Saturday, July 18, 2015

God's Delight

God’s Delight
Ephesians 1:3-14[1]
It seems to me that we have a rather ambiguous attitude toward the freedom to choose. When that freedom belongs to us, we’re all for it. In fact, if anybody even hints at somehow restricting our freedom to make our own choices, we can get pretty bent out of shape. We hold on to our right to choose for dear life. But when the freedom to choose belongs to someone else, it can be a completely different matter. We don’t necessarily mind others having the freedom to choose, but we don’t want their choices to affect us adversely. In fact, we can get just as bent out of shape if somebody else makes a choice that somehow leaves us feeling short-changed or left out. I’d say we’re definitely ambiguous about the freedom to choose.
So it comes as no surprise when we come to a Scripture lesson that talks about God choosing people, we may not feel entirely comfortable about it. In fact, the whole idea of “predestination” is one of the most confusing elements of our reformed heritage. In fact, I had a conversation about this with my future daughter-in-law Jaime a few months ago. Like many people, she assumed that as Presbyterians we follow Calvin, and therefore we believe that God has chosen to bless a select group, and he has chosen to condemn the vast majority of humanity.[2] Knowing me, she was understandably confused. I think a lot of people get confused about what we as Presbyterians believe about this—not least because there are some Presbyterians who endorse it wholeheartedly![3]
I think part of the problem is that we get lost in the whole logic of choosing. If we choose one thing, it logically means that we’re rejecting something else. And there are some biblical passages that seem to imply that’s how God operates. It begins with God choosing to bless Abram and all his descendants. The Scripture says “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse” (Gen. 12:3). That doesn’t sound very inclusive. In fact there is a lot of language surrounding the fact that Israel was the “chosen people” that sounds pretty exclusive. It sounds like God chooses a few and rejects the rest. But even in that initial blessing upon Abram and his descendants, there is a tension. While the first part of the verse sounds pretty exclusive, the rest of the verse reads, “and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3)
I would say there’s definitely a development in the way the Bible treats this issue. For many centuries, the faith of Israel as expressed in the Hebrew Bible reflected the idea that their being “chosen” by God was a privilege that made them special in God’s sight. The whole language of speaking about non-Jewish people as “pagans” or “heathen” reflects this bias. But already in the Hebrew Bible, especially with the book of Isaiah, there were some hints that the idea of God going to all the trouble just to save only one branch of the human family was “too small a thing.” Rather, God commissions the prophet to serve as “a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa. 49:6).
And so when Jesus came and offered salvation to Gentiles on equal footing with the “chosen” people, he caused quite a stir. But he also made it clear that God delights in the salvation of the whole human family, not just one small part of it. I think that’s the idea behind our Scripture lesson for today. I like the way the New Living Translation puts it: “Long ago, even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ …. His unchanging plan has always been to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ. And this gave him great pleasure” (Eph. 1:4-5). It seems to me that God has always taken delight in our salvation.[4]
What a very different image that suggests than a God who chooses a few and rejects all the rest. It’s true that this Scripture uses the language of “us,” referring to believers. That obviously opens the door for some to read this text from that same old “we’re in and you’re out” point of view. But the way the Scripture goes on to frame it changes the perspective: it says, “God’s secret plan has now been revealed to us; it is a plan centered on Christ, designed long ago according to his good pleasure. And this is his plan: At the right time he will bring everything together under the authority of Christ -- everything in heaven and on earth” (Eph. 1:9-10, NLT).[5] That doesn't sound like it leaves out anyone or anything. I like a phrase from The Message translation, where it says that God took “such delight” in making this plan for the salvation of everyone and all things.
Some of you may be scratching your heads at this point.[6] We’ve heard the “good news” that those of us who believe in Jesus will be saved while those who don’t will be “left behind” for so long that when we are confronted with this aspect of biblical teaching it seems too good to be true. But that is the “full” gospel—not just that God intends to save a chosen few, but rather that God’s plan is to redeem every one of his beloved children and every inch of his precious creation.[7] It’s a message that begins with Abraham, and runs through the whole Bible. And so in the New Testament the Apostles looked forward to the day when “every knee” would bow in worship and acknowledge Christ as Lord (Phil. 2:10-11). The plan behind all of this is that God is in the process of “making all things new” (Rev. 21:5, NJB). How that will happen I don’t profess to understand completely.[8] But it is a breathtaking message; a message that truly is “good news”: God’s plan is that through Christ he is going to redeem all people and all things. And as the Scripture says, God takes “great delight” in seeing to it that this plan will be fulfilled

