Born Through Promise

Text: Galatians 4:21-31

Not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel,” St. Paul said, “and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.”[1] St. Paul wrote these inspired words to the congregation at Rome as they struggled with the question, just who were the children of Abraham, that is, of God? Was it those descended from Abraham according to the flesh? No, said Paul; but those who shared Abraham’s faith in the promise of Christ.

The Galatians faced a similar question, though earlier in time than the Romans. How does one become – and remain – a child of God? Is it through faith in the promise of Christ, as St. Paul said, or by – in addition to faith – observing the laws of Moses, as some others said. To put it into contemporary language: are the children of God those who live perfectly moral and upright lives? Or, are they those who struggle against sin and temptation – and often fall – but look to Christ for forgiveness and rescue? Those who seek to appease God by their own moral perfection will ultimately find themselves condemned by the same law they claim to uphold. But, those who have been called by the Gospel, who look to Christ for forgiveness, are set free from the condemnation of the law and are children of the Jerusalem above.

I.

This text from Galatians 4 is one that’s hard to understand on first glance. This is a text where it’s very important to know the context. The congregations of Galatia were Gentile converts to the faith who heard the Good News of Jesus Christ through the missionary work of Sts. Paul and Barnabas. As these new brothers and sisters in Christ grew in the faith and love of God, some other missionaries came to them. These other missionaries came down from Jerusalem with a supplemental message. St. Paul, indeed, laid a good groundwork by sharing with them the Good News that Jesus had died and rose for the forgiveness of their sins. However, to remain in that forgiveness, they must continue to observe the laws of Moses. By this they meant, the dietary and ceremonial laws, the moral law, and, particularly for these Gentiles, circumcision. In terms we would be familiar with: they had faith, which is good, but the Galatians needed works to be true Christians.

Tell me,” St. Paul said to the Galatians, “you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise.”[2] Right. Those who came to the Galatians to add to what St. Paul taught them used Abraham as an example. So, St. Paul fired right back – from Abraham. Abraham had two sons, but only one of them came from God’s promise. Remember that God had promised that through Abraham’s offspring all the nations of the world would be blessed. After some time had passed, thinking that God was being slow to make good, Sarai had Abram lay with her servant Hagar. Hagar conceived and gave birth to Ishmael. He was the son born according to the flesh. He was not the one born according to God’s promise. That would be Isaac.

The Lord said to Abraham, “Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.”[3] The Lord promised Abraham, who was 100, that his 90 year old wife, would give birth to a son. And she did. It was through this child that the Messiah and forgiveness would come: the child of the promise. The true child of Abraham, the one who would inherit the promises of God, was not the one born through the work of the flesh, but the one born according to the promise, the one born through faith.

II.

As you probably feel, this is a difficult text – but the concept less so. What is it that St. Paul is trying to stress to the Galatians? At some point you’ve heard this word from James, “Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.”[4] St. Paul is trying to stress to the Galatians that those who are the children of God, are not those who seek to fulfill the Law themselves. For, since the Fall into Sin, the Law does not bring life – only condemnation. We hear in the Law, by this we mean the Commandments, which things are pleasing to God – but which we are unable and fail to do. If we seek to earn righteousness or to be righteous before God by good works, we will pull the whole house down around us and suffer eternal condemnation. For, whoever fails the Law in one point fails the whole thing.

Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise,” St. Paul said.[5] He recalled to them earlier in the letter how it was they first received the Holy Spirit, not by their works but by hearing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Galatians heard through St. Paul that Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, took on our human flesh. He became subject to the Law, yet kept it perfectly. By His perfect keeping of the Law, Jesus fulfilled the Law. By His death, He made the full payment for our sins. This forgiveness He gives to all through faith and, at the same time removes from us the curse of the Law. The curse of the Law is that those who fail to keep it shall die. The Good News of the Gospel is that Jesus died, so that those who believe in Him live eternally.

What does this mean for us? We, like the Galatians, are children of the promise. We have heard the Good News of Jesus Christ and have been called to faith by the working of the Holy Spirit. Though we were under the curse of the law, rightly headed to eternal death for our failure to keep even a single Commandment, that curse has been removed from us. How? By Christ becoming a curse for us. He Himself bore our sin on the cross and suffered the condemnation of the Law for us. By faith in His death we are set free. We no longer live beneath the eternal condemnation, but the eternal light of the Gospel. That is why St. Paul called the Galatians – and all who believe in the Gospel of Christ – children of the Jerusalem above.

