April 3, 2019

Lent 4 - Galatians 4:21-28

Three Mountains – Three Meanings – One Man
Galatians 4:21-28 Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. 23 But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. 24 Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. 25 Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. 27 For it is written, "Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear; break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than those of the one who has a husband." 28 Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. (ESV)

Some of you may have heard of, or seen, the documentary Free Solo, which won the most recent Academy Award for best documentary. This story chronicles the pursuit of a professional rock climber who attempts a feat which no one before has ever accomplished – scaling a 3,000 foot cliff face of solid granite – without a rope. That’s what free soloing is, it’s rock climbing without any safety gear.

As you can imagine, there have many free soloist fatalities in the past. Once you reach a certain height you know that one mistake can cost you your life. If you’re like me, you wonder why a person would do such a thing. Well, the documentary explores those philosophical questions that surround free soling. The main character gives some of his personal answers saying,

“It’s one of the few activities in life where you can experience perfection.”

“You need a ‘warrior mentality.’ You give something in your life 100% focus because your life depends on it.”

For the subject of the documentary, it’s about challenging yourself as a person and having the ability to accomplish something that no one else can. In fact, after this climber’s successful attempt at free soloing this rockface, many have called it the most significant athletic accomplishment in the history of the world – and it’s hard to argue with that assessment. It’s truly rare to witness something that has never been accomplished before, and probably will never happen again. You do see the focus, determination, resolve, and resiliency of the human spirit.

I think another reason for this documentary’s fascination and popularity is because it touches on spiritual feelings that all have.
·       Finding fulfillment and meaning in life
·       The pursuit of perfection
·       Wrestling with life and death
·       The effect that love has on the decisions we make

In these areas it hits close to home with any person of faith – even Christians. The main character gives his answers to these issues within his heart and one quickly finds that nature itself is his sanctuary, and the bond between man and rock is his practice of faith.

Yet, there’s another spiritual connection here. We see another man who ascended a mountain, with life and death on the line. One mistake would have lost everything. True perfection was necessary. His determination and focus could not falter for one second. And through His victory we find fulfillment and meaning in for our lives. This man was Jesus – and He climbed not just one insurmountable mountain, but three.

Our text tells us about the first. Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Paul relates the story of salvation in Jesus in a very unique way here in this chapter. He uses an illustration – what our text calls an allegory. Paul takes a well-known story from the Old Testament and describes how it is symbolic of God’s truth in our lives.

The story was about Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah. I’m sure you remember it well. One of the biggest promises God gave to Abraham was that he would be a father – and a father of a great and large nation at that. The problem was that Abraham’s wife, Sarah, could not bear children. So, Abraham, under the guise of continuing to trust God, took matters into his own hands. He took Sarah’s servant, Hagar, and conceived a child with her. Perhaps with a little nudging and personal influence, Abraham could make good on God’s will. The problem was that one person cannot keep a promise for someone else. Without God leading the way, the promise given initially to Abraham would never be fulfilled.

So, Paul tells us what the results were and how they differed from God’s plan. Ishmael, the child born of Hagar, came about through human meddling, physical means, and was born into slavery. Isaac, the eventual true heir of Abraham from Sarah, was born according to God’s plan, by miraculous means, and was born in freedom. Abraham tried to take matters into his own hands and made a big mistake.

The symbolic meaning for our lives is also described by Paul. Hagar and Ishmael represent those held under bondage by God’s law. They stand as a reminder of the very sin Abraham committed through them – trying to manipulate God’s will. The descendants of Hagar and Ishmael are those who try to earn salvation on their own terms. Sarah and Isaac represent believers – those who trust in God by faith. They rely on Jesus for salvation.

Paul also brings in a location here that correlates with Hagar and Ishmael – Mt. Sinai. Mt. Sinai was the place where God first gave the written law and where He established the Old Covenant with His people. The impact of Mt. Sinai came about long after Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah lived, but this connection remains. Those who attempt to achieve salvation by the old way – the way of the law – are stuck on Mt. Sinai just as they are descendants of Hagar. They are caught in the bondage of the law because they have tried to manipulate God’s way.   

