June 03, 2019
The Pentecost C Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for John 14:8-17,(25-27) from the Lectionary Gospel; Acts 2:1-21 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 104:24-34, 35b from the Lectionary Psalms; and Romans 8:14-17 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Gospel: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 53 (Lord’s Day 20)
John 14:8-17 (25-27)
Author: Scott Hoezee
This is our Pentecost text, of course, but the setting in John 14 takes us back to that last night before Jesus died, some 53 days before Pentecost arrived.
What that means is that even though this text ends up talking about peace and of Jesus’ telling the disciples “do not be afraid” (Jn. 14:27), let’s just state the merely obvious that in the next 48-72 or so hours of their lives, the eleven disciples still with Jesus in that room that night would have plenty of occasions to be very, very afraid, frightened, disoriented. Feeling “at peace” about anything would shortly for these disciples feel like the remotest of all possibilities. When the tornado sirens sound and the twister is chewing up house after house on your city block and heading your way, it’s not a moment to say to the folks in your cellar shelter, “Calm down, nothing to fear here!” Or at least feeling that way would seem like at best a long shot.
Maybe that’s why in John 14:1 (“Do not let your hearts be troubled . . .”) and in verse 27 (“Do not be afraid . . .”), I imagine that Jesus’ voice is choked with emotion and that just maybe there was something a little desperate about the way he urged his friends to be calm. It’s the tone of voice you’d expect to hear right after the bus had slid off a snowy highway and landed perilously on its side in a ditch near a ravine: someone might stand up and with real fear in his voice and with eyes widened by fright might shout out to everyone on the bus, “OK, everybody, now DON’T PANIC!!!!”
The truth is that in my life—and probably in your life—just about every time someone has told me to not be afraid or to not panic, it was because all things being equal, fear and panic were live possibilities at the moment.
The fact is that we take Jesus’ calming words in John 14 and we transfer them to pretty Hallmark-like Christian greetings cards or we decorate the den with a counted-cross-stitch version of it and we thereby make it a calming word for quiet afternoons whilst we sip a nice cup of chamomile tea or something. What we forget in so doing is that Jesus HAD TO say these things precisely because the world in which we live seems calculated more days than not to knock the holy stuffing out of us.
And perhaps this leads to a much-needed Pentecost reminder, too. Too often we envision Pentecost—at least the original event—as being ever and only about events that were both novel and quite literally earth-shattering. Whatever happened on that original Day of Pentecost, we think, is most decidedly VERY different than my average Tuesday morning or Friday afternoon. But maybe this causes us to miss the everyday nature of the Holy Spirit in our lives that we can detect here in these Lectionary verses from John 14.3.
You see, Philip asked, “Show us the Father. Show us the Father and it will be enough for us.” Jesus seemed taken aback by the question. “What do you mean? Have I been with you so long and still you do not know me, Phil? You’ve been seeing the Father all along. If you’ve seen me, then you have seen the Father.” This, in turn, leads Jesus to talking about the upcoming abiding presence of the Holy Spirit and how that Spirit will revel truths and show the disciples things that the world neither sees nor knows but that they will see and know.
But what if what that means is that we will sense the Spirit and our not being alone in the most ordinary moments of life? After all, just when had the disciples failed to see the Father in and through Jesus? Well, probably most all the time! Probably they had a hard time seeing the Father when recently Jesus had bawled his eyes out at the grave of Lazarus. Or they hadn’t guessed they were seeing—and so were in a real way in the presence of—the Father all those times when Jesus got sleepy and nodded off in the back of a boat or when after dinner Jesus used a small stick to work out that chive that had gotten lodged between his incisors.
They hadn’t realize that the Father was there in all that and so maybe in the context of John 14—a troubling, frightening context that would soon turn into a nightmare of fright and terror for the disciples—what Jesus is really saying is that when life gets tough, when the bottom falls out, the Father (via the Holy Spirit after Pentecost) would as surely be there in those (ordinary if oft-scary) circumstances as well.
When the doctor steps out of surgery with bad news . . .
When the boss ushers you into a room where the Director of Human Resources is sitting there with a letter for you to read . . .
