Becoming a Child of God
In families where children have been adopted, some may ask, “Who is my mother and father?” Are they the ones who made me or the ones who claimed me?” Each will come to a different conclusion and emotions run high for those who have offered the gift of a child, and for those who have been adopted, and for those who did not make a child, but claimed and raised and loved a child as their own.
In our text for today, God is portrayed as the adoptive parent and that means he not only made us, but claimed us as well. Appreciating that choice, can make all the difference in the way we look at God and in the way we look at ourselves. Before we look to understand that difference, let us pray:
Lord, in this season of light, we pray for the true light that enlightens all. Help us to receive the life you promise and to believe in the one who offers it. Speak to us now through your Word. Amen.
Most scholars believe that the Gospel of John was the written last and that the Apostle penned it later in life. That means he took time to think about what Jesus said and did, and what that holds for us. Before a single word was written he considered the implications. So, you’ll find no mangers or magi in his account, no shepherds or stars. He had moved beyond simple Sunday School lessons and into theology that reaches deep into the mind and soul. He figured by now you know who, what, when, and where, so he looks to answer the question why.
So, his gospel begins at the beginning of time. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The essence of who Jesus was and is did not begin in Bethlehem. The divine spark, the Christ part is the light that shines through the prism of creation. John believed, “all things were created through him and without him not anything was made that was made.” Everything has a tag woven into its molecules that says, “made through Christ.”
In that sense we are all God’s creatures, but does that mean we are all God’s children? Are we born into the family of God or are we adopted? Do we have a birthright that is ours for no other reason than that we breathe, or does our inheritance depend on something or someone else? That was John’s question, and for him this was black and white, or as he put it, darkness and light. He was confident that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Christ will prevail and evil will be defeated and through him nothing will be able to separate us from God’s love.
Still, he was troubled through his lifetime, as we are, about those who reject that light and shroud the world in darkness. It is the same question we ask every Christmas season. Though our Christmas cards portray pastoral scenes with snow-covered churches bathed in twilight and gentle words, “Peace on Earth – Good Will to All”, our newspapers are still filled with the same old stories about wars and rumors of wars. If we are all God’s children, why we are so hard on each other? If we are all part of the family of God, then what has gone wrong in this family that makes it so dysfunctional it can barely be recognized as family at all.
That may have been what the Apostle was wondering when he wrote, “Christ was in the world, and the world was made through him yet the world knew him not. He came to what was is own, and his own people did not accept him.” This puzzled John because he saw Christ as “the true light that enlightens everyone” and he wondered why everyone didn’t see Jesus that way.
The only conclusion he could come to was that not everyone has “received and believed in his name.” That’s why many are powerless to become children of God and why they do things and say things that are so contrary to the Will of God. Receiving Christ and believing him empowers us somehow to act as if we really are part of the family of God. Only then can we learn to really treat others as brothers and sisters in Christ.
If there is any time of the year this truth should hit home – it is now, because Christmas is all about receiving. We tell our children it is better to give than receive, but they know better. They know it’s always better to receive and that’s why, come Christmas, they’ll wake you up at five in the morning and charge downstairs eager to tear into brightly wrapped presents bearing their names. You will never hear a child protest in false modesty, “Oh, you shouldn’t have” – because they expect you should.
They delight in receiving gifts where we are sometimes uncomfortable because we think there might be strings attached, or we feel embarrassed because the gift we gave did not cost as much as the gift we received. For adults the giving and receiving of gifts can be a complicated matter, because we suspect there may be hidden agendas that express buried judgments. The gift measures love by its price.
So, we balance the cost of the gift given with the gift received, and our Christmas card list contains names that are crossed out and added because someone did or did not send a card last year. We want to make sure everything comes out even so that we have no sense we owe anyone anything. In some homes Christmas morning can leave feelings hurt and egos bruised because a gift did not meet expectations. Not so with little children. They’ll just tear off the paper and play with the present – or the box it came in.
That may be why Jesus said, “Unless you come as a little child you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” Children have no qualms at all about receiving a gift, but we remain suspicious – “if I accept this gift from God, what am I going to have to do, what am I going to have to give up? Where are the secret strings attached to the gift?” We don’t want to be beholden to anyone – even God.
And that’s the problem because we can never get even with God. What we give to God will never be equal to what God has given us because God has pretty much given us everything we have, including the air we breathe and the lungs we use to breathe it. The ledger will never be balanced.
We may say we only want to get what we deserve, but we don’t believe that for a second because we know if God replayed a tape of all the things we’ve done, it’s more likely our stockings would be filled not with candy but coal. No matter how much good we’ve done, there has always been a moment in each of our lies when we were unspeakably cruel, carelessly apathetic, or just flat out ungrateful for the gifts God has given.
