July 12, 2009 - Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
“After 300 meters, turn right, Don Valley Parkway.” I turned right. “Don Valley Parkway, keep left, 2.5 kilometers.” I got in the left lane and continued on. “After 600 meters, exit right, Don Mills Road.” I moved to the right and took the next exit. “At the end of road, turn right, Don Mills Road.” I went to the end of the exit ramp and turned right. Then our brand new GPS unit, which I was trying out in Canada, said, “At the first opportunity, turn around.” I said, “What?”
A GPS device can be helpful, especially in an unfamiliar city, but it’s far from perfect. You think you are following the instructions exactly, that you are right on track for where you’re headed, and suddenly it’s all mixed up. You weren’t going the right way after all and now you have to turn around. That’s the way it can be if we try to get our lives all mapped out well in advance.
Paul prefers to leave the details of our life’s journey to God. He hasn’t got a spiritual Mapquest or GPS to map out the turns ahead. Instead, he has utter confidence that God destines us to arrive safely. In fact, as our text opens with verse 3, there’s a sense in which we are already there, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” Though we may speak of a spiritual journey, there is a deep and extremely important sense in which we’ve already arrived where we are meant to be. We are “in Christ.”
Unfortunately, as evangelicals we sometimes listen more to the flip side of the Bible’s record about our spiritual condition. We like to talk about Christ “in us.” We teach children to ask Jesus into their hearts. We concentrate on making room for the Lord in our lives and in our souls. Once or twice Paul spoke that way, like in Colossians 1:26 when he reminds us of “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” But more than 80 times, throughout his letters, Paul wrote about being “in Christ.” It was a huge concept for him.
So the passage we are looking at might seem at first glance to be about where we’re headed, about going to heaven. But right from the start, we can see that it’s not so much about where we’re going as where we are—in Christ. Our journey, our destiny, is to live out in practical and visible ways the truth of where God has already put us—in Christ.
When we took our GPS to Canada, I tried using it for awhile with the settings it had when I bought it here in Eugene. In other words, it was giving me distances in terms of miles and feet. That felt comfortable because it was familiar. But we had rented a Canadian car, and the speedometer was marked only in kilometers. The road signs along the freeway gave distances to exits in kilometers. The “mile” markers along the highway were actually kilometer markers.
So as I listened to our GPS tell me to be ready for an exit in 2.5 miles, it didn’t fit. I couldn’t count it off on the odometer. I kept trying to do conversions in my head. “Let’s see, 1.6 kilometers per mile, so 2 kilometers is 3.2 miles, and a half would another .8 mile, so that’s 4 kilometers…” By the time I had it worked out, the exit had come and gone.
I had to give into where we were. I had to sit down and spend the time to switch the GPS over to kilometers so that it would mesh with being in Canada. I needed to begin thinking in kilometers and meters because I was in Canada. That’s what Christian life can be like. We may keep trying to live by the measurements and values of the world, of the old life out which God has brought us, but in order to really enjoy the new life we’ve received, we need to think in terms of measurements and values that fit with being in Christ. Being a Christian is largely about acknowledging a new geography. We are no longer where we were. “We’re not in Kansas anymore,” as Dorothy said. We are in Christ.
Being in Christ leads us to verses 4 and 5 where we bump up against Christian doctrine that causes all sorts of confusion and dispute. Paul says that God “chose us in him before the creation of the world,” and that “he predestined us.” Generally, we take this to mean that long, long, long before the possibility of you and me began to glimmer in the eyes of our great grandparents, God destined us to be Christians. It raises questions about free-will, about those who are not chosen, and about the fairness and justice of God. The whole business of “predestination” will either get your blood pumping in readiness for a good argument or else make your eyes glaze over because it’s just too complicated to bother with.
Yet note that once again, even as we read that God chose us, Paul says that we were chosen “in him,” in Christ. If we are chosen, if we are predestined, it’s not so much that God selected us. He chose Christ. He predestined His own Son. And you and I are chosen just because we are in Him. We get chosen not because of our own goodness, but because of His goodness. We are chosen in Christ and through Christ.
