Mid-Week Advent Worship
December 16, 2020
Rev. John R. Larson
Ascension Lutheran Church Littleton, Colorado
Between 1854 and 1929 over 200,000 orphans in cities like New York, Boston and Philadelphia were placed on trains and shipped west, across the United States. These trains would periodically stop for viewings. Viewings? Yes. Children would be lined up like cattle at an auction. Potential parents would ask questions, evaluate health and often examine the children’s teeth. If chosen, the children had a home. If not, they got back on the train – the Orphan Train. Lee Nailing was on the Orphan Train. If you’d like, you can read his story in The Orphan Train Rider: One Boy’s True Story. Lee was eight years old when, along with his two younger brothers, his dad took them to the train station in New York City and sent them west. Lee’s dad gave him an envelope that had in it his dad’s name and address. Lee’s dad told him to write as soon as he reached his final destination. When Lee Nailing got off the train in Texas that envelope was gone.
I’d like to be able to tell you that Lee’s father found him or that Lee’s father sold the farm so he could reunite with his boys. I’d love to describe that moment when Lee heard his father say, “Son, it’s me. I came for you!” But I can’t. Lee Nailing’s father never came looking for him.
But my sermon this evening, the final one of our Advent sermons, gives us a different ending. The sermon is called “Chosen Children” and comes from that delightful chapter of John 1. “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (Verses 10-13) What John describes are orphans and then adoption. He is talking about chosen children.
2020 has been a crummy year for lots of people. But I know one young girl – my granddaughter – who thinks 2020 was a pretty good one. In the middle of the summer – on Monday, June 22, a 10- year-old who had lived in a number of different foster homes through her young life, found a permanent home with my son and his wife and their two boys. On June 22 she was adopted and became a Larson. On that day she decided not only to get a new last name but she also changed her first and middle ones as well. Her given name was Aubree, but on June 22, 2020, she chose the name of Allie Marie. This chosen child was able to choose her own name. This was a new beginning for my granddaughter. No more foster homes. This was a forever home. This was permanent.
But for some people, they feel that they are not chosen. They don’t know where they fit in this world. They are all alone. They don’t have a connection with anyone else and they don’t have a connection with God. They feel like orphans with no place to call their own.
When I read this section in John 1, it seems that Jesus could have had the same feeling. “Though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” (John 1:10-11) How can that be? God sends His own Son to this earth to be its Redeemer and Savior but the world didn’t want Him. He emptied Himself but they wanted more.
Unbelief is so isolating. It removes us from God’s mercy and love and purpose. Though God reaches out His hands we slap them and run in the opposite direction.
But here’s the best news – God doesn’t give up on you and me and everyone else so quickly. His choosing, His adoption of us, is persistent and miraculous and costly. Our text says, “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (John 1:12-13)
Do you remember the first meeting that Nicodemus had with Jesus? He came to Him at night and began his conversation with Jesus with words of praise, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.” But Jesus responded in this way, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” When Nicodemus is befuddled by this answer, Jesus tells him, “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Sprit gives birth to spirit.” “Do not be surprised at my saying you must be born again.” (See John 3:1-8)
To be a chosen child of God means the miraculous has happened. It means God has taken the step and reached out to us with the new life that He alone can bring. Jesus told Nicodemus that this birth from above would come “By water and the Spirit.” Paul says it well when he writes to Titus, “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior.” (Titus 3:4-6) Paul would begin his good word to the Ephesians by talking about this eternal adoption, “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Christ Jesus, in accordance with his pleasure and will.” (Ephesians 1:4-5)
In Holy Baptism God adopts you into His family. Adopted children are chosen children. That is not the case with biological children. When the doctor handed John Larson to Russ Larson, my father, there was no “Plan B”. No loophole. No choice. No exit strategy. My dad couldn’t give me back to the doctor and ask for a better-looking, smarter or more athletic son.
If you were adopted, your parents chose you. Surprise pregnancies happen. But surprise adoptions? I’ve never heard of one. If you were adopted your parents could have picked a different gender, a different color, or a different nationality. But they didn’t. They chose you. They wanted you. So does our heavenly Father. Remember? He comes looking for you!! Our Father, the heavenly one, doesn’t adopt us because of our talent, our temperament or our taste. He adopted us because He loves us.
And we all know that adoption is not cheap. People spend tens of thousands of dollars to adopt just one child. What did God pay to adopt us? The cost was astronomical. It cost Him everything. It cost Him His only Son – Jesus. John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”
Remember Lee Nailing? The eight-year-old orphan whose father never came back looking for him? Lee’s two other brothers were chosen, but not Lee. Lee was stuck on the Orphan Train for four months – four miserable, monotonous months! Finally, finally, with his little heart ready to break, Lee was adopted by a tall Texas man and his short, sweet wife. The next day they introduced Lee to their friends with these words – “This is our new son, Lee.” Wow, what great words to say and to hear.
That is what God did for us when He sent Jesus here. “This is my son.” “This is my daughter.” “They’re part of this family.” And so are you. Amen!!
(This sermon is adapted from the series, “The Word Became Flesh” from Concordia Seminary Press, 2017)