Preached at Holmfirth Methodist Church
20th July 2014: 5th Sunday after Trinity
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43; Romans 8:12-25
“The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” (Romans 8:19)
No pressure, but the hopes of a changed, transformed and restored universe are pinned on you, on God’s plan for creating new people out of us by the interior operation of his Spirit. The entire cosmos, Paul says, is crying out for the emergence and empowerment of people who will take responsibility for its renewal. The whole world is waiting. It’s waiting for us. It’s waiting for the appearance of children of God who will be agents for the divine revitalisation of all things. I told you there was no pressure. But do you know what? Actually, there isn’t any pressure really, because it’s not down to us; it’s down to the Spirit working in us, it’s down to God renewing us so that he might renew the world through us.
The entire fabric of the created order is crying out, squinting, straining its eyes to see what is coming next; it’s desperately hoping for humans who have been returned to the height of their true humanity, humans who will govern the world under God as they were always meant to from the very beginning. The good of the world, Paul seems to say, is tied up with the good of its rulers—us. We might think we’re small, insignificant, and unimportant; but we’re not. Our lives have cosmic consequences. We are people of infinite influence. Scientists call this the Butterfly Effect—the idea that the disturbance equivalent of a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil could set off a tornado in Texas a few weeks later.
The fractured, broken, unredeemed world in which we live and of which we are a part is after true children of God. This is what the whole world is waiting for. And since the whole world is waiting for the true children of God to be made known, it’s worth asking ourselves the question: are we one of them? Are we now and are we becoming more every day true children of God? Are we part of God’s response to a world in need of healing and wholeness? To help us answer that, I suggest we look together at three things which Paul says are marks or characteristic of true children of God:
1. That they know God as Father;
2. That they are led by God’s Spirit;
3. That they suffer with Christ, God’s Son.
In the previous chapter of his letter to the church in Rome, Paul writes about our being torn in two directions—our inability to do what we know is right on the one hand, and our natural inclination to do what we know is wrong on the other. The solution, he says in this chapter, is life in the Spirit. We can’t be who we’re meant to be by ourselves. We can try to be ever so ever so good, but we will fail. We can struggle and wrestle against the sins which beset us, but still the will entangle us and still we will keep falling short. Whether willingly or otherwise, the fact is that we can’t live as God wants us to live in our own strength. We need God’s help. We need God’s power to fill us and take control of our lives. What we need is what Paul calls the Spirit of adoption—the Spirit whose very work is making us children of God.
It may seem obvious, but the first mark of true children of God is that they cry out, they call on God as ‘Abba, Father’ (the Aramaic equivalent of ‘Daddy’). True children of God, those who have the Spirit of adoption living and active inside of them, enjoy an intimate relationship with God, such as Christ has. Now, of course, on one level it’s completely possible for us to say the words, ‘Abba, Father’ and not have that kind of relationship with God. In the same way as it’s possible for me to say that I am actually moving from here, not to go into ministerial training as you think, but to be Arsenal’s new multi-million pound goalkeeper. It’s not the words themselves which matter; it’s the reality which stands behind it. If a couple doesn’t love each other and are separated in all but name, there’s no point them sending each other a Valentine’s Day card—it’s just empty words, hollow sentiment. In the same way, the work of the Spirit isn’t just allowing us to name God ‘Father’, it is to truly know, experience, and love God as Father.
The true children of God know God intimately. They love God. But even before that, they know that they are loved by God. John Wesley in a sermon on this passage called ‘The Witness of the Spirit’ writes: “We cannot love God, till we know He loves us. ‘We love Him, because He first loved us.’ And we cannot know His pardoning love to us, till His Spirit witness it to our Spirit.” In children of God, the Holy Spirit works to assure them of God’s fatherly love. The Holy Spirit gives children of God a sure sense of God being for them, of God’s love made plain in the life, death, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus Christ, His Son. A true child of God, Paul implies, can no more doubt his adoption—his God-given identity in Christ—than we can doubt the shining of the sun while stood in its beams.
While we know God’s love for us as a powerful present reality, we can know that we are children of God. What’s more, for children of God, his fatherly love is intensely personal. Because they know God’s love as it has been made known in Jesus (and especially in his sacrificial self-giving on the Cross)—they know that Jesus loves them, that Jesus gave himself willingly for them, that Jesus died for their sins. To be a child of God means to know God, to know God’s love for us personally. It isn’t some intellectual theory or abstract generalisation. It isn’t even about knowing that God himself is love. It’s about experiencing God’s love for ourselves as a powerful, present reality. It means to have a personal relationship with him.
One of the worst things we can do in churches is to give the impression that God is some vague, distant, airy-fairy, impersonal and ultimately unknowable life-force floating around the universe. God is supremely personal. That’s why he came to us in the flesh of a man! That’s why he insists on being known as Immanuel—God with us. God wants to be known. The children of God are those who relate to God as Father, who have begun to enjoy this kind of intimate, personal knowledge of the Creator which only comes through spending time with one another. The question, therefore, is: Do we spend time in one another’s company? Do we pray? Do we seek to come into the ever greater knowledge, understanding and love of God, which only comes through prolonged exposure and experience? Do we take time to talk with God, to listen to God, to observe God, to meditate on who God is? A child of God will.