When you are huddled under a desk in the basement while a twister shatters the glass in the house above you . . .
When you sit at your desk and feel such overwhelming boredom with your work that you discover tears have started to run down your cheeks . . .
. . . in all these times the Father (via the Spirit of Pentecost) will as surely be there as on all those other days of Jesus’ ministry even though the disciples did not typically have the eyes to see or the ears to hear. But by the Spirit one day they will and so in a world that constantly tries to steal peace from us and in times when our hearts really do become troubled and for powerfully good reasons at that, this is the good news to which we cling.
There really can be a peace that passes all understanding. There really can be a way for troubled hearts to become calm again. It may not come through tongues of flame or roaring winds or earthquakes such as you can read about in that other Lectionary reading for Pentecost Sunday in Acts 2 but it can come. It does come.
That may be the best message of all for Pentecost. And the main reason that’s such Good Gospel News is because it is by no means a truth for just that 50th day after Easter: this is a truth that goes home with you and moves in with you and stays with you, even to the end of the age.
The word often translated as “Counselor” in John 14:16 and again in John 14:26 is the Greek word PARAKLETOS, which literally means “the one called alongside.” A Paraclete was the one who stood alongside the accused person in court—an attorney, a counselor in that sense—but in John 14 it is clear that what the Holy Spirit does for believers by coming alongside of them is to open their eyes, to prod them in the ribs to recall the things Jesus said, and to remind them of the larger truth that in Jesus, God the Father really had been revealed to this world in a way never before true. With the Holy Spirit of Pentecost at our side, all of life is transformed—some of those transformations may be very subtle but that in no ways undercuts their almighty power!
In Maya Angelou’s classic essay “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” we see a vignette of what peace from the Holy Spirit in troubled times may look like for those who know the true Lord and the true Spirit of the Lord. Set in the South back in the late 1940s, the essay tells of a time when Maya’s Momma was taunted and insulted by a group of white girls while Momma was doing no more than sitting in a rocker on the front porch of the small grocery store they ran.
The girls said nasty things to Momma, laughed at her for being black. One thirteen-year-old girl even did a hand-stand so as to let her dress fall down. She wasn’t wearing any underwear and so she mooned Momma with her bare bottom and front. Watching her Momma, young Maya was furious that Momma didn’t do something. Yet Momma stayed calm and as Maya moved closer, she heard Momma singing quietly, “Bread of heaven, bread of heaven, feed me till I want no more.” The girls tired of the show and left eventually, and as Momma left the porch to return to the store, Maya heard her singing again, “Glory hallelujah when I lay my burden down.”
Momma could see deeper, farther than just those nasty girls and their despising of her. She saw the Lord, high and lifted up, and it changed everything. And she knew all that and could see all that because the Spirit of the Lord was with her whispering “Let not your hearts be troubled . . .”
Author: Stan Mast
We have come to the conclusion of our fifty day celebration of Easter. It is fascinating to me that our exit from Dr. Luke’s account of the spread of Easter faith is the on ramp to that whole story. With this Pentecost story, we loop back to where it all began. Even as Luke tells us that Jesus ministry began with that announcement of the Spirit’s empowerment (Luke 4:18-19), so the church’s ministry begins with the Spirit falling on the entire church. Jesus said that the church would go to the ends of the earth once the Spirit was given. As a sign of that, the ends of the earth came to the church when the Spirit was given. Luke’s artistry is impressive.
Verse one sets the stage. Jesus had told his disciples that the Father had “times and dates set by his own authority.” Clearly, the day of Pentecost was one of them. It was a day to celebrate the end of the wheat harvest, and now a day to celebrate the beginning of the world harvest. As one of the three major festivals to which all Jews were to make pilgrimage, the streets of Jerusalem were filled with God fearing Jews from all over the world.
Accordingly, the followers of Jesus, all 120 of them, were gathered in one place, possibly the precincts of the Temple where they spent every day (Luke 24:53), probably praising God for his mighty works in Jesus and praying for the outpouring of the Spirit that Jesus had promised. The stage is set. It’s the calm before the storm.
