Sermon for October 8th, 2017
10 Nor is that all; something similar happened to Rebecca when she had conceived children by one husband, our ancestor Isaac. 11 Even before they had been born or had done anything good or bad (so that God’s purpose of election might continue, 12 not by works but by his call) she was told, “The elder shall serve the younger.” 13 As it is written,
“I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau.” 14 What then are we to say? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”
16 So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy. 17 For the scripture says to Pharaoh, “I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.” 18 So then he has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomever he chooses. 19 You will say to me then, “Why then does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?”
20 But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God? Will what is molded say to the one who molds it, “Why have you made me like this?” 21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use? 22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath that are made for destruction; 23 and what if he has done so in order to make known the riches of his glory for the objects of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— 24 including us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?
25 As indeed he says in Hosea, “Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’” 26 “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they shall be called children of the living God.”
The Doctrine of Unconditional Election
An older couple had a son, who at the age of 25, was still living at home with them. He was a good-natured young man, but lacking a strong sense of direction or purpose. Understandably, his parents were concerned about his future. So one afternoon, the father decided to organize a small test. He placed on the kitchen table a stack of twenty-dollar bills, a bible, and a bottle of whiskey.
He told his wife, "When our son comes home today and passes by this table, if he picks up the money, it means he is destined to be a businessman. If he chooses the Bible instead, it means he's destined to be a preacher. But if he chooses the whiskey, I'm afraid our son is destined to become a drunkard.
Then the couple hid in a nearby closet, with the door cracked just enough to see the table. When the son walked through the door, he paused for a moment in front of the table, and then picked up the stack of twenty-dollar bills and put them in his pocket. In the closet, the father gave his wife an approving smile. But then the son picked up the Bible, leafed through some of the pages and put it under his arm. Just as he was beginning to walk away, he reached out and grabbed the bottle of whiskey, took a swig, and carried all three items with him up the stairs to his room.
The husband turned to his wife and said, "This is worse than I could have imagined. Our son is destined to be a politician."
Today's sermon is about destiny and choice. In honor of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, this month I'm preaching on the five points of Reformed Calvinism, which we remember using the acronymn, TULIP. Last week we talked about the doctrine of Total Depravity. Today is Unconditional Election. Next week is Limited Atonement, then Irresistible Grace, and on Reformation Sunday (October 29th) we'll conclude with the Perseverance of the Saints.
So. Unconditional Election. What does that mean? Let's start with the second word, "election." That's a pretty polarizing word in our culture today. Some of us are still getting over the last one, others are still celebrating it, some can hardly wait for the next one, and some are dreading going through all of that again.
The Doctrine of Unconditional Election is not that kind of election, although the words are similar. When we, as a society, elect a person it means we have "chosen" that person through our electoral process. When you as an individual elect to do something, or elect not to do something, it's another way of saying you have chosen to do that thing, or chosen not to do it. So to elect is to choose, and election is the act of choosing. Unconditional Election then, is the act of choosing something or someone unconditionally.
TULIP, the five points of Calvinism, is all about the relationship between God and humanity. So when it comes to election, the most important question is "who chooses whom?"
Most Evangelical churches today seem to think the answer to that question is that we choose God. That's why the entire focus of an Evangelical worship service is to convince you to make a decision--to choose God, to raise your hand and come down the aisle during the altar call where you will be given an opportunity to give your heart to Jesus. The emphasis is on saving your soul, and for that to happen, you have to start the process, you have to make the choice. You have to do something. The weight of your salvation is on your shoulders.
This is what the Apostle Paul fought so against in the 1st century--for him it was the idea that in order to counted among God's chosen people, you had to either be born Jewish, or else become Jewish through the process of circumcision.
This is what the Reformers of the 16th century fought so hard against--for them it was the idea that you had to pay money for you or your relatives to get into heaven. There was even a popular rhyme at the time: "When a coin in the coffers rings, a soul out of purgatory springs."