That’s why Paul says in verse 5 that God predestined us to an adoption. It’s Jesus who is the true Son of God. You and I become His children only insofar as we are in Jesus. So we need to be adopted. God makes us His children by seeing us in and through His one and only begotten Son. Our salvation is not a matter of who we are, but where we are. And we are in Christ.
So now we can understand that being chosen, being predestined, brings with it a large dose of responsibility. We’ve already seen that to be chosen in Christ requires us to think in new terms, to measure what’s important and what we do and say in ways that fit with being people who live in Christ rather than in the world. But just being chosen implies responsibility in itself. Getting chosen means getting chosen to do something.
In our Old Testament lesson, Amos got chosen by God, which meant he got chosen to do something. He was to go and deliver a prophetic message to the people of Israel. That’s how being chosen works in the Bible. It’s like all the students among us who’ve sent out college applications, hoping to be chosen, selected from among all the other applicants. But being chosen is not the end of it. It’s the beginning. Once a college chooses you, your responsibilities are just beginning. Pay the tuition. Find a place to live. Buy your books. Attend classes. Study till your eyes fall out. Write papers. Take exams. Being chosen means beginning to do what you were chosen to do.
Yet as I suggested at the beginning, we don’t always know exactly what lies ahead of us when we are chosen by God in Christ. For the past week my wife has been saying, “Who would have known?” She’s talking about our youngest daughter traveling half-way across the world. And what she means is, who would have known, when we were holding a tiny baby girl, a squalling, puking, pooping little bundle of joy (that’s my description, not Beth’s), that she would one day be having such an adventure?
The simple Christian answer is that God would have known. Those of us who are still traditional theists believe that God from eternity knew all the future in detail, including everything you or I or anyone would freely do. In some awesomely complex way, He has planned it all and it is working out according to His plan. So verse 11 says that we were, “predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.”
God has shown us our destination, our destiny. As we continue through the text, we get a grand overview of where God is taking us, the purpose for which He’s chosen us. In verse 6 we are destined to freely receive grace and in verse 7 destined to enjoy redemption and forgiveness and all the “richness of God’s grace,” “that he lavished on us,” in verse 8.
Verse 9 says that, “he made known to us the mystery of his will.” That does not mean we get to see the map or that the Holy Spirit speaks to us like the voice of a spiritual GPS attached to the dashboard of our souls. God sees and knows every milepost, every street name, every on-ramp and off-ramp for our journey. Yet we don’t. The map of the future is mostly mystery to us. The turns are unexpected. Who would have known?
My sister called me a week ago and said she had a lump in her back and was going to have a biopsy. She called back Friday to say it was benign, which was good news. But she found out the very same day that her foot, which had been sore for three weeks, was actually broken. Twist and turn, we can’t see very far ahead. We’re constantly surprised. Who would have known?
Amos says the same thing about his own destiny in our Old Testament lesson. He was a shepherd and a seasonal caretaker for fig trees. Then all of a sudden God takes him out of the pasture, out of the orchard, and has him prophesying to Israel. No one knew that Amos would be called away from chasing lost lambs and picking bugs off unripe figs to preach God’s word. He himself would not have guessed. Who would have known?
We find it again in the Gospel lesson. John the Baptist was called by God from the day he was born. He knew he was doing God’s will by preaching a message of repentance. Yet the end of his life was completely unexpected. Who could have predicted that he would get his head cut off because of a dancing girl and her scheming mother? Who would have known?
We don’t know. These days, many of us can’t be sure if we will have a job next year, or if we will be healthy or sick, or if we will still live in the same house or in the same town. We don’t which way the road ahead will turn. What we do know is that verse 9 says that the mystery of God’s will is “his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ.” Whatever happens, whichever direction we are led, God means us to be in Jesus. He means us enjoy the amazing grace He lavished on us in Christ. That’s our destiny.
