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Faith Came Down
By Dr. Stuart R. Gordon
01/01/12

Faith Came Down
Genesis 15:1-6
Galatians 3:23 – 4:7

JANUARY 1, 2012
FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH
DR. STUART R. GORDON


But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.

The world waited a long time for this child to be born, this Son to be given. Even though few might have been able to say for what we were waiting, we were waiting for him.
According to Paul, this wait lasted over two thousand years. It was the time between a promise to Abram – "No one but your very own seed shall be your heir" – and the fullness of time, the perfect time for the birth of Jesus to a woman named Mary, under the law of Israel. It was over two thousand years of waiting. Strangely enough, the expectation is marked on both ends by the light of stars in the sky. With Abram, God directed his sights toward the stars in the heavens, and promised a heritage so numerous that he would be unable to count them all. With Jesus, Wise Men came from the east, following one bright star, non-Jews looking toward the heavens for guidance, coming to do homage to the newborn king. The world waited a long time for this child to be born, this promise to be fulfilled. And, Paul says, in the fullness of time, when the time was ripe, God fulfilled the promise in Jesus.
Those Wise Men went in behalf of all of us – non-Jews bringing gifts to him who was born King of the Jews. They went in behalf of Gentiles everywhere, who did not know what we were waiting for, until he arrived. They went in behalf of all of us, men and women, slaves and free, speaking every language under heaven, flying every flag, living in poverty and living in abundance, bringing our gifts. They went following the star that bore the sign.
You probably know that Christmas song by Christina Rosetti, Love Came Down at Christmas. We sing it, and we mean Jesus. We mean Jesus came down at Christmas, we mean that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. We mean that God is love. In Galatians, the Apostle Paul gives us another song to sing: Faith came down at Christmas. Paul says, "Before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed." That's an interesting phrase, isn't it? I am not sure I have heard anyone else use it. Maybe the metaphor can shine a light that shows us what we hadn't noticed before.
Actually, there is a carol of Advent that we know well, one that sings Paul's song. When we sing, "O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel," we are crying out for redemption from slavery. The plea is not simply that God would love us by overlooking our sins or forgiving our sins; we are crying out for God to free us from the enslaving power of sin over us. We are crying out for Emmanuel to come from heaven and rescue us. The world waited over two thousand years for faith to come in the person of Jesus. The world waited for God to act in Jesus to open our cell doors and set us free. We were all imprisoned "until the Son of God appeared," or in Paul's words, until "faith would be revealed."
God had to do something for the waiting world, which we could not do for ourselves. God had to free us in Jesus. Paul seems to say that faith is what God did in Jesus, born of a woman, born under the law. Faith is Jesus subjecting himself to the curse of death and trusting the Father to raise him. Just as we love God because he first loved us; so we trust God, because Jesus first trusted. Jesus' trust in God was vindicated by his victory over death; our trust in God will be vindicated by what? What will be the result of faith? Why did faith come down at Christmas?
I have to be frank about this: In answering this question we have to acknowledge that the authors of the Bible inhabited a different thought-world. To understand the gospel Paul and others proclaimed, we have to admit that they saw things through different lenses. We have to be willing to at least try on their lenses, to consider that they may have seen the world at least as well as we do, if not better.
So, with the help of Paul Achtemeier, here are two assumptions that Paul made about life in this world:
First, every person is subject to some force greater than himself or herself. Ever since Adam, that force is sin. In other words, sin is not simply a choice that humans make. Sin is a power outside of our choices. Sin is a force at work upon us. And we had been slaves to it, ever since Adam. No one can free himself from this force. We cannot simply choose something else, any more than we could choose to eliminate a fever that burns within us when an infection makes us sick. Sin is a force greater than us, which is why we have to pray, "deliver us from evil."
Second, in his love, God has done something about the power of sin. In his love, God has raised Jesus from the dead. God has not simply become forgiving, as if God were not always a forgiving God. God has not decided simply to overlook sin, as if that were enough to save us from it. God has defeated sin, shattered its power over us. Just as God rolled the stone away from Jesus' tomb and brought him out alive, so in Jesus God has opened the cell door in which we were held hostage. Sin no longer keeps us enslaved. There is a greater power at work in us now – God's Holy Spirit.
