You can listen to an audio version of this sermon here.
This is always an exciting time of year, a very busy time of year especially for pastors. I have to admit that I take a lot of delight in this time of year because there are so many ways in which congregation members are involved in the services and secretly, part of me, a childish part of me, kind of hopes that something funny will happen. I don’t watch Nascar, but I imagine it’s kind of like that, you enjoy the race but part of you is kind of hoping for some sort of collision. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want anyone to get hurt but especially when I’m watching these families lighting the candles and coming perilously close to setting their Christmas sweaters on fire, or the children’s choirs as they sing I find myself rooting that some kid will do something crazy. This is just a very very small part of me, but I think this part is a holdover from when I was very young, because I was a very mischievous little boy. Every Christmas Eve I would try to outsmart my family and be the first one to get to look at the Christmas presents before anyone else. When I would get ready for bed, I would set one alarm out in the open as a decoy, but then I had a second alarm clock that was plugged in behind my bed so you couldn’t see the cord and was hidden under one of my pillows, I’m sure this was a fire hazard. It took some figuring out, but basically 4 AM is the perfect time to wake up and see all your presents before anyone else. It’s late enough that you can be sure that your parents are asleep, that all the gifts have arrived, and early enough that your brothers or sisters aren’t just going to wake up naturally out of excitement. 4 AM, at least for me, was the fullness of time. 4 AM is when the time had fully come, as an hour glass fills with so many particles of sand and reaches its fullness, so a confluence of a myriad of circumstances made that 4AM moment just right for me to quietly go through all my presents, my brothers presents, my parents presents, maybe switch a nametag or two, and then return to my bed to sleep in on Christmas morning, confusing my parents greatly.
Please open your bibles to our passage for tonight, Galatians 4:1-7. Jesus was born over 2000 years ago and yet no rational person today would deny that this man who claimed to be God has had an overwhelmingly profound impact, one, in the history of all humanity and two, in countless individual lives. In this passage Paul uses a metaphor of children becoming adults as a way to help us understand what it meant in history and also what it means for us individually when the time had fully come, some translations say, the fullness of time, when a confluence of an unimaginable number of circumstances brought Jesus into the world. For me, as a boy, 4AM was the fullness of time, when the time had fully come for Christmas, the 4AM, the fullness of time, in the history of humanity was the birth of Jesus Christ, and there is also a 4AM, a fullness of time, in our own lives where we come to know fully that God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts. Please follow along in your bibles, Galatians 4:1-7:
What I am saying is that as long as the heir is a child, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. 2 He is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father. 3 So also, when we were children, we were in slavery under the basic principles of the world. 4 But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, 5 to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. 6 Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, "Abba, Father." 7 So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir.
As Paul is trying to help us understand this mystery of God sending His Son to become human and what that means for us, he uses a metaphor to help us. Paul describes how children, even though technically the entire estate is in their names, are immature as children. They need constant supervision, they need specific rules to follow, they need to be protected, educated, and watched over. Children are physically, emotionally, and spiritually not ready for the full rights and responsibilities of adulthood. I remember one Christmas Eve service when I was growing up that I attended with my family and during a serious prayer for hurting people, the pastor said in a very deep resonating voice, you’ll have to use your imagination since I’m preaching, but he said “O Lord, we lift up to you our continued prayers for the health and the well-being of Molly Jolly.” Now to be honest I was completely checked out of that service, probably thinking about all my presents at home, but I heard this prayer for Molly Jolly and I was like Molly Jolly? Are you serious? Is this real? Are we praying for someone named Ms. Jolly on Christmas Eve? What were Mr. and Mrs. Jolly thinking when they named their child Molly? I’m really hoping that no one, by the way, in some weird twist of fate, is a Mr. or Mrs. Jolly with us tonight , if you are, I’m a so sorry for my childish behavior. As an immature boy, and this was last year, just kidding I think I was 12 or 13, I couldn’t stop laughing, and of course then my two younger brothers start laughing. To be honest I think some other people thought it was funny, especially when they heard me laughing, but they were adults and they managed to keep their composure for the sake of that poor family, Molly Jolly, and all the other people be prayed for. Children are not mature in the same way that adults are, but eventually, and some of you can grasp on to this as a promise, eventually children do mature into adults. Eventually, in the fullness of time, when the time fully comes, people make a transition from childhood, from needing constant supervision, to adulthood. In our passage it says that the child is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father. That’s the way that the culture during Paul’s time worked. The father takes everything into account and in the fullness of time, in that mysterious 4 AM moment, the father recognizes the transition that’s taken place and releases his child from guardians into the full privileges of adulthood.
