It’s the day after Christmas and all the torn wrapping paper has been put away. But let’s not move on too soon. It is only the second day of Christmas. In the traditional twelve days of Christmas, we’ve not even made it half way, and it seems we only just started our time of celebrating the fulfillment of God’s promises in the birth of the Christ child. But for many of us, if we were honest, we feel like it’s time to start recovering from the Christmas frenzy.
Perhaps you feel like this? And if you do, that’s okay. After all, it’s a time to return gifts that don’t fit, or that aren’t quite right, or that you simply don’t want. And now you’ll have the rush to take down all your Christmas decorations so your household can “get back to normal.” And then of course, there soon will be the beginning of the long, gray, dreary experience of January. The coming weeks can sometimes feel like a time for just riding out the winter until springtime comes around. Truth be told, we are entering what is, for most of us, the least favorite time of year.
And for that reason, your mind is perhaps already beginning to think about resolutions. Maybe that’s why we put such emphasis on New Year’s resolutions. We do it in order to take our minds off the post-Christmas “hangover.” In our resolutions, we determine what we’re going to do differently with our lives in the New Year. What we’re going to “give up” this year. You know, those bad habits we’ve slipped back into. In our New Year’s resolutions, we decide what we’re going to do … all the work we’re going to do … to be more acceptable all around.
Which brings me to Gal 4:4-7 and a story about adoption and acceptance, and what I think is a wondrous word of hope for 2017.
But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir. (Gal 4:4-7)
The Apostle Paul wrote these words over two thousand years ago. And yet they are our word of hope for the New Year. When Paul wrote these words, to a group of Gentile Christians that we call the Galatians, he knew they were struggling with what it meant to be acceptable to God.
It is surprising that they were struggling. You see, Paul had already taught them the “good news” of how we can be acceptable to God. Paul had taught these Gentile Christians the “good news” that Gentiles could become heirs of God’s promises and equal members of the people of God by faith alone in Jesus Christ.
But there was a problem. Other teachers had come among these Galatian Christians suggesting that their faith was incomplete, and their membership in God’s people would be unequal until they were circumcised and began keeping Jewish law. They taught them they were not acceptable by faith alone in Jesus Christ. These teachers taught them that to be acceptable to God required observance of the law. The hard work of adoption will be their own. The teachers couldn’t have been more wrong.
Paul offers his Galatian faithful the good news that God has sent his son Jesus Christ to rescue them from spiritual slavery and adopt them as God’s children. Just as God has redeemed the Jews through faith (Gal 4:4–5), so now God has redeemed Gentiles (Gal 4:6), and all have become God’s adopted children and therefore heirs. God has made all this evident by sending the Son’s Spirit to cry out from faithful hearts, “Abba! Father!” So let us consider why God sent the Bethlehem child: to redeem captives and welcome them, open-armed, into God’s family.
So, in just four short verses, Paul described in succinct prose, the work of Christmas. What is the work of Christmas? What was God doing when that little baby was being born in Bethlehem? A paraphrase of these verses, might describe Christ’s work like this:
The transcendent God, in complete freedom, chose to change the very fabric of all life in order to liberate it from the power of Sin and Death to which it had subjected itself. God’s pre-existent Son–God’s own righteousness and glory–was commissioned with the task. This Son–the very wisdom of God–entered the sphere of the cosmos in the form of a vulnerable human, “born of a woman.” He was constrained by the elemental enslaving powers (Gal 4:3) as were all living things. The man Jesus–a Jew faithful to the Word of God–took upon himself the curse that came with this bondage to Sin on the cross (Deut 21:22-23; Gal 3:13), so that humanity might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:21).
Well, that’s one way to describe the work begun on Christmas Day long ago. And yet another way to describe it is the word adoption. God adopted us. Not through some merit of our own. Not because we had resolved to be better people. More worthy people.
God adopted us because, as is fitting to be reminded during the twelve days of Christmas, our reception as sinners into a familial relationship with God, by the work of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit, well—all of this is God’s gift, God’s work, God’s initiative.
Why do we need to hear this? Well, there’s no shortage of things we think we can do to make God accept us into the household of Christ: be good people, go to church, assent to the creeds, give our hearts to Jesus, and on and on and on.
But instead I tell you this morning: Merry Christmas, friends, God has given you acceptance as a gift. God loves you and wants you in his family forever. And God has sent his Son into the world to make this possible, and God sends his spirit into our hearts and prayers to make it effective. The evidence of the Spirit in and among us, the evidence of our acceptability before God, is that our hearts cry out “Abba, Father!” So, Merry Christmas. God’s gift has come to you.
And as his children who call him, “Abba,” it is not only God who has a new name. We too are entering a new year and have the opportunity to be made new–to be“called by a new name.” The question is, what will that name be? Well, as our text has told us, it is the name “children” and “heirs of God.” We are God’s children. We are his family. He is our “Abba, Father.”
And our adoption means we have a new identity and a new work. As his children, we can now join him in the work of the great family of God. Howard Thurman, the civil rights leader, poet, and theologian, describes that work–what he called “The Work of Christmas”–in this way:
When the song of the angels is stilled, When the star in the sky is gone, When the kings and princes are home, When the shepherds are back with their flock, The work of Christmas begins: To find the lost, To heal the broken, To feed the hungry, To release the prisoner, To rebuild the nations, To bring peace among people, To make music in the heart.
What a wonderful work this is!
Paul reminds us that the Spirit that God pours into all our hearts is a Spirit of compassion. It is a Spirit that embraces us and makes us a part of a family defined by God’s love. It is that compassion that gives us our meaning and purpose in this life. And so I’m going to resolve to try to live into what I believe is the true purpose of my life—to open myself to God’s love that constantly surrounds me and try to share it with those around me. I hope you will consider doing the same.
Our adoption as God’s children means that there is absolutely no reason to return to a life of slavery. In Christ we are children of God and full heirs with him to all that God has promised (4:7; cf. 3:18, 29). As we close this morning, imagine for just a moment the difference it makes in your daily life to know that you are a child of God, purely by God’s grace and not by your adherence to the law, whatever form that law may take.
Maybe, for you, post-Christmas letdown is setting in with all its attendant guilt–about the Christmas cards that didn’t get sent, the hoped-for family harmony that didn’t quite happen, the overeating now apparent on the bathroom scale. One way of dealing with that guilt is by making New Year’s resolutions about how you will change, how you will make a fresh start with the turning of the calendar. And of course we all know how well that usually turns out.
Don’t go back to that life of slavery, Paul tells us. The fullness of time has come! God sent his Son to redeem us from under the law, so that we might receive adoption as God’s children. God’s gift to us will not be revoked, regardless of how well we live up to our own expectations or the expectations of others in this New Year.
As our text reminds us, in 2017 we will already have a fresh start–not by our own willpower, but by the gracious initiative of God in sending his Son, claiming us as God’s children, and sending the Spirit into our hearts.
This is a pure gift; we cannot earn or deserve it. We can only give thanks and share this gift with others. I pray you will live into this grace in 2017. I pray you will know how loved you are as God’s children.
Matthew Dowling is a former biologist turned preaching minister who is broadly interested in systematic theology, particularly theology proper, Protestant Scholasticism, confessional Protestantism, the English and New England Puritans, and the work of Stephen Charnock. He is the preaching minister at the Plymouth Church of Christ in Plymouth, Michigan. He blogs at www.matthewdowling.org.