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FILLING UP CHRISTMAS: The Fullness of Freedom   Galatians 4:4-7

I’ve been reminded, during this Advent season leading up to Christmas, that there are two kinds of people in the world:  There are those that agree with me and are right; there are those that agree with my wife and are wrong.  I grew up watching the movie “A Christmas Story,” and I happen to think it’s a brilliant film. Not everybody agrees with me.  There’s one scene in this movie that makes me laugh every time I see it.  {Ryan plays scene where Ralphie’s overly dressed little brother falls in the snow and can’t get up.}  How many of you have felt like that at some point in time?  I can’t get up!  I’m too bundled up.  I’ve got too much going on.  I think if we’re honest, we all come to that place at some point in our life where we go life feels cumbersome.  There’s a lot of weight to carry.  There’s a lot of things going on.  Sometimes they wrap us up in such a way that we can’t get up.

Last year, I decided to read a book that my English required I read and I never did!  Shhh!  It’s called The Grapes of Wrath.  Written by John Steinbeck in 1939, it’s about a family that lives in Oklahoma during the dustbowls.  They decide to move and leave because their land is depleted and their lives are depleted.  The book is about their journey on the way to California.  They have this hope that when they get to California it’s going to be greener pastures, it’s going to be a better life.  There are signs along the way in the gas stations, and there’s this hope that when they get to THAT place, eventually they’ll be able to get up.  Eventually they’ll be able to live.  Eventually they’ll find some sort of satisfaction, some sort of pleasure, some sort of freedom.  If you’ve read the book, what you know is that when they get there it’s like chasing the wind.  It’s an allusive mist that they try to grab.  They wind up feeling just as empty as when they left.  I got to the end of the book and thought I think this book is so popular because it’s well written, number one, but it’s the human story in a lot of ways, isn’t it?  We leave one place that doesn’t satisfy, in order to go to greener pastures and quiet waters, and it ends up just leaving us wanting.

A few weeks ago, I had a friend recommend a book to me entitled The Coddling of the American Mind.  The subtitle, written just this year, reads How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation For Failure.  How good intentions, but bad ideas, are setting up an entire generation for failure.  Here’s what the author sort of put their finger on:  It doesn’t matter how good our intentions are, if our ideas are bad.  It doesn’t matter how good our heart is, if we’re walking down the wrong path.  We can have the best intentions in the world, but if our actions don’t align with reality, we can find ourselves in a place that’s pretty painful and pretty broken and in want, can’t we?  When we thought we were leaving a place to go to someplace that was better, we find ourselves lying on the ground saying, “I can’t get up!”  Ralphie! I can’t get up!

Dallas Willard said it like this: “Reality is what we run into when we find out we’re wrong.”  That’s true, isn’t it?  When we find out we’re wrong, that can be a fairly painful discovery, can’t it?  When I find out that the way that I’m approaching the relationship just isn’t going to get me what I want, that’s a painful discovery.  When I find out the way that I’m pacifying my pain actually leads to addiction, that’s a painful discovery.  When I find out that the job, even though I got it, doesn’t fulfill that longing in my soul, that’s a painful discovery, isn’t it?  Did you know there’s an entire book in the Scriptures about THIS idea?  It’s called the book of Ecclesiastes.  Solomon calls it a “chasing after the wind.”  I think some of us find ourselves there this morning.  We’ve gone down some different pathways and they’ve led to dead ends.  We’ve left the proverbial dustbowl, but we’ve ended up in a place where we go I’m not exactly sure how I got here, and I’m not exactly sure what to do with it.

