Only one person deserves the title, 'self-made man...' -- a sermon for Christmas 1
Christmas 1 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
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 stories of a person referred to as a “self-made” man. Perhaps it is some poor immigrant who managed to scrape together enough money to start a small business, and the business grew and prospered and he or she ended up a millionaire. And while in no way wanting to diminish the rightful admiration for such a person’s industry, inventiveness, skill and hard work — I challenge the notion that such a person is truly self-made.
Before, behind, and along with every such successful person, there is a cloud of investors, clients, collaborators, and customers, without whom success and wealth would have been elusive or impossible. Even the inventor who comes up with a clever new device needs an attorney to help file a patent, a manufacturer actually to produce the item, marketers to advertise and merchants to sell it, investors to pay for all of this, and — the inventor and investors firmly hope — customers to buy it. You’ve probably seen the ads on TV offering help to inventors — and help is surely what even the brightest inventor needs in order to succeed.
So it is that few if any of us become who we are on our own. I’m bold enough to say this absolutely: no one becomes who they are on their own. For 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 itself. We come into being because of something our parents did nine months 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. We become ourselves — become selves at all — only because of others.
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And, as our Scripture texts for this Sunday after Christmas remind us, we most certainly 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 very well 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 a child does not conceive or bear him or herself neither does an adopted child achieve adoption on his or her 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, Jesus Christ 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 yet were not — but Jesus had no beginning: when the beginning was, he was — he was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning, and had no beginning himself. There never was a time when he wasn’t.
And as God, 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, Christ 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.” If there ever was any such thing as a self-made man, it was and is Jesus Christ — and only him.
What is truly wonderful, however, is that Christ, although self-made in every important sense of the word, also makes use of others 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 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.
And then God 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 cooperate with us in our salvation. And he further commissioned the Apostles and disciples to spread that word of grace and truth, down through the ages.
This was not out of any need or lack on his part; it is all a gift, it 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, 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 is no more our doing than the liberation of a prisoner is the prisoner’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; thanks be to God.
But we cooperate in this 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 — Emmanuel — for ever more.