For the season of Epiphany, we’re preaching our way through Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Certainly it’s Romans in utero. Possibly it’s the most revolutionary book of the New Testament. The text for this Sunday was Galatians 1.3-9, 2.21:
“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!
As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed! I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.”
Shame on you-
All of you who’ve already kicked your Christmas trees to the curb like first wives and old lawn mowers, shame on you.
You all practically begin celebrating Christmas during Lent so the least you can do is keep the tree up until the season of Christmas is over.
Shame on you- Christmas is only now over.
Today, on the liturgical calendar, it’s the Feast of the Epiphany, the high holy day when the magi bring their gifts to the Christ child in his golden fleece diapers.
Epiphany always falls after the 12th Day of Christmas because it actually takes 12 days to sing all 5 verses of “We Three Kings.”
As a holiday, Epiphany is right up there with Ash Wednesday in terms of what it says about you and me. The name of the holiday says it all: Ash Wednesday.
Ash Wednesday says that the grime outside on your forehead matches the grime inside in you, and the wages of sin is death; ergo, from dust you came and to dust you shall return. Have a nice day.
Ash Wednesday- the takeaway for the day is built into the name.
Epiphany reminds us that you and I require one, an epiphany.
The name says it all.
Epiphany says that our situation before God is such that we cannot come to God or discover God- much less, follow God or have faith in God on our own, by our own lights, or through any innate ability that we possess.
We need an epiphany to discover the true God.
You cannot find the true God on the golf course.
It doesn’t matter if you’re spiritual but not religious because neither spirituality nor religion can convey the Incarnate God to you.
Generic meditation cannot mediate the meaning of Christ and him crucified to you.
The takeaway for the day is in the name.
Just as the magi needed God to manipulate a Star in order to meet Christ, we need an epiphany; that is, we require a revelation from outside of us.
Epiphany is the opposite of what Luke Skywalker tells Rey in the Last Jedi just before Luke dies (oops). Luke tells Rey that the ability to find the Force lies within her.
Epiphany calls BS on Luke.
Epiphany insists that the Gospel is not like the Force.
The Gospel, the news that Jesus Christ gave himself for our sins to rescue us, is not innate inside of us. The Gospel, the Apostle Paul says, is the power of God breaking into our world from outside of us, beyond us, which brings me to my first point.
I know, I never preach 3-point sermons but, hey, new year, new you, right?
My first point is this:
We cannot take the Gospel for granted because the Gospel does not come naturally to any of us.
It must be revealed.
Given as an epiphany by God.
As the Small Catechism puts it, when we profess in the creed that we believe in the Holy Spirit, we’re professing that “by our own reason or strength we cannot believe in Jesus Christ our Lord.”
The Gospel does not come naturally to any of us because the Gospel comes as Jesus Christ and him crucified, which the bible says is foolishness to unbelievers and a stumbling block to believers.
And so we cannot afford to take the Gospel for granted and just get on with the hands-on “stuff” of Church: the serving and the Kingdom-building.
This is why St. Paul saves his harshest criticism for the churches in Galatia.
In Corinth, church members were having sex with their mother-in-laws, showing up drunk to the Lord’s Table, and fighting over scraps of meat sacrificed to idols.
Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians is a wilder read than Fire and Fury, yet St. Paul lays it on thick for the Corinthians. He calls them saints and dear ones and he thanks God for them.
By contrast- in today’s text, Paul skips the traditional salutations entirely, gets right to reminding them of the Gospel in verse 4, and by the time you get to verse 7 he’s calling them perverts and cursing them and calling down God’s judgement upon them.
Why is Paul so PO’d?
The Galatians were Christians- the Galatians were Christians, it doesn’t hurt to remember- who assumed that they had advanced beyond needing to hear the Gospel of Christ crucified for our sins every week.
Everyone knows that Jesus died for their sins, right? We don’t need to hear that Sunday after Sunday after Sunday after Sunday. Let’s hear about what we’re supposed to do.
They took that Gospel for granted, and they turned to another gospel, which is no gospel at all for it nullifies the Gospel.
This other gospel, said that it isn’t enough for Christians to trust that Christ’s faithfulness alone saves us.
God’s wiped our slate clean in Christ, this other gospel said, but God will one day judge us based on what we’ve done with that new slate.
This other gospel in Galatia, said that God had done his part, forgiving our sins in Christ, but now we have to do our part, faithfully following his commands to love our neighbor, care for the stranger, honor our family, and forgive those who trespass against us.
In other words, in taking the Gospel for granted, they’d reverted back to the Law.
As angry as Paul gets at the Galatians, he shouldn’t be surprised.
Whereas the Gospel does not come naturally to us, the Law, which the bible says is inscribed upon every human heart, does come naturally to us.
The Law is like the Force. The Law does not require an epiphany. The Law is innate to us.
