If you have your Bibles, please turn with me to Galatians, chapter 4, verses 21 through 31. Paul says:
Tell me, those of you who want to be under the law, don’t you hear the law? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave and the other by a free woman. 23 But the one by the slave was born according to the impulse of the flesh, while the one by the free woman was born as the result of a promise. 24 These things are illustrations, for the women represent the two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai and bears children into slavery—this is Hagar. 25 Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. 27 For it is written:
Rejoice, childless woman,
who does not give birth.
Burst into song and shout,
you who are not in labor,
for the children of the desolate are many,
more numerous than those
of the woman who has a husband.
28 Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 But just as then the child born according to the flesh persecuted the one born according to the Spirit, so also now. 30 But what does the Scripture say?
Drive out the slave and her son, for the son of the slave will never be a coheir with the son of the free woman.
31 Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.
So in today’s passage, Paul is giving us very good news. But you wouldn’t know it just from glancing at it, right? Paul communicates his good news to us by telling us a story that doesn’t seem uplifting at all.
So, Bible story time: If you remember Sunday School, or you remember sitting on Grandma’s knee and listening to her stories and so on, you’re probably familiar with the story of Sarah and Hagar. I’m gonna tell the short version so this sermon isn’t an hour long, but you’ll remember that Abraham was a married man with no children when God called him out of Ur and told him head out towards a land he would give to him. So far, so familiar, right?
When God commands him to leave his homeland, he also gives him a promise in Genesis 12, which you’re probably tired of hearing about by now. God says to Abraham:
out from your land, your relatives, and your father’s house to the land that I
will show you.
2 I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.
3 I will bless those who bless you, I will curse those who treat you with contempt,
and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
So not only does he promise to bring him to a new land, but also to bless him, not in the kinda meaningless sense that we usually say “Bless you,” when you sneeze (or when somebody cuts you off on the road, if you’re a much godlier person than I am),but in the old sense – God has promised to turn everything that has happened and will happen to Abraham towards his favor. God will bend the universe for his good.
God commits himself in Genesis 12 to “bless all the peoples of the earth” through Abraham’s children. But there’s a record scratch right there.
Because God is promising to give Abraham “more descendants than anybody could count,” but that creates a problem because Abraham is old and his wife, Sarah, is old – and it’s a good thing to be old; ignore our culture’s ageism and take pride in your elderliness – but even if people lived longer back then, they weren’t having babies at 100.
So a few years after God has promised to “make a great people” out of Abraham, no children have come. So Abraham and Sarah do that thing that people do, you know, where we convince ourselves that God wants us to do whatever it is that we already wanted to do. You know what I’m talking about? Human beings are pros at convincing ourselves that God wants us to do whatever it is we already wanted to do. They say, “God promised Abraham more children than anybody can count, and if Sarah hasn’t conceived in all these years, clearly God wants Abraham to conceive with somebody else.” You see where this story’s going?
So Abraham takes Sarah’s handmaiden, Hagar, as a concubine – that’s an old-timey word people used back in the day for “Woman you’re technically allowed to cheat on your wife with.” That’s not the formal definition, but that’s the bottom line. Not a good look.
When the child God had promised Abraham hadn’t come about the right way in a timely manner, Abraham got it in his head that he could maybe make it happen by cheating on Sarah, because that’s the way the people thought back then – even Sarah herself.
But that shouldn’t surprise us. Because that’s very much how we operate. We will always be tempted to put the sanctity of marriage on the chopping block the moment it gets in the way of our sense of freedom and satisfaction. You know what I’m talking about? We will always be tempted to put the sanctity of marriage on the chopping block the moment it gets in the way of our sense of freedom and satisfaction. I’m not just talking about the “Sanctity of Marriage” as a political buzzword like you’ve been hearing about for the last 10 years. I’m talking about the sanctity of your marriage. You will always be tempted to put the sanctity of your marriage on the chopping block the moment it gets in the way of your sense of freedom and satisfaction. Right?
And so I think the way we preach that story tends to give people the wrong idea. I remember one time I heard a preacher get up and say – (I’m gonna imitate him, it’s gonna be horrifying) – He said, “Now, Abraham was a man, so he got to looking over at Hagar, and ‘Boys will be boys,’ and before long Hagar was carrying his child.” Ever heard something like that? Hopefully a little less grimy. But that’s a pretty common take in this day and age.
As a rather horrifying example, I remember a few years back, a woman called into Pat Robertson’s show and said that her husband had cheated on her and she wanted advice on how to forgive him for the hurt he had caused her – and that might be the pinnacle of Christian maturity, the willingness to forgive and reconcile with somebody who’s done you all kinds of wrong.
But without missing a beat, Pat Robertson said, “Wear more makeup and put more effort into your looks. Men have a tendency to wander and it’s on you to be so alluring and satisfying that they don’t.”
And then the show just went on as usual and next to nobody said anything to contradict him, because that’s just how people tend to think. That’s what you’re raised to believe in the United States. You’re raised to believe that men are robots with bad programming, or something. That men are wild animals with no control over our urges who can’t be held responsible when we do you wrong. That’s conventional wisdom.
