April 3, 2011

Sermon for Fourth Sunday in Lent

Galatians 4:21-31
Fourth Sunday in Lent
April 3, 2011
Holy Trinity Anglican Orthodox Church

Throughout the Roman Empire a fact that was known to all was that children of slaves were slaves, and children of free were free.  It was terrible, it was unjust, it was a negation of the God-given rights of all people, but it was a fact of life seen by every person every day wherever Rome ruled.  Nor was Rome the only empire, nation, or people to engage in slavery.  Every race, culture, and nation has engaged in some form of slavery at some point in its history.  And it has always been true that the children of slaves were slaves.

The Apostle Paul, writing the Epistle to the Galatians, used this fact to illustrate the slavery and freedom of the soul.   He used two well- known women of the Old Testament to symbolize his meaning.  First was Hagar, the mother of Ishmael.  Hagar was the slave of Sarah, and when Hagar bore a son, even though Abraham was his father, that son was still legally a slave.  The other woman was Sarah, the legal wife of Abraham and the mother of Isaac.    Her son was legally free.

Paul used the two women and their sons to symbolize two ways two ways of dealing with the worst problem faced by all humanity; the problem of human sin and the righteousness of God.  Let me state this problem a little more fully.  God is righteous. He is pure goodness.  There is no moral flaw in Him, no moral failure in Him, only 100% pure goodness.  But every human is flawed.  Every human is morally imperfect.  We have done evil, and we have loved it.  We have lived our own way instead of God’s way, and we have loved it.  We have known to do right, yet we have intentionally done wrong, and we have loved it.  In Biblical language, we are all sinners, and sinners deserve to be punished.  As God asked through the prophet Jeremiah in our reading on Thursday evening, “Shall I not visit them for these things? saith the Lord: shall not my soul be avenged on such a nation as this? (Jer.2:9).  Thus, our problem, aside from all the misery caused by sin in this life, is that one day we will depart from this life, and we will stand before this God of flawless goodness, and God will have the right to avenge Himself on us.  What are we to do?  Is there any way to atone for our sins, and enable us to be received into Heaven as friends of God instead of cast into hell as His enemies?  There are three possible answers to this question.  First, maybe there is no way to atone for our sins, and we will all go to hell.  Second, maybe there is something we can do to atone for our own sins and make ourselves acceptable to God.  Third, maybe God will do something for us to atone for our sins.  There is, of course, a fourth possibility, maybe there isn’t any God, or if there is, maybe there isn’t any hell.  If you want to take that gamble, more power to you.

Paul does not even deal with the first and last possibilities.  He, and the entire Bible, assumes God exists, and that there is a way for our sins to be atoned for.  Paul and the Bible concentrate on the two ways our sins might be forgiven.  Hagar represents the first, and this is the way most people think.  Hagar represents us trying to atone for our sins by our own actions.  According to this view, God never really forgives our sin because forgiveness isn’t necessary.   Instead of seeking forgiveness, we merely settle our “debt” to God by paying it off.    How do we pay it off?  Either by doing enough good works to cancel out our sins, or by doing works of penance, usually ceremonial actions, which God accepts as the payment for our sins.

The Bible says Hagar represents Mt. Sinai.  At Mt. Sinai, God reaffirmed the abiding standard of the moral law.  He did not give the moral law there.  The Ten Commandments are not the first time the moral law has been given to humanity.  The moral law has been known from the start. It was re-affirmed and explained at Sinai.  It was the ceremonial law that was given at Sinai.  The laws about offering sacrifices, and making things ceremonially clean and unclean were given to Israel at Mt. Sinai.   The point of identifying the ceremonial law with Hagar and Ishmael is that the ceremonial law, and its rituals, did not really atone for sins.  Everyone knows, deep down, that killing a lamb on an altar can never atone for adultery, or theft, or murder.  Killing a thousand lambs cannot atone for a single sin, or undo the sorrow and pain it caused.  Washing your hands cannot cleanse your soul, and abstaining from certain foods cannot keep evil thoughts from entering your mind.  The ceremonial law was never meant to be a means by which we cover our sins.  It was always meant to be a way of showing the seriousness of sin, and of our need for God to do something to make us right with Him.  That is why Galatians compares the ceremonial law to Hagar.  Hagar was a slave and would always be a slave.  Neither she nor her children could change that fact.  In a similar way, those who try to make their sins right through ceremonies and good deeds are in slavery to sin and cannot escape.  Their actions will never earn their freedom because they cannot atone for sin.  So, applying this to our own time and situation, it is not our good deeds, or our religious fervor that makes us right with God.  It is not enough to be a good person, to abstain from the “big” sins, to go to Church, take Communion, or put money in the offering plate.  These things will do you no more good than killing a lamb, if you are counting on them to atone for sin and earn a place in Heaven.

Sarah represents Jerusalem.  She is not the earthly city of Jerusalem; She is the Heavenly Jerusalem, which ultimately represents the grace of God in Christ.  Sara’s son, Isaac, was born free.  He did not earn freedom; it was his as his birthright.  And the point of this is that God makes sinners free by causing us to become children of His grace.

Remember that we must either atone for our own sins, or God must atone for them Himself and give us that atonement as a free gift.  But we cannot atone for our own sins.  That is the point Paul has been making in this story about Hagar and Sarah.  But God can and does atone for our sins.  He paid our sin debt by becoming a man and dying for our sins on the cross.  He bore in Himself the entire cost of our sins, and the entire cost of our forgiveness.  Instead of punishing us, He bore it all Himself.  And He gives this atonement to us as a free gift.  And so, those who accept His gift are like the children of Sarah.  We are free, not slaves.  We are free of the necessity of earning an atonement we could never earn.  We are free of trying to pay for our sins with ceremonies and rituals that can never pay our debt.  We are free from the fear of meeting God and being told we are not good enough to enter Heaven.  We are free from serving God as fearful slaves trying to avoid punishment, and we are free to serve God as loving children to whom He has given the very best that He has.

Therefore, let us not return to slavery.  Let us not return to vain attempts to atone for our own sins by ceremonies and actions that cannot make atonement.  Let us not place our faith in anything we do.  Let us put our whole trust and faith in Him, believing that He has forgiven our sin through His sacrifice on the cross.  For, in Christ, we are not children of the bondwoman, but of the free.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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