Our destiny in Christ skips over details like jobs and health and homes and money, even over marriage and family. Those are all good, but God doesn’t reveal to us the smaller turns in the road. He has shown us what His best and greatest desire is—“to bring unity to things in heaven and on earth under Christ,” says verse 10. The point is for us to be in Christ and to join there in peace and harmony with everything else that God has made.
Our destiny is to enter into the Father’s great gathering of all creation in Christ, to live lives in unity with God and with the world He has made. That’s what He is aiming at. That’s what He has destined us for. All our other joys and sorrows, worries and triumphs are just turns and bumps and stops along the way. Our destiny is a perfect, beautiful, harmonious, eternal life in Christ and in God’s kingdom. We were chosen for that, predestined.
Once again, our destiny brings responsibility. Verse 11 repeats the themes, “In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.” There’s the choosing. There’s the destiny. But then verse 12 begins, “in order that…” So here is what we are chosen for. Here is our responsibility, “in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be unto the praise of his glory.”
Paul is talking about himself and other Jewish believers as those who first put their hope in Christ. Then he goes on in verse 13 to say, “And you also were included in Christ…” He means the Gentile believers in Ephesus and anywhere. In other words, he’s talking about you and me. And ultimately, at the end of verse 14, our purpose is the same as it was for the first believers. God included us in Christ, and sealed us with the Holy Spirit, and gave us all His spiritual blessings, for this purpose, “unto the praise of his glory.”
There is our whole destiny, the whole purpose of our existence, the meaning of life, if you like. We are chosen in Christ, predestined from before creation, to praise the glory of God. And that’s an awesome responsibility, an awesome destiny.
To begin with, we need to recalibrate the GPS units by which we guide our lives. Like switching from miles to kilometers when I was in Canada, you and I need to switch our measurement of life from pleasure to praise. Instead of measuring the worth of what we do and say in terms of how much it pleases us, how much pleasure we get out of it, our destiny in Christ calls us to measure how much praise is being offered to God in our words and actions. Not pleasure, but praise.
God’s purpose for us makes what we do here on Sunday morning unbelievably important. As we gather with the purpose of praising God, we are fulfilling our destiny. In theatrical terms, we are rehearsing for the part we are going to play forever. We are learning to live our lives always and in every way “unto the praise of his glory.”
Being chosen in Christ also gives daily and personal worship of God a huge significance. When you or I kneel in prayer or deliberately hum a song of praise or help someone else in the name of Jesus, we’re doing what we were chosen for, we are completing the destiny God has given us. We are living “unto the praise of his glory.”
And so our destiny means that we are not here to live just by ourselves and for ourselves. As we will remember even more next Sunday as we move to the second chapter of Ephesians, we are together in Christ. Our destiny is to be part of God’s great unity of all creation. Even the way we interact with each other, talk with each other, treat each other, is meant to fulfill God’s purpose, to be “unto the praise of his glory.”
This is why Paul said back in verse 4 that God chose us in Christ before the creation of the world “to be holy and blameless in his sight.” He meant for our very lives to praise Him by the holy, good, kind, loving way we live. That’s what it means to be chosen, to have this glorious destiny in Christ.
There’s a story about Queen Victoria of England, the longest reigning and some might say greatest monarch of that country. As a young woman, even as just a girl, when she learned that she was to be queen of her country, her first response was with the words, “I will be good.” She set herself to live a life that fit with the purpose and role she had been given. She accepted the responsibility that came with the destiny.
May you and I accept the responsibility that comes with our destiny. May you and I determine “to be good,” to be good in Christ. May we determine to praise God in the way we do our jobs, praise God in the way we treat our families, praise God in the shows we watch on television, praise God in what we buy and sell, praise God in how we speak to the clerk in the grocery story, praise God in what we give to the poor, praise God in how we get up and how we go to bed, praise God in every minute with which He blesses us, and when our minutes come to an end, praise God for the destiny to which He has brought us—in Christ.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2009 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj