The Faithfulness of God
Dr. Philip W. McLarty
I don’t have to tell you, this has been a traumatic week in the life of our church family. Tom Ed suffered a major stroke Sunday night. He remains in critical condition. Floyd fell on Tuesday afternoon and suffered a severe concussion. He died in the wee hours of Saturday morning. A Memorial Service is planned for Monday afternoon at 1:30. Of course, we continue to pray for Toni Sumner, who is in the terminal stages of cancer.
It’s at a time like this that we feel the most helpless and unable to control the circumstances that so affect us and our loved ones. Ironically, it’s also at a time like this that we feel our greatest dependence on God and are reminded of the faithfulness of God’s grace and love. As God said to Isaiah:
“Don’t you be afraid,
for I am with you I will strengthen you.
Yes, I will help you.
Yes, I will uphold you with the right hand of my righteousness.” (Isaiah 41:10)
Or, as we read in the Book of Deuteronomy,
“The eternal God is your dwelling place.
Underneath are the everlasting arms.” (Deuteronomy 33:27)
Recently, I had a conversation with a group of elders about a death they’d had in their church and how they’d dealt with it, being without a pastor. One of the elders said, “It took us by surprise. We were totally unprepared.”
I it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. If there’s one thing you can count on in the life of a congregation, it’s that there will be accidents and illnesses and unexpected tragedies. It’s not a matter of if, but when.
Knowing this, we seek to live together in the unity of God’s Spirit as we prepare for the time – like this week – when our faith will be tested. We’re like athletes, who work out every day, flexing their muscles and honing their skills in preparation for the big game. We pray and study and fellowship and worship together day after day, week after week, so that, when the call comes that someone has fallen or tragedy has struck, we can respond quickly with encouragement and support for those who are hurting.
In doing so, we draw from that great reservoir of scriptural witness passed down to us from one faithful generation to the next. Great passages come to mind, almost without thinking; passages like,
“Yahweh is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear? Yahweh is the strength of my life. Of whom shall I be afraid?” (Psalms 27:1)
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we won’t be afraid, though the earth changes, though the mountains are shaken into the heart of the seas.” (Psalms 46:1-2)
“Yahweh is my shepherd:
I shall lack nothing…” (Psalms 23:1)
One of the passages of scripture I’ve turned to consistently over the years is this selection of verses from the Book of Lamentations:
“It is because of Yahweh’s loving kindnesses that we are not consumed, because his compassion doesn’t fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. Yahweh is my portion, says my soul; therefore will I hope in him…For the Lord will not cast off forever. For though he cause grief, yet he will have compassion according to the multitude of his loving kindnesses. For he does not afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of men.” (Lamentations 3:22-33)
|A SERMONWRITER SUBSCRIBER SAYS:
“I have found SermonWriter to be well researched and well written. I am almost envious of what you are doing. It is so much like what I want to do when and if the good Lord allows me to stop actively serving as a pastor. Please keep up the good work.”
We’re told that the Book of Lamentations was written by the prophet Jeremiah soon after the Temple was destroyed in 586 B.C. In a word, Jeremiah equated the fall of Jerusalem with the sinfulness of Israel and the judgment of God. Though some might blame the wicked Nebuchadnezzar, as far as Jeremiah was concerned, the Hebrews brought it on themselves. The good news is that God would be with them to restore their homes and use their downfall to draw them back to himself.
You can imagine how this must have spoken to the ancient Hebrews standing amidst the ruins of the Holy City. Even lifting the passage out of context, it speaks to us today:
“It is because of Yahweh’s loving kindnesses that we are not consumed,
because his compassion doesn’t fail…”
God’s love, God’s compassion, God’s infinite mercy are constant, unchanging and dependable – something you can count on when everything around you is falling apart.
This is what it means to believe in a sovereign God. A capricious god might embrace you one moment and whack you the next. But a sovereign God, like a loving parent, watches over you night and day – while you’re sleeping and when you’re awake. A sovereign God pours out his blessings on you both when you’re at your best and when you fall short. No one knew this better than Martin Luther, who wrote:
“A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.”
Oh, there will always be those who equate good fortune with God’s blessings and misfortune as a sign of God’s wrath, just as there will always be those who, one moment, feel close to God and the next moment wonder where God is when they need him most. In the meantime, we believe that God is always present, always attentive to our needs, and always there to listen when we pray.
