October 13, 2002
I am actually writing these words a few days after I preached this sermon on Sunday morning.
The current headlines tell a grim story:
“North Korea Admits Nuke Program”
“No Suspect Sketch in Sniper Case”
“Bush Signs Iraq Resolution”
“Indonesia Questions Two in Bali Blast.”
Let’s take the last story first. The explosion in a Bali nightclub by a group of terrorists might seem remote to most of us. I had not considered it until I got the following e-mail from a friend:
“When I woke up Sunday morning, I read the cover of the Tribune and noticed an attack on a bar in Bali and that already more than 180 people died. Then went to church, heard your wonderful encouraging message and was truly at awe at how much God is even in control of the very, very small details (like a parking spot!). Then came home and heard from my mom that my younger brother, who imports swimwear from a factory in Bali for his business in the Netherlands, had had to delay his flight to Bali for a week. His hotel is less than 300 feet away from the Sari Club and he told my mom that most likely being by himself on Friday evening he would have very likely been in that area, who knows the same club at the time of the blast… He has been going to Bali for the past 8 years and despite other uproar (persecution of Christians by Muslims, etc.) elsewhere in Indonesia, Bali had always been very laid back. Things have really taken a turn.”
That does bring it a lot closer to home, doesn’t it? Then there is the sniper in the D.C. area. At this writing he has attacked 11 times, killing nine people so far. On Sunday morning between services I went outside to chat with Greg Hines, the off-duty Oak Park police officer who helps with traffic control. We were standing in the middle of Lake Street talking about various things when he asked me what I thought about the sniper attacks. Almost without thinking, as I answered I looked around cautiously, wondering who might be taking aim at the two of us.
And that raises the whole specter of terrorism in America. Last week my wife, Marlene, and I spent five days in Dallas because I was speaking Tuesday through Friday at Dallas Theological Seminary. On Wednesday night I watched the news to get the latest on the sniper attacks. The reporter said that the FBI had issued yet another warning about a possible attack by Al-Qaeda against the United States. The next morning I was up before dawn to take a long walk. It had rained on Wednesday and the clouds were still in the area and hanging low over the tops of the skyscrapers. As I walked in the pre-dawn darkness through the deserted streets near Baylor Hospital, I could see the downtown skyline just a few blocks away. The tops of the tallest buildings were shrouded with clouds. One building in particular caught my attention because it seemed as if smoke was coming out of the top few stories. My first thought was, “The terrorists have hit again.” As I pondered it later, I realized that I wouldn’t have thought that before September 11, 2001.
We do live in dangerous times. If we feel insecure, it’s because we are insecure. The world never was as safe as we thought it was. No wonder we all feel a bit more anxious these days.
Researchers say there are five primary marks of insecurity: Helplessness, isolation, vulnerability, fear of the future, and extreme pessimism. Insecurity leads us to say things like this: “Something bad is going to happen and there’s nothing I can do about it. And no one can help me. “
Often it’s not the “big picture” that troubles us as much as the problems of daily life. We worry about our finances, our job security, whether or not our marriage will make it, our health, what will happen in our old age, our investments, and a whole host of personal issues that sap our courage and cause us to stay awake at night worrying about tomorrow. Or the day after tomorrow. Or next week or next month or next year.
I believe the biblical answer to insecurity is found in the doctrine of God’s providence. In English the word “providence” has two parts. It’s pro and video put together, literally meaning “to see before.”
Though the word providence is not found in most modern translations of the Bible, the concept is certainly biblical. It refers to “God’s gracious oversight of the universe.” Every one of those words is important. God’s providence is one aspect of his grace. Oversight means that he directs the course of affairs. The word universe tells us that God not only knows the big picture, he also concerns himself with the tiniest details.
Here are five statements that unfold the meaning of God’s providence in more detail.
He upholds all things.
He governs all events.
He directs everything to its appointed end.
He does this all the time and in every circumstance.
He does it always for His own glory.
In the words of R.C. Sproul, “God doesn’t roll dice.” Nothing happens by chance. Ever. When Jesus was giving instructions to his disciples in Matthew 10, he repeatedly warned them that they were going out to minister to a hostile world. Even though some people would oppose them and try to put them to death, they should not be afraid of what might happen to them. Dropped in the middle of this sober message is a passage that contains the grounds for security in a very insecure world. Where can we go for safety when there is so much trouble in the world? Let’s see how Jesus answers the question.
