Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Who's Really in Charge?


July 7, 2013

Introduction
My pathway to become the lead pastor of this church was very convoluted.  And I’m grateful for each and every twist and turn.  For the first ten years of my professional career, my full-time job was as a music specialist for kindergarten through middle-school aged children.  Later I would also teach first and fourth grades in the public schools during a season of disillusionment with the church. 

Though teaching is one of my natural gifts, I had never intended to become a school teacher.  In fact, during the first seven years of my teaching career, I never signed a contract because I wanted to be in full-time church ministry.  I’m amazed now that my principal put up with me.  His patience is all the more amazing because for the first two years I could not control a classroom.  Everyone who has taught pre-school through high school knows that classroom control will make or break a teacher.  Many leave the profession because they cannot control their children.  It was a tough journey for me.  It was when my principal assigned lunch duty to me alone with ninety kids that I finally gained the confidence to make them do what I expected.  It was “sink or swim, baby.”  It was a turning point in my teaching career.

Every effective teacher is the unquestioned sovereign in their classroom.  Nothing happens without a consequence unless the teacher wants it to happen.  It is in that kind of environment – where there is unquestioned authority – that children thrive and learning takes place. 

The perfect classroom environment is a very poor reflection of God’s rule and sovereignty over his entire Creation.  But the effect is instructive for us.  When heaven and earth submit to God’s good rule, there is peace and blessing.  It is when God’s authority is refused that everything falls apart.  The sovereignty of God runs through both the Old and New Testaments like a golden thread.  We read this morning what is repeated throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, “The Lord is king!  Let the earth rejoice!”  After his resurrection, Jesus claims the sovereign scepter before giving his final commission, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given unto me…” (Matt. 28:18).  Indeed, the assertion that “Jesus is Lord!” is the first creed of the church.  At the unveiling and conclusion of time, Jesus is called the “King of kings and Lord of lords.”  The sovereignty of God – the idea that he is the unquestioned authority in the whole cosmos - is the re-bar that ties the whole foundation of our faith together. 

The Book of Job stands as a masterpiece in the ancient annals of writings about wisdom and suffering.  Job probably lived around the same time as Abraham.  He loved God and lived a righteous life.  He was blessed with a large family and many material possessions.  You may know the story.  In a great cosmic drama of good vs. evil, God allows Job to be severely tested by Satan.  All of his possessions are destroyed and his children are killed.  His dignity dissolves with oozing boils that cover his skin.  His wife emotionally deserts him, telling Job to “curse God and die.”  But in all of this, he is a man of integrity.  He refuses to curse God and still praises God in the depth of his loss.  Most of the book is a dialogue with his so-called friends who insist that Job must have sinned to have experienced such difficult suffering.  Along the way, Job becomes increasingly embittered and begins to accuse God of treating him unjustly.  When all have had their say, God confronts Job.  Here is just a portion:

Then the Lord answered Job from the whirlwind:

2 “Who is this that questions my wisdom
    with such ignorant words?
3 Brace yourself like a man,
    because I have some questions for you,
    and you must answer them.
4 “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
    Tell me, if you know so much.
5 Who determined its dimensions
    and stretched out the surveying line?
6 What supports its foundations,
    and who laid its cornerstone
7 as the morning stars sang together
    and all the angels shouted for joy?
8 “Who kept the sea inside its boundaries
    as it burst from the womb,
9 and as I clothed it with clouds
    and wrapped it in thick darkness?
10 For I locked it behind barred gates,
    limiting its shores.
11 I said, ‘This far and no farther will you come.
    Here your proud waves must stop!’
12 “Have you ever commanded the morning to appear
    and caused the dawn to rise in the east?
13 Have you made daylight spread to the ends of the earth,
    to bring an end to the night’s wickedness?
14 As the light approaches,
    the earth takes shape like clay pressed beneath a seal;
    it is robed in brilliant colors.
15 The light disturbs the wicked
    and stops the arm that is raised in violence.
16 “Have you explored the springs from which the seas come?
    Have you explored their depths?
17 Do you know where the gates of death are located?
    Have you seen the gates of utter gloom?
18 Do you realize the extent of the earth?
    Tell me about it if you know!
19 “Where does light come from,
    and where does darkness go?
20 Can you take each to its home?
    Do you know how to get there?
21 But of course you know all this!
For you were born before it was all created,
    and you are so very experienced!
22 “Have you visited the storehouses of the snow
    or seen the storehouses of hail?
23 (I have reserved them as weapons for the time of trouble,
    for the day of battle and war.)
24 Where is the path to the source of light?
    Where is the home of the east wind?
25 “Who created a channel for the torrents of rain?
    Who laid out the path for the lightning?
26 Who makes the rain fall on barren land,
    in a desert where no one lives?
27 Who sends rain to satisfy the parched ground
    and make the tender grass spring up?
28 “Does the rain have a father?
    Who gives birth to the dew?
29 Who is the mother of the ice?
    Who gives birth to the frost from the heavens?
30 For the water turns to ice as hard as rock,
    and the surface of the water freezes.
31 “Can you direct the movement of the stars—
    binding the cluster of the Pleiades
    or loosening the cords of Orion?
32 Can you direct the sequence of the seasons
    or guide the Bear with her cubs across the heavens?
33 Do you know the laws of the universe?
    Can you use them to regulate the earth?
34 “Can you shout to the clouds
    and make it rain?
35 Can you make lightning appear
    and cause it to strike as you direct?
36 Who gives intuition to the heart
    and instinct to the mind?
37 Who is wise enough to count all the clouds?
    Who can tilt the water jars of heaven
38 when the parched ground is dry
    and the soil has hardened into clods?
                                                            (Job 38:1-38 NLT)

