Sunday, December 29, 2013

Sermon for First Sunday after Christmas

                                                                                                Christmas 1
                                                                                                Gal. 4:1-7

            It didn’t take very long for me to recognize a significant way that Good Shepherd differs from my first parish, Zion in Lyons, IL.  Lyons is inner suburban Chicago – really part of the fringe of the city itself.  It was a congregation that had a long history – a couple of years ago they celebrated their one hundred and twenty fifth anniversary. Many of the members had been at Zion their whole lives.  They had attended the parochial school at Zion before it closed.  Their parents and grandparents had lived in Lyons.  They had grown upon in Lyons.  Many of them had retired in Lyons.
            When I arrived at Good Shepherd I soon learned that almost no one in the congregation is originally from Marion.  Our congregation is a relatively young one – we just celebrated our twenty fifth anniversary. This part of southern Illinois is not exactly a hot bed of Lutheranism, and so it’s not a place that has had long history of Lutheran families.  Instead, during her history, the majority of members at Good Shepherd have come from some place other than Marion – and of course quite a few haven’t lived in Marion at all, but instead have lived in the surrounding communities.
            For the most part, we all come from somewhere else.  Now if we were to have a contest to see who has come the farthest from their place of birth to be at Good Shepherd today, there are two members who would win … and it’s not even close.  Shaelen and Dani would win because they were born in China.  It think it is really interesting that in a congregation our size we have two members who come originally from China. Shaun and Charlene, and Jim and Barb made the trip to China in order to bring these girls back and make them part of their families.  The adoption of these children has been a great blessing for everyone involved – for the girls, for their parents and for our congregation here at Good Shepherd.
            On this First Sunday after Christmas, the epistle lesson reminds us that in a far more significant way, all of us are adopted.  God the Father sent forth the Son into the world at Christmas in order free us from the slavery generated by sin.  He sent the Son so that we could be adopted – so that we could become the sons and daughters of God. 
            Paul had preached the Gospel to the Galatians on one of his missionary trips.  However, some other Christians had come to the church who claimed to have impressive ties to the church at Jerusalem. They told the Galatians – who were Gentiles, that is, non-Jews – that if they really wanted to be part of the people of God, they needed to begin to do the works of the Law of Moses. Apparently they emphasized three aspects of the Law as a starting point for this: circumcision, food laws and certain Jewish religious days and festivals.
            For Paul, this was no small thing.  It was in fact a denial of the Gospel because it was an act that said that people needed to do something in addition to Christ’s sacrifice in order to be fully saved. Paul wrote earlier in this letter, “yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.”
            In the previous chapter Paul has used several different arguments to show the Galatians that they are already the children of God in Christ, through faith, and that the doing of the law can’t bring salvation.  The law can’t bring salvation.  Instead it brings a curse.  Paul wrote, “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’”  The law brings a curse because no one can do the law perfectly in thought, word and deed.
            However, in Jesus Christ God had provided the answer to this.  Paul goes on to say, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.”  The apostle says that Christ freed us from the curse by being cursed in our place on the cross.  The law that brings a curse can no longer hold us in slavery because of what Christ has done.
            Now this didn’t mean that the Torah given to Israel at Mt. Sinai was bad.  Just before our text Paul has compared it to a pedagogue that was common in the Greco-Roman world.  As strange as this may seem to us, the moral training of the child was often entrusted to a slave in the household.  For a period of time – usually until the early teens – the child was under the supervision of the pedagogue who was charged with reigning in unruly behavior and teaching proper behavior.  This was true until the age of maturity was reached.  And at that point the youth was no longer under the slave’s authority.
            Paul has described the role of the Torah between Sinai and the coming of Christ as being like that of a pedagogue.  It reigned in sinful behavior.  It guided Israel in the ways the reflected God’s will.  And perhaps most important, it kept Israel separate from the pagan nations around them, so that instead of worshipping their false Gods Israel continued to believe in Yahweh as they looked for the coming of his Messiah.
            However, in our text Paul reminds the Galatians that they don’t live in that time. They don’t live in that time because of what we are celebrating during these twelve days.  They don’t live in that time because of Christmas.  Christ has come, and so now, everything is different. The time of the Torah has come to an end – that’s why it is ok to worship on Sunday, and to eat bacon and bratwurst.
            Viewed from our present experience of the Gospel, Paul in our text describes the time under the law as a time of slavery.  It was slavery because it brought a curse - a curse that the Galatians will bring upon themselves once again if they listen to Paul’s opponents and begin doing the law. To do this will actually put them in the exact same situation they had been while they were pagans – they will be cut off from God once again.
            Paul tells them – and us – to embrace the change that has taken place.     He says, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”  Paul says that at precisely the right moment in the timing of God’s salvation – in the first century A.D. – God sent forth his Son into the world.  He was born of a woman as he was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary.  He was born as a Jew – obligated to live according to the Torah.  And then by his death on the cross he freed us from the slavery of the law’s curse by receiving that curse upon himself.
            The Son of God was sent into the world, died on the cross and rose from the dead for a reason – he did it so that we might receive the adoption as sons.  He did it so that instead of being cursed and cut off from God, we are now the children of God. Through baptism and faith God has joined us to these saving benefits.  Paul had concluded the previous chapter by saying, “But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a pedagogue, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise.”
            The apostle returns to these themes in our text.  He says, “And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.”  God has joined you to Christ in baptism and worked faith through his Spirit.  He has made you to be the sons and daughters of God.  And so his Spirit enables you to call God, “Father.” It is the Spirit of God who prompts and enables the adopted sons and daughters of God to address the Creator of the cosmos as dear children ask their dear father.  Because of what God has done for us in Christ we are not only forgiven but we know that God has embraced us as his own dear children.
            This is what God has made you to be.  This is the status you enjoy. This is the privilege that belongs to you.  You have been freed from the curse of the law and the slavery of sin.  However, before Paul finishes this letter he offers a reminder that we need to hear.  He says, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.”
            Paul says that you have not been freed in Christ in order to do whatever you want.  Instead, you have been freed so that through love you can serve others.  This loving service is, in fact, what faith does. Paul says in chapter five, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.”
            Faith acts in love.  And when the baptized Christian acts in faith, he or she is fulfilling what the Torah was all about. Paul writes, “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” 
            It is the Spirit who creates and sustains this faith.  And it is the Spirit who produces these fruits of faith in us – what Paul calls fruit of the Spirit.  Paul goes on to say, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” 
            As Christians, we are no longer concerned about being circumcised for religious reasons or eating the religiously clean foods or offering the right sacrifices.  Instead, as we live by faith in Christ our concern is now focused on being patient with others; showing kindness to others; being self controlled in our own actions so that we are sharing the love of  Christ rather than the old Adam that is still within us. 
            We know that we never do this perfectly.  Paul described this when he wrote,  “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.”  Yet because of the work of the Spirit within us we take up this struggle and on many occasions we do live by faith active in love.  And in the midst of it all we have the constant comfort of knowing that through Christ we have received the adoption as sons and daughters of God.  We have the received the Spirit and so are able to call out in faith to our loving God, “Abba! Father!”


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