Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
By the First Sunday after Christmas, by and large, our culture has completely finished with its observance of the holidays. As Christians, though, we realize that the celebration of our Savior’s birth goes on and on, and we remember that with a traditional celebration of a full twelve days of Christmas, a celebration that only ends by transitioning to Epiphany, a further celebration of the incarnation.
In some parts of the world, there’s another custom that can help us to think about how we celebrate the ongoing feast of Christmas. December 26th is—or at least was—observed as Boxing Day. I understand that our English friends joke about Boxing Day as the day you box up all the Christmas decorations and put them back up in the attic. But actually, the tradition is that on Boxing Day, December 26th, masters would present gifts to their servants. At least in this small way, the roles of master and servant were reversed, with the master rendering a sort of service to the servants.
In our Epistle Reading this morning, we hear about the Master giving a gift to his servants that truly does reverse the traditional roles. The Master gives his Son so that the servants—slaves even—actually become sons & daughters, heirs, themselves. We might think of this First Sunday after Christmas as a spiritual Boxing Day. By the Master, God the Father, sending forth his Son, you are no longer a slave. Instead, what we realize is that Christ was born to deliver us from slavery for sonship.
But here’s the thing: We were all once slaves. Paul says immediately before our text that we were “enslaved to the elementary principles of the world” (4:3). If you want to get elementary about things, here’s the way our world works: if you want something, you have to earn it. You know how that is—if you want a paycheck, you don’t just walk into your employer and demand a paycheck. You have to work and earn that paycheck. The same thing is true at the store—you can’t just walk into, for example, the Verizon store, pick up the newest iPhone, and walk out. You have to earn that iPhone by paying for it. If you want a bigger, nicer house, you have to earn it by coming up with the money to pay for it. But, if you can’t pay whatever it costs, you’ll always be a slave to trying. The same is true in our relationship with God. If we had to cut our own deal with God, that’s the way it would be. We’d have to do or pay whatever it took to earn God’s favor and a ticket to paradise.
We were, in fact, under the principle of the Law and therefore slaves. God’s Holy Law declares what we are to do and not do, the price of holiness. But we can’t pay up, can’t fulfill the Law’s holy demands. We have a hard enough time trusting God for our daily bread, thanking him for all of the generous gifts that he gives to us, and simply keeping his name holy…never mind the rest of the 10 Commandments. All of this has left us, by nature, always trying, never achieving—slaves to the Law.
But Christ, God’s Son, came to redeem us from our slavery (vv. 4-5). He came in “the fulness of time,” as Paul says in our reading. And it truly was the “fulness of time.” Christ came when God had prepared receptive communities throughout the known world. And the way God had achieved this seems quite counter-intuitive. When Assyria dragged the people of Israel into exile over 1,000 years earlier, they caused these Israelites to resettle all over the Mediterranean world. The same was true of the Jewish exile by the Babylonians. Yes, some of those Jews had returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the temple, but many of those Jews lived in dispersed communities throughout the Mediterranean world. And so, God had prepared communities throughout the world that would be receptive to the Gospel message.
But Jesus also came in “the fulness of time” in the sense that the whole known world shared a common language—Greek. This, combined with the vast network of Roman roads, enabled for the quick spread of the Gospel to thousands and thousands of people almost immediately. There was also the Roman census that required Joseph and Mary to travel to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, fulfilling the Old Testament prophesies. There are many more examples of this, but I think you get the picture: The Lord truly had everything in place for Jesus to come in “the fulness of time.”
And in that “fulness of time,” at the incarnation, God, the Master, sent his eternal Son to reverse roles with us. He was God, the Son, from all eternity. But he was born of the Virgin Mary, becoming truly one of us. And he was born under the Law, taking our place as a slave to keeping the Law.
For us, then, Christ rendered obedience to the Law. He kept the Law perfectly, fulfilling what we had failed to do. But he endured the curse of the Law anyway, taking our punishment upon himself. He took this curse as the price necessary to redeem us (Gal. 3:13).
Therefore, we now live as sons and heirs of God (Gal. 4:5-7). Christ reversed roles with us. He took our place under the Law. He fulfilled it. He paid the price for our breaking it. And by doing so, he has put us in his role—adopted as sons and daughters. This adoption is given by way of Baptism (Gal. 3:27-29). This adoption is ours through faith in Christ (Gal. 3:26). This adoption is demonstrated by the Father giving us his Holy Spirit.
So, we have the full rights as sons and daughters. The right to make requests of God. We pray as sons, not as slaves. We have the closest possible relationship to our God. As Jesus taught his disciples to call God “Father,” we have the privilege of calling him “Abba.” We have been given the right to an inheritance through God. We have our share in the inheritance now—this privileged, forgiven relationship. And we look forward to an eternal inheritance in the life of the world to come.
So, for one day a year, Boxing Day makes a fine tradition—the master reversing roles with his servants. But our Christmas celebration isn’t one day a year, or two, or even twelve. Because Christ reversed roles with us, taking our place as slaves under the Law, we can celebrate every day as our spiritual Boxing Day.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.