December 25, 2017
Author: Scott Hoezee
It’s amazing how much detail Luke gives us. If Luke were a movie, it would have been directed by Cecil B. DeMille with a cast of thousands and long, lingering scenes on most every situation imaginable. The Gospel of Mark by comparison is like a PowerPoint presentation where the presenter goes way too fast through the slides. Mark gives no birth narrative but just plunks first John the Baptist and then Jesus in front of our eyes, dropping both from out of a clear blue sky. Then before you can even get a good look at this Jesus, he’s been whisked to the wilderness, spends a little time with the wild angels, and then, before you know it, he’s out and about preaching in Capernaum.
Not so in Luke!
If you look at an English translation of everything in Mark’s gospel from its first verse to Jesus’ first sermon, you will find a total of about 250 words. But Luke devotes just over 3,500 words to everything that led up to Jesus’ first sermon, fully 2,500 of which comprise Luke 1 and 2 alone. Luke’s first two chapters provide 10 times more detail than Mark gives us for the comparable time period. Apparently once Luke set out to draw together “an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us” (Luke 1:1) he meant business!
And so in this lection for the Sunday after Christmas we find the intriguing story about old Simeon and Anna in the Temple on the day when Jesus was formally dedicated to God according to the custom of the Law. But you have to wonder why Luke deemed this worthy of inclusion in his gospel. After all, we’ve already had not one but two visits by no less stellar a figure than the archangel Gabriel himself. By the time Gabriel is finished talking to first Zechariah and then—even more significantly and expansively—to Mary herself, we as readers already have a pretty good clue that this Jesus who had been born was a divinely sent figure who was Christ and Savior and Lord.
And in case we were too dense to miss noticing this obvious revelation in Luke 1, the first part of Luke 2 whops us upside the head with not one angel but an entire sky-full of angels singing so loudly and so gloriously as to stupefy those unwitting shepherds who became privy to the jubilation of heaven over the birth of that child in the manger.
So after all that drama, to see a couple of stooped figures in the Temple marveling over the now 40-day-old Jesus seems downright anticlimactic in terms of drama and downright unnecessary in terms of establishing the heavenly credentials of Mary’s little boy. To again invoke the movie metaphor: if the film’s director needed to cut a scene to shorten up a movie that was already a bit too long, this is certainly one of the scenes that could end up on the cutting room floor, and no one would miss it.
And yet . . . Luke did not cut it but lovingly preserved it, and if you believe that this happened not because of something like a film director’s whimsy as to what to include in his movie but rather under the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, then you’re left to ponder in your heart – along with Mary – what these things all mean. Like Mary and Joseph themselves, so we as readers did not anticipate the occurrence of such things at the Temple that day. As I once said to my congregation, we’d all be startled in the church today – and possibly not a little perplexed and annoyed – if, while celebrating the sacrament of baptism for an infant from the congregation, the whole ceremony got unceremoniously interrupted by a couple of senior citizens who tottered up to the font, grabbed the baby, and started babbling wild-sounding predictions for who this child would grow up to be.
Surely our eyes would widen if a doddering older member of the congregation picked up little Jimmy Jones and said, “Excuse me for disrupting your sacrament here, folks, but I just gotta tell you that this little guy will grow up to be president. Some will love him, others will hate him, and you’ll spend most of your years as parents worrying yourselves sick about his safety. OK, now I’ve said my piece and you can go back to baptizing the little fellow.” What in the world would such a spectacle portend or mean!?
Mary and Joseph were in the Temple to fulfill a religious ritual every bit as familiar to them and the others in the Temple that day as an infant baptism is to many Christians today. What’s more, as such rituals went, Mary and Joseph’s version was less glitzy than some because the best they could offer up to God was the poor person’s offering of a couple pigeons Joseph had managed to nail with his slingshot the day before.
If it were a baptism in a contemporary church setting, Jesus would not have been the child dressed in an expensive silk baptism gown that grandma had bought at Saks Fifth Avenue for just this occasion even as the tyke’s uncle filmed the whole thing from the front pew with one of those amazingly expensive digital recorders that could instantly convert to Blu-Ray. No, this would have been a ceremony by a quiet set of humble-looking, poorly attired parents who, by all outward appearances, would disappear from the Temple – and from the consciousness of everyone in the Temple – about as quickly and quietly as they had appeared there in the first place. Mary and Joseph would not have arrived at the Temple in some shiny new Lexus but in their rusted-out Ford Pinto that belched exhaust every time you started the engine.