It’s interesting because the season of Christmas speaks into this profound truth that every human soul longs for.  If you have your Bible, open with me to Galatians 4.  It’s where we’ve been camping out over the last few weeks in our Advent series that we’re calling “Filling Up Christmas.”  We all have a tendency to fill up Christmas, the question is: Are the things we fill Christmas with leaving us full or leaving us empty?  We’ve been journeying with the Apostle Paul as he writes to this church at Galatia.  Listen to what he says (Galatians 4:4-7) — But when the fullness of time had come, {Stop there.  If you were here a few weeks ago, what you maybe remember is that God gives a promise that he’s going to send a Messiah then he waits a few thousand years to deliver.  There was a lot of time that was unfulfilled before there was time that was full.  We said that Advent is really about waiting.  It’s about entering into a season where we discipline our hearts to wait well.}  God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.  {Remember, we said that God came as a child to dwell that we might become children of God.}  And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”  {If you were here last week, you might remember that we said God came to dwell among us so that he might ultimately dwell within us. Then he says this, which will be the final message in our series “Filling Up Christmas.”}  So  {It’s his ‘therefore’ statement because all of this is true.}  you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. 

It’s really interesting because Paul is a sort of savant when it comes to freedom.  He writes about it more than any other New Testament author.  I think that Galatians is sort of his magnum opus on freedom.  He mentions it ten times in this little, short letter alone.  More times than he mentions it in any other letter.  I think if we were to sort of distill this into one succinct statement, we might say something like this:  The incarnation frees us from incarceration.  Or—because it was in my notes before I thought of that—we might say:  Jesus came under the system of the law that we might walk freely in love.  

What’s the incarnation ultimately about?  Well, Paul says it’s so that you can know that you’re no longer a slave, but that you are a son.  My mind, almost immediately, went back to June 23, 2018, this year, when the nations (not only our nation) all focused on thirteen boys stuck in a cave in Thailand.  Do you remember this?  Do you remember tuning in almost every day, knowing that these thirteen boys—a soccer team that had gone on this adventure—had been pinned in a cave three-and-a-half miles back inside?  I didn’t really get it, I had to read up on it again just to be reminded of it.  Do you remember wondering how in the world that actually happened?  Three-and-a-half miles from freedom.  Then Elon Musk got involved.  He tried to develop some sort of submarine.  Eventually, TWO WEEKS later, thirteen boys rescued!  I don’t know if you remember the feeling of going no way!  They got every single one of them out.  It was as if the collective cheer of all the nations joined in and went, “YES!  We did it!”  I think Christmas is due for a collective cheer.  YES!  He’s done it!  He’s rescued us!  It wasn’t just 3.5 miles back in a little cave without food and running out of air.  It’s not just that that He’s rescued us from.  He’s rescued us from the cosmic enemies of sin and death and He has freed us to walk in newness of life, the Apostle Paul will say.

It’s really interesting, many of us know that Jesus has come and we know that He’s brought freedom, but we live like Ralphie’s brother on the ground, don’t we?  I wonder if maybe just a re-examining of what Paul means when he says we’ve been set free.  Free FROM what?  Free FOR what?  Galatians 4:1-3 — I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father.  {Paul’s painting the picture of somebody who’s the heir to royalty.  That has everything at their fingertips, but isn’t of an age where they can actually enjoy that because their parents have some wisdom, right?  You’re not allowed to touch that until some certain time.  It’s all yours, but you can’t enjoy all the benefits of it until you hit a certain age.  What the Apostle Paul says is that’s exactly what the law was like.  It was a tutor.  It was intended to teach us and lead us to the point where eventually we’d be able to enjoy the freedom that we would be brought.  Verse 3.}  In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world.  {Jump down to verse 8, because Paul’s going to continue this thought.}  Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods.  But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?  You observe days and months and seasons and years!  I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.

Here’s what Paul is doing.  He starts off by talking about the Old Testament law, saying it was good but it wasn’t the end.  It was good, but it was a tutor.  But then, he says, okay, that type of thinking has enslaved you to those who by nature are not gods.  He’s going somewhere along the line this didn’t become neutral, it became evil.  It became even demonic, that’s what Paul says.  The Old Testament law was revealed by God and it was good, but Paul’s point is that when we use the law for that which it wasn’t intended for, it actually turns on us and becomes like a pagan religion.  Like we’re doing some sort of incantation.  Some sort of magic.  Some sort of way to get God to do what we want.  The Old Testament law was always intended to help us identify sin.  It wasn’t intended to help us prevent it.  It’s interesting because J.C. Ryle, the great pastor, said it like this:  “A painting of a fire cannot warm, and a painted banquet cannot satisfy hunger, and a formal religion cannot bring peace to the soul.”

