A little context: from August 2002-July 2003, I was the intern pastor at Hope Christian Reformed Church in Oak Forest, IL. Then, when I started working as the religion teacher at pastor at Providence-St. Mel Schools, Hope remained my home congregation and then was the congregation that ordained me in November of 2003. They invited me to preach on January 4. No worries, anyone, Presbyterians especially, I’m not going anywhere. it was just a nice little morning of reconnecting!) 

I don’t like to talk about sermon structure or process as part of the sermon. It’s one of my unwritten rules. My guess is that it’s about the most boring way to start a sermon, a complete minister-nerd kind of thing to do, and a surefire way to put everyone to sleep from the get go. I figure ministers ought to leave those sorts of discussions to later in the week, with other minister-and-theology-nerd types who actually give two hoots about how the sermon got onto the page.

As you can already tell, I’m planning to break that rule completely this morning. (I hope you’ll forgive me, and I hope you’re still awake…)

There are two things happening in this sermon, you see…there’s the topic I wanted it to be about…and then there’s the topic it had to be about when I really settled in with the texts.

And it’s partly all of your fault that there are these two parts. Let me explain…

On a quick read-through of the lectionary texts a few weeks ago, I was hit between the eyes by the clear connection of Jeremiah and Ephesians. Both passages about how God is calling people back together, pulling them in from north and south and east and west, gathering in an adopted family of people who had strayed from the center or weren’t even in the center to begin with. Amidst Christmas music and candle-lit choirs singing, I was thinking of the two texts to the tune of “O Come, all Ye Faithful” and watching the masses gather in, joyful and triumphant, around the manger-bed of Jesus Christ, the word made flesh. And that is where this sermon sat and simmered for about a week.

And then when I came back, and read the texts again, I realized I had entirely missed something.

The Ephesians passage is THE go-to-place for the Biblical idea of predestination. How could this have slipped my attention?

And there was certainly no way that I could walk into the pulpit of a church with the word “Reformed” in its name and ignore that. Maybe, perhaps, with a group of Presbyterians, who often have to be reminded that they in fact are Reformed, I could get away with it. But not here.

So here it is, the sermon in two parts: part one: what I thought this sermon would be about: Adopotion.  And part two, what the text made me do: Predestination.

A few weeks ago, my friend Alexandra posted a sermon about Christmas and adoption in an on-line ministry magazine. Alex is a Presbyterian pastor, and she has this family that looks like the new heaven the new earth. Alex and her husband are white, but their kids are Guatemalan and black. When Alex looks at the nativity scene, Joseph takes on a special role for her:

Sometimes people say to me, when they meet Thomas and his sister, Lily, for the first time, “Are these your natural children?  Are they your real children?  Are they really sister and brother?”  The implication, sometimes communicated more explicitly than others, is that because our kids did not come to us in the “natural” way, that we must not really, or fully, love them.  But then I see the love of Joseph for his son, Jesus.  Talk about not joining a family in the natural way – the unlikely union of Mary, Joseph and their son, Jesus is the very family on which all of Christianity places its foundation.  Yes, they are my real children.  Yes, Joseph really loved his son.

When Alex looks at the nativity scene, she sees it as a model for her own family, and then, as a model for the Christian family…we are truly gathered in, a picture of the new creation, a family formed, as Dorothy Day said, from the people who show up.

And that is exactly what these passages describe: God gathering in, bringing the remnant of Israel back from exile, from north and south and east and west, welcoming them not just as long-lost friends, but declaring them the firstborn child, embracing them as fully adopted heirs, as brothers and sisters of the Jesus child in the manger.

It’s not just a picture of homecoming: when the early church heard the word adoption, it was not just a way to increase the size of a family. Full adoption changed one’s status…not just by confessing that this child was beloved of the adoptive family. It often meant that the new parents took on legal obligation, outstanding debts, even going so far as to change the status of a child from slave to free.

There are songs about Christmas that picture Jesus as our brother, often songs that are gentle and lilting and geared toward children.

I like reading the high theology of the Ephesians text at Christmastime, because it reminds us of that contrast…really, the concept is simple…Jesus is your brother.

That means you have been adopted as God’s own child,
a full daughter, a full son,
tucked into the manger next to Jesus,
with the angels singing overhead
and the protective wing of God keeping you warm and safe.

And yet, simple as that idea is, it is breathtakingly beautiful, incredibly intricate, and intellectually mind-blowing.
You, and you, and you, and you,
all children of God.

By God’s own eternal choice and intent, you have been gathered in from north and south and east and west.
Somewhere, in the mystery of time, God knew and chose and called you out.

Maybe this is where the metaphor starts to fall apart. In North American adoption circles, the hot topic of the last decade has been openness…open adoptions, digging through the records, trying, even in the case of international adoptions to preserve or to unearth as much information as possible.  And, again, this may be where the metaphor falls apart, because this change of talking openly about the fact of adoption and access to information has been an incredible thing for many people in the adoption community.

