In between accepting the invitation to serve in this appointment and actually moving here, we made a few preliminary visits to the area. One of those occasions was an opportunity to have another tour of the school that our children were going to attend.
On the day, we arrived in good time and waited near the school office for the Deputy Head to meet us and conduct us around the premises. While we were waiting for her, we looked at a display on one of the walls. The school supports a charity that enables people in a Ugandan village to support themselves by growing and selling chillis. They also have a connection with the nearest school, in order to understand how different life is for rural Ugandan children, in comparison to Surrey children.
This fascinated our two, and provoked some questions. We explained to them that in other parts of the world, people don’t have anything like as much money as us, and that also they often don’t have much to eat.
We had our tour of the school and drove home, as it was then, to Chelmsford. That evening, at the meal table, Mark said he had something to share.
“I’ve changed my mind about what I’m going to be when I grow up,” he announced. “I’m not going to be an author after all. I’m going to save Africa.”
He wasn’t even six at the time.
We quizzed him about how he was going to save Africa. “I’m going to build supermarkets everywhere so that everyone can get the food they need,” he explained.
“But,” I said, “many of these people won’t have the money they need to be able to afford the food in your supermarkets.”
“That’s OK,” he replied, “I’m going to build money shops as well.”
It’s all so easy when you’re five years old, isn’t it? But eighteen months later, he still talks about this. He is still going to save Africa. Will it last? Time will tell.
However, what I do know is that from his tender age, Mark has this clear dream for his life. It’s not something I ever had. When people asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, I never knew. I thought it would be to do with Maths, since that was my best subject at school, but exactly how I would use that I never knew. Apart from the fact that I definitely didn’t want to be an accountant.
Today we have two infants who have been welcomed into the family of the church, and it’s natural to wonder what they will want to do with their lives.
And our theme today is not simply ‘children’, it’s ‘children of God’. John doesn’t call every human being a child of God, he reserves that description for those who have committed their lives to Jesus Christ, and who have, in Paul’s language, been adopted into the family of God.
So when we talk about children of God, we mean the family of God. I want to share two things from this passage about what it means to be a child of God. And the first is what I have hinted at with my story of Mark wanting to save Africa: children of God have a dream for their lives. Hear again chapter 3 verse 2:
Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.
We don’t know what we will be like one day, but we shall end up being like Jesus. What better dream for our lives than being like Jesus, and doing Jesus-like things?
Let us dream with God about what we might do with our lives! We do not know what we might do, but the controlling factor for our dreams is ‘that when he appears, we shall be like him’. The goal of our dream is Christlikeness in character and behaviour.
So that means one thing, which the secular management book ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ by Stephen Covey puts well: begin with the end in mind. The end for us as Christians is seeing Jesus and being like him in the kingdom of God when he appears. That is where we are heading. Let’s take that end and then imagine what we can do with our gifts, our talents, the things we feel passionately about, and all combined with the power of the Holy Spirit.
Can you imagine what the kingdom of God will feel like, full of peace, justice, love and healing, inhabited by unselfish, gracious people who use their every ability to bring praise to God and love to one another? Can you imagine your existing skills perfected and used in the service of Christ?
Why, then, do we settle for the mundane? Why do we just plod along? Why do we merely react to life, rather than taking life by the horns and saying, “I am a child of God. I have a destiny in the kingdom of God where everything will be Christlike, and I intend to start making more of life like that right now”?
This isn’t some plea for us to indulge our gifts and our interests. Because this is about working for the kingdom of God, this is about putting those talents and passions to work with a particular attitude, the heart of a servant.
Contrast, if you will, the child with the ambition to be a firefighter, a policeman or some similar profession with the disturbing modern trend, where children are asked what they want to be and they simply say, “I want to be famous”, or “I want to be rich.” That latter attitude, with its empty, self-centred approach, is the very opposite of what I am advocating. I am saying, let us be people who deploy all that we have and are in the power of the Spirit, not to make ourselves famous but to spread the fame of Jesus Christ. That’s the kind of ambition worthy of God’s children.
The second sign of being a child of God in this passage is that of developing the family likeness.
The headline statement is chapter 3 verse 3,
Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure
and is followed by all the comments regarding not sinning. This leads to verses 9 and 10 at the end, which link this life of doing right and not sinning specifically with our status as children of God:
No-one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God. This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother.
I expect that when Max and Ben were born, your families and friends started to offer observations about who they looked like. “He’s got his father’s nose.” “He’s got his mother’s eyes.” You know the drill. I shall never forget when our Mark was born, a man in our church at the time said to me, “Never take a paternity case to court, because the judge will take one look at Mark, one look at you and laugh you out of court.” There is no mistaking that he is my son, just as Rebekah is clearly Debbie’s daughter – beautiful, blonde … and feisty.
It is similar with children of God. We show the family likeness, and as we grow, while we shall clearly be individuals and not clones, we also increasingly display a family likeness. In this case, it’s not physical appearance, it’s characteristics.
We get this in John’s expectation that those filled with the hope of God will purify themselves, ‘just as he is pure’ (3:3), and that ‘No-one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him’ (3:9). The language is very black and white, but John cannot mean that the only true children of God are instantly perfect, because he has made provision earlier in the letter for confession and forgiveness. It may be that the changes take place over a period of time. I think that’s what Paul envisages when he talks about ‘the fruit of the Spirit’: no gardener plants a seed and expects the fruit to sprout up the next day. Similarly, the Holy Spirit’s transforming work in us is a matter of time and growth.
Nevertheless, John clearly expects a fundamental change in those who become children of God. The family likeness should be visible. The church should be different, and we should make no excuses when we are not.
In particular, John gives one specific example of how the family likeness should be seen: he says a difference should be seen within the family of God. ‘Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother’ (3:10). In other words, within God’s family we are to love our brothers and sisters.
So what we can specifically do without in the Christian church is bitching, gossiping, a critical spirit and similar attitudes. When these go on in a church, the blessing of God lifts and goes away.
We might say, “But I wish I could choose the members of my church family, because the other members of the family here are not the kind of people I naturally like.” Yet that is no excuse. We don’t get to choose the members of our physical families, either, with the exception of the person we choose to marry.
Some of you have heard how in my first appointment I was involved in a youth worship event that took place in the local night club. Our band of young adults and teenagers became quite proficient and were asked to offer their experience to some other churches. When I moved on from there, I invited them down to run a day conference on worship. I hoped that the seminars they led would help other singers and musicians involved in leading worship to become more proficient.
But the main outcome of the day wasn’t increased proficiency. It came during the evening celebration service, and wasn’t demonstrated by people who had learned new chords or new harmonies. It was a different kind of harmony. Many people sought out others in order to find reconciliation. The dominant tone that night was not of singing, but of speaking. People were saying to one another, “I’m so sorry for the way I’ve treated you. Will you forgive me?” We heard not guitars, keyboards and drums, but weeping and sobbing.
Actually, we did hear some music that night. I swear it was the angels singing in heaven.
‘See how these Christians love one another,’ said critics of the early church. It made sense. That’s what children of God look like. Little colonies of the kingdom where love reigns, because God is love and we are his family. Children who have a dream of that kingdom, too, and put all their energies and abilities at the disposal of the Holy Spirit to see that kingdom come in greater fullness.
Knaphill Methodist Church – do we look like children of God?