Friday, November 13, 2009

Sermon Series--Sermon #4

This is number 4 in the series. I actually originally preached a version of this one in the spring at Covenant CRC in Appleton, and then re-worked it for the series this summer.

Big Words of the Faith:

Psalm 104

I. Introduction—Miracles & Providence

This morning we are finishing up a series on the “big words of the faith.” If you were here, you’ll remember that we started with “predestination,” then covered the “covenant,” and the “justification.” This week, our big word of the faith is “providence.”

In a few moments we are going to read not only from our scripture text, which is Psalm 104, but also from the Heidelberg Catechism. While I introduce the topic, you might want to turn to Psalm 104 in your Bibles. And I would ask that you turn also in the back of your Psalter Hymnals to page 871. That’s Lord’s Day 10 of the Catechism. In a few minutes we are going to read the questions and answers there together.

I’ve been thinking a lot about miracles lately. What are miracles? What are they exactly, and do they still exist today? Or are they something that only existed during certain times in history?

Some of that thinking about miracles stems from things that have been going on in my own life in the last year or so. Most of you know about my parents’ car accident almost a year-and-a-half ago. At the time, a lot of people said it was a miracle that they survived. And while healing has not been complete, others rightfully talk about their recovery as being miraculous.

Then, a few months ago, the Wednesday night study group here at church took a look at a video by Lee Strobel. Some of you may have heard of Lee Strobel—he wrote the book “A Case for Christ.”

In that video, Strobel hosted a debate between an atheist and a Christian theologian about the existence of God. The theologian cited the resurrection as proof of the truth of Christianity. He pointed to historical sources other than the Bible—as well as the Bible itself—as evidence that the resurrection actually occurred.

The atheist couldn’t accept the truth of the resurrection, since doing so would require him to believe in miracles. He defined miracles as events that violate natural laws. In his view, natural laws just simply cannot be broken. When people think of miracles, according to this atheist, the things they are thinking of can always be explained by some kind of natural law. According to him, people only call things miracles because they’re ignorant of how the natural world actually works.

After watching the video, our discussion turned immediately to the atheist’s definition of miracles. One person took the view that the atheist was at least correct in his definition of miracles. She said miracles are events that can’t be explained by natural law. But, she said, miracles are therefore proof that God exists. After all, only a being greater than the entire universe could violate the laws of the universe. This being, she said, is God. And since he created the universe and he created the laws that govern it, any evidence of something beyond the laws of nature is evidence of this Creator-God.

However, she said that a lot of things that we call miracles aren’t really miracles. My parents’ surviving their car accident would not really be a miracle, since it can be explained without resorting to the supernatural. Or the recovery of a cancer patient from a seemingly incurable condition would not be miraculous according to her definition, since it can be explained using our knowledge of natural laws.

In fact, she argued that miracles no longer exist—they don’t happen anymore. She said they ended at the end of the apostolic age. This view, while not universal, is actually quite a common one among theologians, and it is probably a majority view among Reformed theologians.

Now, I’m the kind of person who enjoys a good debate. So, even though I hadn’t fully formed an opinion on the issue, I decided I would take the opposite side. And I argued first of all that some of the events that are described in the Bible, and called miracles in the Bible, might possibly have natural explanations. It could be that the ancient observers just didn’t understand the science behind what was happening. Some of the events that are described as miracles in the Bible probably didn’t break any kind of natural laws.

I also argued that there are plenty of stories that people tell in this day and age of events that really are unexplainable by natural laws. I retold a story that I had heard from my campus pastor when I was at Dordt College.

He told of missionaries whose jeep had broken down in a dangerous area where bandits often preyed on people. These missionaries didn’t know much about vehicle repair, so they finally just gave up, laid hands on the jeep, and prayed for healing for the jeep. Lo and behold, it started up, and they were able to get where they needed to go. They drove the rest of the way home and took the jeep in to a mechanic. The mechanic, after he heard the story, just kind of shook his head and said it has to be a miracle—there is no way you could have driven this vehicle the way that it is.

So, we had a good debate about this and we ended up agreeing that it was an interesting debate but probably not one around which our faith revolves. But after this mini-debate, my interest was piqued—I wanted to know more. And so I spent time reading more about miracles in the Bible and studying what some theologians have said about miracles.

