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. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” —Galatians 4:4-6
What we want is real comfort and joy, because we are real sinners and sufferers. We all love to receive Christmas cards, but they can be sentimental rubbish. So we turn back to God, and he doesn’t let us down. The mystery of his Incarnation brings us real comfort and joy. That’s what we came to church for today.
Remember what the doctrine of the Incarnation points to: God became man. God didn’t get involved with us at a safe distance. God entered in. God took human flesh in the birth of Jesus. That is the Incarnation. We don’t understand it. But real comfort and joy await us in the Incarnation.
Last week we saw that the Incarnation frees us from the fear of death (Hebrews 2:14-15). Today we see the Incarnation frees us from the fear of failure and rejection. The questions, Am I good enough?, How am I doing?, Am I acceptable? – these questions are so deep inside us all the time we hardly notice them. But they drive us. These deep anxieties of the heart about acceptance versus failure and inclusion versus rejection – the pingbacks in our social interactions are an important way we track our okayness real-time. Our very self-images are socially constructed, because we were made for community. We crave belonging and being safe in a group. We hate loneliness and isolation. I remember on a Boy Scout trip as a kid, one of the guys was acting up. The rest of us sat around the campfire discussing what to do with him. So we decided to give him “the silent treatment.” Ignore him. Treat him as a non-person. Exclude him. But he was right there in a tent the whole time and overheard our conversation. So after we had decided his fate, he burst out of the tent, laughed at us defiantly and stalked off. But it was all bravado. He was hurt. That episode was juvenile at all levels. But it goes on among adults too. Snubbing and shaming and rejecting a person is one way a group can control that person. We’ve all know how painful that is. But our need to belong is so intense, we’re willing to falsify ourselves. We’re willing to look better than we really are. We’re willing to pose and perform, because we dread rejection. Rather than serve others, we’d rather impress others. Or, rather than risk failure, we don’t even try. Either way, that is not walking in the light. That is not community worthy of the name.
I want to show you another community this morning. It’s a community with different ground rules. It isn’t a human community; it’s divine. It’s the community theologians call the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. All are here in these verses. And this ultimate community is moving toward us – fearful us – to draw us in. In this new community, we are not shamed and rejected. We the enemies are embraced. We the cast-offs are valued. We the depressed are rejoiced over. We the hungry are filled. We the guilty are forgiven. We are finally free to live. When God became man, we are what he came for.
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son…
These words remind us that the Bible is not a hodge-podge of religious sayings. Reading the Bible is not like opening up a fortune cookie, and there’s one isolated thought. No, the Bible is a story, a big story. By the time Jesus appears, a lot has happened. But Jesus was not an afterthought in God’s mind. He was not Plan B. He was the whole point. At just the right time, the love of God exploded into this world.
What had happened before, that took so long? God rescued his people from slavery in Egypt. He made them a new nation. He defined for them their culture when he put them under his law at Mount Sinai. It was a worthy law. Look at the Ten Commandments. Have we gotten beyond “You shall not commit adultery”? Or “You shall not steal?” Or “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor”? If we obeyed these commandments, the world would be a better place. But we’ve never obeyed, because we are law-breakers at heart. We can prettify it with outward appearances, but we are bad to the bone, and we prove it every day. From the beginning and throughout the Old Testament, God’s own people experienced his law not as life-giving but as slavery. We all understand this. Think of a teenager. He has a wise and generous and loving dad. But he experiences his father as a slave master, because deep in his own heart he is ungrateful and arrogant and spring-loaded to resent all authority, however worthy. Were any of us as teenagers not like that? What about us now? Have we changed? We can’t be surprised by how the Old Testament plays out. God’s people, perceiving him as a threat to their happiness, refused him time after time. And they suffered for it time after time. As the Old Testament went on, the people themselves began to pray, “How long, O Lord?”
Then came “the fullness of time.” It was finally time for God either to damn the world or save the world. But things couldn’t go on as they were. What did God do, when everything was on the line? What did God do, when we had offended him and he owed us nothing? Two things. He sent forth his Son (verse 4). And he sent the Spirit of his Son (verse 6). He didn’t add more law; he added more love. He didn’t wait any longer for us; he didn’t demand that we get better first; he moved our way. God sent forth his Son and the Spirit of his Son. You see the Trinity there, Father, Son, Spirit. God the Father, God the Son and God the Spirit got involved, to draw us failures who fear rejection into a community of love so beautiful we can’t believe it’s real until we experience it.