Trouble May Come But God Has Not Forgotten You
“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father” (Matthew 10:29). If you check your Bible dictionary, you’ll discover that sparrows were among the humblest birds in Bible times. They were considered food for the poor, and because they were so cheap, the poor could offer them in sacrifice to the Lord if they couldn’t afford a lamb or a goat or a bull. You could buy two sparrows for a penny. That’s pretty cheap by any standard. A buck would buy you a whole bag full of sparrows. You could feed your family sparrow casserole for a dime. (After I preached this sermon, a friend from India told me that he used to hunt sparrows and eat them. “They were better than chicken,” he said. I’ll take his word for it.)
A new insight came to me as I studied this verse. I had always thought that Jesus was saying that God watches the sparrows when they fall. I suppose I’ve heard that wonderful song Ethel Waters made famous so many times that it sticks in my mind: “His eye is on the sparrow and I know he watches me.” True enough, he does see the sparrow when it falls. But this verse is saying much more than that. Not only does God see the sparrow when it falls, the sparrow cannot and will not fall apart from the Father’s will. The mention of the word “Father” makes it very tender and very personal. It’s not as if sparrows fall at random from the trees and God takes note when it happens. The sparrow falls because God willed it to fall, and if he didn’t, the sparrow would never fall to the ground. This is a high view of God’s involvement in the tiny and seemingly insignificant details of the universe.
Note two implications of this truth:
1) The sparrows do fall. Even the little sparrows fall to the ground eventually. Sooner or later troubles do come to all of God’s children. Sometimes we fall into the romantic notion that coming to Christ will solve all our problems so that we will be free from trouble and sadness. Not so. He makes his rain to fall on the just and the unjust. What happens to people of the world happens to us too. They get sick, we get sick. They lose their jobs, we lose our jobs. They have family problems, we have family problems. They get ripped off, we get ripped off. They get cancer, we get cancer. They die, we die. It is the same for us as for everyone else. Though we know the Lord, we are not exempt from any of the trials and troubles of this world.
2) The sparrows fall according to the Father’s will. As the great confessions tell us, all things take place according to the counsel and decree of Almighty God. There is a very real sense in which everything in the universe must fit into God’s ultimate plan somehow. Even the falling of the sparrow is part of God’s providential oversight of the universe. This applies to our pain, our suffering, our loss, and it applies to the heartache of watching our loved ones suffer.
During my visit to Dallas Seminary, I spent some time with Dr. John Reed, who was one of my preaching professors 25 years ago. It struck me that he was exactly my current age when I graduated from seminary because he is now 75 years old. As we talked he shared with me the great sorrow of his life. His 50-year-old daughter, Becky Beam, has three malignant brain tumors. After her right arm went numb last February, an MRI revealed the presence of the incurable tumors. Without surgery she would only live two months. With surgery and treatment she might live six months. She endured radiation well but chemotherapy was so difficult that she elected to forego treatment and enter hospice treatment at home so she could spend her remaining days with her family. She has lived longer than the six months the doctor predicted, but she is extremely weak, cannot stand or walk by herself, and requires 24-hour care. In an update written a few days ago, Dr. Reed includes this statement: “I am comforted by the words of one of my seminary professors, Dr. Alva J. McClain: “From the fall of a raindrop to the fall of an empire, all is under the providential control of God. We know that God is not surprised by Becky’s illness. We trust his sovereign purposes and rest in the power of his all-sufficient grace.” Here is a man, who in the greatest sorrow of his life, has rested his soul on the rock of God’s providence, and he has found that even through his tears, the rock is solid and can bear the whole weight of a father’s broken heart.
Even If Trouble Comes, God Still Cares for the Tiniest Details of Life
“And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered” (Matthew 10:30). Have you ever tried to count the number of hairs on your head? Most of us probably tried that when we were children, but we learned quickly that it was a futile exercise. Scientists say the average human head is covered with 100,000 strands of hair. They also tell us that 50 strands fall out each day no matter what we do. Interestingly, the amount of hair varies by color. Blondes have an average of 140,000 strands of hair, brunettes 105,000, and redheads 90,000.
All of this is fascinating trivia but it’s not something I think about often. And when I do think about my hair, it’s always in the aggregate: Is it too long, too short, and time for a haircut? Is it combed properly? Did I put enough goop on it to keep it in place? I never pick out a strand of hair and say to myself, “I wonder how Number 437 is doing?” I don’t number the hairs on my head but God does. Our God is a God of the details. He numbers all the hairs on my head. Think about that for a moment. In my family that would mean …
100,000 for me
100,000 for Marlene
100,000 for Josh
100,000 for Mark
100,000 for Nick.
