IKings 3:5-12 Ps 119:121-136 Romans 8:26-34 Matthew 13:31-33, 44-49a
I was talking with a widow who understandably was feeling very sick and very lonely. She had outlived her husband and most of her friends. She asked me point blank if I thought that God really had a plan for everyone or if we are just here knocking about and doing the best we can until we die. I was grateful that she felt comfortable enough to ask such a direct question and it is my belief that we all sooner or later will ask that question either in our hearts or of someone we trust.
I believe that our lesson from Romans answers her question, perhaps not directly but you can piece together the pieces of the puzzle and get a pretty clear picture. But first let me take you back to my last sermon.
I was admonishing us that although our feelings are good and God given, they are not to be used to measure truth. God is good and that is true when you get a raise and it is also true when you lose your job. Right? So we must not base our beliefs on our feelings. What St. Paul tells us about God’s plan for us, it may not be something that feels like the truth for some of us, but we are to stand upon the truth of God’s Word and not upon our feelings. In fact we can use the truth of God’s Word to alter our feelings if we will put them in the right order. If you make God’s truth the engine of your life then your feelings will be the caboose that eventually follows along. For example if you stand upon the truth that if God is for you then it does not matter who is against you, then a quiet confidence will grow within that dispels feelings of self-doubt or self pity.
St. Paul goes on to tell us that in everything, not some things but in everything God works it for good because He has called you and He has a purpose for you. But the problem with this passage, at least for some, is that St. Paul uses all of these Presbyterian type words that scare us Anglicans; words like “foreknew” and “predestined.” These words seem foreign to some and I have been in a Bible study and heard a fellow Anglican say “we don’t believe in predestination.” That is a silly thing to say because it is right here in front of us in black and white.
Of course we believe in God’s foreknowledge and predestination, we just don’t believe in it the way that some have done in the history of the Church. There is the old joke of the Presbyterian minister who trips and falls down a flight of stairs and he gets up and brushes himself off and says, “I’m glad that’s over with.” I once read of a guy who said that he would stand in his closet every morning and ask God what God wanted him to wear that day as if there was a predestined plan about his wardrobe.
Most Anglicans do not think of predestination like that. We don’t think God’s plans for us include precisely what we are to wear unless of course you are David about to fight Goliath. God leaves many things to our own judgment and that is why in our reading from Kings, Solomon was so right to pray for wisdom. We should all do the same and seek wisdom from God so that we make the right choices but that is very different from thinking that I can be out of God’s will because I made the wrong decision about what to wear that day.
St. Paul’s use of God’s predestination has to do with the big picture. The Spirit is praying for us. Jesus is making intercession for us and God is going to glorify us along with His Son. Because conforming us to the image of His Son is His ultimate plan so God causes all things to work together for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.
Note that the text does not say that God causes all things. It says that He causes all things to work for good and that is how predestination comes into the picture. Again, His purpose is to conform me to the image of His Son. So if tomorrow I get a bad diagnosis I don’t say that God gave me a disease but I can say that because He has predestined me to be like His Son that God can use my bad diagnosis and teach me about the sufferings of Christ. The sin and sickness that is in the world was not created by God but God is so loving and powerful that He can fold them into His plans and use them for our good so that sin and sickness do not separate us from His love.
Another faulty understanding of the concepts of foreknowledge and predestination is a view of God’s will as fatalistic. The wrong headed thinking here is that if God has already planned everything out then our efforts are inconsequential and what will be will be. That kind of “quay sera sera” Christianity is wrongheaded because it does not take into consideration the biblical teaching of human responsibility and the very real consequences of our decisions. For example the children of Israel had an opportunity to enter directly into the Promised Land but because they let fear get the best of them they had to wander in the wilderness for 40 years until that generation died out. To remove human responsibility and become fatalistic is more akin to the Eastern religions’ idea of karma or Islam’s ideas of accepting everything as being the will of Allah. The Bible does not paint such a picture of God’s will and our relationship to it.
In Jesus’ parables about the kingdom of God we see nothing passive and fatalistic in them. We see a woman working leaven into a measure of flour so that the flour will be completely leavened. We see a man finding a treasure in a field and selling all that he has in order to buy the field. We see another man finding a pearl of great price and selling all he has to purchase it. We see fishermen bringing in a great haul of fish and sorting them out. These folks are just the opposite of those who would sit back and accept whatever comes about as God’s will. These folks are shrewd and intentional and completely focused on the task before them. They are even risk takers. In two of Jesus’ examples they are even willing to sell everything they have to accomplish gain the kingdom.
