If you would, please turn with me to Galatians chapter 4, verses 1 through 11.
Now I say that as long as the heir is a child, he differs in no way from a slave, though he is the owner of everything. 2 Instead, he is under guardians and stewards until the time set by his father. 3 In the same way we also, when we were children, were in slavery under the elemental forces of the world. 4 When the time came to completion, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. 6 And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba, Father!” 7 So you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.
But in the past, when you didn’t know God, you were enslaved to things that by nature are not gods. 9 But now, since you know God, or rather have become known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and bankrupt elemental forces? Do you want to be enslaved to them all over again? 10 You observe special days, months, seasons, and years. 11 I am fearful for you, that perhaps my labor for you has been wasted
If you remember the book of Hosea, you’ll remember that God calls a prophet from Northern Israel to go and “marry a promiscuous woman” – he marries a prostitute named Gomer (which, I guess Hosea was written before The Andy Griffith Show so nobody would have thought “Gomer Pyle” when they heard that name). Hosea marries a sex-worker named Gomer and God tells him to bear with her as she betrays him in one form after another. So how’s that for a calling? – You go and “marry a promiscuous woman,” and your calling is to just “bear with her as she finds one way after another to betray you.”
And that’s something God does throughout the scriptures: He’ll call somebody to do something that serves as, kind of, a “walking metaphor” for the way that God relates to us. Most of them are really gross – especially once you get to Ezekiel, a lot of what happens in the Old Testament sounds like something out of a raunchy comedy movie that you would go see during church on a Sunday morning so nobody would know you went, you know what I mean?
This is like that. God is calling Hosea to marry a “promiscuous woman” as a symbol of God’s relentless faithfulness to us. And so what we see throughout the Book of Hosea is that Gomer has all of the love and warmth and security she could possibly need or want or find in Hosea’s house, but she constantly runs away and sells herself into slavery. She constantly abandons everything that there is to have because she is desperate to get her arms around a satisfaction that doesn’t exist.
She wants to enjoy a pleasure that doesn’t exist: She wants the happiness that comes with sharing God’s Kingdom without having to submit to God in the process. To quote my old Pastor from Oklahoma: She didn’t want God, she wanted God’s stuff.
And in that sense, Gomer is very much a walking metaphor for you and I and everyone. Because in our natural state, most of us do not want God, we just want God’s stuff. That’s hard-wired into us. And that will drive us to “enslave ourselves” to one thing after another, whether it’s the pursuit of money or sex or power or affection or anything, right?
Like, nobody is that well-adjusted. If you’ve ever, well, existed, I probably don’t have to convince you that. There are periods where you can convince yourself that you are stable and reasonable and smart and everyone should just listen to you and their lives would go better kind of like yours has, right? But anytime that happens, it’s a good idea to brace yourself, because you’re probably a stone’s throw away from just falling to pieces. The bow is about to break.
You’re going to collapse, because no matter what we tell ourselves, the reality is that we are all remarkably fragile. We are all, always on the verge of falling apart. There’s a profound emptiness in everybody, because – to quote Ecclesiastes – God has “placed eternity in our hearts,” so we will chase after anything that feels like “eternity.” We are desperate to worship something to serve something, so – like Gomer – we will enslave ourselves to nearly anything that promises to make us happy or rich or strong or whole.
I want to quote from an author named David Foster Wallace at length. You might have heard this speech before, it’s pretty well-known. Wallace is not a Christian and he’s not much of anything, really, but he was invited to speak to the graduating class at a college in 2005 and this is what he told them:
“Everybody worships. There is no such thing as not worshipping. The only choice we get is what we worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type-thing to worship is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.
“If you worship money, and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in your life, then you will never have enough. If you worship your body and beauty and sexual allure, you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. Worship power, and you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, and you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.
“But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.”
So, David Foster Wallace could very easily be preaching a sermon on Galatians 4, here, where Paul says that “When we did not know God, we were enslaved things that were by nature not gods” – literally, enslaved “to the elements of the world.” Paul says that before we knew God, we had enslaved ourselves to something he calls the “elements of the world.” Even without knowing exactly what “the elements of the world” are yet, it shouldn’t be surprising to learn that we were enslaved to them. Right?
Because that’s what humans do. We enslave ourselves to things.
Because like David Foster Wallace said a moment ago, we are worshippers. That’s hard-wired into us. You will worship something, and that means that you will “enslave yourself” to something.
I don’t know what it is. Maybe you don’t know what it is. But it’s there. You worship something or somebody and that something or that someone will eat you alive if you continue to give yourself to them in a way that only the God who created you could ever possibly merit or deserve or reciprocate.
That’s why Paul says that we were “enslaved to the elements of the world.”
