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At the Mercy of God

Rev. John M. Edgerton
Oct 26 2014


What is my ultimate fate before God? Am I saved or am I damned? When I die, will I go to heaven or am I bound for hell? This is the very question taken up by today’s scripture passage, which concludes with a sentence that has been more influential on my faith than any single sentence in all of the bible. Am I saved? The bible says this:
“Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.”
Am I saved or am I damned? This passage claims something remarkable: My ultimate fate before God is out of my hands. My salvation is a matter for God alone, and what I do or say or believe is really irrelevant. Whether I pray or I don’t, whether I seek to alleviate the suffering of the world or actively add to it, whether I worship God in devotion or curse God’s name, it does not count one bit. It does not add or subtract a single penny from a heavenly retirement fund that assures I will spend eternity in God’s good graces.
It is not that there is something wrong with the way I live my life. You see God is working in me, which is the problem. If I do what is pleasing to God that is only because God is working in me. God has enabled me to do that good thing. My good deeds are to God’s credit not mine. Even when I desire to do what is pleasing to God, the will to do what is good, that is God’s will not mine. My desire to do good things is a testament to God’s goodness, not mine.
This is to say that my ultimate fate before God is not up to me, it is up to God. It is as if God were a potter making pottery, and I am the clay. Whether the earthen vessel that the potter makes is good or bad, useful or useless, the credit goes to the potter not the clay. Whether what the potter has made is bound for some honorable purpose or really good for nothing: that is up to the potter, it is not up to the clay to decide what shall become of it. I live my life the way I do because this is how God made me, and if I stray from my most basic impulses to live in ways that are exceptional, it is God who is stretching and molding me. I can do nothing to buy my way into heaven with good deeds, or become odious in God’s sight because of fell deeds—I am at the mercy of God, and God will be justified in doing whatever God chooses with me in eternity. God does not owe me anything, nor can I by virtue of my righteousness put God in my debt.
“Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.”
I am at the mercy of God … So what do I know about this God? Who is this God in whose hands my ultimate fate rests? Is this God angry or tyrannical, is this God capricious or arbitrary? Is this the kind of being who would create me as a creature capable of knowing something of Goodness, something of the divine, and then show indifference to my fate, or worse, prove to be hostile or cruel?
What do I know about this God? We read of God that God had a Son. One and only Son. So close to God’s heart was He that God and God’s Son were one being, one essence, united from before there was a world. God’s Son could do anything in a way that I cannot understand what it means to be able to do anything, because my mind is limited to imagining those things which might possibly be and setting the limits of what is possible is part of what it means to be God. And this Son of God, who could do anything, what did he choose to do? The Son chose to do one thing, dwell among us. The Son was born as a human child to be named Jesus, which means “God’s salvation”. And Jesus was not born to be a king or a tyrant or a man of power, but as a poor man, from a poor nation, and he lived his life as a servant of those judged unworthy by society.
Jesus was known to be able to do remarkable, miraculous things, but the circumstances are so odd. The miracles of Jesus were always things like healing those whose diseases left them cast out of society, or feeding the poor and hungry, or delivering the vulnerable from danger. He would do inexplicable things—but only for the benefit of others and not Himself. He would speak with irresistible power—but only the instruction of those who sought truth and not to glorify Himself.
But even so, even though he was humble and a servant of the vulnerable, he was arrested and put in mortal danger for no greater reason than he threatened the pettiness and small-mindedness of those whose comfort relied on the deprivation of others. This would have seemed a prime time to make use of some of those miraculous powers, but Jesus allowed humanity to decide what his fate would be.
Perhaps that was why the Son of God came to dwell among us, as a test. A test of whether we are worthy, a test culminating in the decision of what will we choose to do to God’s Son when he is under human authority. And if it were a test, if the life of Jesus were a test, then humanity proved a filthy failure. It was a cruel decision, unjust and motivated by fear. It showed humanity at its worst. And yet, and yet, even as he was dying a cruel death reserved only for those who were judged to be worthless, Christ Jesus prayed God’s love for humanity down upon the world. Christ made of the cross an opportunity to pour His life out as a libation before God. Poured out like wine on a sacrificial fire, Christ flared up before God like a prayer. At a moment that revealed the worst of human nature, Christ forgave humanity and that prayer became an unbreakable chain tethering God to humankind forever.
That is what God is like. That is how God chooses to value humanity, and that is the very same God in whose hands my ultimate fate rests. Am I saved or am I damned, am I going to heaven or bound for hell. That is not up to me; it was decided by Christ. And God in Christ Jesus chose to value humanity even more than his own life though He is equal to God. Because he is One with God, Christ has decided my fate, ultimately, eternally, unchangeably; my fate is salvation. My destiny is to become One with God just as Christ is one with God. Eternity is my home and every day I live draws me one day closer to my home at the very heart of God.
And it is not only me whom Christ has claimed, there is nothing that differentiates my fate from any other person’s fate. My small mind and smaller faith have understood and claimed a tiny sliver of God’s goodness, that is true, but that faith does not make me worthier than another. I believe because it gives God pleasure that I should believe and God has made me so. With my short life and hard heart I have relieved some small portion of suffering in this world, that is true, but those good deeds do not make me more beloved of God than another. I have done some good because it give God pleasure that I should do so. All of humanity, from the high to the low, from the gracious to the wicked, from those who live a century’s life to those who draw only a breath or two before their eyes dim, all humanity shares one and only one ultimate fate. We are saved and claimed and redeemed for God because of the goodness of Christ Jesus. Because of the grace of God alone we are saved, and we will be One with God, just as Christ is One with God. And at eternity’s dawn, when all humanity is arrayed before God, face to face, understanding with open eyes the fullness of what Christ has done, every knee shall bend, in heaven above and earth below and under the earth, we shall all of us fall to our knees, not in subjugation, but in amazement and joy and devotion and praise.