As I continued studying miracles, though, I became more and more aware of something else—God’s providence—the almighty and ever-present power by which he upholds and rules everything. No matter how you define a miracle, no matter whether you say something is a miracle or just a surprising turn of events, there can’t be any doubt that God is involved. An event may or may not be a miracle, but it is evidence of God’s providence.

And so this morning, our focus is on providence. The definition of providence is on your outline: Providence is the almighty and ever-present power by which God upholds and rules everything. God upholds and rules everything.

Turn with me to our text, Psalm 104. Psalm 104 is a hymn that focuses on God’s great act of creating the entire universe. It actually reflects the teaching of Genesis 1. It even seems to parallel it in many ways, as we’ll see. However, it takes that teaching, and then it applies it in a way that reflects on God’s providence, the way that God upholds and rules his creation.

So hear the word of the Lord from Psalm 104:

Praise the LORD, O my soul.
O LORD my God, you are very great;
you are clothed with splendor and majesty.

He wraps himself in light as with a garment;
he stretches out the heavens like a tent

and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters.
He makes the clouds his chariot
and rides on the wings of the wind.

He makes winds his messengers,
flames of fire his servants.

He set the earth on its foundations;
it can never be moved.

You covered it with the deep as with a garment;
the waters stood above the mountains.

But at your rebuke the waters fled,
at the sound of your thunder they took to flight;

they flowed over the mountains,
they went down into the valleys,
to the place you assigned for them.

You set a boundary they cannot cross;
never again will they cover the earth.

He makes springs pour water into the ravines;
it flows between the mountains.

They give water to all the beasts of the field;
the wild donkeys quench their thirst.

The birds of the air nest by the waters;
they sing among the branches.

He waters the mountains from his upper chambers;
the earth is satisfied by the fruit of his work.

He makes grass grow for the cattle,
and plants for man to cultivate—
bringing forth food from the earth:

wine that gladdens the heart of man,
oil to make his face shine,
and bread that sustains his heart.

The trees of the LORD are well watered,
the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.

There the birds make their nests;
the stork has its home in the pine trees.

The high mountains belong to the wild goats;
the crags are a refuge for the coneys.

The moon marks off the seasons,
and the sun knows when to go down.

You bring darkness, it becomes night,
and all the beasts of the forest prowl.

The lions roar for their prey
and seek their food from God.

The sun rises, and they steal away;
they return and lie down in their dens.

Then man goes out to his work,
to his labor until evening.

How many are your works, O LORD!
In wisdom you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.

There is the sea, vast and spacious,
teeming with creatures beyond number—
living things both large and small.

There the ships go to and fro,
and the leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.

These all look to you
to give them their food at the proper time.

When you give it to them,
they gather it up;
when you open your hand,
they are satisfied with good things.

When you hide your face,
they are terrified;
when you take away their breath,
they die and return to the dust.

When you send your Spirit,
they are created,
and you renew the face of the earth.

May the glory of the LORD endure forever;
may the LORD rejoice in his works-

he who looks at the earth, and it trembles,
who touches the mountains, and they smoke.

I will sing to the LORD all my life;
I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.

May my meditation be pleasing to him,
as I rejoice in the LORD.

But may sinners vanish from the earth
and the wicked be no more.
Praise the LORD, O my soul.
Praise the LORD.

Now, turn with me to Lord’s Day 10. As I mentioned, you can find it on page 871 in the back of the gray-colored songbooks. There are two questions and two answers there. I’d like to read this responsively. I’ll read the questions, and then you read the answers.

Q. What do you understand
by the providence of God?

A. Providence is
the almighty and ever present power of God
by which he upholds, as with his hand,
and earth
and all creatures,
and so rules them that
leaf and blade,
rain and drought,
fruitful and lean years,
food and drink,
health and sickness,
prosperity and poverty-
all things, in fact, come to us
not by chance
but from his fatherly hand.

Q. How does the knowledge
of God's creation and providence
help us?

A. We can be patient when things go against us,
thankful when things go well,
and for the future we can have
good confidence in our faithful God and Father
that nothing will separate us from his love.
All creatures are so completely in his hand
that without his will
they can neither move nor be moved.