No, God is with us. We are not alone. And God will be faithful in every situation and circumstance of life we face. All we have to do is turn to God and trust God to order and provide.
This requires a leap of faith and, in a moment of crisis, or when you’re in the throes of grief, it’s not always easy. It’s hard to believe that God is there by your side when the rug is pulled out from under you. Yet, think of it this way: Just as the sun comes up every morning, God pours out his love on us. And just as the sun is shining, even though there may be a thick layer of clouds blocking it from our view, so God is watching over us, even when God seems distant and far-away.
When the Allied forces liberated Cologne, they found an inscription on the wall of a cellar where the Jews had been hiding from Nazi soldiers. It was – and is – an affirmation of faith we’d all do well to live by: It goes like this:
I believe in the sun even when it is not shining;
I believe in love even when I cannot feel it;
I believe in God even when He is silent.
Well, this is what I hope you’ll always remember: “It is because of Yahweh’s loving kindnesses that we are not consumed, because his compassion doesn’t fail.”
I hope you’ll also remember the second part of the passage, though it’s a little more problematic. Jeremiah says,
“For though he cause grief, yet he will have compassion according to the multitude of his loving kindnesses.”
For years, whenever I read this part of the passage, I took the liberty to say, “though there is grief” instead of, “God causes grief.” I can accept the fact that bad things happen to good people, but I can’t believe God causes them to happen. A loving God wouldn’t do that. Besides, there’s too much evidence to the contrary. For example, Jesus asked his disciples,
“Or who is there among you, who, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, who will give him a serpent? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:9-11)
What’s more, the passage in Lamentations goes right on to say, “For he does not afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of men.” (Lamentations 3:33)
The reason Jeremiah said that God causes grief is because, as far as the Hebrews were concerned, nothing could happen apart from God. For them, God was all-knowing and all-powerful, so that whatever happens, God must be behind it; otherwise, God wouldn’t be in charge. There would be parts of creation over which God had no control. So, if there’s grief, God must cause it.
Of course, we look at this differently today. We believe that, while God doesn’t cause grief, God does allow it to happen. To shield us from grief or pain or hardship or loss would upset the balance of nature and, ironically, thwart our growth.
Sure, in a moment of weakness, we’re tempted to believe that the world would be better off if we called the shots. Why, we would’ve shielded the folks in northeast Arkansas from all the tornadoes that hit on Friday. We might even do away with storms altogether. Face it, if it were up to us, we’d live in Camelot, where it only rains after sundown and then, in just the right proportions.
Yet, here’s the problem: As much as we hate to admit it, it’s the hardships of life that make us strong, not the pleasures. Through the agony of pain and loss we grow closer to God and each other. Paul put it this way:
“…We also rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering works perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope: and hope doesn’t disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5)
It’s only natural to grieve over the death of a loved one, or the destruction of property, or the loss of a job, or the disappointment of a failed relationship. These things happen. Yet, life goes on and, as it does, by turning to God we grow stronger in faith and all the more confident to face the uncertainties of the future.
Plus, there’s an added dimension to all this: To experience the harsh realities of life in faith is, in a way, to participate in Jesus’ own passion and death. The Apostle Paul put it this way:
” For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are children of God…and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ; if indeed we suffer with him, that we may also be glorified with him.” (Romans 8:14-17)
Jesus promised over and over:
• “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4)
• “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 5:10)
• “He who seeks his life will lose it; and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.”(Matthew 10:39)
This is what we’ve been singing every Sunday morning of Eastertide:
“We have been crucified with Christ,
Now we shall live forever.”
This is the heart and soul of our faith: Jesus suffered and died for the forgiveness of our sins. He gave his life for us that we might give our lives for others to the glory of his name. In giving our lives for others we expose ourselves to the full spectrum of pain and loss. Yet, we do it gladly, not only knowing that this God’s will for our lives, but that, in so doing, we walk with Christ. To know him is to serve him, and to serve him is to share his passion and death and so, experience the promise of his resurrection from the dead.
There’s a hymn that captures the essence of God’s faithfulness as beautifully as anything I know, and it goes like this:
“O God, what you ordain is right, your holy will abiding;
I shall be still, whate’er you do, and follow where you are guiding.
You are my God; though dark my road, you hold me that I shall not fall;
Wherefore to you I leave it all.”
(Presbyterian Hymnal, p. 284)
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2008, Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.