Posted by: reformedmusings | October 18, 2009

Providence – God Has The Stick

Exhortation for the Lord’s Day, October 18, 2009.

Sermon text: Dan 4:28-37
OT text: Isa 45:1-7
NT text: Rom 8:26-35

God has the stick. What does that mean in the context of God’s providence? Any pilots in the room? The phrase comes from flying. When flying a multiple pilot aircraft, especially with the pilots sitting in tandem cockpits behind each other, positive transfer of that aircraft’s control from one pilot to the other is very important. As you can imagine, somebody must be controlling the aircraft – flying it – at all times. So, when transferring control, the pilot flying the plane says to the other pilot, “you have the aircraft/stick (control stick).” The other pilot must respond, “Roger, I have the stick/aircraft.” Now that second pilot is in control and everyone has acknowledged that. As an instructor, I didn’t always have the luxury of such a smooth conversation. If I felt like my ability to return home to my loving wife at the end of the flight was in jeopardy, I’d quickly take control of the aircraft with the words, “I have the stick/aircraft.” Woe be to he that does not instantly relinquish the stick upon hearing those words.

So clearly in the context of Creation, God has the stick. He is in control–sovereignly, absolutely and eternally. If you think that God is your copilot, you’re in the wrong seat.

Today I’d like to talk briefly about the general nature of providence, how God providentially intercedes, and the ultimate expression of God’s providence.

When I taught theology in Florida, I’d always start the study series by listing the two primary truths in theology: 1) There is a God; and 2) We’re not Him. God tells us this graphically in Isaiah 55:8, 9:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.

For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Where does this lead relative to providence? God continues in verses 10 and 11:

10 “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,

11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

There can be no uncertainty – God is absolutely in control. Our Confession summarizes the certainty of the Bible’s teachings on God’s providence with great eloquence in Chapter V. However, the first section of Chapter III states the core truths in one sentence:

God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

We could take a year of exhortations to unpack that sentence. But we’ll concentrate on “ordain whatsoever comes to pass” – This statement is not unique to the Reformed faith but forms the very basis of Theism itself – it states the core of what it means to be God. If God doesn’t have the stick, He’s not God. There’s no ½-way or shared version of controlling either airplanes or the universe.

So, how does that look in the earthly sphere? Let’s examine a prominent example from history in Daniel 4:28-37. Someone there forgot who had the stick. Nebuchadnezzar had seen God’s hand in Daniel’s dream interpretations, he’d seen Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego saved from the fiery furnace by one like the son of God, and was even told that the following incident would happen earlier in Chapter 4 when Daniel interpreted yet another dream. Verse 28 is the transition from the dream’s interpretation. Now let’s go to today’s text:

28 All this came upon King Nebuchadnezzar.
29 At the end of twelve months he was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon,

The ESV Study Bible reminds us that “The view from the roof of the royal palace of Babylon included numerous ornate temples, the hanging gardens (one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world), which he had built for his wife, and the outer wall of the city, wide enough for chariots driven by four horses to pass each other on the top.” That’s one incredible view.

30 and the king answered and said, “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?”
31 While the words were still in the king’s mouth, there fell a voice from heaven, “O King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is spoken: The kingdom has departed from you,
32 and you shall be driven from among men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field. And you shall be made to eat grass like an ox, and seven periods of time shall pass over you, until you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will.”
33 Immediately the word was fulfilled against Nebuchadnezzar. He was driven from among men and ate grass like an ox, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven till his hair grew as long as eagles’ feathers, and his nails were like birds’ claws.

This was just as Daniel’s interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream said it would be. Now hear his recognition of God’s providence:

34 At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever,
for his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
and his kingdom endures from generation to generation;
35 all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,
and he does according to his will among the host of heaven
and among the inhabitants of the earth;
and none can stay his hand
or say to him, “What have you done?”
36 At the same time my reason returned to me, and for the glory of my kingdom, my majesty and splendor returned to me. My counselors and my lords sought me, and I was established in my kingdom, and still more greatness was added to me.
37 Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, for all his works are right and his ways are just; and those who walk in pride he is able to humble.

Here God pointedly taught Nebuchadnezzar—and us—a  lesson in humility, one that we would do well to learn from someone else’s example. God tells us in Isaiah 42:8, “I am the Lord; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, ” He alone has the stick. And what lesson does Nebuchadnezzar draw from his experience? That God “does according to his will among the host of  heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth and none can stay his hand”. Goes remarkably well with “ordains whatsoever comes to pass”.

Let’s take a time out to set some limits on our considerations here. Outside of what we’re told in Scripture, such as here in Daniel, we cannot know and should not speculate on the detailed operations of God’s providence. Deuteronomy 29:29 tells us clearly that:

The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.

Indeed, Paul reminds us in Romans 11:33-35:

33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
34 “For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counselor?”
35 “Or who has given a gift to him
that he might be repaid?”