To this idea, Paul and the Reformers said, "No." We don't choose God; God chooses us. And God chooses us unconditionally--we don't have to do anything (in fact there is nothing we even CAN do) to earn or deserve or even cause God to choose us as his own. Not being born into the right family, not getting circumcised, not paying money, not walking down the aisle, kneeling at the altar and not even saying the "sinner's prayer." None of these things ultimately influence in any way God's sovereign choice of those who are his people.
Sometimes a well meaning fellow Christian will ask me, "So when were you saved?" The answer they expect is for me to name the date when I chose to surrender my life to God and become a Christian." I usually answer that question, "When were you saved?" in one of three ways:
Sometimes, I'll say "Before the foundations of the earth were laid, before time and the universe began, when God called and chose all of his children." Of course, that answer is a little bit presumptuous. So when I'm feeling a bit more humble, when someone asks "When were you saved?" I'll say, I don't know if I am saved, and neither do you. I can believe I'm saved, I can hope I'm saved, I can trust that I'm saved, but in the end only God knows. I'll let you know when I find out.
But mostly these days, when someone asks when I was saved, I'll just turn the question back around and ask them, "Saved from what? Or whom?" I actually do know what they mean--they generally mean "When were you saved from eternal damnation and the fires of hell?" but most people are too polite to say that.
When the 16th century reformers spoke of election, they really did mean that God chooses some people for eternal salvation in heaven up in the sky, and God chooses others for eternal damnation in hell somewhere down below. That was the universally accepted cosmology of the time. The reformers just asserted (like Paul before them) that God does not choose which group we're in based on anything we say, or do, or believe. Hence "unconditional election."
I think the Reformers were right about the way God works, but their cosmology is now about 500 years out of date, and in need of a refresh. So to follow in their footsteps and in their methods, to "reform the reformers," we go back to the same source they did: The scriptures. In particular, today's passage from Romans 9.
In this passage, the Apostle Paul is talking about God choosing people. The first example is God choosing Jacob over his twin brother Esau. I'm going to read verse 11, but as I'm reading I want you to listen to see if you can tell exactly WHAT God is choosing Jacob for and what God is choosing Esau for.
Verse 11: Even before they had been born or had done anything good or bad (so that God’s purpose of election might continue, not by works but by his call) she was told, “The elder shall serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau.” 14 What then are we to say? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”
Did Jacob go to heaven and Esau go to hell? Frankly, we don't know that. All we are told is that God chose the elder (Esau) to serve the younger (Jacob). In this life, not the one to come.
The next example is God choosing a bad guy, Pharaoh. Verse 17: "For the scripture says to Pharaoh, “I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.”
Again, is there anything here about Pharoah being chosen for eternal damnation and torment on account of all his badness? No. God chose Pharoah to serve a particular purpose, God's purpose, on this earth, in this life.
For his next example, in Verse 21, Paul uses a metaphor: "Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use?" Note here that both ojects are used, and both for good purpose. We can presume, I think, that neither piece of pottery lives forever or experiences eternal bliss or torment. Instead, the potter uses one--in this lifetime--for ordinary use, and the other--in this lifetime--for special use.
See the pattern? If God chooses or elects some (but not others) for special purposes, it is for special purposes in this world, in this lifetime.
In Darwinian Evolution, there is a similar concept. Instead of Divine Election, it's called Natural Selection. I believe that God is the author of nature and all natural processes, so this is not a big jump to make. Natural selection happens because each of us inherits a set of genes from our parents. Every so often, one of these genes mutates--not in response to anything we did, but before we were born, out of random chance (or divine providence, take your pick). Sometimes that mutation has no notable effect, and life goes on...until it doesn't. But sometimes, that mutation confers a special advantage on its recipient, one that increases the likelihood that it will live longer, reproduce, and pass that mutated gene on to its offspring, thus multiplying the advantage, spreading the advantage to others, and eventually improving the entire gene pool. That's natural selection.
