When God Doesn’t Seem to be in Control

Sermon delivered on Trinity 17C, Sunday, October 13, 2019 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Jeremiah 29.1, 4-7; Psalm 66.1-11; 2 Timothy 2.8-15; Luke 17.11-19.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Our lessons this morning all exhort us to faithful living, especially during times when it seems that God is no longer in control of things. This is what I want us to unpack this morning.

We start with our OT lesson. The prophet speaks a surprising message to God’s people Israel who are living in exile in Babylon. Last week you recall that our psalm lesson had some very harsh things to say about Judah’s captors. Happy is the one, said the psalmist, who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rocks. In his cry for justice, the psalmist, it seems, takes a dim view of his captors (to put it mildly). Behind this shocking statement, however, rests a faith in God to make things right on behalf of his people and to exert his sovereign control over the nations by giving justice to his people Israel who are living in exile.

In today’s lesson, we see Jeremiah’s faith shine through in a distinctly different way. We have every reason to believe that those living in exile would have welcomed the psalmist’s sharp call for God’s justice against their captors. After all, hadn’t God used human agency (the Babylonians) to bring judgment against his own people? In today’s OT lesson, on the other hand, we have every reason to believe that the exiles would have disliked Jeremiah’s exhortation to pray for the peace and welfare of their captors every bit as much as they liked the psalmist’s cry for justice. A bit of context is needed for us to fully understand why the exiles in Babylon would have had such a dim view of Jeremiah’s advice to them to pray for their enemies. As part of God’s awful judgment on the sins of his people Israel, there were three deportations of God’s people living in Judah to Babylon. Jeremiah was addressing the exiles involved in the first deportation before the Babylonians finally sacked Jerusalem and burned down the temple. God’s people exiled to Babylon were hearing false prophets among them predicting a short exile. Not so, said Jeremiah and Ezekiel, God’s true prophets or spokesmen. You are suffering God’s ultimate curse for breaking his covenant and chasing after false gods (read Ezekiel 23 if you want God’s earthy and graphic description of his exiled people). But being the stubborn people they were (just like we can be stubborn), many of God’s people refused to believe God would punish his beloved people. Instead, for many living in exile, it seemed to them as if God was no longer in control. How could he be with them if they were exiled?

But Jeremiah disagreed with that assessment, having laid out a compelling and damning case against God’s people on behalf of God. Israel was in exile because she had been unfaithful to God’s call to them to be his people to bring his healing love to God’s broken and hurting world. Instead, they had adopted the false gods others around them worshiped and had become like those they had been called to heal. And precisely because God was in charge, now they found themselves exiled in a foreign land. You’re going to be here for awhile, Jeremiah told his people, so pray for your captors and for their welfare. It is the destiny of God’s people to flourish and prosper, and your situation depends on the welfare of your captors. So take the long view here, people of God. Pray for your captors even if you despise them. 

This advice requires great faith that God is in control despite appearances to the contrary and we all get this. Life for the exiles as they knew it before they were deported was over. For all intent and purposes, their sentence was permanent. God would one day end his people’s exile but well past their life span and this would surely have been demoralizing to the exiles just like we get demoralized when our world is rocked by awful change, be it the death of a loved one, a serious or debilitating illness, financial catastrophe, or being betrayed by a loved and trusted friend, to name just a few. Like the exiles, we ask where God is in it all? If God really is in charge why all the chaos in our lives and this world? 

And how about the Church? Almost every day I hear folks predicting the Church’s demise and proclaiming our irrelevance to this culture. But what if God has exiled his Church due to the sins of our ancestors as well as our own? What are we to do then? Accommodate the demands of our culture to be “relevant” again to win people for Christ? No, said Jeremiah to his people and us. Pray for your enemies and remain faithful to God’s call to be his people and embody God’s holiness. For Christians that means we imitate Christ in the power of the Spirit. We must therefore ask God to bless our cultural enemies because our welfare is tied to our broader culture. If God weren’t in control, even in the midst of the chaos that swirls around us, if God isn’t sovereign over the nations, this advise would be absurd. Without God in charge, why bother praying? Instead we would be wise to adopt the attitude that it’s every person for him/herself; we’re on our own, baby!

But Jeremiah and the rest of the biblical writers would tell us not to lose hope or become demoralized like that, just like he told his own people, because a few verses later we hear this astonishing promise from God to a demoralized people living in exile under the curse of God’s judgment: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (Jer 29.11). This is what God’s grace looks like on the ground and if God weren’t sovereign or in charge, God could never promise this to us. Almost twenty years ago when I was living through one of the darkest periods of my life and actively considering suicide, I memorized this passage and repeated it often and on a regular basis. Because I am standing here today I can attest to the power of God’s word to heal and sustain in the midst of immense darkness and would encourage you to do likewise as you walk through your own dark valleys. God is faithful and his plans for us are for our good. We can depend on him if we are willing to be patient and take the long view of life.

