Looking at Christmas Backwards: Sharing in His Glory
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, December 15, 2019
Reading: John 1:1-14
A friend received a Christmas gift last year of ancestry.com and for the last year, in every single meeting, has gone on about the findings of his family. In fact, it doesn’t matter what we’re there to talk about, it always ends up coming around to his discoveries about his ancestors, almost to the point that I want to ban any discussion of ancestry from this moment on. Having said that, I understand the fervour of his heart, and I must admit, having spent time with him, I thought about Boxing Day almost 20 years ago on 1999, I was thinking about a conversation I had with my uncle, whom I always spoke to on Boxing Day. He was always one of my favourite uncles, and a very clever man. He went to Cambridge, became the principal of a college, and wrote textbooks on history. He was erudite, joyful, and funny. I loved him dearly.
I will never forget that conversation in 1999, because he told me about a Christmas card with a letter enclosed he had received from a colleague of his who had been at Cambridge many years before. He said, “Andy, in this letter my friend outlined his life that year that and how marvellous it was. He outlined the fact that his daughter had graduated from Trinity College Cambridge with a first-class degree, he’d bought a new home in the Cotswolds, and in excruciating detail described the garden, the furniture, and the beautiful surroundings. He went on at great lengths about his holiday in Ibiza, and how they all came back with beautiful suntans. He described how he at the age of 63 had run a marathon, and how proud he was of his achievements. Then the piece de resistance, he said he had traced his ancestry and discovered that he was related to the royal family.”
My Uncle Ray sought my guidance. “What kind of letter should I write back to him after that?” he said. “What would my letter look like? Well, my daughter had a very public divorce that’s been on the front pages of all the British newspapers. I did not go on vacation to the Maldives because” he said “my agent forgot to make the deposit so we never went. My cottage, which is actually a trailer in Norfolk, got blown over in very high winds during the summer.” He said, “I have not run a marathon because I am awaiting a massive hip replacement operation.” And finally, “I dug into our ancestry and, found, when I go back to our great, great, great grandfather George,” he said “he died in a ditch between Kirkcaldy and Perth in Scotland, probably from inebriation. The only relative that I can say is of any note that I can think of is you, and you’re only a minister!”
We had a chuckle! Thank goodness, I thought after that our ancestry, our inheritance, our lineage is not only drawn on a piece of paper, or is a result of some genetic connection with the past, but for those of us who are people of faith, for those of us who ascribe to ourselves the name Christian, there is an inheritance. There is a lineage that is much more powerful, much more spiritual, and much more important. We find that in our passage this morning from the Gospel of John; not an easy passage to read, a complicated one, full of theology as we’ll see later, but in it there is this incredible line, “ To those who believe in His name, He has given the power to become the children of God, born not of blood nor of the flesh nor of the will but of God.” That phrase, “children of God.”
Similarly, the Apostle Paul writing to the Romans in that glorious passage from Chapter Eight says something very similar when he talks about the spirit and the flesh. He says that God’s spirit bears witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God. Children of God. What does that imply? What does that really mean? It means that there is an attachment; there is a bond between the children and God, between the person and God, between the community of faith and God. I think grasping the power of that inheritance and identity transforms the way that we look at Christmas, and why Christmas and all the stories around it are so important to our identity as followers of Christ.
Over the last couple of weeks we have looked at events that occurred after the birth of Jesus. We started with the presentation of Jesus in the temple under the leadership of Simeon, who after, said that he found peace because his eyes had seen God’s salvation. Last week we looked at the manger and the lowliness, and the vulnerability of God in the child in the manger, the glory to God in the highest because He had shown Himself in the lowest, and how powerful that was.
