The Rev. Noah Van Niel
St. John the Evangelist
December 31st, 2017
“Child of God,” is one of those phrases of faith that have been used so often through history and in so many different contexts that it is danger of losing its meaning. First of all there are Adam and Eve, who were God’s first children, then it was used throughout the Old Testament to refer to the chosen people of Israel. And then things get really confusing when Jesus shows up because here’s one we refer to very clearly as not just a child of God, but the Son of God, which is and isn’t the same thing. Then we have Paul talking about how we become children of God through faith, which sounds exciting but also confuses the matter some more. And then in more modern parlance we get phrases like, “she is a beautiful child of God,” or “we are all God’s children.”
In our day and age, when people talk about “children of God” I think they mean to communicate that everyone is created and beloved by God regardless of class, color or creed. That is true. But that’s not quite the same thing as what it has meant through Judeo-Christian history to be a “child of God,” because, being a “child” implies a relationship, a reciprocity, or at the very least, an acknowledgement of the divine. To be a child of God is to recognize that you are not the source of your own existence. Without that recognition we remain creations of God, not children of God.
Now I don’t know about you, but I’m more interested in being a child of God than a creation of God. And not because God distinguishes between the two as far as how much He loves and cares about them; God’s abundant love and mercy is bestowed equally on all. But embracing our identity as children God is more about what we gain from it, and what the world gains from it. Because to try and live in to our identity as children of God is to try and live in a way that draws us deeper in to the heart of God so that our lives and, hopefully the lives of those around us, are made fuller, richer, more wondrous and more glorious.
So how do we go from a creation of God to a child of God? What does that look like to live as children of God? Our readings this morning give us three answers. I’ll take them in order, even though none of them supersedes the others; they are all equal, and all essential to living in to becoming a child of God.
In our first reading, the prophet Isaiah gives us an exuberant exposition of how one is to live outwardly as a child of God. For Isaiah, to be a child of God is to be clothed with righteousness and praise. Every step, every word, every action aspires to goodness and love. And when it does, God’s glory shines through us as a beacon to the world. I know you’ve had times in your life where people have so inspired you by the kindness of their words or generosity of their deeds that your interaction with them became a holy moment. Being a child of God means being one of those people. But it doesn’t take being a hero.
A few months ago I was out for a walk with both my boys in our double stroller. I came to the crosswalk right outside the church here that cuts across Main St. to the west side of Water St. Now people are often cruising along Main St. at that point and don’t see you waiting at the crosswalk so we’ve learned to be extra careful crossing there to make sure people really are going to stop. That morning one car blew right through the crosswalk while we were waiting. It wasn’t a big deal, happens all the time. He passed and we went on a few seconds later to continue our walk. But as we got down towards the train tracks on Water St. a car pulled up and stopped in the middle of the road. A young man rolled down his window. “Excuse me,” he shouted across the street. “I just went right through that crosswalk that you were waiting at, and I shouldn’t have done that. I just wanted you to know I was sorry.” I was rather stunned by this confession (especially since I’ve spent most of my life in Boston), but I managed to thank him, tell him it was no big deal and he went on his way. Now I wasn’t wearing my collar or anything, so there was no reason he should feel compelled to have turned his car around and come searching for us other than the fact that, for some blessed reason or another, this man decided that he wanted to go above and beyond to do the good thing, to live righteously. And I’ll tell you, I was surprised by how deeply that gesture affected me, for in it was revealed the potential of people to shine as a beacon of goodness in even small ways, to live as a child of God and inspire others to do the same. That level of goodness is not beyond us. When people see us they should be dazzled by the way in which we shine with God’s love. That’s how “our whole being [can] exult in [our] God.”
In that sense Isaiah is telling us what it means to be a child of God in our bodies, in the activity of our lives. Our second reading, from St. Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia, teaches us another aspect of what it means to be a child of God. It is through the heart, the working of the Spirit deep within that implants in us a longing, a desire, a crying out for our “Abba!” which means “Daddy!” It is that longing for God which comes not from a cognitive place, but from the mysterious caverns of our souls where our instincts and emotions reside. The place which houses those things we feel most strongly and where God’s Spirit works within us to make us long for a connection. When I hear my sons crying out for me, and not just whining, but crying out “Daddy!” it comes from a place of pure emotion, straight from the heart and it’s a wild, untamed part of us. They may be overreacting, or unnecessarily afraid but for them it is an authentic explosion of need and longing that cannot be stifled. It is that Spirit, welling up from within us, that drives us to our knees, or calls to us through the dark, or causes us to pray with sighs too deep for words. That, according to St. Paul, is what makes us children of God. To be a child of God is to be in touch with those deep places in our souls—our wants, our hopes, our dreams, our fears, our passions—and to spend time dwelling in them, bringing them in to the light because in those deep places, we often find God speaking most clearly and we know most purely how it feels to be God’s child.
This Spirit that dwells in our hearts is in many ways similar to the Word which John’s Gospel introduces as our co-eternal creator with God. God’s Word, God’s very life is planted in us, his beloved creations. And that divine life is “the light of all people.” But there’s more to being a “child of God” for John than just that divine spark within all of us. For John, to be a child of God we need to receive and believe: “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” Isaiah tells us what it means to be a child of God in our body, Paul in our heart, and John, in our mind. For it is through this choice, this very conscious choice to receive the Word of God made flesh in Jesus Christ and to believe in him, that we become children of God. To be a child of God in this instance means it is our responsibility to engage in the questions of faith; to listen, to learn, to consider and contemplate, and then ultimately, hopefully, to receive and to believe. For it is in cultivating our minds, our reason, our Logos, that we realize being a child of God is to exercise the most incredible creation God has implanted in us—our minds—and use them to find the answers to the most puzzling and persistent questions of our lives.
We stand here at the precipice of a new year, a future full of possibility, unrealized and unknown; a time of resolutions and changes. This year commit yourself to being a child of God not just a creation of God. Live adorned with righteousness and praise so that when people encounter you they are blinded by the radiance of God’s glory and goodness shining through you. Spend time in prayer so as to let loose those deep yearnings from within your soul, for it is in those stirrings of your heart that God speaks most directly and most clearly. And then learn, listen, contemplate and consider, wrestle and receive and believe all that wisdom that has been given unto you through Jesus Christ. For if you do those things you will know what it truly means—in mind, body and soul—to be a child of God. That’s the kind of resolution that could make this quite a happy new year indeed.