by Daryl Byler
February 17, 2006
Matthew 3:13-17; Matthew 5:9, 43-45; Romans 8:14-17
I confess that my feelings about revival meetings are not all positive. I associate revival meetings with loud judgmental preaching and feelings of guilt; backsliding; tent meetings and altar calls. Still, in my head, I know that revival is clearly a good thing. As human beings – even as committed Christians – we all too easily slip into old and destructive attitudes and behaviors. And we need to be renewed and revived – both individually and as churches. So revival meetings – while they might be convicting – are less about making folks feel guilty, than they are about restoring hope and joy and purpose in our lives.
It’s hard to read the Bible without getting the sense that God’s people seemed to miss the mark at least as often as they hit it. In the Bible, we have pillars of the faith like Abraham, who leaves everything to follow God’s call – but then lies to the King of Egypt that Sarah is his sister. Or Moses, who patiently leads God’s people for 40 years, but in a fit of rage, strikes a rock with his staff instead of speaking to the rock as God had instructed. Or David who has the faith to confront a giant, but who later commits adultery with Bathsheba. Faith and failure are both part of our human experience.
My theme for these next three days is that we humans get in trouble when we forget who we are, and when we forget who God created us to be. Revival is about restoring our true identity as followers of Jesus.
What words would you use to describe or identify yourself? How do you primarily see yourself: As a mom? A dad? A teacher? A business person? A pastor? A counselor? A leader? A peacemaker?
Identity is a very important thing. It affects how we think about ourselves. It shapes the decisions we make. It shapes how we act and how we relate to others..
Elizabeth Furse, a former member of Congress from Oregon tells a story of attending a banquet with a U.S. senator. When the waiter came around, the senator asked for two pats of butter. The waiter gave him only one. The senator demanded two. The waiter was unmoved. The exasperated senator bellowed, “You don’t understand who I am. I am a United States Senator.” To which the waiter calmly replied, “And you don’t understand who I am. I’m the person whose job it is to pass out the butter!” Our identity shapes how we think about ourselves and how we act.
When we are asked to do something that doesn’t fit with our self-understanding, we get upset. There are several words that describe how I increasingly see myself: Advocate; peacemaker; encourager; pastor and leader. In the process of moving to a new office recently, all of our MCC Washington Office staff members had to spend lots of time doing things that aren’t on our job description. With all of my normal duties still pressing for attention, I found myself becoming frustrated when it seemed like I was hauling out way too much trash! “This isn’t who I am!” I protested to myself. Do you ever feel like that when you have to do things that don’t fit your self-understanding?
The world fills us with false notions about our identity. The world would tell us that we are somebody only if:
- -we have power or are in charge;
-we are beautiful, thin, handsome or sexy;
-we are famous and well-liked;
-we are rich and have lots of things;
-we are better than somebody else.
The problem is, these false understandings may produce temporary feelings of happiness or satisfaction, but they leave us feeling empty and dissatisfied over the long haul.
Over the next three days, we will look at three biblical images that describe our true identity as followers of Christ. The Bible says we are: God’s children; God’s temple; and salt and light.
These are the things that God has created us to be. We find true joy and a sense of purpose and fulfillment as we come to embrace these understandings of our true identity.
All three of these images are used primarily to describe our corporate identity as the church. So while they apply to us individually, they primarily speak of what we are together in the body of Christ.
Furthermore, these descriptions of our identity are true whether or not we choose to believe them. That is to say, the biblical writers didn’t say these are the things we should be. They said these are the things we actually are.
This evening we will look at our identity as God’s children. What does it mean that we are God’s children? What can we learn from the biblical texts that speak of us as God’s children?
1. We are beloved (Matt. 3:13-17)
The story of Jesus’ baptism is a beautiful one. When Jesus asks John the Baptist to baptize him, John is reluctant. What business does he have baptizing the Son of God? Who is he to baptize One who is without sin? John’s baptism is a baptism of repentance. And from John’s perspective, Jesus doesn’t need to repent.
But Jesus insists that he wants to be baptized. He wants to publicly acknowledge that his life is totally surrendered to doing God’s will. Matthew describes the baptism with these words: “And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased'” (Matt. 3:16-17).
Can you imagine what this experience must have been like for Jesus? Can you imagine how often he must have looked back to his baptism and those wonderful words from heaven when — later in his ministry — he faced temptation, conflict and persecution? Or when he felt exhausted by the demands of the crowd? In the hardest of times, Jesus remembered that he was God’s Son. And that he was loved by God.
We have a psychiatrist at our church in Washington who is teaching a Sunday School class about how our brains work. The brain is a marvelous and complex organ. One of the points that Curt made in a recent class was that meditation helps the various parts of the brain connect in a coherent fashion. Often, when we feel like we’re losing our mind, it’s because we’ve not slowed down enough for the brain to reboot and make all the necessary connections that allow it to function normally.
So for a homework assignment one week, Curt asked us to spend five minutes each day meditating on this story about the baptism of Jesus, and imagining God’s voice saying to us: “Jeff, you are my beloved son. I’m so pleased you are on the earth.” Or, “Dianna, you are my beloved daughter. I’m so pleased you are on the earth.” It’s a powerful exercise.
Why is it so hard for us to imagine that God loves us? Why is it so difficult to imagine ourselves as God’s children? Probably because we know that we’re not always that lovable. We’re irritable, distracted and inconsistent. Or perhaps because we carry memories of our own parents, who may have not always treated us in loving ways.