“God sent forth his Son” – those words clearly imply the pre-existence of Christ. If he was “sent forth,” his life didn’t begin in Bethlehem. He had no beginning, and he has no end, because he is God. The title “Son of God” does not mean God Jr.; the title “Son of God” means he is forever the beloved of the Father. Remember how Jesus prayed the night before he was crucified? “Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (John 17:5). This is the community that reached down to us in the birth of Christ.
…born of woman, born under the law…
We learn two things here about God the Son. One, he became human: “born of woman.” That’s Christmas. That’s the mystery of the Incarnation. I love the way Martin Luther described the uniqueness of the gospel:
[Christianity] does not begin at the top, as all other religions do; it begins at the bottom…. You must run directly to the manger and the mother’s womb, embrace this Infant and virgin’s Child in your arms, and look at him – born, being nursed, growing up….
The gospel works not from the top down, beginning with us where we ought to be, but from the bottom up, beginning with us where we are. The majestic Son of God came down all the way to our level, to meet us in our real lives with real comfort and joy. The only way he wasn’t like us is that he was good to the bone – a real man, without sin.
That’s the other thing we learn about Christ here. “Born under the law” means that Jesus had to obey the Father too. He didn’t take any shortcuts. He had to obey every one of the Ten Commandments “to the t,” to qualify as our Savior, and he did. He lived a perfect life under the law – for us, in our place. He died a guilty death under the law – for us, in our place. Jesus fulfilled everything required of us, and he removed everything damning to us – every episode in our histories that we don’t want to remember and that God doesn’t want to hold against us. 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…
The key word is “redeem.” It means that Jesus bought us out of the slavery of living under the law. There was no easy way. What Jesus did for us was costly to him. We had offended God, and he is not a glib person to sweep it all under the rug. We might prefer denial, but he doesn’t. He faced our failure and dealt with it at the cross. We sure didn’t buy our own way out by trying harder. Who of us has tried that hard, anyway? But the gospel shows us Jesus dying to redeem us when we were hanging by a thread over the pit of hell and deserved to fall forever into its fires.
In the context here Paul is contrasting our former status as slaves to Master Law, back in the Old Testament, with our new status as sons and daughters of our Father God, in the New Testament. The law told us every day in a thousand ways, “Now do this, now do that – or else.” The law treated us like defiant slaves, and we reacted like defiant slaves. Grace in Christ now treats us as adopted children, chosen children, because the Father wanted us.
This week I saw something here I’d never noticed before. If you are in Christ, you are not only not a slave; you are even more than a freed slave; you are a beloved child, you are an heir. The Father’s wealth is yours freely and forever, because he has redefined you that way. Now, if your experience of God is still bondage, your head is back in the B.C. era. Even if your experience of God is freedom from bondage, you still don’t get it. Jesus has seated us at the Father’s table. That’s where we are now. We have every right to see ourselves that way. We have every right to stop thinking like slaves who might get a beating any moment now. We should stop thinking even like freed slaves. I have a friend I’ve known for many years. The theme of his life is how he’s gotten beyond the legalism of his past. The message that comes out of his mouth is the cry of a freed slave. And I want to say to him, “I get it! And that’s good. But you’re more than that.” Don’t go back to slavery. Don’t go back to ex-slavery, don’t live in endless reaction to your Fundamentalist past. If you are in Christ, you have a new life-theme. You are a child of the Father. He adores you. He’s proud of you. The gospel is not about slavery. The gospel is not about a new, improved slavery. The gospel is even more than getting freed from slavery. The gospel is about being feasted at the Father’s table as a son or daughter in the family, with no rejection.
Don’t misunderstand. Being drawn into the beautiful community shared by the Trinity does not mean we become little divine beings. That is heresy. But it does mean we are loved with the same love the Father has for his Son. The night before Jesus died he prayed “that the world may know that . . . you have loved them even as you loved me” (John 17:23). The gospel is about us, even us, being loved like that. Do you mind being loved by God the Father even as he loved his own Son? If you’ll receive that adoption, to use Paul’s language here in verse 5, all your fear of failure and rejection – you can let it go! Jesus paid the price for it, all in your place. Last Sunday at the Christmas concert Ben sang:
How many kings step down from their thrones?