And yet . . . things did not go as planned. The Holy Spirit of God had gone ahead of this modest family and had planted two people in the Temple courts that very day – two people who had somehow been told by God for years that they’d live to see just such a day as this one when the Christ of God, the consolation of Israel, would show up. Who knows what Simeon and Anna had expected to see. Maybe they envisioned a day when a shining Alexander the Great-like figure would ride up to the Temple on a white stallion and take the place by storm. Maybe they envisioned a day when someone with the sculpted good looks of King David of old would stride through the Temple courts even as angels sang overhead and people fell at his feet below.
Whatever they thought they would see, what they actually saw when the Holy Spirit gave them a quickening of the heart was far, far quieter than all that. They saw a baby. They saw a poor family. They saw a mother and father who—despite what we as readers of Luke know in terms of everything that had been revealed to them about the special nature of this child—were quite simply blown away by the testimony of Simeon and Anna as to what was to come.
This passage is assigned in 2017 for the Sunday after Christmas which also happens to be the last day of the year. It is an anticlimactic Sunday (so much so that a good many folks who crowded in for Christmas Day services won’t roll out of bed for this last Sunday of the year). It’s all anticlimactic.
Like this passage. A magnificent Messianic spectacle it is not. But there is something about this scene’s humble trappings, something about the picture of these ancient-looking people bearing witness to something no one else could see, something about the fact that it was precisely two little old people like this whom the Holy Spirit would raise up to bear that witness (and not someone from the Temple elite or the Roman leadership): there is just something about all this that speaks volumes about the ways of God and the fundamentally surprising nature of the one true gospel.
In The Lectionary Commentary contributor Stephen Farris notes that Simeon’s line about having now seen God’s “salvation” may have been a play on Jesus’ name, which means “God Saves” and is the Greek version of the Hebrew “Joshua.” Also, note the role played here by the word “peace.” This conjures up images of shalom in the Old Testament sense and was also the concluding line of Zechariah’s well-known canticle from the end of Luke 1. The Messiah would be the one to lead all of God’s people into the paths of shalom/peace. Simeon can now die in peace because he has beheld the one who would bring God’s final and lasting peace.
Notice another hook for Luke’s gospel. Here in chapter 2 we see Anna as looking for the redemption of Jerusalem and so of bringing joy to others who shared that longing. Now fast-forward to Luke 24 and the Road to Emmaus where the disciples heartbreakingly tell Jesus (whom they have not yet recognized) that they had HOPED Jesus would be the one to redeem Israel. The tension of the whole gospel is set up here. Is Jesus the One? Can one who comes in so lowly a form (and who ultimately shatters everyone’s fondest hopes by dying on a cross) really manage to pull off redemption?
From Frederick Buechner’s character sketch of Simeon in Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who. San Francisco, Harper & Row, 1979, pp. 156-157.
Jesus was still in diapers when his parents brought him to the Temple in Jerusalem as the custom was, and that’s when old Simeon spotted him. Years before, he been told he wouldn’t die till he’d seen the Messiah with his own two eyes, and time was running out. When the moment finally came, one look through his cataract lenses was all it took. He asked if it would be all right to hold the baby in his arms, and they told him to go ahead but be careful not to drop it. ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation’ he said, the baby playing with the fringes of his beard. The parents were pleased as punch, so he blessed them too for good measure. Then something about the mother stopped him, and his expression changed. What he saw in her face was a long way off, but it was there so plainly he couldn’t pretend. ‘A sword will pierce through your soul,’ he said. He would rather have bitten off his own tongue than said it, but in that holy place he felt he had no choice. Then he handed her back the baby and departed in something less than the perfect peace he’d dreamed of all the long years of his waiting.”
Author: Doug Bratt
My wife and I have a friendly but persistent discussion about on what date we should begin singing Christmas carols. Were it up to her, our home’s halls would start ringing with carols the day after American Thanksgiving. Were it up to me, we’d begin singing Christmas carols roughly one week before Christmas Day.
From my perspective, it’s not just that the Twelve Days of Christmas didn’t traditionally begin until Christmas Day. It’s also that as Scott Hoezee notes in his fine December 22, 2014 Sermon Starter on this text, many of us are ready to start putting away our Christmas carols on the day after Christmas. On this Sunday after Christmas, a culture that’s been busy preparing for Christmas since Halloween is so sick of it that it’s ready to replace its Christmas trappings with Valentine’s Day preparations.
