THE SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD

GENESIS 50:15-21

FEBRUARY 22, 2009

 

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As we conclude our sermon series on Genesis, I want to begin with two questions this morning.  Question 1: “Are our lives and destinies a matter of luck, a matter of chance or is someone bigger than us, greater than us, that is to say, is God in charge?”  Question 2:  “And if God is in charge to what extent is God in charge?  Partially?  Totally?   Is God in charge all the time?  Part of the time?  75% of the time?  50% of the time?”

Garrison Keillor, of Lake Wobegon fame, tells of the time he and a friend, named Jim, got into a debate about this issue.  In fact, Garrison and Jim while boys, almost got into a fight about how much God is in charge of the day to day events of our lives.  The subject came up as they were discussing the death of a friend.  Their friend, Richard, had been killed in a farming accident, and Garrison and Jim were about 11 years old at the time and Jim says to Garrison,

 

“It was an accident, God didn’t make it happen, God doesn’t go around murdering people.”

Garrison said, “Maybe so, but God knows everything that will happen, He has known every single thing since time began, and everything that happens is part of God’s plan.

“Does he know that I’m about to hit you?” Jim said.

“Everything,” I said.

“What if I changed my mind at the last minute and didn’t?”

“God knows everything.”

 

Garrison ruminates,

 

Jim believed that God sort of generally watched over the world but didn’t try to oversee every single detail.  He said that, for example, when you’re born, you could be born American or Chinese or Russian or African, depending.  In heaven are millions of souls lined up waiting to be born, and when it’s your turn, you go down the chute like a gum ball to whoever put the penny in the slot.  You were born to your parents ... you were next in line.  Two seconds later and you could have been Italian.  Or a Communist.  “It’s just pure luck we’re Americans,” Jim said.


What do you think?  Does God oversee every detail as Garrison said or was Jim correct?  Is God just concerned with the big things in life?  Before you answer that, consider our passage for this morning.

Joseph and his brothers have just returned from burying their father, and fear overcomes the siblings.  The brothers still have difficulty believing that Joseph has forgiven them.  They fear that Joseph only pretended to forgave them to make their father happy, and now with Jacob gone, they were no longer safe, that Jacob’s restraining influence had been removed.  So to protect themselves they make up a story.  They say that Jacob’s dying wish was that Joseph would forgive them, and Joseph weeps, not over the death of his father, but he weeps because his brothers have not been able to accept what he had said to them some 17 years before, that all was forgiven, and to reassure them further, Joseph utters these words.  Listen to them.  Verses 19 & 20.  They are key.  “Do not be afraid!  Am I in the place of God?  Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.”

Now, Joseph’s words could be taken in one of two ways.  On the one hand he could be saying that God turned a bad situation into a good one, using their harm for good, thus reminding us that God can even use the evil that befalls us to accomplish his purposes.

Or Joseph could be saying something more radical.  He could be saying that his being sold into slavery, his being falsely accused of rape, his being thrown in the slammer, all of it, every single bit of it was orchestrated by God. 

And what do you think?  Do you think God simply turned a bad situation into something good or do you that God pulled the strings and scripted Joseph’s entire life?

Well, in answering that question let’s define the concept of “sovereignty.”  In it’s simplest and plainest sense it means, “God rules.”  It means that God is in charge.  God is calling the shots.  God is running the show.  It means we won’t ever hear God say, “Oops,” or “I wonder what we’re going to do about that?” and for some illustrations of that walk with me through the Scriptures for a moment.

First, turn with me to Psalm 139.  It’s on page 552 of your pew Bible.  Do you have that in front of you?  If so, look at verses 15 & 16.

 

My frame was not hidden from you,

when I was made in secret,

intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.

In your book were written

all the days that were formed for me,

when none of them as yet existed.

 

Next turn with me to page 642, to Book of Isaiah, chapter 46, verse 9,

 

I am God, and there is no other.

I am God, and there is no one like me,

declaring the end from the beginning

and from ancient times things not yet done,

saying, “My purpose shall stand,

and I will fulfill my intention.”

 

Did you catch that at the end?  God has a purpose and God will fulfill that purpose.  Now, one last passage.  Turn with me to page 180 of you pew Bible to Ephesians chapter one, verse 11.  We read there,

 

In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will ...

 

Now there are other verses to which we could turn, but I think you get the picture.  Patiently and repeatedly, in a dozen different ways, Scripture makes it clear that God is calling the shots.  God is in control.  God isn’t almost sovereign, God is fully sovereign.  To say something like, “God is almost sovereign or God is mostly in control,” is like saying someone is “almost pregnant.”  That is to say, you are either pregnant or you are not pregnant and God is either sovereign or God is off the throne.  All of Scripture underscores God’s reign and rule, however, the sovereignty of God presents three prickly problems for us.

