Last week, if you’ll remember, I mentioned a water color from the year 1794 painted by William Blake entitled ‘The Ancient of Days’. It is a picture, presumably of God the Father stooped over in a wind storm holding a set of dividers at what I always thought was the very beginning of creation. Today, however I am not as sure it is of the beginning of creation . . . as it could very well be the end as well. In effect William Blake was trying to show God in the person of an architect, one of the few professions beside builders who used dividers at the end of the 18th century.
The message of this work speaks about the design of creation and just how involved God is in it. We often picture God as a kindly old man with a white beard who made the earth and all there is and then let it all go its own way. We hear the Genesis story how everything was good and suddenly everything was not so good at the fall of the first of our race. We have been taught that our free will and a penchant for pride caused our fall and we were forced out of the perfection and everlasting life of Eden to toil on our own behalf throughout our lives and die in the dust of our own desire and making.
But in the beginning did God really let his creation go to its own demise? Is creation like a bowel of spilled marbles, as many would believe? Or is it more like dominoes, set up in a strategic pattern with a definitive design and purpose? And how often is the design adjusted to complete God’s desired outcome? These are the questions that the lessons ask us to think about today.
As a general contractor, I am often in contact with the architects of the buildings that we estimate and construct. As a lead project manager, I am responsible to see that that the intent of the architect’s design is accomplished and built as precisely as possible to the design drawings. Sometimes it is difficult work, because being human myself, I have found that architects and engineers make mistakes . . . as well as builders. When this happens, adjustments are made to compensate for error. Fortunately, no one ever notices these adjustments and the only ones who are aware of them are the builders themselves and a few astute construction engineers. I sometimes amuse myself by looking for errors in buildings as I go shopping or out to restaurants. Actually I think it is one of the many things I do that drives my wife crazy. But there are always clues left over, and it is interesting to me to see how a problem was solved.
I am convinced today that creation is not like a bowl of marbles dropped on the floor. It really is more like a design in progress. Like William Blake’s painting suggests, God is the perfect architect and he chooses some from among us to be his builders. And occasionally we make mistakes – because we are human. But like any architect, who would rather not start over, God it seems makes adjustments in the design and leaves it for other builders to continue the construction. But like any adjustment in the building model, there are clues left showing the turning points.
In today’s Old Testament reading there is one of these clues for us to ponder. It is not very obvious unless you know the whole story. It is in the verse that reads:
I will let them walk by brooks of water,
in a straight path in which they shall not stumble;
for I have become a father to Israel,
and Ephraim is my firstborn.
Now you may not remember who Ephraim was, but he definitely was not the first born. In fact, he was the second born of Jacob’s eleventh born son who was Joseph in Egypt. So how was it that the second born became the firstborn and inheritor of the family name of Israel? And how does this story affect us in the here and now?
You may remember that there were twelve sons of Jacob (who was later renamed Israel). Due to jealousy, ten of his older brothers got together and sold Joseph to a slave trader bound for Egypt. While in Egypt, Joseph had two sons of his own by the daughter of an Egyptian high priest (who was a gentile). The first born was Manasseh and the second son was named Ephraim. The short story is that after Joseph saved his entire family from a famine through the interpretation of a dream, Jacob, Joseph’s father, blessed his two grandsons, knowingly promoting the second born, Ephraim to firstborn status and adopting him as his son into the nation of Israel. God told Jacob, we assume in a dream, that Ephraim was his choice to be placed ahead of the others because Ephraim’s descendants were destined to become many nations. In this way God, thru Jacob was showing us that the last would be first and that gentiles could be grafted into the family tree of Israel (and also into the tree of life). I think that in a way God was predicting an adjustment that would be made in creation . . . one that he planned all along to redeem the gentiles and adopt them into the household of faith.
Next from the Gospel of Matthew today we read:
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet . . . .
It was no accident that Bethlehem was destined to become the birthplace of the Messiah, because the rest of the story is that this is the place from which Jacob brought his whole family into Egypt to escape the famine foretold by God to Joseph in Pharoah’s dream. The entire lineage of Jacob’s family heritage was buried in Bethlehem including Rachel and Leah his wives and Jacob himself whose bones were brought out of the eventual slavery in Egypt and buried there by Joshua some 200 years later.
