Sunday, June 2, 2013

What Is God For?

Texts:  Isaiah 40:18-31; Ephesians 1:3-14

I'M SURE YOU'D HEARD that tornados hit the Oklahoma City area again Friday night.  We prayed for the victims during our prayers this morning, for those who were hurt, for those who lost property, for those who lost loved ones.  But we know that as sure as this world turns there are going to be tornados in the Midwest in the spring, and sure as that world is fallen and sinful, there will be those who use that fact as an excuse to insult and mock God and those who believe in Him.

If you ever want to get totally fed up with that, go online and read the comments after any news article about any natural disaster. You'll have people writing that tornados and floods and hurricanes prove that God could not exist.  If the disaster takes place in the Bible Belt, they'll say with great glee that God must be punishing those stupid Christians, or insist that the disaster shows God can't be relied on, since He didn't come through as expected and protect His believers from loss and harm.

What can you say to such people?  Assuming they'd even begin to listen?  As believers in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we can say that if that's the kind of god they believe in, these scoffers and mockers are right, because that kind of God doesn't exist.  If they think God is the Great Vending Machine in the Sky that's there to make sure our lives remain prosperous and comfortable, providing we drop in a few dollars worth of good works from time to time, that's a figment of the human imagination and it should be made fun of.

Atheists and people who believe in other religions have a distorted view of what we Christians think about who God is and what He is for.  No surprise.  The real problem is that too many Christians-- or people who call themselves Christians-- carry around the same false ideas about God and live their lives according to those false ideas.

It's gotten so bad that studies have shown that the majority of Christian teenagers-- and many, many Christian adults as well, don't really believe in classic Christianity; they hold to a religion that's been called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.  This modern faith says yes, there's a god, of some sort: that's the Deism part.  What this god is really like in him or itself doesn't really matter, the thing that matters is that he or it is benevolent and kind and well-meaning towards human beings and wants them to be happy, however they define happiness.  If I'm a believer in Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, I'd tell you this deity expects people to be nice and fair to other people, but he pretty much leaves it up to each person to decide what niceness and fairness is.  And so when I'm nice and do nice things, I can expect to be rewarded with this god's protection and favor.  That's Moralism.  And the most desirable way for him to reward and protect me is for him to solve all my problems, get rid of all the trouble, turmoil, and stress in my life, and make my sojourn here on earth comfortable and uncomplicated.  That's the Therapeutic part.  This god-- this false god-- makes no demands for his own sake; what he's for is to make me feel good about myself.  Otherwise, what good is he?

Brothers and sisters, is that what God is for?  Is that the deity we should be raising our children to pray to and depend upon?  Does the god of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism bear any resemblance to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ?  What do the Scriptures say?

The Lord God had a lot to say about Himself in chapter 40 of the prophecy of Isaiah.  We read that God is incomparable and unique.  He is high and holy.  To Him, people are like grasshoppers and the whole expanse of heaven is like a tent you might live in on a camping trip.  Governments and rulers reign only as long as He allows them; the mere breath from His mouth sweeps them away like chaff.  He marshals the stars and maintains them in their courses; nothing is outside His rulership or beyond His control-- and that would include tornados, floods, and hurricanes.

Does that sound like the spineless god of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, that deity who is at our beck and call, that we obligate and control by our good works?  Not in the least.  However, the Lord certainly is benevolent and merciful towards His people Israel.  He assures them that their trouble is known to Him.  He reminds them that He is the God who gives strength to the weary, even when the young and the strong are collapsing by the roadside.  He tells them that those who hope in the Lord will

. . . renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.

Is this like the therapeutic relief so many expect from God these days?

No, not really.  For as we've seen, the modern expectation is that God is supposed to be good to me for my good.  The eternal reality is that God is good for His own glory.  And it is not our good, moralistic works He wants, it's putting our hope in Him; that is, our total dependence on His greatness and power.

But maybe that's just the Old Testament talking.  Many people will tell you that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament are two different beings.  Or maybe that the Old Testament writers got God wrong, and all this business about His holiness and majesty can be discarded; what we really want to concern ourselves with is His love and affection and how wonderful it makes us feel.

And the New Testament does tell us how much God loves  us.  But so does the Old.  And the Old Testament does tell us about God's glory and majesty.  But so does the New.  Both parts of God's holy Scriptures tell us who God is and what He is for.  And what it all says together might be a surprise to the self-satisfied atheists who comment on news websites and YouTube videos, and to many Christians as well.

