Sermon Podcast Audio
Have you ever stopped to think about why you are where you are and what brought that about? Was it dumb luck or was God involved somehow?
To be up front, I can tell you that as an eight year old boy growing up in southwest Arkansas, I never, not once, had the thought, “You know, when I’m 40, I’d like to be pastoring a church in Iowa.” I am not even sure at that point in my life I could have pointed to Iowa on a map!
And yet, here I am. Along the way there were a series of events and decisions made that all led me to this point today, which I believe is exactly where God wants me to be, doing something I never thought I’d be doing, but nonetheless, doing something I love.
My path included: my choice of college, getting to a point of dissatisfaction with status quo church, meeting a guy who introduced me to another guy that led me to a church after graduation, moving away from that church, then moving back to that church a few years later only to find that the associate pastor AND senior pastor had resigned the same week, leaving the church in a bad bind and causing it to shut down, visiting another church that introduced me to a pastor, who two years later would move to Iowa and Ashworth Road, and just over four years ago when he resigned here, I was asked to step in. Was this all just one giant coincidence? Or was there something greater taking place?
What about your life? Has it been a series of random accidents, good luck, or bad luck, or coincidences? Or is there a possibility that something greater has been at work, for a reason that you don’t even know yet?
Last week we started a new series trying to fill in the blank “God is .” Ryan started us out last week by looking at how BIG God is, by filling in the blank with God is Infinite. We notice this in a few ways. We can start by just looking around us, at the world in which we live, this huge, massive universe that we are part of, all held together by God. And Ryan took us through several verses in the Bible that talked about just how big God is.
Ryan used some big, churchy words as he talked about the infinitude of God. We talked of God’s omnipotence, his omniscience, and his omnipresence. These are big words that just mean God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and that he is present everywhere at the same time.
But knowing that God is infinite is just the beginning. What are we to do with that? As Ryan said, understanding the vastness of God should move us to worship. God has gone to the trouble of creating all this. AND he has chosen to reveal himself to us. And when God reveals himself and we see who he really is, we worship. We should live in such a way that brings him glory.
Today I want to build on what we started last week. When we think of the bigness of God, it is easy for us to think of God being out there, somewhere, unconcerned about what’s happening down here, uninvolved. This idea can be reinforced when we see things happen around us, and even to us, and we make the assumption that God is not around, unconcerned, or not in control.
That is really the question we want to answer today: Is God in control? My desire by the end of our time together today is that we come to see that God is Sovereign.
We probably need to start with an agreed upon definition of the word sovereignty. The idea of sovereignty is a little foreign to us in the United States of America. My wife and I just spent a few days across the pond in Great Britain. There, they have a little better understanding of the idea of sovereignty. We don’t have a king or queen. They do. We wanted independence. They seem to really like the idea of a monarchy.
When we think of sovereignty, many times we immediately think of control. We imagine someone that sits on a throne and tells everyone what to do, meticulously controlling the actions of everyone in their kingdom. But is that what we mean when we talk about God’s sovereignty? Not at all. In fact, when we look at the definition of sovereignty, we find that it doesn’t mean control, but rightful authority or supreme rank, greatest in degree.
When we apply this to God and say that God is Sovereign, we define it as “God is in control over His creation,” which doesn’t necessarily mean he is controlling every aspect. Sovereignty is God’s rule over all reality. It is his absolute right to do all things according to his own good pleasure.
But if God is sovereign, does man have free will? Can these two ideas exist together or does one necessarily cancel out the other?
Extremes of Sovereignty
Even the idea of God’s sovereignty creates tension for many people. In fact, there are two extreme views that come from this idea of God’s sovereignty. One view is that because God is sovereign, God controls everything and man therefore has no free will to make choices. This idea reduces humanity to little more than robots and makes God a puppet-master.
On the other end of the spectrum, there is the idea that God is uninvolved with his creation. Yes, he created it, but after that he just kind of walked away and left everything up to us. And by our free will and choices, we have what we have. This view reduces God to a watchmaker who created the watch, wound it up, and is just letting it slowly spin out of time.
