"What on earth is God doing?!"
Sorry, I should have said that slightly differently
"What on earth is God doing?"
Or is it "What on earth is God doing?"
What a difference an emphasis makes, doesn’t it? And yet at times, I bet, we’ve asked ourselves the same question and meant all three. Life takes an unexpected twist and we find ourselves doing something we never thought we’d ever do - and just after we’ve prayed for the situation to be resolved in a totally different way.
And then perhaps we see a dreadful humanitarian tragedy unfolding before our eyes on our television screens, and wonder how God can let such a thing happen.
"What on earth was God thinking of to let so-and-so happen"
Now that might seem a little pretentious to imagine that we could possibly begin to comprehend the way that God thinks, when we have enough difficulty at times understanding how our friends and family make the decisions that they do at times.
But if we’re to grasp any understanding at all of the way God works in our lives and in the world, then we need to examine that something called "the will of God" . After all, every time we say the Lord’s prayer we pray "Your kingdom come, your WILL be done on earth..."
For it is only as we begin to understand more about this, and about God’s purpose for his people that we can start to answer the big questions that I started with.
Most children have problems with the will of their parents. Not so much in understanding what’s been said, "Don’t do that!" but rather the rationale behind the instruction. And how do we know that they struggle with this? Because they ask a simple question.... "Why?"
And how do we answer to young children? "Because Daddy knows best!" or "Because Mummy says so!" We base this answer on the premise that firstly, parents are older and wiser and secondly that experience of life tells us that we’ll generally be right.
This approach doesn’t work so well once the child reaches teenage years, believe me. Then they need a more detailed explanation, sets of boundaries agreed, and may even ask the question "How?"- How are they supposed to live up to their parents expectations.
And here of course there we can see spiritual parallels in our relationship with our heavenly Father
When we’re new Christians then we want to know why God makes certain demands on us, like the young child questioning our request to do something that seems quite straightforward and reasonable to us.
As we grow and develop our faith, and understand more about our God, then with this increased understanding comes greater responsibility. We have to accept that our heavenly Father makes certain demands on our lives, and begin to work out why,
Even as we become more mature as Christians we still need to know what God’s requirements are.
As we grow spiritually, we must accept an encounter with the will of God. This is not some dreadful ‘Stand in the corner, boy, and wait until I’m ready to deal with you!’ , just a loving Father revealing to his children the way that life could, and should, be lived.
Jesus knew the importance of seeking the will of his Father. We see this in the reading from Mark’s gospel. We’re used to thinking of Jesus continually up against opposition from the authorities and people that followed him around. Well, at the start of his ministry, the danger wasn’t opposition but popular acclaim. We read that the whole town turned out to see what was going on in their neighbourhood, as well they might.
It couldn’t be every day that someone turned up and started healing everyone that asked him to touch them. He must have had his work cut out trying to keep up with the steady stream of visitors to the home of Simon and Andrew, where he was staying.
So what’s the most important thing that Jesus can think of doing. Getting up early so that even more people can come to the house and be healed? No, getting up early and heading off into the countryside where he can have a bit of peace and quiet, and sort out in his mind just what he should be doing next. We know this because Mark tells us that when the disciples found him, Jesus said "Let’s go somewhere else - to the nearby villages - so I can preach there also. That is why I have come."
Jesus needed time to focus, firstly on the way his ministry was going, and secondly on finding out what the next step was to be - and how did he do this except by finding solitude ...........and listening and talking with his Father.
So let’s go back to our opening question "What on earth is God doing?", or to put it another way, how does God get involved in the world today - indeed how do we know that he does?
Well, there are three major areas that we can see God’s will and purpose at work
- providence, by which we mean the general circumstances of our lives
Firstly, let’s remember that creation was all God’s idea. It was God’s will and purpose that the universe came into being. Whether you believe in the literal explanation contained in Genesis or not, this was no accident.
To quote Edwin Conklin "the probability of life originating from accident is comparable to the probability of the unabridged dictionary resulting from an explosion in a printing shop."
The universe carries his hallmark and the beauty, diversity and complexity of the universe are only a pale reflection of the greatness of our God. He makes his name known to the nations, and one way he does this is through his creation. God wishes to communicate and shows himself through his creation. Have you never stood at the top of a mountain and marvelled at the landscape, the harmony of colours, sounds and feelings. Or what about the miracle of birth.
God declares the whole earth will be full of his glory (Numbers 14:21)
Revelation 4:11 says "You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being."
God created; he was well pleased with the universe - but he didn’t stop there, despite a well publicised incident with a certain snake and an apple.
Because despite the fall, God provided for Adam and Eve, or humankind if you prefer. He didn’t just abandon them to the awesome task of caring for the world in which they had been placed, he gave them the means to do the job. He provided a means of escape for Noah and his family when the flood threatened.
Throughout the OT we see God working through his creation to sustain. "You give life to everything" says the prophet Nehemiah. And again in the NT Paul, when talking to the men of Athens about God’s role in creation ends by stating "For in him we live and move and have our being."
God doesn’t just sustain his creation. - He isn’t just there at the side of the organ pumping the bellows to keep the air flowing - he’s at work throughout human history in order to achieve his plans and purposes. And this is one of the joys of our Christian faith, knowing that we have a living God who is constantly working out his purpose in our lives, the life of the church and the world at large - sometimes visibly and sometimes unseen, but always at work.
