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When The Time Had Fully Come . . .


Galatians 4:3-7


I: — “We were slaves to the elemental spirits of the universe.” The apostle Paul reminds the Christians in Galatia United Church that at one time they were slaves to the elemental spirits of the universe. They were. They are no longer.

What about us in Streetsville United Church? Were we ever slaves to these spirits? Are we now? What are the “elemental spirits”, anyway?

At one time the Greek word “elemental spirits”, STOICHEIA meant the alphabet, “A,B,C…” By extension “A,B,C…” came to mean “the ABCs”; the ABCs of anything at all. The ABCs of baseball are the most basic aspects of baseball, the first principles, the rudiments — as with sewing or music-making or arithmetic. The ABCs are the basic information about anything, the elements of anything, the sort of thing children learn in elementary school.

By the “elemental spirits of the universe” Paul means the most basic understanding of how the universe operates.

Think of bodily health. “Eat well-balanced meals. Wash your hands frequently. Avoid excessive fat in your diet.” The most elemental stuff. Living by it won’t turn you into a super-athlete or a beauty contest winner. Living by it doesn’t mean you are extraordinarily virtuous. Living by merely helps you survive.

Think of social situations. “Don’t criticize the boss so as to make him lose face. Don’t criticize your parents-in-law at any time. Don’t wear a Hallowe’en mask into a bank.” Observing these principles merely lets us survive socially.

The STOICHEIA, the elemental principles of the universe, are the principles by which order is maintained in the universe. These elemental spirits, the ABCs of life, facilitate survival, but no more than survival.


Yet there is a second meaning to STOICHEIA, the elemental spirits of the universe. In the ancient world the STOICHEIA were also the forces that course through everyone’s life, the forces that shape us socially, psychologically, politically. These forces determine eversomuch about how we think, what we expect, how we react, what we do.

Think about me. I am a male. That means my thinking, my reacting, the social possibilities open to me are ever so largely determined by the centuries old force of patriarchy. The fact that I am a male also means that I must nowadays contend with the force of aggressive feminism.

I am also an affluent westerner. This fact forces me into the strictest mould as surely as the impoverished Arab is forced into his mould and the Communist Chinese peasant is forced into her mould.

The forces that shape us as they compress us and constrict us are legion. These forces too are part of what is meant by the “elemental spirits of the universe”.


The apostle Paul, in his customary terseness, states that all humankind is in bondage to these spirits. These spirits — whether the mechanisms that let us survive but no more than survive, or whether the forces surging over us at all times — these forces don’t merely shape us. They limit us. They restrict us, constrict us, confine us. They defy that “abundant life” which Jesus insists is alone worth calling “life”.


II: — We should have been in bondage forever except — except that God sent forth his Son at Christmas. “When the time had fully come”, Paul writes, “God sent forth his Son.”

Immediately the apostle adds that this Son was “born of woman, born under the law”. “Born of woman” means that Jesus is genuinely human, not merely apparently human. “Born under the law” means he shares our frustration, our futility, our self-contradiction, our condemnation.

Our frustration, futility, self-contradiction and condemnation? Is this our predicament in addition to our bondage to the elemental spirits? Not only are we compressed suffocatingly by the forces all around us; we are condemned as well! How did this happen?

It all has to do with the law. The law has to do with the claim of God upon us. The claim of God upon us has issued somehow in the worst form of enslavement: a condemnation before God that we cannot escape.

The law is the claim of God. Think of the claim or command of God that we commonly call the eighth commandment, “Thou shalt not steal”. (We could have selected any command of God to illustrate our point, but the eighth commandment will do.)

The commandment of God is spoken to us for our blessing; it is meant to promote our freedom. Yet in the moment of hearing the command of God we who are fallen creatures hear it with ears and hearts that pervert it instantly. To be sure, we hear it said we are not to steal and therefore we don’t steal. Good. Yet even as we don’t steal we glory in our self-congratulation.

We don’t steal. And isn’t fine that we aren’t like those disgusting wretches who do steal!

We don’t steal. No wonder we thank God we aren’t like those weak, self-deluded, irresponsible people who deserve everything they bring down upon themselves.

