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Uncertain: God's Certainty

Uncertain: God's Certainty

Jan 12, 2020

Passage: Romans 8:28-39

Preacher: The Reverend Andrew Van Kirk

Series: Uncertain

Detail:

I closed the door to the stall in a highway rest stop bathroom. It was gross. It was the sort of facility that makes one question the meaning of life and the value of existence. And as the door swung shut, a short story’s worth of messages were revealed. You’ve seen them all before; you can imagine their content. Or at least you’ve seen most of them. Because there was one that stood out: in bold permanent marker, the letters neatly serifed by hand, it proclaimed: “you were predestined to be here.”

That is a statement of deep theological import; clamoring and and climbing into one’s brain at an inopportune time. Was I? Was it part of God’s unalterable plan that I would be right there, suffocating under that particular roadside stench, right then? Was it certain? Did it have to be that way? Did I have to go to Taco Bell for breakfast?

Today we’re beginning a four-part sermon series entitled Uncertain. Because whatever the case is with God, our lives seem uncertain to us. We don’t know — for certain — what will happen each day. Where will we end up? What we will see. Or do. Or be a part of. What will happen to us.

Over the next several weeks, we’re exploring living a faithful life in an uncertain world, and we’re going to do that by working through concrete examples — little narratives of actual uncertainty in life — things like job loss or waiting for a diagnosis from the doctor — and, as we tell those stories, we will stop along the way to comment on them, to point our where faith intersects those stories, and how we can find God in the midst of that uncertainty.

But first, in this sermon, I want to spend a little time building up our theological toolbox. This is a sermon with a heavy teaching component; what do we mean theologically when we talk about God’s plan, God’s will, our freedom? What about predestination? What does scripture say? What does our faith teach us? Were you, as the bathroom door said, “predestined to be here”? In what sense is your listening to the sound of my voice a part of God’s unalterable plan for the salvation of the universe?

The phrase “It’s all part of God’s plan” — in my experience — is used most often to address situations that don’t seem like they should be part of God’s plan at all. Do you know what I mean? When something bad happens, that’s when we tend to trot out the line “It’s all part of God’s plan.” And not just something a little bad. Stubbed your toe? Not a God’s plan sort of thing. Have a car crash and end up with chronic disability? Then you’ll get the get well card from your sweet aunt in Kansas about God’s plan.

We say this to each other because it is comforting to know that we are not arbitrary sufferers; we’re not just unlucky participants in the race of life who have gotten knocked off course. On the flip side, the cost of keeping us from arbitrary suffering is that God we describe seems to plan some pretty horrible things. I guarantee you that are family members of those who were on that Ukraine Airlines plane that got shot down who have heard this week, “It’s all a part of God’s plan.” And I don’t know about a God whose plan involves anti-aircraft missiles accidentally fired at Boeing 737s. Or a God who wills child abuse; or addiction; or murder.

It can seem like cost of an ordered universe where things make sense and happen for a reason is a universe run by a monstrous god. And God is not a monster.

Our scripture reading from Romans this morning begins, “All things work together for good for those who love God.” It does not state that all things are good. God wills good things. But bad things happen. And what this is about is that God can work good out of all things, even bad ones. This is a pretty central concept in our faith: God can work good out of all things, even bad ones. But that is not the same as saying that everything happens because God has planned it out that way from the beginning of creation.

Everything is not all part of God’s plan in the sense that everything happens because God planned for it to happen exactly that way. In fact, human beings have been given their own wills, to make their own plans and we’ve used quite a lot of that freedom to plan things that are not God’s will.

So when we say everything is a part of God’s plan, what we mean is that even if it’s not the will of God, it’s not out of scope for God. This is the first premise I want you to get this morning: What is not the will of God is not out of scope for God. No matter what uncertainty you’re facing, on the other side of it you will not be out of scope for God.

If you’re in the project management, technical, or engineering fields, the phrase “out of scope” will be familiar. I learned about it when I was working at Amazon on the software that processed orders. On the surface that seemed pretty simple — you order the item, Amazon prepares to ship it, processes your payment, and then sends it to you. But then there are these rules, “business logic,” about where you can ship aerosol cans, and what to do with orders for 93 items when one of them is back ordered, and these strange islands off the coast of Britain that collect VAT tax in vials of unicorn blood. And then we’d get a report from our quality assurance team that would say something like, “Did you know that when you drink a pint of beer and sing a Scottish drinking song while banging the F5 key on the keyboard and clicking the mouse randomly all over the screen, the website creates a duplicate order if your browser doesn’t accept cookies?”

