December 16, 2012

It’s All About Family

Well we are in the third and final week of our series “Notes on the Right Time.”  So far we have defined the idea of “the right time” and how we should handle it when God doesn’t seem to act on it.  We saw that the right time is defined by God’s action in it.  God’s time is always the right time.  But, this doesn’t always apparently play itself out in our lives.  All of us face times—perhaps you are in one right now—when God’s action seems late; when we’ve been waiting on God to accomplish something and the waiting has gone on far longer than we think is right.  In these times, when God seems late, we keep walking because the story God’s writing isn’t over yet.  This morning as we wrap up taking some notes on the right time I want to look at one final piece to this puzzle: why does God act in the times and places and ways that He chooses?  What’s His aim?  What’s He working toward?

Two weeks ago, when we started this conversation we looked at a single verse out of Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia.  We saw in Galatians 4:4 that God sent Jesus at “the fullness of time.”  I told you then that we were going to come back to the passage to look at the fuller context of this affirmation by Paul.  You see, when it comes to the Bible, context is everything.  It is absolutely vital that we understand a verse in light of what’s going on around it.  Without that we could grab a single verse and make it say whatever we want.  And indeed, the idea of the right time always being God’s time, in spite of its dual edges of comfort and tension, sounds like a nice, neat theological package.  It sounds like something you might see on a cheesy bumper sticker or maybe a sign held up by a fan of the winning team.  You know how the logic would go.  God’s time is the right time.  Our team won this time.  Thus, it was God’s will for our team to win.  This is obviously a distortion of the truth being communicated here, but without the context who could challenge it?  So this morning I want to look for a few minutes with you at the rest of what Paul says here.  In doing so we are going to find an answer to this question of why God actually acts when He does.

If you have your Bible with you this morning open it to Galatians 4.  I’ll start reading at verse 1 in just a minute, but first let me give just a bit further context so we’re all on the same page.  If you back up just a bit into chapter 3, you’ll find Paul talking about law versus the promise God made to Abraham to bless all the world through his offspring.  Paul argues that when God made such a promise He was actually referring specifically to Jesus alone.  Jesus is the offspring of Abraham through whom God intended to bless the world.  This was the promise (which, by the way, Abraham never lived to see fulfilled).  After making this promise to bless the world through Abraham’s offspring, though, God gave Moses the law which was intended to lead the world into blessing if they followed it.  And I say “the world” here because although it was given specifically to the Israelites, anyone could have joined the Hebrew community, followed the law, and similarly received the blessing.  Paul’s natural question here is: why the promise if the law was given?  Or, conversely, why give the law if the promise had been made?

Now, this starts getting into some nuanced, but fantastic, theological discussions that we are going to get into in a lot more detail this next summer—you won’t want to miss that—but for now, let’s jump to Paul’s answer in order to get to the task at hand this morning.  Paul writes that the law was given before the promise was fulfilled in order to carry us through the gap.  The blessing God wanted to give the world came with a certain lifestyle attached to it.  Without the power of the fulfilled promise, though, we were in no ways capable of living out the lifestyle.  Thus, the law revealed the rigors of the lifestyle so that we had something to shoot for in the interim.  In this sense, and here’s the important part, the law acted like kind of a guardian for us to carry us through to time in which we able to attain spiritual maturity under the power of the promise, namely Christ.  The law acted in this function in a manner not entirely unlike that of a guardian of an orphan who had very wealthy parents.  Wise parents in such a situation would not simply hand over a huge sum of money to a young child who was not yet possessed of the maturity to handle it wisely.  They would appoint someone with such wisdom to act on the child’s behalf, teaching and guiding her until that point at which she was fully vested with the ability to make good choices on her own.  Even then, she would not be acting on her own, but on the basis of the teaching of the guardian.  And, until that time at which the full wisdom of the guardian’s instructions could be understood by the heiress, she would have to act on faith that even when she didn’t understand or like the limits placed on her by the guardian, they were still there for a good reason, and obey with diligence.  In this, while this word carries a host of obviously difficult cultural connotations, she would be little different from a slave.  Her goings and comings would be determined by someone else.  What she could and couldn’t do would be dictated by someone else.  This is the life of a slave.  In much the same way, then, that an heiress would be slave to her guardian, before the promise was fulfilled, we were slaves to the law.

