Saturday, December 28, 2013
December 29, Christmas 1, Children of Light 5: Born of God
Isaiah 61:10—62:3, Psalm 147, Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7, John 1:1-18
Our gospel lesson for this morning is also the ninth and final reading in our Christmas Eve service. I’m the one who gets to read it, for which there is precedence, but I admit my self-interest. It’s the moment when Christmas finally arrives for me. To that point my Christmas Eve is all about liturgical management and people management, and I am not a first-class manager. But all the details and distractions are pretty much done with by the time we get to the ninth lesson, and I get to stand up in the darkness and read it: “St. John unfolds the great mystery of the Incarnation.”
The Incarnation is claimed in verse 14: “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we have beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” I’m not going to preach on that today, but on the previous two verses, which are about you, and how you are children of God: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” That’s you. You were born of God.
It’s remarkable that the birth which St. John presents in the opening of his Gospel is not the birth of Jesus but the birth of you! You, believer, are a child of God because you were born of God.
No you weren’t! You were born from your mother. You are the child of your parents. So this is a metaphor, but it’s a very basic metaphor of Christianity. Remember the song that Michael sang for us: “If anybody ask you who I am, who I am, who I am, if anybody ask you who I am, tell them I’m a child of God.”
Judaism does not typically speak this way. Jews regard themselves as Children of Israel, of the guy who was the grandson of Abraham, and for Jews it’s more literal than metaphorical. The Torah never calls God “our Father,” and the psalms and prophets do so only rarely. Islam never, ever calls God a father, and Muslims don’t call themselves the children of God; indeed, the very word “muslim” means a willing servant who submits to God.
This “children of God” language of the Gospel circles back to the natural religions and the mythologies which claim that we’re descended from the gods. But we’re not! We are descended from the same primitive primates as the monkeys are. And so was Jesus — at least within his human nature, which was a fully human nature. And yet uniquely he was the son of God, the only begotten child of God. His unique identity as the Son of God is the stone cast into the water, and your identity as God’s children is the expanding ripples on the water.
Let’s explore the metaphor. A first point of the metaphor is that you belong. To be a child is to belong, and to belong to someone other than yourself, but with a belonging which is different than ownership and being owned. It is a belonging which is not contractual, it’s not even covenantal, it’s a belonging which you cannot break. Yes, you can be at odds with God, as children can be at odds with their parents, and yet they have a connection which is deep and tough and physical and emotional and is broken only by violence against nature.
You belong to God in a way which was not your choice any more than being born was your own choice. So that you can have that easy sense of belonging, that sense of security, which children have within their families if their parents do their job. So you can presume the security and the comfort of having been born of God.
Galatians puts it differently. What St. Paul writes is that we are children of God by adoption, not by birth. How different does that make it? Adoption can be a dicey thing. My youngest sister and brother are adopted. It took some time for them to feel like they belonged. And it wasn’t easy. They didn’t have that physical connection with my parents that we older ones had, that genetic connection which reinforces the belonging.
And yet somehow, over the years, my adopted brother connected with my father in many ways more powerfully than did the rest of us, and it was he who gave the eulogy at my father’s funeral. Perhaps it was more powerful because there had been some choice in their relationship, some moving toward each other. Those two had a friendship that the rest of us did not have. Adoption can be a stronger connection than natural descent. And what my brother emphasized in his eulogy was the Christian faith that my father had bequeathed him, which he felt he would not have inherited had he not been adopted.
The point that St. Paul is making is that childhood means inheritance. Not genetic inheritance so much as cultural and legal inheritance. You are God’s children, even by adoption, in that you inherit things from God. In many genetic ways I am like my mother. But my inheritance from my dad is very great.
Think of it. He was a Reformed Church pastor from Paterson, New Jersey, who was serving a church in Brooklyn, New York. I should change my name to Marvin Meeter Jr. (Probably the name “Marvin” is hip again somewhere in Williamsburg.) Some of my siblings miss my father more than I do. I feel like I’m reliving him in many ways.
And that’s another meaning of the metaphor. If you are God’s child, then God is living on in you. God’s eternal life is in your life right now. God is always present with you. You’re not much different from other people, except that there’s always some small feeling or something of God just under your awareness, just beneath the surface, and all it takes is a bump for you to feel it and a scratch for it to come out.
You also inherit the world. Your being a child of God is not to disconnect you from the world but to get you at home in the world, as it is God’s world. It’s not that you belong to the world, but that the world belongs to God. God created it and God is saving it. That salvation is for creation is very strong in both Isaiah and Psalm 147.
It is not coincidental that St. John’s Gospel opens by quoting from Genesis: “In the beginning.” The great mystery of the Incarnation is that the miracle of Salvation comes into the naturalness of Creation for the revival and renewal of Creation. Your salvation is not to free you from the world but to give you freedom in the world. You are not a slave to the world, but you are as free in the world as the child of the owner of the world can be.
It is such a status you have. But your childhood means that you have both status and the appropriate dependency and humility of children. You are not the measure of your world. You are not the final cause of your own existence. Your existence is a gift to you; you are the steward of your existence on behalf of the Giver. This is counter-cultural. This goes against the reigning values of modernity.
We have come to assume that that which is most basic to you is your “self”. The core of you is your “self”. Self-improvement, self-help, self-maximization. We used to speak differently. We used to say that that which is most basic to you is your “soul”. The core of you is not your “self” but your “soul”. And your soul is that most inner core of you that seeks beyond yourself and reaches out beyond yourself. That you are a soul means that you are never in business for yourself.
When I say “soul” I don’t mean that separate spiritual essence of Platonic philosophy and of so much Christian tradition and of new-age spirituality. I mean that less familiar but more Biblical idea of soul, which is the unity of life and mind feeling within the body, and which has the special sensitivity to mysteries beyond our natural sensations. As your eye is sensitive to light, and your ear is sensitive to sound, so your soul is sensitive to God’s spirit and to the gifts of God’s spirit — the good, the true, and the beautiful.
You are given your soul for you to be sensitive to God’s light in the world. You are given your soul for you to pick up God’s meaning in the world. You are given your soul for you to be free within the world. You are given your soul for God to be present in you and live through you. You are given your soul for you to receive all the gifts of God’s inheritance for you. You are given your soul for you to receive God’s love and know it as God’s love.
You are a child of God. You have a status more intimate with God than servants do. Yes, we do speak rightly of being the servants of God, but today Galatians wants me to say that you are not God’s servant — God does not own you, you do not owe to God your service, you do not owe God anything but your love, and everything which comes from love. That is what God wants from you, you who were born of God — what God wants from you is your love.
Copyright © 2013 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.