But, as we learned on Sunday, the temptation to sin remains. One of those temptations is to turn inward into ourselves. We either tell ourselves things are good because of all the good works we have or we assume that we must be condemned for our lack. That is what the Galatians were tempted to. Any attempts to justify ourselves by works of the Law will bring only death. The true children of Abraham, rather, are those who look not to themselves but to Christ for forgiveness. By His death, Christ set us free from the guilt we deserve to bear. And so, we rejoice, as this Sunday in Lent is called. Christ, by His death and through the preaching of His Gospel, has released us from the curse of the Law. We now live freely by faith in the light of the Good News. Though for our sins we deserve eternal death, by faith we now reign in life. “And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”[6] Thanks be to God.


[1] https://www.esv.org/Romans+9/

[2] https://biblia.com/bible/esv/Ga4.21-23

[3] https://biblia.com/bible/esv/Ge17.19

[4] https://biblia.com/books/esv/Jas2.10

[5] https://biblia.com/books/esv/Ga4.28

[6] https://biblia.com/books/esv/Eph2.8

Now Is the Favorable Time

Text: 2 Corinthians 6:1-10

We appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain…Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”[1] Thus, St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians in his second letter. In his first letter to them, he was very direct in addressing the issues they faced. He spoke very clearly and authoritatively concerning the sins that were being openly committed among the congregation. The Corinthians received Paul’s word, repented of their sins, and received forgiveness. Through faith in Christ they were restored to a right relationship with God and each other, and they were renewed to live the life of faith, to live in the good works produced by the Holy Spirit within them. Still, the temptation remained among them to be idle in the faith.

To be idle in the faith is what St. Paul meant by receiving the grace of God in vain. To receive God’s grace in vain is to hear the Good News of Christ, believe in the Gospel, and then to live as if nothing has changed. To receive the Gospel in vain is to hear and believe the Gospel, but then act the complete opposite – or to do nothing. The Corinthians struggled here, and we do, too. St. Paul said to them that now is the favorable time and day of salvation. The time promised so long ago through the prophets has come. The kingdom of God has been brought in by Christ’s incarnation, and we live now in the forgiveness of sins. Now is the time for the Word to spread to all the world so that many believe. For night will soon come, when no one can work. Since we live now in the time of God’s grace, let us use this time in fruitful ways: by a faithful witness to Christ and endurance together as His body.

I.

As St. Paul said, “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” What Paul means is that the time that God had promised, where salvation would be accomplished, and sins forgiven, has now come. Beginning with the promise made to Adam and Eve in the Garden, then with the promises made to the Patriarchs, and continuing through the prophets, God’s people lived in faith in the Messiah and longed for His arrival. Then, in the fullness of time, God sent forth His Son to be born of the Virgin Mary – to be born under the Law – to redeem us who were held captive beneath it. Through in Jesus, we receive the forgiveness of our sins and eternal life. Our past and continuing transgressions are not counted against us by God’s grace in Christ Jesus.

So that all might hear and believe His saving Word, Christ commissioned the Apostles, St. Paul and the others to spread His Word. And, they did so, “by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; by truthful speech.”[2] They devoted themselves to the spread of the Word because they knew that, by the Word, all things are made new. When the Word is preached, the Holy Spirit works through that Word to create faith in those who hear it. When faith is created – at that moment – an individual receives salvation. The salvation that Christ long ago accomplished on the cross is applied to them. By faith, dead sinners are made alive saints. For those who hear the Word of God and receive the gift of faith, it is the day of salvation. And now is the favorable time, in which the Word of God is spreading to all the world. It has even spread to us, we who have heard the Word and believed, who have been and are continually renewed by the Word and Sacrament.

II.

Since now is the favorable time and the day of salvation – the time in which the Gospel of Christ is spreading to all the world – let us use this time to be faithful and fruitful stewards of God’s grace. To receive God’s grace in vain, as St. Paul said, is to hear the Gospel and act as if we haven’t. As St. Paul would say to the Romans, it would be to use God’s grace as a cover-up while we continue to sin. To the contrary, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”[3] By faith in Christ our sins are forgiven, and we are raised to new life. We become new creations and receive new and right desires by the working of the Holy Spirit within us. Two of these desires, good desires produced in us by the Spirit, come to mind.