Suddenly, the storm breaks as “a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.” Accompanying the wind was fire, or “what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.” God wanted this initial coming of the Spirit to be memorable for future generations, so he made it a major public event, rather than private mystical experience.
But the wind and fire were merely accompanying signs. The central event of Pentecost was the fact that “all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit,” all 120 of them (or just the 12?). From Peter’s subsequent sermon, I take it to mean all 120. All of those early Christians received the fullness of the Spirit, for one major purpose—so that they could prophesy and be witnesses for Jesus to the ends of the earth.
That’s the meaning of the much debated phrase, “and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” Some charismatic Christians think this is the glossolalia debated in I Corinthians 12-14. But that was a heavenly language spoken for the benefit of fellow believers that needed translation before anyone could be blessed by it. These “other tongues” are foreign languages that enabled these disciples to speak to foreigners without the need for translation. This gift was given for the purpose of prophesying to unbelievers. While the New Testament mentions many other gifts of the Spirit, in the book of Acts this gift of prophesy is the main gift because it enabled the church to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth.
Indeed, God had already brought the ends of the earth to Jerusalem as a foretaste of the final harvest. Granted, they were all adherents of the Jewish faith, but they represented the known world. Dr. Luke’s list of nations in verses 9-11 is one sign of his extensive research into the Jesus story (Luke 1:3). From India to Africa to Europe and all over the Middle East, people had come to celebrate the harvest. They ended up being the harvest.
Their conversion began with utter amazement at what they were hearing—not the roaring wind or the crackling fire, but the Gospel being preached in their own languages by people who were obviously Galilean. “Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, ‘What does this mean?’” But, as has always been the case, the wonders of God’s grace also drew mockery from some in the crowd. “They have had too much to drink!”
This combination of amazement and mockery was the occasion for the first sermon in the New Age of the Spirit, a sermon that set the pattern for all subsequent Gospel sermons. First, Peter explains the event that has happened, thus, contextualizing the message to follow. Second, he preaches Jesus Christ crucified and Risen as Lord and Christ. Third, he exhorts his listeners to repent and be baptized. He preaches in the power of the Spirit, and by the power of the Spirit, 3000 people become Christians that day. That is a summary of the story of Acts, and of the church throughout the ages.
Notice how Peter grabs their attention. Though he is a nobody to the crowd, he does not speak “as one without authority,” as Fred Craddock says we do today. He addresses both the amazed and the mockers, with a command to listen carefully and a semi-humorous put down of the mockers. Then he demonstrates the gift of prophecy. It involves careful exegesis of Scripture, creative exposition of what God has done in Christ, and bold application to people’s lives.
We see the exegesis in Peter’s explanation of what the crowd had experienced. Led by the Spirit, he turns to an obscure minor prophet; “this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel.” Using an alternative interpretation of Joel 2:28-32, Peter informs them that we have now entered “the last days.” He doesn’t mean that in the apocalyptic sense of the very last moments of planet during which horrific events will occur. He means that in the salvific sense of the long promised days when the Messiah will bring salvation to Israel and the world.
The “last days” are longer and more complicated than we might think. The early last days, referred to in verses 17 and 18, will see the outpouring of the Spirit on all flesh, the salvation of many, and the progressive coming of the kingdom. The final last days will see the judgment of the wicked, the end of the world, and the new heavens and earth. In between, we live in the last days in which “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” We are no longer waiting for the Lord Christ to come. We are now on mission for him, empowered and led by his Spirit.
There are three things noteworthy about these early last days. First, the Spirit is poured out on “all flesh.” That doesn’t mean all human beings, but all kinds of human beings with no regard to sex, age, or rank. Not just men, not just old men, not just old men who occupy special offices like priest or king, but men and women, young and old, servants and masters—all receive the Spirit and prophesy. That’s how the Gospel will spread—when all God’s children testify about Jesus wherever they are in the world.
Second, there are two means by which the Gospel will spread—by the gift of prophesy (as explained above) and by signs and wonders. Now, the prophecy of Joel speaks of sign and wonders in the heavens and on earth, featuring especially apocalyptic things like “blood and fire and billows of smoke, the sun turned to darkness and the moon to blood….” Clearly some of that is a reference to the final last days, “the coming of the great and glorious (terrible) day of the Lord.”
