SECOND SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
Prayer of the Day: Holy God, our strength and our redeemer, by your Spirit hold us forever, that through your grace we may worship you and faithfully serve you, follow you and joyfully find you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
[The Lord} says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
Thus says the Lord,
the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations,
the slave of rulers,
“Kings shall see and stand up,
princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.” Isaiah 49:6-7.
The doctrine of election-or some might say predestination-has always been a tough theological nut. It was the topic of many heated theological debates during my seminary years. On the one hand, Martin Luther seemed to leave no room for free will when it comes to faith in Jesus Christ in his profound work, The Bondage of the Well. Yet Scripture is filled with calls to repentance and acts of faith that seemingly call for a decision. It seems as though we are free agents capable of making decisions that affect our lives. We select our mates. We choose our career paths. We decide what we will order from the menu. Of course, scientists in the fields of psychiatry often challenge our assumptions about how much of our will is actually “free” and how much is neurologically hardwired or environmentally conditioned. If we are honest, we will probably have to admit that we are not as free and independent as we like to believe. But however much or little we are free to decide on our own, when it comes to being a child of God, God is the one and only one who does the choosing. “You did not choose me,” says Jesus. “I chose you.” John 15:16. Luther was right on that point.
That is enormously comforting. God knows that my choices have too often been selfish, misguided and foolish. Moreover, I have made not a few promises I failed to keep. If my status as God’s child were to depend on my own choice and willful determination, it would forever be in doubt. But because adoption as God’s children rests not on our faith, but God’s faithfulness, it is possible to rest confidently in the “love that will not let me go.” As Paul assures us, God’s call is irrevocable-both to Israel and to the Church. Romans 11:29.
But there is a dark side to this theological principal as well. What about people who do not respond in faith to the good news about Jesus? Have they been destined to disbelief even as believers have been predestined to faith in Jesus? It seems to follow that, if one cannot believe without God’s election, one who cannot believe must not be elected. Can you blame someone for not doing the impossible? Moreover, love “that will not let go” can sound a little bit creepy, especially to those of us who have survived controlling parenting or possessive/abusive relationships. If I am powerless to say “no,” in what sense is grace loving?
Part of the problem, I believe, rests with the assumption that being “chosen” or “elected” equates with privilege. Those called by God are selected from among a condemned humanity on a planet destined to destruction, or so the thinking goes. The elect are the few for whom there are a finite number of seats on the lifeboats of a sinking ship. But our lesson from Isaiah makes clear that God is not interested in saving a few souls from a sinking ship. That would be “too light a thing.” God means to save the ship. John the Evangelist does not tell us God so loved Christians or God so loved the Church that God sent God’s only Son. God so loved the world. John 3:16. The eternal life God promises to believers is not only eternal in duration, but in quality. Faith, hope and love, Saint Paul tells us, endure forever. I Corinthians 13:13. Participation in these three is participation in life that is eternal.
The above cited passage from Sunday’s lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures makes clear that God’s redemptive purpose is for all “the nations” to which Israel is given as a “light.” God’s redemptive acts in and through this non-nation of “slaves” will demonstrate to the nations God’s solidarity with those living at the margins and God’s determination to raise them up. By exalting the people “deeply despised and abhorred by the nations,” God turns the nations’ notion of power, might and glory on its head. When the nations’ finally understand that the power of God is not an outsized version of military, commercial or class might, but noncoercive compassion that wins the day through passionate though patient love, they will be brought to their knees in worship. They will learn that justice, compassion and mercy are the hallmarks of leadership and that God alone is the only true monarch. To be elected by God, then, is to be sent as a “servant” and a “light” to the nations. Thus, election is not from the world, but for the world.
In sum, God’s election of disciples in Christ Jesus through baptism and the faith that follows does not imply that those outside this baptismal covenant have been rejected or that they are destined to be “lost.” If we take seriously what Jesus tells us in the third chapter of John’s gospel, we have to know that God’s salvation is much bigger than the church. To be chosen or elected is to be sent, as was Jesus, into a world that God loves and is determined to save in order that this world might know God’s deep and enduring love for it. John 20:21.
“I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ or come to him,” says Martin Luther in his Small Catechism. So, does free will play any part in coming to faith in Jesus Christ? Were Andrew, Peter, Philip and Nathaniel irresistibly drawn to Jesus? Or did they, at some level, make a conscious choice to follow him? That depends, I suppose, on how you define your terms. No descision is ever entirely free. There are obvious parameters within which our wills must function. We cannot will the earth to stop turning on its axis. Choices we can make are influenced by learned prejudices, mixed motives, fears and hopes of which we might not even be aware. Circumstances sometimes force us to make decisions with which we are not at peace. By contrast, God’s determination to redeem God’s creation stems from God’s very essence, love. As the cross and resurrection of Jesus illustrate, God cannot be deterred from that purpose by any of the evil we throw in God’s direction. Perhaps, then, it is enough to be assured that God works “in, with and under” all the false starts, wrong turns and mistakes we make in our ignorant willfulness to accomplish what God wishes to accomplish in our lives. To that degree, I suppose you could say that we are predestined to be swept up into God’s will in spite of our own. But once it is understood that to be chosen by God is not a mark of favoritism, but a call to particpation in God’s redeemtive work for all creation, the debate over free will versus predestination is rendered more academic than existential.
Here is a poem about calling, election and vocation.
(Father to daughter)
Let no one tell you, girl,
that the mountain is too high,
the evil too deeply entrenched,
the valley too steep
or that it’s too far to the sky.
Let no one say, my child,
that your dreams are too big,
that you are too small,
that what your heart knows is right
can never be and so ignore its call.
Let no man convince you to be practical
or chide you for lacking common sense.
For it just may be that God’s been waiting
endless ages for someone
blind to conventional wisdom,
someone bold enough to be good
rather than merely successful,
someone brave enough to be compassionate
instead of simply strong,
someone who would rather die
for a good cause than live for none at all.
So ignore all the words of caution
and shut out all well meaning advice.
Silience the timid voice of warning
and listen with your whole heart to the call.
 For an exhaustive discussion of this doctrine and its profound influence on American Christianity, see Predestination: The American Career of a Contentious Doctrine, Thuesen, Peter J., (c. 2009 by Oxford University Press).
 “Oh Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go,” by George Matheson and found in the Service Book and Hymnal, (c. 1958 American Evangelical Lutheran Church; American Lutheran Church; Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church; Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; Lutheran Free Church; United Evangelical Lutheran Church; United Lutheran Church in America). Hymn # 402. See full text at Timeless Truths Free Online Library. Sadly, this fine hymn did not make the cut for subsequent Lutheran hymnals.