Sermon 04-27-14: “If the Lord Wills”

May 3, 2014

practically_perfect

“God is in control.” We hear this so often that it’s become a cliché. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. And if it’s true, it ought to make a difference in our lives—especially when it comes to the problem of worry. [Please note: the last five minutes of the sermon video are missing—my iPhone battery died. 😦 ]

Sermon Text: James 4:13-17

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

As a nation we recently marked a terrible anniversary: On April 15, 2013, terrorists detonated a couple of homemade bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, which killed three and injured 260 others. The New York Times profiled some of the survivors about how they’re coping. There was a lot of sadness, anger, and fear—understandably. But there was another emotion present among at least a few of the survivors they interviewed: gratitude. One of those was a bystander near the finish line, a lawyer named Katie Carmona, had this to say:

It was such a terrible tragedy that sometimes I feel guilty because it was a blessing for me. It made my life more rich, more full. I learned how to appreciate living in the moment. And I learned not to worry and stress about things as much. I don’t let work bother me. I don’t let piddling money issues bother me. It was not even a conscious effort on my part. It just changed my attitude.”

Did you catch that? Katie feels guilty because the experience ended up being a blessing to her. But see, if the experience was a blessing, that means that Someone is doing the blessing. And of course that Someone is God.

God is able to bless someone like Katie, even in the midst of the terrible evil and suffering, because God is in control.

Some Christians, especially Calvinists, use this language of God’s being in control a lot, and we Methodists tend to get squeamish for some reason. We worry: If God is in control, why didn’t he stop those two terrorists from setting the bombs off in the first place? Worse, if God is in control, does that mean God somehow caused these men to do this unspeakable evil?

elvisAnd here’s how I’d answer them: First, God is in control, but he’s in control in a way that respects human free will. It’s good that we have free will. There’s an old country song called, “I Love You Because,”which Elvis covered back in the ’50s. And in the song he lists all the reasons he loves his sweetheart. And at the end, he says, “I love you most of all because you’re you.”The song would lose much of its power if the singer said, “I love you most of all because what choice do I have? I’m like a robot who’s been programmed to do this.”No! If love has meaning, it has to be freely chosen. And God wants us to freely choose to love him. He doesn’t want us to be robots who have no choice in the matter.

But if we’re free, that freedom means we also have the terrifying ability to choose not to love God—the freedom to sin. And that means that God allows for human beings to make whatever sinful choices they’ll make—including letting those two guys build and set off those bombs.

To go along with this first point, we also live in a universe in which Satan and demonic forces are also given free will by God—for the same reasons we have free will. Angels are those spiritual beings that chose to obey God. Satan and his demons are those beings who chose to disobey—just like we humans disobey. And they often conspire with us to work evil in the world.

Second, God is in control, but he doesn’t routinely violate the laws of nature in order to exert his control. A twentieth-century English theologian, William Temple, talked about this in relation to the law of gravity. He said that gravity works out really well for us most of the time. We want to know when we wake up in the morning that our feet will touch the ground and we won’t float away. Gravity is good! We want to be able to count on it. Gravity doesn’t work out very well for us, however, when we’re on the wrong side of a fast approaching boulder. We can pray that God would suspend the law of gravity in this one case, so that we won’t get flattened by this boulder. And God has the power to work a miracle and do that, of course, but if God did that frequently, then suddenly we couldn’t count on gravity or any of the other predictable laws of physics that we depend on all the time.

Third, God is in control in such a way that he cooperates with us—works with us—to accomplish his will. That means God wants to give us what we ask for in prayer; he wants to answer our prayers. And if what we want will also help accomplish what God wants for us and for the world, then he’s happy to grant us our petition. But if he doesn’t give us what we ask for, then we need to trust that he has good reasons for doing so. And whatever the result of that is, we can say, “This is God’s will.”

But someone might object: O.K., but I’m sure that there were plenty of people praying for the safety of the runners and bystanders at the Boston Marathon last year. Those two men might have willed to do evil all they wanted, but God could still have thwarted their plans in any number of ways—without overriding their free will. Why didn’t God do that?

And the answer is: we don’t know…But how could we possibly know? We’re not God! Unlike God, we can’t foresee all the consequences of all the choices of all the people who’ve ever lived or will ever live throughout all history—past, present, or future—and know what outcomes would be best for our lives and for our world. But God can and does foresee those consequences, and he makes sure that what happens is for the best—so that his will is ultimately done. But when some evil event occurs in our world, God knows that something potentially far worse would have happened if God hadn’t allowed those events to take place.

“In all things,”the apostle Paul says, “God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purposes.”[1] And that’s how it’s possible that some of the survivors of the bombing could be grateful for something that was otherwise evil. So we see, even in the Boston Marathon bombings, an extreme example of how God can bring good from bad.

I’ve said this before but it bears repeating: If God can take worst sin and evil ever perpetrated—against Jesus on the cross—and the worst suffering in history—what Jesus endured on the cross—and transform it into the greatest good the world has ever known—the defeat of sin, evil, and death, the forgiveness of sin, and the salvation of humanity—well, it goes without saying, I hope, that he can take the lesser sin, evil, and suffering that comes our way and transform it into something good for us and our world—if we’ll only trust him.

Most of us, I hope, won’t face trials or suffering or evil on anything approaching that scale, but I know from experience that the trials we do face are hard enough! When we face them, will we trust that God is in control of whatever situation we’re facing, that God knows what he’s doing, that God won’t ever stop loving us?

These questions get to the heart of today’s scripture.

