But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. ?
If we only had St. Paul, we would have a doctrinally correct Christmas, but it would not be much fun. For Christmases with carols, pageants, midnight services, and parties, God gave us St. Luke. Paul really gave us two Christmases. The first was God sending his Son born of a woman. That happened in Bethlehem. The Second Christmas Happened When God Sent
the Spirit of His Son into Our Hearts in Baptism
to Adopt Us as His Sons.
The first Christmas made the second one possible. By conceiving Jesus, the Holy Spirit showed himself to be the Spirit of the Son who made us God’s children and the sisters and brothers of Jesus. Another way to look at it is that the second Christmas, our birth by the Holy Spirit, is only an extension of the first Christmas in which, as the Creed says, Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary. In the family of God, Jesus is the preeminent Son. But as God’s adopted children, we are with him joint heirs of salvation. Christmas decorations have been placed in the chancel and on the tree. They might also be put around the baptismal font as a reminder that there we were born into salvation. I.
Few Christians acquire a fluid reading knowledge of Greek, but even a little Greek lets you test the reliability of the various English translations. Some translations of our text read that “when the time had fully come, God sent his Son.” It should read “in the fullness of time, God sent his Son.” The Greek word pleroma is a noun and not an adverb, a word that ancient Gnostics expanded to embrace their polytheistic view of the cosmos. Gnosticism might be described as a form of Christian Hinduism.
Unmatched in theological genius and brilliant in rhetorical expression, Paul gathered all of God’s actions since the creation of the world into that one word pleroma. Ever since the creation, time was like one ever-expanding balloon gathering all events into itself and blocking out our vision of God. Then the bonds holding time together gave way and the balloon burst open. It was like a Christmas in Mexico with blindfolded children hitting the piñata with sticks until the tortured bag is forced to disgorge its treasure. The treasure of time was Jesus Christ, who until its fullness, his conception in the Virgin, was hidden in the bosom of the Father. Phillips Brooks caught the universal dimensions of the fullness of time in “O Little Town of Bethlehem” with the line, “The hopes and fears of all the years Are met in thee tonight.” Jesus was the apex of history, the point to which all things were leading and from which all things would come. He not only encompassed all things in himself, but he was the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, by whom all things in heaven and on earth were made. He held all things together by his Word, and he was that Word. II.
Our lives are incarcerated by the endless cycles of time that are doomed to constant repetition. At least that’s how the son of David, who identifies himself as the Preacher in Jerusalem, saw things in Ecclesiastes: “The sun rises and the sun goes down, and then goes back to the place where it rises,” he says essentially. That’s another way of saying what goes around comes around, and you only get to go around once, so grab for all the gusto you can. You miss your turn in line, and when it comes around again, someone else will take your place. Or if you prefer the words of the Holy Spirit: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (Eccl 3:1).
If we fail to understand the relationship among the various attributes of God, we will end up with a transcendent God who stands at the edge of time but never engages its endless cycles. God becomes like a shy child who watches other children at play but never joins the game. By the incarnation, God ties his own transcendence to time and joins the game. This is what “In the fullness of time God sent his Son made of a woman” means. God overcomes his own transcendence and is perfectly at home in being encompassed in Mary’s child. If the finite is not capable of the infinite, the infinite is capable of the finite. God is comfortable in becoming a bedfellow with us sinners. Paul goes further: he was made sin for us (2 Cor 5:21). From the beginning, God always wanted to be one with us, and in Jesus he became just that. III.
The one who by the Spirit was born of the woman sends the same Spirit into our hearts by Baptism, crying, “Abba, Father.” Abba is the first word of the Aramaic version of the Lord’s Prayer, as it is in the Latin as Pater noster and the German Vater unser. Only those who are born again by the same Spirit who conceived Jesus are God’s children and can call him “Father.” You may not have thought of the Lord’s Prayer as a Christmas prayer, but it is.
Several among us have adopted children or have themselves been adopted. Whatever thoughts adopted children may have of their birth parents, adoption has given them advantages that otherwise would have never been theirs. They live more comfortable lives and have a chance in expecting a generous inheritance. Once we were the offspring of Satan, the children of darkness, but now we are the children of light, adopted by God. Peter says that by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, we have been born anew to an imperishable inheritance kept for us in heaven. Everything that God gave to his only Son, Jesus Christ, he has given to us. For those in need of a new cliché, what we receive in Baptism is a never-ending Christmas.
In speaking of God sending his Son in time and then, following that, sending the Spirit into our hearts, Paul was making use of an Early Church baptismal rite already common in those days in Galatia. It was a paraphrase of the formula to baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Paul may also have been alluding to a civil ceremony in which the adopted child gives up his old name and takes on the name of the new father. We who were estranged from God take on the name of Christ and are called Christians so that now we can call God “Father.”
Paul had the literary genius to combine several thoughts into one sentence. For several reasons, Paul did not find himself qualified to write a gospel, so in writing, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman . . .” he wanted to write the epistle to be read on Christmas Day. Having now heard it as a Christmas lesson, you can decide for yourself whether this was in the back of his mind. Amen.