This morning, as we focus on God’s providence, I want you to notice three attributes of God that give us a picture of his providence. These three attributes are pointed out both by the Psalmist and by the writers of the Catechism: First, God is the Creator of the universe. Second, he is the Sustainer of everything he’s created. Finally, he is the Ruler over every square inch of His creation.

II. God is the Creator of the Universe

So first, God is the Creator of the universe. As I mentioned Psalm 104 not only teaches us that God created the universe, but it also uses the framework of Genesis 1—the days of creation—to teach us that God is the Creator of the universe.

In that Genesis framework, on the first day, God created light. And right at the beginning of our text, the first half of verse 2 we see the Psalmist proclaiming that God “wraps himself in light, as with a garment.”

On the second day, God created the expanse between the waters, separating sky and water. And the Psalmist reflects this, starting at the second half of verse two: “He stretches out the heavens like a tent and lays the beams of his upper chamber on their waters.”

The pattern continues—we know that on the third day God created dry land as well as the plants that cover it. The psalmist reflects this as well. In verses 5-13 he describes how land and water are distinct, and how the waters “went down to the valleys to the place assigned for them.” Not only that, but the waters are placed by God so that the beasts of the field and the birds of the air have everything they need, and “the earth is satisfied by the fruit of his work.”

In verses 14-18, the Psalmist describes not only how God created plants and trees, but in how doing so, God supplies for the needs of His creatures: grass for the cattle and food for the humans, even a home for the birds. And it’s not just our needs, “the bread that sustains our heart” that God supplies, but it is also our enjoyment—“the wine that gladdens the heart of man,” and “oil to make his face shine.”

The fourth day of creation is reflected in verses 19-24, which speak of the sun, moon and stars as timekeepers for both animals and man.

In verses 25 and 26, the Psalmist speaks of the creatures of the sea, which Genesis 1 says were created on the fifth day.

And the sixth day, during which God created the animals and humans, is reflected in verses 21-24 and also verses 27-30. In those verses the Psalmist stresses their dependence on God for everything that they need.

We may not fully understand exactly how God created the universe, but as Christians, we can have no doubt but that he did. He created everything out of nothing. He formed things that depend wholly upon him for their existence, but yet are distinct from him. That means God is transcendent over His creation. As the transcendent Creator, he is not in creation, nor is he bound by it. God is the Creator of the universe.

III. God is the Sustainer of Everything He has Created

So let’s take a look at the next attribute of God the psalmist points out. God is the Sustainer of everything he has created. He is the Sustainer of everything he has created.

We just said that God is transcendent over His creation—he is not in creation, nor is he bound by it. Because God is transcendent, there can be no doubt that, however we define them, miracles can occur.

We may or may not believe that God uses miracles in present times, but as believers in a Creator-God, we agree that miracles are possible. For God is above His creation. If he created out of nothing, there is no reason He can’t, if He desires, work in that creation in any way that He sees fit.

And He did. Many of the miracles that are recorded in Scripture are essential to our Christian faith—miracles like Jesus’ incarnation and his resurrection from the dead. If we deny miracles entirely, then we deny Jesus Christ, the heart of our faith. And whether or not we believe that God uses miracles in the present time, we have to agree that miracles are possible. Miracles can occur.

But of course, since He created the universe, and the natural laws that we see at work throughout creation, there’s no reason why God can’t choose to work primarily through those laws.

Our Presbyterian brothers and sisters refer to the laws of nature in their confessions as “second causes.” And by this they mean that while God is the first cause of everything, He created the laws of nature as the second cause for sustaining his creation. The Westminster Confession of Faith teaches that “while God ordinarily makes use of these second causes, He is always free to work without, above, and against them at his pleasure.”

So, as we see in our text this morning, God not only created the universe, he also sustains it. He is the Sustainer of everything he has created. One commentator wrote “in creation God exercised his divine power to cause the world to be. In providence, he continues to exercise that same power to sustain creation, to involve himself in all events, and to direct all things to their appointed ends.” He is our sustainer.

