Faithworks UC Camp Hill 21.08.2022
In 1 John 4 verse 19 it says, “we love because God first loved us.”
It might seem a bit strange to start my sermon on Jeremiah with a quote from 1 John. But I think it is really important for us to consider that God’s action of loving the creation and its people is always, is always, the first move. Anything that we do is a response to God’s love. Therefore, it is this fundamental truth of the love of God, as the first cause of all things, which should shape how we interpret these passages and understand ourselves and our own personal life stories.
Now this is not the first sermon I have preached on these passages this week. In Chapel, on Tuesday, I reflected on this passage with the students at the school where I am a Chaplain. And I am going to pick up on one of the key themes that was identified by the students who form my Chapel team. In calling Jeremiah, God says this:
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born, I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
The question raised by the Chapel team was whether Jeremiah had any choice about God's plan for his life. The students then wondered, how much control do we have over own lives if God has a plan for us? This is actually a very complex question and probably lies as a conundrum in each one of our own lives. It involves the age-old question of free will and determinism.
However, the phrase we love because God first loved us implies that we do have a choice to reciprocate the love that is shown to us. I believe the statement infers that we have freedom to choose to love God and others even if God has a plan for our lives. I will return to this question of free will and determinism a bit later in the sermon.
The choice for Jeremiah is expressed in the formulaic way the call to be a prophet is expressed. God calls Jeremiah, Jeremiah expresses humility and unworthiness to that call, and then God reassures Jeremiah that God will guide him and give him the words to say, and that God will be with him through the work that he's going to do.
God's love for Jeremiah and for the people of Israel, and for the nations that Jeremiah was to prophesy to, precedes Jeremiah’s answer. Jeremiah may not appear to have a choice about God’s plan but there are choices that he does appear to be make.
So, being called by God, or seeing ourselves as part of God's plan, is not an easy thing. It is a complex notion and a complex interplay between how much freedom we have to respond to God's love and God's plan for our lives and how much of it is predetermined.
This takes me back to the question of the students. If God has a plan for my life, do I have any control over what is occurring? Am I actually participating in making my own decisions and can I actually choose to love God?
When I preached on this topic with the students, I suggested that the question of determinism and free will is as old as humanity as itself and is as current as the newest thinking in the frontiers of science.
I am not going to rehearse all of what I said to the students the other day, but I will mention a little bit of it to give you a sense of the scope of this conversation. In terms of Christian thought, we can go back to the debates between Augustine and Pelagius at the 6th century, we can talk about the interface between Erasmus and Martin Luther at the beginning of the 16th century. We could also discuss the debates between Whitfield and Wesley in the 18th Century. The debate between Whitfield and Wesley is particularly pertinent to us as people in the Uniting Church who come from two different traditions of thought which true on Whitfield and Wesley.
Having noted the history of Christian thought around this topic I thought it pertinent for the students to understand that the issue of determinism and free will is not something that is restricted to Christian thought. It is certainly part of philosophy, politics, and economic theory but I think even more so science. In terms of political theory and economics we might want to point at someone like Karl Marx and the Communist Manifesto which suggests a deterministic journey of humanity towards the end of history played out in economic theory. Or we could point at Max Weber and his Protestant Work Ethic as another expression of inevitable economic systems.
In psychology we can begin with Sigmund Freud and discuss how he thought our unconscious desires determine how we're going to act and then we could trace how psychology has developed for last 150 years. We could mention the experiment of Benjamin Libert in 1983 who demonstrated that prior to our conscious mind kicking into action our unconscious mind is already influencing our decision making. With science we might explore the progress from Newtonian physics which suggested a deterministic universe to the current understandings of quantum mechanics which I have very little idea about but once again buys into whether things are random or determined.
The reason these debates remain important is because I would suggest to you that most people who live in western culture travel through life having a false belief that we have complete control over our own lives and our own destinies. Even as Christians we think this way. Kathryn Schultz in her wonderful book “Wrongology” basically says that our default setting is that we think we're omniscient and omnipotent. We think that we are right all the time and that we have power over what is happening to us. This, of course, according to Schultz is incorrect.
The thing I would suggest we are not wrong about is the fundamental idea that I began with. We love because God first loved us. But of the different things for us to believe and think this is one which we constantly forget, ignore, or simply do not believe.
Returning to Jeremiah the task of a prophet was not to speak about the future, to predict things, but was to speak about who we are in relationship to God. God who created us. God who loves us. God who desires us to enter relationship with us. And, so also, God who becomes one of us. As already indicated, in the case of the prophet Jeremiah, sharing a message about God's love for us and God's desire that we love one another and the creation in which we live is not popular. In the TV series “Good Omens”, based on the book by the same name, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, the scene when Jesus is being crucified involves one of the key characters asking what Jesus said that got everyone so upset. The answer is “he told them to be kind to one another.” It seems that we really do struggle with this notion of living one another as human beings.
The other day one of my year nine students approached me at the end of the lesson and asked me the question did I believe in the miracles that Jesus did. My answer to this is like many things with me, a complex one. I might say yes, I do believe that Jesus did miracles, there are too many miracles recorded in the New Testament for me not to believe that Jesus did some. Whether Jesus did all the miracles described or did them in exactly the way they are described, is a completely other question. But, regardless of whether I believe in the miracles or not I do believe that the gospel writers recorded the miracles not so that I would believe in the idea that Jesus did miracles, but I would be able to answer the question who Jesus is.
If there is anything that I think is predestined, it is this, that God loves us and that ultimately in and through the person of Jesus we love God. And so, the restlessness within us around whether we have complete freewill or things are predestined, in my opinion becomes somewhat secondary to our immersion in God's love. In Augustine’s great work The Confessions he says, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they can find rest in you.” The restlessness of our hearts might be reflected in Jeremiah’s self-doubt “I am only a boy” or the question of my students “If God has a plan for my life do I have any choice” or in the great debates of history about free will and determinism.
Ultimately, many of the answers to these ultimate existential questions elude us. They remain mysteries of our existence but what we believe is important. Kathleen Vohs and Jonathan Schooler in the journal Psychological Science say that “Studies have … revealed a connection between belief in free will and experiencing life as meaningful and fulfilling. People who find their life meaningful tend to believe in free will. Conversely, when people’s belief in free will is undermined, they tend to report that their lives are less meaningful.”
The reality of life that we all experience is that our choices are limited but that we still can make choices or at least believe we can. In the context of the choices that we make, believing that we love because God first loved us, invites us into a relationship with God which immerses us in love and thereby encourages to make choices which reflect that we are loved. The good news of Jesus’ existence transcends our inability to love one another as we should and encourages us to move beyond being indignant when we see God’s love being played out for other people and into sharing in the mystery, wonder, and joy at the possibility of God’s love for all people being not only the origin of all things but also the destination of all things.
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