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Sermon Series: Caught By the Spirit
A couple weekends ago I was in Philadelphia at the memorial service for Toby Sonstroem, the son of friends of mine. Toby was just 25 when he died. He was a very talented artist with a lot of promise and a lot of life ahead. Then, early in Feb., for reasons only he and God know, he took his life. At the service we saw just how much he was loved, how treasured a son and brother he was and how much he was missed. And I learned another fact that made his death even more poignant: Toby was adopted. His parents already had two healthy children, a boy and a girl. It’s not that they couldn’t have children naturally, but I guess they just had more love to give so they looked to adopt a child to love. Toby’s full name was Toby Lim Sonstroem—“Lim:” because he was a Korean child and Lim was his birth name. And he was carefully, prayerfully chosen and adopted from Korea at the age of 4 months. He was greatly loved and treasured, this adopted child named Toby.
Anyone here who has been adopted knows how special it is to be adopted. There’s no wondering of you were unplanned, an accident, not really wanted. No, if you’re adopted you know you were specially chosen, undoubtedly wanted like Toby was. Most of us here are probably natural children of our parents but even so, we do have something in common with adopted children—for we who follow Jesus have been adopted, too— specially chosen and adopted by our loving heavenly father to be his treasured children.
Do you know that? How can we be SURE of that deep down in our soul? If you are sure of your adoption by God, if you know what a beloved child of God you are and have a deep down, confidence of it, that’s the work of the Holy Spirit. Paul says “the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship (15) and that same Spirit “himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children” (16). We can know and be sure of our place as God’s adopted, chosen children because God’s Holy Spirit gives us that assurance.
In Roman times, when Paul was writing, an adopted son was deliberately chosen by the adoptive father to perpetuate the family name and inherit their estate. And this adopted child was not in the slightest degree lower in status that a natural born child. There is something very special about being adopted isn’t there? Thanks to the Holy Spirit, we’re all adopted children, chosen specifically and lovingly by our heavenly father—and thanks to the Holy Spirit, we KNOW It!
We’ve been having a whole series of sermons on the Holy Spirit in recent weeks and next week, of course, is Pentecost, marking the gift of the Holy Spirit to the church. We celebrate Pentecost here at Brunswick as the 3rd great feast of the church, after Christmas and Easter. It really is a day to celebrate. But today we mark Ascension Sunday. Ascension Day is actually a Thursday, 40 days after the resurrection and 10 days before Pentecost. We mark it today as the day Jesus ascended into heaven. As he was preparing his disciples for his death and resurrection, Jesus told them that, after he had gone, after his ascension, the Father will send the Holy Spirit to “teach you all things and remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:26). One of the greatest truths the Spirit teaches and reminds us of is our adoption as the Father’s beloved children. Thanks to the Holy Spirit, we’re all beloved, adopted children—and thanks to the Holy Spirit, we KNOW It!
Do YOU know how much you mean to God? Do you know how deep in his heart he holds you? You should, because the same Spirit who arranged our adoption invites and draws us into a close, personal, intimate relationship as our loving heavenly father. Paul says “by him (the Spirit) we cry Abba, Father” (15.) Jesus called his father “Abba”, a familiar, family term that is like calling God “Dad”. By the work of the Holy Spirit we can feel that close, family relationship with God naturally, so it may be hard for us to imagine how radical, even deeply offensive, that must have sounded to Jewish ears at the time. No Jew of that time would think of calling God by such a familiar term but Jesus did and encouraged us to. That’s why we pray, as Jesus taught us “Our Father…”
I have a cousin who is an Orthodox Jew. Sara and I have been to the wedding of a couple of her sons in recent years. That was quite an experience. I’d love to tell you about it sometime. When we got the wedding invitation, I noticed right away that the front cover was written in Hebrew. Now my Hebrew from seminary isn’t just rusty, it’s corroded and full of big holes but I was able to read the words “Ha’Shem” on the invitation. “Ha’Shem” means literally, “The NAME”. Ha’Shem is a reference to God. The wedding invitation was issued in the name of God as well as the parents. The invitation said “Ha’Shem” rather than “God” or “The Lord” because Orthodox Jews don’t actually say God’s name—out of fear and reverence. They might write “G-D” or say “Ha’Shem but not actually say a name for God. He’s too fearful. God is not someone they feel they can get familiar with or feel close to.
But thanks to the Holy Spirit, we can feel close to God. God IS our father and we ARE his children. We can call God “Dad”. And when times are tough and we just need a hug from our father, we can crawl up in his lap and be held in his arms—and be comforted and feel safe. Of course, all children get angry or disappointed with their parents from time to time and sometimes, we even get angry or disappointed with God. And, like any good parent, God doesn’t stop loving us. As some wise person said: "It's alright; questions, pain, and stabbing anger can be poured out to the Infinite One and he will not be damaged. For we beat on his chest within the circle of his arms". After all, He’s our father, our Dad. He’s e’adopted us and loves us unconditionally.
We’ve been chosen and adopted by God to know him intimately and be lavished with his love. Do you KNOW that? It may be that still, small voice in you, or just a quiet confidence you feel. You don’t need a big explanation. You just know it in your bones! Isaiah said that when God would pour out his Spirit, people would say “I belong to the Lord” or write on their hands (maybe like a tattoo) “The Lord’s” as a mark of belonging. And if you KNOW you are the Lord’s, that you belong to him, you have the Holy Spirit to thank!
Sadly, there are some people who are never really able to relate to God as a loving father, their “Dad”. When they think of what God wants from them, what God expects of them, the shudder. They know they can’t live up to God’s standards. When they think of God, all they can see is an angry, scowling God--a cosmic killjoy or heavenly cop just watching and waiting to catch them in a sin so he can zap them good. They live in fear of God and in fear of God’s anger and judgment. AND BECAUSE of that fear so they can’t freely love and feel loved by God. Do you know people like that?