I find that concept amazing—we have a God who involves Himself in all of the events of our lives. Now, not everyone in the world agrees with this idea. In fact, I suspect that a lot of people in the world today think of God in a very different kind of way.

Like Thomas Jefferson many see God as kind of a divine watchmaker—he created this complex and incredible universe; he even created laws by which the universe will continue to exist on its own without any need for God’s intervention. Just like a well-crafted watch that can keep time for many, many years without any need for repairs or adjustments. But they believe, then, that God, having created this incredibly intricate creation, simply sits back, no longer involving himself in the inner workings of the thing that he has made.
This is not the God that is presented in Psalm 104. Much of the psalm is written in the present tense, and it is not just about what God did before as Creator, but it is also about God as sustainer.

Look at verses 27-30 again. The Psalmist tells us that God’s creatures look to him “to give them their food at the proper time.” And when God gives it to them, “they gather it up,” and “they are satisfied with good things.” But, when God takes away their breath, “they die and return to the dust.”

The rest of Scripture confirms this view of God as actively involved in His creation. Even Jesus points this out, teaching us not to worry, but pointing us to look at the birds of the air: “They do not sow or reap or store away in barns. And yet, your heavenly father feeds them.”

John Calvin said it this way in his “Institutes of the Christian Religion”: “The providence we mean is not one by which the deity, sitting idly in heaven, looks on at what is taking place in the world; but one by which he, as it were, holds the helms and over-rules all events.”

In other words, God is not an absentee God. He is very involved. He is very much in control. And he governs us, not just with his power, but by his on-going decrees. Nothing is left to chance. Nothing is left to fortune. God’s providence consists in his actions every day.

And what this means is that God is actively involved in everything. The universe isn’t being upheld simply by a set of natural laws that God set in motion before simply sitting back. Rather, the universe is actively sustained by God’s providence. He is the Sustainer of everything he has created.

So when we speak of miracles, I think we shouldn’t speak of them as being exceptions to the natural law. Because it’s not the natural law that keeps things going anyway—it is God. A lot of times we use the term miracle to describe examples of extraordinary providence, more than to describe the ordinary things that happen every day. But even so, there are times when even the timing and placement of very ordinary events may also be described as miraculous.

As John Calvin says it: “Single events are so regulated by God, and all events proceed by his determinate counsel that nothing happens fortuitously.”

Thus, it is improper to simply describe miracles as some kind of supernatural breakthrough by God into the world. If we think of miracles that way, we improperly divide God and the world into competing forces, at odds with each other, which they are not.

Gordon Spykman, in his book “Reformational Theology,” puts it this way: “In his wonder working power, God does not withdraw his providential care or bypass it. The will of God, revealed in such awesome signs and wonders, resides in the very power of his word itself. There is nothing arbitrary or capricious about them. From our perspective they may appear as surprising or unexpected—extraordinary interventions of God’s hand in history. For God, however, miracles are not miracles as we perceive them. They are rather the outworkings of his will in other ways—ways that to us appear unusual and exceptional, but ways which are consistently at God’s command.”

God is not only the creator of the universe, but He is also the sustainer. And that means He is involved daily in every detail of what he created. Whether it is making grass grow for the cattle or bringing forth wine that gladdens the heart of man, or providing safety for the ships of commerce that go to and fro on the vast and spacious sea. God is the Sustainer of everything he has created.

IV. God is the Ruler over every square inch of His creation

There is one other attribute of God that I want you to see. God is also the Ruler over every square inch of His creation. He is the Ruler over every square inch of His creation.

This means that not only does God actively provide for his creatures, but he also rules over them, over the places they live, over the things that they created for themselves, over every square inch of creation.

One of my very favorite sayings is Abraham Kuyper’s famous quote: “In the total expanse of human life, there is not a single square inch of which the Christ, who alone is sovereign, does not declare ‘That is mine.’” In other words, God not only sustains, but he rules over all of his creation. He alone sets the laws by which we have no choice but to abide, and He alone sets the standards according to which he demands that we live our life. He controls the physical creation in which we live.

But when we say that God rules over the universe, we can’t just limit his rule to nature. God controls the affairs of the nations. In Psalm 66 we learn that he “rules forever by his power; his eyes watch the nations—let not the rebellious rise up against Him.”

