You Can Go Home Again:
A Christmas Message, without Angels, Manger, and Swaddling Clothes
Rev. Douglas Olds
24 December 2013
Galatians 4.1 (NRSV) My point is this: heirs, as long as they are minors, are no better than slaves, though they are the owners of all the property; 2 but they remain under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father. 3 So with us; while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world. 4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. 6 And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” 7 So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.
8 Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods. 9 Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved to them again? 10 You are observing special days, and months, and seasons, and years. 11 I am afraid that my work for you may have been wasted.
When it was time to go to college, I returned to my home state from the east coast where my family was living. While there, I would make rowdy weekend trips up to my hometown. Even now, I return to western Michigan every summer, and when I do, I feel the call of the old. Something in me reverts, regresses even, to my memory of what it was like to be young and anxiety free in my home town. Even now, when I return, I find myself driving a bit too fast on the back roads. My laughter is freer, tinged by the broad nasal accent toward burlesque stories shared with longtime friends. I feel the comfort of the familiar, and it’s not just that I feel younger, it’s that those who know me treat me as I once was. Louder, less inhibited, more teasing given and taken.
Jesus comments on this phenomenon in Mark 6.4 (Luke 4.24) when he notes that no prophet goes without honor except in his home town. It’s not only that our “homies” know us from way back, it’s that we slip into the comforts of those way back times. My alma mater’s ditty, “I Want to Go Back to Michigan (to old Ann Arbor town)” sings of this nostalgia for home. Our memories of our youthful home, if our childhood was pleasant, are souvenirs of experience. I cherish these souvenirs—the memory of snowy Christmas eves, of apple cider in the dampness and rage of autumn color, of the gleaming turquoise through the trees of my great-grandfather’s lake as we turned the last corner from the antique cornfield-- I burnish memories by turning them over and over in my memory, searching for new perspectives. Then I assemble to act out with my friends from the old neighborhood. But of course, they know me too well to take my changed life in ordained ministry too seriously, and that is both a relief and at times an offense, as I know that I have changed, but I am not so appreciated by them for it.
I try to play it down the middle: I am the same old guy when it suits closeness with my friends, and I am a changed man when my moral commitments demand separation. Yet today’s Christmas message is that I have to choose one or the other, and that the one role of a gentle and mature separation from my tyrannical and sacrilegious inner child is called for even in the midst of the familiar and nostalgic.
To that end, today’s scripture reading incorporates the Apostle Paul’s minimalist birth narrative of Jesus. Unlike the birth narratives in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, there are no angels, shepherds, wise men, miraculous stars, or apparitions or annunciations in the temple. There is no celebrity mom named Mary. There is no Joseph or manger or inn with animals. There are no swaddling clothes, or frankincense, gold, and myrrh. There is no census of Quirinius, or Herod, or slaughter of the innocents. All of these colorful particulars of the infancy narratives of Jesus are omitted in Paul’s account of the Gospel. Whether he was aware of these infancy traditions is irrelevant, for Paul’s message has always been the salvific meaning of Christ’s death on the Cross and the liberation of the Holy Spirit for the creation of a worldwide church. In Galatians 4, Paul suggests the merest outline of an earliest creedal statement regarding what Christians call “the incarnation”: “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.” This is certainly the earliest textual evidence we have that contextualizes Jesus’ birth, and it predates all the birth legends in Luke and Matthew.
If we compare the earliest Christian hymn documented by Paul in Philippians 2 (6-11), we note that for Paul the incarnation was a means of freedom from slavery. God comes into the world by sending his son to lead the people from slavery. That slavery was to the elemental spirits of the world that had to be kept at bay by the Law. When freed—redeemed—by adoption into God’s family, we are freed from the Law, which was the proscribed customs and rituals of the Israelite people. By taking human form God is leading the New Exodus promised by Isaiah (Is 40.3).
500 some years prior to Jesus, the Judahite exiles leaving Babylon thought they were living Isaiah’s new exodus when they submitted to the call to leave their comforts and business affairs there to make a straight way through the 700 mile desert back to Jerusalem and Judah. Hadn’t the new exodus been accomplished in that move? By the time of Jesus, the majority of people who weren’t in league with Herod and the Romans were concerned that something was seriously lacking with that exodus. The people were physically returned to Judah, but there was no Davidic king as promised in their scriptures (2 Sa 7), and God had neither returned to the Temple nor had God spoken to a prophet since Malachi just after the return. They were under brutal Roman rule. Instead, following their return from exile, Ezra and Nehemiah had led the people to restore the Law and to rebuild the ruined temple and city. The people saw God speaking less through the prophets and more through the decrees of foreign emperors who enabled the projects of Ezra and Nehemiah.
