Sunday after Christmas Sermon| Rev. Rolf Preus| December 30, 2001| Galatians 4:1-7
I had a prof at the seminary who used to talk about the false religion of presentism. You won’t find that word in a dictionary, but it should be there. The word refers to those who think that the present time is better than any other time. Presentists think that folks today are smarter, wiser, and better informed than all previous generations. Presentists marvel at how ignorant their fathers’ generation was. They are enamored with how enlightened folks have finally become in the latter part of the 20th Century. Presentists think that people of ages gone by were mired in pathetic ignorance, while only in recent years has mankind (they would say humankind) finally discovered the truth. However, this “truth” changes with the seasons, flitting from one faddish notion to another. It promotes freedom, but produces slavery. It promised to liberate women from enforced marriage and motherhood. Instead it enslaved single mothers to poverty and government dependency. It promised to free homosexuals from legal harassment and socially sanctioned cruelty. It ended up fueling the deadly epidemic of AIDS. It promised to free people from the oppressive structures of traditional religion and traditional morality. But it gave no one any freedom at all. It only tore down the foundations of the ordered liberty that God had so graciously preserved for us in America. As the creed of presentism changes from day to day, one tenet of this religion remains the same: its abiding hostility to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
This is the only absolute that is taught among the presentists. The biblical teaching that Jesus Christ is the only Savior of sinners remains for them the stone of stumbling and the rock of offense. The only “truth” that our generation will confess is that all religions are equally true. This is nothing less than a flat denial of Christ and Christ’s claims. But if you won’t admit that all religious roads lead to the same God you are considered to be a religious bigot. This is the “wisdom” of our present time. In its year-end issue, Newsweek published an article by its religion editor, an award winning journalist by the name of Kenneth Woodward, entitled, “How Should We Think About Islam?” Woodward argues in favor of “religious pluralism” as a civic virtue. Now lest you think that “religious pluralism” refers to supporting the constitutional right to the free exercise of religion, Mr. Woodward explains that it requires us to view all religions as valid paths to God. He criticizes Christians who refuse to pray with Jews and Muslims. He praises theologians who “are beginning to ask how the Holy Spirit might be at work within non-Christian religions.”
Woodward is a slave to the false religion my old seminary professor called presentism. The man sincerely believes that it is a blessing to be set free from the binding dogma of yesterday. He devoutly follows his religion, seeks converts to it, and promotes its creed. He believes that the fullness of time will come upon us as we learn to set aside our claims to finally revealed spiritual truth. Christians and Jews and Muslims must find (Woodward writes) “sound theological reasons for valuing other faiths without compromising the integrity of their own.” He can say this because he doesn’t understand how it is that the Christian religion is radically different from every other religion. To him one religion is as true as another. The man is blinded by the false religion of presentism. But the fullness of time did not come to this world in the twentieth or the twenty-first centuries. It came in the first century when “God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.” The history of the human race is centered on that sending. When Jesus was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, crucified, died, and was buried, descended into hell, rose from the dead on the third day, and ascended to the right hand of the Father, that was the fulfillment of all human history. That was the fullness of time. That was the central point from which everything must be understood.
The Father sent His Son. His Son was born of a woman. He was the Son of the Father from eternity. He was always the Son of the Father. There never was a time when he was not the Son of the Father. But there was a time when that Son became our brother by being born of a woman. That was the fullness of time. He was born of a woman. No man had anything to do with it. She was a pure virgin. He was born of a virgin and was preserved from the curse of sin, for God couldn’t become a sinner and it was God who was conceived as a Child in the Virgin’s womb. God couldn’t participate in sin, but when the eternal Son of God was born of a woman he willingly joined himself to sinners. He was born under the law. That law didn’t apply to him. The Bible tells us that the law was made for sinners. It certainly wasn’t made for God who cannot sin. Yet he was born of a woman and he was born under the law so that he could take the place of sinners both by doing what the law demanded of them and by suffering what the law required of them. In the fullness of time God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem all those who were under the law.