We don’t steal. Little wonder we exalt ourselves and despise others. In despising others we hate them (“hate” in the biblical sense of the word, the only sense that matters before God). In hating our fellow-creature s we blind ourselves to our own spiritual condition. After all, aren’t they obviously depraved where we are transparently exemplary?

We glow over the fact that we don’t steal. Our glowing puffs up into gloating. And our gloating, now pridefully stupid, voices itself in boasting. Boasters now, we tell God (albeit usually unconsciously) that it’s a good thing he got his act together at Christmas and sent forth his Son. He got his act together just in time for all those wretches who need a special Christmas present just because they are spiritual underachievers and require extra help. Achievers like us, on the other hand, don’t need gifts; we’ll be content with recognition!

We don’t steal. We are extraordinary achievers. Our accomplishment is that we have seemingly honoured the eighth commandment. But in our swollen, sin-blinded conceit we have profoundly dishonoured the command of God as a whole. For in “honouring” the eighth commandment in our perverse way we have dishonoured the command of God concerning our neighbour; we have also dishonoured the command of God enunciated in the first commandment: that we have no gods before him. Plainly, we are our own god. We are the measure of everyone, including ourselves.

Then what have we finally accomplished? We haven’t accomplished what we set out to achieve. We set out to keep the eighth commandment and therein justify ourselves before God; justify ourselves as those who do not need him and shouldn’t have to bother with him. We set out to justify ourselves before God, yet have managed only to condemn ourselves before God. After all, as Martin Luther pointed out tirelessly, the first commandment — that we have no god but God himself — is the first. The first commandment (it controls all others, Luther reminds us) is that we place our faith in God, honouring him for his truth, wisdom, patience, and mercy. Mercy? We don’t need his mercy; we don’t steal! Faith is a prop for those who need help. We don’t need help. How many times do we have to tell the world that we don’t steal? Luther, of course, insists the claim of God finally is a claim on our heart, on our devotion, our faith, our trust, our gratitude — not merely a claim on middleclass, suburban moral nicety. But what does Luther know?

The truth is, Luther’s heart beats in time with the heart of the Hebrew prophets, in time with the heart of that Hebrew who is more than a prophet. Our achievement is that we don’t steal. Our accomplishment is that we stand condemned before God, in desperate need of the Christmas gift we think to be a prop for those weaker than we. Our attempted self-justification before God has accomplished our self-condemnation before God.

“When the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law.” We already knew that our lives were shrivelled inasmuch as we are in bondage to the elemental spirits of the universe. We thought that the Christmas gift was going to do something for us about that. But the Christmas gift, the Son given to us, has made us aware that our predicament before God is infinitely worse. It’s bad enough to be enslaved by the elemental spirits; it’s worse to be condemned before God. The bad news about us is getting worse.


III: — But the news at Christmas is good, good without qualification. God has sent forth his Son ultimately not to acquaint us with the bad news about ourselves. God has sent forth his Son in order to redeem those under the law.

The Oxford English Dictionary has many meanings for “redeem”, but in the dictionary that supplies Paul’s meaning (the Hebrew bible) there is only one meaning: to redeem is to release those in bondage. God’s purpose in the gift of Christmas is to release us from the confines of the elemental spirits and from the condemnation of the law.

We are released as Jesus Christ draws us into his own life. As our Lord draws us into his own life, the life he lives in us frees us from the stifling confines of the elemental spirits. To be sure, we never get away from them entirely (the health rules still apply), but the life he lives in us can never be reduced to something so minimalist.

Yes, I am still a male with a history of patriarchy behind me, but I know the apostle to be correct when he says that in Christ Jesus there is now neither male nor female: the abyss between patriarchy and feminism has been bridged.

As our Lord draws us into his own life, the life he lives in us renders us different; and different just because what he brings us the world can never generate of itself, and what he gives us the world can never take away by itself. Who we profoundly are, what we are henceforth to be about, where we are headed ultimately, how rich our future is to be; all of this is ours upon our release; all of this is ours as we abandon our attempted self-justification and receive the Christmas gift whose forgiveness justifies us before his Father.


