar was a slave. She wasn’t Abraham’s true wife. She was his wife’s slave. But after she had borne a son she acted as if she were superior to Sarah. She despised her mistress. She looked down on her who was barren. By all appearances God had blessed Hagar instead of Sarah. It appeared as if God favored the slave women over the free woman.
But appearances are deceiving. God did not need Sarah’s intervention nor did He need Hagar’s fruitful womb to keep the promise He had given to Abraham. God had promised an heir to Abraham. God would fulfill the promise He had given. He would do it His way. He would do it by means of a miracle. He came to Abraham and promised him that his wife, Sarah, would have a son. She knew it was impossible, so she laughed. But with God nothing is impossible. The son was born and named Isaac, which means laughter.
As Ishmael and Isaac grew up, Ishmael despised and persecuted Isaac even as his mother had despised Sarah. Like mother, like son. Sarah patiently endured Hagar’s haughtiness until finally her patience came to an end. She told Abraham to get rid of the slave woman and her son. They were thrown out. They had no right to what God had promised. They may have had a legal claim based on who was the firstborn, but that meant nothing when set up against the promise of God. God chose Sarah and God chose Isaac. Ishmael was born in a natural way, according to the flesh. Isaac was born by God’s promise.
From this familiar history, St. Paul weaves together a brilliant allegory that explains the central truth of our Christian faith and how it is that this truth must always be under attack until Christ returns to take us home to heaven. The apostle contrasts law with promise, the flesh with the Spirit, slavery with freedom, and the earthly Jerusalem with the heavenly Jerusalem.
Those who seek to gain an inheritance from God by means of obeying the law deny the promise, reject the Holy Spirit, consign themselves to spiritual slavery, and gain nothing beyond what they can have in this world. Those who reject all reliance on their own good works and trust instead in the promise of the gospel are filled with the Holy Spirit, set free from bondage, and are made heirs of eternal life.
When Paul wrote his Epistle to the Galatians, the Christians were scattered. They had no legal protection. They were persecuted by both Jews and Greeks. This was before the destruction of Jerusalem and its beautiful temple in 70 AD. By all outward appearances the Christians were the losers in this world. They appeared much like aging Sarah. All they had was the promise and nothing else.
But that’s all they needed. And that’s all we need. Those who depend on the law depend on the flesh. But that which is born of the flesh is flesh. So says Jesus. Only He who became flesh without sin can give you the new birth of the Holy Spirit. The law is not useless. It is useful. It shows us our need for a Savior. It keeps order in the world. It tells us Christians what kind of behavior is pleasing to God. But God did not give us His law to show us how to gain our inheritance. Our inheritance includes every spiritual blessing God gives us here on earth and hereafter in heaven. It is always given freely by God in His gospel. And it is always received by faith alone. The law makes demands on us. The gospel makes no demands on us. Those who trust in the gospel trust in the gospel because the Holy Spirit has set them free from their own delusions. Fallen and sinful humanity trust in the law for their salvation. The Christian has been set free from this false faith and only the Holy Spirit can set you free.
Those who trust in the law despise those who trust in the gospel. Those who are spiritual slaves despise and persecute those who are spiritually free. Hagar and Ishmael illustrate the way things have always been in the church. The false church will always despise and persecute the true church. The reason is that the true church is not impressed by all of the outward looking holiness of the false church. The true church lays claim to a freedom that the false church does not know.
The false church makes extravagant claims. She has wealth. She has position. She has prestige. She has respectability. She belongs. But this is all only according to appearances. The true church has what the false church claims, but she has it by God’s promise. God’s promise makes it certain. When what appeared to be wealth is revealed to be rotten to the core, the wealth of the true church will remain. Her wealth never did consist in her sin-tainted works. Her wealth was hidden in Christ and in His suffering.
Today’s Gospel Lesson tells us that after Jesus fed the five thousand, they tried to make Him king by force, so He left them. St. John records that the crowd kept following Him to get more bread. Jesus preached to them that He was the bread of life. In His sermon He told them that His flesh and blood were real food and drink. Faith takes Jesus in. Faith lives on Jesus. Faith knows what it cannot see, feel, or touch. It rests secure in the promise of the gospel.
The promise of the gospel is a treasure that belongs to the heavenly Jerusalem. She is our mother. St. Paul calls her the Jerusalem that is above. This isn’t a reference to the church that is in heaven, but it is rather a reference to the church that receives the blessings of heaven. The blessings of heaven are the blessings won right here on earth. Jesus won them by His obedience and His suffering. He won for us our freedom, our identity, and our inheritance. The Holy Spirit who persuades us of this is the Spirit of truth that Jesus Himself has sent. We call Him the Lord and giver of life. He has joined Himself to the true church our true mother. She has the treasures through which the Holy Spirit creates and sustains faith in our hearts.
Those who trust in their own good deeds are trusting in what will finally condemn them. The false church is the church – whatever its name – whose children trust in the law for their salvation. The law will chase you until he catches you and will never give you any peace of mind or soul. When you are trusting instead in the promise of full and free forgiveness for Christ’s sake, you know you are at peace with God. You also know that the same Lord Jesus by whose suffering and death you are delivered from sin is the Lord God who provides you with your daily bread. There is not a need in life that Christ does not supply, for He is one with the Father and He is the source of everything we need to support our lives here on earth.
True freedom is not financial security. It is not good health. It is not winning the game and gaining the respect of the crowd. All of these things are transitory and easily lost. True freedom is knowing Christ and receiving by faith His righteousness as a covering that renders us faultless before God. True freedom is knowing that the Creator of all things who sustains this world and everything in it by His almighty Word is also our brother who has borne in His sacred body the burden of our sin and removed that burden from us forever. Nothing we own in this world can compare in value to the blood-bought righteousness of Christ that is ours by faith. Jesus did not purchase this righteousness for us so that we would doubt His word. He did so to win our confidence that His gospel promise is true. It is true. Since His gospel is true, it is worth contending for. It is worth fighting for. It is worth dying for, for it guarantees us eternal life. Amen.