The first is this, as St. Paul said, now is the day of salvation in which the Good News of Christ is given to the world and where sins are forgiven by grace through faith – but how are people to believe unless they hear, and how are they to hear unless someone shares with them the saving Gospel? Believe it or not, there are people who haven’t heard of Jesus. And, moreover, there are many who have heard of Jesus – but not the true Gospel. The true Gospel is that Jesus Christ suffered and died to accomplish that is necessary. We receive salvation not through some moral perfection on our part, but by God’s grace as a gift. St. Paul and the Apostles endured many things and traveled far so that more would hear this Good News. We are called to share it with those in our daily lives.

The second holy desire produced in us by the Spirit was actually brought up last week as well: steadfastness and endurance in God’s Word. In our reading we heard of all things St. Paul endured for the sake of the Word. We, likewise, have been called to suffer with Christ. In fact, you cannot have Christ without bearing the cross. But, we do not bear the cross alone. The Holy Spirit produces in us endurance in the face of the world, but this endurance is lived out together as the body of Christ. We have all been called by the one Spirit, we all have partaken of the one body of Christ; we are united with Him and each other by Baptism. When we are together, encouraging, supporting, teaching and forgiving each other, we become hardened against the assaults of the devil and the world.

Behold, now is the day of salvation,” St. Paul said. Now is the time in which the kingdom of God is among us. Now is the time in which the Gospel is being spread to all the world, and soon the time will come when all work will cease. Since we have heard and believed the Gospel of Christ, by the work of the Holy Spirit, let us use this time in fruitful ways – by faithful witness to Christ in our lives and by enduring together as His body on earth. Amen.


[1] 2 Corinthians 6:1-2. English Standard Version.

[2] 2 Cor. 6:4-7.

[3] 2 Cor. 5:17.

Septuagesima, “The Wages of Grace”

*Septuagesima marks the beginning of the season called Pre-Lent in our lectionary. The word means, “seventieth,” and stands for the seventieth day before Easter. It is three Sundays away from Ash Wednesday.


 

Text: Matthew 20:1-16

Life isn’t fair. Life isn’t fair. Either you’ve said this yourself, or you’ve heard it spoken by someone around you. I must confess that those words crossed my lips many times when I was a child. I wish I could say that I only uttered them when a real injustice was committed against me. But really, I was just upset at one thing or another. What I actually meant by, “Life isn’t fair,” was more like, “Why don’t things work they way I want them to?” You might’ve thought this way from time to time. This sort of feeling was common in the Bible, too – if I can speak a little candidly about King David and our other fathers in the faith. Though, for David, Elijah, Jeremiah, Solomon, and others, the question was more often phrased in terms of, “Why do other people prosper and I fare so poorly?”

However, as I look back on these long 26 years of my life, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s probably for the best that I don’t always get what I want. But, just as I don’t always get what I want, neither – by the grace of God – do I always get what I deserve. Actually, it is far more often that I don’t get what I do deserve. Meaning: When we confess in the liturgy that we have offended our heavenly Father with all our sins and iniquities, we also confess that, because of those sins and iniquities, we justly deserve God’s wrath in both the eternal sense (hell) and the temporal sense (afflictions, diseases, and death). By the grace of God alone, we are spared the majority of the terrible things that we deserve as the consequences of our sins. And by the grace of God alone, we are also invited into His heavenly kingdom. Jesus illustrates this for us in the parable of the vineyard. In it Jesus shows us that there is only one way to heaven, grace alone, and this grace is given equally to all sinners. As Jesus said, many who are last will be first.

Our text today is part of a larger chunk of teaching. After the Transfiguration, Jesus’ teaching was amped up a little bit; things got more serious as He drew nearer to the cross. Just before our text, Jesus was teaching His disciples and the crowds about getting into the kingdom of heaven. The conversation went like this. A rich young man came up to Jesus and asked Him, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus, being the model preacher and knowing when to give either the Law or the Gospel, gave the man the Law. He knew the Commandments. If the man desired to enter eternal life by works, he must keep all of the Commandments perfectly. The man insisted that this was already the case. However, it was not. When Jesus instructed him to sell all his possessions and follow, he went away sorrowful. He was not rightly honoring the First Commandment. He did not fear, love, and trust in God above all things.