Martin Luther, the great reformer, had that problem. He had a cold, stern, distant father—a father often angry with him, a father he feared, but wanted so deeply to feel his father’s love. And for many years even as a priest, his image of God was the same—a cold, distant God, whom he feared. But one day as he was reading Paul’s words in Romans, the Holy Spirit began to change him. Luther knew, as do we, that he was a sinner. He deserved God’s anger. He deserved God’s judgment. But he was reading in Romans of the great grace of God and the Holy Spirit broke through to him and convinced him that he needn’t fear God and God’s anger. God LOVED him, treasured him. God gave his son for him. In Christ, God had fully paid for Luther’s sin. From that time on, Luther was a completely different man. His whole relationship with God changed. He had no more fear of God. He knew he was a beloved child, chosen and adopted by God. That’s the Spirit’s doing. Paul says, “The Spirit you received did not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again” (15). No. The Spirit testifies to us that we are God’s children, and we have no need, now or ever, to fear God. If you are free of the fear of God and free to feel loved by God, you have the Holy Spirit to thank.
And that’s not all. There’s so much more that the Holy Spirit does. If I’m honest with myself I have to say with Paul that “I have the desire to do what is good but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do---this I keep on doing” (Romans 7: 18,19). I can identify with Paul—maybe you can, too. How are we ever going to be different? How are we ever going to live the kind of life that God intends for us, a life that pleases God?
That, too, is the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit works within us to give us what we can’t get ourselves: the desire, the determination and the discipline to live upright, dare I say, holy lives—to obey God, not simply out of duty (although we do have that duty) but joyfully, in gratitude and love. The Holy Spirit leads us and enables us.
Perhaps you know the story of John Newton, the author of the hymn Amazing Grace. He was a slave trader transporting slaves from Africa to England until God convicted and converted him. God’s amazing grace “saved a wretch like me” he wrote. But he knew that his saving was only the beginning and he expressed his understanding of the Spirit’s continuing work in his life this way: “I am not the man I ought to be, I am not the man I wish to be, and I am not the man I hope to be, but by the grace of God, I am not the man I used to be." Each day the Spirit leads us more and more into the life God intends for us—a life of joyful obedience. You might describe that life with the title of Harry’s favorite movie: “It’s a Wonderful Life”--a really rich and full, abundant life.
Jesus said he came to bring us that life—life to the full in relationship to God. But that kind of life doesn’t just fall out of the sky or arrive delivered to doorstep by FedEx. It takes work—work on our part, as we strive and struggle to follow Jesus in the day in day out world of work and relationships. It’s work—often hard work. And living into this life is also the work of the Holy Spirit-- guiding, teaching us, correcting us, and leading us—one day at a time, two steps forward, one step back. If you can say with John Newton that you are not yet the person you hope to be but you’re sure not the person you used to be, you have the Holy Spirit to thank.
And there’s more. I read recently that the next generation after us boomers is expected to inherit quite a bit from their parents. It seems we boomers as a whole have done quite well and are planning to leave good estates to our children. I hope my sons didn’t read that or they’ll be quite disappointed! Parents love to have an inheritance to pass on to their children. We saw that the Romans who adopted children sometimes did so expressly for the purpose of having someone to inherit their estate. It was a matter of pride to be able to leave an inheritance and a matter of great pride and gratitude to be the heir who received it. Now, regardless of what our parents may be able to leave us, you and I all have a great inheritance awaiting us. Paul says “Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ) (Rom. 8:17). We all have an inheritance waiting for us. It’s guaranteed! And the Holy Spirit, who brought about our adoption, is also the one who also guarantees our inheritance.
You might well wonder just what that inheritance is. I know I do. I think it might be God himself. The book of Revelation tells of a time when there will be a new heaven and a new earth AND, it says: “God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death, or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. (Rev.21: 3-5).
God is with us now, of course, through the presence of the Holy Spirit in us. And yet, The Holy Spirit of God living in us now is the guarantee, the down payment, if you will, of the promise that one day we will inherit the presence of God among us in a new, even more direct and wonderful way. It’s hard to imagine, but the Holy Spirit with us now, is the first inkling, the guarantee that something much, much greater awaits us in the future. That, guarantee is also, something we can thank the Holy Spirit for.
This Ascension Sunday can easily be overshadowed by Pentecost. But today we remember that because Jesus ascended, because he promised not to leave us alone and to send us, an advocate, someone who is often called “the comforter”, because of THAT we have the great gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. And because of the really marvelous work of the Spirit we CAN live for God (in spite of the struggles), we CAN know our heavenly father freely and without fear and we CAN know beyond any doubt how greatly loved we adopted children really are.
At Toby’s memorial service, his brother showed a video tribute to Toby. There were pictures of him from the day he came to them as an infant, through his childhood and right up to the present. You could see in those family pictures what a joy he had brought to that family, how much they all loved him. At the end of the video, there was with a short poem that some anonymous mother had written for her adopted child. Maybe you’ve seen it. It goes like this:
Not flesh of my flesh nor bone of my bone but still miraculously my own. Never forget for a single minute; You didn’t grow under my heart-- but in it.
We have grown in the heart of God and by the gracious work of God’s Holy Spirit we know it--and we know how special we are to him. We’ve said it here at Brunswick many times in the past. Let’s say it and remember it again: We are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession that we may declare the praises of him who called us out of darkness into his wonderful light. WE are those people, who, by the Holy Spirit, have been adopted into God’s family and are treasured in his heart, now and forever. Thank you, Holy Spirit. Amen.
To contact Rich Patterson about this sermon, please email or write to: Brunswick Presbyterian Church, 42 White Church Lane, Troy, NY 12180
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