In honor of the incarnation that we celebrated this week, today’s readings are all about the law and grace.
Now, when I hear the words “the Law”, the first images I think of are American ones. I think of dusty sheriffs patrolling the western frontier. I think of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. I think of lawbreakers like Johnny Cash, singing the “Folsom Prison Blues”. I think of Billy the Kid and Jesse James. America has always held the law and law-breaking in an exciting tension. After all, we began as a nation by breaking the law and rebelling against England. Outlaws have been our heroes as much as the lawmen that chased them down.
When we think about grace, we think about big sweeping outlaw stories, too. American Christianity, particularly of the conservative sort, loves a huge conversion story. There is nothing better than when a hopeless outlaw has an experience with Jesus that transforms his life. The first of these that comes to my mind is Charles Colson, who found Jesus while in prison after the Watergate scandal and has spent his life since working in prison ministry. I think of Anne Lamott’s story, too. She was addicted to drugs until a series of experiences in which she had a very clear supernatural sense of Jesus’ presence that motivated her to seek healing and a church community.
These dramatic conversion stories are exciting and a give a clear picture of the power of Christ in the life of believers. A new understanding of Christ’s love can motivate people to completely change their lives, making for a remarkable witness to the power of God. But, what about the rest of us? What does grace look like for those of us who aren’t outlaws?
As you can imagine, I have at MOST about 2% outlaw in me. I have been a rule-follower since I was a little kid. I like order and most laws make sense to me, so I see no need to break them. I pay my taxes, stop at red lights, and have never done drugs. I am, as a four year old I know likes to say, “Boooooooowing.” Matt likes to mess with me in grocery stores by putting an item out of place. He knows I just can’t stand it if a can of beans ends up with the pasta. He knows I will be unable to resist picking up those beans and putting the can back where it belongs. I am a rule bound woman.
And yet, the grace of God that comes through Jesus incarnation is still profound to me.
Why is that? What does the incarnation of Christ and the grace of God offer for us boring rule-bound types?
Well for one thing, in terms of obedience, the law of the Hebrew Scriptures is a lot more complicated than American civil law. It’s easy to stop at red lights. It’s not always easy to follow the hundreds of specific household and dietary laws of Leviticus. It’s really not easy to avoid breaking the laws-such as coveting-which are as much about an emotional response than a behavioral one. Being obedient to all the laws of the Hebrew Scriptures is nearly impossible. They are so detailed, following them might be like having an entire lifetime of just putting cans back into the right slots. While putting cans back in their proper places brings me a moment of satisfaction, it certainly does not offer me a lifetime of joy!
Christ’s incarnation and life changes our relationship to the law. He follows the law perfectly on our behalf.
But more importantly than changing our relationship to the law, Christ’s incarnation fundamentally transforms the way we relate to God-whether we are outlaws or chronically obedient.
In our reading from Galatians today, Paul writes,
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.
When we were under the law, we related to God as his servants. We were the vassals to his Lord, the peasant to his King. Our relationship was based on obedience and loyalty. We were rewarded when we worshiped him properly and punished when we slipped and worshiped Ba’al instead.
When Jesus is born into Mary and Joseph’s human family, we are invited to join God’s family. Suddenly, our status has changed. We are no longer slaves, but children of God. God sees us as his children and we are invited to call him Father.
Now just think for a minute, if you were here last Sunday, about how you felt about our children as they performed and watched the Christmas pageant. I saw the tears in your eyes and heard the sighs and laughter. Our children are beloved here-as they should be. Now imagine that God feels the same way about you!
This is a big transition to make. If you’re off being an outlaw, you’re used to railing against authority figures. If you’re a rule follower, you’re used to trying to please authority figures through your perfect obedience. Neither of these ways of being really prepares you for the challenge of simply being loved.
We don’t have to prove anything. We don’t have to earn anything. We are loved simply because God has chosen to love us. He has decided to adopt us into his family without any manipulation or trickery on our part. He loves us. He wants to be around us. He wants a deep relationship with us. The relational dynamic has changed. Now pleasing God means developing an intimate relationship with him, rather than simply obeying his laws.
And this is the true meaning of Christmas. We welcome the baby Jesus into the human family as a reminder that Jesus has invited us to be a member of his family. We put up lights and exchange presents and generally rejoice because whether we are outlaws, goody-two-shoes or someone in-between, we are loved and wanted by God, and have become part of his family.
Merry Christmas, indeed!