But then along comes the Lectionary’s appointed Old Testament lesson for this Sunday with its thanksgiving for what God has done. In tandem with the Lectionary’s Gospel lesson from Luke 2, it’s what Samuel Giere calls “doxology.” We might even think of Isaiah 61 & 62 as what we could call a Christmas caroling “encore.”
Yet our text’s doxological content is striking when we consider its original context. Many biblical scholars contend that someone wrote it after Israel returned from exile. Yet whether Isaiah 61 & 62 are written during or after the exile, it draws a striking contrast to the situation of its first Israelite hearers. Whether they’re in exile’s misery or post-exile’s disappointment, things are not yet that for what God’s people have longed as well as anticipated.
Doesn’t that disappointment resonate with the some of the Lectionary text’s proclaimers and hearers? After all, after all of the holiday buildup, some of us have found ourselves profoundly disappointed. Or we find it hard to sing because we’ve worn ourselves out trying to meet all our holiday obligations and negotiate tricky family arrangements. Or disappointment with people like our children and grandchildren, as well as things like our careers and retirements has drained our “delight (61:10).
However, it is precisely for times and circumstances such as our text’s Israel and ours that God anointed prophets like Isaiah. In fact, in Isaiah 61 the prophet announces God has anointed him to “preach good news to the poor … to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives, and release from darkness for the captives, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for all who grieve in Zion.”
On this first Sunday after Christmas and last day of the year of our Lord, 2017, the anointed prophet rejoices in God and God’s faithfulness. He testifies to the heart of a God who graciously “clothes” God’s spiritually naked people in salvation and righteousness. In spite of his countrymen and his circumstances, Isaiah is determined to “delight greatly … [and] rejoice” (61:10) in his God.
He uses, as Samuel Giere notes, two main metaphors: marriage and gardening. The prophet compares God’s care for and tenderness toward everything God makes to a bridegroom’s care and tenderness toward his wife. God, he says, gently clothes God’s spiritually naked people with salvation and righteousness.
Isaiah’s second metaphor is that of gardening. Giere calls it imagery of germination. “As the soil makes the sprout come up and a garden causes seed to grow,” the prophet says in 61:11, “so the Lord will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations.” In other words, in God’s “garden” that is God’s adopted sons and daughters, God causes to spring up not plants, but lively righteousness and praise.
It’s important to note where all of this delight and rejoicing, salvation and righteousness, dressing, sprouting and growing as well as righteousness and praise comes from. It’s not, says the prophet, the result of human effort and determination. It is, instead, the gracious gift of God the heavenly Lover and Gardener.
And for whom does God do all this? For the sake, answers the prophet, of the nations. For the whole world to see. God graciously works in Israel, as Giere notes, so that the rest of the word may come to know and rejoice in God’s tender loving care for everything that God makes.
Of course, as Hoezee notes, this passages focuses very narrowly on Israel and Jerusalem. It also predicts something that had not yet seemed to happen even more than 2,000 years after it was first written. Isaiah’s post-exilic Israel could hardly, after all, be called “righteous” or glorious.” When the rest of the world looked at her at all, we can only imagine it did so with either contempt or dismissiveness.
Is that why the prophet employs two different verb tenses in our text? In verse 10 he uses the past tense to describe what God has already done. In verse 11 as well as Isaiah 62’s first two verses, Isaiah employs a future tense. That suggests that while God has already graciously done so much for all of God’s people, we remain what J. Clinton McCann calls “works in progress.”
Perhaps equally challenging for those who proclaim Isaiah 61 & 62 is the fact that as Hoezee also notes, their verses don’t seem to in and of themselves hold out much hope for the rest of the nations. They seem to embrace Israel exclusively.
Yet perhaps that’s why, as Hoezee goes on to point out, the Lectionary pairs Isaiah 61 & 62 with Luke’s account of Jesus and his parents in the temple. There, after all, Simeon predicts Jesus will become a “light to the Gentiles.” In doing so he suggests that it isn’t just God’s Israelite sons and daughters whom God dresses in righteousness and salvation. It’s all of God’s people whom God graciously makes righteous and glorious.
