There’s lots to like at this time of year: traditions, time with family, time off work, and of course, remembering the birth of Jesus Christ. But there’s also a lot not to like: shopping, crowds, stress, too much food.
This may be a surprise, but some of us pastors find it stressful to preach at Christmas. I’ve preached at least forty Christmas messages. I think I’ve covered all the stories. I’ve probably said everything profound about Christmas that I’m going to say. It’s hard to do justice to such a significant story.
So for this past year, I’ve been collecting passages of Scripture from the New Testament that talk about Christmas – not the story of Christmas we’re all used to (shepherds, magi), but the story behind the story. I want to look for a few weeks at the back-story of Christmas, by looking at some passages that we don’t usually consider Christmas passages – but they are.
If you have a Bible, open it to Galatians 4 with me. Today’s story is about growing up. Every parent dreams about the day that their child is going to grow up. Babies are cute, but it would get a little tiring if babies stayed babies forever. Even kids can’t wait to grow up. They dream about getting jobs, working, what they’re going to do when they become adults. We tell them to enjoy being kids, but they can’t wait until they’re all grown up.
Somewhere, sometime, our kids pass from being children to adults. The marker’s different for all of us – sometimes it’s graduation, buying a car, moving out, getting married. I knew that I had become an adult when something significant happened in my relationship with my mother. She spent a huge amount of energy when I was a kid trying to get me to do dishes. Now, I go to visit her and she spends a huge amount of energy trying to stop me from doing dishes. Somehow I’ve become a guest in her home. That’s a marker that I’ve passed to adulthood.
Today’s story is rooted in a time in which growing up had great significance in society, religion, and the law.
For instance, in Judaism a boy passed from adolescence to manhood shortly after his twelfth birthday, at which time he became “a son of the law.”
In the Greek world the minor came of age later, at about eighteen, but there was the same emphasis on an entering into full responsibility as an adult. At this age, at the festival of the Apatouria, the child passed from the care of his father to the care of the state and was responsible to it.
Roman society was different. In Roman society, the father decided when a child would become an adult. Every year, on March 17, Romans held a festival called the Liberalia. At this feast, if the father thought his son was ready, he would be formally adopted by the father as his acknowledged son and heir. He would receive new clothes, called toga virilis. After this ceremony, the son was considered to have come of age. He had new rights, new responsibilities. You can imagine the kids wondering as March 17 approached if this would be the year they would become adults.
Paul’s about to paint a word picture of our relationship with God using the concept of growing up – passing from a period of childhood to adulthood in the eyes of God.
The story begins in Galatians 4:1-2: “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. He is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father” (NIV).
The picture here is of a very small child who is heir of a big estate. As long as he’s a child, though, he’s essentially no different from a slave in the eyes of the law. He can’t make decisions. He has no freedom. He’s subject to what his guardians and trustees say, until he reaches the age at which his father decides that he’s an adult.
Paul uses this as a picture of our condition before Christmas, before Jesus came to earth. He says, “And that’s the way it was with us before Christ came. We were slaves to the spiritual powers of this world” (Galatians 4:3). The word Paul uses for “spiritual powers” is hard to understand. It literally means elements. Some people think he’s talking about the elements that people understood then: earth, air, fire, and water. That’s a lot easier than the table of elements that we use today. People believed in gods for each of the elements. Paul’s talking about people’s spiritual beliefs in gods that don’t even exist – wrong religious understandings.
Then Paul explains what God did to change this situation, in an absolutely amazing verse. “But when the right time came, God sent his Son [fully God], born of a woman [fully human], subject to the law [God promised to act within Israel]” (Galatians 4:4).
I love the phrase, “when the right time came.” It’s as if God were like a father who saw March 17 coming and said, “It’s time. It’s time that my kids received their rights. It’s time that they received the full privileges of being my children.” This was the time that God sovereignly chose to act.
But it was also the right time in another sense. God had been preparing the historical and cultural conditions of that age to be the perfect time for his Son to arrive. We think we live in a time of rapid change and innovation. The world at that time had experienced a technical and social revolution that made it perfect for Jesus to come to earth. The world was united under Roman rule – something called pax Romana, Roman peace. Roads lined the Roman empire, making travel and commerce possible in a way that hadn’t been before. The world spoke a common language – Greek – making communication much easier. On top of all this, people were spiritually hungry. Time could not have been better for God to send his son – Jesus at just the right time
Why did Jesus come? This is the purpose behind Christmas: “God sent him to buy freedom for us who were slaves to the law, so that he could adopt us as his very own children” (Galatians 4:5). God intervened in history to change our relationship with him. He redeemed us. This means that he came to buy us out of slavery. We were slaves either to the religious law (as Jews), or to wrong religious understandings. Jesus came to buy us out of this slavery.
Jesus also came so God could adopt us, move us into his family, with all the rights of being his children. Romans 8:17 describes us this way: “heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ.”
In verse 6, Paul moves all the way from the birth of Christ to the Day of Pentecost, in which the Holy Spirit was given to the church: “Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father.'” God’s given us the Holy Spirit, so we can experience what Jesus has already made us – his children, in an intimate relationship with God. “Calls out” here is like a cry of anguish. It’s like when my son gets hurt – he comes running to me. I’m always sorry he gets hurt, but I’m also glad that I’m the one he’s running to. Paul gives us the picture of God’s children crying out to him, running to him, calling him by the most intimate term of fatherhood.
Because Jesus came, at just the right time, we’re his children, his heirs.
The story of Christmas is of God saying to his Son, “It’s time. It’s not only the right time in history, it’s also time to set my children free from bondage and obligation. It’s time for them to become my full-fledged children, to receive my inheritance.”
Two applications for us today. The first is for those of us who are waiting. You may be single and waiting for marriage. You may be waiting and hoping for children. You may be stuck in a job you can’t wait to get out of. You may be in a tough marriage, and you’re just waiting for things to get better. I know as pastor, I’m always impatient for things to happen faster with church. For those of us who are waiting, sometimes impatiently, here’s the first application: God is the God of perfect timing. “When the right time came…” God is always the God of perfect timing.
Here’s the second a pplication. The whole reason for Christmas is this: God wants you to be his child. God wants that kind of relationship with you. He wants you to experience the intimacy, the privileges, that come from being his child. “Now you are no longer a slave but God’s own child. And since you are his child, everything he has belongs to you” (Galatians 4:7).
Thanks that you are the God of perfect timing.
Thanks for sending your Son – that the purpose of Christmas is that we could be your children, in a new relationship with you.