Vol I No. 7

A Sermon for Lent IV (or Mothering Sunday)

by William J. Martin

So then, brethren, we are not the children of the bondwoman, but of the free.
(Gal. iv. 21)

The theme for the Fourth Sunday in Lent is liberation and freedom. Our lections for that past three Sundays have been leading us up to this point. On the First Sunday in Lent we learned that Jesus Christ was tempted like as we are, yet without sin. (Hebr. iv. 15) What we found, I hope, was that the first step on the road to freedom was Christ’s identification with our predicament. We are tempted, and so was He. He resisted the temptations, and desires to do the same in and through us. On the Second Sunday of Lent we learned that when we become faithful and loyal dogs which depend utterly upon the crumbs that fall from the Jesus’ table, we will begin to grow and perfect that humility that opens up to His healing Word. And last Sunday we learned that eating the particles and fragments of Christ’s Word is meant to assimilate us to His will, as we begin to hear and keep the Word that promises to change and transform us completely. All in all, this is, no doubt, a difficult and daunting work or labor, and is not without its dangers and temptations. The problem is that we get so obsessed and consumed with our own good works that we forget that it is faith in God’s Grace that makes the labor ultimately successful. For it is faith in God’s promises alone that can make our spiritual work a means to freedom and liberation.

St. Paul is very much aware of this pernicious proclivity or tendency in the human heart, and he addresses it head-on in this morning’s Epistle. In his case he is dealing with what are called Judaizing Christians. Judaizing Christians were early believers who taught that strict adherence to the Jewish Law was essential to the work of salvation. Being Jewish, God’s chosen people, or the Elect of their Maker was more important to them than faith in Christ’s redemption and sanctification of human nature. They believed that circumcision, dietary regulations, the ceremonial Jewish Law were non-negotiables. So, in effect, the natural man and his good works were superimposed upon faith in Christ and the work that He alone could do for man’s salvation. The end result was that Jesus Christ and His Holy Spirit were put into an Old Testament strait-jacket and held captive to the works of the Law. But devotion to good works and the Law only enslave man. St. Paul illustrates this point using an allegory drawn from the life of Abraham. He says that the Jewish Christians were behaving more like Ishmael, the child of Hagar, the Old Testament slave girl, than Isaac, the first-begotten of Sarah, the free woman.

Ishmael and Isaac were the children of Abraham. Prior to the conception of his children, when Abram was old, God promised him that he would sire an heir, and that he would be the Father of children more numerous than the stars in the sky. (Gen. xv. 5) And so Abram and Sarai his wife got to thinking. They were old, childless, and by all natural and human standards beyond the age of conceiving a child. It was not that they had not faith, but their faith was weak, childish, and, as yet, unformed. And so they thought that in order to obey God and sire a child, Abram would have to mate with Sarai’s slave girl Hagar. So Abram did so, and Ishmael the son of the bond-woman was born. But Abram and Sarai’s natural and human solution to the problem of siring children was not God’s will for them. Abram and Sarai were enslaved to their own good works and their own human ingenuity. God had other plans for them, and would elicit from them a faith in His promises that would make them the spiritual father and mother of many nations. And because of their faith they would come together eventually and be made the parents of Isaac in their old age. What they learned was that faith in God alone elicits and activates the promise of future freedom and liberation, which begins in the life of Isaac.