When you are under the law you are a slave. You are not free to do as you choose. You must do what the law demands. Your life is determined by demands that are made on you against your will. Oh, you may want to join your will to the demands of the law, but if wishes were horses then beggars would ride. Just because you want to do something doesn’t mean that you can. Just because you must do something doesn’t mean you are able. When God sent forth His Son to redeem us, He sent Him to do what we couldn’t do. We needed him to redeem us because we couldn’t redeem ourselves. We were enslaved by demands that we couldn’t meet. Only Jesus could meet those demands. Only Jesus could do what the law demanded of us. Only Jesus could suffer what we deserved to suffer. Only Jesus could make us sons of God instead of slaves. Only Jesus could send the Holy Spirit into our hearts. Only by the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father, and not only from the Father, but from the Father and the Son, can we call God: Father. Anyone can say the words, “Our Father, who art in heaven.” Only those who have the Holy Spirit can call God Father with the confidence of true children that God is our dear Father who loves us with a Father’s love.
And that’s why the Christian truth is true and why the fullness of time is when Jesus Christ was born into this world. Modern Judaism is a false religion because it denies that Jesus is the Christ. Likewise Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and every other religion of this world are essentially false religions because they deny that Jesus is the Son of God who has redeemed those who were under the law. As a matter of fact, all of these religions leave you under the law. They leave you to your own powers and so they leave you without hope.
A religion that leaves you under the law treats you as a slave. When you are under the law you are never more than a slave and a slave has no hope. A slave has no hope because he has no future. Even a child who is under the law has hope that someday he will be set free from the rules that bind him. And someday he will. But the slave who must remain under the law must remain under tyranny all his life. This is the lot of those who want to know God apart from Jesus Christ. They are powerless to find true spiritual freedom. They live without hope.
Many people who were once baptized into union with Christ and thus filled with the Holy Spirit live as slaves under bondage and not as God’s children who are free. And the reason for this is that they deny their adoption into God’s family and they fall into the lie of presentism that every religion is as good as every other religion. It’s a lie. Only the Christian faith gives you spiritual freedom because only our holy Christian faith has a Redeemer who sets us free from the tyranny of the law. Every other religion requires its adherents to win over God’s heart by obeying God’s law. Even the most liberal and open minded versions of what we have called presentism cannot guarantee its devotees that whatever god they worship really does accept them, receive them, love them, cherish them, and keep them from harm forever. Only our Christian faith assures us of this. Only the Christian can call God: Abba, the bold and endearing name of the Father who loves you with an undying love.
Of course it is easy enough to try to silence the law’s demands. All we need to do is to silence the law. We need only change the demands that God has placed on us so that we are no longer guilty of going against them. We can redefine the commandments. Idolatry, the misuse of God’s name, and the neglect of his holy word can easily be defined according to a few doable rules. Likewise, we can treat the second table of the law in a similar way, honoring our father and mother only when they deserve it and excusing hatred against our neighbor as long as we can show that he is worthy of hatred. The 6th Commandment is constantly being redefined to mean something other than celibacy outside of marriage and fidelity within marriage of one man to one woman for as long as they both shall live. Oh, it’s easy to redefine the commandments.
But they remain God’s commandments and he doesn’t go along with our redefinitions. He isn’t impressed with the new insight discovered by the elite trendsetters of our generation. God knows there’s nothing new under the sun. After all, He is the One who inspired Solomon to write this years and years ago. There is no new truth. There is no new discovery of an inner unity of all religions. There is only the religion of man that leaves us helpless under the demands of a law that we have failed to obey and the gift of God’s Son who redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us. There is only the tyranny of the law that condemns us to slavery and the freedom the Holy Spirit brings as he penetrates our hearts with the one and only gospel. This gospel sets our hearts free by bringing to us the forgiveness won by Christ our Redeemer. This gospel assures us that God is not angry with us, that he is our dear Father, and that we are heirs with Christ of eternal life.
The disciples of the modern heresy of presentism don’t know what time it is. They think that the notion that all religious truth is a matter of your own religious opinion and your own religious experience is some kind of new and exciting discovery. They don’t know that this is as old as the Serpent’s lie in Eden when he turned the woman’s heart away from the truth of God’s holy word to rely instead on what her heart felt and what appealed to her eyes. Our gracious Father in heaven would turn us away from the slavery of our lying hearts and from the ignorance of our blind eyes. He would turn us this Christmas back to the fullness of time. Rather, he would bring the Christ of Christmas here to us. And he does. Christ comes to us in his words of absolution today. Christ comes to us with his very body and blood of the Holy Supper today. In so doing he gives us the Holy Spirit and he fills us with hope. We call God Our Father with delight, and we know he delights in hearing us pray. We are free children of God, now and forever.