We were locked in the maximum security prison of our own choices, our own pride and envy and malice. We were on death row, with nothing to look forward to but execution. But once faith came...
SJF • 1st Sunday after Christmas • Tobias Haller BSG
Before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came.+
I’m sure that all of us here remember the fairy tale of Cinderella — maybe I shouldn’t have sent the children off to Sunday School first, because they may remember it better than most of us — either we heard the tale when we were children, or we’ve seen one or more of the many film or TV versions, or maybe even the ballet or the opera. This tale of rescue from drudgery has remained so popular not only because it tells a story that we all can sympathize with and relate to — I mean, who doesn’t like a happy ending?— but because it serves as a parable of an important truth about human life and our relationship to God.
We all relate to this story because we all dream of release from whatever drudgery affects our lives. We all dream that someone magical will come along and wave a wand and transform us into something wonderful, and we will be lifted from the dust and ashes of the hearth to start a new life in the palace.
Many adults have their own version of this story. Some put such hopes in being a guest on Oprah Winfrey to find the keys to a new car under their seat; some hope for the arrival of that giant check from Publishers Clearing House; some prefer to hope for rescue by the magic wand of the slot machines in Atlantic City or Yonkers, or the MegaMillions Lottery — and there were two big winners a few weeks ago! But what I want to say to you this first Sunday after Christmas, is that our rescue has already happened. It has come to each of us and to all of us, though not in the way we expected.
That expectation, that yearning, that dream to be released from prison, to be restored to a high position, or to be lifted up to one, that dream burned deep in the hearts of the people of Israel in their captivity. In the midst of that dark time, in the midst of that imprisonment, Isaiah sings — he just can’t keep his mouth shut, as he admits! “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,” he sings, and will sing and sing again that the deliverance of the Lord is coming, as sure as grass grows in the spring, as sure as when you plant a seed it will sprout up at the right time. This isn’t supernatural, Isaiah sings, but the most natural thing that is, that God is coming; and at his coming the whole world will see Daughter Israel raised up from the desolate ash-heap of captivity to be crowned as a royal princess. Not a fairy tale of a prince with a glass slipper or a coach made from a pumpkin and a wave of a wand and a Bibbidy-Bobbedy-Boo, or a jackpot on the slots in New Jersey with a ringing Badda-Bing — but a real, live, true restoration of a people held in captivity in a foreign land — returning home, restored and raised up.
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So Isaiah sings. But 600 years later that song needs a reprise. Deliverance has come in the meantime, but it was followed by yet other captivities and occupations. The people have gone from the frying pan of Alexander’s Greeks into the fire of the Roman Empire. Under that Roman occupation, deliverance once and for all has begun to seem as hopeless as ever it was, unreal as any fairy tale; a story perhaps to amuse the children but no use in the hard, cold world of politics and commerce, the world of rule and law and judgment and punishment, the world of power and corruption, under a pagan Emperor and a puppet king, Herod, who isn’t even a proper Jew, and has no right to be King, but is a hated Edomite, put in place by Rome. The world is dark, its heart grown cold and bleak, and hope is dim.
But into that darkness another strong voice speaks, a voice so long expected that expectation has grown weary, a voice so long expected that when it comes it comes as a surprise! The speaker’s name is John, and he comes to testify that something wonderful is about to happen. It isn’t about him, mind — he’s just the fairy godfather in this story — it’s about something else, someone else whose coming is about to light up the world.
And John, like Isaiah, can not keep silent; he will testify and cry out, “Here he is! This is the one I was talking about, the one who outranks me; the one who is from the beginning; the true light of the world!” So John proclaims the faith, faith in the true light that enlightens everyone.
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Saint Paul reminds us of what it was like before that faith came, when we were like prisoners guarded by a disciplinarian; like Cinderella under her nasty step-sisters and even nastier step-mother! And Saint Paul, every bit as much a fairy godfather as Saint John the Baptist, ushers us in to meet our new Father, the Father who is adopting us, who raises us from the status of an orphan to the status of one with the rights of inheritance — no longer a slave, but a child of God and if a child then an heir.
That’s what we all are, my beloved. We were all once prisoners and slaves, Cinderellas doomed to drudgery and captivity. But since Christ has come, we have become, each of us, a prince or a princess in the royal household, draped with the garments of salvation, clothed with the robes of righteousness, and crowned with the royal diadem.
And just as Cinderella didn’t come to her happy ending because of any virtue of her own, so too we do not come to this our happy ending because of any action or virtue of our own. No, we come into our inheritance from God as adopted children — it is God who has chosen us, not we who have chosen God. Faith is not something that we have in our selves, from our selves, as if we possess it: no, faith is something that happens to us, happens to the world in its darkness, happens to the world and brings it light and life.
Faith is not our doing any more than light is our doing — the sun rises because God makes it rise — and it is not some magical supernatural act but the most natural thing that is: something the God of nature has ordained to be just so — just like that grass that comes up in the spring, just like that seed that when planted, sprouts at the appointed time. This is something God has made to be.
And faith comes to us just as naturally. For God is the love that created all that is, and his love overflows from his own nature as the love that moves the sun and the other stars — the overflow of God’s grace has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit that is given to us. Faith is not our doing any more than being adopted or being born (or being born again) is our doing. Life — and new life — is just not our doing. It is God who picks us up and says, “You are mine!” Faith, in short, is not us discovering God, but God revealing that everlasting Love to us. As John assured us, “No one has ever seen God...” that is — none through their own power have ever or can ever see God; rather “it is God the Son who has made him known.” who has revealed God to us, pulling aside the veil of darkness that blindfolded human vision, so that we might see God literally face to face. It is as natural and fitting as that glass slipper sliding perfectly to fit on Cinderella’s foot. For we were made for God just as that slipper was made for her — and it is altogether fitting and proper that God should be at home with the creatures he created in his own image and likeness.
God — and faith in God — came to us, not we to him. Before faith came, we were simply prisoners who could never escape through our own efforts. We were locked in the maximum security prison of our own choices, our own pride and envy and malice. We were on death row, with nothing to look forward to but execution. But once faith came, came in person, came in the person of the Son of God, who opened the door, who opened that lock, who called us forth into the light, who lifted us up, who clothed us anew, who dressed us and crowned us and presented us to the court of heaven — once faith came, we were no longer what we were before, prisoners. Once faith came, we were the adopted children of God.
So let us then, beloved — for that’s what we are, God’s beloved — rejoice in our deliverance, rejoice in our freedom, rejoice in the light that shines in the darkness, and which the darkness can never overcome. Let us rejoice that we are children of God, chosen by him, adopted by him, rejoicing with our brother Jesus who came to us to save us, to show us how much God loved us, and who took us for his own, on that Christmas long ago.+