These were very human stories, but with a divine influence and presence. The Saviour, the Messiah, the one who came as Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us. Now, we have John’s gospel, which does not give us the Christmas story but gives us a prologue to his gospel. He talks in language that seems rather complicated but essentially is very simple. He says that the Logos, which is the creative power and word of God, became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth, and that this truth and this incarnate presence, this bodily presence becomes the light to all the nations. Then he says, and I reiterate, “To those who believe in Him He has given power to become the children of God.” What we see in Jesus is a very earthly, very human child, an ordinary child in the sense of the fleshliness and the humanity. If you look, for example, in Matthew’s gospel, there is this lineage of Jesus, sort of like ancestry.com for Jesus of Nazareth. In it there are some surprising individuals who perhaps, like my family, you’d really rather not talk about.
There is Rahab who was a harlot, David who was an adulterer, and there were some ordinary, down-to-earth people in Jesus’ lineage. Jesus did not come in some sort of a plastic mythological, entirely pure lineage. Jesus in Nazareth was fully human, but at the same time, as John is saying, He is the incarnation and the embodiment of the Divine, of God. Here is I think the great paradox of Christmas. The great G.K. Chesterton put it this way, “Christmas is built upon a beautiful and intentional paradox that the birth of the homeless should be celebrated in every home”. The real power of the incarnation is that it is to be shared and celebrated, and that those who believe in Him are adopted into His family. This is the glorious inheritance of Christmas. This is what we share and what we believe. It causes us, I believe, to look at the whole world differently. Through the lens of that incarnation and through the lens of that Christ, we see the world differently. For the Apostle Paul, he saw the world so differently that there was now no distinction in this Christ between Jew and Gentile, between slave and free, between male and female. It’s not as if the lineage, the genetics, the background, the race, or the traditions prohibited the unity and the bond of those who share this faith.
There was a powerful sense, particularly in John and also in Paul, that when Christ came He came for the whole of humanity. He came to adopt the whole of humanity, to be known as and to celebrate being a child of God as we are child and children of God when we are seen through the lens of Christ.
Let’s be honest, in our human traditions there are many things that have broken us. There are many things that cause us to look back at our own lives like I look back and my Uncle Ray did at great, great, great, great, great grandfather George. There are problems in our own lives and things that we have done wrong. There are things that we have inherited that are difficult for us and many people suffer because of them. Sometimes we question our identity and our value. On a frequent basis I see a young man sitting outside the LCBO near where I live. I asked him his name and I gave him mine, and we greet one another whenever I see him. He is a young man who inherited a terrible disease. He suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome, and he really wrestles with life. And you know, I could look at him I suppose see that he is somehow different, another realm, another race, or another part of the country. I could look at him in all his difference. But when you look at him through the eyes of being a child of God, what happens to him matters. In his identity, he is not just seen in where he’s come from, what he’s been, or what he’s suffered, but who he is in the eyes of Christ. When I see him and when we exchange greetings, I can't help but think of the powerful draw of Christ coming into the world in its brokenness, but I do so in the power of the Spirit of God, for which I pray daily for this young man.
When you belong, when you have a sense of identity, when you take upon yourself the knowledge that you are a child of God by virtue of your faith, and that by virtue of God coming and dwelling among us and being one of us and being alongside us, it makes you concerned even more about the state of the world. Recently, in correspondence that I've been having with Christian and non-Christian friends, I've realized anew the horror of what happens to children of God throughout the world, and those who ascribe to the name Christian as followers of Christ.
I was reading just on December the 1st how in Hantoukoura in Burkina Faso there were 14 Christians killed because they would not renounce their faith. They suffered immeasurably because of it. Even President Kaboré of Burkina Faso commented that this was a tragedy of enormous proportions. The problem is it happens over and over again. I was reading a quote, a powerful statement by a church leader in Burkina Faso. He said, “In the face of blind hatred, let us ask God to give us the strength to spread love, which makes us” – listen to the language – “the children of God. The unity of the body of Christ and of the whole nation must be preserved at all costs” said Henri Yé of the church in Burkina Faso. But it’s not just there is it? Some 245 million Christians live every day with the threat of some form of persecution. In Iraq, in a generation, they’ve lost 90 percent of their Christians. Throughout the world 1,800 places of worship were destroyed or attacked in the last two years. It is appalling. When I heard about the Burkina Faso event, it was a little line at the bottom of one of our national television broadcasts that said I think, “14 people shot in Burkina Faso” and then it went on to some sports report, no more commentary, no more comment about it, no outrage, just silence, yet this is happening every day.