God’s challenge goes on for two more chapters, in eloquent language describing the beauty, power and complexity of God – the Creator’s – world.  Humbled and overwhelmed, Job replies in our text for this morning…

“I know that you can do all things;
    no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
    Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
    things too wonderful for me to know.
“You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak;
    I will question you,
    and you shall answer me.’
My ears had heard of you
    but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I despise myself
    and repent in dust and ashes.”
                                                (Job 42:2-6)

The Nature of God’s Sovereignty
OK.  Put on your thinking hat.  We’re going to contemplate things that must be true about God.    Remember what we said last week: “what comes to mind when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”  And this will take some effort on your part.  But let us worship God with our minds as well as our heart and our bodies.

To say that God is sovereign is to say that he is the absolute ruler of his entire creation.  To be sovereign, God must be all-powerful and all-knowing.  If there was anything that God could not do, then that thing would be the sovereign ruler of the universe.  Of course, there are things that God won’t do and those are the actions that would make him inconsistent with himself.  God will not and cannot lie.  He is the source of all truth.  God will not and cannot be unjust.  He is the righteous judge.  God will not and cannot act in an unloving way.  His very nature is love.  God cannot condone any sin.  He is perfect in his holiness.  But within the consistency of his Divine Character, there is nothing, absolutely nothing that God cannot do.  If it were otherwise, he would not be sovereign.

God must also be all-knowing.  If there were some small speck of knowledge somewhere in the universe that God did not know – in the past, in the present, or in the future – that bit of knowledge would leverage power against God.  He would not be sovereign.  A.W. Tozer says it so much better than me:

Were there even one datum of knowledge, however small, unknown to God, His rule would break down at that point.  To be Lord over all the creation, He must possess all knowledge.  And were God lacking one infinitesimal modicum of power, that lack would end His reign and undo His kingdom; that one stray atom of power would belong to someone else and God would be a limited ruler and hence not sovereign. (Knowledge of the Holy, p. 108.)

To be sovereign, God must also be totally free, free to do whatever he wills to do in any place at any time to carry out his eternal purpose without any interference.  If that were not so, He would not be the sovereign Lord.  In other words, God cannot be manipulated or forced to do anything outside of his will. 

Of course, none of us possess or can even fully contemplate that kind of freedom. The most capable classroom teacher does not command that kind of absolute freedom and power.  No military ruler, no president, no king could ever make that claim.  Only God is absolutely sovereign. 

God’s Sovereignty and the Problem of Evil
But God’s sovereignty presents real challenges for us as we try and make sense of our world.  Like Job, we wonder how a sovereign good God could allow evil in this world.  If he is the absolute ruler of everything, does that not also mean he must be the author of evil?  The question has existed since the beginning of time.  And the answer will be the same that Job and his friends received.  God, in his eternal decrees, allowed a free moral choice to men and to angels.  That some have chosen evil rather than good does not invalidate God’s rule and reign in everything.  God is still working out his purposes.  In fact, he will even cause the evil moral choices that men and angels make to eventually accomplish his purposes.  The power and blood-lust of ancient nations often brought the discipline necessary to bring the people of God to repentance.  The greed of Caesar Augustus brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem.  The demon-inspired hatred of Jewish religious leaders led Jesus to the crucifixion hill where he would conquer evil once and for all and purchase our salvation.  God is not flummoxed.  God is not frustrated.  God always wins.  God is sovereign.

God’s Sovereignty and Free Will
There is another question regarding this issue that has vexed the church during the last five hundred years. You know it well.  It is the seemingly contradictory biblical concepts of God’s sovereign election of the saved and man’s free will.  Scripture affirms both.  They must both be held in tension with each other.  When we emphasize one over the other, we fall into error.  Like Job, we must surrender our efforts and belief in the sovereignty of human reasoning before the mystery of God’s eternal purpose.  It is not mental laziness.  It is godly wisdom.

