A Sermon for Christmas Eve
December 24, 2023 at the Vigil Service of Holy Communion
“To all who received him, God gave the right to become the children of God” (John 1:12). In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.
Our daughter was recently given a copy of the children’s classic The Velveteen Rabbit. It tells the story of a stuffed toy which is loved very much by a young boy, and whose only longing is someday to become “Real.“ He does become real because of the boy’s love, which adopts him as a real companion even though he is made of fabric. It reminded me of another children’s story with a similar theme: in Pinocchio, a puppet comes alive and is promised that, if it can learn the disciplines of courage, and generosity, and honesty, he will become a real boy.
No children’s story is just about toys. A child’s fable tells us about the longings and anxieties of adult hearts as well. What am I? Am I just a thing that has been made? Why was I made? Am I real? Is there some way for me to become more real than I am now? What does it mean to be “real”?
The Christmas story is about how God made it possible for human beings to become “real.“ It is not enough for us just things in the world, things that have been made and move talk like Pinocchio, but are somehow still not like our Maker. The Good News of Christmas is that God has made a way for God’s creatures to become God’s children. The baby in the manger creates a way for us to no longer be just a part of the world God made, but members of God’s family, flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone. Knowing God—knowing him not only as a lofty Creator but as an intimate Father—is what can make us human beings deeply “real.”
We have already sung “O come, all ye faithful.” It is remarkable that this Christmas carol is so popular, considering that it quotes the ancient Creed which we will say in a few moments. The second verse says that the baby in the manger is “very God, begotten not created.”
This unusual, old-fashioned word “begotten” is all over the readings we have heard this evening. In our Introit Psalm we celebrated that Jesus Christ is God’s Son, begotten by the Father in eternity. This same Psalm is quoted in our second reading. Similar language appears again in our Gradual Psalm, as God the Father says to Christ, “I have begotten you like dew from the womb of the morning.” Jesus is not created by God, but is begotten like a father begets a son.
A popular Christian writer (CS Lewis) explains what it means to be “begotten” by contrasting it with carving a statue. An artist may make a statue that looks very much like a man, but it remains fundamentally different from the artist. He contributes his work to making the statue, but he does not contribute anything of himself, of what he is. But when human beings beget children, their own life is reproduced in the child they beget: a man and his son are one form of life, even though they are two different people.
So when Christians say that Jesus Christ was “begotten from the Father,” we mean that Jesus is the same thing as the Father: the Father is God, and so the Son he begets is also God. And this happens before the clock started, before the first morning, before there was any time. So our Gospel reading, referring to Jesus as “the Word” says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).
But that, in itself, is not a Christmas message. The Son and Word of God coming forth from the Father happens in eternity, not on Christmas Day. So why do we sing about it today? Because this is the day that the Son of God comes into the world so that we can be begotten as the children of God as well.
Our Gospel reading tells the story of how the light of God came down into the darkness of this world. The Word of God chose to become a human being and live among us. And St John tells us what the consequence of this was for us: “to all who did receive the Word, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (v 12–13).
The mystery of Christmas is that we human beings can receive God. If the eternal Son of God can really become a man, then human beings can also become the children of God. Humanity and divinity come together in Jesus: and they can come together in you too, if you receive him.
You were not made just to exist and to pass away as part of God’s creation. You were made to become part of his eternal family, having the same relationship to the Father which Jesus has always had. You were made to become part of the mystery of God-with-us, becoming, not only the a human person you always were, but also a son of God. You were made to flourish in the joy and confidence and clarity of mind that comes from knowing God near you.
So many of us live as if God had just stayed in heaven. I don’t mean that we live badly, doing wrong things, although we certainly each have our share of those too. I mean that we live as if we were living under the eyes of a God who lives far away, whom we will meet in heaven someday but isn’t near us until then. We try to do our best for God of course, and we hope it’s enough, but God is far away from us. We long for spiritual fullness—all people do—but it’s difficult to find fullness in serving a far-off God, so we mostly put God out of our minds and trust him to be merciful to us when we die.
If this resonates with you, I want you to know that there is a way to experience deeper fullness, to become real. That is the way of intimacy with God, the way of living close to God, of becoming his child. Because God has come to earth, you have the right become his child. Life close to God is something you can claim for yourself, if you want it. This life begins with making the invitation with sincerity, saying to God, “Lord Jesus, come and live with me.” Then seek the support of a community where people know what it means to live in God.
What we celebrate at Christmas is the opening of a new path, the discovery a new way of life in closeness with God which all who are willing can follow.