The Spirit thus warns us that it is foolish to speculate upon God’s immediate purposes. Calvin ties these boundaries together beautifully in his Institutes by observing:

It is true, indeed, that in the law and the gospel are comprehended mysteries which far transcend the measure of our sense; but since God, to enable his people to understand those mysteries which he has deigned to reveal in his word, enlightens their minds with a spirit of understanding, they are now no longer a deep, but a path in which they can walk safely—a lamp to guide their feet—a light of life—a school of clear and certain truth. But the admirable method of governing the world is justly called a deep, because, while it lies hid from us, it is to be reverently adored. ..[in Dt 29:29]…We see how he enjoins us not only studiously to meditate on the law, but to look up with reverence to the secret Providence of God.

Thus we can never say with certainty why anything happens. The Jews in Jesus day made that mistake in John 9 by assuming that God’s judgment on the blind man’s or his parents’ sin led to his condition. Jesus set them straight by saying that “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” That certainly wasn’t the answer that they or we expected, but it’s one that we should never forget. We never know for certain if anything is judgment or reward, but we always know that it is providence.

OK, back to our regular program.

Note that initially Nebuchadnezzar wouldn’t have described what happened to him as good. Certainly, neither did Job when he lost his flocks and family, or Joseph sitting in prison, or Jacob serving Laban seven more years after being deceived, or Paul being jailed, beaten, shipwrecked, etc., or a host of others we could name, think that everything that happened to them was pleasant. Yet, they all sooner or later praised God for his wisdom and glory. Incidents that Jesus recounts like the collapse of the tower at Siloam on 18 men in Luke 13 and the blind man he healed in John 9 all point to a broad redemptive plan that God is working out in history – a plan known only to Him. These, of course, mix with miraculous healings and raising Lazarus from the dead. The good, the bad, and the ugly – God ordains it all as Steve read from Isaiah 45. God never sins nor condones sin, yet decrees things in His secret will that violate His preceptive will as revealed in the Scriptures. The complexity is enough to make your head hurt.

Take Cyrus in Isa 45. Here God was incredibly specific about how He would bring Judah out of the Exile. He names the Persian King 150 years before that King was born. Cyrus had no knowledge of the Jewish Scriptures, yet fulfilled them perfectly. Cyrus was not a Jew nor did He ever convert – God uses whomever He chooses to bring about his will. Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to their religious practices and even to rebuild Jerusalem as God promised. As is standard in Biblical prophesy, God not only provides for His chosen people, He tells them specifically how He will do it well in advance. The Scriptures contain hundreds of such examples, culminating in how God would save His elect through His Son. From the animal skins for Adam and Eve, to a ram for Abraham to sacrifice instead of Isaac, to Manna in the desert, to Joshua to lead Israel into the promised land, to the prophets and and all the way through to Jesus, our great Prophet, Priest, and King, the Father repeatedly displays His provision for His people.

We’ve seen God’s gracious provision in our own lives and very clearly here in our own small piece of His kingdom. We pray corporately during every worship service and again on Wednesday night. We’ve seen so many prayer answered. We saw Sophia’s life saved because Mike was home on a morning when normally he would not have been. We’ve seen her recover to the point where she can visit her family in Korea. We’ve seen times when the church’s finances were in trouble, but then an unexpected and large gift shows up in the mail at just the right time. When we needed a pastor a few years ago, God graciously allowed us to dodge a bullet with a troubled candidate and then provided Pastor Brian who has blessed us all immensely. When the Church of the Ascension needed a place to worship, He opened our hearts to partner with them in spreading the Gospel here in Arlington. God displays His gracious provision all around us if we’ll just open our eyes and look for it.

Wrestling for the stick is also futile. Just as such a course of action can cause an aircraft to crash, it can also make a wreck of our lives. The Biblical landscape is littered with the wreckage of those who tried wresting the stick from God. They didn’t have the benefit of that great philosophical exploration called The Twilight Zone. One of the recurring themes in that series was “Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.” When God lets us run our own course, it rarely turns out well.  In fact, He uses it as a condemnation and form of judgment  in Romans 1, letting people do their own thing to their own destruction.

Through all these incidents and more, Scripture tells us that God cares not just about kings and kingdoms, but also about our daily walk and needs. Back in the Old Testament, God performed miracles through Elisha that provided needed income for a poor widow, raised the son of another from the dead, and fed a number of hungry priests. In the New Testament, Jesus healed ordinary peoples’ illnesses and told us that if God cares for the sparrows, then how much more He must care for us, His adopted children, and for Christ’s bride, the Church.

What’s the alternative to God’s superintending providence? Chance? Luck, which is essentially just another word for chance? Chance is simply a mathematical probability of something happening, for instance the outcome of a coin toss. Chance doesn’t make the coin land on either side. It’s not an actor that can bring anything about. It’s…nothing. Saying that anything happens by chance is like saying that I avoided a painful fall simply because 1+1=2. Makes no sense, does it? Yet people say it all the time as if it had some validity. It’s not hard to tell that we don’t teach logic in school anymore.

The late Steven J. Gould, an ardent atheist and prominent evolutionist, once observed that according to evolution, we are a random, cosmic accident with no more significance than a dead twig lying on the lawn. Whatever we may think of his theories, he certainly understood their implication. But for the Christian, nothing happens by “accident”. Everything has a purpose, whether we can discern it or not. God has a firm yet loving grip on the stick. That’s our great and only hope and comfort – with that hope brought to fruition in Jesus Christ.

