Sermon – God is Choosing You
June 18, 2017, Second Sunday after Pentecost
Today is Father’s Day – what a wonderful coincidence given what I would like to share with you today!
We are living in an era obsessed with choice; we assume choice is our natural right and are allergic to any hints or ideas that seem to threaten it. In an interesting discussion on public radio on Tuesday about how theater is currently depicting the political situation in our country, a professor said that we seem to have entered a period of time in which we are seeing order being preferred to justice; in other words, we are on a collision course with our ideas about choice which is part and parcel of our cultural reverence for freedom.
But what if in fact we have never been free as we like to imagine nor had the choices we assume?
Really, how free are we?
What kind of choices do we actually have?
It is possible that you are going to feel resistance to what I have to say today because it is so countercultural and also not easy to understand. But I also want to reassure you that the One Who created us loves us beyond telling and desires that not a single one of us would be lost forever in the worlds of our own illusions and enslavements. Significant choice and true freedom are not merely political or social.
But first, some history and context.
In the book of Exodus we read about our spiritual ancestors, the Israelites, not knowing where they were going, camping in the middle of nowhere, in a desert, the only apparent shelter or source of orientation being a nearby mountain, which must have seemed like a harsh comfort.
Moses, who had led them out of Egypt, felt drawn to climb that mountain, and there he heard from God, Who reiterated how it was by a miracle that they had been able to escape from Egypt, now to be there in God’s presence.
But having a relationship with God was going to have entailments; to start with, they would have to be obedient. They were going to have to do things. They would need to understand that they were God’s chosen people, and whether they liked it or not, whether it seemed fair to them or not, since the earth and everything in it belonged to God, they were going to need to pay attention. They were not choosing God – God was choosing them.
At first, the Israelites were blithe about this development; we might even say they were a bit gung-ho: “sure, we can say yes to this, yeah, whatever, just tell us what to do, it’s all good!”
Of course, we know what happened: they spent the next 40 years wandering around in that desert, resisting, complaining, fooling around, trying out their own schemes for getting out of the dependent situation they were in.
Does this sound at all familiar to you? Can you relate to this behavior?
And consider: Are we at all dependent?
Eventually, as we know, they created a nation which then split into two kingdoms, ostensibly governed on the basis of the revealed law of God that included the Ten Commandments, ritual sacrifice, and many statutes and judgments many of which were retained and then highly elaborated by the priests and Jewish synagogues until the birth of Christ. This period of human history has come to be called the Old Covenant: a relationship with God that had been based on human achievement.
But since the advent of Christ – His life in a visible form amongst human beings and His sacrifice of Himself for all humankind – our relationship to God no longer depends on our own will, efforts, or achievements. The astonishing and radical truth of our relationship to God in this era of history since the advent of Christ is that there is nothing we need do for salvation. That, indeed, there is nothing we can do because the lesson of the past is that human beings are incapable of keeping God’s law perfectly. This is why deeds regardless of how seemingly flawless – well-intended, beautifully executed – will never make us right with God.
Now this is a very humbling situation if you really sit with it and think about it. It is a hopeless cause to depend on ourselves for spiritual salvation. Even to attempt this is in error because it sets ourselves up as our own god.
At the same time, it was not and is not the case that God sets human beings up for failure; there are things we are supposed to learn from the law and our misguided attempts at our own righteousness, aspects of which have their place. (But that would be a message for another day.)
Today, it is through Christ we stand in grace – the grace of no longer being removed from God by our sinful nature, which is our inability to get anything right. If we did have anything to crow about, as the apostle Paul says, it would be that we can say with all joy and elation that now being admitted into the presence of God we can have real hope, just not in the way we are tempted to think.
The fact is, God hears us and wants to hear from us; have you said hello to your Father today? He is the Father that loves His children, that has always desired that our hearts would turn and be opened to him.
Today, we can also see our suffering in a new way, not as something to flee from by any means possible, but even as something to recognize as marking us as God’s children – we can even be glad for difficulty as an opportunity to learn and grow in faith and trust.
(However, let me say that this is not about masochism where we seek to suffer and take delight in pain itself; this would be a distortion. Rather, it means seeing pain and difficulty as an opportunity to draw closer to God. I think about this sometimes in terms of “breathe and trust” – being present to the problem, whatever it is, breathing gently and in my mind and heart turning it over to God in faith that the solution and the answer will present itself in God’s own good time.)
Difficulties become the path by which God shapes us and creates us to be what He has in mind. This is what it means to develop in character, not on the basis of our own strength of will and cleverness but by being precisely with the opportunities that life already gives us every day. In this way we can grow in the ability to see how God moves in the world and in our individual lives and then hope naturally follows as God’s Spirit joins with our human awareness and convinces us of His love and mercy.
For, what is so amazing – so counterintuitive to human reasoning and judgment – is that in fact Christ was willing to give away His life for us and all humankind before we, as a species, even knew who He was. While we were still busy slaving away using our own methods, for our own goals, and on the basis of our own supposed abilities, Christ got ready to assume the burden of our self-delusions and crimes against each other.
Now, however, our debt to God’s law having been fulfilled by Christ’s own blameless life and submission to death – death being the cost of sin – we can now come before God, ourselves also blameless. This is the greatest and most important event in human history; this is how and why we can now live freely before God, making a claim on Him as the Father whom we can now approach, the darkness of all our error and cruelty and lack of kindness no longer obscuring us from His presence.
Yes, people have been known to die for someone else, especially if that other person seemed to be somehow good or special, but God was willing to subject Himself in the form of Jesus to pay the ultimate price for every human being, regardless of how evil or how deluded. This is a love beyond human comprehension.
We can barely take this in; it is so difficult to accept that there is nothing we need do, right?
Our whole culture is about doing stuff – meriting, deserving – isn’t it?
I, for one, like to talk about surrender and the helpfulness, for example, of engaging in Centering Prayer, but we must be very careful with our attitude even to wonderful practices such as these in case we think that this is how and why God comes to us. God comes to us because He chooses us and has chosen us. There is not a single thing we can do to make this happen or to deserve it.
Why, then, do any practices such as these? Why engage in worship, prayer, charity? The answer is something like this: how can we not be filled with joy and want to be in God’s presence and give what we can when we realize how much we are loved by Him? When we catch even a glimpse of what we mean to Him? Surely this is what motivated David’s great expressions of joy in the Psalms!
David already understood that it is our sins that separate us from God but that God wants us. Today we can have an assurance that’s even greater than what David had: God chooses us, each and every one of us, and the only choice we have is whether or not we say yes to Him; we have no choice as to whether or not we mean anything to God. We mean everything to Him. This is Father’s day.