But this is one of those instances where conventional wisdom is wrong. The problem here, in the Abraham-Hagar-Incident is not that Abraham was a man. Paul spells out precisely what his problem was: The Abraham-Hagar-Incident had nothing to do with his maleness and everything to do with his faithlessness. Verse 23 says, in very-Bibley-terms, that Abraham’s first son, Ishmael, was born “according to the impulse of the flesh.” Your translation might say, “According to his sinfulness,” “according to his weakness,” and those are both correct: Abraham didn’t have a Y-Chromosome problem, he had a worship problem.
That’s, maybe, the most important thing that very few “relationship experts” tell you: That whatever our differences, men are exactly like women in the sense that we become like what we worship. Men become like what we worship. Women become like what we worship.
So if you worship pleasure, you will probably cheat on your spouse. That’s eventually gonna happen if you worship pleasure because no one person can ever satisfy you the way you want them to.
If you worship admiration – if you are desperate to be admired by some woman, somewhere, then once your wife gets to know you too well to fawn over you with big puppy dog eyes, you will find somebody who is young enough and dumb enough and subservient enough to admire you the way you want her to and you will betray your wife time and time again for it.
Or, if you’re like the bulk of men who worship admiration but never do find somebody simple enough to admire them, you’ll just live out the rest of your life stewing in bitterness that your wife doesn’t look up to you the way you wish she did. Your household will become poisonous as you grow in resentment towards each other.
Or if, like Abraham, you worship the idea of having a child, what’s gonna happen when it turns out the person you married is infertile?
You will become like what you worship. You will follow what you worship to the ends of the earth in the hope that it will give you the satisfaction you desire – but, listen to me, it will not. None of the things that you worship will deliver on their promises because the only thing that’s worthy of our worship is the God we meet in Jesus Christ.
And we see exactly this thing playing out in Abraham and Sarah. God promises Abraham a child, and instead of worshipping God out of gratefulness, Abraham worships the idea of having a child. And since Abraham’s affections have been taken up in worship at the thought of having the child God’s promised to him, he is willing to cheat on his wife Sarah to get it.
So today’s passage is rough. Paul dives straight into a story about Abraham’s idolatry leading into Abraham’s adultery. But Abraham’s adultery is actually the least shocking thing about what Paul tells the Galatians here. So now you’re groaning inwardly, like, “Oh, that was the less rough section?”
Because after telling the story of how Abraham gives up waiting on God and betrays Sarah just to have a kid, Paul tells us that the Law of Moses is like that. Abraham’s son Ishmael was born out of Abraham’s sinfulness, verse 23, and Paul says the Law is like that.
If you’re sitting in the pews and you have no idea what I’m talking about, that’s fine. When Paul says “The Law” he’s not talking about Tax Law, or Real Estate Law, or the Second Law of Thermodynamics. He’s usually talking about those 613 commands we find in those first 5 books of the Bible. They called that the capital-L “Law.”
So as a recap: If you read the Bible cover to cover, eventually – about halfway through Exodus, God just starts dropping commands on the Israelites, and it’s almost like a comedy of errors, it’s like a Three Stooges episode:
The Israelites do something dumb, and God is like, “Ok, here are some new laws to make you not do that again.” And then they do something even more dumb, and God’s like, “Ok, here are some more laws to make you never do that again.” And then the Israelites do something even dumber than that, and God’s like, “Ok, here are even more laws to make sure that if nothing else you will not be that kind of dumb the next time opportunity knocks.” And by the end of the process there’s almost as many laws as there are Israelites. You know what I’m talking about?
Like, I don’t have kids, but what I’ve been told by friends and family is that, up front, you think you’re gonna be a cool parent. Right?
You have almost no rules. Just the basic stuff: “Don’t put your sister in the oven,” typed stuff. But then over the next five years or so your list of rules goes from, like ten, to like 610: “Don’t eat grass.” “Don’t stick a fork in the power outlet.” Don’t order 7 years worth of back-issues of Sports Illustrated – how did you even do that? How did you fill out the subscription card? You’re two-and-a-half-feet-tall-how-did-you-reach-the-mailbox? How did send it to the Sports Illustrated headquarters and get 7 years worth of back-issues sent to our house? Your list of rules starts small and then just mutates till there’s more than you could ever remember off the top of your head. Right?
The Law is like that.
The Law is not a list of rules that make you good enough for God’s kingdom, it’s a straight-jacket God puts on you ‘cause you compulsively damage yourself.
Now, here’s what Paul is not saying: Paul’s not saying that the Law is bad. Paul is not saying that you shouldn’t read the Old Testament.
What he is saying is that the Law cannot make us free.
In Psalm 51, David begs God to “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin,” The Law cannot do that. The Law cannot “create in you a clean heart.” In Ezekiel 36, God says, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean, I will cleanse you from all your iniquity.” The Law cannot do that. In Zechariah 13:1, God promises to “open a fountain” to wash away our “sin and impurity.” The Law cannot do that.