That’s why we are powerless to push our way into heaven. We don’t have the strength or ability or even will to do it. We can’t push our way into heaven. We can only be pulled up. The Bible says, “It is not by our might, or by our power, but only by my Spirit”, says the Lord.
So, John wrote, we become children of God “not of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but only of God.” The first gift of Christmas was the gift of Christ himself. The Lord claims us, adopts us for reasons born only out of God’s love. It is grace and grace alone and that’s all it ever can be.
Don’t for a second think grace is cheap or easy. Grace requires a deliberate choice and that’s why the relationship between God and us is likened more to adoption than natural childbirth. Many a baby has been conceived without the least thought about the life that will result. Sometimes people refer to this surprise as an accident.
There’s nothing accidental about adoption though. No one falls into it. Children who are adopted are chosen, and that makes the relationship even more special. No one understood this better than Jesus, because he also was adopted.
Though Joseph merits few lines in scripture and we never hear him speak; he stands tall in his conscious and very deliberate choice to adopt and claim Jesus as his own. That made all the difference in the world for Mary and her baby. Had she been left on her own, Jesus’ growing-up life would have been much more difficult.
Remember, Joseph knew the child was not his. When his fiancé, Mary told him she was going to have a baby, custom and disappointment would dictate he leave Mary to fend for herself. While scripture indicates for a brief moment, that did cross his mind, an angel appeared and convinced him to hang in there. Angels can be pretty persuasive.
But, I think Joseph may have made that right choice anyway because he turned out to be a good father. We see that in the only story we have about the young Jesus. Scripture tells us when Jesus reached his Bar Mitzvah age they traveled to the Temple in Jerusalem. Though not named, Joseph is included in the observation, “now Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem.” Even Mary refers to Joseph as “your father.”
These words were recorded by Luke, who wrote the words we read every Christmas Eve, so he knew Joseph was not Jesus’ natural father; yet he includes Joseph in the plural description – parents. Why? Well, neighbors and family and friends evidently watched the interaction between Joseph and Jesus and concluded they were father and son because they acted as father and son. Mary herself gave Joseph that title, so in her mind made by or claimed by made no real difference.
I believe Jesus’ decision to become a carpenter was made out of respect for, and because of the influence Joseph had upon him in his growing up years. So, his personal experience led him to appreciate the precious gift of adoption and that helps make God’s gift of adoption all the more real.
Receiving is a matter of believing, and that’s why John connects the two, “All who receive Christ and believe in his name will have the power to become children of God.” Believing you belong to God is not always easy no matter how often someone says you do. Some adopted children, no matter how loving their parents are still suspect there’s someone out there who will better understand who they are. I’m not sure why that is, but it is there. Perhaps there remains in all of us some primordial memory of Eden at our backs. Forced out by sin, we can never go back the way we came, because that gate is forever closed. None of us can ever really get over the feeling that we have been abandoned by God.
That’s why believing in Jesus’ name is so connected to receiving God’s gift of redemption, reconciliation, and ultimately salvation. For John this was the most amazing part of grace. “Jesus came into the world and the world though made through him, knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not.” Yet, still he came and still comes no matter what we’ve done or how far we’ve run. Though we may turn from him, he will not turn from us, he will never leave us or forsake us. His love will not let us go. The way we know that to be true, the sign that tells us this is so is the tenacious grace revealed on the cross. His sacrifice proves this is more than words and that grace is precious.
That’s why it is important we not get stuck in Bethlehem. This pastoral scene we place under our Christmas trees will always contrast with the hard and harsh reality of our world, so we face the choice of believing what we see or in the words we sing in our carols.
The cross, though, does not stand in contrast with the cruelty we see. In fact it is the ultimate expression of that sin. By this we know God understands. The Good News though, the truth we need to hold onto is that “In Christ there is life and his life is the light to all. That light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Christ will prevail.
The choice we make then is whether we will receive and believe and hold up our own light, or whether we reject and doubt and remain in the dark.
An old Peanuts cartoon demonstrates the difference. In the first panel Linus holds a candle and says, “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” Lucy is shown in the next panel shaking her fist and shouting at the night sky, “You stupid darkness!”
That’s your choice – light or darkness. Receive or reject. Believe or not. The choice you make determines not only what you see when you look into a manger, but what you see when you look into yourself.
Let us pray:
Grant us power to become your children Lord as we receive and believe. By your spirit, let our lives more reflect the life of the one who is the light of the world – Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
 John 1:1
 John 1:4
 John 1:10
 Mark 10:15
 John 1:13
 Luke 2:41
 Luke 2:48
 Genesis 3:24
 Hebrews 13:5