Will you look up at me for just a moment?  I believe that the greatest danger to our freedom of life with God is not atheism, and it’s not secularism, it’s religion.  That’s what Paul’s saying.  What his anthem is all throughout Galatians is that we have freedom from legalism.  If you want a definition of it, legalism is simply the belief that I can earn favor with God based on my behavior.  And we’re hardwired for it.  If you’ve been here every single Sunday for the last umpteen years, let’s just ALL take a step back and go we might be in danger of this.  Because it’s just so normal.  It’s just the pattern of the world we live in.

I read an article from the New York Times, this week, that said depression rates amongst high schoolers are higher than they’ve ever been.  There’s some research they started to do to answer the question why?  What’s going on?  Why have we seen, since 2010, this massive spike in depression amongst high school students?  Here’s what the researchers said.  “More high school students are struggling with depression than ever before.  The question is why?  For many of these young people, the biggest single stressor is that they never get to the point where they can say, ‘I’ve done enough and now I can stop.’  No, there’s always one more activity, one more A.P. class, one more thing to do in order to get into a top college.  Kids have a sense that they’re not measuring up.  The pressure is relentless and getting worse.”  I read that and went well, that sounds a lot like what you hear in church sometimes—it’s never enough!  Never adds up.  More, more, more, more, more….THEN God will be okay with you.  Which, friends, IS, by definition, legalism.  That’s what it is.  God will be okay with me when.  God will be okay with me if.  What Paul wants to do is say there will be no freedom where there is legalism.  What Jesus did is he steps into the system of the law that we might be free to walk in love.

I don’t know if you caught this, but he says, listen, you’ve been turning back to observing special days and months and seasons and years.  Is anybody thinking to themselves what I’m thinking to myself?  Isn’t that what we’re doing here?!?  Isn’t that what we’re going to do tomorrow?  We’re going to observe a day.  If you’re thinking that, let me put your mind at ease.  Paul is talking about maybe worshipping on a certain day of the week and thinking well now, now, I’m good.  Celebrating a certain feast and going well, now God is happy.  What he’s talking about is not celebrating, but a transaction.  If I do this, then God’s okay.  Then God’s like well, that Paulson guy was a total tool, but now…..now that he’s celebrating Christmas, it’s good.

So lean in for a moment, because the lie of legalism always tells us that there’s just a little bit more to do until God’s okay.  It’s that famous Rockefeller quote, “How much money will be enough?” and he responds, “Just a little bit more.”  God, when will we be okay with you?  Just a little bit more.  Lean in.  There is nothing left for you to earn from God.  NOTHING!  Not one thing.  If you’re going, Paulson, prove it to me, gladly.  Ephesians 1:3 — Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing.    EVERY!  That’s a lot.  How many is left outside of every?  NOTHING!  There is nothing left to earn from God.  Quiet time.  Bible reading.  Prayer.  Acts of justice.  Caring for the poor.  Giving to the Food Bank.  Signing up to serve for Christmas Eve services.  Having experiences with God in worship.  Those are all wonderful, those are all great, but God’s not keeping score, you guys.  He’s not keeping score any longer.  No, no, no, no, pagan religions seek to appease God by the things that they do; followers of Jesus know, as Paul says, they are known by God and they know God.

