Born of the Promise

Fourth Sunday in Lent
Galatians 4:21-31
March 11, 2018
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO

Tell me, you who desire to be under the Law, do you not listen to the Law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons—one of the slave woman and one of the free woman. But where the one who was of the slave woman was born according to the flesh, the one of the free woman was through the promise. This is an allegory, for there are two testaments. One is from Mount Sinai, for begetting slavery—this is Hagar. Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, which corresponds to present Jerusalem, for she is enslaved with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, which is our mother, for it is written, “Rejoice, O barren one, who does not bear children, break forth and cry out, O one who is not in labor, because the children of the deserted one will be many more than she who has a husband.” Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of a promise. But just as then, when the one born according to the flesh pursued the one according to the promise, so it is also now. But what does the Scripture say? Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman will not inherit along with the son of the free woman. Therefore, brothers, we are not children of a slave woman, but of the free woman.

In the name of + Jesus.

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It’s always important to be very careful with allegory. Allegory is when a story signifies some greater meaning. The stories may or may not be true, but they usually serve to illustrate timeless truths. Aesop’s fables are examples of allegory; short stories that teach common sense morals. But allegories can be tricky, because it’s easy to invent some secret meaning and to soar off into flights of fancy. The British author J. R. R. Tolkien was not fond of allegories. And Lutherans in general have always been suspicious of allegorical readings of the Bible, because of the excesses and abuses of that method in the medieval Church.

But today we get an honest to goodness allegory. It’s right there in the text, although many English translations find a similar word to translate it. This is an allegory, writes St. Paul about the sons of Abraham. Allegoroumena. And the significance of this allegory is that there are two testaments. One of them corresponds to Ishmael, the son of Hagar, the slave woman; the other corresponds to Isaac, the son of Sarah, the free woman.

The first testament is the slave son. The original story goes like this: after years of failing to have children, even when God had promised to make Abraham into a great nation, Sarah had the bright idea of having one of the slaves, or household servants, act as a surrogate mother. She chose Hagar, and Abraham took her as a mistress and, sure enough, had a son, Ishmael. But Abraham and Sarah were taking God’s promise into their own hands and forcing the outcome, not to mention breaking the 6th Commandment. Eventually, Abraham and Sarah would have a son of their in their old age, against all odds (except God’s odds), and Isaac would be the son that God had promised. When Ishmael was a young man, he and his mother were expelled from the household into the desert to wander. Incidentally, God did make a great nation of Ishmael also—Islam traces its lineage to Abraham, but through Ishmael, the son of the Law, the son of slavery.

This is an allegory, for there are two testaments. One is from Mount Sinai, for begetting slavery—this is Hagar. Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, which corresponds to present Jerusalem, for she is enslaved with her children. There are actually two levels of signification here. The first correspondence is between Hagar and Mt. Sinai. Hagar precedes God’s activity on that mountain by about 450 years; she is a prototype of God’s giving of the Law. God was indeed at work in Ishmael’s birth, and was with him as well (the text never says that Ishmael abandons the faith of his father, but his descendants certainly did). Likewise, the Law is God’s good work. But it is not the promise. Ishmael is not Isaac, and the Messiah does not descend from Ishmael.

St. Paul then makes a surprising move to a third level of signification and says that Hagar, who corresponds to Mt. Sinai, also corresponds with present Jerusalem. This would have really offended the religiously sensible in Jerusalem, because they considered themselves descendants of Abraham via Isaac, and heirs of God’s special favor. But they only claimed a physical descent, which is essentially the same claim that Ishmael has. They may only claim an inheritance by the Law, and the result is that they are cast out. They are sons of slavery.

But there is yet a third level of signification, which Paul establishes at the beginning of today’s reading. Tell me, you who desire to be under the Law, do you not listen to the Law? The Jews who claimed Abraham’s ancestry were the immediate recipients of this allegory, but it also extends to everyone who would be under the Law. And this offends the religiously sensible among us as well. While we Gentiles may not be able to claim descent from Abraham either through Isaac or Ishmael, we are spiritual heirs of slavery. Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin, says Jesus. And it is the Law that shuts the door and turns the key on sin’s slavery.

Yet Christians—yes, Lutherans also—are so quick to flee back into the Law, to reenact Abraham’s adultery in new and creative ways, to force God’s promise by works of the Law. But these works are never the real deal. Ishmael was probably a sweet boy, but he wasn’t the heir. The Law begets slavery.

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But there is a second part to this allegory. But where the one who was of the slave woman was born according to the flesh, the one of the free woman was through the promise… But the Jerusalem above is free, which is our mother, for it is written, “Rejoice, O barren one, who does not bear children, break forth and cry out, O one who is not in labor, because the children of the deserted one will be many more than she who has a husband.”

It’s left unstated, but the first level of significance is that Sarah corresponds to another mountain, Mount Calvary. Where Mount Sinai was God’s activity of giving the Law, Mount Calvary is the location of His activity of accomplishing the Gospel. The death of Jesus and the blood shed on that mountain confirm a New Testament, just as we hear every week in the communion liturgy. This cup is the New Testament in my blood. This mountain gives birth to the promise of forgiveness of sins.

The next level of significance is that this corresponds to the Jerusalem above, the heavenly Jerusalem. It’s the Jerusalem to which we refer when we invoke angels and archangels and all the company of heaven in the communion liturgy. They are the residents above, heirs of the promise like their spiritual father Isaac. The Old Testament Reading for today is a reminder that the Law is not the only thing that God gave to His people in the wilderness. There was also grace in the shape of bread from heaven. And so we receive the living bread from heaven, the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, given under bread and wine for us to eat and to drink along the way.

But the further significance is for those who have been freed from the slavery of the Law by the promise of the Gospel. Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of a promise. But just as then, when the one born according to the flesh pursued the one according to the promise, so it is also now. But what does the Scripture say? Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman will not inherit along with the son of the free woman. Therefore, brothers, we are not children of a slave woman, but of the free woman.

When the promise of the New Testament in Christ’s blood comes, the Law is cast out. Not that it no longer exists, but that it is no longer defining. The Law is not your mother, and you should not expect any sustenance from it. Rather, your sustenance comes from your mother, the Church: comfort, protection, rest, food and drink. Jerusalem descends from above in the Sacrament and the promise is born again. Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. This is the promise that gave a second birth to Isaac and to you. And this promise begets freedom.

You, Like Isaac, Are Children of a Promise

In the name of + Jesus.

Jacob W Ehrhard
VD+MA