The first book of the Bible tells us that the brand new people God created had choices, just as we do. God is very generous with free will! It's something God gave us because he wanted us to CHOOSE him - to choose his love, and his grace, and the strong and loving relationship he offers us now, just as he did then. God didn't want a bunch of robots. He wanted children, a family who loved him and depended on him and trusted him, of their own free will ... surely, the best and most joyful existence we could imagine.
As you know, we made the wrong choice. We chose independence from God. We chose earthly knowledge over God's wisdom. We chose to try and be in control, instead of having the good sense to trust the one who created us and loved us.
We made a huge mess.
When the time was right, God sent us a Savior. It was no time for intellectual debate or deep theological treatises -- we needed a Savior. And God's promise was very simple. Believe, God said; accept; surrender; trust. And your heart will be at peace.
God's promise is still absolutely true today. In our efforts to stay in control and do things our way, though, we've managed to complicate things quite a bit.
In the sixth chapter of Matthew, Jesus talks about the religious leaders of the day, who liked to advertise their goodness by praying loudly in the synagogue and giving alms publicly with a great fanfare. The Pharisees were the most devout, the most well-respected religious leaders of that time. And, in a world full of sinners like us, they were the ONLY ones Jesus criticized. He called them on their pride, their hypocrisy, their self-righteousness. They were all about appearances, about showing off in front of others; they liked to appear BETTER THAN those around them. Jesus pointed out the Pharisees to his followers as examples of how NOT to live our faith.
It's pretty clear that Jesus is a lot less interested in outward appearances than he is in what's really going on, in our hearts. In Matthew, he tells his followers, "Don't go around trying to impress people with how religious you are. Do good things, things that help folks, but don't expect a round of applause for it. Pray often, but not to show off. Remember that your heart is where MY love lives, and it's out of your heart that you do good for others. Put all your treasure in me -- not in the opinions of other people -- because where your treasure is, "there your heart will be also."
If we choose him, it means that Jesus has forgiven us, cleansed us, and is working in our lives through his Spirit to transform us into his very image. Do we still sin? Oh, yes. We still make the wrong choices, every day, sometimes every hour. We can still act proud, hypocritical, and self-righteous. Just as it was in Genesis, CONTROL is still a huge issue with us. We crave it; it makes us feel secure and powerful and better than those around us. Our society touts control and independence and self-sufficiency as qualities that will make us happy ... but they're a far cry from the relationship of love and trust that God offers us, which is the one thing that CAN make us happy.
God is so patient with us, and continues to love us no matter what. And he tells us again and again: Don't keep your sin to yourself. Repent, share it with me, receive forgiveness, and go on. Jesus says: Remember, I know who you REALLY are - forgiven and free. My love and sacrifice have made that possible. Receive my grace, and know that I will always be there, to strengthen you and help you, until the day that my image becomes your image, completely and eternally.
Yes, we chose -- and sometimes, still choose wrongly. We can't change that by trying to act like Pharisees! For genuine change, we still need a Savior ... Jesus, who offers to pull us out of the very mess we've created. God did give us free will. Let's use it to choose him: Believe. Accept. Surrender. Trust. His grace is the greatest treasure we'll ever know. Today, and every day, let's come to God with a thankful heart, and choose Jesus all over again.
Rev. Susan Bennett is pastor of Stockbridge Presbyterian Church. She and her husband live in Stockbridge with two giant Rottweilers and a 15-pound rescue dog who is the boss of everybody.