It’s always so fascinating to me to see the wisdom of the Orthodox Church year. Here we are approaching the birth of the Messiah, the God-Man, the Savior of the World, and today we celebrate the miraculous Conception of the Theotokos by St. Anna, her mother. Of course, you know this story. It is a familiar one to anyone who has read the Old Testament: An elderly couple has never been blessed with children and they pray to God over and over again to give them children, and God finally answers “yes” when it would be a miracle for a woman to conceive at an older age.
Every time this happened in the Old Testament, this heralded a great person was going to be born! And here it is happening again. St. Anna conceived the child that would one day be visited by the Archangel Gabriel and be told she would conceive and bear the Logos, the Word of God, the Messiah expected for thousands of years.
And today, we celebrate that miraculous conception of St. Anna with a powerful sermon from St. Paul inviting us to leave the slavery of the fallen worldly passions for the freedom of life in Christ! What a powerful lesson as we approach the celebration of Christmas.
Look at our Lesson today in Galatians 4:22-27:
BRETHREN, Abraham had two sons, one by a slave and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, the son of the free woman through promise. Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. For it is written, “Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear; break forth and shout, you who are not in travail; for the children of the desolate one are many more than the children of her that is married.”
St. Paul is still trying to correct the bad story someone came and told the Galatians about what these Gentile believers needed to do to be real Christians. Some “false brethren” had come and told these new believers that they had to be Jews before they could be Christians. In other words, these Gentiles would have to start obeying all the Jewish Law and live like Jews before they could be true Christians. And their bishop, St. Paul is writing them to say that this “false” story was not just wrong, but that it was actually a horrible heresy and not Christian teaching at all.
And Paul uses a very familiar story from Jewish history to make his point. He uses the story of Abraham and his first two sons: Isaac and Ishmael. Ishmael was born of the servant girl Hagar. You remember the story, don’t you? God had promised Abraham a son that would be the heir of Abraham and become a great nation. But Abraham and his wife Sarah were very old, so they had the idea that maybe we could have a child if Abraham took Hagar, Sarah’s slave, and have a child through her. Bad idea! But Hagar did have Abraham’s son, and she named him Ishmael.
But that wasn’t God’s plan and God told Abraham this. So, after Sarah had been barren all those years and after she was well past the age for childbearing, she did give birth to a son, and they called him Isaac (by the way, his name means “laughter” and there’s a cool story behind that). So, Ishmael was the son of a slave woman and Isaac was the son of a free woman. Paul uses this story to illustrate that the days of the Law of Jewish ritual and religious observance were done. After all, they were only meant to show us that, no matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t follow all the rules by ourselves. But the Christian Faith was all about the freedom of mercy and grace and a much more complete and even more difficult spiritual path of love and communion. Now it isn’t about following all the rules, but about the much more life-changing message of a true change of heart into loving God and being motivated by communion with God.
This distinction matters a great deal! And that’s because if I am merely to follow the rules as a slave to God, then where will the affection come from? No, I am meant to not just be an “obedient slave” but a free son of the Lord. The Christian Faith calls me to be family, not property. And the story of Isaac and Ishmael shows why! It really matters to get this story straight!
Today, are you the child of a slave, or the child of the free? Are you burdened with the notion that you are bound to “follow the rules” and merely “submit” to the thundering presence of God or are you ready to embrace and be embraced by the truth that God loves you and wants you as His child and not merely His slave? This is why it’s important to get this story right and to live Orthodox on Purpose!
P.S. Dear Lord, I want to be free, but I’m addicted to the ease of the slavery of my passions. Please forgive me. You confront me that true freedom is learning to be Your slave! But my pride wants freedom on my own terms. And I confess I am not aware enough about my own failings to trust my own wisdom. I need You, O Lord, and the wisdom Your Holy Spirit has preserved in Your Church to wake me up to just how deep my slavery to my passions goes. Help me today to stay on this path of repentance so that I will finally be truly Free in You. Amen.