Text: Isaiah 45:1-7 (Psalm 96) W 23rd Sunday after Pentecost
The Lord Reigns
In the name of who rules over all things in justice, truth, and love, dear friends in Christ: This morning I’d like to spend some time talking about the rule and providence of God in our lives. About a month back (you may remember) I preached a sermon based on Romans chapter thirteen about how God rules over us through both his Church and through human governments, or what we call the State. Through the former the Lord deals with us in matters that pertain to the spirit. He does this through his appointed means, which are his Word and Sacraments, whereby he shows us our guilt, calls us to repentance, proclaims his forgiveness in Christ who atoned for our sins on the cross, and through which he also gives us his Holy Spirit so that we can trust his promises unto eternal life and live in the here and now lives transformed by his grace.
All right, turning our attention to the latter, it’s through the State that the Lord rules over us in matters that are more earthly in nature. Through the State he establishes and maintains the civil order in which we live, work, worship, and play. He gives us leaders and laws to govern us. He defends us from external enemies with the armed forces. He protects us from criminals with law enforcement and the courts – and by them he also protects our neighbors from the sorts of criminal things we may be tempted to do to them. Through the State the Lord also gives us the structure and infrastructure in which we can trade, buy, sell, transport people and goods, and so conduct our business. And for all that the State does for us as the Lord’s agent in these things we owe it our allegiance, our obedience, and our taxes – as also we heard Jesus say in today’s Gospel reading: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”.
Okay, so we understand that the Lord rules over us in the Church and through the State. One more thing to add to the mix is the Lord’s rule over us through nature. It was he, after all, who wrote the physical, chemical, and biological laws that govern the way things work in the universe – both before the fall into sin when everything was perfect and stable and now also in the post fall universe that is subject to his curse of futility and decay. And we really have no choice but to be subject to these laws. I mean, you can try to defy the law of gravity, but you’ll lose every time. But by these natural laws and processes the Lord does indeed rule over and provide for us. For example it’s through them that light produced by a nuclear fusion reaction in the sun 93 million miles away travels to the earth in about eight and a half minutes to warm the soil, which also warms moisture laden air near the surface that cools as it rises causing condensation and thus rain, which then waters the warm soil containing seeds that swell and spring to life according to the information contained in their unique set of genetic instructions. All of it happens according to the Lord’s wise rule and design.
And all of this makes sense. At least I hope it does. But what may be a little harder for us to pin down is exactly how the Lord rules over us through the State and through nature. Here’s what I mean: in the Church we actually hear God’s Word – that’s what’s driving the train and directing activities. It’s the power by which he operates and exerts his authority. In the State though, we don’t hear his Word. Indeed, sometimes his Word is actively suppressed or openly opposed. So how is it possible for the Lord to rule over us and do what’s good for us through persons and means that are inherently evil and opposed to his Word? Or take it a step further: if the Lord appoints a ruler for a nation who is especially evil and who does wicked things with the power he’s been granted by the Lord – say a Hitler or somebody like that – to what extent is the Lord complicit in the evil things he does? Or let’s talk about nature. Earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes are all governed by natural laws – laws that the Lord himself established. Indeed, these events are sometimes called “acts of God”. But are they? To what extent is the Lord responsible if your house blows down or if it’s washed away in a swollen river or if it collapses in an earthquake? Or what about germs that cause disease and genetic distortions that cause cancer? If you get sick, how should you express it? “God gave me this illness”, “God allowed this illness to happen to me”, or “The Lord is as sad and upset as I am that I’m sick; he certainly didn’t have a hand in it”? Which is correct? How should we understand these things?
To begin to answer, it will be helpful to describe the ditches on either side of the road we want to avoid falling into. As with most theological issues, a certain tension needs to be maintained between opposing ideas like law and gospel, justice and forgiveness, and the two natures of Christ: both divine and human. In any of these theological conundrums if you lean too far to one side or the other you’ll fall into error. So it is also with the issue at hand: the question of the extent of the Lord’s involvement in the ongoing actions of nature and human government.
On one side is the heresy of deism. The basic notion is that the Lord constructed the universe like a huge and immensely complicated clock, which he then wound up so it could run on its own, set the pendulum in motion, and then sat back to watch what would happen. In deism the Lord’s rule over us (if you can call it that) through nature and the state exists only in his setting up of the initial parameters and conditions. After that he is only an observer. There’s no ongoing interaction between the Creator and the universe. He doesn’t interfere with what goes on in any way. That’s classic deism, anyway; there are variations of the idea that allow for the Lord to make fine adjustments now and then – but still, generally speaking, he’s pretty much a “hands off” kind of guy.