Now then, with all of that kind of percolating in your minds, listen to how Paul starts working his way to the magnificent truth coming in v. 4.  I’ll start reading at v. 1: “I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything…”  Okay, the first part of that is as I just finished describing to you.  Until the heir is at the point designated for him to take full possession of what belongs to him, someone else is in charge.  Look at the last part of the verse, though.  He’s little different from a slave “though he is the owner of everything.”  The heir is a slave in spite of owning the farm.  Paul’s point here is that all of humanity are potential heirs to the promise through Christ.  And as heirs, we are owners.  We are possessors of the life that is truly life by virtue of being created in the image of God.  In spite of this, however, we are slaves to the law because we are not yet fit to receive the promise.  We are slaves in spite of reality.

Let’s keep rolling in v. 2: “…but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father.  Now, a little background here will shed some light on how Paul’s original audience would have understood what he was talking about.  In the ancient world, sons were heirs to the estates of their fathers.  This is how the culture worked.  In the eyes of the culture, though, children were of no significance.  They were ranked on par with or even just a bit lower than slaves.  Look at what this means.  Slaves were property.  They were part of what was inherited by the heir.  If children were of the same rank as slaves, though, until they were considered of age, they were part of the estate.  Even if the father died, they were still simply part of the estate until the date set by their father’s will.  The presumption was: father knows best.  And because he knows best, the date he sets for the heir to receive his inheritance will be the right date.  It will be the right date because the father always acts at the right time.  Do you understand a bit more now why Paul was speaking as he did?  This is how the culture to which he was writing thought.  Now, our culture doesn’t often agree with this presumption, but the basic idea that children are not yet equipped with all the tools necessary to make the wisest decisions possible is still true.  If you want evidence just look to the kinds of things kids coming out of college into professional sports purchase when they find themselves suddenly flush with cash.  In case there’s any lack of clarity there: saving, investing wisely, and figuring out how to give away as much as they can are usually not high on the list.  Now, there are obvious and notable exceptions, but these are just that: exceptions; not the rule.

At this point, Paul makes the interpretive jump from them to us.  Look with me at v. 3: “In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world.”  Do you follow his allusion here?  When we were spiritual infants, not yet able to receive the promise available in Christ because we couldn’t grasp it on our own (and there’s not an age limit on that, by the way), we were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world.  Well what are those?  Elementary principles would be the basic ideas on which societies run.  For the Jews this would have been the Law of Moses.  For the Gentiles it would have been the basic concepts of whatever their religion happened to have been.  Folks living apart from the promise and the lifestyle it demands still have a sense of moral accountability.  That’s simply part of being human.  People without any sense of moral accountability we label “sociopaths” and tend to lock them up and throw away the key.  Folks who are totally sold out to naturalism and the atheism it embraces still write books about moral responsibility and the foundation of moral values because they are beholden to these elementary principles even if they don’t understand their foundation.  Paul is able to say we are enslaved to these principles because we don’t have a choice but to obey them.  Well, technically we do have a choice, but generally speaking these principles are enshrined in some fashion in the laws of the land and transgressing them will bring a further restriction on our freedom.  Until we are able to receive the promise to which we are heirs, we are slaves because we can’t pursue all the desires of our hearts as many such desires run counter to these elementary principles and are thus held in check by them against our will.

Prior to the arrival of Christ and in the lives currently of all those who have not pledged themselves to Him and His cause, this was and is the standard mode of operation for the world.  This is simply how things are.  As spiritual children, meaning we aren’t able to make good spiritual decisions on our own, we are slaves.  We can’t do what we want to do.  And perhaps you are firing up a set of excuses here: “But folks who aren’t Christians aren’t held liable for Christianity’s standards.”  True statement.  They aren’t.  But, what is equally true is that folks who reject God and His revealed standard for living don’t even live up to whatever standards they have accepted are.  They don’t do what they want to do.  They are children.  They are slaves.  This is how life was before the babe in the manger was born and people who haven’t yet embraced Him are simply living like He hasn’t come yet.

