St Michael and St Barnabas, Dec 9th 2012
Over the past few years family history has become more and more popular. Thanks to the Internet more records and information are available than ever before, and nowadays it doesn’t take much hunting to find out the details of your ancestors’ lives. And of course we’ve had the television series where famous celebrities go in search of their families’ past, sometimes discovering dark secrets, sometimes finding real tragedy.
Our past is important because in many ways it shapes who we are today. Some people are very proud of their family history. Living in Plymouth I find there are plenty of folk who are proud of the fact they are Cornish, for example, or come from a long line of sailors.
Some people, however, find their family history more difficult and it can cast long shadows down the generations. There is a rumour in our family that someone shot his wife and fled to New Zealand. I have no idea if that is true or not, but if there were children from this marriage then I guess the story of what they did must loom large over that particular branch of the clan.
However whatever our past, no matter who we think we are, both readings today tell us that the moment we put our faith and trust in Jesus we have a new identity – as children of God. John 1:12-13 – verses we hear read every Christmas: Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
And if there’s nothing else you take away from this service, I want you to grasp this fact, that from the moment you believe, the most important part of your identity is the fact you are a child of God. You may think of yourself as, say, a Cornishman, or a Scotsman. Other people might label you as, say, a hard worker or a scrounger. But what’s most important is how God sees you. John says that if you believe in the name of Jesus, you are His child. God has called you to Himself. You belong to Him. You are united to him by His Holy Spirit. That should be the most wonderful and the most precious thing to any of us here this morning.
And if you’re not yet sure you are a child of God, if you’ve never known the wonder of God’s love for you, then this morning, accept the wonderful offer that God is making to you today. All the labels we give ourselves, or others put on us, are at best half-truths, at worst deceptions. They are like fairground mirrors that give a false picture of who we truly are. Today is an opportunity to find your real identity in Jesus who has come to make sons of God, and set us free. That’s the wonderful good news of the Christmas story, and it’s there for all to receive.
So what does it mean to be a child of God? Three simple points from our reading from Romans this morning:
First of all, we can call God Father.
Romans 8:15: For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.”
Now I guess we are all very familiar with the idea of calling God Father. If there’s one prayer we all know it is the Lord’s Prayer, which begins: Our Father in Heaven. Christians have been calling God Father for two thousand years.
Yet let’s pause for a moment and consider what this actually means. We are dealing here with the maker of the universe, and the galaxies, and everything that lies between; the one who causes nations to rise and fall; the one who holds every individual human life in His mighty hand. No wonder so many people are held in a spirit of fear when they think about this God. It is indeed an awesome thing to come before God when you have no assurance of salvation, when you can only fear His punishment and His judgement. Because the truth is, this God, this all-powerful, this all-seeing, this all-knowing, God has the right to judge each and every one of us. And if that thought does not cause us to tremble and to recognise our need of salvation, then nothing will.
But the marvellous message of the Christian faith – the reason why the Christian faith is good news – is that thanks to Jesus we can call God Father. The path into the very heart of God has been opened through the death and resurrection of Jesus. We can approach God not in terror or in expectation of judgement but in love and in the knowledge that we are accepted and right with God.
Of course we do not deserve this status as children of our Heavenly Father. Like the prodigal son each of us have abused and squandered the good gifts He has given us. But when we approach our Heavenly Father, Jesus turns to Him and says, “This one is mine. His sins are covered by my blood”, and He joyfully admits us into His presence.
This doesn’t mean however that we can simply presume on this relationship and carry on living in the same old way. As we saw a couple of weeks again, just because we are a Christian doesn’t mean we can do what we like. We are called to serve Jesus, to live a new life in the Spirit. That’s why there’s no contradiction in our reading between Paul reminding us that we can call God Father and his command to put to death the misdeeds of the body.
For, if we have really grasped what it means to call God Father, then our one aim in life should be to please Him, to show our love for Him by the choices we make day by day. The evidence we really are a child of God, you see, is not in the way we pray, or the songs we sing. It’s in the fact that God our Heavenly Father comes first. When tempted to do wrong, we say, “No, I am a child of God”. We ask the Holy Spirit to strengthen and to guide us. And where necessary we take radical action to remove ourselves from this temptation. That’s what Paul means when he talks about putting to death the misdeeds of the body. It’s not the action of a religious fanatic, but of someone who loves God our Heavenly Father more than anything or anyone else.
So let me ask you: how much do you love God your Heavenly Father this morning?
Being a child of God means we can call God Father.
It also means we have a family.
Paul goes on in verse 16: The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Not that “I am God’s child” or “you are God’s child”, but “we are God’s children”. So often when we think about God as our Heavenly Father we think only in terms of our relationship with God. But actually, if I am a child of God, and if the person next to me this morning is also a child of God, then I have a whole new relationship with that person. He or she is my brother and sister in Christ. That does not mean I will necessarily like them. I may disagree with them from time to time. They may find some of my habits irritating. But I am bound to them by the fact we share a common identity in Christ Jesus. And that bond in Christ Jesus should be more important than anything that separates us.
