12 Steps of Christmas | First Sunday in Christmas

Step Three – “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”

The readings for the Holy Eucharist on this First Sunday after Christmas can be found here.

I’m preaching this morning at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Menasha, Wisconsin — so today’s reflection will sound a lot like the sermon that it is.

God as we understood Him

There is a supreme irony in reflecting on Step Three on this particular Sunday, given that the Gospel reading from John (which is always read on the First Sunday after Christmas) contains some of the most mind-blowing language about God contained anywhere in Scripture.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. (John 1:1-18 passim)

So, let’s get this straight.

This baby, born in a feed trough in a stable to an unwed mother, is God.

This infant, born far from home because of a government requirement that everyone participate in a census, is Life.

This child, who will grow up to be a perfectly ordinary Jewish man living under Roman occupation, is Light.

This man, framed by religious leaders, arrested by soldiers, and killed by the state as a political criminal, is Grace.

What this man revealed to his friends by his life and teaching, is Truth.

“No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, that has made him known.”

OK, that’s perfectly clear, then. Everyone understand?

Grace and truth

Here’s the spiritual heart of John’s magnificent prologue: “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”

What we thought we understood about God has been turned upside down.

What we thought was a set of perfectly sensible regulations and statutes and commandments and ordinances — rules that would set us apart as better than others — turns out not to help at all.

What we thought was life was really Law — and we can never live up to what the Law requires. The evidence of our failure is all around us, most especially in the cynical way we talk about principles and values and then just do whatever the hell we want.

Step Three asks us to consider how well our independence has served us. “This brave philosophy, wherein each man plays God, sounds good in the speaking, but it still has to meet the acid test: how well does it actually work?”

Should his own image in the mirror be too awful to contemplate (and it usually is), he might first take a look at the results normal people are getting from self-sufficiency. Everywhere he sees people filled with anger and fear, society breaking up into warring fragments. Each fragment says to the others, “We are right and you are wrong.” Every such pressure group, if it is strong enough, self-righteously imposes its will upon the rest. And everywhere the same thing is being done on an individual basis. The sum of all this mighty effort is less peace and less brotherhood than before. The philosophy of self-sufficiency is not paying off. Plainly enough, it is a bone-crushing juggernaut whose final achievement is ruin. (37)

Into this bitter, barren ruin is born a baby, and John asks us to believe that he is the creative Word of God come to live among us, full of glory, full of grace and truth.

Elsewhere in his Gospel, John says he has “written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have have life in his name” (John 20:31).

Our independent, intellectual, self-sufficient selves balk at this idea.

The paradox of willingness and grace

The explanation of Step Three continues, “The more we become willing to depend upon a Higher Power, the more independent we actually are” (36).

What we start to realize is that when Law comes first, we can never succeed — we are crushed by our failure to live up to its demands.

But when grace comes first, we find that all we have to be is willing to take the next step. Our willingness helps us to exert ourselves in the tasks placed before us.

All of the Twelve Steps [what Richard Rohr refer to as “the coded Gospel”] require sustained and personal exertion to conform to their principles and so, we trust, to God’s will. It is when we try to make our will conform with God’s that we begin to use it rightly. (40)

The paradox of willingness is that depending upon God makes us more free.

The paradox of grace is that it makes us more willing to pay back what we owe to God who gave away everything — power, might, majesty, freedom, even his human life — in order to live among us, show us his truth, and reconcile us to himself and to each other.

In the words of my favorite hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”:

Jesus sought me when a stranger,
wandering from the fold of God;
he, to rescue me from danger,
interposed his precious blood.

O to grace how great a debtor
daily I’m constrained to be!
Let thy goodness, like a fetter,
bind my wandering heart to thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
prone to leave the God I love;
here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
seal it for thy courts above.

The opening of John’s Gospel is another hymn: “From his fullness we have received, grace upon grace.” Grace comes first, and always has since the time that the Word was with God, making the light that shines in the darkness. Grace comes first.

All that God asks of us in return is that we be willing, willing to follow the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, as best as we can understand him, along “the way to a faith that works” (34).

I’m willing to try today. How about you?

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