But not every person has been interested or able to in uncover these mysteries. And, we have to remember that there are many people for whom uncovering the mysteries about their origins won’t be possible: whether because of missed opportunities to meet, intricate international adoptions, bad records, or unwilling parties, not everyone can find all of these answers. This week, one adopted person wrote in a New York Times column about the mystery of adoption:

I AM not adopted; I have mysterious origins.

The trend [in adoption and gestational technologies], certainly, is toward openness, a growing “right” to know. I am not against this trend. I simply want to give not-knowing its due. I like mysteries.

The word Ephesians uses even before it gets to the image of adoption is “mystery”. As God’s children, we all have mysterious origins.

Because in the end, the workings of this are mysterious. How is it that we can be called children of God, that we can be placed on the same level as the Son of God? And, even more, how is it that we could be known and called out before the world began?

And that brings us to the other sermon we are stuck with this morning. Because swirling in the midst of this mystery is that sticky wicket of a word, predestination.

I will admit to an affection for the idea of predestination as it connects to the idea of adoption: That through no willing or doing or being of our own, God grabs on and holds onto us, from the very beginning to the very end. I like that. It’s comforting, and it works.

But when I read Jeremiah, I’m reminded that there is another side to the idea of choice—the side that I don’t like as much. Because Jeremiah is about the ingathering of the remnant. It is not, like some similar passages in the prophets, about ingathering of the nations, all people’s coming from north and south and east and west. Not all peoples, but God’s people.

And I honestly don’t know how to resolve that piece of it. It is part of theology that I have to take off the shelf every once and awhile to turn over and examine, and try to reason out. But it never feels comfortable in my hands, it never feels resolved.

Since 2009 is John Calvin’s 500th birthday, I figured I’d give him his due and re-read what he has to say about predestination, see if I could find some morsel there.

I found the same contrast of comfort and questions, and nothing that sits well with me as an answer.

But what I did notice this time was this: there is a narrow path, according to Calvin, that we have to walk when we dig deep into the mysteries of God, and especially predestination.  On one side of the path is the danger of simply not thinking and talking about the mysteries, throwing our hands up and giving up.

But on the other side is the danger of digging and poking around that we leave no beauty in mystery, we leave no room for God’s thoughts to be larger than our thoughts.

Some where in the middle, one foot in front of the other, we have to find a way between our need to know and God’s need to be God.

We will always want to keep probing a bit more, poking around for an answer, digging through the records, unearthing the information. That curiosity is part of how God made us, and it is what leads us to catch a glimpse of how wonderful and incomprehensible God is.

But God is incomprehensible. And sometimes we need to be willing to live with mystery. To give up some control. Information is power. But we really can’t have all the facts.

Both Jeremiah and Ephesians remind us that we are not in control….Jeremiah 31 is written at Israel’s darkest hour, when the kingdom is shattering and exile is looming. And the very idea of hope is so very impossible that Jeremiah’s words probably sounded more like lunacy than prophecy. And Ephesians reminds us that there is nothing we could do, nothing we could ever do, to ensure God’s choice of us. God spoke, and we were his children.

Somewhere deep in the mystery of time, God called and chose us. We understand this in part, and use the stories and words and pictures that help us see a bit of what God has done for us. And so we say we are adopted, we are sisters and brothers of Jesus, we are the remnant returning.

But we have mysterious origins.

And somewhere deep in the mystery of the future, we will come to the God who calls. And so we say we are looking forward to an inheritance, we will come from north and south and east and west.

But we don’t know exactly what that looks like, or exactly who will be. We have mysterious origins, and even the future is wrapped in the mystery of God’s thoughts.

And in between, we are called to celebrate, to pray, to sing, and weep with joy as we try to understand the mystery, as we try to live into it.

So, on the last Sunday of Christmastide, take a step back to the manger to contemplate the mystery for what it is in this moment…not to pick apart the past, or probe the future, but to appreciate this moment…

With Mary, who treasured it in her heart,

With Joseph, who loved Jesus without always knowing what it meant to call him son.

With the angels, who sang out of excitement and astonishment at the daring of God’s plan

And with Jesus, word made flesh, king of heaven and earth,

But by some great mystery, our brother.


3 Responses to “Ingathering”

  1. Alex Says:


    I am sitting at my desk, bawling my eyes out! Thank you for this beautiful gift.


  2. Erica Says:

    Alex–Thanks for planting the seeds!!!

  3. Brett Says:

    This is so lovely. I can’t remember when I’ve read a more faithful, more clear, or more exciting statement about the mysteries of God’s election. I really love this: “Some where in the middle, one foot in front of the other, we have to find a way between our need to know and God’s need to be God.”
    Brett (Alex’s husband)