What did we read in Paul's letter to the Ephesians?  Who is God, and what is He for?

First of all, He is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, to Whom all praise is due.  Jesus Christ the Son of God is the One who died to take away our sins by the express purpose and will of His Father in heaven.  No concept of God that leaves out Jesus Christ the God-Man can claim any kind of reality.  Beside the triune God of the Scriptures there is no God.

This same God has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.  No, we are not promised an easy life on this earth.  God never says He will divert tornados to keep His people out of their path, or always let us have the job we want, or grant us continual good health and prosperity on this earth.  What He does promise, what He is for, is our sharing in His very nature through Jesus Christ our Lord.  He's for us knowing union with Him: tasting a little of it now in this life, but enjoying it perfectly in the life to come.

We who believe in Jesus were chosen for this.  Before the creation of the world, St. Paul writes, God chose us-- not to be privileged, not to be perpetually safe and secure, not even to be serene and without turmoil in our minds-- but to be holy and blameless in His sight.  I don't know about you, but I know that in myself I am not holy and blameless in the sight of God.  I suspect you know the same about yourself.  So has God's choice failed, or are we outside His choice?  Not at all, for it is in Christ and Christ alone that we lose our guilt before God and deserve to stand in His holy presence, and God has ordained, He has predestined us to be in Christ, to be adopted as His very sons and Jesus' own siblings.  Being in Christ!  Sharing in His nature and His union with the Father!  You can't get more holy and blameless than that.

And what for?  God does it all for and according to His good pleasure and will.  Just think, God is pleased when His elect people are joined in union with His Son Jesus Christ!  But see, it is God's will and pleasure that come first, not ours.  If the it were left us to us to determine what would be the highest good for ourselves and the universe, how shabby and shallow that good would be!  But God has done everything according to His will, not ours, that His glorious grace might be praised as it deserves.

This grace is not some vague benevolence, it is that salvation He has granted us in Jesus Christ, His beloved Son.  It is the redemption we have in Christ's blood and the forgiveness of our sins.  The modern world isn't too big on the concept of sin: if people talk about sin at all, they define it as things like eating chocolate or not approving of any and all sexual relationships or praying in a public school.  But according to the riches of God's grace lavished on us in His wisdom and understanding, the blood of Christ purchased for us forgiveness of real sins, the ones that had us under God's righteous wrath and kept us from fellowship with Him.

What is God for?  God is for working out the mystery of His will-- again, according to His good pleasure.  Not just His will to save us but more than that, His will to exalt His Son Jesus Christ to the highest place, bringing all heaven and earth together under the sole headship of Christ.

And yes, God is for us.  He is for us in Christ.  He is for us because He is first and foremost for Himself, for the purpose of His will.  God's purpose for us is that we might be for the praise of His glory.  By birth, by sin, by our natural bent we were not for God and we did not want to serve Him.  We were for our own glory, and we expected Him, if He existed, to serve us.

But by the power of the gospel preached to us God changed our hearts and turned them away from our own purposes and raised them up to love and appreciate His.  God gave us His Holy Spirit so we can know by fellowship with Him that the spiritual blessings promised to us are faithful and secure.  God has promised us an inheritance in Christ, and the Spirit is our guarantee that it surely will be ours.  When?  When all God's chosen possession, His predestined saints, shall have been redeemed.

That day surely will come, and as it does, what is God for?  Again, He is for the praise of His glory.  If God were an ordinary human like you or me, this would be obnoxious.  Insufferable.  How full of himself that person is! we'd say.  But God is God:  High, majestic, holy and incomparable.  He is no vague deity whose sole purpose is to tell us what good children we are and make things all better for us.  He is worthy of all praise, honor, and glory; He acts and operates according to the highest wisdom, understanding, and might. He has not left the welfare of the universe up to us and our sinful wills; rather, His good and gracious will works everything out to His good pleasure, and we can know that in His good pleasure we will receive everything we need for hope, purpose, and fulfillment in Him.

What is God for?  God is for Himself, and therefore in Christ God is for you.  Even in the worst of times, even when your life has been flattened and the mockers of God and the mockers of His people are shouting their insults and lies at full volume, you can have faith that the true God, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is your Help and Redeemer.  What He chooses nothing can discard; what He predestines nothing can change; what He wills, nothing can sway from His purpose.  Trust in Him, for He who is the Creator of the world also raised Jesus Christ from the dead, and He will do for you all His has promised, to the praise of His glory.  Amen.

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