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Special Sermons - text

Senior Partner or Sovereign God

October 24, 2004

Reference: Eph. 1:3-14

I don't know if you've been following the baseball play-offs. But this has been an exciting season with both pennant races having been decided in Seven games. And hats off to the Boston Redsox who made history by coming back from a 3-0 deficit to beat the New York Yankees. Watching the best of the best play reminds me of a time back in my seminary days, when several of us took a youth group to see the Dodgers play. It turned out to be a real cliff-hanger. The League leading Dodgers were playing the second place Cincinnati Reds in the National League Western Pennant race. The Dodgers came into the ninth inning behind two to one. There was a runner on first base. Then Thomas hit a triple. Now you have the lead run only ninety feet away from home plate. One out. What a dramatic moment! Every baseball fan knows that Thomas, on third base has an assignment - to try to rattle the pitcher. The pitcher also has an assignment - to concentrate on the next batter. He doesn't have to worry that much about the runner on third. He's even going to go into a full wind-up. But Thomas is running down the line screaming and doing everything he's supposed to do. Then it happens, the unimaginable. The pitcher standing on the rubber, motions to third - a balk. What does this mean? It means that the runner gets to advance and the winning run crosses the plate. You rarely see that kind of mistake even in a High School baseball game. Pitchers just don't make that kind of mistake with a runner on third base.

What that says to me, in what I have observed in the world of athletics, the world of art, and the world of science, is this: No matter how advanced you may be, you have to keep going back to the basics. You have to keep going back to the fundamentals. That Cincinnati pitcher somehow made one of the most elementary mistakes of baseball. You can be sure that for a long time that pitcher, every time he put his foot on the rubber and began his wind-up, was remembering balks. He lost a crucial ball game because of one very simple, fundamental mistake. The faith we profess is like that. The worst thing we can do is to assume the fundamentals. When we assume something, we can easily ignore it. The place I want to start is where the Bible starts, "In the beginning...God." We always have to begin there. We probably don't go back to that subject enough. Who is God? What is he really like? Can we really know the living God? What we believe about God, ultimately shapes the basic values by which we live. Therefore, the "God Question" is not some remote question about some things out there in the sky bye and bye. Rather, the "God question" is absolutely basic to how we live, how we relate to one another, what we do with our time and our money, and how we live our thought-life. All these things are ultimately and intimately related to what we believe about God.

There are those who profess not to believe in God - the Atheists. I haven't met too many atheists along the way, so I can't speak with a great deal of authority about atheism. But I had a Seminary professor, Gary Demarest, who spent an hour before a television camera with Madelyn Murray O'Hare. He quickly came to the conclusion that she was an atheist. And she represented a lot of folks who profess to be in that particular camp. She apparently delighted in being with Presbyterian pastors in front of the camera. She was raised a Presbyterian, and so she loved to engage Presbyterian clergy. This professor said that Ms. O'Hare seemed to get angry because he would not scream and holler with her. In one part of the conversation he got her to admit that the Bible should be taught in public education, not religiously or dogmatically, but on the grounds that anyone who did not know a bit about the Bible was not an educated person. After the show was over, Dr. Demarest said he felt compelled to make some kind of witness to her. So he put his arm around her shoulder and said, "Mrs. O'Hare, I want you to know that I really do love you and care for you." She just stiffened and said, "Go to Hell." That's when he said he blew it. He just couldn't resist a comment. And he said to her, "Oh, I didn't think you believed in that."

That encounter between my Seminary Professor and Madelyn Murray O'Hare raises an important question. The atheist has the ultimate problem of finding a basis for love and hope. Once you have ruled out God, where do you find a basis for authentic love? Where do you find an authentic basis for hope in the world? From what I've read and heard about Madelyn O'Hare, she seemed like a person who was very angry and without hope and without love. But that makes sense to me. If I did not believe in God, I don't think I would have any basis for hope. I don't think I would have much basis for love (except maybe a self-centering love). All that I know, feel, and experience about love and hope is inextricably tied to my faith in the Living God.

Then there are the agnostics - those who live on the basis that they just don't know. I suspect that agnosticism is a much more popular position in America than we realize. Ninety three percent of the American population respond to the Gallup polls by saying that they believe in God. I believe that a large proportion of those folks are really agnostics. The answer the question and say, "Yes, I believe in God." But if you press them to scratch a little deeper in their understanding, they come up blank. Their knowledge of God doesn't go much deeper than a conception of God as a higher power, a cosmic force, a prime mover, a creator who wound up the universe like a clock and has left it ticking, or a loving grandfather type who's especially fond of America. When it comes to the question of who God is, what he's really like and what he requires and expects of us, the sad truth is that agnosticism always leads to relativism. This is part of the cultural sickness that we see. Even though it ultimately professes some kind of faith in some kind of God, agnosticism of this sort is ultimately doomed to relativism in terms of the real issues of daily life. That kind of agnosticism is seen in an embarrassment to affirm absolutes of any kind. One can hardly say that this is right, or that is wrong, or something must be, or that it cannot be, without some clear focus of who God is. By anyone's definition, it seems to me, God is ultimately the source of all absolutes and of all standards. I submit to you that much of the cultural morass in which we are bogged down stems from very unclear, agnostic picture of God.

