Isaiah 61:10—62:3, Psalm 147, Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7, John 1:1-18
Our gospel for this morning is also the ninth and final lesson in our Christmas Eve service. I’m the one who gets to read it, and it’s the moment when Christmas finally arrives for me. Up till then my Christmas Eve is all about the details and distractions of managing liturgy and people, and I am not a first-class manager. But that’s all done by the time of at 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.
Well, 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. “If anybody asks you who I am, who I am, who I am, if anybody asks you who I am, tell them I’m a child of God.”
Judaism does not speak this way. Jews regard themselves as Children of Israel, and Israel is the other name for Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, so for Jews it’s more literal than metaphorical. The Torah never calls God “our Father,” and the psalms and prophets do so only rarely. And Islam never, ever calls God a father, and Muslims do not 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, in his fully human nature. And yet uniquely, by the hovering of the Holy Spirit upon the womb of Mary, 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 the expanding ripples on the water are you, the children of God.
Let’s explore the metaphor of being children. 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 that is different than servanthood, which is 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 that was not your choice any more than being born was your own choice.
So then, as born of God, you can presume that sense of belonging, that easy 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 develops the metaphor. St. Paul writes that we are children of God, and that is by adoption. What difference does that make? 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 ways more powerful than did the rest of us.
It was my adopted brother who gave the eulogy at my father’s funeral. Perhaps their connection 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. What my brother stressed in his eulogy was the Christian faith that my father had bequeathed him.
For St. Paul here the significance of childhood is inheritance. Not genetic inheritance so much as cultural and legal inheritance. Because you are God’s children, even by adoption, you inherit things from God. In many genetic ways I am like my mother. But my inheritance from my dad is very great. He was a Reformed Church pastor born in Paterson, New Jersey, who was serving a church in Brooklyn, New York. I should change my name to Marvin Meeter Jr.
Some of my siblings miss my father more than I do. I feel like he’s living on inside me. Which is another meaning of the metaphor. If you are God’s child, then God is living in you. God’s eternal life is in your life right now. God is present within you. You’re not so 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. Now at the same time your childhood means that your freedom does not deny the appropriate dependency and humility of children. You are not the measure of your world, which fact gives you greater freedom and joy in it than if it were your own.
One last thing, and that’s the way we talk to God. I refer you to the opening line of the gospel: In the beginning was the word. That translation is not wrong, but you could also translate it as “in the beginning was the talk.” The conversation. The word of God is not just dictation, it initiates a conversation. God wants you to talk back. You are God’s children after all.
Did you know that Christianity is unique among the religions in the room it gives for free prayer, informal prayer, for prayers made up on the spot. In other religions the prayers are formal and prescribed. You learn them, and you don’t think to make up your own. But we Christians act like we can talk to God with all the familiarity of children talking to their mother or father. Precisely.
It can go too far. Just as children can be undisciplined and disrespectful, and talk to their parents in unseemly ways, so too do we Protestants especially. So much of Protestant free prayer strikes me as shallow, impulsive, and clichéd. There is great value in the discipline of formal prayers, in how they convert your mind and train you to pray more deeply and widely than you ever could on your own.
I pray the Daily Office every morning, and almost all of it is the traditional readings and prayers, but every morning a time is reserved for my own made-up prayer, and I am not ashamed to confess that my made-up prayers are little different from those of my childhood. Let me recommend the same to you. The formal prayers are for your great benefit, not God’s, and what God loves to hear is your own most personal voice, with all the open naiveté of a child.
You are a child of God. You have a status more intimate with God than servants do. Yes, it’s okay to be known as servants of God, but today Galatians wants us 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 © 2018 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.