So that’s the first characteristic of true children of God. And the second is this: that they are led by God’s Spirit. “All who are led by the Spirit of God,” Paul says, “are children of God” (v. 14). What does that mean? What does that look like? The questions we need to ask ourselves are these: Who/what do we take our directions from for the way we live our lives? Who/what is calling the shots in the courses of action we take? Who/what do we obey when we’re deciding what to do? So often, even in churches, the answer is that we’re paying more attention to the pounds and pence than to the purposes of the Almighty. To be led by the Spirit is to surrender our own agenda and submit to going God’s way—wherever that way may take us.
Let me share with you the story of Elizabeth Masilela. Elizabeth is just an ordinary South African woman. One day, she was walking across the road to a field where a group of kids regularly played football; she went there to collect old, discarded bricks in an attempt to try and build onto her little house in the township. On this particular day, however, the boys playing football in the field ran over to her and told her to come quickly. She did. A new-born baby had been abandoned and left in a cardboard box where it was now crying and covered head to toe in ants. Elizabeth brushed off the ants as quickly as she could and took the baby to the nearest health centre around. When she got there, the people there said they couldn’t help and that she’d have to go to the police station. So she went to the police station. They also said they couldn’t do anything with a new-born baby, but they’d send a social worker out to her soon; but in the meantime it was best if she kept him. So she did.
Elizabeth took the little baby boy home with her and he cried all night. He must be hungry, she thought, and she gave him all that she had in the house: some water. But it was to no avail. She went out to look for some milk—not so easy to do in the middle of a township at night; but eventually she found somewhere to buy milk and tried feeding it to the baby as best she could. The little boy cried all night long and there was nothing she seemed to be able to do about it. The next day, a social worker sent by the police came by to talk to Elizabeth and told her that the best thing would really be if she kept the baby for as long as possible, but if she couldn’t then to call and they would talk more later. That was 14 years ago. Since then rumours of what Elizabeth had done began to spread and more abandoned babies started turning up on her doorstep. Now she runs an orphanage and has 15 unwanted children staying with her in her little three-room house along with 4 daughters of her own.
This, I suspect, is a fairly accurate picture of what it means to be led by the Spirit. It is to be ambushed by God. To have our lives hijacked, seized, commandeered for God’s purpose and plans. Being led by the Spirit means living life on God’s terms. It means being less concerned with what we want than with what God wants. People filled with the Spirit of adoption are God-focussed. True children of God want to please God. They want to do right by God. They have their lives composed, directed and orchestrated by God. A child of God doesn’t see their freedom in Christ as an opportunity to do what they want; they see it as an opportunity to hand themselves over more fully to doing what God wants. The lives of the children of God are lives marked by obedience, even when that obedience is decidedly costly or inconvenient. Does that describe us? Does that describe the people we are and are becoming?
The third characteristic of a child of God, which Paul describes in this passage, follows closely from what we’ve just been talking about is this: true children of God are ready to suffer with Christ. This isn’t, I’m afraid to say, an optional extra. To be a true child of God in the Christian sense is to take up one’s cross. Not only is this a suffering of self-denial; it is a suffering which is inseparable from faithfulness to Christ in a world which doesn’t know him as Lord, which doesn’t share the same values as we do, which doesn’t belong to the same story, the same narrative as we do. Walking too close to Christ will get us into trouble. It is inevitable if we walk with Jesus that we will be lead into tension and into conflict with the values and the cultures of the world around us which does not know Jesus takes for granted.
Take the famous example of Eric Liddell, whose story was so wonderfully told in the film ‘Chariots of Fire’. His refusal to race on a Sunday for the sake of Jesus put him at odds with his teammates, his coaches, even the royal family and ultimately cost him the opportunity to compete in the event he had trained so hard to enter. Or take my friend Ben, who walked away from a lucrative and well-paying job in a big company because he was being put under pressure to collude in some rather shady business practices. Or again, take my friend Peter, who works for a big London law firm and who finds it more difficult than most to join in office banter because he doesn’t have any wild nights out or sexual conquest to brag about.
Following a crucified Lord is difficult. Being made children of God involves a complete and comprehensive overhaul of the kind of people we are. Such rejection of what we were will also unsurprisingly lead those who are not being similarly transformed to take offence. This is where hope comes in. Faced with the prospect of suffering, being a child of God might not sound an entirely appealing prospect. But, Paul says, “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. … For in hope we were saved” (vv. 18, 24). We suffer the death of our old lives, in order to be made alive with Christ in a new, more glorious way. We endure hardship for the sake of something so much better. We put up with the pain of following Jesus because the payoff of participating in his glory and becoming like him as fellow sons and daughters of God is more than worth it.
Paul says that those with the Spirit inside them groan inwardly for that future, for their being completely and utterly swept up into the mystery of God in Jesus Christ. A life characterised by the indwelling of the Spirit is a life characterised by this hope, this yearning for something we don’t yet see. And it’s a yearning shared by all creation. The whole world is desperately waiting for the advent of new people, renewed in the likeness of Christ, made by the Spirit children of God. The entire created order is groaning for people who know God intimately and pray; people who allow their lives to be taken over by God for his purposes in the world; people who are prepared to suffer with Christ for the surpassing hope of something even greater to come. Can you see the Spirit of adoption at work in your life? If not, then ask until you can. And if you can, then praise God and ask him for patience to wait until you see it in every part of your life.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.