A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent
A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent
Galatians 4:21-31 & St. John 6:1-14
by William Klock
As we walk through the season of Lent and read the lessons set out for us each Sunday, it’s helpful to remember why these specific passages from the Epistle and Gospels were chosen. Their history goes back about a millennium and a half and sometimes even further than that. They go back to the days when Lent was a time set aside for preparing new converts for their baptism at Easter. Committing oneself to Jesus and to the Church was no small thing. For many the cost was great. Jewish converts were often kicked out of the synagogues and shunned by their fellow Jews. Gentile converts were accused of being disloyal and subversive—even of being atheists, because in a world full of gods, to limit your worship to only one might as well have been atheism. Persecution was not uncommon and when it came, more than a few converts denied their faith in Jesus to save their reputation or status or to save them from martyrdom. And so this time was set aside to make sure new converts knew what it really meant to be a Christian, that they knew it was a costly commitment, and that they knew it had to be a commitment without compromise—even in the face of death.
Today the lessons remind us that Jesus has set us free from our bondage to sin and death. It’s easy to take that freedom for granted. Maybe we’ve been Christians our whole lives and just don’t have the experience of knowing what it’s like to be in that kind of bondage. Others may have become Christians later in life, btu it’s been long enough they’ve forgotten. Galatians—the context of our Epistle today—was written by Paul to a group of Christians who were being told they needed to go back to living under the Jewish law if they were going truly be faithful to Jesus—to abandon faith as the marker of the people of God and instead to find assurance in circumcision, diet, and Sabbath observance. Whatever the reasons, however it manifests itself, it’s to take for granted the freedom Jesus has given us. It’s like the Israelites during the Exodus. Every time life in the wilderness was difficult, they complained and grumbled against the Lord and started talking about how they’d had it better back in Egypt when they were slaves. They forsook their salvation. So today’s lessons remind us that Jesus has set us free and warn us against taking our salvation for granted and against going back to the life we left behind.
So let’s begin with our Gospel from the sixth chapter of John:
After this Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias. And a large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick. Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples. Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand. (St. John 6:1-4)
This chapter is dominated by the theme of Passover and of the Passover bread. John notes that these events took place at the time of Passover. Jesus will go on to speak of the “bread from heaven” beginning at verse 22. John means for us to recall the events of the Exodus, particularly the Lord’s provision of manna for the Israelites in the wilderness. Look at verse 5:
Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?”
So it’s Passover time and they’re in the wilderness. And there’s nothing to eat. This should all sound very familiar to people whose identity was steeped in the Exodus story. John makes a point of stressing the lack of food.
Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?” (St. John 6:7-8)
As far as the disciples can tell, the situation is hopeless. Two hundred denarii was a significant chunk of change. One commentator calculates that it would have bought about 2000 half-pound loaves of bread—enough for about a small handful of bread per man. But it wasn’t just the men. There were women and children there, too. John’s point is that even such a large sum of money would have barely provided crumbs for the crowd. And if two hundred denarii wouldn’t cut it, what’s Jesus going to do with five loaves and two fish? That wouldn’t even feed the disciples. It’s Israel, hungry in the wilderness, all over again. And, or course, anyone who knows the story of Israel in the wilderness should know to expect Jesus to do something amazing at this point. That’s just what he does. John goes on:
Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, about five thousand in number. Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. So also the fish, as much as they wanted. (St. John 6:10-11)
Jesus asks them sit and he takes that little bit of food, gives thanks—nothing spectacular, just a typical, simple meal blessing acknowledging the Lord’s provision—and he begins to divide the bread and fish as the disciples distribute it. And the Lord provides—and then some. Look at verses 12-14:
And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, “Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves left by those who had eaten. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!”
The Lord exceeds what he provided to the Israelites in the wilderness. Remember that when he provided manna there were no leftovers, but here there are twelve baskets remaining. The miracle points to the nature of Jesus ministry as a new exodus, but in exceeding the miracle of the manna, it also highlights that this new exodus will exceed the old in its scope. Similarly, while the miracle puts Jesus in the role of Moses, it also points to the fact that in this role he will exceed the greatness of Moses.
