Concerning the Epistle:
“Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise” Gal. 4:28.
In Genesis 16 and the chapters following we encounter the remarkable story of Abraham and his two sons. The elder son was Ishmael, born of Abraham's slave woman Hagar. The younger was Isaac, born of Abraham's legal wife Sarah. The elder son was born in the natural manner through Abraham's dalliance with a slave. The younger son was born miraculously, long after Abraham and Sarah were naturally capable of child-bearing.
As Genesis tells the story, Ishmael symbolizes Abraham's effort to take matters into his own hands and produce an heir through his own human strength. Isaac, on the other hand, conceived and born supernaturally, was a son for whom Abraham could take no credit, a son who demon-strated the truth of the Psalmist, “Lo, children, and the fruit of the womb, are an heritage and gift that cometh of the Lord” (Psalm 127:5).
St Paul, in today's reading from Galatians, develops the symbolism even further. These two sons and their mothers represent two entirely different notions of our relationship with God and the message of salvation. Ishmael represents a religion of law, good works, merit and human achievement. Isaac, by contrast, demonstrates God's grace to the undeserving and His generosity to the helpless.
As Paul develops this idea, the surprising spin comes when he points out that Sinai, in Arabia, is the source of the Law, on which Paul's opponents set so much store. And rather than contrasting Sinai with Jerusalem (as the reader might expect), Paul declares that the earthly Jerusalem (simultaneously the center of the Jewish religion of law and good works and the place of Jesus' crucifixion) has now become Sinai. The real contrast then is between the old earthly Jerusalem and the new heavenly Jerusalem.
Paul was horrified by the still popular idea that a religion of merit and a Gospel of grace can somehow be reconciled. There is no middle way, no compromise, no synthesis between the two. The pharisee and the publican can never be reconciled.
That heavenly Jerusalem is our spiritual mother, just as Sarah was the mother of Isaac. As Isaac was a freeborn son, so we, being “children of promise,” are not slaves to the law but freeborn citizens of the heavenly city. We are not slaves to the law as a means to earning God's favor and approval, for we have been emancipated, by God's own righteous act, from the powers of sin, death, and hell. And as Isaac was miraculously born of a woman 90 years old, we likewise have been reborn supernaturally. The new life we have in Christ did not come through our effort or much less through our decision, but by a miracle of grace far more powerful and wonderful than the miracle which produced Isaac.
Concerning the Gospel:
Today we enter the “second semester” of this holy season. We come to three Sundays which present to us, in turn, the threefold offices of Christ as our Redeemer and Mediator. And as we all should know, those three offices, or functions, are those of Prophet, Priest, and King for His people.
In today's Gospel, the conclusion is “This is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world.” Next Sunday (when Lent turns into Passiontide), the Epistle begins “Christ being come an high priest of good things to come.” The Gospel begins by with Jesus asserting His sinlessness, the indispensable qualification for being the “great high priest.”
The following Sunday, we will begin with the Procession of the Palms, singing “All glory, laud, and honor, to thee, Redeemer King,” and then solemnly reading the Passion wherein our Saviour was crucified, wearing a crown of thorns, under a placard which read “Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews.”
So at the conclusion of Lent, the tiny seed of Epiphany has come into its own:
Everyone thought, and everyone thinks, that he knows what prophets, priests, and kings are supposed to do. Our blessed Lord, however, always operated contrary to our expectations. That is largely why we was crucified. Had He conformed to the expectations of the crowd (the same crowd runs through all the Gospels of these three Sundays), things would surely have turned out differently for Him. But He was a very different sort of prophet, priest, and king. As a prophet, He fulfilled prophecy and brought it to an end. The earlier prophets declared, "Thus saith the Lord." Jesus Christ declares, "Verily, verily, I say unto you." As a priest, He made a sacrifice of Himself. The priests of the Old Testament offered lambs, bulls and goats, but at no expense to themselves. But in Jesus Christ, priest and victim are one and the same. As a king, He took the form of a servant. Pontius Pilate asked in amazement, "Art thou a king then?" King Jesus, plying the trade of a carpenter and dying a criminal's death, turned the whole notion of kingship upside down.
His prophetic office is the one before us on Lent IV. He was the last of a succession of prophets “which have been since the world began.” Although Jesus had much to say about the future, there is a truly awful finality in all His sayings. He is God's last and final word to us because He is the Word Incarnate. Beyond His message and teaching, nothing can be added, nothing can be changed, nothing can be taken away. He is God's “yea and amen” to us, the word who is Himself the Word, the One who silences all other speaking.