Tuesday, December 24, 2019

A Galatian Christmas: Christmas Eve Homily 2019

We're maybe not used to asking Paul to tell us the story of Christmas. Luke? Every year. Matthew? Sure, now and again. John? Perhaps, if we're in that mood. The prophets, even, if we have ears to hear! But Paul? What Christmas does Paul know? Sit down this evening with the apostle, in the stillness of a holy night, and how will he tell you the story?

Paul might begin after where we last left off: With God's promise to Abraham, of blessing for all nations because one man believed God and had it credited in his account as the sum-total of a righteous life (Galatians 3:8-9). One day, he reads already, there will be just one road to the blessed life, one road – (one Way) – that leads to fullness and happiness and completeness. And that road is called Faith. But the world would need training for the journey. And so the Lord fixed the time, the time for the one road to blessing to open. And that 'fullness of time' would only come when the world would at last grow up. Have you ever thought it like that?

When Paul looks around at the world of his day, and certainly when he looks back at the long centuries before, that's the one thing he sees above all: the world needs to grow up. He speaks for everyone when he says, “We were children” (Galatians 4:3). That was true for his people, the chosen Israelites. After the promise was given to Abraham, the law was given through Moses. “Before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our pedagogue...” (Galatians 3:23-24). “A pedagogue? What's a pedagogue?” A pedagogue, in Paul's world, was a household slave who escorted a child to school and protected him from predators and bad influences along the way. That's how Paul sees what the Old Testament law was for the Israelites: a protective escort. And Paul also compares the law to “guardians and managers” who watch over an orphan's estate until he gets old enough to inherit (Galatians 4:2). Those people are all good and valuable, for their time! But the problem is, in the Roman world, a child before maturity had a social standing just the same as any slave: “the heir, as long as he's a child, is no different from a slave” (Galatians 4:1). And the only way to get freedom is to grow up – to get out from under the pedagogue, out from under the guardian, the manager. Living by the law, being tied back to it – that's captivity, slavery.

When Paul looks out on the rest of the world, he sees the same kind of story. Other nations didn't have God's law to protect them, but they had “the elements of the world” – spiritual powers, divisions of time, cultural customs, ways of putting the world together – that were no better and no more freedom-giving. Other nations, “when we were children, were enslaved to the elements of the world” (Galatians 4:3), to “days and months and seasons and years” (Galatians 4:10). All those ways of putting the world together, all the combinations of the social and material building blocks... In the end, these raw elements' wild lawlessness infantilized the nations – their belief in the elements led them to act like slaves to them (Galatians 4:8). Those under the law, those under the elements, were imprisoned in perpetual immaturity. So if nothing changes, the child is caught in arrested development – never owning anything, never knowing what real freedom is like, never accomplishing the purpose of birth, and certainly never gaining a victory over “the sins of... youth” (Psalm 25:7).

But Paul announces good news to you like this: Something has changed – the world can at last grow up! Why? Because “the fullness of time had come” (Galatians 4:4) – the moment chosen by the Father from eternity past for the great growth-spurt of grace.

How did the fullness of time roll around? With a single cell – a 23-chromosome-pair, mitochondria-packed human cell fused to the entirety of all that makes God 'God,' a zygote in the womb of a girl from Nazareth – a cell that, over the next nine months, divided and differentiated until, late one night in Bethlehem, surrounded by a family's livestock, a baby was born into the aromatic air. And in that whole process, from the first spark of the first cell through the nine months 'til that first Bethlehem breath and the severing of the umbilical cord, the eternal Son of God – older than matter and electromagnetism – pressed himself into our world as one of us. The eternal Son of God, descending to the gravity of this earth, joining his divinity to human nature, literally infantilized himself. And so, at the climax of that nine months, he was “born of a woman, born under the law” (Galatians 4:4).  But what could that mean, to be 'born under the law'?

In other words, he traded heavenly light for human infancy. He exchanged divine freedom for human servitude, for human law-subjection and law-obedience. His celestial 'above-ness' flipped upside-down into the 'underneath-ness' of a child. (For any child is 'under' many regulations and rules and regimes.) Yes, the One-Above-All was “born under the law,” his own law of his own decree. Why trade the Grand 'Above' for our 'under'? All with one crucial intent. All so the old promises made to Adam and Abraham could find their Yes, “for all the promises of God find their 'Yes!' in him” (2 Corinthians 1:20; cf. Galatians 3:16-18). All so, working from our place on the underside, he could pierce a way through to the heights, to “redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:5)! All so we could be redeemed from the sins of our youth, could be set free from the prison of our self-made cribs, could move from our worn-out pacifiers into the bright vistas of pure peace. For gaining his perfect life 'under the law,' a life he would one day pour out for us and on us, is the only way we might graduate to the beauties above the law, beyond the sums of the elements.

That's why, when he writes Galatians, Paul is so deeply disturbed about the idea of people trying to go back, go back to any other arrangement, go back to a life before Jesus, go back to retrieve the crib bars of the law and the pacifiers of the elements, go back to the infancy we've aged out of – “How can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elements of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?” (Galatians 4:9). Because we don't have to be there any more! Not a one of us does. Those years are done!  Faith is here now! The promise has arrived! Chains are broken! Inheritance begins! “Now that faith has come, we are no longer under a pedagogue” (Galatians 3:25). You don't have to be under a pedagogue, under a guardian, under a manager; you are released to come into what's greater and richer. Adoption into the fullness has come, the Spirit has been poured out, advancement is greenlit, because there was a Baby bigger than all the world. In a mystery beyond comprehension, God infantilized himself for us. It all happened as the law prophesied! It took place as the elements of the world sang and shouted! And that, that right there, is the mystery of Christmas.

Which leaves us one great question: How can we be part of the mystery of Christmas? Paul tells us that too, as he tells the story. Paul says that in his ministry – and as a pastor, I know what he means – he can himself feel Mary's labor pangs! Paul feels Mary's very own labor pangs. But where Mary labored to form Jesus for the manger, Paul labors to form Jesus for your heart“I'm again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!” (Galatians 4:19), conceived to be the grace that appeared so precious that hour you first believed.

For only once this has happened – only once Christ is conceived in you, formed in you, born in you – can you begin to then “go on to maturity” (Hebrews 6:1), grow to “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13), “that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God” (Colossians 4:12).

Because that's the goal: the Son of God infantilized himself, that he might make you mature beyond the law, mature beyond the elements, mature beyond the chains, mature for an inheritance nothing else can give! If you don't know that, you don't know why we're celebrating tonight. I hope you won't leave through those doors until you know, know for sure. But if you do know that, then tonight is the brightest joy, the joy that opens a puddle to an ocean, a seed to a forest, a breath to a hurricane, a whisper to a symphony! Because tonight, as we look back, “God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem” us to a joy that dwarfs galaxies. The Word is made flesh! The Lord is born! But is he yet born, is he yet formed, in you? By faith, receive this good news; by faith, embrace this beautiful mystery; by faith, become this true family; by faith, be set right and ready for something so much bigger! In Jesus' name: Amen!

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