The Gospel climaxes with the acclamation of the people: “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world.” This is a reference to Deuteronomy 18 and the promise that another would come, like Moses, to set Israel to rights, to lead the people from slavery to freedom. Today’s Gospel might seem to end prematurely, leaving out verse 15. In the conclusion of John’s telling of the event, the people draw the clear connection between “Prophet” and “Messiah”. They attempt to seize Jesus so that they can usher him straight to his throne as King. But the omission of verse 15 from the Gospel is deliberate and ensures that we are left on a clear messianic note with Jesus acknowledged as filling the shoes of Moses. The new exodus is about to take place and we are reminded of Jesus’ exhortation in last Sunday’s Gospel. Acclamation is not enough. To have a share in this exodus and in the age to come, we must be willing to submit to Jesus in obedience.
Now, let’s look at our Epistle from Galatians. We start with the exodus that our Gospel points towards and the truth that Jesus has set us free. He has led us in an exodus from our bondage to sin and death. And like the Exodus from Egypt, we’re going to spend some time in the wilderness. Jesus doesn’t lead us straight to the promised land. But life in the wilderness isn’t easy. It might be free, but it’s not easy. Like the Israelites, we take for granted what God has done and we long for the fleshpots of Egypt. It’s stupid, but we do it—one reason Jesus describes us so often as sheep. Sheep aren’t very smart. They need a shepherd to keep them in line. Anyway, there were some false shepherd in the Galatian churches and they were leading the sheep astray. We call them the “Judaisers”—they may have been missionaries from Jerusalem.
Paul had taught these gentile converts that, through their union by faith with Jesus, they had become children of Abraham and heirs of God’s promises to Israel. But now a group of missionaries had got the ear of these churches and they claimed that Paul hadn’t given them the full gospel. (Always beware those who claim to have the “full gospel”.) No, they claimed, for gentiles to become children of Abraham, they had to follow the law. In particular, they made a point of insisting on circumcision, the physical sign in the flesh that marked out a Jew. Of course, they claimed to have the law on their side.
Paul counters by going to the law himself, specifically to the story of Sarah and Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac recorded in Genesis 16 and 21. In Genesis 15 the Lord had promised a son to Abraham. Seeing that she was barren, his wife Sarah suggested to him that he sire a son by her slavegirl, Hagar. This was a common custom of the time, but it was not the Lord’s plan. It backfired badly on Abraham and on his whole family. When she became pregnant, Hagar lorded it over her barren mistress. This prompted Sarah to mistreat Hagar, who ran away, but returned and bore a son, Ishmael. In time Sarah bore her own son, Isaac, and eventually insisted that Hagar and Ishmael be banished from the camp. Ishmael became the father of the Arab tribes and Isaac the father of Jacob and Esau.
It seems likely that the Judaisers were using this story to make their argument, claiming that the gentile Christians were akin to Ishmael and, therefore, outsiders. In order to become part of the the true and free family of God, these Jewish converts needed to be circumcised and to commit to living according to the law. Paul now turns the argument around and uses it against the Judaisers. Look at what he writes to them in verses 21-24:
Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants.
So there are, indeed, two families, but the Judaisers have it the wrong way around who is the slave and who is the free. One of these families was born of the flesh and the other of God’s promise. Isaac was the child born of God’s promise. Ishmael was the child born of the flesh, the child produced when Abraham tried to take matters into his own hands instead of waiting on the Lord.
So far the Judaisers would have been in agreement with Paul. But now, he writes, let’s look at these two families after an allegorical fashion and we’ll follow the promise. These families correspond to two covenants. It would be easy at this point to understand Paul to be referring to the old covenant and the new here, Judaism versus Christianity, so to speak. But that’s not quite it. Instead, he’s referring to the position of the Judaisers and his own position. Look at verses 24-27:
One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. For it is written,
“Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear;
break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor!
For the children of the desolate one will be more
than those of the one who has a husband.”
