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Sunday, January 5, 2014

To those who received him

Adopted as children of God, inheritors of God: these are our titles, our promise, but in fact they are also our identity, our reality, and our life in Christ is the Spirit’s making the Incarnation live in us for the sake of the world.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Second Sunday of Christmas; texts: John 1:(1-5) 10-18; Jeremiah 31:7-14; Ephesians 1:3-14

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

Though it doesn’t always happen the same way, and sometimes there are divergent behaviors and personalities, quite often it is true to say that children grow up and are imitations of their parents.  Behavior traits, patterns of thinking, even quirks of speech, children learn and copy from those who rear them, who love them, who teach them.  It’s a remarkable thing, but the more important inheritance we receive from our parents is what we learned from them, for good or for ill, and how that affects who we are in the world, far more than any material inheritance.

We sometimes seem to forget this when we consider our claim that we are children of God.  Paul, in this introduction to the letter to the Ephesians, speaks of the believers being adopted as children, receiving their inheritance in Christ, which we sometimes think of as limited to receiving life after we die.  But if we read the entirety of this letter it’s clear that the true inheritance is not as much about life after death as it is a life lived as Christ, in imitation of and filled with the Spirit of our Lord Jesus, a life which is lived now and, in Christ’s resurrection, after we die, both.  “Live a life worthy of the calling you have received,” Paul will say later.  And, “you once were darkness, now you are light in the Lord.  Walk as children of light.”

As we continue in our celebration of the birth of the Son of God, then, we are confronted by the very truth that gives us hope: we are children of God but are called to live as if that were true.  To imitate our sibling Jesus with our lives.  And when we consider what we hear today about what the coming of God into the world is supposed to do, what we claim the Triune God began in coming in this child Jesus, we also are faced with the truth that the only way that all this will be accomplished is if the rest of God’s children start living as this Child, this Son of God, showed us how.  If we start looking like our Brother.

This is pretty important, because what Jeremiah promises today about what God is doing is something we desperately need in this world.

Jeremiah’s promise here is that God will come and save.

Salvation for those in exile – the context of these words – is restoration, the gathering of the scattered.  And that’s what God promises: those scattered all over the world will be brought back from all the coastlands far away, like a shepherd gathers a flock.

Those who are not whole – from the blind to the lame, and any other pain or infirmity, physical, spiritual, emotional, any ailment we could add – will be brought back, too.  Their brokenness will not bar them from coming.  Our brokenness will not bar us from coming.

And all will walk by brooks of water for refreshment, the prophet declares, and on straight paths so they won’t stumble.  And joy will be the word of the day: celebration, feasting, merriment, dancing.  Mourning turned into joy.  Sorrow turned into comfort.  God’s people will be brought together as one, under the care of the shepherd, and all will be well.  This is the promise.

Now it’s likely that these words were chosen to be read on the Second Sunday of Christmas because they speak of the messianic reign which we see fulfilled in Jesus.  But just as we heard such promises in Advent, and realized that we haven’t seen this yet, we see that here, too.

God’s people aren’t gathered together in joy, they’re scattered.  Even if we limit that group only to Christians, which isn’t warranted at all by this text, we are as divided as a body of over a billion could be.  Though we all confess that Jesus is God’s Son, we find much to separate us.

And all the rest of God’s people, those who don’t recognize Jesus this way, but believe in God, or don’t even believe in God, well, we’re separated from them, too, barely recognizing them as sisters and brothers at times.

So the picture of God’s children gathered together in unity, walking on safe paths, fed, fulfilled, in God’s care, well, that hasn’t happened yet.

But before we complain that God hasn’t done it, or that Jesus isn’t really fulfilling it, we should look at John’s words for a moment (keeping Ephesians in mind as well).  Because there’s something important about the Word becoming flesh that we often seem to miss.

John declares that God became one of us.  But then he tells us that it’s so we, we, can become God’s children ourselves.

John says that all who receive this Word-made-flesh, who believe in him, are given power to become children of God, born not of anything but of God.  That’s amazing.  Because we haven’t always understood the Incarnation that way.