We’re hardwired for commands. We want someone to give us instructions and advice and marching orders (that’s why Joel Osteen is so popular). It’s natural for us to want to do and perform and work and earn our way up to God.
And so if we take the Gospel of God’s coming down to us in Christ for granted, it’s only natural that we’ll pervert the Gospel away from the proclamation of what God has done for us, once for all, into the exhortation of what we must do for God.
We can’t take the Gospel for granted, then, because it’s natural for us to turn the Gospel into the Law.
Which brings me to my second point.
We can’t take the Gospel for granted because turning from what God has done to what we must do- it will prove our undoing.
Whoever wrote the first Christmas pageant hadn’t read their bible because the Old Testament does not consider the magi wise men. The magi were pagans and sorcerers. The magi are where we get the word magic. The magi were idolators.
Isaiah and Ezekiel both consider magi from Persia and Babylon as God’s enemies and they both prophesy God’s wrath upon them.
If you don’t know that about the magi then you can’t see what Matthew tries to show you with them.
The magi show us what St. Paul tells us about ourselves: that we who were once far off as enemies to God have been brought near to God not by our own doing but by God.
The magi follow their star charts and their reason westward to Israel, but their science and their reason only get them as far as Jerusalem where they seek out King Herod who promptly plots to kill them. In other words, relying only on their own wisdom and their own efforts leads them only to Death. Matthew wants you to see that relying on their own work and wisdom would’ve been their undoing.
The magi’s star charts do not lead them to Bethlehem.
The magi have to be told by a Word from the Lord, from the prophet Micah, to find Christ in Bethlehem.
Paul tells us what the magi show us.
This is why Paul is so amped up over the Galatians’ other gospel.
To think that the Gospel requires you to contribute anything to it means you don’t understand the Gospel and what it says about your condition.
God did his part; now we must do our part. No, the Gospel is that you’re not in a position to do anything. The Gospel is that “Jesus Christ gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age according to the will of our God and Father.” If we’re so sinful we require a substitute condemned in our stead, then we’re too sinful to contribute anything to our salvation or even cooperate with it.
Not only, according to the Gospel given by Christ to Paul, we’re captives too. We’re not just sinners. We’re prisoners to the evil age, what Paul calls elsewhere the Power of Sin.
God does his part; and we must do ours. No, that’s like telling a drowning man to kick harder. A drowning man doesn’t need to be taught how to swim. He needs a savior. A rescuer don’t insist that captives cooperate with their deliverance.
By definition, rescue is one-sided, one-way love.
That’s why Paul’s tone is so uncompromising.
There is no middle ground at all between:
“Christ has done everything for you” (the Gospel)
“This is what you must do” (the other gospel)
There’s no reconciliation between those two.
Paul’s letter to the Galatians in 5 words is this: Christ plus anything is nothing.
The easiest way to annul the Gospel is to add to it.
The easiest way to annul the Gospel is to add to the everything Christ has already done.
Just as the magi require God’s Word to save them from sure and certain Death, we require God’s Word made our sinful flesh to free us from certain condemnation.
That’s the point behind Paul’s PO’d passion. Because any other gospel, it’s worse than no gospel, it’s our condemnation. That’s why Paul invokes God’s curse in today’s text.
He’s referencing the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy 27.26 where God warns those who are his people by circumcision that if they are to abide by his Law then they must obey the Law perfectly.
When it comes to the Law, it’s all or nothing. And if you don’t obey it all, then you will be accursed.
Paul’s amped up because the stakes are so high.
This other gospel, this God does his part and we must do our part gospel- it will be their undoing because the demand of the Law that they have added to the Gospel is that it be fulfilled perfectly.
They’ve taken the great exchange, Christ’s righteousness for our sin, and they’ve exchanged it for the very burden of the Law from which Christ came to set us free.
No wonder the midwinter’s so bleak in Christina Rosetti’s Christmas carol.
Because as soon as you start wondering what gift you must give to Jesus, you’re on the path to your own condemnation because, then, it’s not just one gift you must give to Jesus it’s every gift.
It’s not just a few of God’s commands. It’s all of them.
But the promise of the Gospel is that every possible gift of obedience has already been given to the Father by the Son for you in your place.
So ignore the bleak Christmas carol. You don’t need to give Jesus any gift.
Certainly not your heart- there’s nothing in your heart but cholesterol, darkness, and sin.
And even if I don’t know you, I know it to be true about you. I know it because the Bible tells me so. Why would you give him your heart?
No, if you want to give him a gift then give him your sin, give him your regret, give him your racism, give him whatever keeps you up at night because, really, it already belongs to him.
The magi were pagans. The magi worshipped not God but the heavens, which means the Star that God employs to beckon them and their gifts to Christ was their idol.
The Star was their false god. The Star was their golden calf.
When the magi reach Bethlehem and- with the Star above them- bow down and kneel before Christ, they’re not just paying homage; they’re pledging a new allegiance.
