“Nor of the will of man, but of God.”
by The Rev'd Dane E. Boston
A Baptismal Sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas Day, December 29, 2013
by the Rev’d Dane E. Boston, Curate of Christ Church Greenwich
Texts: Hebrews 2:10-18; John 1:1-18
“And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us. And we have seen his glory.”
May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Last week, we heard two of the three great Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus. Luke furnished the shepherds, Matthew brought the wise men, and we had quite a party. But what about John? This morning we have heard another nativity narrative, though we may not have recognized it as such. John’s account can seem sort of hard to relate to. His nativity story begins on a cosmic scale, in words that echo the grandeur and glory of Genesis: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”
That is pretty powerful stuff, and it deals with some of the great themes of Scripture: light and darkness; creation and nothingness; God and the Word of God. How much easier for us to connect with the stories we heard last week: the sweet baby in his young mother’s arms; the lowly shepherds marveling as they hear the announcement of the Angel; even the mysterious wise men following the distant star to kneel before the newborn king. These tales, at least, involve real flesh and blood people. We can imagine their emotions. We can appreciate their fears. We can share in their hopes. But John stands in a different category altogether.
Or does he? For just when it seems safe to write John off as too abstract—too grand, too cosmic, dealing with things that do not and cannot concern ordinary, everyday people in Greenwich, Connecticut in late 2013—we hear this astonishing pronouncement: “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.” The Word, the One who was in the beginning, became flesh. The Word, the One was with with God at the creation of all things, became flesh. The Word, who is God, became flesh, and dwelt among us.
Beloved, the Feast of the Nativity—the Feast of Christmas—which began last Wednesday and continues on until next Sunday, is a celebration of an interruption: of a collision between the reality that you and I inhabit each day, and the reality of God’s purpose that runs in and through and against this world.
That is a big claim. It can be a hard claim to accept. After all, ours is a world where so much often stands so contrary to the promises and purposes of God. Ours is a world where people kill and are killed. The newswire this morning mentioned a train-station bombing in Russia, and a rocket landing in Israel. Where is God’s reality in that? Ours is a world where stunning natural beauty suddenly and unexpectedly transforms into terrifying natural disasters. A report I read recently said that thousands of the dead still remain unburied seven weeks after Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines. Where is God’s reality in that? Our is a world where children in the greatest city of the wealthiest nation on earth still struggle with homelessness and abuse and instability and hopelessness, as an extended piece about a young woman named Dasani made very clear over the last several weeks in the New York Times. Where is God’s reality in that?
Dear people, the feast of Christmas does not presume to answer these questions. Indeed, the promise of Christmas is not that we shall have an answer to our every question. The promise of Christmas is not that this fallen, complicated world will suddenly and simply make sense for us. But the promise of Christmas is, instead, that in all those cases and places where human suffering or human sin seems to snuff out the light of God’s reality: behold! the light shines there in darkness. The promise of Jesus coming among us as a tiny baby is that in every place where children suffer—in every place where innocents wonder “Why?” and where exploitation reigns—the Word by whom and through whom all things were made is there, present with them in their suffering. The promise of this great feast of God’s in-breaking is that whoever we are, wherever we find ourselves, whatever we have done—whether the world in its cruelty has beaten us down, or whether we in our wickedness have forged our own chains as our own oppressors—even so, even so we are never beyond God’s reach. For if “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” then the crucified Jesus stands with us in the very depths of human sorrow. If we have “beheld his glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father,” then the light of his Resurrection shines even in our darkest hour.
But on this day, we recall that God has done more than to break into this world on a cosmic or a universal level. God has chosen, instead, to break into individual lives. For “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.” Beloved, those words are for us. Those words speak to what we are here today to do. In every baptism—in your baptism, and mine—we glimpse the power of God breaking into this world, crashing into our lives, raising up sons and daughters to his name and glory.
The new birth that we will soon witness at this font is not the same as a natural birth—that’s what the part in our Gospel about blood, and the will of the flesh, and the will of man means. None of that is to be found here. The new birth that happens in baptism happens by the will and power of God. Consider what this means. This baby makes no choices today. Her parents, it is true, have chosen to bring her here. But our passage from John makes quite clear that what happens this day happens not because of their choice, or my choice, or your choice, or any human choice.
Today, God chooses to enter the life of this child. Today, we see the Christmas story all over again, written not in the cosmic scope of John’s prologue, nor in the narrative wonder of Matthew or Luke, but in the sweet and simple script of an individual life: God—unexpected, uninvited, unanticipated—steps into the human experience. Once he came as a baby in Bethlehem. Now he comes by means of water and the Spirit into the life of this baby, and by bread and wine into our lives. But it is the same God—the same Word—who comes to dwell among us.
This is Good News. This is daunting news. This is big news, for someone as small as this dear child. It is big news for people as small and silly as me and you. But it is Good News still. For today we hear the announcement and we see the fulfillment that the God who made the stars and seas—the God by whom and through whom and for whom everything exists—has chosen to be with people such as we are. This is not cause for triumphalism or pride. This is cause for fear and trembling: for great joy and great humility.
For God has chosen to dwell among us in the person of Jesus Christ. God has chosen to draw us to himself by these sacraments and in the life of his Church. God’s Holy Spirit moves in us now: strengthening us, challenging us, purging us, purifying us—binding us one to another, and the living to the dead, and at last bringing to fulfillment the sanctification of all.
“To those who believed in his name, he gave power to become the 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.”