A sermon by Pastor Robert Schaefer
First and Spring Creek Lutheran Churches
Seventh Sunday of Easter—June 1, 2003
Text: Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
Friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Our first lesson this morning tells us of a moment of choice in the church. The church was still young; Jesus had only just risen from the grave, and the Holy Spirit had not yet descended on the believers. But despite its youth and inexperience, the church was faced with a major decision. Judas, one of the twelve disciples chosen by Jesus, had turned coat and betrayed his Lord. Judas had died a traitor’s death, and his place among the Twelve was now vacant. Someone was needed to fill Judas’ place.
The community put forward two men who had been with Jesus and the disciples from the very beginning. Joseph Barsabbas, who was called Justus, and Matthias stood out among the hundred or so believers as the most qualified people to bear witness to the resurrection of Jesus. Both of them had impeccable credentials. Both were honorable, faithful, decent men. Both loved their Lord completely. Either one could do the job, and do it well. How could the church choose between them?
As it turns out, the church left the choice to God. They put a stone with each man’s name on it into a basket and prayed that God would choose the right man. Then they shook the basket, and turned over the first stone to fly out. Matthias’ name was on the bottom of it. The stone with Joseph’s name on it remained in the bottom of the basket.
God chose Matthias to be the twelfth apostle. God did not choose Joseph.
It’s always made me a little uncomfortable to know that we have a God who chooses. But scripture is clear that throughout history God has pointed his finger at certain people and chosen them, and that’s a fact. There’s no question that God chooses, but it’s fair to ask, “Why?” That will eventually lead us to the more important question of “Who?” Why and who God chooses are our topic this morning.
I’m not too old to remember the hurt involved when you’re the one not chosen. I’ve always been the round, bookish sort of kid you remember from school. When the kids would gather out on the kickball field at recess, I could usually count on being chosen last. When you’re only chosen because you’re the last one standing there, you might as well not have been chosen at all. Being chosen last or not at all stinks, but we’ve all been there at some point in our lives.
Maybe you had a similar experience at your first school dance, standing on the side with the other girls who had not been asked to dance, shuffling your feet and trying to pretend it didn’t hurt. Maybe you know what it’s like to be the invisible child, while your sister gets all the attention. Maybe you’ve put your heart into a run for the church council, or the city council, or the student council, only to lose.
I’m willing to bet you know how it hurts not to be chosen.
Oddly enough, there’s also a kind of pain that goes along with being the one who is chosen. The chosen person gets set apart from everyone else, and is treated like he’s different. A lot of the time, she might feel like she’s living in a fishbowl, with everyone watching her every move…and her every mistake. In the worst case, as Matthias the new apostle found out, being chosen meant being hated, ridiculed and persecuted. It could even mean death.
So why would God choose, if so much trouble might come from his choice?
For starters, it’s part of God’s nature to choose. Think of a king and a slave. In a way, the biggest difference between them, the thing that makes a king a king, is the ability to choose. A king can decide when to eat and when to sleep. A king can decide where to go, and how long to stay. A king can choose to go to war or to make peace. A slave, on the other hand, has very little freedom to choose anything. His life is already decided for him by others.
God is like a king in that he has complete freedom. In fact, maybe the only way in which God is not free is that he must make decisions. He can’t choose not to choose, so to speak. That’s what happens when you’re God.
Choices need to be made. God didn’t write a script billions of years ago that dictates how things will happen from minute to minute. God’s much more active than that, getting his hands dirty in the everyday management of his creation. And that means making choices. Really, don’t we count on that every time we pray? If everything were set in stone from the very beginning, then what good would it do us to ask God for healing or protection or anything else? If God wasn’t free to choose moment by moment, we might as well not pray at all. But we trust that God will hear our prayers and choose to help us, because he has the freedom to do it.
The biggest reason God chooses is because we need him to. When it comes right down to it, you can’t choose God and neither can I. That may come as a surprise to you if you’ve listened to many sermons on TV or tuned to a Christian radio station. There are an awful lot of preachers out there who will tell you that we need to “choose Jesus” or “decide for Christ” in order to be saved, but they’ve got it wrong. They’re way too optimistic about human nature, I’m afraid.
If we had it in us to decide for Christ, we wouldn’t be stuck in this mess we call sin. If we could choose Jesus, we could just as easily say, “I choose to stop sinning today,” and do it. If we could choose Jesus, we wouldn’t really need him in the first place. You and I know that’s just not true. We need him, desperately. And so God chooses us, choosing to stir up faith in our hearts. Jesus himself said, “No one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”
Thinking about this passage, Martin Luther said: “[With these words] Christ intends to say that faith is God’s gift.…You assume that faith is your doing, your power, your work; and thereby you interfere with God’s work….It is the Father who draws us and gives us the Word, and the Holy Spirit and faith by the Word. It is His gift, not our work or power. St. Paul also tells us that in Eph. 2:8–9: ‘For by grace you have been saved; and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, lest any man should boast.’” Saving faith in Christ is God’s gift to us, not our work or power…or choice. Salvation has always been God’s choice, and God’s alone.
As important as it was when God chose Matthias to be an apostle instead of Joseph, both men were already chosen in a far more powerful way. Jesus Christ, in all the freedom he had as the Son of God, chose to give up his freedom and die for them, and for you, and for me. He didn’t wait for us to get our lives in order, or to clean up our acts, or to make a decision to follow him. It’s true: the apostle Paul drives the point home when he writes, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” And Paul goes so far as to say this is just the “right” time for Jesus to have died for us—while we were still weak and sinful and unable to choose Jesus.
Of all the millions of choices God must make every day, this was the Big One. In this one choice, Jesus Christ opened the door for all sinful people to be let into God’s kingdom in full forgiveness. He chose you before you chose him. He chose you before you knew his name. He chose you before you were even born. That’s how much he loves you.
God’s Big Choice on the cross isn’t like the one on the kickball field, or the dance floor, or any other where there are winners and losers. On the cross, Jesus’ arms were stretched very wide—wide enough to reach out to every sinner who doesn’t have what it takes to choose him. He chose the cross, and he chose us through the cross.
Our mission as Christians isn’t to try and make people “choose Jesus” somehow. Instead, we’re sent out into the world to do the same thing as Matthias, and Joseph, and every other child of God: To tell everyone we meet about the Big Choice that Jesus has already made for us, and to trust God to choose to stir up faith in every corner of the world where we tell of his love. May God grant us many opportunities to share this joyful news—he has made his choice, and it is for us. Amen.