So the first aspect of Paul’s creedal affirmation of the Christmas incarnation is God acting in the fullness, τὸ πλήρωμα, of time. This image is one of pregnancy, whereupon time had begun counting down to some signal, novel event. Thus there was a time from whence the countdown started, and a time of fulfillment when time enters into a new phase. I’m fairly convinced that there were people who read the prophet Daniel (9. 25-27) in this context of a countdown to a new age, to an age of the anointed one:
Dan 9.25 (NIV) “Know and understand this: From the time the word goes out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven ‘sevens,’ and sixty-two ‘sevens.’ It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble.26 After the sixty-two ‘sevens,’ the Anointed One will be put to death and will have nothing...”
The religious authorities read these numbers as years. Artaxerxes, in the seventh year of his reign (Ezra 7.8), allows Ezra not only to continue with the restoration and rebuilding of the temple, but Artaxerxes decrees that Ezra, situated in Jerusalem, “possess, appoint magistrates and judges to administer justice to all the people of Trans-Euphrates“ (Ezra 7.25). This required a newly functional metropolitan structure, augmented by Nehemiah who rebuilt Jerusalem’s walls and gates.
483 years (69 sevens) elapsed from Artaxerxes’ 7th year is 26 A.D., about our best idea of the time of Jesus’ baptism by John, when our textual witnesses report a messianic fervor (cf. Luke 3.1-7; Mark 1.3-8) amidst both the people and the religious scholars. The people had almost certainly understood the prophetic scriptures of Daniel’s 69 weeks of years, and likely Jesus did too. Hence Jesus applied to himself Daniel’s appellation “Son of Man.”
This “fullness of time” that Paul situates the incarnation likely refers to this tradition that Jerusalem’s restoration counted down to a new age of the anointed one. This pregnant time of the run up to incarnation of the anointed one thus demonstrates how Israel’s God controlled the history and destiny of God’s people. God enters into the history of a people’s struggle between faith and faithlessness in the form of the incarnated Son of God. Unlike for Matthew and for Luke, where faithfulness was found among various people surrounding Jesus’s birth—Mary, Joseph, Anna, Simeon, Elizabeth, John the Baptist, the common folk and Pharisees going forth to be baptized—for Paul, the faithfulness that matters is solely Jesus’. Whereas for Luke and Matthew’s story of the incarnation, the fact that time was pregnant suggested an optimum moment for God to bear forth in the struggle between faith and faithfulness. Yet for Paul—concerned with God’s glory and absolute freedom-- the struggle of faithfulness is one lonely man’s against a maximum of faithlessness, whereby Jesus takes on the total incarnated task through his ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection as the Son of God.
The second creedal statement of Paul regarding the incarnation of God’s son is the statement, “born of a woman.” Unlike in Mark and Luke (and in later developments of the institutionalized church), this early creedal statement shows no interest in the particulars of that woman. There is no exaltation or even identification of Mary, the mother of God. Paul notes that God is changing time, not creating time anew. There is no “creation ex nihilo” involved in this change or in this incarnation. The birth of the anointed Son of God involves the old creation into which God steps. Yet this involves God in history in a way that God wasn’t prior. The theological implications of this are enormous. If the people of faith see prophecy as operating in the old time, then God in that old time--at least for Israel--determined history in some strongly deterministic sense. By stepping into history, God participates in historical contingency and gives up deterministic control. Providence is changed by this divine participation in time. God through deterministic control of the countdown toward the incarnated Son of God could thus be seen as manipulating history, hardening Pharaohs and other historical actors (Romans 9) to bring about God’s will in history, for God’s purposes. Yet once God’s enters history in the form of the woman’s offspring, God I believe moves toward the cession of strong historical determination and will become in some sense a participant in the contingency of historical time and human freedom. Jesus was fated, thus determined, but after God dies on the Cross, the determination of history undergoes a change. Time changes, and so does God’s providential action in soft power. God leaves the Aristotelian role of "unmoved mover" and becomes an actor both influenced and influencing. God through the Resurrected Jesus now acts providentially to optimize flourishing and justice within the constructs of an “open, non-determined” history. God through Jesus, by being born and then by dying, takes on the fate of all God’s human creation through the woman and cannot now absolutely predict or precisely determine the future of God's liberated creatures.