In our epistle lesson, St. Paul tells us to do essentially the same thing as Jeremiah told his people. Following the advice and practice of the psalmists who remembered God’s power to deliver his people from their captivity in Egypt with its own cruel chaos, and who encouraged God’s people to do likewise during the dark times of Israel’s history as well as their own, St. Paul remembers the power of God as he gladly endures suffering for the sake of the gospel. St. Paul points us to Jesus Christ, crucified, died, and buried, raised on the third day to new bodily life. Like Jesus telling the returning leper in our gospel lesson to get up—the Greek word for “get up” refers to resurrection—and get on with life because the leper’s faith had saved him (or made him well), St. Paul makes the bold claim that Christ’s resurrection is the historical event that was the game-changer for those of us who put our faith in Christ. Echoing his claim in Romans 6.3-5, St. Paul reminds us that because we have died with Christ in our baptism, we will live a resurrected life with Christ in God’s new world. Despite the darkness, loss, sorrow, heartache, fears, chaos, and the transitory nature of life, we who belong to Christ will share in his eternal future. We must therefore be bold in proclaiming this truth, a truth that will one day overthrow the dark powers who currently rule God’s world, and in doing so we must expect to suffer for Christ’s sake. If we are willing to suffer for Christ, we will reign with him in the new heavens and earth. Our future destiny isn’t rest and refreshment. It’s a call to be what God created us to be in the first place—God’s image bearers who run his new world and reflect his goodness and glory. There will be no darkness or evil in that world and life because we will live in God’s direct presence as Revelation promises. Christ’s resurrection is definitive and historical proof that God has defeated the powers of Evil, Sin, and Death on our behalf and calls us to imitate our Lord Jesus in the living of our days. It is a call for us to be fully human beings. Being human in this mortal life, of course, means we will also sometimes miss the mark, or in St. Paul’s words, we will be faithless. But we are to take hope because Christ is always faithful, just like the Father is always faithful to his people and good to his word. So we dare not cave to our culture nor should we be ashamed of proclaiming the gospel to a hostile world that desperately needs to hear it but refuses much of the time to do so. This can be discouraging itself, but we are to stand firm. We are resurrection peeps, my beloved. We must take the long view of life because we have a future and a hope, a sure and certain expectation. Is your faith strong enough and bold enough to sustain you when you must walk through your own dark valleys? 

I don’t know why God allows so much suffering and wrong in this world. I don’t know why God allows the bad guys to prevail sometimes. But I do know this. Our future in Christ is secure and we have been washed clean of our sins and all the separates us from God by the blood of the Lamb shed for us to end our self-imposed exile and alienation from God. The Father has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of our sins. I know all this is true because I know Jesus Christ is raised from the dead and I therefore I know he reigns over this world and his promises to us are true as Scripture proclaims, even in the midst of chaos and darkness. 

So here is how we as God’s people in Christ can find power to live in a world gone bad. First, we ensconce ourselves in God’s word contained in Scripture and faithfully interpreted by the Church to learn the story of God’s rescue plan for his good but sin-corrupted world. We learn it to know God is in charge, to recognize God’s ways, and to understand our role in God’s rescue plan. Second, we pray for our own welfare and for the welfare of our enemies and captors even as we are bold to expose their lies and proclaim God’s Truth contained in the gospel. And last, together we remember our resurrection faith and let it sustain us in the power of the Spirit by reminding us that despite appearances to the contrary, God has reclaimed his world and us and defeated the powers of Evil, Sin, and Death. Are you doing these things to help sustain you in the living of your days? If not, you are setting yourself up for failure as well as denying the Lord’s love for you along with his power to heal and rescue you, and when you crash and burn, you will have no one but yourself to blame. Don’t despise yourself like that, my beloved. For the love of Christ, don’t do that to yourself.

So how does all this apply to our stewardship campaign? Simply put, stewardship is a loving and thankful response to the power of God. It acknowledges God’s ways are not our ways and gives thanks that we have meaning, purpose, and hope in this mortal life. We are in day 28 of our 40 days of prayer and fasting, praying to the Father to end our homelessness. Are you persistent in your prayers? There is no way you can be if you do not believe in the efficacy of prayer! As we have seen, praying is one of our main duties as Christians because prayer has the power to heal and transform. Sometimes it seems as if we are too small a parish to really make a difference and we tend to be stingy with our time, our talents, and our money. But this attitude denies the power of God that we have seen is available to us who come to him in faith with thanksgiving. As you consider your pledge for 2020, I urge you to have a generous heart patterned after the Father’s generous heart as manifested chiefly in God the Son. We have been given an immense gift in Christ and called to be God’s own through him. Let us resolve to give generously to ensure that we at St. Augustine’s really do live out our mission statement to be “changed by God to make a difference for God” in the power of the Spirit. Our future is secured and this knowledge can and will help us live faithfully in this present age because we know our work in the Lord is not in vain (cf. 1 Cor 15.59). We know this because we know know that Jesus Christ is raised from the dead and our present and future are secure because of it, thanks be to God! To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.