Our Destiny in Jesus
Scriptures: Ephesians 1:3-14; Genesis 50:15-21
Years ago in a Presbyterian pastors’ magazine there was a news story sent in by a Presbyterian minister from North Carolina who saw it in his local newspaper. It said,
A 70-year-old Fayetteville, NC, woman was tied up and forced to go to church Sunday, according to a Cumberland County sheriff’s report. Georgiana McRay told deputies that someone she knows removed her from her home and ‘proceeded to take her to church against her will.’ Once there, Ms. McRay contacted a relative who took her home again. The report says Ms. McRay has swollen wrists and legs. A detective is investigating.
It reminds me of the old story of a Boy Scout who came to his troop meeting battered and bruised. The scoutmaster said, “What happened to you?” The boy said, “I was helping an old lady across the street.” “So how did you get hurt?” the scoutmaster asked. The boy said, “She didn’t want to go.”
I think that is how some people see predestination, like God dragging us to church or pushing us into situations where we don’t want to go. But predestination is an important part of Paul’s message to the Ephesians. He talks about it several times in the first chapter:
- Verse 4: “God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world.”
- Verse 5: “He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will.”
- Verse 11: “In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according his counsel and will.”
These verses raise difficult questions. What about human freewill? If God decides everything ahead of time, what choice do we have? It also raises questions of justice. How can God punish people for doing wrong or reward them for doing right if our actions were fated long ago? And what about evil and tragedy? If everything happens according to God’s will, what do we do say to the people of the Bahamas, or to the family whose child dies of cancer?
The idea of predestination is disturbing when it is misunderstood. The key is to notice that when the Bible talks about predestination, it talks about our destiny in Christ:
- Verse 4: “God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world.”
- Verse 5: “He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ…”
- Verse 11: “In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance…”
Particularly important are verses 9-10: “God has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”
These verses do not say that God caused everything that happened to you. Nor do they say God forced you to do anything against your will. What they say is that God has a destiny for our world in Jesus, and God has called you to be part of it. God does not determine everything you do or everything that happens to you. But God is determined to bring God’s righteousness and peace to this world, one way or another, and God intends to work through you or in spite of you to bring that about.
We see this at work in the Old Testament story of Joseph. You may remember the story. Joseph’s brothers can’t stand him, in no small part because of Joseph’s arrogance. So they sell him as a slave to a merchant headed for Egypt, which is not how God wants us to deal with an arrogant brother, but that’s what they do. In Egypt, Joseph becomes the slave of an Egyptian official, but is falsely accused of a crime and sent to prison. While in prison he comes to the attention Pharaoh, king of Egypt, as someone who can interpret dreams. So Pharaoh tells Joseph his dream, which Joseph interprets as a warning about a coming famine. Pharaoh then puts Joseph in charge of storing grain against the coming famine, so that when the famine hits everyone must come to Egypt to get food, including Joseph’s brothers. It is a poignant moment in the story when these brothers who sold Joseph into slavery must now survive through Joseph’s benevolence. But Joseph says to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to harm me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people as he is doing today.”
Notice how God’s will and human freedom interact in this story. Did God intend Joseph to alienate his brothers? No, Joseph did that on his own. Did God cause Joseph to be sold into slavery? No, his brothers did that. Did God predestine Joseph to end up in prison? No, it happened because of a false accusation. And yet—and here is the amazing part of the story—God works through all of these events to accomplish God’s purpose in Joseph, which is to save both the Israelites and the Egyptians from a famine.
Last week I watched a movie on DVD called Simon Birch, based loosely on one of my favorite novels: A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving. The very first words of the movie are identical to the first words of the book. The narrator, Simon’s friend Joe, says, “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice, not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God.”
Like the character Owen Meany in the novel, Simon Birch is small. At the age of 12 he is the same age as his friend Joe but only comes up to Joe’s waist. Nevertheless Simon believes that he is God’s instrument. When Joe is skeptical, Simon tells him, “God has a plan for everyone. Your problem is that you have no faith.”
But then a terrible tragedy occurs. Simon Birch plays on Joe’s baseball team. He is so short, he normally walks. But one time he swings and hits a long foul ball that strikes Joe’s mother in the head when she isn’t looking and kills her. Simon, who loved Joe’s mother almost as much as Joe did, is devastated. He goes Joe and says, “I’m sorry.” Joe nods and says, “It was an accident.” But that is not an explanation Simon can accept. He says to Joe, “There are no accidents. God has a plan for all of us.” And suddenly Joe’s pent up grief explodes. He yells, “There is no plan, Simon. Don’t you understand that by now? There is no God. It’s like believing in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. My mom is dead because she got hit by a baseball. You are small because you were born a sick baby. That’s it. Just stop trying to make sense of it all. You can’t.” And he stomps off.
Later, Simon goes to talk to his pastor, Rev. Russell, and says to the pastor, “I want to know that there is a reason for things. I used to be certain, but now I’m not so sure. I want you to tell me that God has a plan for me, a plan for all of us.”
Do you see now what is at stake in this scripture? Paul is not saying here that God has predestined everything that happens in your life. Otherwise, how would we explain all the horrible tragedies in the world, like when a mother is killed by a foul ball or children by a hurricane? Paul is not saying that God intended everything that happens. But he is answering Simon’s question. The point of this scripture passage is God has a purpose for you and for the whole world. That purpose is found in Christ. It is not found in your race. It is not found in the circumstances of your birth. It is not found in the myriad of things that can happen to you during your life. It is found in your relationship to Christ. He is the key to God’s predestined plan for you and for whole the creation. He is the key to whatever meaning, purpose, or hope your life will ever have.
By the way, the movie Simon Birch ends differently than the novel A Prayer for Owen Meany, which is probably why they changed his name for the movie. I won’t tell you what happens to Simon Birch. You’ll have to watch the movie for yourself. Actually, none of us know how the movie of our life will end. But I will tell you this. From the movie we already know that the purpose for Simon Birch’s life was fulfilled. Remember how the movie starts out. Joe says that Simon Birch is the reason he believes in God.
God’s plan for Simon Birch and for all of us is to unite us together as a family in Christ. That is our destiny. The question is whether you will be one of the obstacles God must overcome to accomplish that purpose, or whether you will be one of the instruments God uses to bring it about.