One of these covenants is putting people in bondage. The Judaisers would have said this was the one telling gentiles they could be part of the people of God apart from the Jewish law. But Paul flips that around. No, he says, the folks trying to yoke gentiles with the law—Mt. Sinai—they’re the ones bearing children for slavery. This is Hagar, the slavegirl, and Paul associates her with Sinai and the law. This would have caught the attention of the Judaisers who likely considered it tantamount to blasphemy. Paul is turning everything upside down, but he’s not done making his point yet. He began, “Do you not listen to the law?” Now he’s going to make it clear what the law—the story of Israel and the Lord’s promises to her—actually does say. Those pushing the law are, like Hagar, making converts born into a form of slavery, not the freedom established by Jesus. They, he says, correspond to the present Jerusalem—maybe a reference to the unbelieving Jews, but more likely a reference to those who sent these Judaising missionaries to Galatia and the authority behind their perverted gospel. In contrast, Paul appeals to the Jerusalem yet to come, the Jerusalem still above, the Jerusalem that will one day descend when heaven and earth are rejoined. This heavenly Jerusalem is Paul’s authority. This is the Jerusalem of God’s promise. Paul quotes Isaiah 54, the promise of the Lord to a then barren Jerusalem that one day she would bear a multitude of children. Paul understands the fulfilment of this promise to Jerusalem as a fulfilment of the Lord’s promise to Abraham. Through Isaac, Abraham would become a great people, a people who would be a light to the nations and through whom the nations would one day be brought to Israel’s God in faith, nations that would one day be incorporated into the people of God. The gentile believers were the fulfilment of that promise and thus the true heirs of God’s promise to Abraham. They were the free children born of Sarah, despite having no connection with the law. Paul writes in verse 28:
Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise.
The promise comes by faith, not by the torah, not by the law. This is the amazing thing about the new covenant. As we see throughout the Gospels, not least in our Gospel today, it’s belief and faith in Jesus as Messiah that becomes the defining mark of the people of God. As Paul says in Romans, it was really that way all along. Our Gospel next week will stress this, that point in John’s Gospel where Jesus stresses that Abraham rejoiced to see his day—Jesus’ day as the fulfilment of the Lord’s promises to him. The torah itself was never the defining mark of the people of God. Faith was. Torah was simply the way of life for those people of faith. Torah was never the goal; Jesus was. He is the fulfilment of it all and that means that no one need live under the old law to part of the new covenant people of God. Now, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t act and live in a certain way. The hallmark of the people of God is the indwelling Spirit of God who renews our minds and regenerates our hearts. He bears fruit in us: things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control. But again, we are not God’s people because we bear these fruit anymore than the old Israel was God’s people because they were circumcised, ate a certain way, and observed the Sabbath. Faith is the defining factor that marks us out as God’s people.
So having established that the Judaisers are the ones putting their converts in bondage, Paul continues to draw on the story of Hagar and Sarah. What ought the Galatians to do with these false teachers who would rob them of their free status in Jesus and put them back into bondage? Look at verses 29-31:
But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now. But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.” So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.
“Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman,” he writes. Get rid of them, for they proclaim a false gospel!
Paul makes a powerful exhortation here. We must follow Jesus in his new exodus and we must follow him all the way. For any number of reasons, life following him will be difficult. As the Israelites faced hardship and temptation in the wilderness, so will we. But the Lord has shown that he will provide for our needs. He provided for Israel in the wilderness and he will provide for us through Jesus and the Spirit. When we are tempted to turn back to Egypt, we must remember that we are inheritors of the Lord’s promise and that they are not merely bare promises. He demonstrated his faithfulness repeatedly to his people down through the ages and finally in the resurrection of Jesus and the pouring out of his Spirit. He has given us every reason to trust in him and not to stray from the difficult path to the New Jerusalem. Let us stay the course.
Let’s pray: Almighty God who has made a covenant of unspeakable grace and mercy with us in Christ Jesus, and conveyed unto us therein an heavenly inheritance upon sincere obedience to his commands, which is our reasonable service; grant that we may evermore rejoice in thee, and walk worthy of our holy calling, through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.