This is a hopeful and, thus, needed word for a sometimes-hopeless culture and world on the last Sunday of the year of our Lord, 2017. Only 17 years into the new millennium we’re realizing, after all, that we have not only made a mess of our world, but also continue to make messes of things like our relationships, the nations and the creation.
The Old Testament text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday promises that in spite of it all, those and other messes won’t get the last word. The prophet suggests that in the year of our Lord, 2018 God will somehow continue to make “righteousness and praise spring up before all nations.” God promises to make God’s people “righteousness shine out like the dawn and her righteousness like a blazing torch” so that the nations will see the righteousness God gives us and the glorious new name God graciously grants God’s adopted sons and daughters.
In Isaiah 61:10 the prophet announces that God has “clothed” him in a distinct way. God has dressed him, he says, “with garments of salvation and arrayed” him “in a robe of righteousness.”
In his book, The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Vol. 1: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932, William Manchester notes that Victorian London’s “Gentlemen, no less than ladies, could be identified by their clothing. They wore top hats, indoors and out, except in homes or churches. Cuffs and collars were starched, cravats were affixed with jeweled pins, waistcoats were snowy white, wide tabular trousers swept the ground at the heel but rose in front over the instep, black frock coats were somber and exquisitely cut.
“Swinging their elegant, gold-headed canes, gentlemen swaggered when crossing the street, dispensing coins to fawning men who swept the dung from their paths. (These men were followed by nimble boys with pans and brushes, who collected the ordure and sold it in the West End for fertilizer.) Bowlers were worn by clerks and shopkeepers and caps by those below them. Switching hats wouldn’t have occurred to them, and it wouldn’t have fooled anyone anyway.
“Despite advances in mass production of menswear, dry cleaning was unknown in the London of the time. Suits had to be picked apart at the seams, washed, and sewn back together. Patricians wore new clothes or had tailors who could resew the garments they had made in the first place. The men in bowlers and caps couldn’t do it; their wives tried but were unskillful, which accounts for their curiously wrinkled Sabbath-suit appearance in old photographs.”
Author: Doug Bratt
What a magnificent Psalm for this first Sunday after Christmas! The middle Psalm in the five Psalm “Hallelujah chorus” that ends the Psalter, Psalm 148 calls on the entire universe to praise Yahweh. These five Psalms are called the Hallelujah chorus because each one begins and ends with the Hebrew words Hallelu Yah, Praise Yahweh. After poetically exploring the heights and depths of their covenant walk with their God, the people of Israel conclude their songbook with that one word. How fitting! And Psalm 148, as I said, stands in the middle of that chorus, as the tallest peak of praise. It is the perfect response to what Yahweh has done at Christmas.
Think of all the ways people react in the few days after Christmas: collapse in an exhausted heap, clean up the house after all the guests are gone, gaze fondly at the holiday photographs, weep quietly over the obviously strained relationships in the family, take back the unwanted gifts, bask in the glow of a wonderful time. Psalm 148 takes us in a very different direction. Hallelujah! As a contemporary song puts it, Christmas calls for “Total Praise.”
This praise is total because it comes from the entire universe. That tiny baby born in an obscure corner of this third rock from the sun is worthy of praise from all creation. The first stanza of Psalm 148 (verses 1-6) is addressed to “the heavens,” beginning with “all his angels” and “all his heavenly hosts.” Unlike other ancient Near Eastern religions that saw angels/gods/invisible celestial beings as worthy of praise themselves, Psalm 148 joins the rest of the Old Testament in seeing such magnificent spiritual beings as mere creatures whose sole function in the universe is to praise the Creator, Yahweh.
The same is true of the celestial bodies that are visible. The sun, moon and stars are not gods; they are merely members of the choir, majestic to be sure, but simply part of Yahweh’s creation. And, perhaps reflecting the Jewish belief that there are three levels of heaven, the Psalm goes on to invite the ‘highest heavens” and the “waters above the skies” to give praise to Yahweh.
In this first stanza, the praise is directed to Yahweh as Creator of all that is above the earth. “Let them praise the name of Yahweh, for he commanded and they were created.” Just as humans must live by the law of Yahweh, so must the farthest reaches of the universe. “He set them in place forever and ever; he gave a decree that will never pass away.” On this first Sunday after Christmas, let us join the cosmos in praising the covenant God of Israel for his creation of everything in the heavens, even as the angels did at the birth of that baby. “Glory to God in the highest!”