In other words, they’ve changed.
They’ve been changed.
And it’s all been God’s doing. The change that has come to them has come upon them- they have received it passively.
And that brings me to my third point. Paul’s point running to the end of his angry letter.
We cannot take the Gospel for granted because the Gospel is like that Epiphany Star.
The Gospel, the news that Jesus Christ has rescued us from all our sins, is how God changes us.
The Gospel isn’t just an announcement of what God did.
The Gospel is what God does.
We cannot take the Gospel for granted and focus instead on giving to the church or serving the poor or reconciling injustice or resisting oppression or being a loving husband or a more patient parent.
We cannot take the Gospel for granted because the Gospel alone is how God changes you to be generous and compassionate and just and forgiving, more loving and patient.
That is, you cannot produce people who do the things that Jesus did by imploring people to do the things that Jesus did. Actually, according to St. Paul, because of the nature of sin, that will have the opposite effect.
We’ll actually become less and less like Jesus the more we’re exhorted to become like Jesus.
People do not do the things that Jesus did by being exhorted to do the things that Jesus did.
People do the things that Jesus did only by hearing over and over what Jesus has done for them.
To put it in churchy terms:
our growing in holiness
does not come by being told that we need become sanctified.
Our sanctification comes by hearing again and again and again, through word and water and wine and bread, that we are justified by Christ alone. Full stop.
We are able to live Christ-like only by hearing over and over and over that Christ’s death saves us. Period.
The reason Paul insists that Christ plus anything else is nothing at all is because this Gospel alone can accomplish what the Law cannot: transformed and holy people.
The way God changes you into faithfulness is this Gospel, this news that Jesus Christ has fulfilled all faithfulness for you such that you are freed from the obligation to be faithful.
The way God changes you to do the things that Jesus did is this news that Jesus did it all for you so you don’t have to do any of it.
That’s what Christians talk about when we talk about freedom.
In Christ, God has set you free from the burden of perfect obedience.
In Christ, God has set you free from the demand to have faith as big as a mountain- you’re mustard seed is just fine now.
This Gospel- it’s as odd as a Star that zig zags across the horizon and then just lingers.
At best, it sounds counter-intuitive.
At worst, it sounds incomprehensible.
Where’s the brimstone? Brimstone makes sense. Brimstone is natural.
Conditions and consequences are the way we’ve arranged the world. It’s the way we all parent.
There is nothing natural about a Gospel that says God makes people holy by promising them they’re free not to become holy.
No wonder the Galatians traded it out for a different gospel, one that conformed to the Law already on their hearts.
Who wouldn’t be afraid to give people that sort of freedom? If we don’t set limits- lay down Law- then won’t people just do whatever they want?
Abound in sin?
Paul is adamant that we not blink from this Gospel, but there is nothing natural about this Gospel.
To believe this Gospel- it requires a giant leap of faith.
Maybe this will help your unbelief:
Last month in Charlottesville at the African American Heritage Center, Ruby Sales, a lesser-known figure of the Civil Rights movement spoke to a capacity crowd.
Ruby Sales was a black teenage activist in the Deep South in the mid-1960’s. At the time, Sales wasn’t especially religious and she didn’t see the Civil Rights movement as a Christian one.
Then in March 1965 in Lowndes County, Alabama, Sales and some other activists were threatened outside a convenience store by a local shotgun-toting deputy.
When the deputy pulled the trigger, Jonathan Daniels, a VMI graduate and Episcopal seminary student, threw himself in front of Ruby Sales.
He died in her place, Ruby told the crowd last month in Charlottesville.
And then she said, listen to how she put it:
Jonathan walked away from the king’s table.
He could’ve had any position in society he wanted to, but forsaking all of it he came down among us in Selma where we were in bondage and he gave himself for me.
Ruby Sales is an Episcopal priest today.
Though many of her comments drew loud applause and approving nods during the event, one of her assertions drew a muted, even hostile, reaction.
When asked about the possibility of future white nationalist rallies in Charlottesville, Ruby Sales discouraged confrontation as the means to stop racism.
The KKK used to chase us, and now we’re chasing them, she said.
And this is what unsettled the crowd, what struck them as unnatural, Ruby Sales said:
Justice should not be confused with revenge. Any call for justice that does not offer a pathway [to racists] for redemption is revenge not justice.
When asked how she could have such hope and compassion as to hold out for the possibility of redemption for white nationalists- how she could even insist upon their redemption, Ruby Sales said this, listen, this isn’t some other gospel:
Whatever hope I have and whatever compassion I have for ugly white nationalists’ redemption comes from hearing about my own undeserved redemption Sunday after Sunday.
The Apostle Paul says that Christ + Anything Else = Nothing At All.
But as you come to the Table to receive Christ in your mouth, Ruby Sales says to you that the inverse of Paul’s formula is also true.
Christ alone is sufficient.
Sufficient as to be everything.