Paul uses this universal human imagery to describe historically what happened when Jesus was born. Humanity before Jesus, existed in a state of childish immaturity under what Paul describes in our passage as the “basic principles of the world”. For the Jewish people, during this state of immaturity they were under the Law of the Old Testament, like children who needed constant supervision and for the other people of the world, the Gentiles, they were enslaved to a spiritual order in which they worshiped gods who we know now that weren't really gods at all. As a child is no different from a slave in that they are completely under the authority of adults, so also all of humanity was in a state of immaturity, enslaved, completely beholden to whatever was over them, law for the historic Jews, false gods for the other nations. Then, when the time had fully come, in the fullness of time, in a 4AM moment for the world, God our Father in heaven, removed us from slavery by sending his Son, born completely into our condition, under the law, to transition humanity from a state of immaturity to maturity.
The prophets told about this 4AM moment long before it happened. The same way that children are told ahead of time what lies before them tomorrow morning on Christmas day, the same way parents are promised that someday their children will be adults, this 4 AM moment for the world was foretold and promised. For those of you joining us tonight, we’ve been journeying together through the prophecies of the Old Testament in our Christmas series. Tonight we read Micah 5:2: "But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah (F-Ruh-Thuh), though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times." The very Spirit of God conceived Jesus in Mary and at the same time his true origins are from of old, from ancient times - Jesus was fully God. This is why Jesus succeeds where we as humanity, in its childishness, had failed. And yet he was also, as our passage says, born of a woman – completely and fully human so that humanity would be redeemed. God entered into our situation and this occurred at the fullness of time in the sense that the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ could only have occurred under the circumstances provided by the Jewish nation and the Roman occupation, by specific historical circumstances. These circumstances provided for the spread of the Gospel, the world was prepared for this moment, and the prophecies were finally being fulfilled. The Roman empire before Jesus looked at values like compassion, humility, and serving others as weaknesses to be expelled from humanity, a childish, immature view of how to treat others. After Jesus those same values became virtues that are celebrated day the world over. All of the past pointed to this 4 AM moment in time that we celebrate tonight, where God would answer His promises through Jesus Christ and a new age would dawn, a new kingdom, not of this world would be planted like a mustard seed that continues to grow to this day.
As if this was not enough, amazingly, God didn't just affect all of humanity on a global scale, he also has a personal 4 AM moment, a fullness of time, in our own lives as individuals. Paul gets very personal in the last two verses of our passage. He says, that because Jesus came into the world and redeems us, not only is there this historical shift, but the same Spirit of God that brought Jesus into the world, that very same divine Spirit that changed the course humanity, the Spirit of God’s Son, is sent into our own hearts.
We, spiritually speaking and on a personal level, are enslaved to various principles of the world. Some of us, like the historic Jews, are enslaved to the law. We believe that if we follow the law, the rules, whatever they are, if we live basically good lives then in the end everything will work out for us. Others of us, like the other historic nations, are enslaved to false gods. We believe that we can fill the hole in our lives through the constant pursuit of something, for some it’s leisure or recreation, others its relationships, for some its material wealth, and we make these things our gods, and find ourselves enslaved to them and never finding the fulfillment we were meant for. We are all slaves in one way or another, and yet in the fullness of time, when the time fully comes, in a mysterious 4 AM moment, when the sounds of the world die down, and everything is just right, when we allow Jesus the Messiah to be born in us then we transition from spiritual childhood, from spiritual slavery, to full rights as sons and daughters of God. For some us that moment was long ago, and we’ve known Christ all our lives, for others, like me, we can remember well that specific 4 AM moment, that fullness of time moment when everything changed. When we no longer had the burden of trying to never break a rule and we realized that our false gods were never going fulfill us. In the fullness of time in our lives, we began an amazing adventure as sons and daughters of God as God sends the Spirit of his Son into our hearts and every moment in life has a meaning and a purpose beyond what we had ever imagined so that our 4 AM moment becomes not only the fullness of time but the beginning of a fullness of life that God always intended for each and every one of us as his children.
For some us tonight, we have yet to have that moment. You haven’t reached that time where you want to go and see the real Christmas day presents. To see the abundance beneath the tree that awaits you. Jesus Christ, whose birth we celebrate tomorrow, changed all of history, he blazed a new path to God, and he invites each and every one of us personally in our own fullness of time, to open the gift and receive His Spirit into our hearts so that we are no longer slaves, no longer children, but full mature sons and daughters of God in full fellowship with him and receiving an unimaginable fullness of life. We who have experienced a taste of this can try to describe the mystery in metaphors, like Paul has done for us tonight, but until you open the present yourself, the fullness of time, and the fullness of life will escape you. As the hourglass fills, and fullness of time approaches for each of our Christmases, my prayer is that we open His gift and that the Spirit of God would enter into our hearts.