I believe that the most important part of the story of the wise men is that somehow, these gentile men were given advance notice that someone great was to be born and the general place of the birth was to their west in the tiny country of Israel. The other part is that they actually went off to seek the object of their desire, carrying gifts no less, indicating that they had great faith and truly expected to find a real king born to whom they could pay homage.
One of the repeating themes throughout the Christmas story is how God communicates with us and how he continues to get his message across. Mary, of course, has the most famous story having been visited by the angel Gabriel announcing the birth of Emmanuel and also of John the Baptist. But others in the Christmas story were also inspired with messages from God. One of the most important was the message Joseph, Mary’s betrothed, received in a dream telling him to take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt because King Herod’s forces were out to destroy the baby Jesus. The wise men, we are told today, also had a dream telling them not to return to King Herod but to leave the country by another way. The wise men were led by a new star, today believed to have been a super nova that appeared in the night sky around 3 AD . . . but no one really knows for sure.
By communicating to us in many different ways and by manipulating the outcome of the design of creation, God has been proven to sometimes predetermine outcomes and to sometimes change things as it may please him or as may be best for us. The Church calls this doctrine ‘predestination’ and it has in the past been a controversial issue in the life of the Church.
From Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians today we read:
‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.’
What do you think is Paul saying here . . . Were we adopted and destined to be believers before the foundation of the world? Isn’t this the definition of predestination? And if so what about free will? Theologians have pondered these questions over the centuries and have found only paradox . . . an unanswerable question . . . a ‘catch 22’ . . . in our own vernacular.
During the age of Elizabeth I, the western orthodox faith endeavored to answer the paradox in Article 17 of the thirty-nine articles of religion that states:
“Predestination to life is the everlasting purpose of God, whereby, before the foundations of the world were laid, He hath constantly decreed by His counsel secret to us, to deliver from curse and damnation those whom He hath chosen in Christ out of mankind, and to bring them by Christ to everlasting salvation as vessels made to honor.”
The Bible is clear that God’s predestinating and electing love, his apparent choice to save us, is the only possible basis for our salvation. In so many places it makes plain that we cannot save ourselves, deal with our own sin, or even choose to follow Christ without his help at every stage along the way. The whole history of salvation, in both the Old and New Testaments, is the story of God’s choice, for his sovereign purposes. He chose Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, David, and all the prophets. On a grander scale He chose the whole people of Israel. In each case there was no goodness or godliness in them which led to his choosing. These were acts of pure and unmerited love. All these Old Testament choices pointed to the coming Christ at Bethlehem. God was choosing these people to be the ancestors and the bearers of the new covenant, his chosen one, his Messiah. In the New Testament Jesus himself is the only one who is called elect. Members of his church are described as being chosen in him. Jesus has from the beginning been the focus of God’s choice. The Important thing to remember here is that apart from Christ we cannot be chosen.
It is the fact that we have been chosen in Christ that explains our faith in Him (faith is, after all, His gift to us) and that gives us grounds for assurance. How can I know I am going to heaven? Because I know that Christ died for me, that I am one of those chosen by God in Christ to receive the benefits for which He died. If my eternal salvation depended on the strength and lasting quality of my choices in life, there would be little hope for me. Because it rests on the foundation and constancy of God’s choice, you and I can be completely secure.
The doctrine of predestination should be of unspeakable comfort to Christians and to those who feel within themselves the working of the Spirit of Christ. We are meant to be assured that He has set His love upon us and will never let us go.
We, as human beings, cannot understand all of God’s ways, but the Bible is absolutely clear both that God chooses us in Christ, and that He commands His Church to preach the gospel to all. It may be a mystery but our task is crystal clear. We are to be about building and sustaining God’s Kingdom here on the earth.
What the readings today are all about is God’s grace. He chooses us though we are far from attractive to him. He loves us when we do not deserve it. He is faithful to us when we are unfaithful. He ensures our salvation by not only calling us in all the varied the circumstances of our lives, but calling us effectively with words of love and a gospel of truth and power that people of faith cannot refuse. He promises never to let us go when we come to Christ. He keeps us secure in Christ for all eternity. And that my friends, is Good News. Amen