March 15, 2015 Fourth Sunday in Lent
Ezekiel 39:21-29, Psalm 147, Galatians 4:21-31, St. John 6:1-14
On my recent visit to the auld sod, I had the good fortune to see my niece Alice, the only daughter of my only sister.
Alice and I tore up five pounds of crawfish – no, we didn’t suck the heads – but that’s not the reason I bring her up. That’s what we crawfish-eaters call the “lagniappe,” something extra thrown in for free.
Alice married in her mid-20s, moved from Texas to California and after a few years went home divorced. Now in her early 30s, she has been seeing a fellow named Ken steadily for the last few months and obviously has marriage on her mind.
This I know because she brought up the subject . . . and in a most interesting context. It warmed my heart to hear her discuss marriage in terms of covenant. Whatever the similarities, she explained, a covenant is not a contract.
She and her first husband executed a contract; she and her next husband will enter into a covenant. A contract is negotiated and consummated by two parties . . . and can be dissolved by those parties.
A covenant is a relationship that involves the two parties and God. Sworn to before the Almighty and sealed in His presence, it is then lived out on the terms He sets out.
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Our Epistle Lesson for today sets out a comparison of two covenants. Both must be seen as such because God not only presided at the making of both but also was a party to both. The difference lies in how the second party in each case viewed the arrangement.
Ancient Israel treated the old covenant like a contract. God has chosen them for Himself and given them the rules. As long as they follow the rules they have lived up to its terms and God could not terminate the deal He had struck with them.
They willfully ignored the fact – a fact that God had hardly hidden from them – that He wanted Israel for his wife. Yes, He wanted her obedience . . . but an obedience that flowed out of the Jews’ reciprocated love. Law informs a contract; love informs a covenant.
God responded to Israel’s disobedient, unloving ways by offering a new and better covenant, which would be writ large on His people’s hearts. Jews were still eligible. And gentiles? Under that old covenant, they could enter into relationship with God by joining his covenant people Israel.
But under the new covenant, gentiles were no longer required to become Jews first to then become Christians, followers of the Mediator of this new covenant, Jesus Christ. The only requirement was love for the God who loved them so much He died a ghastly death on the cross to save them from the penalty of their sins.
These Christians would know the covenant for what it is, a way of expressing God’s love . . . received and returned and diffused among their fellow men.
But now some in the churches of Galatia were preaching not what Paul had taught in those churches but “a different gospel.” They were demanding that gentiles first submit to circumcision – the sign of the old covenant – and observe Jewish feast days and dietary laws; in other words, that they become Jews first and then graduate into Christianity.
The apostle is apoplectic. Galatians is a seething letter. He extends to his readers the customary wishes for grace and peace in the briefest of salutations and then in his sixth verse begins to unload his condemnation not only of those who preach a different gospel but on those who receive it.
Paul has preached a gospel of reconciliation, of peace between God and man and man and man, by the grace of God. Who but a fool would return to an inferior covenant and the divisions among peoples and the curse it brought on Israel for her failure to keep the law?
I’m reminded of those Jews who got their heart’s desire after the Soviet Union collapsed. They were allowed after excruciating years and decades to emigrate from Russia to Israel. But then, standing on the soil of their ancestral homeland, they found they could not cope with the dizzying freedom of life in a democracy and returned to a life in Russia not much different from that they had known under the old Soviet regime.
I’m reminded of prison inmates who serve a long sentence and, finally freed, choke on the choices liberty offers and commit another crime so they might return to the confines of the pen, where their thinking is done for them. Bondage agrees with them.
Freed from an existence under the curse that descended upon them in consequence of their breaking of the law, they return to that cursed life as to a warm bed.
The Galatians who have aroused Paul’s ire are doing the same . . . but the stakes are so much higher. They’re playing with their eternal destiny.
In a time of monstrous evil in the world, God had given His law to one nation to set her apart so she might demonstrate for all nations what it means to live righteously before a holy God. Israel failed utterly in that mission, absorbing the sordid ways of surrounding nations and imitating them rather than instructing them.
Those who argued for returning to the old ways would empty the meaning from Christ’s advent and death, deny the efficacy of the work of the Holy Spirit and despise God’s promises to His covenant people. The apostle demands an answer: Are you mad?
Our present passage is a gnarly one, the most difficult in this letter and among the most troublesome in all of Paul’s writings. He uses an Old Testament illustration to shine light on a New Testament dilemma . . . but the context is so far removed from us we must tread carefully in approaching it.
One trap to avoid is the temptation to read the geopolitical situation of today’s world back into it. The two sons of Abraham are fathers of two nations, Ishmael of the Arabians and Isaac of the Jews. But the historic tension between the two races is not the contrast the apostle is drawing.
Many Jews had convinced themselves that their favored status as sons of Abraham sealed their everlasting security. Both John the Baptist and Jesus Christ lambasted them for their failure to understand who the true sons of Abraham are.
In the previous chapter of Galatians, Paul has astonished this group with an inversion: He who would be a son of Abraham must first be a son of Christ. He now produces an illustration involving two sons, two mothers, two covenants, two Jerusalems and two religions.