But, and here we find ourselves back where we started, at the fullness of time, at just the right time, God sent His Son, born of woman, born under the Law.  He was just like one of us.  He was totally and completely human, but without sin.  That’s verse 4.  We’ve already covered that in detail.  So let’s look at the next verse.  Why did God act when He did?  God sent His Son “to redeem those who were under the law…”  What’s that mean?  “Redeem” was a common word before Christianity appropriated it to mean something spiritual.  The word, in fact, still has roughly the same meaning today.  My wife spends time each week cutting coupons in order to save money.  I’m regularly blown away by how much she manages to trim off our bills as a result of her efforts.  Well what do we call it when she hands her stack of coupons over to the cashier?  She’s what?  She’s redeeming them.  To redeem something means very simply to exchange one thing for another because the value of the two has been predetermined to be equal.  To use another example, if you go to Swaders and play in the arcade for a while the likelihood is that you will receive some digital tickets.  (I remember when you actually got to walk around with huge wads of tickets.  That was much more visually and tactily satisfying, by the way.)  When you finish playing, you can take these up to the counter in the back corner and get a variety of junk for them.  But what’s that counter called?  The redemption counter or the redemption center.  Why?  Because you’re redeeming those digital tickets for junk that Swaders has predetermined to be of equal value.  Christ was sent in order to redeem those who were under the law—that would be us—because His life was predetermined to be of equal value.  He took on the curse of the Law and paid its penalty (death) in our place.  God looked at this transaction of a single, perfect life for every other life that’s every existed or will exist in all of human history and declared it a fair trade; He declared us redeemed.

But that’s not all.  This is the beauty of Advent.  That’s not all.  Why did God act when He did to redeem us?  Look at the next part of v. 5: “…so that we might receive adoption as children.”  God sent His Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.  Whenever you have been reading Paul for a while and you want to figure out where he’s going, just look for the “so that.”  The “so that” tells us everything.  God did all of that stuff: made the promise, gave the law, sent His Son, opened the doors of redemption, acted when He did, so that…we might be able to be a part of His family.  “I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God—I’ve been washed in the fountain, cleansed by His blood.  Joint heirs with Jesus as we travel this sod; for I’m part of the family, the family of God.”  This is what that song’s talking about.  Do you want to know why God acts where and when He does?  Do you want to know why His timing is always right?  Why He sometimes seems to be late because there’s more story to be written and we’re just seeing a part of it rather than the whole thing?  This is it!  God acts when He does to bring us from enslaved outsiders unable to do the things we want to cherished members of His family who have the total freedom to be fully who we were designed to be.  God acts when He does to make us family.

And how did He do it?  By sending His Son at the fullness of time.  Jesus, the Christ, the eternally preexistent second member of the Godhead, entered this world at a very specific time.  Luke identifies his entrance as happening when Quirinius was governor of Syria.  Folks reading this for the first time would have immediately known what year that was.  Many of them would have remembered when the registration took place.  They knew the time and date.  This was a historical event.  God acted at just the right time.  Furthermore, His birth happened in a very specific place.  Both Matthew and Luke identify the place as Bethlehem.  You can travel to Bethlehem today.  You can visit a cave very much like what would have been the stable where Mary delivered her little bundle of joy.  And as a side note describing the infant Jesus as a bundle of joy would have been the most correct time in which that was description was ever used…except at that point in history, nobody considered infants bundles of joy.  They considered them worthless resource consumers until they were able to positively contribute to the household.  This first bundle of joy changed that.  Let’s get more specific still.  Jesus was born to specific people.  Mary was a real person who was in all likelihood still living at the time Paul was writing this letter.  Folks who were interested and had the resources could have traveled to her and had a conversation with her about what it was like mothering the Son of God.  Joseph was a carpenter—a skilled laborer.  His family was probably still in the Nazareth area and could attest to the life of their nephew or cousin.  God acted at just the right time.  But again, why?  To make us family.

When a baby is born today he is born into a family.  Regardless of what that family happens to look like, that child has a family.  Speaking at least out of this culture, if all things go as planned, that child will eventually expand the family.  God sent His Son to earth, born of woman.  Jesus entered the world in the context of a family and all things did go as planned.  They went exactly as planned tragedy and all.  And His family expanded.  It’s still expanding today.  God acts when He does to make us family.  God still acts in ways designed to draw us to His family.  I don’t have good answers for why hard things happen to us that seem to make a mockery out of everything that I’ve been saying for the last three weeks, but I do know this: God’s intention is redemption.  God acts when He does to make us family.  Sometimes the hard things are the only ones that get our attention.  When was the last time you had a really good day and stopped at the end of it to pour your heart out to God for an hour to tell Him how great He was?  When was the last time you had a terrible day and at the end of it spent an hour pouring your heart out to God crying for Him to be near?  God acts when He does to make us family.  He’s working to cut your dependency on a way of life that’s already been defeated and is merely in its death thralls.  You don’t have to be a slave anymore to the “elementary principles.”  You can be a son.  You can be a daughter.  You can be a part of the family.  At Central here that’s what we’re all about.  God acts when He does to make us family.  I pray that as you gather with your families in the next couple of weeks that you’ll remember whose family you really are.  Blessings as you go and celebrate.