May 31, 2015
William G. Carter
So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ - if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
Today is Trinity Sunday. It is a day when we talk about God. What is God like? How do we describe the Lord whom we have not seen?
Isaiah describes his vision. In the temple, he is stunned to see God on a throne, surrounded by heavenly creatures. They are singing the hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty,” and it scares him to death. Who is he to see the holy God? He feels unworthy because God is so great and so pure. But then one of the heavenly angels puts a hot burning coal on his unclean lips, and burns the sin away. God is holy, we are not, but God bridges the distance with mercy and forgiveness.
The psalm is one loud blast of thunder after another. God thunders over the roar of the sea. God thunders in the storm that snaps thick trees as if they are toothpicks. God governs the world with awesome power, so when we see nature shaking, when we hear the thunder, it is a sign of God’s power. Except that God is much greater than any thunder, lightning, or storm. And this is the God who gives strength to his people, who blesses his people with peace.
If you know anything about the letter to the Romans, you might expect a bit of holiness and thunder. In the beginning of this very thick letter, Paul says God is holy and righteous. We are not. “None of us have any excuse,” he says (2:1), not when we stand before a holy, holy, holy God. You can almost hear the thunder in the beginning of the book.
Yet while we might quiver in fear and inadequacy, here is what God does: God steps over all our impurities, and, in the death of Jesus, takes all the sins away. “God shows his love for us, that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (5:8). It’s the same script as Isaiah’s vision, only larger, wider, greater, even more fantastic.
If we welcome this grace, we don’t have to be slaves to our own passions any more. We don’t have to be enslaved by anything or anybody, he says. Oh no, because we’ve been adopted. That’s the word he uses. That’s the way he describes the love of God that claims us. We have been adopted.
Now that’s a remarkable word, an unexpected word. Paul is writing to a mixed house of Jews and Gentiles. I’m sure his words cut both ways. To the Gentiles, it was good news – they are included in the promises of God. Thanks to the faithfulness of Jesus, thanks to their faith in him, the Gentiles are adopted. They are included. They will inherit all the riches of God, just like their Jewish brothers and sisters. It’s good news.
Well, how about the Jews? Keeping covenant, living by the Torah, hoping for the Messiah – do they have to share the blessings of heaven with those newcomers? Didn’t all the centuries of faithfulness count for something? And now, at the eleventh hour, the non-Jewish people are included too?
When I was eight years old, my parents announced I was getting a little brother. I didn’t think I needed a little brother. I already had a sister and that was enough. But we were getting a little brother. He was going to be adopted. I didn’t know what that mean, but it didn’t seem fair. Why should I have to share my toys with him? I was eight years older; by the time he would be old enough to be interesting, I would be halfway out the door.
And then we went to get him, just a tiny little peanut. My parents held him, they let me hold him, and maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all. I looked at him and he smiled at me; later they told me it was only a gas bubble, but no matter. Ever since I discovered there was enough love for all of us. There was even enough love for another sister to be adopted three years later. The family was bigger than I wanted it to be, and that was fine.
Now, Paul is a Jew. In the next chapter, chapter nine, he will go on for a while about God’s love for his people Israel. Yes, they were loved first, and that love cannot be canceled, he said. Those of us who were not born Jews – and presumably that’s most of us – we were included later. And the truth of the matter is, this whole business of being “the children of God” is a metaphor anyway. It’s a way of talking about how we belong to our Creator. Push the metaphor to its extreme, and we are a blended family of a Single Parent in heaven. God wants us all, and the word for that claim on our lives is adoption. All of God’s children are adopted children.
It has always been that way. Six months ago, we heard John the Baptist, out in the desert sands, announcing how the Messiah will come. Everybody went to hear him. Even the religious people went to hear him, and he gave them a hard time about it. John yelled at them, “Don’t you holy rollers presume for a minute that you get in the kingdom automatically. Don’t you dare say, ‘We have Abraham for our father,’ as if that gives you an advantage. God can raise up children from the stones in this desert.” (Matt. 3:7-10).
Do you know what I think that means? I think it means that in the kingdom of God, it doesn’t matter who your earthly parents are. God welcomes us one person at a time, one generation at a time. It has nothing to do with position or privilege. Nobody gets into the kingdom because Momma used to sing in the choir or Daddy was the head usher. Nobody gets into the kingdom because Grandpa was a generous giver or Grandma commanded the Women’s Association. No, it’s one generation at a time, with these people right here, who discover that God loves them, that God wants them, that God invites them to live generous and holy lives.
So I call this sermon, “God Has No Grandchildren.” I believe that to be true. God has no grandchildren, only children, and every single one of them is adopted. It happens at the baptismal font, when we announce that the household of God has just gotten larger. There is enough love for one more, and then some. Every one is wanted. Every one is loved. Every one is called and commissioned to live the life of Christ in a broken world.
Elders of the church, this is the message of your ministry. These are the people of your flock, the sheep of God’s hand. They are here because something in them wishes to know that they matter. They are here because they are hungry for the grace of the Gospel. Some may be here out of habit, others out of curiosity, others because we serve a good cup of coffee. So elders, welcome them to the household of God, provide a good worship service for them, give them Christian Education that they would grow in their knowledge and love of God, and challenge them to hear God’s invitation to serve this corner of the world and beyond.
Deacons of the church, this is the message of your ministry. These are the people of your flock, the sheep of God’s hand. Look into their faces: they are strong and they are fragile. Every one of them has known pain and difficulty at one point or another, but most of them dress up for church and don’t let it show. What they really want is to know that they are loved. So learn their names. Get to know them. Take each one seriously. Serve them when they are strong, hold them when they are vulnerable. In all things, help them to stand in their full dignity as children of God, and never let anybody put them down. They are God’s adopted children.
This is a day for talking about God. God is holy, but never aloof. God comes to the likes of us to say, “You are precious and you are mine.” In that relationship, we begin the journey that will change our lives, enlarge our hearts, and change the world. And we take our place among the great company of witnesses that love and serve the Lord.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.