Paul writes in Galatians 3:26-28: You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Now Paul isn’t saying that our human identity is unimportant. It’s still OK for Cornishmen and Devonians to politely disagree over whether the jam comes first in a cream tea or who invented the pasty. It’s still OK for men and women to have different roles in the church of Christ. We are not called to become Identikit Christians who dress the same, speak the same, look the same. But he is saying that despite all our obvious differences we are nonetheless one in Christ. We should be valuing one another as precious people for whom Christ died, we should be serving one another, and we should be repenting of any attitudes which drive us apart.
And speaking personally, I believe it’s just so important we get hold of this teaching at this time. After all, if you believe the headlines, the Church of England consists of factions each with their own agenda; individuals pursuing their own particular ambitions; small clusters of people competing for power and influence; those who are concerned more for a human institution rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ. My brothers and sisters, this should not be so.
I accept we cannot change the image of the wider church. But we can at least do something about the local church. Let me say it again – we are all one in Christ Jesus. I am your brother, you are my sister. We need to pray earnestly, so earnestly, for that gift of the Holy Spirit to unite us, to deepen our love for each other, to help us grow together as that family God our Heavenly Father calls us to be.
And, by the way, let’s stop any nonsense that says “you don’t have to go to church to be a Christian”. Church is not an optional part of following Jesus. It is at the very heart of what it means to be a child of the living God. It is in the way we relate to our fellow believers we prove we belong to our Heavenly Father. As Jesus said – and it’s a verse I keep coming back to again and again – By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. It kind of stands to reason you can’t love one another if you are trying to be a Christian on your own. It shows you have never really grasped what it means to call God Father. How does the Lord’s Prayer begin? Our Father in heaven… Let’s really take to heart what Paul is saying when he reminds us that we are God’s children.
So what does it mean to be a child of God? Firstly, that we can call God Father. Secondly, that we have a family. And thirdly – linking in with the theme of Advent – we have a future.
Over the past couple of weeks there’s been a lot of excitement in the town of Stevenage, in Hertfordshire. It seems that someone bought there a lottery ticket which entitled him to a prize jackpot of £64 million. As the clock ticked down to 11pm on Wednesday night, the excitement mounted. Would the mystery buyer come forward? The hours and the minutes passed. At last 11pm came and the prize remained unclaimed.
I hope there’s nobody here this morning who suddenly remembers being in Stevenage on 8 June this year, but if there is, perhaps you’d like a pray with me afterwards. But in any case, if you won £64 million, would you have really have gained perfect happiness? Yes, of course, life would be an awful lot easier. But it’s striking how many lottery winners have often ended up bankrupt and miserable. Even the world’s biggest lottery draw isn’t necessarily going to solve all your problems.
Yet Paul here assures us that if we are sons of the living God, we have a future, a wonderful future. It isn’t a matter of chance who gets to share in this future. God doesn’t randomly choose some people and not others to enjoy eternal life with Him. Listen again to what Paul says in verse 17 of our reading today: Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ.
You see, one day Christ will come again. Every knee will bow and every tongue confess Jesus Christ is Lord. For some it will be the first time they have ever realised who Jesus is. I cannot begin to imagine how terrible that day will be for them, as they face the prospect of being separated from God forever. The Bible has a word for that separation, and that is hell. That’s why when we tell others about Jesus, we do have to warn them of the consequences of rejecting His love.
But for those of us who believe, Christ will turn to us and welcome us into His Heavenly home forever. There will be no more death. No more crying. No more tears. We will enter into the inheritance prepared for us before the beginning of the world, as we gather before the throne of God in praise and adoration and worship. How do we know this? Because, if we are children of God, we are heirs. Our future is guaranteed.
Hang on a moment, though. Doesn’t this verse come with a catch? A bit of small print that makes all this a little less certain? Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. Isn’t Paul saying in fact that we need to grin and bear it, and desperately cling on to the possibility of hope?
That, however, is to misunderstand all that Paul has been saying so far. When we believe and trust in Jesus Christ, we become sons of God. We find God who loves us more than we can ever imagine and whom we can dare to call Father. We find a worldwide of family by whom we are united through the power of the Holy Spirit. We find a future which is richer and more glorious than we ever imagine.
All Paul is saying here is that we should not be surprised that we suffer now in the present. We will constantly live in a state of tension between the present where those who do not know Christ will oppose us and the future where we will be with Jesus forever. But nothing ever takes away from the fact Jesus has given us the right to become children of God. Because the hope of glory to come is worth far more than whatever sorrow we might face now. That is the message of this passage. That is the message of Advent.
So whatever you are facing this morning, cling on to the fact that, if you believe in Jesus, you are a child of God, and nothing can break that heavenly bond. Rejoice that God your Heavenly Father knows you. Rejoice in the love of a family around you. And rejoice in Jesus, the hope of glory, in your hearts, so that others too might become His precious children. For His name’s sake. Amen.