When I was a kid, we used to go visit my grandma—my mom’s mother—who lived out in the country, in north Forsyth County not far from Gainesville. And often when we driving around in that very rural area—I don’t know where it was now—we would smell this really pungent odor. And, no, my dad wasn’t in the car—so it wasn’t that. That’s not what I’m talking about! My two older sisters would hold their nose and yell, “Ew! Stink plant! Ew! Stink plant!”And I kid you not, I would look outside the window at the grass and the flowers and the trees, and I would be looking on the ground for something called a stink plant because I assumed that stink plants grew on the ground somewhere. Of course, years later I figured out that what my sisters referred to as a “stink plant”was really a paper mill—a factory, or plant, that made paper, and these are notoriously smelly.[2]

But as a child I thought, “What if you lived near a stink plant, and you had to smell this all the time? How could you stand it?”Of course, what I failed to realize was that if you did live near here, you wouldn’t smell the paper mill all the time. Your brain would filter out the smell after a while. You’d stop smelling it entirely. You’d get used to it. It seems almost impossible that you could get used to something like that?

And brothers and sisters, James is telling us in today’s scripture that there’s not so much a big stinky, pervasive smell, but a big, stinky, pervasive sin that so many of us fall victim to all the time—and we’re not even aware of it!

It’s the sin he describes in verses 13 and 14: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.”

“Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit.”What’s wrong with that? There’s nothing wrong with investing, and planning, and making a profit. Jesus tells many parables about people doing just this sort of thing. And it’s good stewardship of the resources God gives us to plan and prepare. What’s wrong with it, James says in verse 15, is the absence of four crucial words: “If the Lord wills…”Now James isn’t saying that you have to literally say the words, “If the Lord wills,”whenever you talk about your plans. But he wants our attitude to be one of complete submission toward our Lord and king—understanding that he’s in control, and he has the authority to overrule us.

tract

Some of you might remember that old gospel tract from Campus Crusade for Christ called “The Four Spiritual Laws.”It had a diagram that represented our life apart from Christ, and our life with Christ. The diagram asks us to imagine a throne at the center of our lives. Apart from Christ, the diagram shows, the self is seated on the throne, calling the shots in our life, trying to be in charge, trying to make everything work out for us.

self_on_throne

And what do we get for sitting on the throne? Just a load of worry. What does Jesus say? “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” In fact, you can only deduct hours from your life, as we all well know! I had a parishioner in my Disciple class in Alpharetta one time whose teenage son was a source of continual stress to her—in trouble at school, in trouble with girls, in trouble with drugs and alcohol. He had good parents; he was from a good home; they were at their wits’end. But she announced in class that for Lent she was giving up worry. Everyone laughed—we knew what she was going through, and giving up worry seems impossible. I would check in with her from time to time. “How’s that giving up worry thing going?”And to our surprise, when Lent was over, she said it went great. When she began to worry, stopped whatever she was doing and said a prayer, “Lord, I’m giving this worry over to you. I’m relinquishing control of my son to you. You’re in charge of what happens to him. Not me.”

zip_ties

I get these email updates from a website called the Art of Manliness—and they often include these cartoon illustrations telling us men what to do in various emergency situations. If, for example, you’re ice-fishing and you fall through the ice. How do you survive? Or if you’re stuck in quicksand. How do you get out. My favorite recent one was three ways to escape if someone captures you and ties your hands together with zip ties. And I promise, I almost want someone to kidnap me so I can see if these suggestions really work!

But I’ll likely never fall through the ice while ice-fishing. I’ll probably never get stuck in quicksand. I’ll probably never be held captive with zip ties. And it just goes to show that the vast majority of things we worry about don’t come to pass. The worst case scenario won’t happen. And all we’ve done is worry needlessly. Or say the worst-case scenario does happen, and we truly have something to worry about, then—because of all that advance worrying—we’ll have just worried twice as much as we needed to! So, if you have to worry, just worry when it actually happens!

No. We don’t worry because we understand that God is in control. In fact, we can all take a lesson from that 9-year-old Atlanta boy, Willie Myrick, who calmly sang the gospel song, “Every Praise,”until the kidnapper finally got fed up and released him. That kid knew who was really in control! No need to worry. Just trust!

So if God is in control, we give up having to worry, which includes worrying about results. So, for example, in a few weeks we’re doing our next GLO project—where we share God’s love in a practical way? You are all invited to hand out water bottles with me at McBrayer Park nearby on a Saturday morning. I was talking to my wife, Lisa, about it—anxiously.“I really hope this makes a difference.”And she said, “What are you talking about? It’s not about results. The only thing you’re responsible for is doing what God wants you to do. You leave the results up to God.”And I’m supposed to be the pastor! But that’s exactly right! As Paul said in 1 Corinthians chapter 3: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”

God gives the growth. God is in control of the results—whether we succeed or fail.

Let’s think about that. One very ugly part of my life that God has been working on recently is this resentment I too often feel toward colleagues or peers who I perceive to be more successful than I am. The truth is, I have had a hard time reveling in other people’s success because I’m too busy thinking, “Why them? Why not me? Why don’t I have what they have?”And I play this spiritually deadly game of comparing myself to others.

But if God is in control, you see…I don’t get to do that any more. If God is in control, that means I am where I am because God wants me to be here. I have the life I have because God wants me to have it. I have the home I have, the job I have, the wife I have, the family I have, the body that I have, the personality that I have, the looks that I have—all because God wants me to have them. God wants me to be this person, Brent White—or at least a better version of this person—because he made me this way, and he put me here, and he gave me what I have! Who I am, and where I am, and what I have is the Lord’s will for me.

The Lord keeps on showing me that he knows exactly what he’s doing. And I’m learning to be grateful. I hope you are, too.

[1] Romans 8:28

[2] This sermon illustration was suggested to me by a Tim Keller sermon on this text called “Worry.”

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