But as we read through Acts, it is clear that other kinds of signs and wonders accompanied the gift of prophecy—healing the sick and raising the dead, taking care of widows and giving away money. There is much disagreement about the ongoing existence of those more miraculous signs and wonders, though the Bible nowhere says that they have ceased. But surely it is the case that the Gospel always proceeds most powerfully where God’s people demonstrate the power of the Spirit in acts of love and mercy as they pursue justice and peace.
Third, the main effect of the outpouring of the Spirit is conversion. The Spirit does many things in the lives of God’s people, but all of the Spirit’s work focuses on salvation. Thus, the first part of Peter’s sermon ends with the declaration that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” And the second part of his sermon ends with a call to salvation, to which the Spirit moves 3000 to respond.
The main point of Pentecost is not the wind and the fire and the tongues. It is the Spirit empowered proclamation of the Gospel that will spread to the ends of the earth and finally save the world. Acts begins in Jerusalem and ends in Rome. And that is the point of Pentecost. The greatest evidence of the Spirit’s filling is the gift of prophesy given to all God’s children, so that believers in other religions and mockers of all religion will “call on the name of the Lord Jesus and be saved.”
I’ve kept this illustration for years, so it may be too dated. I share it because it gives you a powerful picture.
”Ever since September 11, John Vigiano has visited the 70 foot deep crater that was the World Trade Center almost every day. He wants to be there when the workers make a discovery. You see, John Vigiano lost two sons in the terrorist attack. In October, a search and rescue dog found his son Joseph, a New York City police officer. But Vigiano is still waiting for someone to find his son John II, a New York City firefighter.
There are only a few hundred thousand tons of rubble left to be examined and hauled away. But Vigiano keeps hoping that they will find something, an arm, a finger, an ear, some little piece of his son that they might confirm with DNA tests. He know that the hopes are mighty slim, because the attack didn’t just kill; it shredded, it incinerated, it vaporized. The body of his son was disintegrated in the deepest sense of that word, dis-integrated, blown apart and scattered by the wind. And yet John Vigiano waits, because he wants to give his son a proper burial, a final farewell, so that in some sense his family can be all together again.”
When I read that story of a waiting father in the Washington Post, I thought of our heavenly Father waiting at the edge of the pit, peering into the rubble of a sin blasted world, waiting for someone to find his lost sons and daughters, his disintegrated and scattered people.
Of course, God did more than sit and wait helplessly. He sent his other Son, his only begotten Son, to seek and save the lost, to bring them home and make them whole. He sent his Son to re-integrate his dis-integrated children, to re-create for himself one new people out of the scattered human race. Jesus went into the pit, suffered with the lost and scattered ones, and died a horrible death to save God’s other children.
He left behind a handful of rescue workers who didn’t know what to do or have the strength to do it. Then came Pentecost. We all know what happened, but what was it about? That’s what the crowd asked. What does this mean? As the early Christians preached the Gospel in the languages of the nations of the earth, Jews from all over the world were gathered into one new family of faith. Verse 44 of Acts 2 summarizes the meaning of Pentecost. “All the believers were together….” After centuries of being scattered and lost, God’s children have been united again. The mission begun on Pentecost will end with John Vigiano’s wish fulfilled in a way he can’t imagine. They will all be together.
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
Author: Scott Hoezee
Sample Sermon: You wouldn’t think a wasp could do so much damage. Unless you are allergic to bee and wasp stings, getting stung by these bugs, though briefly painful and annoying, does not generally create any lasting effect or damage. However, about 150 years ago there was one particular kind of wasp that appears to have created a very long-lasting effect indeed. Charles Darwin was not even stung by this wasp but he did observe it and drew some pretty dire conclusions from what he saw. Darwin had grown up embracing pretty much the same perspective on the natural world as we just absorbed from listening to Psalm 104. That is, the world is the result of God’s handiwork, is filled with God’s holy designs, and so is something that bears witness to God in and through the goodness of that design.