In the double descent from Abraham, Ishmael – born of an adulterous act by his father, who did not trust in God’s promise – represents the literal and physical covenant; Isaac – born to parents in a marriage covenanted before God – represents the figurative and spiritual covenant.
Ishmael’s mother, the slave woman Hagar, delivers him into slavery and Isaac’s mother, the free woman Sarah, bears him into freedom. Ishmael is born according to the flesh in the natural way. Isaac is born not according to the flesh but according to God’s promise.
It is his mother’s faith that sets Isaac apart. Despite the advanced ages of herself and her husband, Sarah took God at His word when He promised her a son. Isaac was born contrary to nature; his birth was supernatural.
So, too, are the two covenants of a different character. The old, mediated through Moses, was based on law; the new, mediated through Christ, is based on God’s gracious promises. The first of those promises comes in Genesis 3, immediately after the fall, when God declares that the Seed of the woman, Christ, will prevail over the seed of the serpent, Satan.
The covenant of law laid the burden of righteousness on the shoulders of men; the covenant of grace places it squarely on God. Christ will bear it all the way to the cross.
The two Jerusalems are that of the Jews, physical and earthly, and that of the Christians, spiritual and heavenly. God has abandoned the earthly Jerusalem. Disgusted at His people’s rebellious ways, He has pulled up stakes and moved on. Why would a resident of the glittering city of the new and better covenant return to a ghost town?
The two women represent the two covenants. Hagar, who bore a son into slavery, stands for the Sinai covenant, grounded in the law and centered on earthly Jerusalem. Her children are slaves. Sarah, who delivered a son into freedom, stands for the new covenant, grounded in God’s grace and centered on the heavenly Jerusalem.
Paul harks back to Isaiah 54:1, where the two women are not Hagar and Sarah but the Jews – one is Israel abandoned by her husband and in captivity in Babylon, the other is Israel reunited with her gracious husband and restored to her land.
In the end, the conflict is intensely personal. Who’s your daddy, Ishmael or Isaac? They had the same father but the descendents of the former would persecute the descendents of the latter. Persecution comes from within the family.
Who cried out for Jesus’ death but His fellow Jews? Who hounded Paul but his fellow Jewish Christians? Our stiffest opposition today comes not from pagans; some of them will receive the gospel and believe. It comes from those who preach a different gospel.
I became friends with a young man who was a diligent participant in the Bible study I teach each week in the county jail. After his release I spent a good deal of time with him. I met his mother and began to develop a relationship with her. She is a member of long standing of another Anglican church in this city.
The last time we met we talked at length about her son, who was by this time again behind bars. As we were parting, she began firing questions at me: Did you go to seminary? Are you ordained?
Did she suppose I picked up a few sin-fightin’ suits at central casting, swiped a Gideon Bible from a motel room, memorized the 23rd Psalm and foisted myself off as a vicar? Whatever her suspicions, I suspect someone whispered them in her ear. Opposition comes from within.
When error creeps into the church and overtakes parts of it and some will not embrace it but instead remain steadfast, conflict must follow. Unity cannot fall captive to heresy.
“Join me in a different gospel and I will call you ‘brother’ and I will not challenge your credentials.” No thank you. Paul defended his apostleship with every fiber of his being because his arguments rested on his credentials. He might have pursued peace . . . but not at the cost of truth.
Not in Paul’s day; not in our day. If you would reject the faith once delivered to the saints you must also reject me.
Unity is our fond hope, our goal, our eternal promise; division is our grinding reality. In the end, unity will reside not in a kumbaya chorus but in devotion to the Lord who reveals Himself in His word.
We will not rally round a lie; we will contend for the truth, isolated though we may be. The true sons of Abraham are first the true sons of Christ. We may not condone what He condemns.
The slave woman Hagar and her son Ishmael were cast out of the household and had no part in the early kingdom. So will those enslaved to the law be cast out of the heavenly kingdom.
It is only grace that can save us. One old saint described it this way: “Love God and do what you like.” It has a nice ring to it. Love is always more potent than the law. But before you do what you like, examine carefully your love of God; make certain you’re operating on His definition and not your own.
Those false sons of Abraham – both ethnic Jews who persecuted Christ and His church and the ones who joined the church and preached a different gospel – eventually came face-to-face with the stark reality that their Jewishness could not save them.
The late, great theologian and rector of All Souls Church in London, John Stott, extracted a word from this passage for his countrymen. Even when Britain was at the height of her power, even when Britannia ruled the waves, he said, their Englishness could not save them.
In our time and place we hear a good deal about American exceptionalism. The debate rages. Is America exceptional? What an absurd question. In spite of some recent lapses she remains the richest, most powerful, most respected, most feared nation on earth.
But an American who is a true son of Abraham because he is first a son of Christ must not leave the matter there. He must ask, is America exceptional because of our righteousness or because of God’s abundant grace?
He has freed us from bondage; He has called us His sons and daughters under the terms of a new and better covenant; He has written His law of love on our hearts; He has poured down blessing after blessing on our heads. No matter how exceptional our nation, our Americanness will not save us; only our God can do that. Amen.