Adopted by God
A sermon by Revd Dr Alastair McKay.
Readings for this service: Galatians 4:4-7
I want to think with you this morning about how we come to be part of God’s family. And in thinking about being part of God’s family, I want to explore how being adopted is at the very heart of the process. I’d like to start by telling you about a young child called Katie.
Katie was a bright-eyed girl, the offspring of a relationship between her teenage mother and a young man. Although Katie’s mother tried to care for her, the mother’s life was chaotic, and was overshadowed by a drug habit. Katie was never quite sure what to expect from her mother. Sometimes she’d be present, and loving. Other times, her mother hardly seemed to notice that Katie was there. And then things took a turn for the worse when Katie’s mother formed a relationship with a new partner, who was far from kind, and who wasn’t happy with Katie being part of the picture. His displeasure was expressed in verbal and physical ways. Katie was now often frightened. She tried to keep as quiet as possible, so as not to attract attention. But her life was precarious, and the time came when the social services concluded that it was no longer safe for Katie to continue living with her mother. And so, as a 4-year old child, she was taken into care, and eventually put up for adoption. And Katie found herself wondering, “Does anyone want me?”
One day, after careful preparation, the social workers brought a couple, Chris and Sarah, to visit Katie. Although she didn’t know it, Chris and Sarah had tried for many years to have a child of their own, before accepting that this wasn’t possible. But with love to give, they were now looking at adopting a child. After Katie first met Chris and Sarah, there was a time of waiting. Then she heard the news: Chris and Sarah wanted her to go and live with them. Yes, they’d chosen her, they’d chosen Katie. Much as she struggled to believe it, it seemed that she was wanted after all.
Katie’s experience of wanting to be chosen is one that we all face, throughout our lives. It can start when we’re young. Perhaps you can recall that childhood experience of being part of the process where teams were chosen. The team captains, two able athletic sorts, got to choose who they wanted on their team. The rest of us stood there waiting to be chosen. Occasionally a brave soul would call out: “Me, me next!” But mostly we left the internal cry go unspoken, a silent voice that said: “Please: please pick me.” And if you were among the less sporty or less popular children, you were among the last to be chosen. And you knew that by that stage you were no longer being chosen because you were wanted for the team, but just to make up the numbers. It’s a painful memory for those of us who lacked sporting prowess, or who weren’t part of the in-group. But it speaks of that deep longing we each have to be chosen. You may have encountered that longing at other moments in your life. Perhaps you longed to be asked out by someone. Maybe you wanted to be selected for a job you’d applied for. Perhaps you hoped that someone would notice you at church. The internal cry might have gone unspoken, but it was there nevertheless. The voice saying: “Please: please pick me.” We each have that longing to be chosen. We take it as a measure that we’re appreciated or valued. And we consider that being chosen in this way indicates that we really are loved.
At the same time, alongside the longing to be chosen, each of us wants to have the freedom to choose. I wonder if, as a child, you used to go on holiday with your family or with relatives. If so, perhaps you can remember reaching that point when you wanted to make your own choice about a holiday. Maybe it was as an older teenager or in your twenties, and you thought: “I want to decide where I go on holiday. And I don’t want to have to go with my family.” This was one of those defining moments in your life when you were clear about wanting to be separate from your family, and wanting to be an adult free to make your own choices. And that freedom to make our own choices is one that is much prized by our British society today, a freedom which we think defines us as adults. We expect to be free to choose who is our friend or our partner. We think we should be free to choose what sort of work we take on, and free to select what activities to get involved in. We expect to be free to choose which political party to vote for, or where we worship and what sort of church to connect with. And our consumerist culture builds on the assumption that we are free to choose, and that if we’re given more choices, our freedom is enhanced.
But this desire for independence and freedom of choice, doesn’t sit easily with the longing to be chosen. One could almost say the two desires are incompatible. But if there’s one which is stronger, my money is on the longing to be chosen. At the deepest level, like Katie, each one of us wants to be wanted, and wants to be chosen.