If that’s true, if we’re free from having to earn anything from God, because He’s freely given it all, let me just tell you two things that are beautiful and true of your life right now.  If there’s nothing left to earn, God can freely enter.  He can enter the mess.  He can enter the pain.  What religion wants to tell us is if we get ourselves together enough, then God will come and then God will enter.  Religion wants to tell us if we get pretty enough and sort of put on our Sunday best, THEN, then we meet with God.   What Christmas tells us and what Jesus declares is I love the manger, the dirt, the stable, the imperfect.  I’m not coming to the palace, I’m coming to the cave, in your life and in mine.  If there’s nothing left to earn, God can freely enter.  The second thing is if there’s nothing left to earn, we can stop striving and start enjoying.  We can stop striving and start enjoying.  I love this picture of the prodigal son who goes away and comes home.  His dad’s not like okay, here’s the hoops you’ve got to jump through.  If we’re going to be okay, here’s what you’ve got to do.  No, no, no, no, he Christmases him.  He runs and meets him on the road, right?  Pulls up his coat and runs and meets him.  Wraps him in his coat, puts a ring on his finger and says come on, let’s dance, let’s sing, let’s party.  It’s no coincidence that the kingdom of God is described as a feast, as a celebration, as a party.  What I’d love for you to hear this morning is that Jesus invites us to hear the music of grace, to let our hair down, to rest in his love, and to dance.  Even if things around us feel like they’re a little bit of a mess.  Amen?  

We’re free from legalism, which is such a great Christmas reminder for churchy people, like me.  But Paul doesn’t stop there, that’s not the only thing that he says we’re free from.  He goes on in Galatians 5:13.  He’s unpacked this freedom from legalism—to think that we’re right with God based on what we do—and then he goes there’s another side to this coin too.  For you were called to freedom, brothers.  Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh…  So what is Paul assuming we’re thinking?  He’s assuming we’re thinking, “Well, if I’m free…..live and let live.”  Eat, drink, tomorrow we die.  Let’s just live it up!  Let’s just feed our every natural desire that we have.  If I’m free, then I should be able to do whatever the heck I want.  It’s a similar thing to what he assumes that we’re going to be thinking if we read through the book of Romans (6:15) where he talks about how good grace is and then he says — What then?  Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace?  By no means!  Here’s what I want to point out then we’ll move forward.  If our teaching about God’s grace and mercy and the freedom we have in Him, doesn’t lead us to at least THINK, “Well, I must be able to do whatever I want,” it’s not strong enough.  That’s what Paul assumes we’ll think.  He assumes our minds would go to well then, I should be able to do whatever I want.  If we don’t have a strong enough view of grace, we’ll never get there.  Because he believes that’s where we’ll go, he steers us back just a little bit and goes no, no, no, you’re not suppose to use your freedom for YOUR sake alone.  You’re suppose to use it in order to serve and love.  Let me rewind a second.  The problem with doing whatever the heck we want is that it doesn’t actually bring us freedom.  That leaves us, like Ralphie’s brother, on the snow….I can’t get up.

If you were to go back and read the ancients on what it is that brings the human soul freedom, here’s the way Plato would have described it.  Plato, in his work Republic, described freedom as the rule of reason over the soul unimpeded by desire.  He’s suggesting that real freedom is the ability to step back enough from our natural desires to say will this lead me to life.  Will this lead me to life?  His claim was that real freedom was the ability to say no to some of the desires we have because they are not best.  He summarizes by saying, “An individual is free when his/her reasoning rules their soul in line with the Good.”  But something happened in the 17th-18th century, during the Enlightenment.  We started to redefine freedom.  Freedom didn’t become the ability to choose what’s best and the ability to choose what’s good.  Freedom was defined then as being free from anything that was oppressive that would tell me what I had to do in certain situations.  So, if the church tells me what to do that’s not real, true freedom.  Regardless of whether or not it’s good and regardless of whether or not it’s best.  If a government tells me what to do it’s not real true freedom.  The only problem with that is we all know that freedom requires limits.  So the Shawn Mendes song, There’s Nothing Holding Me Back…….that’s our anthem of freedom these days, but we all know that’s not true.  For other kids to be free on the playground at Runyon, Reid Paulson cannot be allowed to punch everybody in the face.  That’s a tough lesson to learn for a little five-year-old.  For us to be free people, those who abuse others need to be locked up.  For us to be free on the road, we need people who have a propensity to drink and drive not to have a driver’s license.  For us to be free, we need age restrictions on some activities and limits on things, don’t we?