On the other hand, as parents, it is not hard to imagine loving our children. True, sometimes they frustrate us to death. Sometimes they disappoint us. But most of the time they fill us with delight and make us proud. As parents, we only want what is best for them. It’s silly, if not arrogant, to believe that we can love our children in spite of all their faults, but that God would have a hard time loving us.
John writes: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are” (I John 3:1).
2. We are adopted into God’s family (Romans 8:14-17)
We have a couple in our congregation in Washington who has now adopted four children. And these aren’t just any children. Most of them have serious learning disabilities. At least one was the biological child of a crack cocaine addict.
But John and Melissa have felt God’s call to adopt these four boys. And they’ve done a fantastic job of providing a loving home for them. All of the boys have blossomed far beyond what the social workers thought was possible. We’ve watched Jamal – the child of a woman addicted to crack cocaine – grow from a tense, uptight baby to a healthy junior high age student functioning well above grade level.
In a similar way, we are adopted into God’s family. Not because we are good enough. Not because we have achieved enough. Not because we have a great pedigree or resume. But because God is good enough to provide us with a place in the family of God. God has chosen us. We belong. We always have a place at the table. We can trust that God will provide for our needs. It is in this environment that we also blossom.
Peter writes that we are “God’s own people. . . . Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (I Peter 2:10). This places us on the same footing as all other human beings. None of us are God’s biological children. We are all adopted – by the grace and mercy of God. There is room for joy and gratitude. But there is no room for pride or self-congratulations.
In his letter to the church at Rome, Paul says that, because we are God’s children and not slaves, we need not live in fear. Rather, as God’s children, we can call God “Abba” or Father. Furthermore, as God’s children, we are God’s heirs – in line to benefit from all the good things that God has stored up for us.
Our adoption into God’s family is a gift. But it is a gift that also must be received – it’s not automatic. John writes: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God (John 1:12-13).
Have you received the gift of adoption into God’s family? Have you fully embraced all the benefits and privileges and responsibilities that come with adoption into God’s family?
3. We are to behave in new ways
As children, our behavior is often a reflection on our parents. You may not know that Jenna Bush – daughter of President George Bush and Laura Bush – who got into her share of trouble during college, now teaches at a public elementary school in Washington, D.C. Can you imagine what it must be like to be out in public as the president’s daughter? The Washington Post ran a story this week describing where Jenna buys her coffee, what she wears and what she drives. People watch her every move!
In the same way, being God’s children creates some expectations for our behavior. How we act is a reflection on God. People watch what we do.
MCC has been working in Iran for about fifteen years now. As part of this work, we have developed relationships with several diplomats at the Iranian mission to the United Nations.
When the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder died several years ago, the New York Times published a rather lengthy obituary, describing Yoder’s life and theological views. One of the Iranian diplomats read the obituary and called me. “I have read about your Mennonite theologian,” the Iranian official said. “Tell me, were these just his ideas, or was he part of a group that lived out this view?”
This is precisely the challenge for us today as God’s children — to not simply talk about Jesus or about theories of nonviolence, but to live as Jesus lived and taught us to live.
So how are God’s children to act? Several Bible verses talk specifically about the behavior of God’s children. Jesus modeled every one of these behaviors.
1. Paul says God’s children are to be led by the Spirit (Rom. 8:14). As we make decision in life, as we go about our daily activities, we are to be led by God’s Spirit. We are to live fully surrendered to God’s Spirit, not by our own wits, intuitions and scheming.
2. John says we are to do what is right and to love our brothers and sisters (I John 3:10). There are few things more frustrating for parents than when their children squabble. John asks how we can love God if we don’t love our sisters and brothers. And he says we are to do what is right and be obedient to God’s Word.
3. Jesus says we are to be peacemakers and to love our enemies. (Matt. 5:9,43-45). Some years ago, Sojourners magazine told the story of Marietta Jaeger, a Detroit writer, who every year would come to Washington, D.C. to protest the death penalty. What gave Marietta’s public witness such credibility was the fact that her own 7-year-old daughter, Susie, had been kidnapped in the middle of night during a family vacation in Montana. More than a year later, Jaeger learned that her daughter had been murdered.
Jaeger says that she: “Struggled with forgiveness. She questioned whether she would be betraying her daughter if she were to forgive someone who had done such terrible things to her. But she says God kept calling her beyond that. ‘Thought initially I ran the gamut of outraged reaction, I have come to believe that the only whole and healthy and happy and holy way that we can respond to a hopeless situation like that is to forgive.”
Montana, where the kidnapping and murder took place, had the death penalty. But Jaeger asked the FBI to offer him life imprisonment and a chance for psychiatric care. “My little girl was a gift of beauty and sweetness and goodness in my life,” says Jaeger. “To kill somebody in her name is really to violate her and profane her. I’d rather honor her life by saying that all of life is sacred and all of life is worthy of preservation from the very beginning of conception till the end when we die.”
We are God’s children; not children of this world. We are beloved. We are adopted into God’s family. We belong, we have a place at God’s table. And we are to behave in new ways. We are to be led by God’s Spirit. We are to do what is right and love our sisters and brothers. We are to be peacemakers and love our enemies.
Have you embraced your identity as God’s child? Or do you see yourself as worthless? Adrift? Unlovable?
“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are” (I John 3:1). May we fully believe and act upon this truth.