Christmas I

The famous Prologue of John’s Gospel we have just heard this morning is read twice during Christmas season: One time on Christmas Day, and one time on the first Sunday after Christmas. Actually, you would even hear it three times if you’d attend a midnight Christmas Eve service, this Gospel would be the last lesson, read right after the celebration of the Eucharist to conclude worship. So we hear it for the last time today, and I think it’s beautiful that it is also a day we’re going to bless a child, as this Gospel reminds us that, in Jesus the Son of God, we are all called to become children of God as well. We may not understand everything about this Prologue the first time we hear it, or maybe not even the second or third time, and maybe we don’t even understand it after having heard it a hundred times, and yet, its truth resonates in our hearts, we think it’s beautiful. And so I would say that even if we don’t understand all of it, as we perceive its beauty, we get it nonetheless. God loves us as parents love, or are meant to, love their children. We are the same joy, the same pride, the same anxiety to God as our children are to us. We are loved with the same love, a love that is extravagant, unconditional and everlasting. I guess we could say that this passage of the Gospel is the Gospel in a nutshell, what the Gospel is all about is telling us we are children of God, and meditating on this simple truth would be enough for today, and maybe it would be enough for a Christmas season, maybe enough for a lifetime, maybe enough for eternity. And yet. Yet, as I was preparing the sermon about this text everybody gets but nobody truly understands, including preachers and including myself, I realized that our lectionary invites us to look more deeply into what it means to be a child of God by offering us another perspective about what being or having a child may be, a perspective that is not our 21st century experience, but the perspective of another author of the First century – Paul, Paul who is believed to have sent his Epistle to the Galatians maybe as much as fifty years before John’s Gospel was completed.

What did it mean to be a child in the first century? Contrarily to what we often assume, I think people loved their children as much at that time as we love them now – Maybe they didn’t dote on them or spoil them the way we sometimes do, but they knew what it meant to love a child unconditionally and extravagantly. Yet at the time, being a child meant also something that we generally don’t think about anymore today, and we can find this meaning in the Letter to the Galatians. In the first century, being a child (in a household) meant that you were not a slave. Being a child meant that you were not a slave. And I think having in mind this understanding shines a new light on John’s Gospel. Jesus came into the world, in a very specific world, the world of the Roman Empire where the people of God had lost their freedom, and Jesus came to set the people free. The law Paul talks about that “imprisons” may be specifically the religious law, but more widely, the law also symbolizes for Paul the way of the world, things that are and cannot be changed, the social order and all the things that oppress people. I think it can still speak to us today each time we find ourselves being only agents of other people’s will and whim and maybe also when we are enslaved by our own fears or addictions. We need to be reminded that Christ came to let us be our own person, the person God created us to be, not the person other people want us to be. In John’s Prologue, we are taught that God breaks through into our world with power and brings us power, but it’s another form of power than the power of this world, it’s not the power to control or dominate things or people, but it’s the power to be God’s child, the power to be free and to live authentically. And so, to be a child means much more than being loved, even if it’s wonderful to be loved, but being loved is not just about being protected and defended at the risk of being doted on or being spoiled. In the New Testament, when we are called a child, we are made an heir as Paul puts it, which means: We have a future, we are part of something bigger; we have hope, we will be rewarded; we have a dignity, we can expect and claim respect. We are not slaves to anyone or anything. Which means also: we have no right to consider any other beings as our slaves. In Christ, we are all children. It’s not about our ability to confess that Jesus is our Savior, it is about what God has shown to us in Jesus: Telling us who we are and what we are made for, and living our lives according to this truth.

So how do we do that? How do we get the “Power to become children of God”? Well, one of the things that really struck me as I was reading maybe for the hundredth time this passage of John is that God’s power is represented by his word, and John insists that the word was there in the beginning. I have a sense that most of the time, we assume that at the beginning of something there is always silence. Silence when our world came into being, silence as the child grows in the womb, silence inside of us when we get hurt, silence when we’re in shock, silence when we hear bad or great news– Well, maybe I see things like that because I am an introvert!

But the assumption for us is that at the beginning, nothing is clear, known or sure, when what the Scriptures tell us is that, from the beginning, there is meaning, there is expression, there is intention. And this is what the power of God is: Not chaos, but meaning, expression and intention. Spirituality today is so much about silence! Everywhere I look, I see spiritual gurus who say we need a break, we need to still ourselves, we need to listen. And I agree this is needed, but it is often just the basis of spirituality for busy people overwhelmed with their crazy lives. The Gospel invites us to a spirituality richer than just being still when, as children of God, we have, as Christ had, the power to break the silence. Jesus came into the world as the word and broke the silence at the time of the Roman Empire. Jesus broke the silence about those we were left out and despised by the authorities. Jesus broke the silence about who God truly was. It’s not that we are all called to become prophets or political activists. Speaking up is not only, not mainly, about being loud on the public square (but more likely just on Facebook). Speaking up is about telling the truth, and that can happen also even if you speak softly. Speaking up is not about being loud, it is about not letting unsaid things that demand to be said.

And so, as children of God, we have the power, and maybe also the duty, to break the silence because silence is not always a spiritual thing, silence can be destructive when we don’t acknowledge the evil that is going on in the world or when we remain confused and lost about what’s going on in our lives because we cannot confront certain realities. As a foreigner, I can tell you that not having the words can make you feel very powerless! More deeply, we know that traumas happen not so much when we have bad experiences, but when we have bad experiences we cannot name or discuss about, that’s when we are crushed by what happens to us, and this is what therapy tries to reverse: By putting words were there were no word, we bring understanding in difficult and sometimes terrible situations. When the word comes to us, we have the power to give meaning, expression, intention, where there were shame, confusion and inertia, we have the power to communicate and as we communicate we are brought back into communion with our deeper self, with God and with one another, and this indeed gives us life and sets us free, moves us from being the slaves, the voiceless, the possessed, to become the beloved children.

So maybe this year, we can think about what needs to be said – not just hoping for things to work themselves out as we sometimes do. It can demand a lot of courage sometimes to say the most simple things. But it’s very interesting and important that John acknowledges that, reminding us that Jesus, as bearer of truth, life and light, was also rejected. It makes us aware of the risks we take and the difficulties we may encounter around us when we become a follower of Christ who chooses to speak the truth, it also can make us aware of our inner resistances to the truth. Most of the time those resistances are difficult to spot because it can be just the way we choose our comfort and our routine over a life lived more authentically. But when New Year shows up, we all long for change and wonder how our lives could be improved. Well, I think the Gospel is here to tell us that it’s only once things have been named, that we can figure them out and discover how we need to act and to change, and that’s only when a new reality can take place and this is really all about the coming of Christ into our world and into our lives: Things can change, we can change. We are not slaves anymore. Being a child of God, being close to the Father’s heart is not mainly about being in God’s good books, it’s about, as Paul puts it, having: “The Spirit of his Son in our hearts crying out”. So may we all bring the Word into our own world this year. Amen.

One thought on “Christmas I

  1. Louise Bennett says:

    Fanny – Thank you for posting your sermon. When I heard it at Resurrection, these words stood out and I’m glad I got to read them: “We are not slaves to anyone or anything. Which means also: we have no right to consider any other beings as our slaves. In Christ, we are all children.”

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