Even though these views are the extremes, there is every possible idea between these two that you can imagine. As you begin thinking about this and then move to Scripture, you quickly find there is difficulty in this topic of sovereignty.
The Difficulty of Sovereignty
There is difficulty because we read passages like Acts 4:24-28,
When they heard this [a report of Peter and John], they raised their voices together in prayer to God. “Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David:
‘Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth rise up
and the rulers band together
against the Lord
and against his anointed one.’
Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.”
Or like Psalm 115:2-3,
“Why do the nations say,
“Where is their God?”
Our God is in heaven;
he does whatever pleases him.”
These verses certainly make it sound like the first extreme example.
But before we make a stance here, we come across other verses that seem to contradict this. Joshua 24:14-15,
“Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
It seems as if they are being asked to choose. And choose the Israelites did, and mostly those did not choose God.
Even back in Genesis with Adam and Eve, God told them not to eat of the one tree, but they did. It would seem as if they had some hand in their decision. In fact, they suffered the consequences of their sin. Did they choose or did God make them?
Do you like these questions? We will try to bring some clarity to this, but before we do, I think we can all agree that this issue is a difficult one. And most likely we will not find easy answers. Don’t feel bad. This issue has been debated for centuries. But I do believe we can come to some concrete answers about this here today.
God’s Sovereignty is Tied to His Character
The one concrete idea I want you to be sure of when you leave here today is that God is sovereign. I don’t say that because I hope he is or because I need him to be. I say this because his sovereignty is directly tied to his character: the aspects that we talked about last week.
What do I mean? Well, if God is not sovereign, then God is not God. What makes God, God? We would start with the omni words: his omnipotence, his omniscience. His sovereignty is directly tied to this. Because if God is not sovereign, if there are things happening in this world that God looks at and says, “I wish I could stop that. I wish I could do something about that,” if it ever gets to that point, then God is not all-powerful. God is not God.
And with what He knows (his omniscience), if there is ever a moment that God says, “Wow, I am shocked by that,” if he is caught off guard and says, “I didn’t see that coming,” again, he ceases to be God.
If God is all-knowing, then he is aware of and knows about everything that happens in the world, everything that takes places, every tragedy that occurs. God knows.
And if God is all-powerful, it means that there are events that happen and God could intervene, but may choose not to. It means that God allows good things to happen and he even allows tragedy to happen. And the greatest things that happen to and around us don’t negate his omnipotence because he continues to preserve and sustain us even in the midst of difficulty.
God’s Sovereignty Challenged
But right there, I think many of you winced a bit to think about that. We have no problem thinking of God as all-powerful or all-knowing, but the sovereignty thing we struggle with. There are things that happen to us or things that happen in our world where we look up and turn our eyes toward heaven and we say, “WHERE ARE YOU, GOD?”
When we see 20 six and seven year olds shot down in their classroom, it challenges our belief in the sovereignty of God. When our marriage implodes or that relationship we thought would last forever ends, it leaves us asking: How could a sovereign God allow this to happen?
Difficulty, sufferings, trials, and hardships will always challenge our view of God and will always lead to a crisis of faith. And that crisis is simply this: Is God sovereign? And if so: Can I trust him? Is he good?
This is where our western culture works against us. We assume if something bad happens or if we have to suffer, we aren’t doing something right or God is mad at us. But what if suffering is just part of living? What if there is a greater purpose for what we are having to endure?
Purpose of God’s Sovereignty
In the Old Testament, we find the story of Joseph. You might be familiar with his story. He was one of 12 sons, and he was daddy’s boy, the favorite. God also had a plan for Joseph. Unfortunately for him, Joseph thought it would be a good idea to tell his older brothers all about how special he was. He even told them about a dream where they would all bow down to him one day.
The brothers hatched a scheme to get rid of him. They threw him in a pit, and instead of killing him as they originally planned, they sold him as a slave. Then they told dad he had died. This is bad enough.