So St. Paul tells the early Jewish Christians that they are behaving more like Ishmael the slave’s child than like Isaac. And this because they are enslaving Jesus to the Old Law and its good works. But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now. (Ibid, 29) The early Jewish Christians seemed to believe that Jesus Christ, the suffering servant or slave, came into the world to validate their election, bless their chosen status, and crown their anointed calling. For St. Paul, these Jewish Christians saw Jesus as the apex, apogee, and acme of their own obedience to God through the Law of the flesh. They saw Him as the fulfillment of their good works and piety. But they did not see aright; their faith was weak. What they could not see was that Christ had transformed the Law of commandments and observances into the Law of mercy, love, and transformative desire by becoming the truest expression of the new Law of Life in His own fleshBut St. Paul is not content to leave it at that. He takes another turn in his allegory that, he hopes, will forever quench, smother, and suffocate their ethnic and racial pride. He tells them that though Hagar was the slave mother of the slave child Ishmael – and thus of all the Arabic people, she is no different from the earthly children of Israel. A better translation than our Authorized Version reads that Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. (Gal. iv.25) For those who desire to be under the [old Jewish] law (Ibid, 21), there is no practical distinction between being an unsaved Gentile or an unsaved Jew. St. Paul has added insult to injury. He tells the Jewish Christians that though they are by birthright the children of Jerusalem, they are actually proving to be more the spiritual children of Arabia, and that their coveted and cherished Mount Sinai is actually, in spiritual terms, an Arabic hill! As Monsignor Knox says, Mount Sinai, in Arabia, has the same meaning in the allegory as Jerusalem; the Jerusalem which exists here and now; an enslaved city, whose children are slaves. (The Epistles and Gospels, p. 100) Both Jews and Gentiles live in bondage to nature and her laws, the elements of this world. In other words, all men are born slaves and can become Christians only through faith in God’s promises. The historic Jerusalem is in bondage and can only find freedom in the spiritual Jerusalem of God’s kingdom. For, Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all. For it is written, Rejoice, thou barren that bearest not; break forth and cry, thou that travailest not: for the desolate hath many more children than she which hath an husband. (Ibid, 26, 27) Sarah, well-stricken in years and barren by reason of nature’s laws, through Abraham’s faith became the mother of promise. Mary, young and innocent, who was barren because she knew not a man, became the mother of the promise’s fulfillment in Jesus Christ. The faith of each looks forward to the promises to be obtained and enjoyed in the liberation and freedom that God alone can give.

This Sunday in Lent is called Mothering Sunday, Refreshment Sunday, or in Latin, Laetare Sunday. The Latin comes to us from the ancient introit to the Mass, Laetare Jerusalem: O be joyful, Jerusalem. Today we are called to remember that our salvation comes to us only through faith in God’s promises. So as we continue our Lenten journey up to the Cross of Christ’s love, Mother Church desires to bring us out of slavery and into the freedom of new life. When we live as children of the bondwoman…born after the flesh…and in bondage, (Gal. iv. 23,24) under the elements of the world (Gal. iv. 3) doing service unto them which by nature are no gods (Gal. iv. 8), we are enslaved to Hagar and Ishmael. When this world, natural attachments, human expectations, and earthly hopes consume us, we imperil, threaten, and neglect our eternal salvation which can come to us only by faith in God’s Grace. The problem is not with the world but with Christians who are too enslaved to it and are not being made free from above. This problem is not new. And, so, as St. Paul rebuked the ancient Galatian church long ago, he admonishes and reproaches us today. My little children, I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you….(Gal. iv. 19)

The great truth that we must confront today is that good works can never make us the free children of Jerusalem which is above…free…the mother of us all. (Gal. iv. 26) Good works may indeed make a man religious, pious, and even good during this life. But they do not bring a man to the brink, threshold, or periphery of salvation because he is enslaved to this world and its ways. And so he vacillates, hesitates, and halts, thinking all the while of what it might cost. As Oswald Chambers reminds us, Some of us are trying to offer up spiritual sacrifices to God before we have sacrificed the natural. (M.U….Dec.10) The ties and chains that enslave the old natural man to external and visible world, to the old Law of sin, must be broken before true faith in God’s promises can come alive. It means the deliberate commitment of [ourselves] to the God of [our] salvation, and being willing to pay whatever it may cost. (M.U…Dec. 10) Our father Abraham never counted the cost. Abraham believed God and it was counted unto him for righteousness. (Rom. iv. 3)                                                                                         

Are we willing to sacrifice the Ishmael in all of us today? Will we see that we must sacrifice the slave to nature in all of us because we were made for the freedom that faith alone finds from above? With St. Paul will we become the children of the free woman through a faith that hangs on the promises of God? If we do, it will cost us nothing less than everything. But such will seem a very small price to pay when the reward of our faith will be the love of Jesus carrying us into that perfect liberation, into our Heavenly Mother’s arms, into Jerusalem which is above…free…[and] the mother of us all. Amen.