It's All Perfectly Legal!
Preparing for the Fourth Sunday of Advent: Three Days Before Sunday (Year C)
Psalter: Psalm 80:1-7
Old Testament: Jeremiah 31:31-34
Epistle: Hebrews 10:10-18
O Shepherd of Israel, you gently support the one who is with child and call forth the Lamb who dances in the womb. Stir our hearts to recognize Christ’s coming, as Elizabeth recognized his presence in Mary’s radiant obedience to your desire, and open our souls to receive the one who came to love your flock. Amen.
It’s all perfectly legal; a phrase we usually hear when someone is trying to justify questionable behavior. Legalism equates legality with morality. While it is true that the law should reflect moral convictions, we know that it doesn’t always succeed. In our nation’s history slavery was at one time legal, interracial marriage was illegal, and it was illegal for women to vote. Just because it is legal, does not mean it is moral.
Throughout biblical history, God’s people have had trouble with legalism. If we just cover the bases of what we are supposed to do, that is sufficient. The problem was that the biblical prophets didn’t see it that way. The Prophet Amos proclaims that the greatest Temple worship in the world will not save them from judgment because of their lack of justice toward the most vulnerable. Ezekiel castigates the religious leaders for using their position for selfish ends; and the Prophet Jeremiah makes it clear that all the sacrifices in the Temple cannot replace true obedience to the law.
In Jeremiah 31:31-34, the Prophet envisions a time in the future when God’s law will not just be outwardly applied like a coat of paint only to wear off over time, but that it will be injected like a vaccine that changes the immune system of the people warding off the disease of sin.
But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
In Advent, we prepare for the fulfillment of that promise in the coming of Jesus, a time when the Holy Spirit will now enter into the lives of believers, not for a specific purpose only to leave when the mission is completed, as in the Old Testament. Now in Jesus and in his sending of the Spirit on Pentecost, we becomes Temples of the Holy Spirit, where Christ’s very presence abides. God begins the work of writing the law, the ways of God, on our hearts.
Jesus criticized the religious leaders of his day for their “it’s all perfectly legal” approach to the law. Jesus never saw the law as an end in and of itself, but as a means to the end of what was best for God’s people. Scot McKnight says that the difference between Jesus the religious leaders was that the religious leaders believed in the love of the law, but Jesus believed in the law of love. He opposed the use of the law to run over people, to withhold justice, and to deny mercy even though it was all perfectly legal. My favorite Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” reminds us that in Jesus, the lawgiver is the grace giver as well.
Oh, come, oh, come, our Lord of might,
Who to your tribes on Sinai's height
In ancient times gave holy law,
In cloud and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!
In Jesus, God embodies the law of love in action that it might be written on our hearts and transform us from within, so that our outward actions will reflect a real transformation.
Because of Jesus, it’s all perfectly legal is no longer a Christian option.
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