We’ve heard how Chris and Sarah chose Katie, and adopted her as their own. They poured out their love and gave her the best home they could: both the loving support, and the caring boundaries she needed. And Katie flourished: the bright eyes returned. But it seems that at some deep level, despite all the supporting evidence, Katie also doubted whether Chris and Sarah really had chosen her. She remained uncertain that they really wanted her, rather than some other child. So as an older teenager she broke away from the boundaries, and found herself in a relationship with a troubled young man; then found herself pregnant, giving birth to a baby boy; and later found herself in difficulty with the law, after being caught stealing. Eventually, after living on either side of the law, Katie ended up serving time in prison. While her broken-hearted parents, Chris and Sarah, who never stopped loving her, found themselves becoming the primary carers for Katie’s little boy. And when, later, Katie returned, they found that they still welcomed home the daughter that they’d chosen.
Pondering Katie’s story, I wonder what echoes it has with our own. For despite all the supporting evidence, at some deep level, we too can doubt that God has really chosen us; and we too can find ways to get into our own kinds of trouble. It’s not a new story. The Biblical narratives tell how God chose Israel to be God’s firstborn child; only for the people of Israel to turn their back on God and get themselves into trouble. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that the story can repeat itself in our own lives.
Now for those who are in a position to consider choosing to have children, we’re inclined to believe that bringing a child into the world is one of the best things that any couple can choose to do. Somehow we think this combines the best of both parental choice and freedom. It’s where Chris and Sarah had started out: thinking it’s better to have a child of one’s own flesh and blood. Adopting a child was second choice for them. And if we’re honest, we recognise that our society still regards adoption as second-best.
So we may be in for a surprise, when we learn that adoption is at the heart of God’s way of working. God first demonstrates this by submitting to the process of adoption. For the Christmas story, which seems so familiar to us, has at its heart the story of Joseph adopting a child which is not his own. Joseph thought long and hard before deciding that he’d take Mary as his wife; because in doing so it would mean adopting a child that wasn’t his. It would mean raising as his own, a son that was not his own flesh and blood.
So it was only after some agonising that he chose Mary, and with her the child she was carrying, as his own. In coming as the infant Jesus, in the womb of an unwed young woman, God took the risk of not being chosen. Having taken the pregnant Mary as his wife, it was Joseph’s choice to adopt Jesus as his son. And Joseph’s choice is what gave Jesus the loving human family that he needed. So in Jesus, God both experiences and affirms adoption.
But what we also need to notice is that this adoption story is no accident. This is what the apostle Paul seeks to explain in writing to the early Christians in Galatia, part of modern-day Turkey. And in explaining what God is up to in the world, Paul reveals to the Galatians something striking about adoption. Adoption, he tells them, is how God makes us part of God’s family. We don’t become children of God by being born into a perfect human family. Instead, we become children of God when God adopts us into the one great family created by God. In the kingdom of God, adoption isn’t second best. Rather, what we see is this: in the kingdom of God, adoption is normal, adoption is the way that God works.
I wonder how you came to be part of the church. You might say that it’s because your parents raised you within the church. You might tell a story of coming to faith as an adult. But ultimately it’s only through your baptism that you become part of the church. Our baptism is the sign, the doorway by which we know that we are adopted. We can’t be born into the church, into God’s great family: we can only be adopted. As it was for Jesus, it’s at our baptism that we can hear the voice of God saying, “You are my beloved child.” It’s through baptism that we’re adopted into God’s family. It’s by adoption, through our baptism, that we’re able to call God by the intimate name one calls a parent. And what this means for the church is that we are less the community of those who choose God. Rather, we’re the community of those who recognise that we’ve each been chosen and adopted by God.
In conclusion, today can be a day for you to be reminded, as Katie needed reminding, that your deep longing to be chosen has been answered. God the Father says: “I’ve given my Son, Jesus Christ, as the sign that I want to adopt you into my family.” God has chosen us out of love, chosen us for all time, chosen us to be adopted into God’s worldwide family where we truly belong. God has made a choice. And God says: “I choose you.”