This caused no small ripple among the disciples, for if a rich person could only scarcely enter the kingdom of heaven, how could anyone be saved? The rich were looked to as the ones most able to do good works. They didn’t have to labor in the hot sun all day, and then worry about doing good works after. Instead, they could just do the greatest work of all and give away money. Surely the wealthy were on the short list to heaven. Not so. St. Paul clearly writes, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in His sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” The way into heaven is not by works, but only by the grace of God. That is why Jesus teaches us that the kingdom of heaven belongs even to little children. Everything a child has he receives as a gift. So also is the kingdom of heaven. In this way, many who are last are made first.

Since this parable is the second longest that we have recorded for us. I’ll let it stand as read before; I’ll just remind you how it goes. Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who goes out to hire workers for his vineyard. The first bunch are called early in the morning, and it is agreed that they will work for a day’s wages. A few hours later the owner goes out again and he finds workers standing around in the marketplace. He hires them to work, offering to pay them what is right. A few hours later he does the same, and again even later. Then, finally, when there is only one hour left in the workday, he goes out and hires a last round of workers.

Jesus uses this parable to teach us about the kingdom of heaven. God is the master of the household and the vineyard is His kingdom. We are the workers. We see that life in Kingdom, life in Christ’s Church, is like being called to work in a vineyard. Throughout the Scriptures we are exhorted to serve to the Lord. Psalm 100, for example, teaches us, “Serve the Lord with gladness!” Like the master in the parable, the Lord, in His gracious wisdom, sees fit to call workers at many times throughout the day. The morning is probably the most expected time, but the master is gracious. He goes out many times during the day, calling to himself many who would not have been hired otherwise. We, likewise, have all been called to serve. That call has come to us at different times. Some of us received at Baptism while we were children. Some of us may have received it as adults or in other times of our lives. The Holy Spirit works through the Means of Grace in many times and ways to call laborers into the vineyard.

  1.  

Eventually, the end of the workday does come. The owner of the vineyard calls his foreman and says, “Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.” Then, beginning with those who started in the last hour and finishing with those who started first, each received the same wages, a denarius. After the laborers who started first received their payment, they began to grumble. They figured that if those people who only worked an hour received so much, they should definitely receive more than that. That’s understandable. It’s fair, even. But, remember what I said before: life isn’t fair. Or, perhaps a better way to frame it today is: God’s fairness is not the same as our fairness.

That is to say, Jesus uses this parable to show us that with God things are reversed. In our world you work to get paid; in the kingdom of God, payment is given apart from works. In our world, your own hard work merits you a reward; in the kingdom of God, Christ’s hard work earns you the reward. In our our world, you work longer and you get paid more; but, in the kingdom of God, all are paid the same. In our world also, we all earn the same wage. The Scriptures say that the wage that we all earn is death. We have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God, regardless of who we are, where we’re from, or what we’ve done. And, if life were fair, we would all die in our sins and trespasses, having justly deserved the earthly and eternal wrath of God.

But, life isn’t fair. Instead of getting the punishment we do deserve, we get the wage that Christ worked for. When someone gets that we’ve worked for, we get upset and grumble like the workers in the vineyard. But Jesus, He is happy when people get what He worked for, because otherwise they wouldn’t get it at all. What I mean is, in the kingdom of God everything is a gift. We are neither worthy of the things that we have, nor have we deserved them. Instead, God gives us all things freely in Christ Jesus. He blesses us with food and drink, house and home, clothing and shoes. He gives us all that we need to support this body and life. And, above and beyond that, He gives us the most precious gift in all creation: the forgiveness of sins and eternal life with Him. And that, He gives to us not because we’ve worked for it or earned it, but because of the sacrifice of His only begotten Son on the cross.

When I was child, I used to complain that, “Life isn’t fair,” often. Mostly, it was just because things weren’t going my way. But, today I realize that might be for the better. In Christ, things don’t go our way; They go His way: grace. Through the sacrifice of Christ, we don’t get what we deserve (the punishment of our trespasses) and we do get what we don’t deserve (forgiveness). Having been forgiven our sins, we are called to be workers in God’s vineyard, sharing the grace and love of Christ with the world around us. And, whether we’ve been in the vineyard a long time, and worked many long hours, or whether our work is still mostly ahead of us, we all receive the same gift. As it says, “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Therefore, in Christ, life isn’t fair. Thanks be to God.