It cannot make us free, and it cannot heal us from of what’s wrong with us, and that means that the Law cannot “bring us home.” Rules might make us act a little better, but they cannot give us rest. It can’t make us not tired.
Are you tired? I’m tired.
I’m not talking about the normal kind of tired – like, if you ran a marathon, you’d be the normal kind of tired. Or if I ran up, like, a medium-sized staircase, I’d be the normal kind of tired. But that’s not the kind of “tired” I’m talking about.
There is a tiredness that goes beyond tiredness. There’s a tiredness in our souls. It’s the kind of tiredness you wake up with. It’s the kind of tiredness you carry with you everywhere. Everything seems heavy and hopeless and dreary. Even if you’ve got short work hours and supportive friends and a family that is miraculously not dysfunctional, even if the deck is stacked in your favor in practically every way, the fact remains that existing at all is exhausting.
The happiest people in the world are still nauseatingly tired. Aren’t you?
And of course we’re tired. We shouldn’t be surprised by that. Because that deep tiredness that you feel isn’t just because of your individual personal problems, although I would never want to downplay or discount those. That deep rooted exhaustion that you feel has everything in the world to do with the fact that you have lived out your life up to this point separated from your true home – what Paul calls the “Jerusalem above.” You’re not just exhausted, you’re homesick.
Ever spent the night at a friend’s house when you were a kid and got homesick? However much fun you were having, there came a point where you wanted to go home and you wanted your mom and you wanted your bed and you wanted to be alone. It had nothing to do with your friend or her house or her parents or her anything, but you’d been away from home too long. You were homesick, and you could feel the pull back towards where you belonged.
That’s part of your tiredness. You are homesick for a place you’ve never been. You are homesick for God’s presence. You are homesick with a homesickness that goes deeper than home and deeper than sickness. Your soul wants to be reunited with the God who created you. We are every bit as homesick as Ishamel was homesick after Abraham banished him from his household.
And the Problem Paul points us toward is that the Law cannot cure our cosmic homesickness. It cannot heal us the way we need it to.
Don’t get me wrong. I need rules. I am what scientists refer to as a fool. I am like Abraham. Jeremiah 17 says that “the heart is deceitful above all things” and that’s me. Proverbs 19 says that a fool’s “folly will bring his way to ruin,” and if that’s not describing me, I don’t know who it’s describing. Proverbs 26 says that a fool “returns to his folly” like “a dog returns to its own vomit,” and that’s, like, the story of my life.
I am dumb like Abraham was dumb, like Pat Robertson was dumb, like everybody’s dumb when we’re walking in our own wisdom, Proverbs 28, and I need a good Law that I didn’t invent myself to guide me. Making your own rules is a game only fools play, and, not coincidentally, it’s a game nobody wins.
And so Paul never tells us that the Law is bad. The Law is very good. The problem is that it’s not good enough.
Because in my foolishness I need more than just good advice. I need more than good moral guidance. Putting a straight-jacket on somebody with self-destructive tendencies is a good temporary-fix, but it doesn’t solve my problem.
Because so long as I need the straight jacket I’m stuck in the asylum. I can’t go home till I’m not self-destructive anymore. What I need is to be not foolish. I need a heart that is not deceitful. I need to be washed of my iniquity and cleansed of my sin. I need the Lord to “open up a fount” to wash away “my sin and impurity.”
I will never not be homesick until I’m no longer sin-sick. That’s a dumb slogan, but I’m gonna say it again. You will never not be homesick until you’re no longer sin-sick.
So, like I said, Paul is giving us very good news, but the way he presents it sounds almost like bad news.
But this is exactly where the good news comes in. Because Paul tells us, in verse 28, that we are “children of the promise.” We were all Abraham, diving headlong into sin because we were desperate to get our hands around something we thought would make us happy, but Christ has grabbed us by the back of our jackets and pulled from the edge of the cliff.
I think Paul puts I best in the second chapter of Ephesians, where he says that “Now, in Christ, you who were far off have been brought near by the blood of Jesus.” Jesus went to the cross for us, not simply to be punished for our sin but to “bring us near.” We were dead but Christ has made us alive. We were enslaved but Christ has made us free. We were under the just wrath of a righteous God but now we are children of God, beloved in Jesus Christ. We were far off, but now we’ve been brought near.
So you’ve been homesick your whole life, and of course you were. But “Now, in Christ Jesus, you who were far off” and homesick “have been brought near by the blood of Jesus.” Christ is here to bring you home, no longer as “children of wrath,” like Ephesians 2:3 says, but as “children of the promise,” Galatians 4:28. So now, instead of “casting us out” like Abraham cast out Ishmael, John 14 says that Christ “prepares a place for us.” Christ has made a place for you.
So we’ve transitioned into the part of the service that we refer to as the altar call. What that means is that as we respond by worshipping the Lord through song in just a moment, I’ll be standing here at the altar. Christ has made a place for you – in his home, in his family, in his love. And if you would like to come and claim that place by throwing yourself on his mercy, I would like to walk you through that – we would like to walk with you through that. So come talk to me.