Preached at St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Barrie, ON, Diocese of Toronto, 6 January, 2020.
Texts: Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 147:12-20; Ephesians 1:3-14; John 1:(1-9)10-18
But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God (Jn 1:12)
What was the best Christmas gift that you received this year?
I can remember asking that question to my school friends when I saw them in January after Christmas holiday. Someone would say “A new bike” or “new skates”, and everyone else would go “lucky”. Now firmly in the territory of middle age, I confess that these things don’t matter too much to me. I’m happy if I get a nice warm pair of socks for Christmas, to be honest.
However, today’s gospel, the prologue of St. John’s gospel, allows us to rethink the coming of Jesus into the world as the ultimate gift given to all of us. John does not offer us a nativity story as Matthew and Luke do, but if we are willing to listen to his theologically dense and rich words, we receive a kind of executive summary of why God sent Jesus into the world to be born as one of us in a stable as “the Word became flesh”. There is so much to think about in this rich passage, but today I want to spend some time focusing on John’s statement that “to all who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (Jn 1:12) and to think about that what that means for us.
First, though, I think we need to remind ourselves that “children of God” is a metaphor, a way of speaking about things that we might not understand. All of us have different experiences of being children and of relating to our families of origin, some positive, some not so positive because our parents and families were not perfect, and some far from perfect. That’s fair and good to get out of the way at the start. Let’s therefore understand that “children of God”is one of those terms and ways of thinking that helps us understand that God, even a God who as John says “no one has ever seen”, wants to know us and wants to be in an intimate and caring relationship with us. The metaphor “children of God” also helps us understand our faith lives, specifically that we may not be fully formed in our Christian identity and that we need to grow and develop in our faith under the care of a loving parent, which is why we come to church.
So our first question, what is a child of God? The first words of John’s gospel, “In the beginning”, with their unmistakable echo of the first words of Genesis, link the coming of Jesus with the story of creation. They remind us of God’s role as creator, as someone who gives existence — the world, our lives in the world — to us as an act of goodness. As John says, “All things came into being through him”. God, who is outside of space and time, does not have to do anything for us, but chooses to give us world and life as a pure gift, motivated by nothing except for God’s goodness and generosity.
Just as creation is a gift, “in the beginning” tells us that the coming of Jesus, the incarnation of God as the Word made flesh, is also a gift. Jesus brings the same things that God creates in Genesis, light and life (Jn 1:3-4). In this second act of creation, light and life come to a people who are alive but who live in the darkness of fear and death, a people who would not otherwise know God. Jesus thus comes as “light” but also as “grace and truth” (1:14), as the one who shows God to the ones in darkness. The coming of Jesus in this second act of God’s creation makes it possible for us to be children of God. Without Jesus, we would not know God and could not be God’s children.
So how does one become a child of God? We all start out as created beings, with human bodies made by our biological parents, but that doesn’t make us children of God. The children of God are not physically made, but are spiritually made. John writes that the children of God are “born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh, or of the will of man, but of God” (1:12-13).
Rather, we become a child by recognizing who Jesus is, to see in this one, physical person, the fullness and goodness of God. John says that “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (1:12). In the history of the church, we have debated when this process happens, whether at the baptism of infants or when a mature person makes a conscious decision to follow Jesus, but that debate can miss the point if we think of it as a human process. John’s point is that it is God’s process. God gives us the power or as it is sometimes translated, the legal authority, to become God’s children, which Paul sometimes describes as our being adopted by God.
In the simplest terms, we get to be children of God by recognizing Jesus and saying that we want to belong to Jesus. If you are here because you see God in Jesus, then you are a child of God.
So how does being a child of God change us?
Being a child of God puts us into a special category of those who believe in Jesus when others don’t. In this respect, nothing has changed since Jesus came into the world. John says that “the world did not know him” and “his own people did not accept him” (1:10). Despite the testimony of prophets like Isaiah, Jesus was not recognized then as the Messiah. Today Jesus is widely known but not widely accepted. In the last week, when people asked me what I did over Christmas, I was tempted to say that “I went to church a lot”, which I sometimes didn’t because that would have been awkward for some. Maybe I should have said it often.
So to be a child of God is to be distinct from the world, or from the secular, in that we choose to have knowledge of God through Jesus that others don’t have. This knowledge should make us happy, because as John says, to be a Child of God means that “we have all received grace upon grace” (1:16), which means a bunch of things - knowing that we are abundantly loved by God, that our sins are forgiven, knowing the we matter, and knowing that we don’t have to fear our deaths.
Does being a child of God make me special? Well, yes and no. We’re special in that we are saved, welcomed into God’s family, and so have a special relationship to God through Jesus. That’s reason for a lot of rejoicing and even a happy dance! But an ancient trap that Christians have fallen into, is that we are better than the rest of the world, who are sinners, heathens, etc. The example of John the Baptist reminds us that the church’s work is to point people towards Jesus. “I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel”.
As church, we embrace the task of mission because we believe that what we have is too good not to share. There are all sorts of tactics and strategies for mission and evangelism, which we sometimes selfishly think of as church growth. Sometimes these strategies are good, sometimes they are quite flawed. In my work with the Diocese of Toronto as a congregational adviser, I prefer to think in terms of what the Natural Church Development survey calls Passionate Spirituality.
Passionate Spirituality is found in people who believe that they are children of God, who are excited about Jesus, who want to name and share the good news that they have found. Passionate Spirituality makes for a church that others want to join. Sometimes we try to attract people by saying that “our church is good at fellowship” or “our church is just like a family”. These enticements fall short of conveying what is special about being a child of God, about being part of a particular family. If I have taken my time walking us through John’s dense language, it’s because I want to explain what’s important and unique about our identity as followers of Jesus. I would say that if we want to entice people to join us, we need to say something like “until I really knew who Jesus was, I felt unloved and lost and now I feel loved and I think I have a grip on life”. That sort of statement flows naturally out of believing that we are children of God, and I think it can be persuasive.
So why is this important?
In one of his most powerful lines, John writes that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (1:5). As we move into the new year, and look at the stories we are told to worry about, the darkness seems to be gathering. Apocalyptic firestorms rage across Australia. Glaciers melt. Democracies falter. Social media deluges us with lies, propaganda, and false news. Unity breaks down in angry tribalism. Poverty, drug abuse, and homelessness can be found close to home. Parents and teachers struggle to manage children. Young adults wonder what matters. Churches decline.
Perhaps it has always been thus, and the fears of each new year has always offered grim prospects. Yet across two millennia, John’s promise has held true. The light of our faith shines and defies the darkness. The darkness has never won. God continues to welcome his children and, like the father of the Prodigal Son, looks for their return. We the church know the truth and we know God’s love. Perhaps, as we stand at this new and uncertain decade, the world needs the children of God more than ever.