Your translation might say the “gods of this world,” or the “principalities of this world,” but however you translate that, the point is the same: You are enslaved to what you worship, and our default mode is not to worship our Creator, but to worship the things he created. Our default mode is not to reach out for freedom from the God Who created us to share in his freedom, it’s to enslave ourselves to the things we think will make us happy.
Like, there’s this one conversation I’ve been having on repeat with countless people for the last seven years or so. Somebody wants to do something they know they shouldn’t do. So in the middle of the conversation they’ll say something along the lines of “I don’t care what the Bible says about _____, I just wanna be happy.” And I’ll say, “How’s that going for ya?” And they’ll say, “Good. I’m not happy. But good.” You know what I’m talking about? That’s a common occurrence, because everybody has a certain something that they’re so determined to do or to have that nothing in the world will stop you from chasing after it with everything in you.
Everyone on planet earth has a point where, in your sinful nature, you decide that God’s not allowed to tell you how to run your sex life, or God’s not allowed to tell you what to do with your money, or God’s not allowed to tell you who to have compassion on, or who to forgive, or who to invite to your house. You might be really passionate about other people’s sins, but eventually the spotlight is gonna turn on your own idols, your own pet sins, and you’re gonna clutch them like somebody clutches her purse in an elevator because – listen to me – that’s your actual God.
Whatever you’re willing to draw the line and purposefully disobey God’s commands for, that’s what you actually worship. In Paul’s language, those are the elements of the world, and they are constantly vying for your worship. Like, if you refuse to share the gospel with people because you’re afraid of how they’ll react, then that’s what you actually worship. If you have enough to get by, but you still refuse to take a single day off work that you don’t absolutely have to, then money is the thing you actually worship. As Paul says, we compulsively enslave ourselves to “things that are by nature not God.”
That’s why the Law was not enough. We’ve seen throughout the scriptures that God gifted us with the Law to protect us from our slavery to sin, but Paul says in today’s passage that even “when we were under the law,” we were still “no different from slaves.” Because with or without God’s Law, you are enslaved to what you worship, and our default mode is to enslave ourselves to the things we think will make us happy.
And when you think about “sin” like that, it brings a lot of clarity to how we understand Jesus. Paul says that Jesus was “born of a woman, born under the Law,” and that’s a very Bible-y way of saying that Jesus became like you and me: If you are “born of a woman,” you are human. And if you are a human, you are “under the Law.”
So what we see in the Gospels is that God himself comes to Earth and lives out a life as a human being. Now, we’re so used to that idea that it seems perfectly normal to us, but that’s weird, right? If you’d never heard of Christianity and you opened the Bible for the first time and read it through, start-to-finish, God himself coming to Earth and living as a human would be a plot twist. It would surprise you.
And it would probably send you into kind of a weird spiral trying to find ways to explain it that didn’t grate against the limits of your imagination quite so much, right? That’s why all through history we’ve seen people saying Jesus was, maybe, 60% human and 40% God – ever heard something like that? Ever heard anybody say that Jesus was just a “human body” that God “possessed” or “took control of.” On a different occasion, I heard somebody say from the pulpit that Jesus wasn’t actually human at all; this preacher said that when people saw Jesus and when they touched him they thought they were touching actual human flesh, but it was a trick. It was kind of like a “hologram” – like, if you’ve ever seen Star Wars, when they’ll talk to somebody on a “hologram machine.” That’s a dumb analogy, I know.
But all through history we’ve found ways to try to re-interpret what happens in the gospels so that it makes more sense, but the New Testament is extremely clear: Jesus Christ is God the Son, taking on the same kind of humanity as you and I, living out a life of perfect obedience to his own good Law, and then dying in our place on the cross. Jesus is every bit as human as you are. In Jesus Christ, God comes to earth and shows us what it means to be human. Jesus lives a human life but refuses to worship the things that we think will make us happy. He resists the idols that we are susceptible to in our place. Jesus has encountered every temptation we experience, and he was obedient in all the ways we should have been but weren’t.
And Romans tells us that when you “believe in Jesus Christ,” all of his obedience is “credited” to you. Romans 10:9, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” God treats you like you were obedient like Jesus was obedient.
That’s why Hebrews chapter 2 tells us that Christ is “a sympathetic high priest.” The God of the universe isn’t a crotchety old man with a long, like, Gandalf beard who is constantly angry at you for not “living up to his unrealistic expectations,” right? Like, every time you see a TV show where God shows up and does something, he always just seems like the world’s worst grandpa, but with superpowers, or something. You know what I mean?
But that’s the opposite of what the scriptures actually show us. Hebrews chapter 2 says that the God of the universe – the God who “knit you together in the womb,” Psalm 139, who “formed your inward parts,” who “holds your life in his hands,” Job chapter 12, is a “sympathetic high priest.”
