Text: St. Luke 2:22-40
Beloved in the Lord Jesus Christ:
In his letter to the Church in Galatia, the Apostle Paul wrote that when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. A few days ago the Church began her celebration of the coming of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, in human flesh. We marveled with the Shepherds at this divine mystery of the Word made flesh. We sang with the angels and the multitude of heavenly host the praises of God. We pondered with Mary all these things that had happened, and treasured them up in our hearts. Today we continue this celebration of Christmas by considering how Christ, sent forth from God, born of woman, was born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law.
Luther said that to be under the law is to be under obligation to the Law, that you do not have the means of fulfilling it, and that you are deserving of all the penalties laid down by the Law (Lectures on Galatians, 1519). The nation of Israel was under obligation to the Law in the sense that God had given His law to them through Moses on Mount Sinai. This law included not only moral precepts that are written on all men’s hearts and inscribed in the Ten Commandments, but also the ceremonial and political law that governed Israel’s life and worship. God expected His people to keep these laws religiously, to perform everything that was in them, and threatened severe penalties for anyone who did not keep them.
One of these laws was the law of circumcision, which was an outward sign that confirmed the Promises first given to Abraham. All Israelite males were circumcised as a sign and testimony of the covenant which God had made with them. One of the first controversies in the early church had to do with whether or not circumcision was still required for believers in Christ. Conflict arose in the church at Galatia because some people were saying that it was required. This was the primary reason for Paul’s letter, in which he goes to great lengths to show them that the old laws were but “guardians” and “managers” until Christ came. Circumcision was part of the Old Covenant, and was never, ever meant to justify one before God. Abraham was not even justified by circumcision, but by his faith in the Promise.
Paul says that Christ came to redeem those who were under the law, that is, He came to set free those who once lived under the burden of the Law and fear of its condemnation. The law was a heavy burden even for the most religious person to keep perfectly. It offered no mercy. Either keep it all or suffer the consequences. We learn from James that whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. That Christ was born under the Law means that He subjected Himself to the same Laws and regulations as the people of Israel, and became obedient to them all, so as to liberate them from this terrible burden. He even submitted Himself to its penalties, though He was not guilty of breaking it even in one point. Through His obedience to the Law, He took away from the Law its power and right to condemn those who failed in keeping it. Christ is the end of the Law to all who believe.
Jesus began this role of fulfilling or submitting to the Law already as a little Child, when He was brought to the Temple to be presented to the Lord. And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.” You get the sense from these first few chapters of Luke’s Gospel that it was necessary for every “I” to be dotted and every “t” of the Law be crossed by Jesus. And it was. Jesus was even circumcised according to the Law of Moses, an event that is remembered every year by the Church on the 1st of January.
But what significance does all this fulfilling of the Law by Jesus have for us? We were not under the Law in the same sense that the people of Israel were. We were never under obligation to the laws of circumcision, the sacrifices, the laws of purification. We are Gentiles, those who have been called out from all nations, and baptized into the Name of Christ. Most of us were baptized as infants into this Christian Faith, and we have never been enslaved to the Laws of the Old Covenant. Do Paul’s words have anything to say to us? Indeed, they do. For though we were not under obligation to the Laws of Moses in the same sense that the people of Israel were, we are still under obligation to the Law which God has written on all men’s hearts. Paul said that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. If all have sinned that means that all were subject to God’s holy Law, for sin is a transgression of the Law. Indeed, God held all people accountable to the Law which is written on everyone’s heart. That is why even unbelievers, those who are without God, do the things required in the Law. That is why nations can have order and government without the aid of the Church. There is a moral code etched into the hearts of all men, including ours, that tells us that it is wrong to murder, steal, commit adultery, dishonor parents, want what is not ours, and that we ought to fear, love, and trust God above all things.
These things apply even more so to us as Christians, for we have been taught the Ten Commandments. We have been shown the will of God for all humanity. We know that God requires us to fear, love, and trust in Him above all things, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus reaffirmed all these commandments in His own ministry. I came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it. Whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus said that the entire Law can be summed up with these two words: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. We too are under the Law, under obligation to it, to do everything that is written in it, and we are subject to all its penalties. Do you not know that whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it?
Paul’s words today apply to us as well: when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. Christ was born under the Law for us too. He has redeemed us who were under the Law, under its condemning force, under obligation to it. On the cross, all fingers of accusation pointed to Christ, and accused Him before God the Father. He who was innocent became accountable for the whole Law in our place, and thereby destroyed the Law’s power to condemn and accuse us. Christ is the end of the Law to all who believe.
In the Church Year greater emphasis is laid on the Passion, death, and resurrection of Christ than on His Nativity. It seems unfair almost that the Church is allowed to celebrate Christmas for only a scant two weeks. Next Saturday is Epiphany Day already, when the church celebrates the Light of Christ shown to the Gentiles. She hears the story of the Magi from the East, who come to worship Jesus. Then we’ll have a couple weeks to bask in Christ’s Epiphany Light, and then it will be time for sackcloth and ashes as we begin our Lenten journey towards Good Friday and Easter Sunday. The Gospels don’t place much emphasis on the birth of Jesus either, and maybe this is reflected in the Church Year. Matthew and Luke devote only two chapters to it. Mark begins with the ministry of John the Baptist. The early church recognized that the Nativity of Jesus was necessary for one reason—so that the Son of God could become an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Without His Nativity this would have been impossible. And without His death and resurrection, we would still be under obligation to the Law and we would stand in fear of its judgment. Praise be to Christ, who though He was above the Law in every respect, became obedient to its requirements for us, even its penalties. Amen.