That’s a half-million just for my family. And in our congregation there are millions of hairs to keep track of. And we’re just one church. And God counts all the hairs of all his children. Millions and billions of hairs. He numbers them all. The meaning of this is clear: If God cares for things that matter so little, then he cares for things that matter much more. And if God knows each strand of hair individually, he knows each of us individually as well. This means that God’s knowledge of us is not just general but amazingly specific. He knows us through and through and he knows us in minute detail. In fact, he knows us far better than we know ourselves.
In a sermon on this verse called “Providence,” Charles Spurgeon illustrates God’s minute care from the life of Joseph in Genesis 37-50. (You can find the sermon online at: http://www.spurgeon.org/sermons/0187.htm.) He points out that there was a “chain of circumstances” that had to happen in a particular way in order for the story to take place as it did. Spurgeon offers a long series of questions. Why did Jacob want to send Joseph? Why were Joseph’s brothers on this particular day in a different location? Why did the Ishmaelites come along at that moment? Why were they in the mood to purchase a slave? Why were they going to Egypt and not to some other destination? Why did Potiphar purchase Joseph? Why did his wife have designs on Joseph? Why were the baker and cupbearer in the prison when Joseph was there? Why couldn’t Pharaoh remember his dream? Why did the cupbearer remember Joseph? Spurgeon points out that every single one of these seemingly unconnected events had to happen in a particular way at a particular time in order for Joseph to be in the right place at the right time to preserve his family in Egypt during the great famine in Canaan. Spurgeon goes on to say that “God is to be seen in little things.” And he uses a lovely phrase to describe all those “random” details. They are the “minutiae of Providence.” That’s a wonderful way to put it.
Last Friday after I finished my final message at Dallas Seminary, the president, Mark Bailey, took Marlene and me out for lunch. When he asked where we wanted to go, I said that I didn’t want to leave Dallas without having some good barbecue. He laughed and said he knew just the place. While we were driving along North Central Expressway, I commented to Dr. Bailey about the brand-new, ten-story apartment building that is just being completed. It is so new that they are still putting the final touches in place. The seminary plans to use the building for married students and also for single women students. When I asked about the $14 million dollars it cost to build, Dr. Bailey said that the money had come in in an unusual way. A friend told the seminary about a young couple who might like to give a significant gift even though they had no direct ties to the seminary and had never given to the seminary before. Eventually the couple made of a gift of several million dollars to the project. When it turned out that the building would cost more than expected, the couple made an additional pledge of over a million dollars. But there was even more money to be raised. At one point, the situation looked bleak until one of the board members, a man of great faith, said that they should stop worrying and start praying for God’s guidance. Soon after that, the money came flowing in.
We pulled into the parking lot of the restaurant just as Dr. Bailey was finishing that story. It was very crowded so Dr. Bailey said, “We need a parking spot, Lord.” And just at that very moment, a car pulled out from a parking space right in front of the main entrance. “Thank you, Lord,” Dr. Bailey said. As I thought about that later, I hesitated to use that illustration because it might seem too trivial. Who knows? Maybe that kind of thing only happens to seminary presidents. But then I ran across this sentence from Spurgeon: “Blessed is that man who seeth God in trifles!” What a positive insight that is. We tend to look at the million-dollar answer to prayer and say, “What a mighty God we serve.” But the God of the large is also the God of the small. The God who hung the stars in space is also the God who numbers the hair on your head. Why should it surprise us that God arranges parking spaces when we need them? It is no harder for God to provide something large or something small. After all, they’re all “small” to him. (After I preached the sermon, a woman came up and told me she always prays for parking spaces, especially when she is taking her children to visit the doctor. “Mothers with children need to find parking spaces quickly so I pray for them all the time.” Then just today I received a note from someone who heard the sermon on Sunday and attended the potluck dinner afterwards. They are fairly new to Calvary and don’t know many people. One of our longtime couples sat with them to welcome them and encourage them. “You know, Pastor Ray, I had prayed that the we would share time with someone at the potluck, and as our Heavenly Father cares about the smallest detail, he came through.” Then she added: “I pray that he blesses your week, especially in the “minutiae” of Providence.”)
When Trouble Comes, Remember That God Still Loves you.
“So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:31). Here is the end of the matter. You are worth more than the sparrows. “Two for a penny! Ten for a nickel! Fifty for a quarter!” Tiny sparrows, worth so little, and yet God cares for each one of them. But you are worth more than a bushel of sparrows. How do I know this? Because Jesus didn’t die for the sparrows. He died for you and for me. His blood is the badge of his love, the proof of his everlasting affection.