The ditch on the other side of the road is to stress the absolute sovereignty of God. The idea was originally championed by ancient Stoics and appears today in Christian churches with Reformed or Calvinist backgrounds. For what it’s worth, the religion of Islam also leans heavily in this direction. According to this view everything that happens, happens because the Lord has ordained it to be so. We humans are merely puppets acting out our parts in a play with a divinely written script that cannot be altered. You only think that you do your own thinking and make your own choices. It’s an illusion. Everything you think, say, and do is according to the script. All natural phenomena are similarly controlled by God. So in this view, the Lord is completely “hands on” – or maybe it would be better to say “hands in” because he’s the guy making the puppets’ mouths move.
And again, we want to avoid both these extremes, first and foremost because they are completely unbiblical. We see the Lord playing an active role in human history throughout the Scriptures. He brings the Flood, for example, and rescues his people from their Egyptian servitude with great signs and wonders by which he exerts his control over nature and human government. That rules out deism. On the other side, the Lord holds people personally responsible for their sins—which would be completely unjust if they were merely acting out the parts they had been programmed by him to perform. In the complete sovereignty view, you can’t escape the fact that it makes the Lord himself the author and originator of sin. Surely we don’t want to go there. Another problem is that both these extremes pretty much torpedo and sink the whole idea of prayer. What’s the point in asking the Lord to do something for you if he doesn’t interact with his creation? On the other side, what’s the point in praying for something to change if everything’s foreordained and can’t be changed from the original plan? Of course, since your prayer too is part of the script, I suppose it serves some purpose …but really what you’ve got in prayer then in the Lord talking to himself using your mouth. It’s God as the great ventriloquist.
So, rejecting both these extremes, let’s recognize that the truth lies someplace in between. And since we’re looking for truth, we know the place to look for it is in the Holy Scriptures. If the Lord has revealed anything that sheds light on this topic, that’s where we’ll find it. And it just so happens that today’s Old Testament reading from Isaiah goes a long way toward filling in some of the blanks for us.
What we have in this text is a very
remarkable prophecy. Through Isaiah the
Lord speaks to a man named Cyrus and tells him that he has taken him by the
hand and appointed him to be the deliverer of his people
That’s really quite astonishing. But another thing that makes the prophecy so remarkable is that Cyrus, when he finally shows up to be the one who delivers the Lord’s people, will be an idol worshipping pagan who doesn’t know the Lord. The Lord says to him, “I’m calling you by name even though you don’t know mine. Makes no difference: I’ve still chosen you to do this job for me – and do it you will!”
All of which might sound a bit like one of the extremes we rejected. It seems that Cyrus will have no choice in this matter – that he’ll be acting as the Lord’s puppet; but that’s not the idea at all. No, it’s more that the Lord, by giving him the opportunities he’ll have, and by equipping him with the right tools and influences, will bring Cyrus to power and have him free the Lord’s people by his own volition. It will be his idea—and it will be precisely what the Lord wanted him to do. And the Lord goes on to explain that the reason he’s having it recorded now, 140 years before the fact, is so that when Cyrus does it, he’ll be able to learn that it was the Lord’s plan for him all along – that it wasn’t his own worthless false gods that gave him the power and riches he had; but rather the one and only God who rules heaven and earth. The prophecy would then serve as a vehicle to call this pagan deliverer to faith. And not just for himself, but for anyone else who read the prophecy and saw how the Lord brought about everything he promised that he would through Cyrus.
So here we see that the Lord is very much a “hands on” ruler when it comes to running the affairs of the world. And yet, in politics and in nature his influence is external. People – particularly the unfaithful – aren’t controlled from within. They still do what they want to do, it’s just by controlling the circumstances in which they operate they end up doing things that serve the Lord’s ends. More importantly though, we see the Lord’s twofold purpose in the way he works in and influences what goes on in the world. The first is that everything that happens, happens for the ultimate benefit of his faithful people. That doesn’t mean maximizing their comfort, wealth, or the length of their earthly lives. That doesn’t mean protecting them from every bad thing that happens or every sin that evil people might commit against them. No. What’s ultimately good for God’s people is that they continue to trust in him for their salvation – because in that faith they are saved and preserved to eternal life. The Lord’s second purpose is to call people to faith so that they will also be his people. And that he accomplishes by his Spirit working through his Word – which means it happens under the authority of his rule in the Church because that’s where his Word is heard.
That’s what the Lord is up to: making believers and preserving them in the faith. And one way or another, everything that happens in this world serves one or both of those ends. But here’s the point: we understand that. Cyrus didn’t. At least he didn’t while he was doing it. But we do. So if the Lord can work his will through those who don’t know him or recognize his rule over all things, how much more can he accomplish his noble purposes through us – the people who have his Word, whose sins are forgiven in Christ Jesus, who recognize his rule, who understand his goals, who are filled with his Spirit and motivated by his love, and who are equipped with the individual talents and abilities he’s given us as well as the spiritual gifts he’s granted – how much more can he work through us … if only we let him?
My prayer this morning is that we might capture that vision—and act on it. The Lord rules over all things. May we, by faith in Jesus and trusting in his grace, let him rule our hearts that in all things and in every circumstance we gladly accomplish his holy will. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria!