Monday, January 08, 2018

Marvellous and mysterious - the providence of God

   Yesterday morning we were blessed by a New Year's sermon by Paul Levy on Mat 2:13-22 which he divided as a geography lesson learning from Egypt, Bethlehem and Nazareth how prophecy was fulfilled in each by Christ who is the centre of our faith. It was Bethlehem that particularly struck me.
Mat 2:16-18 'Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.  Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children she refused to be comforted, because they are no more."' There Paul enlarged on God's works of providence which are as the Shorter Catechism says, 'God's works of providence are his most holy, wise and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions.'  If providence be holy and wise and therefore good and God is in control we are thankful that Jesus was protected from Herod. But what of the dark side, the adverse providence, the suffering of the parents whose innocents were murdered? What do you say to them? How has God been holy. wise and powerful for he has not protected their children? Paul went on making two points. The first is that man was responsible. This suffering came about because of the wickedness of Herod a murderous tyrant, an insecure puppet king who felt threatened by the information from the wise men that there was another king in Bethlehem. The innocents died because of sin. Not their's, nor their parent's but because of a wicked man. We are all too ready to blame God when evil things happen, when suffering comes. We ask if there is a God and he is good and in control why did he do this or let this happen? The first answer is that we are in a fallen world and sinful men cause murder and evil, the killing of innocents. God did not do it Herod did. 
   After the sermon Paul told me that for the sake of time he omitted the best illustration of this which had already sprung to my mind for I heard Lloyd-Jones preach two days after the terrible Abefan disaster. Scores of innocent schoolchildren killed by a slag heap sliding down the hillside onto their school.The Doctor in his sermon asked, 'You will say why did God let this happen and I will answer it was not God but man. In his greedy folly men dumped the mine's slag on ground where they knew there was a spring of water. The spring caused the landslide not God. And men were careless in putting their slag on a spring. ' Lloyd Jones was right. The Coal Board tried to deny it but had to admit their fault and responsibility. God had not killed the children. Man's folly did. In Bethlehem Herod was at fault not God.   But that does not get us away from the problem of adverse providence. If God is most holy, wise and powerful why did he not stop the killing? Why did he not protect the schoolchildren of Aberfan? Paul told us that we must understand God's providence is amazing, marvellous for he protected Jesus but also mysterious for he allowed the murder of the innocents. Providence amazing/marvellous and mysterious/adverse. What do we say about the mystery? Paul referred us to where Matthew went, to the prophet Jeremiah, Jer 31:15:   'Thus says the LORD:j“A voice is heard in kRamah, lamentation and bitter weeping.Rachel is weeping for her childrenshe refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.'  This chapter is one of hope for Israel after exile but the verse Matthew quotes is the only sad one in the chapter. Rachel is pictctured as a mother who has lost her child. Her descendants have gone into exile. and there is no comfort. But the prophet says there is hope. Jer 31:16-17 'Thus says the LORD“Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears, for there is a reward for your work, declares the LORDand they shall come back from the land of the enemy.There is hope for your future,declares the LORDand your children shall come back to their own country."' Just as Rachel's children, Israel or Judah would be restored from exile, so there is hope for the parents of Bethlehem. The death of their children is not the end. There is resurrection to come in the Jesus whom providence has preserved. The mystery of providence is solved, as much as it can be in Jesus. He is the hope of those suffering in Bethlehem. If you want to have any kind of solution to the mystery of providence look to Jesus.
   Now here I have to confess I may be wandering from Paul's sermon but I am developing the theme. Christ is the answer whatever the question in so far as an answer is given. We are creatures, not the creator and we have to learn that we cannot know everything, we are not omniscient. God is. God is God, we are not and sometimes we must bow and worship where we cannot understand. In our sin we expect to know everything. We want answers and when we do not have them say we cannot believe that nonsense it is irrational. For example people will say the trinity is nonsense. How can God be one and three? It is mathematical rubbish or, if you are a Muslim, it is blasphemy. But I answer; you should not be surprised you cannot understand the Trinity for God is bigger than you and he is mysterious and ultimately incomprehensible. You can know some things truly about him but nothing comprehensively for if you could comprehend God you would be greater than Him, you would be God. Ant that is sinful man's problem. He wants to be like God and know everything, know good and evil but we are not God, we are finite creatures, we cannot know all things exhaustively only what God has revealed. Someimes we must hold our tongues, our questioning; bow and worship.