So Paul says this:  We have freedom from legalism, but also we have freedom from licentiousness.  That’s a big word that means our natural desires.  We have freedom from the need to follow every desire and every whim.  We have freedom to step back and ask the question: Is this good?  I had a pastor friend describe it like this; I’m going to steal his verbiage because I think it’s great.  He said that freedom is the ability to choose our DEEPEST desire rather than our STRONGEST desire.  To choose our DEEPEST desire rather than our STRONGEST desire.  My strongest desire is holiday treats, I’m going to be honest with you.  My deepest desire is my health, so I’m going to start pursuing that on January 2nd.  My strongest desire is kids that like me; my deepest desire is kids who will grow up to be productive adults in the world and walk in joy.  My strongest desire is often self-protection; my deepest desire is intimacy.  My strongest desire can be lust; my deepest desire is love.  I don’t know about you, but there can be times when my strongest desire can be bitterness.  I want to hold on to this thing, I want to hold it over their head.  But man, my deepest desire, when it really comes down to it, is forgiveness, is the kingdom, is the way of Jesus.  We could probably go around the room and say my deepest desire is this, but this is often my strongest desire.  Jesus says, “I want to free you from the ability to have to follow down a road that will eventually lead you to brokenness.”  I love the way Rich Mullins put it in a song: “Surrender don’t come natural to me.  I’d rather fight you for something I don’t really want than to take what you give that I need.”   That’s what Paul’s talking about….the ability not just to fight for something we ultimately don’t want, but to open our hearts and our minds and our lives to Jesus.  

Here’s the way Paul will say it in Romans 6:4.  This is a freedom for.  So we have freedom from legalism, freedom from licentiousness, or to just follow every whim and every desire, and we have freedom for….   Here’s the way he said it:  We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.  Did you know that you have freedom, because of Christmas, because of the gift of the incarnation, from incarceration….we have freedom to live?  I’d encourage you to spend some time in Romans 6, because he wants to unpack for us how we actually live.  So much of the time we end up leaving Oklahoma to try to chase green pastures and still waters and we don’t find them.  So much of the time we end up ‘I can’t put my arms down,’ I’m enslaved to my every desire.  This addiction has its claws in me.  This anger I can’t seem to let go of.  This lust is just kicking right now.  So, how do we do that?  How do we really live?  Here’s what Paul writes (6:6-8) — We know that our old self {That self that wanted to feed every natural desire.} was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.  For one who has died has been set free from sin.  Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 

Stop there.  If you just follow down, what Paul’s going to say in verse 18 is no, no, no, we’ve been set free from sin and have become slaves of righteousness.  Paul says if you want to walk in newness of life, what you’ve got to recognize is that ultimately every life has a master.  Every life has something over it.  It may be our desires.  It may be our addictions.  What Paul wants to say is no, no, no, no, no, make Jesus, who’s Lord of all creation, your master.  Surrender.  That’s what he says the first step is….surrender.  Jump to verse 11 — So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.  What you think about in your relation to your desires actually determines the way that you live.  Paul says remind yourself, “I don’t need to follow that.  I don’t need to go there.”  Preach the gospel to yourself.  I’m making this decision but I’m not bound to it.  Consider, think about yourselves, as dead to sin and alive to Christ.  Know that it’s true.  Freedom was purchased by Jesus, but it must be embraced by us.  It’s purchased by Jesus, but it MUST BE embraced by us.  