And I’d be like, “No. No I didn’t know that. I thought drunken Scotsman who don’t know how to use computers were out of scope for this project!”

And QA would be like, “Yeah. We have a lot of bug reports about this from Scotland. It’s definitely in scope. Please fix this severity 1 blocking bug.”

So I imagine the angels in heaven are often looking down here and are like, “Boss…you’re never going to believe the fix they’ve got themselves in this time.” And God looks down and says, “Yeah, that wasn’t what I had in mind. But remember, it’s never out of scope for the project of the world’s salvation.” Even if it’s not the will of God, it’s not out of scope for God.

This is the truth about God that Paul is trying to explain in Romans. Let’s look at little deeper at this. We’ve talked about v. 28: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” And then there’s this famous series of things, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.”

There are a lot of big theological words in here: foreknew, predestined, called, justified, and glorified. The first two in particular have historically exhibited a tendency to become theological minefields. God’s foreknowledge of us is a Biblical concept that really has to do with God’s creating us a particular beings with particularly purposes and skills. God doesn’t scatter human beings throughout creation the way humans scatter wildflower seeds. God’s a farmer, not Lady Bird Johnson beautifying the highways. You are you, particularly. God knows that, loves that about you, and made you that way on purpose, for his purpose.

And then…predestination.

Whew. Ok. Do y’all have lunch plans, or are we good for a while?

Predestination, in the church’s historical life, became the theological term for the divine decision whereby certain souls are guided to eternal salvation. That, of course, brings up a question about the other souls, which has led the logical extreme, what is called double predestination: basically that’s the theological argument that God makes some people for heaven and other people for hell and that’s his will so it’s good.

That’s irreconcilable with the universal saving will of God. We are predestined, Paul says so, we’re predestined because God’s saving will is prior to anything we say or do about our salvation. We’re not saved by accident or by choice or by luck or by hard work, but because God makes us — even knowing we’ll be sinful — but makes us with a plan to save us. The comforting thing about predestination is that salvation is God’s free gift to us, not a response to our life for (or against) God. We can be certain God’s saving will comes first.

And Paul doesn’t stop at predestination. That whole series of things...calling, justification, and glorification, those are all steps in the series that leads to our salvation and eternal life with God.

So this is the second key premise: God’s plan is an eternal plan; not a 12-month project roadmap or a five year plan, but an eternal plan. What Paul is saying (and here we begin to address the question of uncertainty) is that there is nothing that can happen in life that can keep God from working out that eternal plan. The outline of it is in these verses: God knows us before we’re born (foreknowledge), wills our salvation (predestination), calls us to a life of purpose (called), fixes our broken relationship with God (justified), and brings us to a new heavenly life (glorified).

Whatever happens along the way, however uncertain life gets, that plan is certain. Whatever happens, we know that it is a part of that plan of God. Our life — which on earth is not really that long — fits within God’s plan, because God’s plan is an eternal plan. Our mortal life fits into God’s eternal plan.

What that doesn’t mean is that God has carefully planned out for you every roadside bathroom, stubbed toe, major injury, life crisis, every win, every loss, every relationship, such that you, or anyone else involved, has no choice about anything, and free will is just an illusion. Otherwise we’d really just e watching a movie in which we’re the main character and for which we will be eternally punished or rewarded based on the outcome, even though we had no ability to effect the script.

That’s silly. Paul’s point, and we’ll see this as we follow where he goes, is that there is actually a lot of uncertainty because of human freedom, and creation’s freedom, to act counter to God’s design.

But there is precisely one freedom we as human beings, or really any part of creation, one freedom we do not have: we can be certain that nothing and no one has the freedom to destroy God’s love for us. We can reject that love; we can reject God’s will, we can even reject God entirely and refuse to believe. But we can never stop God from loving us.

That is the one freedom the creation does not have: to stop God’s love.

Look at the text…this is where Paul has been going since he wrote, “We know that all things work together for good…” V. 35: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril or sword?” Jump ahead, “No! In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, not angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

In all uncertainty, we can be certain that God’s love will be on the other side of what’s next. Nothing and no one can stop God’s love.

So three premises if you will. Three things to keep in mind as we face uncertainty:

  1. Even if it’s not the will of God, it’s not out of scope for God.
  2. God’s plan is an eternal plan.
  3. God’s love will be on the other side of what happens next.

So going forward we’ll take those truths and apply them to specific examples, to try to build up our spiritual muscles so that we have the strength to take what we are certain is true and live our lives where so much is uncertain. The key to our uncertainty is the certain love of God.