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 family’s 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.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 9, 2019
Romans 8:14-17 Commentary