In some ways what the world is going through might be a little less disconcerting if we could easily see the enemy. If all the people who had the virus showed clear symptoms. If they weren’t contagious until after showing these obvious symptoms. But because it’s been so hard to diagnose, especially the asymptomatic cases, people have been trying to help us see the virus through its effects. I have lost count of the number of graphs and charts that have been put out showing the rate of infections and so forth. I guess because there are no sports happening then we have replaced it with coronavirus statistics. The USA is winning, by the way.
We are a species that likes to quantify things. We feel better when we have a graph in front of us and see that the curve is ever so slightly flattening out. Then we extrapolate it in our minds and breathe a hopeful sigh of relief that things are going to get better.
It was no different for the Galatians. They too had encountered an invisible power, and it was all too much for them. So, they went back to the graphs and charts of quantifiable religion. Law-based religion, you see, is based on things we can see, and measure and we find comfort in it. We know how good we are at attending meeting, doing our readings, saying our prayers, avoiding this or that sin. By returning to law the Galatians could measure their spirituality by the mark of circumcision, keeping the Sabbath and performing ritual washings.
What was the invisible force the Galatians were running away from to the safety of quantifiable religion? The power of faith. You can’t see it, you can’t touch it, you can’t measure it. It’s completely invisible. And it makes us uncomfortable. We would much prefer that God ask us to climb Mount Everest or do something so we can check off our list of things-I-need-to-do-to-get-into-the-kingdom. But faith is not something you can keep in a box. It’s not something which is defined by things we can see and measure.
But one thing faith has which law cannot match is its supreme power. Law-based religion is an easy religion. Attending meeting, doing your readings, saying your prayers, dressing in the right way, avoiding those sins which we aren’t attracted to (but congratulate ourselves for overcoming), making loopholes for those sins we are rather more attracted to, all things the Jews had become experts at, and the religion the Galatians wanted to return to.
Faith is infinitely more power than that. It was faith which moved Abraham to leave the normality of his life in Ur to trust in God enough to go to a new land he was unaware of. And it was faith which allowed him to obey God under the most stressful of trials when he was told by God to sacrifice his son. Faith can move mountains. Faith can kill giants. Faith can bring down the walls of fortified cities.
In our reading today in Galatians 3 Paul says, “the righteous shall live by faith” (v.11). That’s a quotation from Habakkuk 2, and it’s quoted three times in the New Testament, each time with the emphasis on a different word. In Romans 1 the emphasis is on the word righteous – “the righteous shall live by faith”. In Hebrews 10 it is used to introduce all those who lived by faith – “the righteous shall live by faith”. Here in Galatians Paul is contrasting the paucity of law with the power of faith – “the righteous shall live by faith”. Faith is what matters to God. Not our ability to keep laws and perform rituals. Faith, trusting in an invisible but living God, a God who can save us out of the direst of circumstances. In Habakkuk’s time it was the impending invasion of an enemy they could see, the Babylonians. The prophet was told to “Write the vision; make it plain upon tablets, so he may run who reads it” (Hab. 2:2). He needed to write it in big, bold letters because they would need to run from the invading enemy. Echoing Habakkuk, Paul told the Galatians, “See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand” (Gal. 6:11). It’s been written big, and large and bold for us too – “the righteous shall live by faith”.
Perhaps with everything we’re going through we’re feeling a little more religious. The temptation might be to make sure we get our readings done, say more prayers during the day, tune into as many zoom classes as we can. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but if our religion is solely based on ritualistic following of law, however fervent we might be, it is nothing without faith. It is our faith, our trust in the living God, which will allow us to overcome the invisible enemy about to invade our borders. It is faith which will see us through the economic turmoil about to hit the world. We’re privileged to read Paul’s words to the Galatians, and he’s written it plain upon tablets. The righteous shall live by the unquantifiable but supremely powerful attribute of faith.
Simi Hills, CA