Reading: Psalm 146
Today in our Sunday School class we finished our study of Galatians. We specifically went over the passage that talked about replacing rules and customs based in a single culture with a more universal system of ethics — ultimately something that cares more about attitudes than about how well one follows rules that might or might make sense when the context changes.
Galatians, as I mentioned before, is believed to be one of the first books written in the New Testament — it was written at a formational time of Christianity — at a time when there were no written gospels, and the Christians were still trying to figure out what it meant to follow Jesus. Christians just decided in Jerusalem that the good news of Jesus is for the whole world — and that there is nothing about Christianity that excludes Greeks and Romans. Paul was told to share this decision with the Greeks and Romans — which was a good choice, because he already felt this way before that meeting was called.
Now that we have the New Testament, it is easy for us to ask how the primitive Church could have argued about things that are so clearly taught in scripture; but, we stop and consider that the New Testament did not exist — and we consider how much Christians who have the New Testament argue about what it means — we should realize that the argument makes sense.
I want to observe that while Galatians was really the first book to talk about how we are all the same in Jesus, and how there is a place in the church for everybody, and how Christianity is not about rules written on paper, but living with right motives and doing your best to walk in God’s light. When people read Galatians, there were no gospels available beyond those stores and quotes one might hear from the disciples. This was all new and exciting; in a real way, Christians were discovering that the story of Jesus was Good News bringing light into the whole world.
What Christians found in Jesus we find when we read in Old Testament while thinking about Jesus. There is a reason you find Isaiah and Psalms quoted throughout the New Testament — and it is not only because it is the world Jesus grew up in; Christians traditionally believe that Jesus was part of the divine plan from the start, and thus you see the promise of Jesus in the Old Testament.
Whether or not we find Jesus in Psalm 146, the passage I chose to read today, we do see a theme that is familiar to what we find in Galatians:
[The Lord] who keeps faith forever;
who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets the prisoners free;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the strangers;
he upholds the orphan and the widow,
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
The Lord will reign forever. (Psalm 146:5-10 NRSV)
The good news Paul had to give to the Galatians is that there is no slave, nor free, nor Jew, nor Greek, nor male nor female. Paul told the Galatians that God does not look at people the same way that we do — and in doing so, he told them basically what we see in Psalm 146 — that God executes justice for the oppressed, that God opens the eyes of the blind, that God watches over strangers and takes care of the orphan and the widow.
When we read the gospels, all four gospels tell the story of John the Baptist before they tell the story of Jesus. John’s story prefigured this, because John called on even those who were generally seen as acceptable to repent and be baptized, and when people who were not acceptable like tax collectors and occupying soldiers asked him what they needed to do to become right with God — John simply told them to do their job justly; don’t embezzle the taxes, don’t extort money, don’t falsely accuse people, and be content with your pay instead of seeking bribes.
It might seem strange that a man calling on government workers to be honest and on people in general to be nicer to repent and be generally nicer to everybody would fall out of favor with the law — such advice makes communities stronger; but, for some reason almost every prophet in scripture up did find trouble for this message. John the Baptist was arrested because he said something that offended Herod, and eventually was arrested then later executed.
According to Matthew 11, John sends his disciples to Jesus to ask if Jesus really is the One — we know that John believed this enough to say it to the crowds, sometimes it really is good to know — and when you are in Herod’s prison because Herod has a personal grudge against you; it is good to know that you are going to die for something worthwhile.
Jesus sent a message back to John: “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” If you notice, there is a significant overlap between what Christ brought and what the Psalm we read says that God does for those who’s Help is the Lord.
Though many people were looking for a prince to put their trust in — a new king who would offer political freedom, Jesus offers something brand new. Our world is full of princes and changing princes is no help to anyone. Even the best kings die, and for the most part, in this world, different people get different sorts of justice. We don’t have a world where all are treated the same and there is justice for everyone — some try, but we have not achieved it.
When I imagine John getting this message, it must have been a relief. John preached to all who came to him; when a Roman wanted to get right with God, John had a message for the Roman soldier that was doable: to act justly and honestly. When I read Galatians it is gospel to me; I am free from all the structures that favor those who already have everything — Jesus sees, hears, and accepts me for who I am.
Ultimately this is the message of Christmas; Christ came to be light in the world. We might not all have the same rules and customs, but Christ did call us to the same Spirit, and we should produce the same fruit: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” We should look out for each other, and “as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people.”
Advent is a time when we look for Christ to come into the world. In one very real sense, advent is purely a period of history and we live in a time after Easter. In another, very real, sense this waiting for Christ to come and make things right is something that we feel. When John felt despair in prison and asked Jesus if he was still waiting — Jesus was already there, and eyes were already being opened and the lame were already walking. Sometimes our feelings can be a bit behind the times. Just because Jesus is already here does not mean that we are not looking for Jesus or waiting for Jesus.
I also am encouraged when I remember that the early church struggled to understand how to live in their world and do what is right. When I’m confused and seeking answers — I remember the way that Peter, Paul, and James struggled to understand how the gospel applied and how to bring the gospel to my ancestors. Like them, I struggle to know how God would have us live in the world we are in. I believe Christ walks with us, and I also wait for Christ to come, set things right, and teach me what I need to know. When I am discouraged, I remember Peter struggled as much as any of us.
Most of all, I see that I have something to aspire to. No matter what time or culture I live in, I can tell the difference between the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit. I know what it means to do good to other people. Even if I can’t figure out the rules, I can check my motives. When nothing else makes, everything is simplified so to the point that I can understand. I don’t have to worry so much about rules I never learned — I am free from that, and instead I must work on my motives and attitudes — and Christ is with me as I grow into a better person. For me, this is good news.