CHILDREN BY ADOPTION AND GRACE
A SERMON BY PASTOR CHICO MARTIN
Lections: Ps 148; Col 3:12-17; Luke 2:41- 52.
Most of us, I think, tend to smooth out our experience of time’s measured passage: we judge the duration of the year 2015 to be equivalent to the year 2014. Each lasts for 12 months, and 12 months equals 52 weeks; and each week has 7 days, etc. Even when one year “feels” as if it were longer than another, our “reasoning” informs us that this cannot be so. We move through time at a regular pace.
The narrative of Luke’s Gospel, however, moves at an irregular pace; Chapter 2 begins with the birth of the Divine Child Jesus, and ends when he is twelve years old, sitting among the rabbis in the Jerusalem Temple, “listening,” “asking them questions,” and amazing everyone with “his understanding and his answers.” Fully a third of his lifetime and more has been put behind him, and we have barely begun our story; for we are in an unfamiliar realm of time, where great things are expected to occur, again and again, at the same time of year.
Jesus is in Jerusalem “for the festival of the Passover,” so we are back at the beginning – and also at the end – of our story. Passover is the time of year Christians believe Jesus was conceived, because it is the same time of year he would die, and this is the type of symmetry we discover in divine history. Just as his birth nine months after Passover could be reasonably fixed on our Christmas Day, so the first public display of his Divine Wisdom could be fixed at the same time of year he was conceived and would die, that we might judge its import and recognize its true significance. The pastimes of the Divine Child were no doubt wondrous, but his greatness is evidenced in the manner he begins going about his Father’s business, in the Jerusalem temple, with its rabbis, when he attains Divine Manhood. Calvin comments, “the duty which he owes the Father ought to be immeasurably preferred to all human duties…consequently, earthly parents do wrong in taking it amiss, that they have been neglected in comparison of God.”[i]
Jesus arrives in Jerusalem for the festival as a twelve-year old child, and his parents leave in their caravan without him when the festival draws to a close. Their son is lost to them, because he remains in the Temple, the magnificent rock edifice built by the people of Israel to honor and worship their God. This is where we hear for the first time Jesus call God ‘Father,” as if he knows already – with the extraordinary wisdom the Jews expected of the Messiah – that he is the son of God. When his parents return for him, and set out a second time for Nazareth, their roles have been reversed. Jesus now leads the way; he no longer talks and reasons as a child; rather, he is “God with us,” walking with Mary and Joseph on their journey home, and he has put away childish things. Jesus has entered the fullness of his servanthood; he grows “in wisdom and stature” and finds favor “with God and man.”
The collect Thomas Cranmer[ii] wrote for the first Sunday after Christmas Day makes three theological statements about Jesus as God and three about us as persons. Jesus 1) is God’s “only begotten son,” 2) has taken our nature upon himself, and 3) is birthed by a Virgin. His Incarnation and life “with us” makes possible 1) our regenerate being, 2) our adoption as children of God, and 3) our daily renewal by the Holy Spirit. Let us consider briefly each of these six doctrines.[iii]
Cranmer’s collect begins by identifying Jesus as the only begotten son of the Father, which recognizes first the everlasting being of Jesus and second his acts as creator of all that is out of nothing.[iv] Jesus, Bede says, is “coeternal with the Father’s power and glory.”[v] Cranmer is focusing on God for us: what Athanasius calls “the great work” (2.10. 36), which is “the Resurrection of His Body and His victory over death” (4.33, 64).[vi] The Son accomplishes his redemptive work by a vicarious, substitutionary death[vii] that restores human beings to their original state of incorruption. God incarnate does what we cannot do for ourselves; Jesus dies in our place – out of love –sparing us judgment and guilt.
Our reconciliation with God in the Atonement is enabled by His taking our nature upon himself, the nature Athanasius calls “a body like our own.” “Because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death,” Athanasius says, “He surrendered his body to death in place of all, and offered it to the Father.” This was done “out of sheer love for us” so that “He might turn again to incorruption men…and make them alive through death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of His resurrection” (2.8. 34). The Son “died to ransom all” (4.21. 51), foiling “the designs of the enemy” (2.9. 35), “for the human race would have perished utterly” (2.9. 35). “By the sacrifice of His own body,” Athanasius explains, “He did two things: He put an end to the law of death … and He made a new beginning of life for us” (2.10. 37).
These divinely planned events, the fulfillment of God’s covenantal promise, begin with the Christmas Day birth of Jesus of a pure Virgin; Christ’s death is regarded as a sacrifice because His body is “free from every stain.” He shares the condition of being human – with the single exception of sin. His death is efficacious because “the solidarity of mankind is such that, by virtue of the Word’s indwelling in a single human body, the corruption which goes with death has lost its power over all” (2.9. 35).