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/12/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.23.1, where he says “since election itself could not stand except as set over against reprobation … those whom God passes over, he condemns.”  Calvin was influenced by Augustine of Hippo, who argued that God’s desire for “all people to be saved” only applies to those whom God has predestined to salvation, and excludes all others, even infants who die without being baptized. See Augustine, On Rebuke and Grace, 14.44; On the Predestination of the Saints, 18.36; Enchiridion, 27, 103; cf. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition I:321; Johannes Quasten, Patrology IV:443.  On infants, see Augustine, On the Soul and its Origin, 4.11.16; cf. Pelikan, Christian Tradition I:297-98.
[3] Cf. Hendrikus Berkhof, Christian Faith, 136, where he (as a Reformed theologian) points out that the Reformed tradition with its doctrine of dual predestination “has caused much uncertainty and has robbed many Christians of the joy of the Christian faith.” He also points out that although Luther also created the impression of a schizophrenic God of wrath and love, he at least left a door open for people to “flee from the angry to the gracious God.” On the other hand (p. 137), Scholastic theology, with its doctrinaire embellishment of Calvin’s “eternal double decree of election and reprobation” made it impossible to change one’s fate.
[4] As Desmond Tutu puts it, “There is nothing we can do to make God love us more” and “there is nothing we can do to make God love us less.” Desmond Tutu, God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time, 32.
[5] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 39-40: “our hope is directed towards that divine future in which God will have all his creatures beside him to all eternity. That is to say, our hope is for the day when all things will be restored and gathered in a new, eternal order.” Cf. also Ralph P. Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, 17, where he says, “this bold claim marks the completion of New Testament thought which has Christ as the source (Col. 1:16; John 1:3-4; Heb. 1:2-3) and the sustainer (Col. 1:17) of creation. He is now hailed as the destined Lord of all life as the goal toward which the whole creation is moving.” See further, Pheme Perkins “The Letter to the Ephesians,” New Interpreters Bible XI:378: “Various astronomical theories, equations, and observations speculate about the probable fate of the material universe, but Ephesians assures us that God’s plan of salvation does not depend on these calculations and that somehow the universe is ordered so that all things return to God in Christ.”
[6] The idea that a God of grace and mercy loves us unconditionally with a love that will never let us go is is something “so unheard of, so unexpected” that it can only appear to us as something “incomprehensible and meaningless,” as a “vast impossibility.” Cf. Karl Barth, Romans, 38, 108-9.
[7] Karl Barth describes it as God’s great gracious “Yes” to all humankind in Jesus the Christ that changes everything, at least potentially. See Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.3:622, 649-50, 660-61, 711-12, 789, 798-99. Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 292-93, where he speaks of the Christian community as “the sign, the instrument, and the breaking-in of the new order of all things” and therefore not as “the exclusive community of the saved,” but “the initial and inclusive” expression of “the world freed by the risen Christ.”
[8] Cf. Berkhof, Christian Faith, 223, where he explains it this way: “God creates for himself a partner and allows himself to be limited and resisted by the freedom of that partner. But all of salvation history guarantees that ultimately he will not lose his grip on the world and will not rest until he has—no, not conquered and subjugated but—led his human opponent to the true freedom of the sons of God.”

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