Monday, July 07, 2008

Rivers Grace

We have friends who live in Tennessee. They were our next door neighbors for several years. Their son was born a few months before Brittany. A couple of years later they had another son. We’ve kept in contact with them throughout the years. A couple of years ago, while traveling through the state, we dropped by their house for a visit. Cynthia was thrilled to see us and quickly ushered us into the house.

We noticed a little Chinese baby sitting in a high chair. So Terri said, “Are you babysitting?”

Cynthia smiled.

“Not at all. This is our new daughter!”

Even though both of their children were high school students they decided they had more love to give children. So they traveled to China and adopted this beautiful little doll with a beautiful name: Rivers Grace. A couple of years later, Cynthia’s husband, Mark told her—“You know, it isn’t fair to Rivers to be essentially an only child. We need to adopt a sister for her.” Because they had already adopted a child, there were some more hurdles to go through—an incredibly long waiting time. However, they discovered if they were willing to adopt a handicapped child they could probably adopt very quickly. Soon after they brought home a little girl named Nya Joy.

Mark and Cynthia—and their boys—have joyfully embraced these children as their own family. And, in fact, that is what they are now: family. They have been adopted into a new family and a new life. They have love and hope—something they didn’t have before. And what appropriate names: Nya Joy and Rivers Grace.

A couple of Saturdays ago in our congregational meeting, Mike Armour shared a situation where a Russian teacher asked him why is it that Americans are so eager to adopt children. This person had no understanding of the motivation. She had been a school teacher for nearly 30 years and had never known an adopted child. Orphans and fatherless children are considered trash in many cultures around the world.

In the first century, a preacher by the name of Paul writes to a group of Gentile Christians in the city of Ephesus. They struggled with the fact they were not Jews and did not have the rich Jewish heritage that formed the foundations of Christianity. They didn’t understand all of the ethics and theology that came from Judaism and under-girded the Christian faith. As a result they felt like trash, like second class citizens in God’s kingdom.

So what kind of language would you use to address a concern like this? Paul used the language of adoption. In Ephesians 1:3-14 we have this incredibly long sentence in the original language. It is filled with so many synonyms piled on top of each other and prepositional phrases that it’s sometimes hard to get the point. But if you cut through it all to the simple sentence it reads something like this:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us to be holy and blameless in his sight. He predestined us to be adopted as sons to the praise of his glorious grace. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us. In him we were also chosen in order that we might be for the praise of his glory. Having believed you were marked in him with a seal, the Holy Spirit, who guarantees our inheritance to the praise of his glory.
I’m not suggesting all of the other words or phrases are unimportant, I just want you to get the basic statement down.

Paul is telling these Gentile Christians they may have been considered low-lifes, trash, and second class by some Jewish Christians--they may have even considered themselves as second rate--but nothing could be further from the truth! They have been called to a special calling. They have been adopted as children of God. They have had rivers of grace poured out on them, lavished upon them. They have received forgiveness of all of the junk in their lives. They have been made new and special: they are the chosen of God.

Unfortunately, too often this doesn’t translate into redeemed action and life styles.

There are at least two dangers in how we view ourselves in Christ. If you view yourself as second class, then sometimes you may find yourself acting like second class. God doesn’t expect much of me, so I won’t give much to him. The opposite is true, too: since I’m a recipient of grace then my behavior doesn’t matter. This usually came about from people over-spiritualizing Christianity—a group of Greeks who later came to be called Gnostics so denigrated the physical world that what one did in the body had little importance to the spiritual life. They were so "spiritual" that what they did in the body didn't really matter.

Both attitudes miss the point.

Paul says we have been adopted as children for a particular purpose. Did you notice how often he used the phrase “for the praise of his glory”? We have been adopted as children in order to praise God. We have been chosen to be set apart and blameless. Since we have been adopted into a new family we’ve been brought into different family standards. Why: to avoid hell? No, but because we are no longer orphans. We’re no longer living on the streets. We are no longer trash. We are now children of the king. Now he expects us to live in a way that’s appropriate to the calling.

