Romans 8:26-28, 38-39
Rev. Stewart Smith, General Presbyter
May 29, 2016
This is indeed an honor and a joy to be with you this morning. I thank Phil and Tasha for the invitation, and as I was anticipating this opportunity to return to a place where I served with you for 7 years of my life, I became very reflective – my first call in ministry and how I came here, and what has happened in my life since then, and I began thinking about how God was at work in all of this – and so this morning I want to reflect with you for a few moments about the doctrine of providence. In theological terms, providence is an attribute of God referring to the universal sovereign reign of God. It has to do with God’s care of and involvement in the world God created. I can safely say that each of us has thought about and wrestled with questions related to God’s providence. To what extent is there a purposeful ordering of God’s creation? To what extent is God involved in or removed from the events of history? Providence comes into play into the discussion of evil in the world. Is God powerless over it? Does God allow it?
How much is God involved in the world on a daily basis? Did God create the world in a manner like winding a clock and letting go – sitting back waiting to see what will happen – what we will do with it? Or – are we like strings on a puppet – where God is somehow directing every move and thought? Or like I thought when I was a child – building with legos and playing with my matchbox cars – moving them around in a play neighborhood I had created? Most of us fall somewhere in between those two extremes. I’ll bet for many of us, maybe most of us – we can point to times where we are convinced God was there – leading us, guiding us through a particular period of our lives. And I would imagine that many of us – if not most of us could also point to times that God seemed absent – or at least very distant – and it was hard to see how God was at work in that time period at all.
In the story of Joseph, the Bible makes it clear that God was at work in the story – even when things weren’t going so well for Joseph. But how close was the involvement? Did God direct Joseph’s brothers to throw him in the pit? Did they have any choice? Did God direct Potiphar’s wife to falsely accuse Joseph of an assault so that he would be thrown in jail – where he ultimately made his way as Pharaoh’s second in command by interpreting his dreams? Did she have any choice in the matter? OR – did God somehow work through their poor choices and somehow give Joseph the strength to overcome a difficult situation to continue God’s creative purposes in the world? I wonder if Joseph ever knew as he struggled working as a slave, as he sat in jail, that something positive would come out of his situation. Even if he had a positive attitude, don’t you think there were moments when he doubted God?
I struggle with an understanding of God’s providence that is easy to comprehend. I need something simple and maybe that is why I so love a line in the movie Forrest Gump. The question is raised in the movie, is there a point to all of this – is there a plan or are we just floating around like leaves in the wind. Forrest says, I don’t know if we each have a destiny, of if we’re all just floating accidental like on a breeze. But, I think – maybe its both.
I find it hard to believe that God directs every event in the world. It doesn’t make sense to me that in terrible circumstances such as the abuse of a child, the concentration camps of World War II, the cancer ward of a children’s hospital or the atrocities being committed by ISIS – that God is causing or willing those things to happen. And yet, I firmly believe that in the midst of these terrible situations, God’s creative, redeeming activity is still at work reconciling and redeeming God’s creation. As Mister Rogers would say, we see it in those who are helping in the midst of those tragic situations.
Phil and Tasha are starting a series next week on the greatest chapter in the Bible – Romans 8. I didn’t know that until after I had selected this text – so maybe this verse is a sneak preview – but it is one of my favorites – that I hold on to – especially when things are not going as I might like. Romans 8:28 says, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. I firmly trust and believe that in all things God is working for good. But that doesn’t mean that God caused the difficult or tragic event to happen. God’s creation is moving toward a time of redemption and fulfillment – and that can give us hope. God did not just wind the clock and remove himself from what he created. As Albert Einstein once said, God doesn’t roll the dice with his creation.
When I reflect on the doctrine of providence I think of the words in the 55th chapter of Isaiah, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth – so are God’s thoughts and ways higher than our ways. WE look at life from a limited earthly perspective and purpose. We want healing now, peace now, happiness now, fulfillment now. But God has a higher perspective and purpose. We cannot comprehend that now – but the Bible affirms that God is active and moving creation toward a higher purpose and goal.
I loved my first theology professor at Austin Seminary. I remember him saying to our class that in this magnificent creation there is a sense of randomness that God created. Storms occur – cancer cells form – arteries to the heart become clogged. None of us is immune to those things. That is a natural part of how we were created. And God gave us the freedom to make choices – and far too often human beings make poor choices that lead to heartache and harm and destruction. But yet, in the midst of all of that, I believe that God is leading creation toward a preordained end – an end with Jesus Christ as king of kings and Lord of all. And I believe that we are called to be an active part of God’s creation – to move toward that kingdom reality and to make that more of a reality on earth. We can either work with God toward that plan or in our sinfulness work against God and God’s plan.
So last week, in thinking about this wonderful opportunity to be with you again, I remembered how I came to Fort Smith. I had spent a wonderful year of my life in Lynchburg, VA – doing a year long internship as an Associate pastor before my final year of seminary. They stayed in touch with me, formed a pulpit nominating committee and wanted me to come back – and Laura and I wanted to go. My father was diagnosed with cancer during my final semester. It was around spring break of that year that a professor told me something my parents hadn’t. He said, your father’s cancer is a death sentence. If you want to have time with him or be close to your mother, you might want to look closer to Arkansas. In April, I learned that First – Fort Smith was searching for an Associate Pastor. And the first weekend in May Laura and I were here for an interview. And in a matter of 8 weeks we had agreed on a call to come here. My father died, two weeks after I began working in July.
I don’t believe that God caused my father to get cancer in order for me to get to fort Smith. That would be a very selfish way of looking at the world if I only looked at things from my perspective. But, in the midst of a very tragic situation for me, I can look back and see how something very good happened. This was a wonderful place for me to begin my ministry – and learn from Layton Mauze – and share life and ministry with this wonderful congregation. This was a wonderful place to raise my small children – and I look back not with sadness that my father’s death worked to bring me here – but I look back with sincere gratitude and profound joy at the experience I was given.
God’s providence doesn’t work like a magic wand or pixie dust. God’s providence doesn’t work like a video game – that if you say the right prayers in the correct way and do the right things and live the right way – then God will reward you with an open door or a monetary prize. God’s providence works best for us – when we – and creation – align ourselves with the purposes and the will of God. But make no mistake about it – God’s providence is at work – even at times when we can’t recognize it.
St. Augustine described it this way: when you first consider your life, it looks like nothing but a bunch of chicken tracks in the mud of a barnyard, going this way and that. But through the eyes of faith, we begin to discern pattern, meaning, direction. Providence. You noticed that in the Old Testament, I jumped ahead to the of Genesis – and the end of the Joseph story. Father Jacob has now died and the brothers worry that Joseph waited to exact his revenge until after Jacob was dead – not wanting to hurt him. So they have another meeting where they come before Joseph anxiously. And Joseph says, Even though you intended it for harm, God intended it for good. In all things, God works for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose. Are you allowing for God to be at work in your life? I think that God’s providence works best in our lives, when we align ourselves with God’s purposes – practicing mercy and forgiveness, demonstrating love and kindness and compassion – working for justice and reconciliation – loving our neighbors as ourselves. When we are serious about that, I believe that our lives will be blessed in ways that bring peace and joy, fulfillment and contentment, as we look forward and anticipate where God is leading us – and leading his creation.
Let us pray,
Lord, enable us to trust in your providence. Enable us to find meaning and purpose in our lives – and to join you – as you lead your created world toward redemption. May your purposes be our purposes – and may we follow where you lead us – as we seek to be faithful followers of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray, Amen.