The second stanza (verses 7-12) summons the rest of the creation choir to praise Yahweh. Here the focus is on God’s creation on the earth. “Praise Yahweh from the earth,” cries the Psalmist, and then calls upon every category of terrestrial reality to join the chorus. That includes the monsters of the deep, the literal ones and the mythical ones who symbolized the chaos that threatened God’s good creation. Even those fearsome creatures are commanded to praise their Creator.
So are the inanimate forces of nature that can wreak such havoc on human existence. In this year of hurricanes and wildfires, verse 8 might be hard to hear– “lightning/fire and hail, snow and clouds/smoke, strong winds that do his bidding.” Even such destructive forces are commanded to join in praising their creator. We struggle to explain how Harvey and Irma and the northern California fires are part of God’s “bidding,” but the Psalmist is convinced that Yahweh is Lord of all creation, even the parts that seem to be instruments of evil. Even they must give praise to the Lord.
The director of the terrestrial choir calls upon on other parts of creation to join in the praise: inanimate geography like mountains and hills, animate but unconscious creation like trees, animate and conscious creatures like wild and domestic animals, insects and birds. Then the director arrives at the most skilled singers, or at least those who were given the most gifts—the human beings made in God’s own image.
So many of these humans have turned away from Yahweh and have made their own gods and have banded together in rebellion against their Creator. Yet, Psalm calls on “the kings of the earth and all nations” to praise Yahweh. Finally, the Psalmist calls upon ordinary people of all kinds, young and old, male and female, to complete the choir. On this first Sunday after Christmas, let us join the whole earth in praising the covenant God of Israel for his creation of everything on this beautiful, but rebellious and often dangerous earth.
The angels on that first Christmas sang about “peace on earth,” and Psalm 148 ends with a prophecy of the child who would bring that peace. While the praise in the first two stanzas of Psalm 148 focuses on God’s creation, the last two verses are all about redemption. While the heavens and the earth should give praise to their creator, Yahweh is, in fact, exalted above his creation; “his splendor is above the earth and the heavens.”
Yahweh is utterly transcendent, but he has stooped down to his creation to work his redemption. That is his greatest glory. Here’s how Psalm 148 described what God has done to redeem his people, those who are close to his heart. “He has raised up for his people a horn….” A “horn” was a symbol of power and authority. Think of the horn of the water buffalo or the ox or the rhino. Some scholars think the reference here is to Israel itself, or perhaps to David or his line. That is undoubtedly true, but not the whole truth.
We hear the whole truth in the Benedictus of Zechariah, which he sang at the birth of his son, who would be the forerunner of the Messiah. “Praise be to Yahweh, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David… (Luke 1:68, 69).” That little baby in the manger of Bethlehem was the horn of salvation foreshadowed in Psalm 148. Small and powerless as he was, he was the Creator of the heavens and the earth. No wonder the angels sang, “Glory and peace.” We see the glory of God displayed in the heavens above and on the earth beneath, but we see that glory displayed preeminently in the face of Christ. Hallelujah!
The days right after Christmas can be kind of a letdown. But Psalm 148 sets a very different tone. This is the day to pull out all the stops to praise the Lord. I see a full choir, an orchestra, a packed sanctuary, a service full of soaring songs of praise. You say people are too tired? Tell that to the universe!
Recently “60 Minutes” did an update on a previous show about the Hubble Space Telescope. Hubble has given us hitherto unimaginable information about the far reaches of the universe. But now, it has peered even further into deep space to show us that what formerly seemed to be empty black spaces are, in fact, filled with billions of galaxies. Such scientific data can be a challenge to our faith, or it can move us to even more praise. Our God is “exalted above the heavens….” Can you imagine? Those distant galaxies and any planets in them that might be inhabited by sentient beings are commanded by Psalm 148 to join us humans in giving praise to Yahweh. That puts the miracle of Christmas in an even brighter light.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Whenever a child is born, there is a change in status for various people. When a first child is born, someone becomes a mother for the first time or a father. The birth of a child can confer the new status of “grandparent” on someone or perhaps “uncle” or “aunt.” A new child can turn a first child into a brother or a sister for the first time. And we could extend this to cousins and the like.