And God is not just concerned only with humans in general, or nations and powers, but he is also concerned with individuals, our lot in life and our outward success and failures. The apostle Paul recognized this in his own life when, in his letter to Galatians, he said that “God, who set me apart from birth, and called me by His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son in me so that I may preach Him among the Gentiles.”

And because God is concerned with individuals, part of his active providence is the protection of the righteous and the exposure and punishment of the wicked. Paul, in Romans, reminds us that “in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who’ve been called according to his purposes.” The Psalmist tells us that “on the wicked he will rain fiery coals and burning sulfur; a scorching wind will be their lot.”

It is true that evil still exists in our world. We are not always immune from the ravages of sin. But as the old song goes, “This is my Father’s world, O let me ne’er forget, that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.” And as God’s people, no matter how often the wrong seems so strong, we can have confidence that God will rescue his people from the power of evil—if not now, then when Christ returns. God is the Ruler over every square inch of His creation. “The Lord is King, let the heavens ring, God reigns let the earth be glad.”

V. Conclusion

So what does this mean for us? If God is the creator, the sustainer, and the ruler of every square inch of creation, even our own lives, how do we respond?

I don’t think we can put it any better than the way the Catechism puts it in Answer 28: “We can be patient when things go against us, thankful when things go well, and for the future we can have good confidence in our faithful God and father that nothing will separate us from his love.”

Patience, thankfulness, and confidence. These ought to be the hallmarks of the life of a believer. Be patient, knowing that God is actively at work and will provide what we need. Be thankful, both for how he has provided for us in the past, but also for those areas where we can see him working at this very moment. And be confident that all things work for the good of those who love him.

As I was preparing this sermon, I read something on the web that summed up what I wanted to say better than anything I could come up with myself. Much as tried writing my own conclusion, I kept coming back to this. So, I want to read this to you. It comes from the blog of Kevin De Young, who is a pastor in Michigan and an author of several excellent books. He describes something that happened late one night during a short vacation that he took with his family. This is what he says:

Around about four in the morning…our three year old fell out of bed, which prompted our one year old to wake up and cry like she was being dropped off at the nursery.

So my wife took a turn. Then around about 5:00 AM I took a turn. While I was hunkering down in the bathroom trying not to disturb the rest of the [family], with my precious little girl munching on Cracklin’ Oat Bran before the crack of dawn, I started meandering through my complimentary copy of USA Today. The news for Monday morning was grim. Lead story: Americans are becoming less religious. Bottom of page 1: pastor shot during church service… Later: stocks may take more than 25 years to recover their losses, once they bottom out that is. For some reason the full page spread on Dancing with the Stars just pushed me over the edge. How can so much be going wrong in the world?

I put my little one to bed and gave her two pacifiers and, with mom literally in the dark, a baggie of Cracklin Oat Bran just in case. As I lay in bed, my mind was mulling over all the bad news I had just read. Is our country really going down the [toilet]? Are churches even safe anymore? Will the American church soon be persecuted? Why does anyone care about Dancing with the Stars?

Then I remembered my beloved catechism… ‘What do you understand by the providence of God?’ ‘Providence is the almighty and ever present power of God by which he upholds, as with his hand, heaven and earth and all creatures, and so rules them that lead and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and lean years, food and drink, health and sickness, prosperity and poverty—all things, in fact, come to us not by chance but from his fatherly hand.’ I thought to myself, you know, that’s right. Praise God that’s right! God upholds the world with his hand and rules over us so that recessions and declensions, murders and mayhem, presidents and prime ministers, kids sleeping and kids rolling off their beds, the tragedies of life and the banalities—all things, in fact, come to us not by chance but from his fatherly hand. God's seen this mess before. He sent it. He'll see us through us.

Around about 6:00 AM I fell back asleep, deeply grateful for the Heidelberg Catechism, the providence of God, and Cracklin’ Oat Bran

It is my prayer as well, just as Pastor De Young said, that in the midst of whatever difficulties you might be facing in life, you will have the patience to persevere, the thankfulness to know what God has done, and confidence in God’s good providence for us.


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