But then one day, in the course of his studies, Darwin discovered a species of wasp that was so pernicious, it shook his belief in the world’s benevolent design. Because this particular wasp injects its larvae into the abdomen of a living host. Then, like some nightmare of an alien in a science fiction movie, the larvae mature inside this other creature, literally sucking the life out of the host in order to nurture its own development. Finally, when the wasps are ready to hatch, they burst out of the host’s body, leaving that host, not surprisingly, quite definitively dead.
Darwin considered this grisly scenario and concluded that something so predatory and dreadful could not possibly be the result of any good God’s design. God would never create a wasp to reproduce in so sick a fashion. This later became one reason (among, of course, many others) that led Darwin toward a naturalistic explanation of the universe’s existence in the place of a divine explanation. And ever since then, the debate has raged in an attempt to answer one very important question: Is the world the result of design or chance? Should we see the world as the work of God or the result of a blind process of evolution that neither needs any God nor shows any trace of God?
Psalm 104 brings us face to face with such questions. As we consider this psalm, let’s begin by summarizing what we learn from reading Psalm 104. First, notice how the psalm alternates between speaking about God and speaking directly to God. Verses 1-5, 10-18, and then 31-35 refer to God as “he” but all of the other verses are a more personal address that use the pronoun “you.” This psalm is part sermon, part prayer yet the tone is very consistent. From first to last we are told that God remains intimately involved with and connected to the physical world. Verse 31 sums up the whole poem as well as anything when the psalmist writes that the Lord God Yahweh rejoices in his works.
There is here both an element of divine playfulness and divine care when it comes to the creatures and features of the earth. We are told that God wraps light around himself the way we might put on and then model some new outfit from the store. As the great clouds scud across the expanse of the sky, we are told that we should picture God as riding on those clouds–it probably would not be too much to imagine a divine cry of “Yee-ha!” as he cruises overtop this world on clouds driven by the mighty wind! Verse 26 tells us not only that God created the great whales but did you notice the real punch of that verse: we are told that God created the whales with the specific purpose of their frolicking amidst the ocean swells! God infused playfulness right into the created order!
But we are also told that God is no absentee landlord. He is not someone who observes his creation from afar. If wild donkeys find water to drink, it’s because God put it there for them. If a badger on a mountainside finds a crag in which to build a home for himself, it’s because God cares for that critter just as surely as he cares for any one of us. Implied throughout this psalm is the doctrine of what in theology is called creatio continua or the “continuing act of creation.” God did not set the world to spinning and then left it alone. God at least does not regard his act of creation as something that was over and done with a long time ago. If you asked God about creation, he would not reply with a kind of dismissive “Been there, done that” attitude but would instead make clear that when it comes to creation, he is still here and he is still doing it.
As a brief aside, we need not interpret this to mean that God is attending to every single blade of grass that is currently growing in the world. Nor do we need to go to the extreme of thinking that everything is so divinely pre-programmed that every time a creature or person slips off a cliff it is because God took his finger and flicked them over the edge. There is, in short, a whole lot of careful nuancing that needs to happen when it comes to figuring out God’s involvement with the world. However, based on Psalm 104, suffice it to say that when we view the creation through the lens of our faith, we see that God’s attention and care abide with the universe.
In some ways, there may well be an analogy to parents and children. As all parents know, as busy as you may be in making preparations for a child while the little one is still in the mother’s womb, the birth of that child signals only the beginning (and certainly not the end) of the real work of being a parent. So also with God: once he created the universe, the work of creation had only just begun. But it’s not just the work, it’s also the delight. When we read in this psalm about God’s playfulness and delight in the creation, we are reminded of the way a parent beams when his or her child does well at a piano recital, scores a run at a baseball game, or is simply lost in a world of make-believe while playing in the backyard. A key joy of parenthood is precisely taking delight and pride in a child’s life. The joy of the creation for God is very similar: he loves watching his creatures at play.
All of that constitutes some of the main elements of Psalm 104. But now it’s time to note a couple of other things. First, this psalm celebrates what is good and delightful about creation without much discussing the obvious fact that we now live in a fallen creation. There are wild donkeys who do not find water and so drop dead in the desert as a result. There are birds who not only sing in the branches of maple trees but that snap their necks when they fly into your den’s picture window. Most creatures eat other creatures to live, and there are also those pesky wasps that bothered Mr. Darwin so very much. But with the exception of a reference to lions seeking out their prey, the “red in tooth and claw” nature of this present world is not addressed in this psalm.
