You know the poet Billy Collins? He has said that most poets write either about love or death. I’m not sure about that, but Billy Collins has read a lot more poetry than I have, I’m sure, so he’s probably right. A lot of literature, movies, and songs, though, if not expressly poetry, have to do with something else. It’s been my observation, that a lot of playwrights, lyricists and novelists wrestle with whether it is fate or whether it is free will that dictates our lives. Here are some lines I pulled from various literary and musical creations this week —See if you can guess where these cultural snippets come from:
“Fear? What has a man to do with fear? Chance rules our lives, and the future is all unknown. Best live as we may, from day to day.” It’s a toughy. It’s actually from the play Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles. Oedipus learns from an oracle that he will marry his mother and murder his father. Against Oedipus’ best efforts he cannot avoid this horrific outcome. The quote, about chance ruling our lives, is the theme of the play. But by the end, Oedipus must accept as true that our lives have been laid out for us. We cannot erase what has been written by the hand of fate. Ok. Moving on.
How about this quote?
I don't know if Momma was right or if, if it's Lieutenant Dan. I don't know if we each have a destiny, [fate] or if we're all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I, I think maybe it's both. Maybe both is happening at the same time.”
Forest Gump right? He says this toward the end of the movie. He’s wondering if he has been merely an actor in his very full life, or if in fact, Forest helped to write his life’s script. Looking back at his life story, he decides that for him it had not been an either or, but a both and.
Here’s another quote for you. “Men's courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead, But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change.” Want to take a guess? That’s what Scrooge says in A Christmas Carol. He is talking with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Scrooge is hoping, and it turns out to be true for him, that he CAN change the course of his life—He doesn’t have to live his final days as a lonely and bitter miser. He can choose NOT to be a “scrooge” as had been his way.
Finally, I’ve got a song for you. The words to the song go like this: Wise men say only fools rush in, but I can’t help falling in love with you—and then later, “Baby, some things are meant to be.” Want to take a guess who first sang it? The song was first recorded by Elvis Presley. The sentiment is--people are powerless when they are in the throes of love. They cannot NOT love the person to whom they are drawn—again, fate, or destiny rules lovers’ lives.
Ok. Time to move to scripture now. What does scripture have to say about fate versus free will. Actually, you can argue with me about this after the service, but I don’t think the Bible puts any stock at all in fate. In scripture sometimes, a lot of times actually, events seem to have been predetermined but not by fate. If events are predetermined at all, it is by God, right?
My very favorite Psalm is Psalm 139. In this line from Psalm 139, the Psalmist is talking to God, and he says, “Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely”….and later, “In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.” Clearly, the Psalmist believes that before he was born, God plotted out his life. He has a destiny.
Again,in Ecclesiastes we read: “That which is, already has been; that which is to be already is.” In other words, God has paved the way for our future. It’s like we are skipping and hopping and singing our way down the yellow brick road which is our lives.
And then of course, there are the Old Testament prophets. They are privy to the future, a future that again, has been predetermined by God.
And yet free will is evident in the Old Testament, too—Certainly Adam and Eve had a choice, whether or not to eat that apple. You know the story of Jonah and the whale? God gave Jonah the choice, he could warn the people of Nineveh about the wrath to come—or Jonah could live forever in the stomach of a whale. We might say it was a weighted choice—like, would you rather have cabbage or ice cream for dessert—but it was still a choice. Likewise, the Ninevites could choose whether or not to heed Jonah’s warning. If you know that story, you probably know, too, then, that the Ninevites DID listen to Jonah. They were so repentant,in fact, that not only did they dress in sackcloth, they dressed their sheep and goats in sackcloth. Whose heart would not be moved by that! God let the Ninevites live.
So, the Old Testament Biblical writers were not of one mind when it comes to future events. You have the Psalms and you have Genesis; You have Ecclesiastes and you have the story of Jonah.
Now in a minute I want us to consider what the New Testament has to say about free will and God’s predetermined plan for his creation—and that includes us, his creatures. Before I do that, though, I want to mention Predestination. If you are a dyed-in-the-wool Presbyterian, you are familiar with the concept, or doctrine of Predestination.