We recognize that God became one of us, dwelled among us, literally “pitched a tent” with us.  But we usually limit that to Jesus: Jesus is God-with-us, Jesus is the Son of God, Jesus is God’s answer to the world’s problems.  And that’s true.

But in the same place that John tells us that about Jesus, he says that we, too, are made children of God.  And in John’s words what is inescapable is that we are literally children of God like Jesus.  Born not of human will or flesh and blood, John says, but of God.

Now of course we’re flesh and blood.  But John also seems to be saying that because of Jesus, God-with-us, we, too, are God’s incarnation in the world ourselves.  We have the power to become children of God.  And that means we are God’s agents of promise, we are God’s hands to heal.

The Incarnation of the Son of God seems to have been only the beginning of God’s planned restoration.  We’re the continuing of that plan, God’s Word continuing to be enfleshed in the world.

Now we say this a lot, that God works through us.  But as we celebrate the birth of the Son of God, maybe we need to use that image for ourselves more as a way really to believe what we say.

You are a child of God.  I am a child of God.  Literally.  Not figuratively.

So when God promises to heal the world, it isn’t only through Jesus.  God’s intent, God’s plan, is that all of the children of God will participate, will make things new.

And then the promises of Jeremiah start making sense.  If all God’s children are a part of the gathering of peoples in God’s love, part of the restoring of the creation, it’s almost easy to see how this new world God hopes for could come about.

Believing in the Son of God, receiving him, as John puts it, is anything but passive.  It’s never about sitting back and rejoicing at the birth of Jesus, even his life, death and resurrection, and saying, “OK, when’s this world going to be fixed?”  Even the disciples had to learn that, before the ascension.

It’s always about seeing this Son of God as the one who always turns to us and says, “Follow me,” who needs us to continue this healing, this restoration, this light in the darkness that cannot be overcome.

It’s about receiving him, literally, taking in this Word-made-flesh.  In this first chapter of John, that’s the dividing line: “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him,” John says.  “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”

And as for how this happens for each of us, I believe that it’s the case that God wants us to figure some of this out ourselves, and make a difference.

God needs our ingenuity, our willingness, our hands.  To make this plan truly be what God needs it to be, not imposed from above but joined in willingly by the very people God needs to save.  The only way the restoration of the world can happen is if many are involved, and all their gifts are used.

But also by involving us in this healing and new life, it becomes how we’re going to grow and mature into the people God envisions us to be.  When we live out our true calling as children of God, we are living into the fullness of what God intended in the first place by coming in person as one of us.

And I’m sorry to tell you this, but I’ve just done the easy part.  The hard part is to come.

The easy part is to recognize who we are.  The hard part is to live it.  How do we take this from here and live it?  How do we take seriously and joyfully that we are God’s incarnate children, we are filled with God’s Spirit, we are God’s answer for the world?

I don’t have all the answers, but I have a couple thoughts.  It’s a new year, a good time to make a resolution.  Here’s what God might suggest for us: when we see a difficulty, a problem, a challenge, something we’d like to see different, something we’d like God to make right, why don’t we first ask what we can do?  What options we have, what wisdom we bring, what energy we can put to use?  We’re not doing this alone: we are God’s children, and all our gifts come from God.  God will give us all we need.  But the willing heart, the joyful “I’ll help,” that God needs from us.  So we can grow and mature.  And so it all can get done.

And second, perhaps God might suggest this: that whenever we are considering how we live, what decisions we make, how we treat others; whenever we’re dealing with other people, looking at our own successes and failures, simply living, why don’t we first always remind ourselves of our true identity?  Remind ourselves that we are in fact God’s children, not anything else, and let that profoundly shape us.

The good news is God’s got a plan.  The good news is also that we’re a part of it.  But the best news of all is that John says we’re “given the power” to become the children of God we are.  The Spirit will fill us with all we need to live in this way, learn from our brother Jesus, become what we are made to be, and so change the world.  God will help us to be the children we’re meant to be for the sake of the world, that’s a promise.

So let’s be about being who we are.  That will be our Christmas gift to the world, wherever we are planted, wherever we go.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

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