To put that into normal people language, God is infinitely patient with you. God feels the weight that you feel. God feels the struggle that you feel. God knows and understands and sympathizes with your weakness because he came to Earth and lived a human life and took on every one of your weaknesses and struggles and sufferings.
When you are working desperately and insufficiently to try and obey God’s will, and every step feels harder than the last one, Christ knows exactly how you feel and he sympathizes with you and identifies with you. He is not a “harsh taskmaster” standing in a pulpit with his arms crossed and his face twisted into a perpetual frown. It’s the opposite.
Christ is, quite literally, “batting in your corner.” He is, quite literally, “advocating for you,” 1 John chapter 2. Christ is literally your “advocate,” your “intercessor,” Hebrews 7:25, he is more patient with you than you are with you; he is more tender with you than you are with you; Christ is gentler towards you than you are towards yourself. Christ treasures you in ways that you do not treasure yourself, and have never treasured yourself, and will only come to treasure yourself once you have washed up onto heaven’s shores and been greeted by Christ with open arms and a gentle smile, saying, “Well done my good and faithful servant.”
And that is true because Jesus has taken on our humanity. Christ did not reject us because of our “slavery to the elements.” Instead – like Hosea, who emptied out his savings and purchased his wife Gomer out of the sex-trade – Christ came to Earth (Paul says, in Philippians, he “took the form of a slave,” he “emptied himself for us”) and he gave his own life to “purchase us” out of our “slavery to the elements.” You have been purchased in Jesus Christ.
But he hasn’t purchased you the way that one master might purchase a slave off the Auction Block and then take him back to his own Plantation to be a slave somewhere else instead. Christ has purchased you off the Auction Block, taken you home, draped a coat over your shoulders and put a ring on your finger, and sat you down at his table as a son and a brother and a friend. Christ has adopted you as a daughter, a sister, a friend.
The result is that, Hebrews chapter 4, you can “come before the throne of grace with boldness and confidence.” We belong in God’s presence, because Christ has made us belong there. We no longer approach God simply as slaves approaching their master, we approach him like beloved children approaching their indulgent father.
We were “slaves to the elements,” but now we are the infinitely and eternally safe children of a wise and benevolent father. We were under subjection to the things we think will make us happy but now we’re the perfectly secure children of a kind and attentive father. We’ve been delivered from our slavery into the glorious freedom that comes with being the children of God./
And so what Paul says, as application to that, is that now, “since you know God, or rather have become known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and bankrupt elemental forces?”
He says, “Do you want to be enslaved to them all over again?”
Now that you have “become known by God,” now that you are “children of God,” that he’s bought you off the auction block and sat you at his table, do not go back to the things that enslaved you.
I don’t know about you, but that is exactly the pattern that my life follows. I am Hosea’s wife, Gomer, running away from everything for no reason to find a satisfaction that does not exist outside of the God who made me and loves me and rescued me and wants me.
I am the Israelites at the base of Mount Sinai, melting down my jewelry and carving them into idols. Whatever I seem like when I’m dressed up in my nicest clothes and I’m yelling the Bible at you from a pulpit, the reality is that it takes .03 seconds for me to collapse back into 12 year old boy mode. Even after being “made alive with Jesus Christ,” like Ephesians 2 says, we will always feel the pull towards the old slaveries that God has rescued us from.
You’ll feel the ghosts of your old ways stalking you day in and day out, because that’s what they do. It’s your nature to be drawn to the sin that used to thrill you. It’s our nature to enslave ourselves to anything that promises to make us happy without making us holy, to make us whole without making us good.
And my extremely sophisticated sermon point, here, is: Don’t. Now that God has bought you off the auction block and sat you at his table, do not go back to the things that enslaved you. None of your pet sins are going to make you happy. None of your idols are going to make you whole. They will not deliver on their promises.
To be extremely specific for whoever needs to hear this: A new wife, or a new husband, or a new job, or a new anything is not going to satisfy you any more than what you already have will satisfy you because they can’t, because they’re not supposed to, because God has “placed Eternity in your heart” and so the only thing on planet earth that can make you whole and complete and satisfied is the God who created you out of love and then adopted you as his child.
But he will. Do not get up from the table and go back to the plantation. You have been rescued from your slavery to the things you think will make you happy and sat down at God’s table, as God’s beloved child, and your job for the rest of your life and the rest of forever is just to sit.
Sit down at God’s table and enjoy him. Just enjoy the God who rescued you. Just enjoy him by searching through the scriptures, and enjoy him by gathering together as a people who’ve been rescued by him, and enjoy him in your marriage, and enjoy him in your friendships, and enjoy him in your work, and enjoy him in the way that you rest, and the way that you can rest, now, because he has made you able to rest. Go before the throne of grace with boldness and confidence because Christ has made you belong there. Look for wholeness there, because you will not find it with the things you used to worship.