“Too abstract”, someone complains, “it’s all so very abstract.” No, it’s not. There is nothing at all abstract about the deepest-down, visceral experience. A textbook on the neurophysiology of pain is abstract; but a broken baby finger, or a broken baby toe, a tiny broken bone that hurts beyond words to describe the pain, is not abstract at all. Freud’s psychoanalytic explanation of humour is abstract; but the person doubled over, laughing at a good joke, does not find humour abstract at all.

A treatise on the theological notion of adoption or sonship (same word in Greek) is abstract, but not the experience of being so intimately drawn into God’s life that the cry, “Father”, is pulled out of us spontaneously. Listen to the apostle once more. “God sent forth his Son…so that we might receive adoption as sons…. God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts crying, ‘Abba, Father’.” It’s not that Jesus Christ frees us from the elemental spirits of the universe and frees again from an attempted self-justification and its accomplished self-condemnation in order to give us an abstract lecture on the Fatherhood of God. He frees us from all of this in order that we become sons and daughters of God, only to find ourselves unable to help crying out, “Father, my father!”

Paul maintains that God’s children can’t help the spontaneous cry — in precisely the same way that a person in pain can’t help wincing, the person tickled by a good joke can’t help laughing (have you ever tried to stifle laughter? The very attempt gives you away!), the person bereaved and grief-stricken can’t help weeping (it’s a sign that we are sane!). And, says the apostle those adopted into the household and family of God as their elder brother, Jesus, hugs them and they hug him back (faith!); all who are “at home” with their Father; we find our hearts swelling inside us and find ourselves unable to stifle the cry, “Abba, Father.”

“Abba”. It’s an Aramaic word (Aramaic being a Hebrew dialect that people spoke every day in Palestine). The New Testament is written in Greek. Why wasn’t this Aramaic word translated into Greek along with thousands of other Aramaic words? Because the twelve who lived most intimately with Jesus overheard him crying, “Abba”, when he was at prayer. The intimacy he knew with his Father he has bequeathed to his followers. Since our experience reflects his, our vocabulary should reflect his — said the writers of the NT. And so this Aramaic word was left untranslated in a Greek testament.

“Abba”. It’s an Aramaic word that was never used of God prior to the coming of Jesus. The word was used only by a child affectionately of his father; the word expresses immense affection without a hint of disrespect. The word expresses intimacy and warmth without a hint of mushiness. This word is used of someone whom we should always trust yet whom we could never presume upon; someone before whom we should be glad to unburden ourselves yet whom we should dread to trifle with. This word is used of someone whom we know to cherish us, yet whom we also know never to indulge us; someone before whom we can always blurt out our need or pain or confession of sin yet before whom we could never be flippant. This word describes the deepest-down experience of God’s children who have pleaded with their Father for centuries yet always shrink from impertinence.

This word — “Abba, Father” — is the spontaneous cry of someone who loves him on whose knee we can sit and whose heart we can hear beat, even as we know we cannot manipulate him and don’t care to try. This cry is torn out of us when we are most intimate with our Father who continues to favour us yet whose favour we can never curry.

Do we use this word just because we know that Jesus used of it of his Father and we think it’s a good idea to imitate our Lord?

No child of God imitates Jesus. We aren’t copy-cats. Rather, we are sons and daughters whom the Son has brought to his Father. We don’t imitate our Lord. We stand so close to him in faith that the intimacy he knows with his Father we are allowed to enjoy as well.

There is nothing abstract about all of this. This is concrete, real, vital, visceral. This is undeniable experience as much as laughter and grief and pain and joy are undeniable experience.


IV: — “When the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son.”

To do what? To free us from the elemental spirit and also to free us from our self-condemnation under the law.

How did the Son do this? By rendering us sons and daughters through faith.

What is the outcome of our adoption? We are possessed of that abundant life which can never be restricted to or reduced to those cramped confines amounting to enslavement.

What evidence is there that this is the truth about me? He who sent forth his Son at Christmas, says the apostle, has also sent forth the Spirit of his Son, so that we whom he makes sons and daughters cry out, “Abba, Father”, as he did before us, Son that he is upon whom the Father’s favour rests.


Is all of this too heavy for Christmas eve? For what other reason could God have sent forth his Son, the Bethlehem babe? For no other reason has he.


                                                                                          Victor A. Shepherd                                            

Christmas 1994

God Sent Forth His Son”