Between 1854 and 1929, over 200,000 orphans in cities like New York, Boston, and Philly were placed on trains and shipped west across the United States. These trains would periodically stop for viewings. Yes, viewings. Children would be lined up like cattle at an auction. Potential parents would ask questions, evaluate health and often examine children’s teeth. If chosen, the children had a home. If not, they got back on the train … the Orphan Train.
Lee Nailings was on the Orphan Train. You can read about it in a book called The Orphan Train Rider: One Boy’s True Story. Lee was eight years old when, along with two younger brothers, his dad took him to a train station in New York City. Lee’s dad gave him an envelope which had 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, the envelope was gone.
I wish I could tell you that Lee’s father found him. That Lee’s father sold the farm so he could reunite his family. 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 your Father in heaven comes looking for you. That’s the point of John 1:12. Your Father in heaven comes looking for you. Do you ever get that feeling like your stuck on the Orphan Train? Ever have that feeling of being rejected, time after time? That might be how you feel. But feelings aren’t facts. Here’s the facts … Your Father in heaven comes looking for you!
Biblical authors sometimes place their most important information in the middle. The meat is the in middle! In Genesis 11:1-9, the account of the Tower of Babel, the middle is Genesis 11:5, “The LORD came down.” In Isaiah 2-12, the middle is Isaiah 7:14, “You shall call his name Immanuel.” Smack-dab, right in the middle of John 1:1-18 are these words, “He gave the right to become children of God.” Let’s unpack this promise!
He. Who is the “he”? He is our heavenly Father. In John 1:1-18, our heavenly Father creates the universe through the Word, through Jesus. Then he sends John the Baptist to tell us about Jesus. Then our heavenly Father gives us the Word made flesh, He gives us Jesus, who is full of grace and truth and through him we receive one blessing after another. “He” is our loving Father.
Gave. When I was sixteen, I asked about a car. If I remember right, I was told I had no need of a car yet and that I needed a job so I could help pay for a car. Getting a car was my job. But after coming back from a trip over the summer, there sat a car in the driveway. Upon arriving home, a speech was given and then the keys to this 1987 Oldsmobile Cutlass Cierra were handed to me. She wasn’t the prettiest thing out there with her dings and dents. She had this vibration once you got up to about 50 miles per hour. But there were no payments, no loans, no questions, and no hassles. My mom and step-dad gave me a car.
Earthly fathers give. How much more though our heavenly Father gives! John 3:34 says, “The Father gives the Spirit without limit.” John 5:21, “The Father raises the dead and gives them life.” John 16:23, “My Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.” And then the granddaddy of them all, John 3:16, “God so loved the world he gave …”.
But what if God changes his mind? What if God reverses his plan? We all know that he has every reason to do so. We stumble. We fall. We lack. We sin. We rebel. And we mess things up. Will God finally have enough of us?
Spouses do. Employers do. Friends do. Coaches kick players off of the team. Principals expel students from school. Parents abandon their children at train stations, just as Lee Nailing. How do we know God won’t do the same thing? After all, he is holy and pure and just and righteous and we are anything but those things. Put all fear aside, because he gave …
Authority. The disease has gone on for fall too long. It has infected and killed countless people. It brings with it abandoned dreams and empty hearts. This disease goes by two words, two god-forsaken words … “I can’t.” It attacks our self-control. “I can’t resist the bottle.” It attacks our marriages. “I can’t forgive.” It attacks our nerves. “I can’t find peace.” It attacks our faith. “I Can’t believe. I just can’t!”
“He gave authority.” Authority! We’re not helpless and hopeless. We are not powerless and without a prayer. “He gave authority.” One writer defines the Greek word, exousia, authority, with these words … “Legitimate power from a competent source.” “Legitimate power from a competent source.” Legitimate power enables us to slam the door on “I can’t” and say say “I can!” Paul says in Philippians 4, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength” (4:13). And the competent source giving us the power is almighty God! He gave authority …
To become God’s children. Jesus explains how this happens to Nicodemus in John 3. Jesus teaches that we are born again and become God’s children through water and the Spirit. We call that Holy Baptism.
We might think of baptism like a car wash. You go in a filthy clunker and you come out with your sins washed away, you come out as a cleaned up clunker. We’re no longer defined by our divorce, our deficiencies, our debt, or our dumb choices. But there’s more.
The clunker, the 1987 Oldsmobile Cutlass Cierra, is exchanged for a brand-new Corvette. That means the interior is new, the tires are new, and so are the doors and the windows. No more dents, peeling paint or missing emblems. Everything is new. We, you and I, we are not clunkers anymore! That’s why Jesus tells Nicodemus that when people are baptized, they are born again. When you are baptized, you get a new you. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Cor. 5:17).
But there’s even more. In Holy Baptism, God also adopts you into his family. And adopted children are chosen children. That’s not the case with biological children. When the doctors handed Faith and Heath to me, I had no “Plan B.” No loophole. No choice. No exit strategy. I couldn’t give them back to the doctor and ask for a better-looking or smarter child.
But if you were adopted, your parents chose you. Surprise pregnancies happen, but surprise adoptions? You never hear of such things. If you were adopted, your parents could’ve picked a different gender, a different color, or a different nationality. But they didn’t. They chose you. They wanted you. … So does your heavenly Father. Remember? “He comes looking for you!”
Romans 8:15 says, “You have received the Spirit of adoption as children, by whom we cry, ‘Abba, Father!” The heavenly Father doesn’t adopt us because of our talent, our temperament, our taste, or our tattoos. He adopts us because he loves us.
And we all know that adoption isn’t cheap. People spends 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. Jesus who died. Jesus who lives. Jesus who loves!
Remember Lee Nailing? The eight-year-old orphan whose father never came looking for him? Lee’s two 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.”
Sometimes we ask, “Do I count for anything?” Everything from high school to old age leaves us feeling rejected. We push back. We try to validate our existence. We do more. We buy more. We achieve more. We get more. But we still wonder … “Do I count for anything?”
Yes, yes you do! You are not stuck on the Orphan Train. Lee Nailing’s story is a true story and so is yours. It’s a true story! How so? John 1:12, “He gave authority to become the children of God.” You are baptized. You are a child of faith. The past is past. The future is bright. God’s Word is sure. Rest in your adoption … you are a chosen child of God! Amen.
The peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord, now and forever. Amen.