Joseph did well in Egypt as a slave, but even there he ran into trouble. His boss’ wife wanted Joseph to sleep with her. He did the right thing and ran away, but then she accused him of wrongdoing and Joseph ended up in jail.
In jail he found favor, was even put in charge of running the place. After years of being in jail, (and even more drama that you can read about in Genesis 37-50), finally, Joseph’s dream came to pass and he was put as second in command of all Egypt . . . a very serious position. His role there allowed him to prepare for a coming famine that allowed for the empire to carry on and survive one of the greatest periods of difficulty.
After a lot of drama, his brothers came to seek help. Joseph hid his identity at first and then revealed himself to his family. At the end of the story, his brothers were worried that Joseph would exact revenge on them, but he looked at his brothers and said,
“Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.“
Joseph understood something that God has also promised to us in Roman 8:28,
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
God’s sovereignty tells us that we may not understand what or why, but we can know who is in control, working everything out for his eternal purpose. Swedish theologian Anders Nygren wrote, “Thus all that is negative in this life is seen to have a positive purpose in the execution of God’s eternal plan.” Life is not the mess it sometimes appears to be. God has a saving purpose. We may not understand it. We certainly don’t welcome it. But God is still in control and working toward a supreme good. God’s word has said it. And that is a promise we can count on.
The good may be something we experience in this life, but it might be something in the next life entirely. We have to break from the prosperity gospel that says, “if you are a Christian only good stuff will happen to you.” This is not the gospel of the Bible. You may lose your job and you might not find a better one. Maybe God uses that to shake you from your materialism.
God’s sovereignty means he sees things we don’t and we may not fully understand why. But we can know that nothing will touch our lives that is outside his power.
I wish we had time to bring in some other things I’d hoped to get to, like how personal responsibility plays into God’s sovereignty. Let me just say this: even though God is sovereign, it does not diminish our personal responsibility. Just as Adam and Eve were held responsible, we are also responsible. God’s sovereignty doesn’t negate man’s responsibility.
I would also like to have talked about how prayer is affected by sovereignty. Fortunately, we have a series on prayer later this spring where we will be able to address this in depth. For now, I say again, God’s sovereignty doesn’t do away with our responsibility to prayer. We are told to pray. So we pray.
But today, we see that God is sovereign, which is one of the most fascinating, important, and difficult doctrines in the Christian faith. Why are you experiencing the difficulty in your life right now that is causing so much heartache and pain? I don’t know. Why do bad things happen in this world? I don’t know. It doesn’t make sense.
But what I do know is that we live in a world of sin. Evil is real. It does exist and for some reason it is allowed to happen. But what I also know is that even in the most horrific circumstances, there are some guarantees we have about God.
One, nothing is outside his control. We do not have a God sitting on the sidelines wringing his hands, pacing back and forth, wishing he could do something. He is still all-knowing and all-powerful. That should give us comfort.
Two, God sees and knows and his inaction doesn’t mean he doesn’t care. We have a God that for our sake allowed his Son to suffer unimaginable pain and torture. He watched his son nailed to a cross, ridiculed and humiliated, and put to death like a common criminal. And no matter what we face, we have a God who can sympathize with us. He understands. He’s been there too.
Thirdly, somehow, some way, God can take the most difficult things in our lives, our pain, and our sufferings, and he can use them. He will redeem our suffering. He will use it to develop a character and a perseverance that looks like Jesus. He will use it for good.
And lastly, for those that are in Christ, there is coming a day when all suffering will be erased. There will be no more pain. There will be no more tears. The sovereignty of God isn’t just about his control today. It isn’t just concerned about saving human beings. It is about a God who has a plan and he WILL make sure that plan comes to pass and that plan is to renew the entire world. This gives us hope.
God’s sovereignty will either draw us closer to him or push us further away. It will cause us to blame or to believe. To accuse or assure. To resist or relent.
The undeniable truth is that God is sovereign.