But that hardly means that this cannot be addressed from a biblical perspective. With few exceptions, thoughtful theologians have been saying for thousands of years already that what you see in the world as it now stands is not necessarily a reflection of either God’s design or God’s intentions. Darwin looked at his predatory wasp and concluded that since God could not have designed this creature he must not have designed any. But as Christians we could just as easily conclude that in a broken world, things not only evolve toward greater complexity but they also de-evolve, fall away from what God wanted life to be like. Cancer does not mean that the normal division of cells in our bodies is a bad thing. Divorce does not mean that marriage itself is bad. And violence in the physical world does not mean that God made a bad world in the first place. God is aware of the bad things in this world but not because he put them there but because he, too, weeps over them.
But Psalm 104 leaves all of that to one side in order to put forward its main theme that when we see wonderful life, goodness, beauty, and playfulness in the world, then we must view these lovely things as reflections of the Creator God. However, what I just said is the rub, the sticking point, the debatable issue when it comes to a proper way to view reality. Is it merely “obvious” to look at the world and draw the same conclusions that Psalm 104 does? Is it automatic that when someone looks at a field of wildflowers ablaze in a riot of colors that she will say, “Ah yes, that’s God’s paintbrush at work! No doubt about it! I see God there!” Clearly the answer to such questions is no–seeing the world in divine terms is neither obvious nor automatic for many people.
And the reason for this is the same as the explanation for cancer, violence, and murder: this world is fallen. We need the Holy Spirit in us to see it correctly, which is maybe partly why Psalm 104 is the Year C Lectionary text for Pentecost Sunday. Without the Holy Spirit’s anointing, we don’t see straight, we don’t hear right, we don’t perceive correctly.
This is where our Christian witness comes in. We tell people what we believe, and why we believe it, in the prayerful hope that perhaps the Spirit will work through our witness to open another person’s eyes. There is glory to be witnessed in God’s beautiful world and we want others to see it and to share in it with us. Psalm 104 is one of many biblical reminders that paying attention to, and celebrating God’s goodness in, the physical creation is a proper and necessary part of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. As the concluding verses well remind us, if we want to see and celebrate the “glory of the Lord,” a good place to start is by celebrating the works of that Lord–the very same works in which the Lord himself is said to rejoice.
One of the most interesting features to being God’s image-bearers is precisely our ability to pay attention to others the same way God does. So far as we know, no other creatures in the world are able to make a study out of others. But we can and we do. Go to most any library and you will find whole sections devoted to books that catalog different types of grasses, trees, fish, grasshoppers, ants, birds, and flowers. No other species on earth bothers to look at anything else. Fish in the Caribbean spend their lives on the reef and yet they never try to study different kinds of coral. But we humans do study both coral and the fish that live amidst the coral. That’s the God-likeness in us at work! We can rejoice in God’s works in a similar way to how God himself rejoices in them!
The poet of Psalm 104 took note of goats on a mountain, donkeys in the desert, storks in pine trees, clouds in the sky, and whales on the ocean and in every single case he sang out in this grand poem, “God did that! God cares for that! God rejoices in that! Praise be to the Lord!” Seldom do we image God better than when we take note of the other in our midst, pay close attention to that other, and then give God the glory for what we have seen.
Make no mistake: all of this is a singularly faith-inspired vision of the world. Those who do not share our faith don’t see it this way and so may resist our suggesting they should. Perhaps that is why our best witness remains just that: a heartfelt, unabashed witness and forthright proclamation of what we believe to be true about the creation. We should not pretend that others will understand or accept this without themselves having faith and so it is the Holy Spirit’s Pentecostal gift of faith that we should pray for people to receive. And as much as anything, it will be our own ardor, conviction, compassion, love, and enthusiasm for the things of God that the Spirit may be able to use as holy tools to help reach our neighbors.