Tozer offers this helpful, if limited, illustration.  The sovereign will of God is like an ocean liner passing from New York City to Liverpool, England.   The liner will arrive as scheduled.  But along the way, the passengers have the freedom to rearrange the deck furniture, eat whatever they choose, and set their own schedule.  Though it is only a feeble attempt to explain, both sovereignty and freedom are present in the picture.  In the same way, in God’s world, he retains full sovereignty while giving a free choice to man.

Reign in Me
Like the rule of a classroom teacher, the sovereignty of God is necessary for order and peace in this world.  Someday, when sin has run its course, there will be no more heartache, no more war.  What is ultimately true in the created order is also true in our personal lives.  Christians find peace only through surrender to God’s will.  This is the theme of countless songs.  Bill and Gloria Gaither have written:

            All of my conflicts, all my thoughts, Jesus is Lord of all.
            His love wins the battles I could not have fought, Jesus is Lord of all.
                                                Jesus is Lord of All by Bill and Gloria Gaither
                                                © 1973 by William J. Gaither

Earlier this morning, we sang:

            Over all the earth you reign on high,
            Ev’ry mountain stream, ev’ry sunset sky.
            But my one request, Lord my only aim
            Is that you reign in me again.
            Lord, reign in me, reign in your power,
            Over all my dreams, in my darkest hour;
            You are the Lord of all I am
            So won’t you reign in me again?
                                                Lord, Reign in Me by Brenton Brown
                                                © 1998 Vineyard Songs

It is always true.  The only pathway to peace is repentance and alignment with God’s will. 

Reflections on America…
Just a few days ago, we celebrated the 237th birthday of our nation.  Independence Day is always a wonderful holiday, full of family celebrations and good food.  It’s also a time for us to reflect on the founding of our country and the current state of the nation.  I don’t need to tell you.  All is not well with the good ol’ USA.  If the Scriptures are right in asserting that “righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people” (Proverbs 14:34), then we are on the wrong path. 

The sovereign hand of God has been very evident in the founding and preservation of our nation.  From the beginning of Plymouth Colony in 1620 to the Great Awakenings that stirred and transformed the soul of our nation, we have been given many spiritual blessings.  We need to be aware of and affirm God’s providence in our nation’s history.
But we are not Israel. Americans are not the chosen people of God. 

Our founding documents put the power of governance in our hands.  We are a democratic republic.  In our political system, ultimately, “we, the people” are sovereign.  Of course, that truth flies in the face of what the Bible teaches.  Only God is sovereign. 

Along the way, we have been blessed with some very wise leaders.  Though his admonitions were not specifically Christian – he did not generally invoke the name of Jesus Christ in his public statements – the “father of our country,” George Washington warned us that we must rely on God and that religion and virtue must be promoted among the people or our republic will fail. 

During the Civil War, “In God we trust” was added to our currency.  The phrase, “under God” was added to the pledge to the flag in the 1950’s.  These phrases have been instituted in the spirit of George Washington and our founders and they represent critical wisdom if our nation is to flourish and survive. 

But such notions of reliance and acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty have come increasingly under attack in our courts.  We are told that we are a secular nation.  We cannot impose our faith and religion on others. Instead, it seems we are all forced into becoming practical atheists, except on Sundays, if we choose.  Friends, because of the inherent fallen nature of men, a truly secular democracy – one that will not acknowledge the sovereignty of God - will implode under the weight of its own sin.  As God is increasingly pushed to the sidelines, that is what we are seeing in our nation today.

The psalmist writes:

Why do the nations conspire
    and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth rise up
    and the rulers band together
    against the Lord and against his anointed, saying,
“Let us break their chains
    and throw off their shackles.”
The One enthroned in heaven laughs;
    the Lord scoffs at them.
He rebukes them in his anger
    and terrifies them in his wrath, saying,
“I have installed my king
    on Zion, my holy mountain.”
    you will dash them to pieces like pottery.”

…Therefore, you kings, be wise;
    be warned, you rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear
    and celebrate his rule with trembling.
    Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
                                                Psalm 2:1-6, 10-11

Our national folly does not escape God’s notice.  He has not lost control.  The President is not lord.  Neither is the Congress.  The Supreme Court does not have the final word.  Even “We, the people” are not lord.  Only God is Lord.  Though we loath it, the increasing wickedness of our culture presents an opportunity for us.  It is in the darkness that light truly shines.  We who live under the Lordship of Christ have the opportunity to demonstrate the power of the life-changing Gospel. 

Let us celebrate the many blessings of our land, but pray and work for repentance.  Recognize that it must begin with us.  But do not despair.  God is still on the throne.

Do you remember the words to the great hymn?

This is my Father’s world, I rest me in the thought:
That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the Ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world, the battle is not done,
Jesus who died shall be satisfied and earth and heav’n be one.


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