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What defines our lives? Ephesians 1:3-14

Patrick was spooked by what he heard. It was late at night in November 1984. As he was doing his laundry a sound came from a cardboard box in the corner of the room. There was no one else in the dormitory laundry at San Francisco State University. He walked over and peeked inside. It was a newborn baby girl! She was turning blue. Patrick grabbed the first student he saw, a nursing student named Esther Raiger, and asked for her help. Esther had just completed a course in infant care. So, she cared for the baby until paramedics arrived.

The hospital staff named the newborn Baby Jane Doe. When the story hit the news outlets, numerous people around the country offered to adopt her. Among those who contacted Child Services were Sam and Helene Sobol. Helene says that the moment she saw Baby Jane’s picture in the papers, she said to herself, “This is our baby.”

The Sobols adopted her and changed her name to Jillian. They never hid the fact that she was adopted, but they didn’t tell her the circumstances of her birth until she turned 16. They were concerned that Jillian might be upset at her abandonment. But when Jillian recalls the conversation, she remembers the overwhelming feelings of being “special and loved.” It didn’t matter to her how her life started out. All that mattered was that she had been chosen and adopted. That’s what defined her life.

That’s what defines our lives. We are blessed to have been chosen! Paul writes to the Ephesians, reminding them God has blessed them “with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world.”

The words “in Christ” appears 10 times in the book of Ephesians. Paul wants us to realize that Jesus did the work for us. We don’t have to earn it. We don’t have to be “good enough” to deserve it. Out of his love for us, Jesus sacrificed his own life to guarantee us all the spiritual blessings that flow from his relationship with God. So, when we read that “in Christ” we become children of God, it means our identity and inheritance are sealed by the sacrificial, unconditional love of Jesus. As Paul put it, God “destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ.”

So, what does it mean that we are chosen in Christ? If we are chosen, we are valued. We are loved. It means God has a purpose for us. We don’t choose a painting unless we plan to display it and enjoy it. We don’t choose a pet unless we plan to care for it and protect it. We don’t choose a spouse unless we plan to love and cherish them. Now consider that God chose us and destined us for adoption as His children before the creation of the world. Once we understand this truth, how can we doubt God’s love for us or God’s plans for us?

More than 20 years later, Jillian Sobol entered San Francisco State University where she had been abandoned–this time as a student. She graduated in 2015 with a degree in Hospitality and Tourism Management.

In God’s great realm there are no grandchildren, no stepchildren, there are no illegitimate children, because each of us is a child of God “in Christ!” We are set free. We are chosen. Let that be a truth that defines. There is great joy in a feeling of “chosenness.”

Charles Haddon Spurgeon was one of the most popular and influential preachers in England in the 1800s. I’d like to paraphrase something that he said about this Bible passage. He said, “When you are approaching heaven, you will read on the outside gates, ‘Whosoever will, may come.’ But when you turn around, you’ll see written on the inside gates, ‘Chosen in Him from the foundation of the world.'” What a great thought. “Whosoever will, may come.” But also, “Chosen in Him from the foundation of the world.” We are blessed because we are chosen.

We are blessed when we realize that our sins are forgiven! To encourage the Ephesians Paul wrote, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us.” The wrongs we have done often are a primary source of our feelings of failure and unworthiness. In Christ, however, we are forgiven and given another chance.

Do you understand the freedom and joy that comes from hearing that debts have been paid in full? All our failures and imperfections and battles deep down in our soul that separate us from God–all those have been wiped away. You and I are a new creation in Christ (II Corinthians 5: 17).

The Apostle Paul serves as a powerful example of the joy and freedom found in forgiveness. Paul wrote, “For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God, I am what I am . . .” (I Cor. 15:9-10) Even though Paul once persecuted the church, through the grace of God he was forgiven and given another chance. With his new life, Paul set forth proclaiming the message of salvation to Jews and Gentiles alike.

Let me tell you about a businessman named Richard Mangone. Richard spent 18 years in prison for bank fraud. He had used his position as president of a Massachusetts credit union to obtain fraudulent loans, which he used to invest in real estate. His illegal scheme made him millions of dollars and let him indulge in a lavish lifestyle. But he felt empty on the inside.

When he was finally arrested for his crimes, Richard skipped his trial, abandoned his wife and family, and went on the run. He ended up on the U.S. Marshals’ Most Wanted list. He spent a year on the run, moving from town to town. He brought enough cash with him to ensure that he could still live the high life on the road. He drank and partied and picked up various girlfriends. And he was more miserable than ever. So, he made plans to kill himself.

On the night before his suicide attempt, Richard was flipping through the TV channels when he came across a television evangelist preaching about Jesus on the cross. Richard says, “Placing my hands on the TV set and crying, I asked Jesus to forgive me for all my sins and receive me as his child. It sounds like a clichÈ, but I felt a great weight lifting from my shoulders.”

Richard eventually gave himself up to authorities and entered the federal penitentiary. The prison chaplain began mentoring Richard, and he began studying the Bible, then teaching Bible classes to fellow inmates. In 2013, he was released from prison. Today, Richard Mangone is a volunteer counselor to men in state and federal prisons. He is also the founder of Bezalel Prison Ministries, an organization that helps former prisoners re-adjust to civilian life.

Sometimes the hardest person to forgive is ourselves. But true freedom and new life are possible if we give our lives to Jesus Christ. In him, we are set free. In him, we are forgiven.

We are blessed when we realize that we’re not trapped by what has happened to us in the past. Many of us get stuck because we remember and relive old, painful memories.

There’s an old story about a man who ran into a friend one day. He said, “Say, you look depressed. What are you thinking about?”

“My future,” was the quick answer.

“What makes your future look so hopeless?”

Just as quickly, he replied, “My past.”

If this Bible text is true, then it’s God who defines us, not we ourselves, not our friends and family. Neither are we defined by our successes or failures, or our strengths and our weaknesses. God alone defines our life. And when God looks at us, He doesn’t look at our past. He looks at our possibilities. He looks at our potential. He looks at who we could be once we find our life in Christ.

For some of us, last year was the worst year ever. Many people lost jobs; many were laid off. Many found themselves having to cope with less income and more stress. Others experienced death in their families which left them hurting and grieving.

Here’s what Christ says to us, regardless of our circumstances. New beginnings are possible. In fact, this very time is a time of new beginning. You and I may have spent our lives living in anxiety and envy and disappointment. We may have let our family, our culture or our past define us. God wants us to know we have nothing to fear. You and I have been chosen. We have been forgiven! We are no longer trapped by what has happened to us in the past. We are, of all peoples, blessed. Let this be the day that we find our identity, our purpose, and our future in Christ.

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Rev. Charles Eldredge is pastor of Maitland Church of the Brethren, Lewistown, PA where he is currently serving in his 28th year. He graduated from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in S. Hamilton, MA.

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