Psalm 104 speaks the language of faith by using the vocabulary of grace. The psalm opens and closes with that Hebrew imperative or command phrase, “Praise the Lord!” That is a bold order to get people to join the cosmic choir that sings praises to God day and night. The creation sings. By the Holy Spirit of Pentecost, so should we all!
* = This sermon takes in the whole of Psalm 104, even though the Lectionary picks up only the concluding verses.
Author: Doug Bratt
Parents take better care of their attractive children than they do their ugly ones. At least that’s what an article in a 2006 edition of The New York Times reported Canadian researchers concluded after observing more than 400 parents’ treatment of their children during 14 different trips to supermarkets. They deduced that physical attractiveness makes a difference.
Researchers noted that, for instance, the more attractive their children were, the more likely their parents were to belt them into a grocery cart seat. Homely children were also more often out of sight of their parents, who frequently let them wander more than ten feet away.
Dr. W. Andrew Harrell, the executive director of the Population Research Lab at the University of Alberta and the research team’s leader, saw an evolutionary reason for the findings. Attractive children, Harrell insists, get the best care because they represent the best genetic legacy.
“Like lots of animals, we tend to parcel out our resources on the basis of value,” he claims. “There are a lot of things that make a person more valuable, and physical attractiveness may be one of them.”
Of course, far more study is needed to determine if, in fact, parents actually treat their attractive children better than they do their “homely” ones. But what would happen if the God whom Paul invites us to call Heavenly Father treated God’s attractive child better than his ugly ones?
Reformed Christians profess, “Christ alone is the eternal, natural Son of God.” However, we also profess that “we . . . are adopted children of God – adopted by grace through Christ.” If our heavenly Father were to treat his most attractive child the best, God’s adopted children would be in deep trouble. Jesus Christ alone is, after all, God’s perfect Son. Even when Satan and his henchmen tempted him, he remained perfectly obedient to his Father’s will.
God’s adopted children are, as Paul implies in Romans 8, considerably less than perfect. So we are God’s naturally unattractive children. The apostle even hints at that when he writes, “if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die…” Living “according to the sinful nature” may take the form of blatant immorality or the pursuit of self-righteousness.
When God’s adopted sons and daughters are honest with God, each other and ourselves, we must confess that we have all too often willingly lived according to that sinful nature. We almost habitually choose our own righteousness over God’s righteousness, disobedience over obedience.
For Paul, however, to live in such slavery to Satan, sin and death, is to choose death over life. For God’s people to fail to act as God’s children, to fail to live by the Spirit is to choose death over life. Those who live as though we’re their own bosses choose the death of hope, purpose and eventually, if unchecked, eternal death.
However, to act according to God’s ways, to live by the Holy Spirit, is to let that Spirit empower us to choose life over death. Those who let that Spirit put to death our natural inclination to disobey God choose the lively way that has meaning and purpose. Those whom the Spirit equips to imitate Jesus Christ in our thoughts, words and actions live in a way that leads to eternal life, not death.
So Paul isn’t offering two equally valid choices in this Pentecost Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. Choosing between living according to the sinful nature and living by the Spirit isn’t like choosing between, for example, a Big Mac and a Whopper. In fact, since this is a choice between life and death, there is no genuine choice to make. Paul calls God’s adopted sons and daughters to choose life.
Yet when Paul refers to us as “those who are led by the Spirit of God” he at least implies that we can’t do this on our own. Satan, sin and death naturally so enslave even our will that even the best people naturally choose to disobey God. However, God’s Holy Spirit doesn’t leave you and me in slavery to Satan and his thugs. No, God leads God’s sons and daughters by freeing our wills, giving us an identity, moving us to gladly obey him.
So God’s adoptive children don’t have to lead lives of self-interest and self-direction. Our stature and status as God’s children determine both our identity and our behavior. God, after all, as Paul notes in verse 15, did not give us “a spirit that makes” us slaves “again to fear.”
While it’s almost unbearable to read at times, Khaled Hussein’s The Kite Runner is among the most powerful books I’ve ever read. Amir, a child growing up in Afghanistan in the late sixties and early seventies, narrates it. He, however, is a kind of “slave to fear.” Young Amir’s fear, of his father, of physical harm and several other things motivates nearly everything he does.
