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Epistles

Setting the Past Behind Us

27-Dec-20

Galatians 4:1-11

It is no secret that the Apostle Paul, and the followers of Jesus in the churches of the province of Galatia did not get along. Oh, I suppose that they got along, but it was rather poorly, that they did so. At the beginning of chapter three, the apostle calls his his readers “stupid”. Our pew Bibles translate it as “foolish”, and that may be an even stronger epithet than stupid, because foolishness implies intentional stupidity, and that is exactly the Apostle Paul’s intent as he levels this accusation at his readers. We could probably safely say that calling your readers stupid or foolish, is not exactly the way to build and deepen relationships, even if it does happen to be the absolute, indisputable truth. At the end of our passage this morning, the apostle wonders aloud, and in print, of course, that perhaps he has wasted the time that he has spent with them and the effort that he has extended on them. When he says, “I am afraid that my work for you may have been wasted”, he is very strongly implying that it is the people in Galatia who are the ones who have been doing the wasting. They have received truths more valuable than gold, and yet they have trashed those truths by disregarding them completely. What we have here is clearly not a pleasant situation.

But what is absolutely stunning to me is that the Apostle Paul has no intention of giving up on these stupid fools. How easy it would have been for him to simply have abandoned them; to cut off communication, to write to them no more. In today’s world that seems to be the preferred method of conflict resolution. But Paul will keep the lines of communication open; at least on his end, and he will continue to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, even if no one is listening.

So how is it that Paul and the folks in Galatia got so out of sorts with each other? Why does it seem as though they have rejected so much of what Paul has had to say to them? Much of it has to so with the history of the Galatian people. As Paul traveled around on his missionary journeys, he encountered two kinds of very different people. One kind of person was a Jew, and the other kind was not. It was very simple from a Hebrew, or Old Testament point of view. there were only two races of people in the world: those who were Jews and those who were not. Jews are people who have been born into the covenant that God established with Abraham.

Everyone else is simply called a Gentile. And for the most part, there wasn’t a whole lot of interaction between those two groups.

Oh, from time to time, some of God’s people would grow tired of God, and they would become captivated by some of the pagan worship practices of their Gentile neighbors, and, in the spirit of friendliness and inclusiveness, they would adopt some of those practices. God, of course, does not take kindly to that sort of faithlessness; in fact God pretty much hates and despises it. God even got some of his prophets to predict terrible and dire consequences, if God’s people persisted in this behavior, and most of that terrible and dire stuff came to pass. Some of it may yet be to come.

On the other hand, once in a very great while, a Gentile person might consider converting to Judaism. This was a lengthy and painful process, especially for the men. And so far the most part, throughout the centuries, Jews and Gentiles kept their social distance, and everybody thought that was just fine and a pretty good idea.

And then, a man named Jesus showed up on the planet, and he began to preach. And his message of love and forgiveness began to appeal to Jews and Gentiles alike. And out of these two very diverse groups was eventually formed what we now call the Christian Church. But all was not lovely. At times, the union was not a very pretty one. Human nature entered into it, and the Gentile followers of Jesus brought along some of their pagan worship practices, and some of the Jews brought along some of their laws, rules, regulations and legalisms. What resulted from all of this, at least in the province of Galatia, was not a vibrant community of followers of Jesus but rather a mish-mash of paganism and Judaism, that also passed as a very weak expression of faith in Jesus Christ. In some places this foolishness persists even today. Superstitions and legalisms still reign in the church, when it ought to be free to proclaim the message of salvation.

As we might imagine, the Apostle Paul was hardly impressed with this foolish combination of weak faith in Jesus, Judaism, and paganism. He called it slavery.

Unfortunately, it is human nature to cling to our pasts. It is fallen human nature, and it is devilish behavior, but it is human nature nonetheless. This is a lesson that should have been learned in the Garden of Eden, but it wasn’t. When Adam and Eve were exiled from the garden, they were supernaturally prevented from returning. Angels, and a mysterious, flaming sword that pivoted on its own axis, kept them at bay. Now that seems harsh, and it seems like punishment, and it was, but it was also grace. The powerful lesson that it teaches all of us is that God says we can’t go back. But if God says we can’t go back to our pasts, he gives us a brand new direction in which to go, and that is forward, and ahead. Grace always sends us forward and ahead, never backwards. We must always go forward, with our faces toward Jesus.

But the evil whisperer, who has been lurking behind us since the days of the Garden of Eden, says to us, go back! Go back! Hissss… it was better back then, wasn’t it? It was easier, it was prettier, it was more fun! But equally insidious, and perhaps more so, the evil whisperer also says Boy, you blew it back there, didn’t you? You ought to be ashamed of yourself. No one is going to love you if they find out about that! And God is certainly not going to love you! You are going to carry this with you for the rest of your life. You are doomed!

And so we either cling to the past, or we carry it with us. In our minds, the past was either glorious and wonderful, or it was our destruction. Either approach, Paul says, is nothing less than slavery. It is completely contrary to the Gospel, which is freedom.

And so for the earliest followers of Jesus, whether they were Jew or Gentile, the old ways died hard. And even today, it is hard to kill off our old gods and our old ways. We feel trapped and enslaved, haunted by our feelings of guilt, hounded by our inadequacies, harried by the memory of past failures, and harassed by our lists of missed opportunities. And yet we hang on to them.

The gospel proclaims that we are free from the messes of our pasts. We can confess our sins and we can be completely forgiven. Do we really believe that? Or will we believe the evil whisperer instead? The evil whisperer wants us to wallow in guilt and in self-loathing. The evil whisperer wants us to believe that God does not love us; that God cannot love us.

The absolute truth, however is that God does love us, and that God loves us just exactly the way that we are, right now, this minute. The apostle says in this passage that while we were still enslaved, while we were still clinging to the past, or carrying it with us, God sent his son to redeem us, to rescue us from ourselves, and to put us in a forward facing direction.

Paul illustrates that truth by telling us that we have been adopted. I like that. Think about that. Before children are adopted, they are either orphans or rejects. There’s no loving connection to which they can lay claim. Either the connection has been cut off by some disaster, or it has been intentionally severed.

Through Jesus Christ, God’s son, we are adopted into God’s family, and we become full-fledged children of God. We get a new name, a new place, and a loving parent whom we can legitimately call “daddy”. We are wanted. We are desired. That’s love. That’s acceptance. But in the process, we also become heirs; heirs of the glory and of all of the promises of God. That’s forward thinking. That’s forward vision. As Paul puts it, how can we turn back now?

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