What, then, should this truth do for us? First, it should give us boldness in the time of trouble. If God is for us, and he is, why should we fear anything or anyone? Second, it should give us confidence in the moment of confusion. Today many things are unclear, uncertain and undecided. We all have many more questions than we have answers. So much of life seems like stumbling through the deep fog of hazardous circumstances. Keep your chin up and keep moving forward. Things that are unclear now will be made clear in the end. Our God will make all things plain and all his ways will be proved right. Third, it should give us hope in the time of sorrow. Oh, we weep, all of us weep, the tears flow behind closed doors and in the private moments of life. When we face death, how can we not weep for loved ones who have left us? But be of good cheer. Even death itself is in God’s hands. If you are a Christian, you cannot die before God’s appointed time. A Christian is immortal until his work on earth is done.
Why should we shake? Why should we fear? Let the world shake and fear. It is for us to be calm when others are giving way to fear. And now let me quote directly from Mr. Spurgeon: “Especially may I address this remark to timid people. There are some of you who are frightened at every little thing. Oh! if you could but believe that God manages all, why, you would not be screaming because your husband is not home when there is a little thunder and lightning, or because there is a mouse in the parlour, or because there is a great tree blown down in the garden.” I like that for several reasons, including the fact that I not fond of mice myself.
And so we come to the bottom line. Do you believe God ordains all things according to his own will? Some people—many people, I’m sure—struggle at this very point. We like to talk about “free will” more than God’s ordination of all things in the universe. But while I truly and deeply believe in free moral choices for which we will all be held accountable, in the end I think we must say what the Bible says, that “all things” work together as part of God’s unfolding plan of redemption. If this is so, then there is no such thing as luck or fate or chance or happenstance. As Tony Evans likes to say, everything is either caused by God or allowed by God. And there is no third category. The Bible teaches it. Do you believe it? I do.
Let this great truth be the source of your security. Rest in the Lord. Lay your soul upon the solid rock of God’s eternal providence. Rest in his control over all things. Rest there, and you will sleep well tonight. But (I can see that hand waving at the back of the classroom) someone says, “Pastor Ray, what about the troubles that may come tomorrow? The answer is simple. Either they will not come, or they will come and some good from God will come with them. That “good” will not always be seen immediately or easily, but it is always there because our God uses all things, wastes nothing, and intends for us only that which is for our good and his ultimate glory. Thus I conclude that God’s providence is the answer to all insecurity.
In 1871 a great fire destroyed much of the city of Chicago. Three hundred people died and one hundred thousand were left homeless. A Chicago lawyer named Horatio Spafford lost part of his fortune in the fire. He was a Christian and an associate of the great evangelist D. L. Moody. After spending several years rebuilding his fortune and helping those who lost everything in the fire, Mr. Spafford resolved to take his wife and four children to England where they could accompany Mr. Moody and Mr. Sankey on their evangelistic crusades. Later he planned to move the family to a new home in Jerusalem. After purchasing tickets on a luxury liner set to sail in November 1873, Mr. Spafford was unable to go at the last moment because of unfinished business in Chicago. He instructed his wife Anna and their four children, Maggie, Tanetta, Annie, and Bessie, to go on ahead and he would cross the Atlantic on a later voyage and meet them in England. On November 22 an English freighter struck the luxury liner, causing it to sink in only 12 minutes. Hundreds were lost and only 47 survivors were pulled from the icy waters. In the chaos all four of the Spafford daughters drowned. Rescuers found Anna Spafford unconscious and clinging to a piece of wreckage. She and the other survivors were taken to Cardiff, Wales. From there she cabled the awful news to her husband in America. The telegram contained two words: “Saved alone.” Brokenhearted, Mr. Spafford purchased a ticket on the next ship leaving New York. At one point the captain called Mr. Spafford to his post and told him that according to the charts, the ship was passing over the spot where his daughters had drowned. Overwhelmed with sorrow as he paced the deck, the words of Isaiah 66:12 were ringing in his mind, “I will extend peace to her like a river.” Going back to his cabin, he composed the words to a poem that have become a beloved hymn we still sing today:
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows, like sea-billows, roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.
And no doubt thinking of the day when he would be reunited with his daughters, he penned the final verse:
And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.
These are the words of a man who has discovered the solid rock of God’s providence. Having lost his four daughters, he has not lost his faith in God. All is well because God is in control of all things, even the hardest tragedies of life. This truth does not remove the pain but it makes a way for us to keep believing even while our hearts are breaking. May God give us this same faith so that when all earthly hope is lost, we may still say, “It is well, it is well with my soul.” Amen.