Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 19, 2020
Romans 8:12-25 Commentary
Parents take better care of their attractive children than they do their less attractive ones. At least that’s what an article in the 2008 edition of The New York Times reported Canadian researchers discovered.
Researchers at the University of Alberta observed more than 400 parents’ treatment of their children during 14 different trips to supermarkets. They noted that the more attractive their children were, the more likely their parents were to belt them into a grocery cart seat. Homely children were more often out of the 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, he insisted, 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,” Harrell claimed. “There are a lot of things that make a person more valuable, and physical attractiveness may be one of them.”
Of course, more study is needed to determine if, in fact, parents actually treat their attractive children better than they do their more “homely” ones. But Romans 8’s proclaimers might invite our hearers to think about what would happen if God treated God’s attractive children better than God’s 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 God were to treat God’s most attractive child the best, Romans 8’s proclaimers and hearers would be in much 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. Jesus’ followers are, as Paul implies in our text, considerably less perfect. So we are God’s naturally unattractive children.
Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson contrasts the claims of living according to our sinful nature with the claims of living by the Holy Spirit. Living “according to the sinful nature” may take the form of blatant immorality or the pursuit of self-righteousness.
God’s adopted children 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, and disobedience over obedience.
For Paul, however, to live according to the sinful nature rather than by the Spirit is to choose death over life. Those who live as though we’re their own masters choose the death of hope and purpose, and eventually, if unchecked, eternal death.
To act according to God’s ways, to live by the Holy Spirit, is to, by contrast, choose life over death. Jesus’ followers who let the Spirit put to death our natural inclination to disobey God choose the lively way that has meaning and purpose. Those who 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 Romans 8. Choosing between living according to the sinful nature and living by the Spirit isn’t like choosing between, for example, a Chick-Fil-A chicken sandwich and a Burger King Whopper.
So Paul’s not calling Jesus’ adopted brothers and sisters to somehow exercise our free will and declare our preference. Far too much is at stake here for that. Since this is a choice between life and death, there is no real choice to be made. We want to choose life.
Even God’s adopted children can’t, however, do that on our own. The notion of free will outside of God’s redeeming work is a myth. Satan, sin and death naturally enslave even our choices, our will. You and I naturally choose to disobey God.
However, God’s Holy Spirit doesn’t leave us enslaved to Satan and his thugs. The Spirit graciously frees God’s sons and daughters’ wills, giving us an identity and moving us to gladly obey the Lord. So God’s adoptive children don’t gladly 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.”
Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner is a remarkable novel. While some of the events it describes make it almost unbearable to read, it’s one of the most powerful books I’ve read in years.
Amir, a child growing up in Afghanistan in the late sixties and early seventies, narrates The Kite Runner. He’s a kind of “slave to fear.” Young Amir’s fear, of his father, 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 his newfound courage.
By God’s grace, because God has adopted us as God’s sons and daughters, Romans 8’s proclaimers and hearers aren’t slaves to fear. Christians’ fear of Satan, suffering, death, judgment or anything else no longer motivates us.
God has, after all, graciously freed God’s dearly beloved people from all fear in order to joyfully serve the Lord. 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 Holy Spirit moves Christians to cry, “Abba, Father,” an emotional, passionate, intimate and yet also public name for God. It’s the same intensely personal, even desperate way Christ addresses his 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. It certainly isn’t a sentimental term for our heavenly Father.
After all, our God 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, God’s puny, adoptive children.
However, because God is almighty God, even God’s adopted children would never dare call God “Daddy” unless the Holy Spirit prompted us to do so. It makes me think of the two ways of addressing another person in German: with the formal “sie” and the more informal “du.”
Traditionally, one always addressed another person with the more formal “sie.” It was considered cheeky to address a person more informally. In fact, many 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.”
Christians’ natural relationship to God would be the far more formal one. I’ve even heard Germans pray using the more formal language. By the Holy Spirit, however, God gives God’s adoptive sons and daughters the right to refer to God more informally and intimately. Because of what Jesus Christ has done for us, God gives us the right to call 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” (17).
Of course, since we’re still “heirs,” we haven’t yet received our full inheritance. We’ll 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. God’s only natural Son now rules with our heavenly Father in glory. God’s adoptive sons and daughters, Christ’s “co-heirs” who suffer with him can expect someday to share in that inheritance. God’s adoptive children who suffer in taking up our crosses and following Jesus will share in his great glory in the new heaven and earth.
The reality of that adoption in some ways sets this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers and hearers apart from those outside of God’s family. Yet by professing this separates us, we don’t mean that it isolates us from those who aren’t Christians.
Rather God’s adopted sons and daughters’ newfound status sends us right to those who aren’t yet God’s adoptive children with a new kind of concern. After all, we 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 the Spirit.
In 2007 one of India’s oldest and richest family business’s fights over an inheritance transfixed the country. An eccentric citizen had left her $1.1 billion worth of assets to her auditor. That heir, 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 ran many of its other businesses.
Of course, family members insisted that, with the rest of the estate being worth about $9 billion dollars, they weren’t interested in the wealth that was at stake. “It is a question of the family’s honor,” they, of course, maintained. “We are fighting to keep an outsider and a trespasser away from the family, its heritage, and its method of functioning.”
God is prepared to leave God’s children an inheritance that’s worth immeasurably more than billions of dollars. Yet God’s adoptive children have no need to fight over that inheritance. God, after all, doesn’t treat God’s attractive son, in fact God’s only natural Son, Jesus, better than God’s treats God’s homelier children like you and me.
Nor does Christ begrudge his adopted brothers and sisters our share of our amazing inheritance. In fact, he gave his co-heirs our share of that inheritance by willingly living, dying and rising again from the dead for us.
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