Particularly poignantly, Amir’s fear prevents him from stopping bullies from mercilessly torturing his servant and friend, Hassan. Eventually, however, he begins to break out of his slavery to fear. Much of the good that Amir does later in The Kite Runner is motivated by courage rather than fear.
By God’s grace, through adoption as God’s sons and daughters, God’s people aren’t slaves to fear. Fear of Satan, suffering, death or judgment or anything else no longer motivates Christians. God has, after all, graciously freed you and me of all fear in order to gladly serve God as God’s children. In fact, the Spirit empowers God’s adoptive children to obey God not even out of fear of God, but out of an eagerness to thank God for God’s gift of salvation.
This same Holy Spirit moves Christians to cry, “Abba, Father,” an emotional and passionate, intimate and yet also public name for God. It’s the same intensely personal, even desperate way Christ addresses our heavenly Father in Gethsemane. After all, Mark 14:36 reports that he cries, “Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”
“Abba” certainly has a very intimate flavor. Some have compared it to our own word “Daddy.” However, “Abba” isn’t exclusively personal. After all, our “Daddy” who in Christ and by the Spirit’s power adopts us as God’s children is also almighty and awesome. So our address to “Abba, Father” conveys the same spirit as our address to our “Father who art in heaven” in the Lord’s Prayer. It recognizes that our heavenly Father is also the majestic creator of heaven and earth who also cares for all things God has made, including us, his puny, adoptive children.
However, because God is almighty God, you and I would never dare call God “Daddy” unless the Holy Spirit prompted us to do so. In German, there are basically two ways of addressing another person: with the formal “sie” and the more informal “du.” Traditionally you always addressed a person with the more formal “sie.” It was considered the height of impertinence to address a person more informally. In fact, Germans traditionally had a kind of ceremony that included a toast and a handshake that moved your conversation from the formal “sie” to the informal “du.”
Our natural relationship to God would be the far more formal one. In fact, I’ve heard some Germans even using the more formal language in prayer. By the Holy Spirit, however, God gives God’s adoptive sons and daughters the right to refer to God far more personally and intimately. Because of what Jesus Christ has done for us, he gives us the right to call him, the Creator and Sustainer of all things, “Daddy.”
God’s adoptive children, however, don’t just have the freedom to gladly obey and call God, “Daddy.” After all, “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.”
Of course, even God’s “heirs” haven’t yet come into our full inheritance. God’s adopted sons and daughters will fully claim our inheritance only in the future. Yet Christians know what we’ll inherit. God’s adoptive children will inherit the free, unlimited and unrestricted enjoyment of God’s glory in the new creation.
Through his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ is no longer an “heir.” He has already received his inheritance that is now ruling with our heavenly Father in glory. God’s adoptive sons and daughters, Christ’s brothers and sisters who suffer with him can expect someday to share in that inheritance.
Our status as God’s adopted sons and daughters sends us to those who aren’t yet God’s adoptive children with a new kind of concern. Now, after all, you and I love those outside God’s family with the kind of love that is in God, that was revealed in Jesus and that God pours into our hearts by his Spirit.
In 2005 one of India’s oldest and richest family business’s fights over an inheritance transfixed the country. One of its more eccentric members had left her $1.1 billion worth of assets to her auditor. The accountant, however, didn’t just stand to inherit the full estate. He was also in line to completely control of one of the families companies and have a say in the way the family runs many of its other businesses.
Family members insisted that, with the rest of the estate being worth about $9 billion dollars, they weren’t interested in the wealth involved. “It is a question of the family’s honor,” they maintained. “We are fighting to keep an outsider and a trespasser away from the family, its heritage, and its method of functioning.” Of course!
God is prepared to leave God’s children an inheritance immeasurably more valuable than billions of dollars. Yet God’s adoptive children have no need to fight over that incredible inheritance. God, after all, doesn’t treat God’s attractive son, in fact his only natural Son, Jesus, better than God treats God’s “homelier” ones like you and me. Nor does Christ, our adoptive brother, begrudge us our share in our amazing inheritance. In fact, he gave us our share of that inheritance by living, dying and rising again from the dead for us.