Yes, sometimes we can be totally unaware of the hand of God in our lives, perhaps because the help comes from unlikely sources. We read in the OT that even pagan kings found themselves unwittingly used by God to deliver judgement or deliverance. He often used the forces of nature and the nations surrounding Israel to further the cause of his chosen people.
Jeremiah describes God’s people as a lump of clay in the hands of the potter, who can do what whatever he wishes with it. Like the clay, our destiny is ultimately in God’s hands, and although that might seem rather awe inspiring as a concept, surely we would rather have it that way than have our destiny held in the hands of man
"We sleep in peace in the arms of God, when we yield ourselves up to his providence"
Now to describe us as putty in the hands of God might suggest that we’re totally at the mercy of God’s will and unable to make decisions of our own, but common sense tells us that that’s not the way things are.
We’re not puppets with God holding and tweaking our strings. He’s given us all the free will we need to make the choices we have to make - it’s just that sometimes, often if we’re truthful, no doubt - our choices aren’t necessarily the ones that God would have liked us to make. But he can cope with that, after all it was he that gave us free will.
The important thing to remember is that our choices may aid or hinder, but they can never thwart God’s purposes. In searching for his will, in looking at the circumstances of our daily lives for evidence of his hand, what we must be careful of avoiding is looking to every shower of rain in a drought as a promise of God’s blessing, and every drought as a part of his judgement. If an event is significant then God will make it clear. For Simon Peter, the simple sound of a cock crowing had significance because of Jesus’ words.
So what does the bible tell us of God’s providence? Well, it tells us that we can depend on it daily.
He promises to supply all our needs (Phil 4:19)
He looks after us even when we’re surrounded by our enemies (Psalm 23:5) "You prepare a table before me, in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil, and my cup overflows"
He protects us. The Psalmist certainly knew this to be true.
We have no need of fear. The bible is full of reassurances of God’s enduring love, which is far greater than any of our fears
He cares for the vulnerable among us; the elderly, the poor and children
And his care extends to our future destiny (Matt 25:34) ‘Come you who are blessed by my father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world’
The Fatherly care of God for his people as individuals also extends towards the community of his people, the church where his ultimate will is to prepare a community for eternity; and hence to redeem, to care, sanctify and glorify his people.
Paul declares that the self-sacrifice of Jesus was his response to his Father’s will, so that we should be rescued from a fallen world - not just for a once in a lifetime experience, but for us to follow a new lifestyle, as Paul says in Romans "Be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what is the will of God."
The unfolding drama of God’s love began in the Garden of Eden and has continued throughout time. He’s shown that his will and desire is to save when he judged the world with a flood and provided a means of escape. When he judged Sodom and Gomorrah he sent warning, offered a reprieve and delivered those who listened to the warning. He sent Joseph to Egypt in anticipation of the great famine to save his family and the nations from starvation, and he heard the cries of his people in Egypt to be released from their slavery, and sent Moses to deliver them.
Throughout the OT, God was recognised by the Jews as their salvation, but we know that in the back of his mind was his eternal plan to send his Son. Everything before the cross was in anticipation of it.
The sacrifices that we read about were symbolic, and ultimately symbolic of Christ’s passion. As the letter to the Hebrews tells us "By that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all."
So let’s go back to our opening question "What on earth is God doing?" What is the will of God for his people and his creation?
What do we know so far?
Firstly that the universe is His creation, and not only that but we know that he was pleased with it, and it gave him pleasure. The rebellion of humankind might have given God good cause to destroy his creation and think about starting again, but that’s not what we read about in the OT.
It was, and continues to be God’s will to continue his creative work, to continue breathing life into his creation. "For in him we live and move and have our being". It is also his delight to be known and recognised through his creation, for God is glorified by everything that is good, and everything that is in accordance with his will.
Secondly that God didn’t stop when he took his day off after creating the universe, but has been continually at work throughout human history in order to achieve his plans and purposes - sometimes visibly and at other times unseen, through events, through circumstances and through people, willingly or unwittingly.
Someone has said "God’s providence is not in baskets lowered from the sky, but through the hands and hearts of those who love him. The lad without food and without shoes made the proper answer to the cruel-minded woman who asked ‘But if God loved you, wouldn’t he have sent you shoes?’"
The boy replied, "God told someone, but he forgot."
Thirdly, and this is putting it in a nutshell, if a little wordy - God’s supreme purpose, his ultimate will is a future glorified church, consisting of sinners who have been saved through his son. God knew all along that he would send his Son, because there was ultimately no other way for humanity to be saved. Everything before the cross was in anticipation of it.
The living God has a living relationship with his creation, which includes having plans for history as a whole and for us as individuals.
So it was then that even Jesus, hounded right and left by crowds clamouring to see, hear and touch him, needed to stop for a moment, find somewhere quiet, take stock of where he was and listen to his heavenly Father, so that his will, and his Father’s will should be one.
We too need to take time to listen, and remember that God’s purpose is often worked out through people, and what a joy we miss out on if we are out or refuse to open the door when he knocks.
"Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven"