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July 7, 2013
Exodus 318-20; 4:21; Acts 16:13-14; John 14:15-20
07-07-2013 Sermon The topic of today’s sermon is listed on the calendar as “Does God Sometimes Harden People’s Hearts?” And that’s an intriguing question. But let me admit up front that we’ve brought you here under false pretenses because I’m not even going to try to answer that question.
In truth, I won’t be answering any question. Thorny Theological Problems are called that for good reason, and you’ve certainly suggested some of the thorniest for these summer sermons! The topic for this sermon was submitted as “When God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, does that remove Pharaoh’s free will?” So, in light of that intriguing question, we’ll consider the connection between God’s presence and power in our lives, and our free will. As I said, there won’t be any answers here, but I do hope to complicate the question significantly.
The book of Exodus includes the story of a mighty battle between Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt, worshiped by the Egyptians as their deity, and Yahweh, the God of the Hebrew people. The Hebrews are slaves in Egypt, overworked, mistreated, scorned. Yahweh hears the cries of these suffering people, and commissions Moses to effect their release from captivity and lead their journey to freedom.
In that endeavor, Moses comes repeatedly to Pharaoh to request that the Hebrew people be allowed to travel away from the city to worship their God. Pharaoh resists these requests. The Egyptian economy is dependent on the labor of the Hebrew slaves, and Pharaoh suspects Moses of intending a long-term escape rather than a short-term religious retreat. For each of Pharaoh’s refusals, God sends a plague upon Egypt – water turned to blood, gnats, boils, darkness and more – all decidedly unpleasant to experience. In the midst of each of these horrors, Pharaoh says, “Okay, go ahead on your little trip, just make this stop.” The plague is lifted. Pharaoh, with newly hardened heart, says “Not so fast.”
Next round: request, resistance, plague, capitulation, relief, hard-hearted reversal.
This happens nine times.
And there is no doubt that Yahweh hardens Pharaoh’s heart – the text says so explicitly. Is Pharaoh, the deity of the Egyptian people, no more than Yahweh’s puppet – constrained to follow Yahweh’s directives without any regard for his own desires and inclinations? Or does Yahweh use Pharaoh’s own desires and inclinations to fulfill a divine, though complicated, plan for the Hebrew people’s release?
Who rules Pharaoh’s heart? Pharaoh or Yahweh?
There is a corollary to that question, which we find in the passage Krystal read from the book of Acts, where we hear that – the Lord opened [Lydia’s] heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. How about when God softens and opens hearts? Does that also remove our free will? Is Lydia no more than God’s puppet, constrained to respond to Paul’s teachings by a divine will which controls her own? Or is Lydia her own woman, loved and guided by God, but making her own decisions about her faith and her life?
Who rules Lydia’s heart? Lydia or the Lord?
And in either case – hardened hearts or opened hearts – we have to figure out what to do with God’s omniscience – the belief that God knows all things and has done so from eternity. Does God cause our actions and attitudes, or does God simply know already what actions and attitudes we will choose? Augustine contends that references to God hardening Pharaoh’s heart refer not to God’s activity but to God’s foreknowledge that Pharaoh is a man determined to be hard of heart. Does such knowledge equal control?
If we believe that God experiences the passage of time, even though God is not constrained by time, then foreknowledge must equal control; God knows today what will happen tomorrow, and since God’s knowledge cannot be false, tomorrow – and tomorrow and tomorrow – are set in stone. God knows on Tuesday what I will have for lunch on Thursday and I am thereby compelled to eat that foreknown tuna sandwich.
Ah, but following that train of thought leads us to an inescapable answer – not perhaps a welcome one, but an answer nonetheless – we must conclude that humanity has no free will. Puppets all are we. But I’ve promised there will be no answers, so let’s factor in Thomas Aquinas’ statement that all events are eternally present to God, not as foreknowledge of future happenings, but as current awareness. John Calvin echoes Thomas in his statement, “When we attribute foreknowledge to God, we mean that all things have ever been and perpetually remain before [God’s] eyes, so that to God’s knowledge nothing is future or past, but all things are present; and present in such manner that [God] does not merely conceive of them from ideas formed in his mind, as things remembered by us appear to our minds, but really [God] holds and sees them as if actually placed before him.”
With this conception of omniscience – God is eternally present in every moment but does not move inexorably from knowing on Tuesday to compelling on Thursday – we’re back to the possibility of human free will. We are not puppets, we are all deciders. God knows what we choose precisely in the moment we make each choice.
But, really there are not answers because the question – do we have free will or don’t we — is ultimately irrelevant.
In the verses we read from John’s Gospel, Jesus says to his disciples, On that day, you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. (John 14: 20).
The very idea of free will – of autonomy, or making individual decisions solely on our own volition – becomes nonsensical, impossible to compute, in the context of the mutuality, the deep, intrinsic connectedness Jesus describes.
Jesus speaks of “that day” – when the Kingdom of God is fully present and realized – a day when we humans – made in the image and likeness of God — will experience the sort of relational indwelling which the Trinity has always known. You in me and I in you. There is no room in such a relationship for even the desire for free will – for thinking I should or could act or think or be a discrete entity uncontrolled by God or neighbor. It’s rather like my English major self seeking freedom from my daughter/sister/mother self which yearns to be left alone by my baby boomer self. Just as I cannot – and would not wish – to separate myself into bits and pieces of a person all operating in lonely freedom, so we cannot – and would not wish – to distinguish ourselves from the God who calls us into a relationship of mutual indwelling. For it is in that relationship we find both our deepest connection and our greatest freedom.
Free will then has little – nothing – to do with being uninfluenced. Free will has all – everything – to do with our ability to say “yes” to God. We are free to accept God’s invitation to participate in the work of God’s Kingdom. We are free to live fully into mutuality; free to celebrate the boundaries which Christian discipleship places upon us.
In The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer writes:
For sometimes we serve as God’s instruments,
And the means to perform God’s works.
Instruments, but not puppets. Faithful servants free to be obedient as God calls and equips us to participate in God’s plan for the world.
Yes, God is present and powerful in our lives. And yes, that makes a difference in who we are and how we live. So, finally, not an answer, but a prayer: May we be and remain faithful instruments of God’s work, obedient and free, giving thanks each day that Christ is in us and we in him.