But the one thing that never happens when a child is born is that someone who is already alive becomes him- or herself a child, someone’s son or daughter for the first time. If someone else in my family has a baby, I do not via that birth become a son for the first time. I do not become someone’s child on account of a birth anywhere in my family or circle of acquaintance. To be in existence means that every person is already someone’s child and that status cannot befall you twice.
Except, that is, for that birth Paul describes in Galatians 4. When the time was right in God’s great plan of salvation, a child was born and everyone who by faith became associated with that child eventually, those people also became new children all over again. Because the birth of Jesus means that the people of God become full children of God. We become full and permanent members of the family headed by a God we now are given permission and encouragement to call “Abba, Father.” Daddy. What an incredible change in status!
It is a change we often do not savor enough. Some of us can recall how weird it was to get used to the idea of being someone’s “husband” or “wife.” The first few times you use those words in reference to yourself or to your spouse, you almost start to giggle because it just feels so odd, so new. Adjusting to becoming “father” or “mother” is similar. The novelty wears off eventually, of course, but for a while there . . . well, it’s really something.
The shock at being able to call Almighty God “Abba” should be no less, and this is one novelty that ought not wear off. The privilege and the honor of being counted as a full child of God is the same. Here is a status never to be taken for granted, never to be counted as a mere commonplace.
All along in Galatians Paul has been assailing the Galatian Christians for their foolish retreat back into thinking that the Law and keeping the rules could save them (or at least help them get saved or keep them saved). Under the Law, Paul writes, we lived in fear. We were as good as slaves. But Paul had proclaimed the free (and freeing) grace of Christ. It is by grace we are saved. Jesus did it all. The cross of Christ means the end of our human striving because if even the Son of God had to go THAT far to accomplish all salvation, we puny and weak and sin-prone humans can know for certain that we cannot chip in anything.
And anyway, Paul reasons, when you get set free from slavery and get adopted as full sons and daughters of the heavenly Father, why would you want to go backwards? No one has ever heard of reverse manumission, of a reverse emancipation from slavery. Yet in a sense this is what the Galatians had opted to do.
The only plausible reason for such an implausible scenario is that they truly did not know what they were doing when the Galatians fell into the false teachings of those who claimed that Jesus had not actually fully accomplished salvation after all. So Paul spends almost the entire first four chapters of Galatians hammering away at the why and the how of this bad idea.
On the Sunday after Christmas for which this Galatians 4 passage is assigned for the Lectionary, we have the opportunity to see in the birth of the Messiah the glorious conferring onto us of the status of God’s own children. We are free from the Law that used to hold us down. We are free from the fear the Law inevitably brings us every moment we are aware that we have not kept the Law perfectly (and if God demands perfection . . . then we are either terrified or tempted to self-deception to deny our sins).
But the Good News that just is the Gospel is that this is not necessary for full children of the Father. It is a story, a status, we never tire of hearing about and celebrating. As Richard Lischer once pointed out in his book The End of Words, sermons are in one sense repetitive because some things bear repeating over and over. As he writes, “When the adopted child repeatedly asks her parents to recount the events surrounding her adoption, the story must remain the same. And woe to the one who introduces omissions or changes in the sacred formula. ‘And then out of all the babies in the orphanage, you chose me, right?’ Could parents ever tire of telling that story?”
No, they could not. And neither can we revel enough in our adoption as full children of God—a new status that is forever fresh and that we ought never want to change, reverse, or undo in any way, shape or form!
Some years ago many of us were riveted to the fine—but at times searing—movie 12 Years a Slave. In it we see the true story of Solomon Northrup, who had been a free black man living in the North in the years before the Civil War. Through a series of tragic circumstances, however, Northrup is abducted and sold into slavery where he remains for a dozen years before another series of (this time good) circumstances leads to his being freed.
The nightmare scenario of the film is obvious enough: when you know what it is to be free, you never want to become a slave. And if for some reason you do, your life falls apart. You very nearly lose your own identity, and the dignity you once had as a free person can begin to feel like a distant dream.
For Northrup, his enslavement was beyond his ability to control. But it goes without saying that no one in his or her right mind would ever CHOOSE to become a slave. Certainly someone who had once been a slave but then freed would not voluntarily revert to the once-despised status of being owned by someone else.
To the mind of the Apostle Paul, however, going from the free grace of Christ to once again live under the Law was just as much a nonsense scenario—just as much finally an UNTHINKABLE scenario—as a freed slave choosing to go back under the yoke of a mater’s oppression.