Which brings us to the glorious point in Romans 8, that wonderful passage of which Steve read a portion. Romans 8 stands as one of the most encouraging portions of Scripture for Christians struggling in a fallen world. Romans 8:28 is one of the most-quoted, but perhaps the well understood, portions of Scripture. Notice what it says in context:

he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.

Note carefully what it doesn’t say: that all things are good. It doesn’t deny the pain and suffering we experience in a fallen world. No, it says that God uses all things to work together for good. And for who? For everyone? No, only for those who are called according to His purpose. Who are those? Paul goes on to tell us:

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

Paul here describes the elect, those whom God chose before the foundation of the world. How does this impact our daily walk, though? On the basis of this great truth, Paul lays out the immense confidence that is ours in Christ:

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

“…nor anything else…” He doesn’t leave anything out. Note that Paul doesn’t promise us a rose garden here on earth, nor does he exclude it. We find a beautifully assuring parallel passage in Philippians 1:6:

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.

What wonderful assurance! Please follow this thread with me: God ordains whatsoever comes to pass. He does His will in heaven and on earth and none can stay His hand. His Word never returns empty to Him. He predestined us to be conformed to the image of His Son. Everyone who He so calls He conforms to the image of Christ and brings to glory.

While there are many facets to God’s providence, I believe that this is one of the most important for Christians to understand. Contrary to what you may hear many times on Sunday TV, God doesn’t promise His elect riches, an easy life, the job of their dreams, a fast BMW, or a MacMansion on a postage stamp of land in Arlington. He promises – better yet, guarantees us – eternal life, worshiping Him in heaven for all eternity.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t pray for our needs. The Spirit tells us in Phil 4:

The Lord is at hand; 6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Paul doesn’t just tell us prayer is a good idea, he commands it in active, present, imperative language in the original Greek. The Lord is at hand, and we are to go the Lord in EVERYTHING! Nothing is excluded, from the smallest to the greatest need. Our infirmities, our homework, our lost keys, our broken faucet, traveling mercies, weather for our picnic, our relationships…take it all to the Lord in prayer. God uses prayer as a means to bring about His will.

But remember that prayer isn’t a magic incantation that summons forth our earthly desires, nor is God our puppet. He’s got the stick, not us. Rather, God uses prayer both to change us and our circumstances – change us to bring us closer to conforming to the image of His Son, Jesus; and our circumstances to bring that change about, as well as a host of other things that we may never connect up. But that’s a topic for another exhortation. Ultimately, all this and everything else serves to glorify God.

But as hard as it is to trust God’s loving providence in troubled times and circumstances, how much harder is it to see when things are going our way. Like Nebuchadnezzar, we all like to believe that WE have built our empires, pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. That’s the American way, isn’t it? But the talents through which we achieve success are a gift of God. Let’s not fall into the trap about which God warned Israel in Dt 8. There He gave them houses they didn’t build, vineyards that they didn’t plant, a whole host of stuff, but warned them not to forget Who provided those gifts to them:

Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ 18 You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day. 19 And if you forget the Lord your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish. 20 Like the nations that the Lord makes to perish before you, shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of the Lord your God.

Like Nebuchadnezzar after them, Israel did forget and exchanged the glory of the living God for false gods made of wood and stone. Are we trading the glory of God for the false gods of money, power, possessions, or appearance? Don’t raise your hand, that was a rhetorical question.

So Romans 8 and 9, Ephesians 1 & 2 , and other passages speak directly to the ultimate and loving expression of God’s providence. Yes, He created and upholds all of creation. In Him we live and move and have our very being. He ordains all that comes to pass. But within that construct, He saves His chosen from His burning wrath and the eternal condemnation that is due for our sin. Sin is, after all, cosmic treason against our Creator.

In God’s loving providence, He sent His Son to live the perfect life that we could never live, to die a perfect sacrifice to pay for our sins for which we could never pay, crediting our sins to Christ’s account on the cross. The Father raised Jesus on the third day in vindication of the Son’s perfect life, then credits Jesus perfect righteousness to our account, which we apprehend by a faith that He gives us as a gift. God did it all, purely out of His loving grace and for His eternal glory. It stands as the ultimate expression of God’s loving and gracious providence.

Scripture lays this before us, to guide us and give us hope in a fallen and corrupt world. As we go through life, bad things will happen to us and around us. That’s the consequence of sin and a fallen world. We must trust in God’s loving providence that it all has a glorious purpose even though we cannot see it. Remember Dt. 29:29 – His Word and his grace are sufficient for us. That’s easy to say but not so easy to live out when we’re suffering or watching a loved one suffer. That’s one reason why He commands us to go to Him in prayer; one reason that he gives us each other in the sweet fellowship of the church; and one reason that He provides His Scriptures to put meat on the bones of hope.

We come together this morning to praise and worship God, in large part because He has the stick. Never forget that if God does not ordain all things that come to pass, neither can He guarantee our salvation. That’s the bottom line to God’s providence – unshakable assurance of eternal life through His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, for all who will trust in Him alone. Amen.

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