The God who is for us is also with us, a person we can touch and crowd about and talk with, who remains impervious to our selfish schemes and incapable of being harmed by our desires. He walks beside us on the pilgrimage which we call our lives. When Christ, “the image of the invisible Father, becomes the head of a new humanity,” He becomes “Himself an object of the senses.”[viii] As Athanasius observes, those who had “turned from the contemplation of God above, and were looking for him in the opposite direction, down among created things and things of sense” can by this grace encounter and “apprehend” the Father through the Son (3.15, 43). The Divine Person makes possible the restoration of man’s God-like image; men cleanse their lives, purify their minds, and imitate the saints (9.57, 96).
Our encounter with God regenerates us, for as we often hear it said, we are born-again. Our very being is made regenerate, that is, re-oriented and transformed, by God’s “breaking through” our self-dependence – when we our weakest – to gives us his “grace.” In this manner, God communicates with us; He literally “speaks” to us. God’s tongue is a “wordless” language that we understand because it seems to be our own. We answer using the same wordless language that we instantly understand when we accept our utterly dependent state of being.
The life we our given comes through the relationship we discover “talking” to God. Before our “talk,” life and death appear to be different – we cling to the one, our life, as if to hold off the other, our death. After our “talk,” we know that life and death are fleeting moments in a continuum of being that we have yet to experience in its fullness. We experience the assurance that everything will be alright, for God addresses us as children by adoption and grace: “what Christ is by nature we are made by grace – Sons of God.”[ix]
The full head-on encounter with God, however, is too intense for us to carry around, so as our sense of His presence waxes and wanes, as we are daily renewed by the holy spirit. We experience intimations of the continuum of being, and we learn to identify these intimations as the source of truth. We learn through the shaping, taking of direction, and guidance of “God outside us.” We are not God, but within us, in the heart of our being, God is “with us,” so we are not to be afraid of anything; most of all, we are not to be afraid of death.
The continuum of being is like the curvature of space scientists tell us holds the solar system and the galaxies and the vast networks of light and gravity and particles in their indeterminate places; the continuum of being is like the many colored robe of Abraham, the fabric of all creation. As we put on the consciousness of grace, we become regenerate, new beings, and in our regeneration, the creation God gave us to care for is also be renewed, a new world in the regeneration (Matt 19:28).
Paul tells us to be clothed with behaviors and practices fitting for “God’s chosen ones.” These practices include compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forbearance, forgiveness and love, which he calls “the belt of perfection” (3:12-14). The warp and woof of the Divine Person who weaves together all beginnings and ends and who talks with each of us in the process is spectacularly vaster than we surmise; and yet, as if miraculously, entirely present, away in a manager, in the little town of Bethlehem. Christ’s nativity is also our nativity, for he has made us to be like him (in his image) and with him (in his eternal kingdom), as he is with us (here, and now). Amen.
[i] Calvin’s Commentaries, Luke 2:49
[ii] Almighty God, which hast given us thy only begotten son to take our nature upon him, and this day to be born of a pure Virgin; Grant that we being regenerate, and made thy children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by thy holy spirit, through the same our Lord Jesus Christ who liveth and reigneth with thee and the holy ghost now and ever. Amen.
[iii] I am indebted to Barbee and Zahl for the schemata of this collect. See C. Frederick Barbee and Paul F. M. Zahl, The Collects of Thomas Cranmer (Grand Rapids: Wm B Eerdmans, 2006), 10-11
[iv] Quastam says, in refuting Arius, Athanaseus pointed “to the fact that the very name ‘Son’ presupposes His being generated; but to be begotten means to be the offspring of the Father’s essence, not of his will” (68). This is the reason “the Son has in common with the Father the fullness of the Father’s Godhead and the Son is entirely God.” See Johannes Quasten, Patrology, Vol III (Westminster, Maryland: Spectrum Publishers, 1960), 68, referencing Orationes contra Arians
[v] Bede, Homilies on the Gospels, 1.19, quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Luke (NT Vol 3)
[vi] St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation: The Treatise De Incarnatione Verbi Dei (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimer’s Seminary Press, 2003), 120 pgs. All embedded citations are to Chapter, Section, and Page of this edition.
[vii] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims On the Way (Grand Rapids: Zondervin, 2011), 514
[viii] Douglas Kelly, Systematic Theology, Vol 1 (Scotland: Christian Focus, 2008), Vol 1, 31
[ix] Anthony Tuckney, discussed in Robert Letham, The Westminster Assembly (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2009), 292