And I think it's a great way to understand the Doctrine of Unconditional Election, too. In every generation, God chooses some--individuals, groups, or entire nations--unconditionally, through no merit of their own, to use for his special purposes. Always, in the stories of Scripture and faith, those special purposes are for the multiplication and spread of goodness and love, for the improvement of all humanity and all creation.
But Pastor Neal--what happens to me after I die? Let me be honest: I don't know. No one does, no matter what they promise. We can hope for renewed life, we can trust that we are in God's hands, we can even believe (as we do) in resurrection and eternity. But if we really knew for sure, it wouldn't be called "faith," would it?
In any case, worrying about the next life doesn't do much except distract us from what God is calling us to do in this life. And yes, here (finally!) is where God actually DOES want us to DO something, to choose something--not for the sake of procuring our own salvation, not out of hope for reward, or fear of punishment, but simply because we, like God, genuinely desire the best for this world we all share, and for the people we call neighbors.
Calvin understood this well. In 1539, when people were flocking to Calvin's city of Geneva to join the ranks of the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Cardinal, Jacob Sadoleto, tried to stop them, telling them that "there is a better chance of security in the Church tradition of fifteen hundred years than among innovators (like Calvin) with only twenty-five years standing. A Catholic who at the Judgment Day declares his fidelity to the ancient faith, even if he is wrong, will stand a better chance because of sincerity, humility and obedience than will an arrogant innovator."
Calvin responded to Cardinal Sadoleto, "I cannot understand why you have addressed to us such a long exordium on the importance of the future life with which we are continually preoccupied, but I will say that it is unworthy of a theologian to permit man to be so concerned about himself and not rather to make zeal for God's glory the chief object of his life . . . the Christian man should aspire to a loftier goal than the salvation of his soul."
What loftier goals did John Calvin aspire to? We remember him mostly for his writings on doctrine and theology. But the people of Geneva (where he lived and worked) remember Calvin for his work with refugees. Geneva was a town of just 13,000 people when Calvin arrived there as a refugee himself from religious persecution in France. Throughout his life he pushed the leaders of Geneva to open their doors and take in religious and political refugees from all over Europe--around 6,000 in all, almost half the population of Geneva. Calvin urged the city leaders not just to take them in, but to care for them and give them a better life. Through Calvin's guidance, Geneva established a hospital for refugees; he personally secured meaningful employment for many of them, and he established an academy to educate them. Many of these became leaders of the Reformation in Europe, including one Scottish refugee named John Knox...who went on to become the founder of the Presbyterian church.
Calvin took seriously the words from verse 25 of today's scripture passage: “Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’” 26 “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they shall be called children of the living God.”
Here at First Presbyterian Church, we take in refugees too. Sometimes it's an organization, (like Kids-N-Co, or our Zumba classes) that doesn't have a home and can't afford one. We open our doors and make space for them. Sometimes it's individuals--spiritual refugees who have been rejected or persecuted in other churches for their questions, their doubts, their lifestyle, or even their marriage. We open our doors and welcome them in. And sometimes, it's actual refugees, fleeing danger and persecution in places like Syria, Mexico, and Asia. Many times, we have opened our doors and worked to provide a new home and a better life. In a larger sense, we are all refugees fleeing from something in this world, or in our past, seeking shelter and peace and a new beginning. And so we come to this place.
First Presbyterian Church is, by no means, God. But I like to think that as best as we can, on a much smaller scale, we model and embody the principles of God's Unconditional Election. When we open our doors, we try hard not to attach any strings or preconditions. Many who come to us find peace and comfort here for a time, and that's enough.
But every now and then, in some divinely appointed way that we cannot entirely comprehend, God chooses one of us, one of his "refugees" in this place, not out of any merit or anything special on our part, but to use for his purpose to accomplish some greater good--to make this church, this community, this city, this world, in this lifetime, a better place for everyone...in some big way, or even in some very small, but significant way.
We never know, in the moment, who exactly that will be. But I hope and pray...that it's you.