Sunday, November 05, 2017

Sermon: Galatians 4: 8-31 Freedom from slavery

I wonder if you’ve heard of Stockholm Syndrome? It’s not where you start to shop in Ikea and develop a fondness for Abba music. The idea of Stockholm Syndrome was developed after a hostage situation in a bank in Stockholm, Sweden in 1973. Two men walked into the bank, and took four staff hostage. After six days, the four were released - but ended up siding with their captors. None of them would testify in court against their captors - indeed, they even raised money for their defence fund.

That was the first time it had been analysed and identified, but now it’s a seemingly common problem in hostage or kidnapping situations. The person who was a slave is freed, but then decides to go back to the person who enslaved them.

Or think of some who have been in prison, they’ve been released, but they just can’t cope with life on the outside, and so they reoffend, to be able to get back into prison. They can’t cope with freedom, they would rather be on the inside, prisoners again.

Now perhaps those thoughts seem strange to you - the idea of Stockholm Syndrome, falling for your enslaver; or reoffending to re-enter the prison system. We like our freedom, we wonder why anyone wouldn’t want it. We would find it strange that someone, having been freed would want to become a slave again. And yet that’s exactly what Paul says the Galatian Christians were in danger of doing.

And it could be that we are in the same danger. It seems as if our Galatians series has been significant for some of us; that we’ve been understanding the gospel of grace through Christ alone in a fresh way; that we’ve been enjoying the freedom of knowing that we are forgiven and welcomed into God’s family; that we have been saved, and we’re now sons of God. Now if that’s you, Paul has a warning - you’ve been freed, so don’t become a slave again!

As we dive into the passage, we see that Paul is reminding them of how they were freed; as he warns them of the dangers of slavery. V8: ‘Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God - or rather are known by God - how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again?’ Do you see what he says there? You used to be slaves - slaves to the pagan way of thinking, slaves to the demons.

They were freed from being slaves, by knowing God (and being known by him) - isn’t that what we pray in one of the morning collects? ‘To know you is eternal life, and to serve you is perfect freedom...’

But now, they’re turning back to the weak and miserable principles they knew before - in a different form, perhaps, but with the same basic idea. Do all this, and you’ll succeed. Observe these rules, do these things, keep these feast days, and you’ll make it by your own efforts. They’re in danger of being enslaved all over again.

In verse 12, Paul makes his appeal to them. He’s pleading with them. (This is the first imperative, the first command, the first thing they should do in the letter). ‘I plead with you, brothers, become like me, for I became like you.’ He reminds them of how he became like them - how he lived among them, because of an episode of ill health. Now we’re not told what it was, but there’s a hint it might have been eye trouble of some sort. He says there in v15 that they would have torn out their eyes and given them to him.

Whatever the exact problem, this was the reason Paul stopped in Galatia and preached the gospel to them. And even though his illness was a trial to them, they welcomed him with a great welcome - as if he was an angel, or even as if he was Christ Jesus himself. Why the welcome? Because they heard the good news of the gospel, and they experienced the freedom Paul proclaimed - freedom in Christ. But now - ‘What has happened to all your joy?... Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?’

They knew the joy of being freed, but the joy had long gone. Now, they were trying to get back into prison, submitting to a new slavery. And they’re cross with Paul for pointing it out to them!

We see the enslavers crouching in v17. ‘Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want us to alienate you from us, so that you may be zealous for them. It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good, and to be so always, not just when I am with you.’ There’s a lot of zealousness in those verses! The enslavers are zealous to win them over - but not for good. They want the Galatians to be zealous for them, not for Paul or for the gospel.

The Galatians were really taken by the Judaizers. They felt important, because these guys were taking an interest in them. They seemed as if they were trying to help them! But Paul gives the warning - don’t fall for it! Don’t become slaves again!

These Judaizers are a bit like the Child Catcher in the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. He brings his horse-drawn wagon into the town square, offering free lollipops and ice cream to the children. When they wee boy hears there’s treacle tarts, he rushes out. But when the children climb into the wagon where the free treats are, they find it’s a trick; they’re trapped; they’ve become slaves. This is the danger the Galatians were in, and it’s the danger we might find ourselves in.

Someone who sounds as if they’re helping, wanting to explain things better, but they’re actually working against the gospel, making you a slave all over again. It’s no wonder Paul was concerned, it’s as if he’s experiencing the pains of childbirth all over again, wanting Christ to be formed in them. He wishes he was with them to change his tone.

Now in the last part of the passage, Paul shows from the story of Abraham that there are two ways you can go about something. You see, we imagine that the people in the Bible were all good, and moral, and perfect - that is, until we read their stories! Abraham could well inspired a storyline on Eastenders or Emmerdale; you could almost see him appearing on Jeremy Kyle.

You see, Abraham had received the promise of a great nation through his son in Genesis 12. By Genesis 16, 11 years have passed and still no son. So Sarah his wife says to Abraham - go and have a child with my slave girl Hagar. They try to take matters into their own hands, and work things out by themselves. So Ishmael is born, a son by the flesh, but not the son of promise.

Fourteen years later, the promised son, Isaac, is born. At his weaning, Ishmael is mocking Isaac, and Sarah gets upset. So she tells Abraham to get rid of Hagar and Ishmael. And Abraham does it.

And Paul takes this story and sets out the two ways you can go about something - you can work it out yourself; or you can trust God for what he has promised. And those two ways are represented by the two women - Hagar the slave, and Sarah the free. The slave woman can only produce slaves, and only the free woman can produce free children.

And what Paul says there in verses 24-26 would have been shocking to those who read it. We know that because Jesus basically says the same thing in our gospel reading from John’s gospel. Here in v24, he looks at the covenant from Mount Sinai, when God gave the law to the people of Israel through Moses. So which woman is it? Slave or free? Paul says that the Law, Mount Sinai, is like the slave woman, Hagar - it can only produce slaves (as we’ve seen in recent weeks). Hagar is like the present city of Jerusalem - the temple was still standing, in slavery with her children.

Remember in John’s gospel when the Jews say ‘We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone.’ (Jn 8:33). But Jesus says they are slaves - ‘everyone who sins is a slave to sin.’ (Jn 8:34) And they’re not children of Abraham, because they aren’t doing what Abraham did - believing God and the one he sent.

Do it yourself religion of whatever flavour - they produce slaves, slaves to sin who will never inherit, who will be driven out, as Hagar and Ishmael were.

v26 ‘But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.’ The heavenly Jerusalem is our mother, We are her children, the children of God’s promise, just as Isaac was all those years ago. The child of promise was persecuted by the slave son then, and it’s still happening now. Therefore, as Paul sums up, in v31 ‘Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.’

You used to be slaves. You’ve been set free. So don’t become slaves again. As we take bread and wine, we rejoice in our rescuer, the one who gave himself to free us. You’ve been released, so live out your freedom, live out your inheritance, and don’t become slaves all over again.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 5th November.

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