This is the insight of “open theology.” God’s action in Israel was historically deterministic—or at least seen so by the Israelite writers of the Hebrew Scriptures--paying disobedience and sin back with just punishment and the mercy that served God’s purposes. But this action changed, and has been mistaken by some for the absolute death of God. For the witness of post-Easter humanity has been that the battle between faithfulness and faithlessness has entered a new phase, one where war is more calamitous and justice more postponed. God’s incarnation was costly. Yet at the same time, beauty and peace break out in a new ways that would have startled, I believe, the ancients--and convinces me of God’s continued and active existence. If God through the resurrected Jesus has died to the old way of being God so to create a new way of being human, then this might not surprise us. We should expect that God allows freedom for both sin and faith, and that God’s Spirit liberated in the new exodus over the Jordan in baptism would be non-deterministic and open to contingency. God in Jesus has ceased being the tyrant experienced by the ancients.
So to explore this incarnation into a change of being God by becoming God and human at the same time (as Paul is suggesting in this creedal statement in Galatians 4), Jesus we must note initiates the age of the spirit that is a time of contingency, soft power, and persuasion, not of coercion and force. The latter is not-god. We who have found adoption into God’s loving household are citizens in that age of the Spirit because of Christmas. The age of the Spirit is one where mercy takes precedence over justice. And that is where I find my hope, for myself and for others. God in Jesus being born of a woman in the fullness of time in order to redeem us by his Word and Spirit is a gentler God than the YHWH of the Hebrew Scriptures. This is also to God’s glory. God in Jesus does not give up beckoning and calling gently to our adoption into the Spirit. For those who refuse there is Law--and the awful prospect of judgment.
It is meaningful that Paul contextualizes this early creedal statement about the Son of God’s changing time and becoming human in the form of adoption into a family of prayer. “And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ’Abba! Father!’” (Gal. 4. 6). The incarnation into time is thus the era of Spirit-filled prayer. This also suggests the contingency of God’s providential action. In open theology, God chooses to act in history by intervening elegantly (parsimoniously and beautifully) among alternative futures, in the process not violating the integrity of covenanted human free will. This choice of God as open to historical contingency thus necessitates prayer as an input for God’s decision making. If we pray for a certain alternative (say sustenance for a poor family which we assist the best we can), we in God’s family add to the desire for a certain kind of future. Sustaining charity is necessary, but prayer in addition brings God’s mysterious and universal suasion of conscience and soft power into that particular situation for future relief. The prayer may not be answered according to the time frame that we hope for, but I believe that is because God’s providence is optimizing justice and flourishing amidst a huge number of alternative futures. Such is the glory of God, and such is the associated necessity of prayer by God’s redeemed family. This I believe Paul is affirming for us at Christmas.
Jesus during his ministry is leading the descendants of the Israelites away from the old history and into the new history of the spirit. It is the spiritual new exodus. You can go home again, like the Babylonian exiles, but you can’t take up your old life. You can’t, as Ezra had it, recreate Israelite history in the festivals and the rituals. We can go home again for Christmas, but we must come home transformed, both ourselves and our understanding of God. We have been liberated by the Spirit from the Law. In my illustration at the beginning of this sermon, I may go to my home town with joy and levity but with separation (which is holiness) from my old way of being when I was under the Law. I go home again not the person I was when I was a child, but I go home as one who puts away childish things for the sake of the Spirit that dwells within me. It matters not whether my friends and family accept my transformation or Spirit, but it matters to myself to live with the integrity and the calling of my transformed self. I may indeed go dishonored in the eyes of my hometown friends, but I look forward to the unfolding grace, flourishing, and productivity of the Spirit in the history of those I touch and pray for. For me, God has ceased being a tyrant and a bringer of retribution. I try to live that new history out in all my prayerful deeds. I am adopted into God’s family outside of the Law, in which there is freedom, peace, and joyous relief from the bondage of sin.
May it be so for all of us this Christmas.