I had a class on preaching once, many years ago, from a pastor and a professor. And here is what he argued was the key question the preacher must ask of every text of Scripture:
“What is the specific dimension of the human condition which God is seeking to redemptively address through his Word?”
Often, that is harder to answer than it appears. And not only to answer it myself, but then to help a gathered congregation see that specific dimension of their condition, and then come alongside the Holy Spirit and do surgery on their heart, and mind, and life—to change and transform bit by bit into the image of Christ.
I was talking about this very thing with one of our church members, John Skanse, one afternoon this week. He also pointed this out, that it is really hard to get people to do this kind of heart work. We don’t want to, precisely because it is so difficult.
And there is another reason finding that specific dimension of the human condition is so difficult: because each one of us has such different experiences and life stories and powerfully shaping influences.
And yet, there is something God is addressing through Paul in his letter to the people of Galatia, something common to the human condition, common to all humanity, despite all our differences. Something that was true for the people of Galatia thousands of years ago—in all their massive differences brought about by being Jew and Gentile—and true for all of us, in all our differences in the year 2019.
Namely, Paul writes that all humanity is part of an “evil age” (1:4).
And this is where we must always start with the good news: before you are really ready to hear how good it is, you have to open your mind to understand how bad our situation is, and why we need rescue in the first place.
Christians understand that the world is falling apart. That everything is falling apart, because the world is under the burden of sin. And so are we: all of us born into this present evil age are slaves to evil, we are evil ourselves—“there is none righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10)—and thus under condemnation.
As Americans, we don’t want to believe this, for we believe that we are born into freedom, not slavery. But Paul’s message, the message of the Bible, the message of God, is that we are not born free. We are evil people born into an evil age, and it is evil because there are elemental spirits and forces within this world that have enslaved us. You see, when you do not know God, when you have not been transformed by the Father through faith in his Son Jesus, born again by the regenerating work of the Spirit, then “…you [are] enslaved to those that by nature are not gods.” (cf. Galatians 4:1f).
And the issue is: how do we get truly free? How do we get free from the enslavement of sin which leads to death? How do we step into the light of acceptance and grace and love and forgiveness and peace and confidence? How do we feel truly good about ourselves? What are we supposed to believe about how that happens? What do we trust in?
Are we going to visit the self-help section of our local bookstore to discover some set of rules and guidelines—a kind of self-constructed law, one created by another enslaved person—to try and break free from all the harmful behaviors we seem destined to keep repeating? Are you going to trust in yourself? In your ability? Your power to make a new life, a better life, a better version of you come about?
I ask you, if you are here this morning, and have been attempting that—how has that been working out?
Friends, what Paul is on about in this letter is that he came to Galatia with news. With an announcement of what and who to believe in. A power, not of humanity, but a divine power that can set—and keep—people free from their enslavements. A power that sets loose new living, new life, new creation. This is not an adjustment, not a tweaking; this is a re-making. A transformation.
And what is most fundamental to this news is that there isn’t any part of it that can be done by you, for you don’t have any power to free yourself as an enslaved person. It has to be done to you and for you. In other words, it is an act of grace, borne out of divine love. A love more deep and more vast than human minds can imagine or human tongues can possibly or adequately express.
Friends, this is what Paul is fiercely protecting, this news. And the purity and reality of this news, for real people, whom he is in anguish over. Because he knows that this news, in all its purity, and all its glory, is the only way to joy and the abundant life.
Friend—Paul wants to set you free to live by faith in the Son of God, who loves you, and gave himself for you.
May God use his Word to inspire you to help just one other person move one step closer to Jesus.
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