Now I suppose that a person can decide that Paul's view of things is wrong, and so his gospel is not for them. A person can presume that that there is no such thing as a power outside us, enslaving us to behavior and consequences that undermine our relationship to God and other people. Or a person can presume that God didn't really do anything new by raising Jesus from the dead. A person can presume simply that God decided to forgive what previously he had not. A person can presume that the only thing that love changed was God's attitude toward sinners. A person can presume that whereas our sin used to make God angry, now God has decided because of Jesus not to be angry.
But, let's suppose something in you trusts that Paul had insight. Let's suppose that something in you trusts that Paul made it into the Bible for good reasons, God's reasons. Let's suppose that you are willing to trust Paul's judgment, and to share his assumptions about life and to hear his gospel. You are willing to let Paul guide you in answering the question, Why did faith come down at Christmas? What is the result of the baby, the perfect Son of God, being born in Bethlehem? The star in the sky has become many stars, more numerous than Abram could count. One child is becoming many children. One Son praying, "Abba, Father," is becoming many sons and daughters, crying out to their Father in heaven. People are walking away from slavery to sin, just as Jesus was no slave to sin. People are becoming children of God, because Jesus the Son was born of Mary, to save us.
Paul's Gospel to us is this: You are no longer a slave to sin. You are able to resist it. And you are able to resist it not of your own power, not by the wisdom of your own choices. You are able to resist sin by the power of God's Holy Spirit at work in you. God has sent the Spirit of his Son into your heart. You know it is so because you confess that Jesus is Lord. You know it because you, like Jesus, call God "Father."
Emmanuel has come; Emmanuel has ransomed captive Israel. God's people, be they Jews or Greeks, slave or free, male or female, are not imprisoned to forces outside themselves, forces that separate them from God and other people. In other words, faith came down at Christmas to free you from forces that ruin your life! You are not a slave to any passion or desire that promises much but undermines your relationship to God and others. Yes, you will always know what it means to face difficulties and trials and temptations; yes, you will from time to time say things you regret and do things you should not. But you will be able to resist saying things you regret and doing things you should not. When the fullness of time came, and God sent his Son, he sent Jesus to redeem you from such slavery.
I am sure that the year 2011 will go down in history as one in which enslaving tyrants were brought down from their thrones. The year ended with Kim Jong Il going to his death, and the rest of the world reminded just how surreal was his grip over his people. We saw mass displays of grief among people who had lived behind iron walls, in abject poverty, because of his evil grip on power. How is it that such tyranny persists? It must be by some combination of promise and intimidation. Evil subjugates people by persuading them that they have no other options, or no better ones. Tyrants create fear and confusion, so that subjects are left to conclude that only the tyrant is able to maintain order. Only the tyrant can keep the trains running, the stores open. Only the tyrant can restrain even worse evildoers.
How is it that 2011 witnessed the coming of the Arab spring? How is it that Egyptians turned out in droves to overthrow a longstanding tyrant? How is it that people who for generations had acquiesced to slavery finally said "no more"? Much has been written to answer that question, but I am not sure we need an answer. The event itself is remarkable enough, and the movements in Libya and Syria demonstrate that there is no blueprint for nations being freed from tyranny. My interest this morning is in what such historical movements teach us about sin's enslaving power, and God's liberating power. My interest is in our becoming wise to the ways in which sin tries to maintain its grasp on us. I am persuaded that sin, like any human tyrant, subjugates people by means of promise and intimidation. It pretends to be the only source of what you need. It also creates a certain hopelessness in us, a certain resignation that our failures are inevitable and our weakness is irremedial. It deceives us into believing that things will necessarily always be the way they are now.
For a literary example, look at the father of evil in that wonderful book and movie series, Harry Potter. He names himself Lord Voldemort for a reason. He wills to have power over the entire wizarding world. He treats his subjects with grotesque disrespect and cruelty, yet creates in them a strange loyalty. Why do they stand for it? That is a mystery, and it is an instructive one. Why does any person stand for the cruel tyranny of sin in his or her life?