A second mountain isn’t named in our text, but it’s certainly implied. What would correspond to Sarah in the same way that Mt. Sinai was connected to Hagar? Our Scripture reading gives us the answer. In contrast the Sinai, the writer records, “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels (v.22).” Mt. Zion was the mountain upon which the city of Jerusalem was established. It is also figurative in the Bible for God’s kingdom by faith – which we typically call the church today. Paul writes similarly, “but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all.”

Mt. Zion stands in sharp contrast to Mt. Sinai. Instead of emphasizing condemnation and bondage under the law – the products of the Old Covenant for sinners – Mt. Zion emphasizes the New Covenant blessings which are given through Christ. This is the same division as the old vs. new Jerusalem in the verses of our text. Those of the old Jerusalem seek to establish God’s kingdom on their own terms, much like Abraham tried to do through Hagar, and like the Pharisees during Jesus’ time. They desire an earthly kingdom of their own devising. They believe that the realization of their own hopes and dreams will equate the glory and splendor of God’s kingdom established in Christ. But, they’re wrong just as Abraham was wrong.

God’s accomplishment in Christ cannot be duplicated by human effort. This shouldn’t be viewed as a sullen fact, but rather a joyous and blessed truth! No more work is needed. Jesus has secured the victory of our faith. He bestows that now freely through the New Covenant – by extending forgiveness of sins through His grace. This is a miracle on par with Isaac’s birth, and it’s what the church is to be about today. That’s what Mt. Zion represents as the true foundation of God’s city – the new Jerusalem. Those who are inhabitants by faith are born into the freedom of their Savior, Jesus – no more bondage under sin.  

Mt. Sinai and Mt. Zion both represent insurmountable obstacles to us. We can’t keep God’s law as He demands and so the curse of sin is always reflected in His law. The quest for God’s kingdom remains an illusion to us when we consider our own abilities and efforts to make it possible. Without Jesus, we would fall into the same pit as the Pharisee’s, relegating God’s vision of a kingdom to earthly passions for our own power. These are the mountains we cannot climb – yet to be with God we have to for there is no other way. These are the pursuits for which we lack the necessary focus on determination. One misstep means death. One moment of misguided trust and we lose a solid foothold. Standing at the base of a 3,000-foot granite faced cliff is but a mere metaphor of the task in ascending Mt. Sinai and Mt. Zion.

And so, God established a third mountain - Calvary. It seems strange that to conquer two other monumental obstacles, God would erect a third. Truly, at the very beginning there was no need for this task. If we had taken care of our business by just listening to God’s warning and trusting in His protection, none of this would have been necessary. The summit of God’s expectations and the summit of God’s kingdom would have remained within our grasp. But that fell apart when we trusted ourselves. Abraham’s story is but a microcosm of our own lives. How often have we attempted blind manipulation of God’s will? How quickly we interject our own thoughts into His holy Word. How desperately we want to walk the path to heaven our way. God established Mt. Calvary for you and me. That’s the only reason it was necessary.

Jesus had successfully free soloed Sinai and Calvary. He lived a blameless life. He sought and established the true kingdom of God, even at the very end of His life when His opponents shouted – “Show yourself to be the Christ and come down from the cross!” Jesus remained faithful on Mt. Calvary to you and me because we desperately needed it. He knew we couldn’t ascend Sinai or Zion – we were sure to plummet to eternal death in hell.

So, He gave Himself in our place. He died so we wouldn’t have to, when upon the cross He breathed His last on that third mountain. Talk about focus and determination. Talk about true perfection. Talk about life vs. death. Jesus succeeded in all these things not because His life with God depended on it, but because yours did. And He did what no one else could. He climbed the three mountains – of God’s justice, of God’s glory, and of God’s love. 

At the end of the Free Solo documentary, the main character says that he hopes he’s inspired young kids to do something amazing one day – perhaps he’s even inspired them to a greater accomplishment than his own.

What about us? What could do to improve upon what Christ did? What greater feat is out there yet to be accomplished? Well, nothing frankly. But that doesn’t mean we sit idly by. Instead of trying to do one better than Jesus – use what you have to tell His story. You all can tell the gospel message, that mankind’s greatest threat has been conquered. You can speak of Jesus’ determination and focus, of His unbelievable perfection in every thought, word, and deed. You can relate the story of certain death fading to unending life. As we consider the spiritual themes of fulfillment, purpose, service, accomplishment, and destiny – there is no greater calling for those who have their Savior’s love than to share His story. Amen.

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