As we explore the book we'll discover living as God’s children involves things such as: how we treat each other and how we talk to and about others. Living as children adopted by God means we will have a different standard than our culture when it comes to how we behave sexually, the kind of language we use, how we view possessions and even how we relate to our spouses, parents and employers.

In brief, we are to be imitators of Christ. Being a child of the king who is covered by rivers of grace means we are to live like the ultimate child of the King: Jesus himself. What we find in Jesus, we put in our lives. What is not in the life of Jesus we remove from our lives. In so doing, we find ourselves very different from the culture around us. We discover a new identity. We find ourselves being transformed to be holy and blameless in his sight.

Fred Craddock tells one of my favorite stories. This incident happened to him in the 1950s. He had been preaching in Oklahoma and he and his wife had taken a much needed vacation in East Tennessee around Gatlinburg. They found themselves in a little town called Cosby eating in a small cafĂ©. An old gentleman approached them. Fred was a bit apprehensive. He was having a wonderful vacation and he didn’t want to visit with anyone. But the man was heading directly toward their table.

“You folks on vacation?”

“Yes,” Fred answered curtly, hoping the man would get the hint.

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“Oklahoma.” Fred was doing his best to keep his answers short and simple so as not to encourage visiting.

“Oh. And what do you do?”

“I’m a preacher.” Fred was getting irritated now. He was hoping the man would go away.

Instead, he smiled broadly and pulled up a chair. “A preacher? I’ve got a story for you.”

"Great" thought Fred.

The old man began, "I grew up in this area with a burden on me no child should ever have. I was born illegitimate. You can imagine how difficult it was to grow up in a small rural area not knowing who your dad was.

"I was the topic of discussion and speculation of all the adults in our community. Kids were merciless. Life was hard.

"Every Sunday, though, I'd walk to this one church. The preacher there both fascinated and frightened me. He was a big, burly man with a large beard, piercing eyes, and a deep booming voice. I was captivated by him. Every Sunday I'd sneak in, sit in the back and quickly exit just before they finished. I was afraid someone would see me and ask 'What's a boy like
you doing in church?'

"One Sunday I was caught. The church let out abruptly and people filled the aisle, blocking my exit. Suddenly I felt a big hand resting on my shoulder. 'Oh no,' I thought. Here it comes.

"It was the preacher.

"'Boy,' he said, 'Why boy, I believe I know who you are...'

"I cringed just knowing he was going to embarrass me. I would break down and cry, run out of the building and never come back.

"Boy, I believe I know who you're the child of...God. I do believe I see the family resemblance.' Then he swatted me on my back side and said, 'Now go on out of here and claim your inheritance.' That day made such a difference in my life. In fact, I think that was the day my life began.'

Fred was so moved by the story he asked, "Sir, what is your name?"

"Ben. Ben Hooper."

And Fred remembered how his daddy used to tell him when he was a boy how the people of Tennessee twice elected as governor a man born illegitimate by the name of Ben Hooper.

I wish you could meet Nya Joy and Rivers Grace. You would be impressed, I think. They are beautiful, bright, joyful, and hopeful. They now have loving parents where before they had none. They now have a home where before they had an orphanage and an uncertain future. They have been adopted and they are experiencing love and grace from people who didn’t have to take them in, from people who could have just lived their own lives for themselves. They didn’t deserve the gift, they didn’t—they couldn’t earn their adoption. They merely received it. But now they are learning what it means to be raised in Mark’s and Cynthia’s family. As they grow they learn how their new family behaves and lives. They will look at their older brothers and see how they react to their parents, and they will serve as an example for them to follow.

Rivers Grace: what a name—what an appropriate name for someone who is daily experiencing the rivers of grace, the rivers of love wash all over her.

May you experience God’s rivers of grace washing you clean. May you come to understand that you are God’s child who has been chosen and called to be holy and blameless—who has been called to live to the praise of God’s glory. May you find yourself growing more and more into the image of your older brother Jesus. And may others begin to notice in your life the family resemblance! Now let's go out and claim our inheritance!

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