For those of you who aren’t dyed-in-the-wool Presbyterians--The Presbyterian Church distinguishes itself from other Protestant denominations in two ways: 1) —our specific form of church government is democratic, that is, we do not appoint the people who serve in our governing bodies—we elect them--and 2) we believe –or at least, Presbyterians used to believe, and some continue to believe in, the doctrine of Predestination.
The founder of Presbyterianism is John Calvin. John Calvin embraced, and maybe even coined the word predestination. A lot of people misunderstand what Predestination is. Many think that if you are a predestinarian, (not a real word—but you get my meaning)—if you are a predestinarian, you believe every sneeze you sneeze, every pound you lose, every open parking space you snag, has been predetermined by God. That’s not predestination. That’s magical thinking and maybe also egotistical thinking—as if God really cares where you park your car.
Predestination as it was conceived of by John Calvin, is the concept, doctrine, idea that God has pre-ordained some people for salvation. That doesn’t sound so bad does it? However, Calvin took that one step further than that—he believed in double predestination—that is, he believed that God predestined some people for salvation and others for damnation-- AND—here’s the kicker-- THERE IS NOTHING ANY OF US CAN DO ABOUT IT. Our course has been set. We can’t earn heaven through good works or our most fervent, down-on-the-floor-lying-prostrate, prayers. Neither are we sent to hell for say, committing murder or robbing a bank—God decided whether it’s up or down for us, before we were born. It gets worse though, if that is possible. John Calvin calculated that only about 20% of us are bound for heaven. That means 80% of us are going the other way(finger).
Yuk! Now to be fair to John Calvin, he was not trying to frighten us—for him it was a normal progression in his thinking about God and humanity based on his understanding of scripture. Today, though, most Presbyterians, and maybe all of us who are Presbyterians in this sanctuary, are slightly embarrassed by this doctrine. You won’t be kicked out of the church if you decide predestination does not square with your concept of a loving, just, and forgiving God. I’m still here, and I even made it through seminary!
So finally we are into the New Testament, and our scripture reading for today. In the passage before us from Acts we learn something that IS foundational to our belief as Christians—God has a plan. It’s not myopic—it’s not personal. The plan presented to us in the New Testament concerns all of creation—it extends even to ‘the ends of the earth” says the writer of Acts. One day Christ will come again.
I have to tell you that I have had a difficult time coming to grips with this particular part of Christian theology. What does it mean that Christ will return? How will we recognize him? Will he be dressed as a first century peasant? Will he only speak Aramaic? If that’s the case, how will we be able to communicate? Will he be able to cope with cell phones and cars, bicycles, and traffic lights?
The other thing that has bothered me as I have pondered Christ’s return, and maybe it bothers you, too--is the fact that Christ is taking so long. The Apostle Paul believed that Christ would return in just a few years after his crucifixion. Paul also believed that when Christ returned, all the Christ followers who had died while Christ was away, would be resurrected to new life. Well THAT hasn’t happened! And now there are so many people who have died since Jesus’ resurrection, if they came back, where would we put them? We’re talking major over-population!!!
If the early Christians were wrong on the time table, though, maybe they also were wrong about Christ’s eventual return. Might it be that Sophocles and Forest Gump were right after all?
“Chance rules our lives, and the future is all unknown.” And “We're all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze.”
No. This much WE can say emphatically. NO and NO again! God has a plan for us. We aren’t privy to the details. We DO know, though, from New Testament scripture, that the future entails Christ and a new heaven and a new earth. How that will come to pass and when, what Christ will look like, what language he speaks and all the rest, we do not know. However, it WILL happen. As messed up as the world sometimes seems, and it seems messed up a lot recently, we continue to believe we are moving in that direction even now. Good news certainly.
Now I want to leave you with one more quote. You’ve heard this one before, for sure. It’s from Martin Luther King Jr. and it goes like this, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” —beautiful, right? We who are Christians might change that just a little, to “The arc of moral universe is long but it bends toward Christ’s return.”
Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.
Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.
No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.” Reinhold Niebuhr