Now the worst thing that happens from this kind of Agnosticism is that we tend to play God ourselves. Or we tend to define God as one who is created in our own image. So God becomes some kind of Senior Partner with whom we negotiate and do business on a regular basis, or perhaps irregular, or worse. Years ago a popular bumper sticker read, "God is my co-pilot." That's marvelous. Put Him in the right hand seat. Not my pilot, but my co-pilot. He's over there to take the controls when I tell him to. He's over there to help me when I need help or when I need a little break. That kind of God is not worthy of our worship. Distilled to its core, it is yet another example of our playing God. Someone was right in saying, "We have met the enemy and it is us." When I put myself in the center of the universe, my troubles begin. And when I get out of the center, I have to put something else there. Whoever I put in that center must be worthy of my trust, or I am in further trouble. And that's the God question.

Now the God of the Bible is, among other things, a God of grace. In the Ephesian passage which we read we heard the word "grace" spoken time and time again in the praise of God. God is the God of grace. The God that Madalyn Murray O'Hare learned about in her Presbyterian upbringing was a God who was a tyrant, a God who seemed to be upset anytime anyone smiled, a God who was hell-bent on keeping people from having joy and fun in life. That God that Mrs. O'Hare rejected, I would reject too. Unfortunately, her "no-god" faith didn't give her much more in life either. But The God of grace is the God who treats me above and beyond the ways that I deserve. As the Psalmist says, "He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor requite according to our iniquities." There is a beautiful passage in this passage in Ephesians ".....by His pleasure and purpose." God enjoys dealing with us in grace. He's not a begrudging father who says, "I'll love you, you unlovable wretch." He enjoys loving us. It is his pleasure to meet us with His grace.

He's also the God who openly makes himself known to us. Paul talks in this passage about the secret or mystery of God's purpose. The mystery is now openly revealed that God is at work through Jesus Christ unifying all things under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. And if God is unifying all things, then he must also be at work confronting those things that would block his purpose.

And God is the God who has chosen us. Let me simply make a comment here. The understanding of God as the sovereign God who chooses us a He wills, does not teach a determinism as has often been maintained. One problem that we as parents have to deal with all the time is that we tend to relate to our children through a pre-determined script that we have written. When they don't follow the script, we fall apart. Hopefully, we confess that this is not a good way to act. It is not fair to deal with a child according to some pre-written script. There is nothing in the Bible in the Doctrine of Election which teaches that God is a bad parent. Rather, the doctrine of Election is always in the context of God as the parent. And God does not deal with us in some pre-determined manner. Rather, the mystery is that He has chosen us.

The doctrine of Election in the Bible was never intended to be a soft bed in which we go to sleep and pull the covers up over our head. Rather, it is a source of strength and comfort in tough times. If we get out of touch with that basic tenet of the faith, we lose something about the majesty and wonder of God. When I contemplate the cost of Christian discipleship, it is a source of incredible strength to know that God has chosen us. When we fail, there is a sense of renewal and strength to try again. It is grounded in the fact that the God who has chosen us is the God of the Bible, is the God who chooses us by His own free will, and that His choice is within the context of His grace. He is the God who has revealed himself to be at work uniting all things and people in Christ. It seems to me that the question is, "How do we become conscious of this God?" It's not "How do we find him?" He's not lost. Nor is it, "How do we discover Him?" He's not hidden or secret; the truth is wide open in Christ. Rather, "How do we grow in our consciousness of the reality and presence of the living God?"

I would like to suggest an exercise for you this week and that is to read through each day this remarkable benediction of Paul in Ephesians, chapter one. You will find it awkward reading at first. It's a hard passage to read, partly because in the original language it is one big sentence. Some scholars (even with great love and respect for the New Testament) have said that this sentence is a mess. So, most translators place a lot of commas, periods, and paragraphs in order to help us read it and untangle it. I've come to feel it is a beautifully powerful mess. It is a remarkable praise of God. I recommend that you sit down and just read it quietly, thoughtfully, meditatively, daily. Try to let its beautiful imagery and picture of God in Jesus Christ really get beyond your head and into your heart.

I believe in God, the God of grace who has revealed the secrets openly and manifestly in Jesus, the God who chooses us. He loves us and cares for us. He is a caring God of love, of justice, of righteousness. He is the creator of all things. He is eternal, infinite, omnipresent, and all knowing. To grow in one's consciousness of God - the God of the Bible - is to live within the stream of His love and of His grace.

Pray with me: Lord God, free us from that preoccupation to try to define you, or prove you, or understand you. Give us a hunger just to know you, to experience you, to know your love. Help us, O God, to be freed from that proclivity to want to use you and control you. May we somehow find that new freedom in Christ, to be used by you and controlled by you. This is our prayer. In Jesus' name. AMEN.

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