Today is the twelfth day of Christmas, the last day in the Christmas season. Tonight is twelfth night, a phrase that is known to us today mostly because of Shakespeare’s play called Twelfth Night. But in Shakespeare’s time, twelfth night, or Epiphany Eve, was a much bigger deal than Christmas Eve. It capped off an entire twelve-day season of the celebration of Christmas. It feels a little out of step with the commercial calendar that is ready to chuck out the Christmas decorations on the morning of December the 26th in order to make room for the celebration of New Year. But for quite a while, this was the height of the Christmas season. So we still have the tree up. We still have the nativity scenes out. This is the last day of Christmas, and tomorrow is Epiphany, the celebration of the magi visiting Jesus and his parents and offering him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Normally on this Sunday we would just look ahead to Epiphany and the story of the magi. And I did choose to read that story story from the gospel today just to make sure that we heard it this year. But we read that story every year, and I think you’ve heard me preach on it at least four times.
And there was something that jumped out at me from one of the other readings assigned for today. In fact, it’s really just one word that jumped out at me: adoption. We spend a lot of time this season talking about babies being born. And that is one way that new people enter into a family. But it isn’t the only way. And it certainly isn’t the only way that people enter into God’s family. In the opening section of the Letter to the Ephesians, we hear about something else. We hear about adoption.
And you know me well enough to know that I’m going to give you the Greek word. The Greek word is υἱοθεσίαν. It literally translates as “to make into a son.” Greek is, like many languages, a structurally sexist language. There would not really be a gender inclusive word to use here such as “to make into a child.” But we can guess here that the author isn’t speaking only of men, but of all Christians, when he says that God adopts us as children through Jesus Christ. It is an interesting image, though, isn’t it, being adopted by God. We usually think of God’s parenthood of us as a birthright, something that we get because we are created by God. We are God’s children because God made us. But the author of Ephesians tells us not that we are born of God, but rather, that we are adopted by God.
As you know, our family has had some experience with adoption. All three of our kids here have come to us through adoption. We are incredibly grateful to be able to claim them as our own son and daughters and we are incredibly grateful to have them claim us as their own mother and father. Adoption is every bit as real as birth, every bit as meaningful.
I know some of you have experience with adoption, as well. Some of you are parents through adoption. Some of you are children or siblings through adoption. You know that it’s sometimes hard to remind others that adoption is real. I like this little cartoon Melissa came across a few years ago. You see the pregnant woman on the left, and the couple on the right saying, “Oh I’m sorry… you couldn’t adopt?” It’s just a way of illustrating the point. Adoption is real.
However, the process of adoption is quite different than the process of conception, pregnancy, and birth. It can be a very long process, much longer than 9 months. And it can be a very difficult process. At the same time that we were working on adoption, we had friends about our age who were having children through birth. For some of them, it was a very thought-out decision to have children. Some even had to seek medical help in order to conceive. But for others, pregnancy was an accident. Of course, many who become parents accidentally still take the role of parenting very seriously. But unfortunately, there are a few who see parenting as only an unwanted burden brought on by an accident.
With adoption, though, there are no accidents. No one wakes up with a hangover and realizes that they’ve accidentally filled out hundreds of pages of forms and written essays; accidentally had their fingerprints taken and had criminal background checks; accidentally completed home study interviews and given references; accidentally taken the required physicals exams, retinal scans, DNA testing and met the financial requirements. No, adoption has to be a very conscious, very deliberate decision, and it takes quite a bit of perseverance. You have to choose to adopt a child.
And it’s the same way with God. God doesn’t just love us because of some obligation that goes along with being the creator. We aren’t God’s children because of an accident. God chooses to love us. God chooses to adopt us as children. God chooses to include us in the family. And God chooses to grant us the inheritance of sons and daughters of the Most High. And that is a powerful message. That is a powerful message about God’s intention for us, about God’s commitment to us, about God’s longing for us.
For early Christians, adoption was an important way of explaining how it is that Gentile Christians, like you and me, could be a part of God’s family if God’s chosen people are supposed to be the Jews. It was common to talk about Israel as being God’s children, or to talk about the king being a son of God. But other nations, Gentiles, were often considered to be outside of God’s grace, outside of God’s natural family. But through Jesus Christ, the author of Ephesians argues, Christians are adopted into God’s family, with a status in every way equal to their Jewish siblings. We, by the grace of God, are a part of God’s family. We are God’s own children.
That isn’t quite the end of the story. The historian in me cannot resist pointing out that back when this epistle to the Ephesians was written, adoption was very different than it is today. When we think of adoptions, we usually think of cute little babies, or maybe infants. The adoption of older children is less common. But in the Greco-Roman world, adoption was almost always limited to grown men. Let me say that again. In the Greco-Roman world, adoption was almost always limited to grown, adult men. Today, adoption is a means of providing a loving home for a child; then, adoption was a means of gaining an heir or clearly defining a succession. Many Roman emperors, including Caesar Augustus, the first Roman emperor, were adopted for precisely this reason: to clearly establish inheritance and succession.
For this reason, those who were adopted had great responsibility. They were expected to carry on the family into the future. Since adoption—at least legal adoption—was generally confined to the upper ranks of Roman society, this meant that the adoptee would have to do things like administer the family business, carry out diplomacy, and represent the family in the political arena. Adoptees had to be models of Roman values and maintain the family’s good image in the community and around the world.
And again, it is not that different with God. Yes, God chooses to love us and does so unconditionally. But at the same time, we, as adoptees of God, have responsibilities. We are expected to continue the family business, to execute diplomatic relations on behalf of the family, and to represent the family in the political arena. Let me say that again: as adoptees of God, we are expected to continue the family business, to execute diplomatic relations on behalf of the family, and to represent the family in the political arena.
Which begs the question, what is God’s family business? What does it mean to be God’s diplomat, or to be God’s representative in politics? What would it mean to show a profit for God? Would it be to bring in lots of money into the church coffers, to have enough influence to control the government and make the rules for other peoples? Would making a profit for God mean making as many disciples as possible, mass-producing Christians as quickly and cheaply as we can? Would it mean building a church on every block and cornering the market on religious devotion?
What is God’s family business? What is God in the business of doing? Is it money, numbers, devotion? Or is God in the business of mercy, kindness, compassion, love, charity, peace, hope, joy, justice, forgiveness, and service to the lowest and the least? Certainly this world is in need of those things. Certainly this world is in need of mercy, kindness, compassion, love, charity, peace, hope, joy, justice, forgiveness, and service.
If you and I are adopted by God through Jesus Christ, because God chooses to love us as daughters and sons, then how will we carry out our familial responsibilities? How will we administer God’s business, carry out God’s diplomacy, and represent God’s politics? How will our status as children of God affect the way we make choices every day, the way that we interact with other people, the way that we use our money, the way that we vote and campaign and advocate? How will we be models of Godly values and maintain God’s good image in the community? How can we live so that others will say, “Look at those Christians—you can just tell that compassion and hope and joy are a part of their very being”? If we are adoptees of God, then what will we do to invite and welcome others into the family? What will we do to establish a safe home for folks who maybe haven’t experienced a safe spiritual home before? What can we do to help others claim that identity as beloved children of God, chosen and adored? How will we share the stories of how we have been accepted and lifted up by God so that others might be able to claim that acceptance for themselves?
Our world needs those stories. Our world needs to hear what difference it makes to you to be children of God. Our world needs to see how God’s values make a difference in the way you live your life. Our world needs to know that God welcomes all, God welcomes all into God’s family.
And so the question simply is, how will we live as daughters and sons, adopted by choice, in love, through grace, by the Most High God?