How many lords have abandoned their homes?
How many greats have become the least for me?
And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”
Here is the second sending. First, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law. Second, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” This is amazing. This is how we experience the love the Triune God. This is how it becomes real to us. God the Father has sent the Spirit of his Son, to gather in the desperately lonely failures he loves so much. God not only loves us; he wants us to know that he loves us. He wants us to be set free by his love.
How does he communicate his love for us? Through the Holy Spirit, who enters into our hearts with he very experience of God that Jesus had. Do you remember how Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane? It was like this cry here in verse 6: “Abba, Father” (Mark 14:36). That was his experience of God – Abba, Father. And now the Spirit of God’s Son enters our hearts to personalize to us that same awareness of God, that same perception of God and experience of God. Could the Trinity include us any more wonderfully?
I love the simplicity of this prayer: “Abba! Father!” There isn’t a hint of grandiosity or pomposity here. It’s a cry. And it’s a cry of the heart. It’s the cry of a child’s heart. When people make their prayers flowery and fancy, they are only revealing how little they know of God. And our worship services should be reverent and not glib, but our services should not be stiff and wooden and uncomfortable. That is not what the Holy Spirit does in our hearts. God has sent the Spirit of his Son to awaken in our hearts a new sense that God so loves us that now we may cry to him with every need, with love, with gratitude. And we’re not afraid to cry to God. We’re not afraid he’ll be offended and reject us. We’re not afraid he’ll say to us, “Slaves should know their place.” No, his heart reaching out to our hearts, the Father and the children very close, very often – it’s what he adopted us for, that he would bend over us to hear our cry: “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63:1). When our hearts cry to God with that desperation, he is very near. We are not abandoned. We are not rejected. We are loved so deeply, until we experience it we can’t believe it’s real. The Bible says, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God . . . he is not able to understand them” (1 Corinthians 2:14). It’s like falling in love. How can anyone describe that? It’s only a concept, until you experience it. But then you know. All God’s children know, because he helps them know. Henry Venn was a minister in the Church of England. His wife died. He was brokenhearted. But God came to him and loved him in it. And later Venn wrote:
Did I not know the Lord to be mine, were I not certain his heart feels even more love for me than I am able to conceive, were not this evident to me, not by deduction and argument but by consciousness, by his own light shining in my soul as the sun doth upon my bodily eyes, into what deplorable situation should I have been now cast.
Do you see what he was saying? We don’t walk outside and wonder if the sun is shining on us. It just is, and we know it, and it’s by the light of that sun that we can see everything else. That’s how it is with the love of God. We don’t know he loves us and receives us by a brilliantly assembled line of reasoning. We know it and feel it at the core of our beings, in spite of our sin and our doubt, because the Holy Spirit has brought the love of Jesus into our hearts. It’s by his love that we can then face everything else.
Has God sent the Spirit of his Son to you? If he has, you know you are adopted and loved and rejoiced over. You see your sin; but you know that God has drawn you in, for Jesus’ sake, and that reality is the dearest treasure in your entire existence. Now go into your week and live in the spirit of your adoption. Enjoy being loved by God, and love him in return. When you’re alone, you’re not alone. When others reject you, the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit cherish you. Go into your week rejoicing in God. Go into your week casting every care on him. Whatever each day may bring, you are a child of the Father, and an heir forever. Just stay open to him. His love will keep coming to you, moment by moment.
If God has not sent the Spirit of his Son into your heart, here’s what you need to know. You can’t change what Jesus accomplished at the cross. You can’t improve it. You can’t diminish it. But you can receive it. See the word “receive” in verse 5? That’s your only part in all these wonderful verses. Will you today, right now, receive with the empty hands of faith the adopting love of God the Father? If you tell yourself, “But I’m unworthy to receive it,” that’s true. But you’re also unworthy to reject it. And the only people God takes in are the unworthy. It’s why Jesus died. Will you receive him, or will you reject him?
And if you feel so doubtful you’re paralyzed, here’s what I want you to know. One of the biblical authors was so lost he couldn’t find God. He had to ask God to come find him: “Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your dwelling. Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy” (Psalm 43:3-4). In other words, “God, I need you to send out a search party and come find me. That’s how lost I am. I’ve been led by my own thoughts and feelings, and look where that’s gotten me. Send out your light and your truth and let them lead me back to you.” And God did. You can pray that way too. And God will.