We believe that God has predestined that His kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus has taught us to pray for that but then we are not off the hook. Our job has just begun. He has commissioned us to go to the ends of the earth and make it happen by baptizing all people in His Name. So, as the saying goes, “we pray like it all depends on God and we work like it all depends on us.” God’s predestined plans inspire us to service because it assures success. We don’t use them as an excuse to do nothing. I love the knowledge that God’s kingdom is predestined to come because it tells me that I am on the winning team and I like being on the winning team. But knowing that I am on the winning team does not excuse me from practice or from showing up on game day.
As I have talked with people about this topic over the years I have often seen them want to accept that God has a plan for them but they are fearful of walking in that truth. They are fearful that their sinfulness or their wrong choices or their lack of spiritual depth will keep them from experiencing God’s plan and so they would rather not consider it than risk failing it.
On one level that is a valid concern because Jesus also has a parable of the lost sheep, so we know that it is possible to stray from the flock. We don’t want to get cocky. But at the same time we can allay fears of somehow ruining God’s plan for us by embracing two things. First, that God is sovereign over all things and second, we are just not that powerful.
Let’s go back to Solomon to see how this works. He was born to David and Bathsheba. How did that relationship come about? It was born out of lust, adultery and murder. Now we can be absolutely sure that God did not ordain that David be involved in lust, adultery and murder. So up to this point we can say that David has blown it when it comes to fulfilling God’s plan for his life. Nevertheless God was able to work even that mess together for good and as a consequence we have King Solomon. He is said to be the wisest man who ever lived, he was the builder of the Temple and is a writer of Holy Scripture, being credited with the Books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.
You don’t want to press this too hard because it will start to make your hair hurt. But most of us can look back over our lives and see where God, in spite of failure and sinfulness and craziness, has still been able to get us where He wanted us to be. So while God’s sovereignty is really too much to get our minds around in terms of understanding it all, that does not prevent it from being a great comfort to us. What keeps me going is the promise from the Scriptures that He who began a good work in me will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. That is the big picture to which I am predestined and it gives me great comfort to know that my daily and even hourly mess-ups will not force God’s plan off the tracks.
There was a great scene in the Olympics awhile back where a marathon runner was so exhausted that after entering the stadium for a final lap he was barely moving. He didn’t even know where he was and so his father ran out and threw his arms around him and helped him across the finish line. That is what I picture that Jesus does for us. If you are going to finish the race, and God has ordained that you will, it will be because Jesus embraces you and helps you past the finish line. What is your part? Your part is having the intensity of the characters in Jesus’ parables who will risk it all for the kingdom.
I suppose the last question that we need to address, once we confirm that God does indeed have a plan for each of us, has to do with how we come about knowing what that plan is. I have my days when I wish that the LORD would just drop a map out of the sky and let me see exactly where we are going so that I will know that I am headed in the right direction. But then again, in my saner moments, I know that would not be a good idea because if I saw the whole plan at once I may not want to follow. If the Lord had told me 30 years ago that one day I would be a priest in the province of Nigeria but living in Smyrna, Tennessee I probably would have told Him that He had the wrong number. So in the end it is a good thing that the plans of the LORD do not come to us like maps out of the sky. Still how do we discover the plans the Lord has for us?
All throughout my youth, my father would get new orders every 18 months or so and we would load everything up and move. Some of the time I had no idea where we were going or even how we were going to get there. I would pack up my things and get in the car or sometimes it was a plane or once it was a ship. I trusted my folks to know where we were going. My job was to pack up my room and be ready to leave when they told me.
I think it is a similar thing when it comes to discovering the plans of the Lord for each of us. We find His plans for us as we deepen our relationship with Him but rather than a map or a chart, we trust that He knows where we are going and we go along. The Psalmist says, “Your decrees are wonderful; therefore I obey them with all my heart. When your word goes forth it gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.” As we stay true to following and obeying God’s written word we deepen our relationship with Him and it is as we walk together that His light gives light to the path that is before us.
So I think that I was right to tell the widow that God did indeed have a plan for her. I can see how easy it would be for her to feel that somehow God had made a mistake or even forgotten her. But what comfort it would be for her to answer her feelings with the truth that the Good Shepherd has not abandoned her and that His plans for her will continue to unfold. The good news for her and for each of us is that because God has foreknown and predestined us, we will, as we prayed in the Collect of the Day, pass through things temporal in such a way that we will not lose the things eternal. Amen.