Paul says here’s how you do it (Romans 6:12-13) — Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions.  Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.   We actualize {Will you lean in for a moment here?}…..I think we sometimes get this wrong.  Sometimes we think that freedom just happens in our head….if I believe this then I’ll be free.  There’s certainly a portion of that that’s true.  We need to consider or reckon ourselves dead to sin….this doesn’t bind me anymore.  Then we need to do something with our bodies too, because your body is a key player in your spiritual formation.  Paul says don’t present your body anymore to sin.  We must actualize our freedom through spirit-empowered practice.  I can want to be free from anger, but if I don’t start training myself to respond well when I don’t get my way, I never will be.  I can want it all day long, but if I don’t train for it, I’ll never actualize it.  I can want to be free from lust, but if I don’t put some parameters around what I view with my eyes, I will continue to walk in bondage.  Deciding to renew my mind through Scripture, spending time in prayer, slowing down, practicing Sabbath, fasting….these are all ways we present the members of our body to Jesus to say have your way.  It doesn’t earn us anything from God, but it positions us to receive the grace he’s pouring out.  Does that make sense?  What we do with our body actually matters.  This is why I think Celebrate Recovery is so important.  We have it every Tuesday night, 6:30 pm.

Here’s the last thing and we’ll close.  (Galatians 5:13) — For you were called to freedom, brothers.  Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.   You have freedom.  Then Paul goes on to say that when you serve, in love, you actually fulfill the entire law.  We have freedom to love.  Let me just point out, we actually do need to be free from both legalism and licentiousness in order to have the capacity to love.  We really do.  If we’re still under legalism, we’re too concerned with being right, in order to love.  Have you ever been around people like this?  They were so concerned with whether or not they were right and whether or not they were right with God that they were actually confined from the ability to do the very thing which Jesus said would fulfill the entire law.  They were walking on eggshells…..I’m not sure if I can do this.  I’m not sure if God’s okay with this.  I’m not sure if we’re going to add up.  I’m not sure if we’re going to be okay.  We actually do need to be free from legalism in order to love.  But we also need to be free from licentiousness.  If we’re too concerned with ourselves—our own satisfaction, our own pleasure, feeding our own every desires—we will be unable to really, truly see the people around us.  So when Paul writes about this, he says oh yeah, yeah, yeah.  Jesus’s coming is certainly about freedom, but it’s about freedom because it’s about love.

So Paul will say in Galatians 5:1 — For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore…     Stand firm.  Free from legalism.  Nothing left to earn from God.  Nothing!  He’s given it all to you through Jesus.  Stand firm.  Stand firm from licentiousness.  You don’t need to follow your every desire.  You’ve actually been freed to choose your deepest desire, not your strongest one.  Stand firm.  Live!  Surrender!  To the Master that wants to lead you into freedom.  Present your body to Him because it’s a key player in your spiritual formation.  And friends, you are free because of those things to really, truly, genuinely love the people around you.  Eugene Peterson said it like this:  “A space has been cleared in the thick forest and brambles of necessity from which we can freely respond to God, freely grow in the image of God, freely develop in relationships of forgiveness.  Having provided the space, we are free to take a stand there.”  Amen.

Truly He taught us to love one another, His law is love and His gospel is peace // Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother, And in His name, all oppression shall cease // Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we, Let all within praise His holy name // Christ is the Lord!  Oh, praise His Name forever, His power and glory evermore proclaim 

Oh yeah, you may have been wondering what this is.  I think it’s one of the best gifts you’re going to get for Christmas.  In 2015, my friend Neil came up to me after a sermon I preached entitled “Chains Shall He Break,” and he gave me a little piece of a chain.  It sat on the back of my bookshelf, right behind my desk, for the last three years.  I wanted to give one to you.  {You’d be surprised how long it takes to make 700 chains like this.}  I want you to just hold it and to think about the Messiah stepping into this world and, in doing so, breaking the chains.  The reality is, though, a lot of us live still confined.  I just want to give you a few moments today to just hold that chain and to ask one simple question of God…..Jesus, what chain in my life do you want to break during this Christmas season?   I just want you to think about that.  I’ll play some music while you take a few minutes.  In the chaos of the season, would you receive this as a gift, to slow down and to ask God what He might want to do in your life?