December 30, 2018

Not Our Doing

Christmas 1 • Holy Covenant Episcopal Church, Baltimore 
When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.
One occasionally hears of somebody called a “self-made” man or woman. You may be familiar with Horatio Alger and his tales of rags to riches; or perhaps Madame C. J. Walker and the story of how she built up a cosmetic firm by the sweat of her brow and the work of her hands. Perhaps it is some poor immigrant who managed to scrape together the money to start a small business, and the business grew and prospered and he or she ended up a millionaire. And while not wanting to diminish admiration for such a person’s industry, inventiveness, skill and hard work — such a person is not self-made.

Before, behind, and along with every such successful person, there is a cloud of investors, clients, collaborators, and customers. The inventor who comes up with a clever new device needs an attorney to help file a patent, a manufacturer to produce the item, marketers to advertise and merchants to sell it, investors to pay for all of this, and — most importantly — customers to buy it.

So it is that none of us become who we are on our own. Whatever else we may make of our lives,there is at least one unavoidable point at which we cannot and do not  do it for ourselves: at our birth. We come into being because of something our parents did before we were born. We simply did not exist at the point at which we came into existence. In this earthly birth we are born of blood, of flesh, and of the will of a man and a woman. We do not make ourselves.
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And, as our Scripture texts for this Sunday after Christmas remind us, we also do not redeem ourselves. Just as we had no say in our first birth, so it is that we have little say in our second birth — though that second birth is something in which we may cooperate and be aware of as it happens. For in our second birth, through receiving Jesus Christ into our hearts and believing in his name, through baptism in water and the Holy Spirit, we become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man — or of woman, for that matter — but of God.

Saint Paul uses the image of adoption for this wonderful transformation — and just as children do not conceive or bear themselves neither do adopted children achieve adoption on their own — both birth and adoption are something that happen to us. We become ourselves through others. No one is self-made.
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In this, as in so much else, the Son of God is utterly different. Even his “beginning” is different from ours. We are not aware of our own beginnings, conceived by actions of our mother and father, when we as yet were not — but the Son of God had no beginning, no “was not”: when the beginning was, he was. He was in the beginning, and had no beginning himself.

And as Son of God, unlike any of us — who do not even exist at the moment of our conception, since that is when we come into existence — unlike any of us, the Son of God knew what was to happen, and what was happening when, as Saint Paul says, “God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” He was and is, as the Creed says, “God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God.” If there ever was a self-made man, it was and is Jesus Christ — and only him. As the great old hymn says, “No man works like him,” and no man is like him.

What is truly wonderful, however, is that the Son of God, in an act of great humility, also makes use of human beings to cooperate with him in this grand invention of salvation. God sent the prophets to prepare the way for his coming. God sent his angel to Mary of Nazareth, and her obedient consent to the angel’s greeting, her choice and consent to do as God asked and become the mother of the holy Child, realized the Incarnation itself. In this, and in this alone, Jesus in his human nature, is not a self-made man — he is made of the substance of his mother Mary.

God also sent that man named John, the last and greatest of the prophets, as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. And so it is that Jesus Christ, the self-made man, as God the Word made flesh, came to live among us and to save us.

This, my friends, is the Christmas gift, the greatest gift ever given — for he gave us himself in order that we might give ourselves to him and become his brothers and sisters by adoption. He sent his Spirit into our hearts crying out “Abba, Father,” to God our Father — our Creator by our birth, our master through his Lordship, but “our Father” by adoption through his Son. This is no more our doing than any adoption of a child is the child’s doing; this new birth in the Spirit is no more our doing than our first birth in the flesh — we do not make ourselves, and we do not redeem ourselves; and we cannot save ourselves.

But we can cooperate in the work of salvation when we give praise and thanks to the one who saved us, who adopted us as his own children, and sent his Spirit — the Spirit of his Son — into our hearts, leading us by his light, and from whose fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. We cooperate with God by our celebration of praise and thanksgiving, for the greatest gift ever given, the grace of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

And so may this grace of ✠ God the Father, the love of God the Son, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us now this Christmastide and abide with us for ever more.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG