07.30.2017 Preaching Text: “If God is for us, who is against us?” (Romans 8:31b)
If you pay close attention watching or reading the news, you’ll likely hear this phrase (or something like it): “Today’s monthly jobless numbers report rose (or declined) unexpectedly.”
Time and again the word unexpectedly accompanies such media reports on the economy (as well as other aspects of daily life). You’d think, logically, that since the numbers consistently prove surprising the media would stop trusting in such provably erroneous prognostications!
The reason the media don’t, however, is the same reason so many of us don’t either. It’s because we’ve been sold on the idea that the “experts” can successfully manage the present and anticipate the future.
But is this realistic? Just take the economy as a case in point. How is someone sitting in a book-lined office supposed to know what’s going to happen within any highly complex economic system?
Think of all the businesses just here in Harwich, each with its own unique set of internal and external challenges and opportunities. There are so many factors to consider, far too numerous to count, much less properly assess.
Then apply these same unknowns to the vast economy of the entire United States. Once you’ve wrapped your minds around that, consider what’s going on worldwide. Think of all the infinite variables and contingencies therein.
Then take into account the countless human events that seemingly come out of nowhere – wars, conflicts, as well as social movements that bring about peace and prosperity – all unexpectedly.
And yet, as I say, we’ve been assured that the complexities and challenges of life can indeed be managed and outcomes predicted. By whom? By the experts, that’s who. We really have come to think that life can be directed and secured by human agency. Yet why should this be so?
As I’ve said many times, the source of this kind of thinking is rooted, ironically, in the various successes of the Enlightenment, a Western enterprise which believed that with the right application of science and reason human beings could finally root out the perennial problems of human existence.
Applying these principles to the raw stuff of life, what once befuddled our benighted ancestors could now be solved. When once humanity looked to the gods or God for direction and help, we now look to enlightened thinkers to demystify the primal fears, anxieties, and failings of the past. Given enough time these experts will surely fix all that ails us.
Perhaps the biggest problem with this way of approaching life is that it leaves very little room for God. When faced with life’s difficulties, we now tend to look for human solutions, not divine ones.
In today’s readings we read just the opposite. And that’s because the main actor throughout the entirety of the Bible is God. It’s a simple fact, though often one lost on us moderns.
A few weeks back, Linda and I had a Sunday off and attended another church. During the sermon, the pastor spoke about the story of Hagar, the same story we’d discussed in our Bible Study earlier that same week.
As the story goes, Sarah, Abraham’s wife, demands that Hagar, the slave woman who bore Abraham a son, be banished, a request Abraham performs reluctantly.
As I say, in Bible Study we had discussed this rather bizarre story. At that time I offered an explanation for what seems a senseless story, at least as far as it relates to our Christian faith. I mean, what does this domestic dispute have to do with the Good News?
The answer is that the subtext of the story is God’s earlier promise to Abraham. There God tells Abraham that he will make a great nation out of Abraham’s progeny (the Promise). And that great nation shall lead the way in effecting God’s plan for salvation: the reuniting of the entire world back to its Creator, a situation made necessary, as we know, by the Fall.
The genetic line therefore becomes important, moving as it does from Abraham to King David all the way to Jesus himself. To us this seems a minor point, if not irrelevant altogether. But to the biblical writers it meant everything.
After all, their task was to take Israel’s ancient stories and place them within a certain theological context. And that theological context had to do with explaining how God had been at work in all these seemingly meaningless events. Everything, in other words, had to be tied to what God had been doing in these seemingly random life-events.
The preacher at the church we attended focused instead on Sarah’s jealousy and Hagar’s persistence, the psychology angle. Both of these are relevant, too be sure, and worth reflecting upon, yet perhaps not critical to the story’s basic meaning. As I say, the main point is to show that the lineage from Abraham remained intact. For if not, the whole basis of Israel’s faith would be lost, and God’s Promise would prove to be false.
The focus of the sermon we heard, however, never touched on this (and, admittedly, not all sermons necessarily should!). Instead the bulk of the discussion focused on Hagar and her persistence in the midst of adversity.
Now I’d be the last person to argue that persistence is unimportant, or that it can’t be a virtue. Certainly for those struggling with personal challenges and adversity (as we all do from time to time), it can be a lifesaver.
Then again, persistence is not a biblical category. It all depends on what we’re being persistent about!
Being persistent (stubborn?) in pursuit of something that goes against what’s best for us, or humanity, or, most importantly, God’s will, is hardly a virtue. Hitler was persistent after all.
The larger point, again, and the entire point of the biblical witness, is that God is in control. Reducing scripture to psychology, or sociology, or politics, or success, or self-improvement may have a value, but the main event is always God and what God is doing.
In Paul’s lovely exhortation at the end of Romans 8, he is reminding us that nothing in this life can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Yet in our headlong (persistent?) insistence on human expertise and this-worldly solutions, we can easily lose sight of the transcendent power of God at work in our midst.
My future is not in my hands, in other words. And thank God. Rather, God has a plan for my life and yours. And it’s not dependent on any human agency or human design. When life comes at us, Paul beckons us to look up to the heavens for help and guidance. Our future, he is saying, as well as our past and present, is entirely in God’s hands.
In the end, life amidst God’s plan, God’s Promise, is always unpredictable, and thus what happens to us is almost entirely unexpected. Amen.