   Deut 29: :29 “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law." Interestingly the context of this verse is exactly such a 'why' question about adverse providence. Deut 29:24-25 '... all the nations cwill say, d‘Why has the LORD done thus to this land? What caused the heat of this great anger?’ 25 Then people will say, ‘It is because they abandoned the covenant of the LORD, the God of their fathers, which he made with them when he brought them out of the land of Egypt, ' The nations ask why. Israel admits their responsibility, their sin; and then God says somethings remain secret. If God is in control and loving why did he make Israel suffer, why did he let Herod kill the innocents, why the Aberfan disaster? Human sin is not all the explanation. What I am arguing is that you cannot expect all the answer, a whole answer but there is a true answer in Christ. His resurrection gives hope to those who have lost their children. Death is not the end Christ brings resurrection. If you are in Christ, as surely as he rose and is risen now, you too will rise. The innocents of Bethlehem and Aberfan will rise. In Christ there is hope for he is victorious. Christ is risen. We have hope. 
   But you may say, how does that comfort a suffering parent now? Are you not offering mere pie in the sky? No. Resurrection is not pie in the sky. It is a new heavens and a new earth; a real new world; and in Christ there is even more that that future hope. There is an understanding of the mystery of providence now. Not comprehensive understanding but true. How can an all-powerful God be loving and allow suffering? Look at His Son. His beloved Son in whom he is well pleased, goes where? To suffering. To death. To agony on the cross. The most painful execution ever devised. Reserved for the worst of criminals, for slaves, foreigners, for those cursed. That he suffers. The wrath of God, the wrath of a loving father. Why? For it was the will of the Lord to bruise him for our sake.  For our salvation. God loves his Son yet makes him suffer. So in Christ there is some true if not comprehensive understanding of suffering. God's purpose combines love and suffering, justice and mercy. 
   One more thing. Jesus did not understand it and did no like it. He was no masochist. He asked if he could be spared the cup yet bowed to God's will. Matthew 26:39 - And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” We do not like suffering. Jesus didn't but he bowed before his father and accepted it. He did not in his agony understand it either, Matthew 27:46 - And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In the midst of the suffering it is not given to us perhaps to understand why. If Jesus didn't why should we?
   Of course the wonderful thing here is we do know why Jesus suffered. It was God's will for our salvation. Could not God have found some other way? Hold on. Some things are revealed some not. The question is impertinent. This is God's way. Accept. Bow. You may not understand but Christ shows by his death that one can be loved by God and yet suffer. Suffering is not the end of him nor is it any negation of God's love and power.
   R C Sproul died recently and I came across a profound quote from him.“God answered Job’s questions not with words but with himself.” The book of Job is about suffering. Why did Job suffer. The book teaches two profound lessons. Job was not told why he was suffering - even after the end of the suffering. His friends said he had sinned. Job said there was no specific sin for which he suffered. Job was right. But he did sin in expecting an explanation and he never got one. He received a revelation of God himself and restoration to greater blessing than before. But at the time he never knew he suffered as part of the conflict between God and Satan, an unseen world affecting Job's seen world. We are told that. Job was not. We know why Jesus suffered but on the cross he just knew agony not purpose. We are told more but not all about suffering.
   So to conclude. Suffering comes because of sin. Perhaps yours, perhaps not. Perhaps someone else's perhaps not. Definitely because we are part of a sinful fallen world in rebellion against the God who is there. Suffering hurts. It is bad.Not all pain is bad. Sometimes it is a message to tell you to do something about a problem. Suffering though not fully understood, can be truly, though not comprehensively, understood in Christ. He gives hope, resurrection hope, and he shows suffering in no way negates God being holy, loving and all-powerful. Suffering is part of his purpose. We may not understand it. Job didn't. Jesus didn't at the time. The secret things belong to God and what he has revealed to us and our children,
   One final thought. Israel - the Jews. What does Paul say, Rom 9:3-5  For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers,1 my kinsmen according to the flesh.  They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, ithe giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.' He loves his fellow Jews yet it seems God has rejected them in favour of Gentiles. But  the Apostle Paul says this is part of the mystery of election, what God chooses and the present is not the whole story. There is hope. All Israel will be saved. Here too is the marvellous mystery of providence. Marvellous how the Jews still exist as a race despite nearly 2000 years of diaspora. That is unique. And this despite all the persecution, the irrational anti-Semitism. How can they exist among such hatred. Why? Because they are both elect and cursed, loved yet suffering. Loved because elect in Abraham. Cursed for rejection of Messiah. Does this justify their persecution?  Of course not. That is sinful: evil. But it helps to explain it. In God's purposes there can be wisdom, love and power. It is shown in Christ. Reject him; you reject more than the understanding on offer, you reject life itself. Only Christ gives the way, the truth and the life. To God be the glory.     

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