Well, there are promises made by the tyrant, aren't there? Actual dictators promise to their nations order and the basic necessities of life. Voldemort promises to his subjects nearness to power and some intoxicating brand of racial pride. And in our lives, sin promises just what it is that we think we want and need. It speaks as many languages as there are persons in the world. It knows you quite well. So, for you it may not be the promise of power; it may be security. It may promise that no one will rob you or hurt you. For other people, sin may promise happiness or good feelings. Only in cartoons is sin always depicted in the obvious garb of pointy tails, horns and a pitchfork. In real life, it is far more subtle. In real life, sin looks really good to the eyes, smells good, and promises to make us look and feel really good. And no matter how good it looks at the time, it always threatens to enslave us.
Paul's Gospel is that too many people do not even realize that God has done something about sin. Too many people just assume that this is the way things are – you and I are just going to sin in this world and the only thing God can do is keep loving us and keep forgiving us.
But, you will recall that Jesus frequently forgave people and then told them, "Go, and sin no more." What did he mean by that? Was that a bad joke, or was he saying something that we have not heard?
The beauty of the Harry Potter series is that it does not try to explain away this mysterious struggle between good and evil. It vividly portrays it and it declares the ultimate victory of good over evil. Harry is the "boy who lived." Harry's victory over death is the source of hope for all who occupy the wizarding world, who do not want to be slaves to Lord Voldemort. Harry's presence emboldens others to join him in the fight against evil. There are many times when Voldemort seeks to suck every ounce of hope out of their lives, and he comes close. But something always providentially happens to push them back from the brink of despair.
Paul announces for Christmas another type of Lord, a far better lordship – a gracious rule and the wonderful freedom of God's children. Faith came down at Christmas, Paul says, to do something about the enslaving power of sin. Jesus came down not simply to be with us, though that is crucial. And Jesus came down to prove not simply that God loves us, though that, too, is crucial. Jesus came down in the fullness of time to redeem us – to rescue us from the enslaving, tyrannical power of sin. Until he did that, we were unable to resist its power. But since he did that, we are quite capable of resisting its power. Just as the Egyptians suddenly experienced the Arab Spring, the freedom that was within their grasp, so we Christians are always just a turn of the page away from the freedom that Christ won for us – our own personal and communal spring.
It is true of each of us, and it is true of us collectively. Sin may have lied to you for years, and said that there is nothing really that you can do about your conflicted relationships. And so, you have persisted in anger and jealousy, in criticism and arguing. But Paul says, "In the fullness of time, God his sent his Son" to free you from this. The ability to confess that Jesus is Lord, that he is risen from the dead, is the seal of this. The Spirit enables you to confess Jesus; and if you are able to confess Jesus, then you are no slave to anger and jealousy, criticism and arguing. Neither is any of us a slave to any other sin, whatever unholy behavior persists in our lives, preying upon our fears and desires, separating us from God and others.
Now, the point is not that we will never sin again. If you want a sports analogy, the struggle against sin is like a competition. The point is not total domination. You won't win against sin 100-0. You will struggle with sin, and sometimes you will lose. But you will win the game. And it matters if you choose to play or to sit on the bench. It matters if you contest the game or if you say, "I have no chance, so I'm just going to accept defeat." If you play, you will win. If you struggle, you will defeat evil.
If you want a non-sports analogy, the victory over sin's dominion is like wellness. You have been sick in the past, and the Great Physician has healed you. The germs are still out there, ready to attack your immune system. And, from time to time, you will get sick. But it is not a sickness unto death. And you are not fated to get sick every winter. The Holy Spirit is a powerful force at work in you for wellness – for strength against evil's intimidations and promises.
It is worth saying that no wily promise, no matter how enticing, is worth rejecting the inheritance given to the children of God. No sin, no matter how satisfying, is worth forsaking your inheritance. Keep trusting the power of the Holy Spirit at work in you. Resist the enslaving lies of sin. It is, after all, far better to be a child of God than a slave to sin. Anyone who prays "Our Father," can be confident of that.
The world waited a long time for this child to be born, and he was. Emmanuel did come to us, and has ransomed us. Faith came down at Christmas. Keep listening to that song. If you hear the message enough, you will find yourself noticing the providence of God. If you hear this enough – "God has done something about sin's power" – you will discover God showing up in your life just when you begin to resign yourself to slavery. I cannot explain how it works; it is a mystery that will remain a mystery. I can just say that it is true. You are free. Your personal spring can begin at any moment. Your family's spring can begin at any moment. The church's spring can emerge suddenly, like shoots from bulbs that even now, sleep in the winter soil.
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