Prickly problem #1 – we don’t like anyone being in control but us.  We want to be in charge, we want to call the shots.   Yes, as Christians, we are supposed to be in sales but we would rather be in management. 

This brings to mind a story told be a Jewish theologian.  The story is about the day a man, representing all humankind, came before God who was seated on his heavenly throne and said to God, “Which do you think is harder, to be man or to be God?”

“Being God is much harder,” God answered.  “I have a whole universe to worry about, planets and galaxies.  All you have to worry about is your family and your job.”

“True enough,” said man. “But you have infinite time and infinite power.  The hard part for humans is getting the job within the limits of human strength and the human life span.”

God answered, “You don’t know what you are talking about.  It’s much harder to be God.”

Man replied, “I don’t know how you can say that so confidently when you’ve never been human and I’ve never been God.  (Now remember this was a Jewish theologian speaking.  As Christians we know that God knows what it is like to be human.  Back to the story.)  What do you say we change places for a day, so you can know the feeling of being human and I can know what it feels like to be God.  Just for one day, that’s all, and then we’ll change back.”

Reluctantly God relented.  They changed places.  Man became God and God became human.  And the story goes on to say that, once man sat on the divine throne, he refused to give God back God’s place, and ever since then humankind has ruled the world and God has been in exile.


I guess the question for us is simply this.  Is God on the throne of our lives or is God in exile?  Is God setting the rules or are we setting the rules?   Do we want to be in control or do we want God to be in control?  It’s a prickly problem for most of us sitting in this room. 

Prickly problem #2 – if God is in control then what do we do with the problem of evil, pain and death?  Rabbi Kushner described the problem well in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People.  He says,

 

Life is not fair.  The wrong people get sick.  And the wrong people get robbed.  And the wrong people get killed in wars and in accidents.  Some people see life’s unfairness and decide, “there is no God; the world is nothing but chaos.”

 

Kushner is right, and we have all met people who draw that conclusion – there is no God, that it’s all chaos.  Others say, “If there is a God and that God allows these things to happen, then I don’t want any thing to do with that sort of God,” and still others come to another conclusion.  They say that God has limitations and that’s why there is evil and pain and suffering and death.  God just can’t keep it all in control and that’s the gist of Kushner’s book.  Listen to him.   Kushner says,

 

Even when he has let you down and disappointed you by permitting bad luck and sickness and cruelty in his world and permitting some of those things to happen to you, can you learn to love and forgive him despite his limitations?

 

I am reminded of the Greek philosopher Epicurus who said of God and evil, “God is either able to do something about evil but is unwilling to do so or God is willing but unable to do anything about it.”

That’s where Kushner comes down in his book – God is willing but unable to do anything about it. 

Prickly problem #3 – If God rules the universe by God’s sovereign decrees, then how is it possible for us to exercise free will?  If God is calling the shots is our freedom just an illusion?  Or are we really free, and if so, how can God still be sovereign?

Well, here’s my take on it, and take it with a grain of salt.   Trudy and I have been on a handful of cruises in our life ... the Greek Isles, Alaska, the Baltic Sea, the Mediterranean, a TransAtlantic, the Panama Canal, and I think the sovereignty of God is like being on a cruise ship.  You see, on a cruise ship are hundreds of passengers, and these passengers are free to move about as they will.  They can eat all day long or sleep or catch some sun or jog or swim, go on port excursions or stay onboard.  But all the while the great ship is carrying them onward toward a predetermined port and freedom and sovereignty are here, working together, and they do not contradict one another.

I believe something similar holds true with our relationship to God and God’s purposes.  The mighty cruise ship of God’s sovereign design keeps its steady course over the sea of history.  All the while God gives us freedom to choose what we will do on the ship as it goes and due to God’s omniscience, God knows what we will choose to do before we do it, but our freedom is not an illusion.  It is part of God’s predetermined plan. 

Well, those are the prickly problems and some we have addressed better than others, but here’s the point.

Three men, up north, were duck hunting on a cold, December morning.  They were all wearing waist-high, rubber waders.  On the way to the blind, though, the small flat-bottomed boat capsized, and the men were thrown into the cold water of the lake.  After thrashing around, trying to swim to shore, all three men drowned.  The newspaper article pointed out that the accident was particularly tragic, not because it happened in December just before Christmas, but because the water where their boat capsized was five feet deep.  The men, however, did not know that.  Had they not panicked, and if they had simply put their feet down, they would have been standing on solid ground.

The point?  May we place our feet down firmly on the sovereignty of God.  No matter what happens to us, we need not panic, for God is and will continue to get us where we need to go.  That’s what Joseph would like us to know.  Amen.