I know that Christians are not alone in the persecution. We know what happened in New Zealand and the terrible shooting of Muslims. We know what happened in Pennsylvania and the terrible death of the Jews who were going to synagogue and their temple. We know what happens to the Uyghurs in China right now. We know about these things, but so often there is silence when it comes to the persecution of our own. I think the world needs to wake up. I say that out of love, and I say that out of compassion for people who are standing for their faith every day and being asked to renounce it. It is an incredible travesty.
I do not want to end on an identity that is negative. Our identity in Christ is profoundly joyful. To those who believe in His name, He has given the power to become the children of God, born not of blood, or the flesh, or the will, but of God. God does something for us. God heals us, and in Christ, God comes to us. I think, for example, of moments when I baptize a child and what an incredible privilege it is. I say that this child is now a member of the Church of Jesus Christ throughout the whole world. I also say to the families and to the children, “In your baptismal certificate you have a passport that says who you are and whose you are. Wherever you go in this world, from the Ukraine to the southern tips of Tasmania to the very far reaches of the Arctic to the very heart of the Middle East, it matters not, when you have got this you are a person who belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ.” It’s a powerful thing to affirm others through the eyes of Christ. A powerful thing.
If you don’t think that it’s a powerful thing, then you miss the incredible impact of this Christmas. I've always been a huge fan of Jean Bethke Elshtain, a philosopher from the University of Chicago. Jean Bethke Elshtain is a political philosopher and she has been noted throughout the world for her scholarship. She made a comment once at a conference that I attended. She said, “You know when you belong to the ecclesiae, when you belong to the church, when you belong to the community of faith, it’s from that moment on that you are a pilgrim that goes anywhere with the faith, and that belonging to that faith transcends any divisions, transcends any nationalities, transcends any culture. It is greater than any ancestry that we might have, any inheritance that we might have received. It is the great gift of knowing above all that you are a child of God.”
There are a number of people in my life who had the greatest influence. When I think beyond the boundaries of family and heritage and tradition, I think of those individuals who have impressed me the most and left a legacy of the identity of the faith. One of those was a young man who I knew in South Africa named Denton. I've mentioned him before in another context. Denton and I were close friends. He was from an African township called Mamelodi, which was a long way from where I lived in Cape Town, but the two of us always met up and had great conversations when we went to gatherings of the Congregational Church in Southern Africa as youth delegates. He from the University of Fort Hare and I from the University of Cape Town.
It was just before Christmas in 1979 that he and I went to a conference in Pretoria. The problem was – and they hadn’t really thought about this – the conference was in what was designated a whites-only area at that time, and he was African Xhosa. We were in the cab together, when the car was stopped just outside this whites-only area beyond the hours that had been set under the Urban Areas Act. He and I had to let the officer know who we were. Denton had the indignity of having to get out a pass card, answer questions, and show who he was. It was horribly painful to watch. Eventually he was let through and we went to the conference. I noticed something about him: He always had a little badge on his lapel he wore everywhere all the time that simply said: “I belong to Jesus.” That’s it. When I first saw it, I thought it was tacky, you know, like a bumper sticker, “Honk if you love Jesus,” that sort of thing. Then I realized that so many things were prohibited to him, lack of freedom, lack of movement, lack of opportunity, but he’d risen above it. He had an identity that transcended what the world was doing to him. I so admired Denton. I'd have died for Denton. He had that sense that above all else his identity, his value, his being was affirmed in Christ.
My friends, in a broken world, a world that so often cuts up and divides, in the politics of division and of hatred at times, it seems to me that we not only need to affirm our identity through the Christ Child who has come and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth as the very affirmation of God’s love for us and that we believe in him, that we should see the world through the eyes of that very child. For that to me is the essence and the power of Christmas. Amen.