I think we’ve all had times in our lives where we had a clear plan for ourselves. Perhaps a plan related to our career, or a plan for our family, or as was the case for me, a plan for my education. I remember when the first college brochure arrived in the mail when I was in high school. It was for a school in Delaware, one that I had no interest in and never looked at beyond reading through that first brochure. But, it was a momentous occasion, it was when the prospect of graduating high school, the prospect of going off to college, the prospect of deciding a career path first felt real!
Of course, that first brochure was just the tip of the iceberg. Soon our mailbox was regularly filled with college solicitations, and I began the work of planning which programs I was interested in, which colleges I wanted to apply to, and what I needed to do to get accepted.
Of course, the labour of laying plans did not end when I was accepted into a school. I had to start making plans for my degree program, figuring out the courses I needed to complete, the different directions I could go within them, and the extracurricular work that would add to my education and experience. Soon I was looking at graduate schools and applying for special internships that would be fun and bolster my application.
In short, my life was filled with plans of my own making, plans backed by course catalogs, academic schedules, and application deadlines. It gave me a sense of confidence, a sense of purpose, a sense of being in control!
So, naturally, I didn’t particularly enjoy it when I watched those plans fall apart. I remember feeling very clearly the feeling of control slipping from my fingers and a sense of fear of the unknown as I began recognizing a call to seminary and ministry. It did not fit in the future I had imagined. This was not a part of my plan!
I suppose that is the nature of plans, though. They get broken.
I feel a certain connection with Jesus in this story, a certain sympathy with his frustration, because it is easy to hear in this story Jesus’ own frustration with having his plans challenged.
We find Jesus in our Gospel reading today in the midst of a string of teachings, healings, and casting out of evil spirits as he moves from town to town, steadily making his way to Jerusalem. Just as he is finishing his latest teaching, Pharisees come to him, warning of Herod’s desire to have him put to death. Jesus’ response is essentially that he doesn’t have time for this nonsense. Telling Herod that he can go shove off, Jesus waves the warning aside—after all he still has more healings to complete, there are still more demons that need casting out, and he is not yet done with his teachings. In short, Herod’s threat does not fit into his plan, at least not yet. The time for that will come soon, Jesus warns, but not yet.
And with that, we can almost imagine Jesus checking his schedule and getting back to work.
That is the difference between me and Jesus. I make plans that seem more like an exercise in humility as I watch, powerless, when they begin to fall apart. Jesus shapes the world around to his plan.
It is easy to hear this story as Jesus keeping on schedule with a plan, swatting away at distractions. Now there is no time for Herod and his drama. Now there are healings to do, tomorrow and the day after brings demons that need casting out and some more teaching. But soon, soon there will be Jerusalem. Soon there will be his crucifixion. You can almost hear Jesus thinking this as he keeps to his timeline.
Except, is that really what’s happening?
I’ll be honest, I have a bit of a problem with the idea that Jesus was simply following God’s plan, that God is the master architect of a plan for our salvation. I have a problem with it because that means that from the moment Jesus first drew breath, he was started down the path of this divine plan that would require his death. Even when I was a child that bothered me, that the God who created all things and through whom anything is possible could only come up with a plan that would require Jesus, or anyone else, to die. If that is God’s plan, then what does that make God?
It would only be later in my life that I would learn the name of this particular theology. It would only be later that I would understand why I rejected this legalistic substitutionary atonement.
But the problem with the idea that God has some master plan for creation, beyond bad theology around the meaning of the crucifixion and resurrection, is that it has profound consequences for how we make sense and meaning in our own lives. After all, if God has some great plan, then what do we make of the tragedies that happen in our lives, to our loved ones, to our own selves? I’ve heard so many well-intentioned platitudes at times of death and loss, especially sudden or tragic deaths, that attempt to provide comfort and make meaning by saying that it must be part of God’s plan. But if God’s plan requires a young mother to die of cancer, if God’s plan hinges on a 27-year-old man to die in his sleep of an overdose, then I have some choice words for God.
But even worse, if that were possible, is what it means for you and I as we go about our daily life. Because if God has a plan, and we have a part in it, what does it mean when we screw up? What happens when we inevitably fall short, drop the ball, or make huge mistakes? Does God’s plan leave us behind? Did we lose our one chance? These are real questions that real people have asked me over the years. Has God just written me off? Am I a lost cause? Am I lost to God?
No, I don’t think that God has a “plan.” I don’t think that Jesus was trying to keep to a schedule as he responded the pharisees that day. I don’t believe that God has some divine spreadsheet with coloured blocks, benchmarks, and timelines for you, for me, or for all of creation. God help me if I’m wrong.
Rather, I believe that God has a purpose. There are many ways we can speak about God’s purpose: the restoration of right relationship between us and God, between us and one another, and between us and creation; the fulfilment of God’s promise first made so many years ago to Abram and Sarai; even the completion of God’s creation that even now is unfolding before us.
I believe that God has a purpose that is unchanging, and that the paths that lead to that purpose are infinite, indeed every path upon which we find ourselves can lead to God’s purpose, because in God all things are possible.
I believe that God has a purpose and that we are never lost to God. No matter what mistakes we have made, no matter the terrible things that we may have done, or the terrible things done to us, no matter how small and insignificant we may feel, no matter how much of a failure we may tell ourselves we are, you are never lost to God.
In every moment, every beat of your heart, God meets you and invites you anew into God’s purpose. So long as you draw breath, it is never too late to answer that call. And even when we breathe our last, even then, we are not lost to God, because in Jesus we learn that even death is no barrier to God’s purpose. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
It is easy to hear this story as Jesus working hard to stay on schedule with a divine plan. If we listen a little closer, though, we can hear in it Jesus’ unshakeable obedience to God’s purpose. Jesus, God incarnate, cannot be shaken from this purpose, no matter how much Herod might rage and bluster. Jesus has come to fulfill the promise made so long ago, and nothing will deter him from that purpose. Even our rejection of him. Even our crucifixion of him.
In that single-mindedness, in that dogged determination, in that divine unfolding is an invitation to all of us. In every moment, we are invited to come and see this thing that God is doing. We are beckoned to be a part of God’s work, to participate in God’s purpose, not because God needs us, but because God wants us.
Jesus calls us, longs for us, to follow along beside him, to walk where he leads, to Jerusalem and all that lies beyond.