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Nov 11, 2018

“Divine Providence” 11-11-18

Mark 12:35-44
25th Sunday after Pentecost
November 11th, 2018

Today, instead of focusing primarily on our Gospel lesson from Mark, I would invite you to think with me about a thread that runs through not only Mark 12, but also the reading from Psalm 146 and 1 Kings 17.  The most vivid strand of that thread is the reference to widows.  “The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and widow…”  (Psalm 146:9)   1 Kings 17, of course, presents the narrative of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath.  In Mark 12, we hear Jesus warn against the false piety of the scribes, who “devour widows houses,” and then commend the liberality of a widow who contributes two pennies—all that she has—to the temple treasury.

This vivid strand—the plight of widows—enables us to consider, with appreciation, the fuller, doctrinal thread of which this strand is an important and instructive part.  That doctrinal thread is most commonly called “divine providence.”  As we approach the season of Thanksgiving, it is fitting that we reflect on this doctrine, which in its broadest scope describes the ongoing relationship that God has with the creation and affirms that, in this relationship, the goodness of God is made known.

Most of you will probably note that this is a departure from how I usually approach preaching.  I am most at home walking people through the nuances and ramifications of particular texts rather than preaching what might be called “doctrinal” sermons.  But, I am increasingly aware, both through research and personal experience, that many Christians are increasingly unfamiliar with the central doctrines of the historic Christian faith.  Thus, I believe it is important that I be more intentional about integrating explicit doctrinal instruction into the fabric of my sermons.  As we approach the doctrine of providence, then, I will first look at how the doctrine is set forth in the Christian tradition and then make some observations on how today’s Scripture texts demonstrate the importance of the doctrine.

What is “providence”?  In the familiar words of our opening hymn, we sang the lines “All I have needed thy hand hath provided.”  That is a great starting point for understanding the doctrine of providence.  God provides.  Moreover, as the Latin origin of the word suggests, God’s provision is not random, but flows from his anticipation of our needs.  “Provide” has the idea of “seeing something beforehand.”  So, providence has to do with God planning for our future and carrying out his plans in a way that indicates his care or provision for us. 

Fundamental to the notion of providence in Christian theology is the conviction that God is good and that God is active in the creation, on behalf of his creatures, in accordance with his goodness.   It also involves a sense that God’s activity in the world on our behalf is timely.  He helps us at the right time.  Sometimes we recognize his hand at work in timely answers to our prayers.  Sometimes his help surprises us, as it were, such that we recognize it after the fact.  In such instances, we might say, “Now that was providential!”  Others might say of the same circumstances, “Now that was fortuitous!”  Both expressions recognize that things have worked out especially well for us in the moment, but the former attributes this to the timely help to the goodness of God.

In our own Reformation tradition of theology, particularly as it is expressed in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, the doctrine of providence flows from God’s decrees.  The Shorter Catechism (1647) for example, proceeds quite rigorously on this point:

Q. 7. What are the decrees of God?
A. The decrees of God are his eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby, for his own glory, he has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass.

Q. 8. How does God execute [i.e. carry out] his decrees?
A. God executes his decrees in the works of creation and providence.

God’s works of providence are defined this way:

Q. 11. What are God’s works of providence?
A. God’s works of providence are his most holy, wise and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions.

Two observations are in order about the treatment of providence in the Westminster Standards.  The first is that the question about providence leads directly to what we might call "the plan of salvation.”  In the Westminster Standards this plan of salvation is expressed in Covenant Theology—the Covenant of Works, broken by Adam and Eve, and the Covenant of Grace, accomplished by Jesus Christ.  The Covenants are “special acts of providence.”  The second observation is that in the Westminster definition, the note of the goodness of God, while not silenced, is somewhat muted in the definition of providence.

This may be contrasted with the definition of providence in the earlier (1563) Heidelberg Catechism:

Q. What do you understand by the providence of God?
A. The almighty and ever present power of God by which God upholds, as with his hand, heaven and earth and all creatures, and so rules them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and lean years, food and drink, health and sickness, prosperity and poverty—all things, in fact, come to us not by chance but by his fatherly hand.

Note that both the Heidelberg and Westminster Catechisms identify providence with God’s preserving and governing of “all things.”  However, the Heidelberg Catechism takes its starting point in the character of God rather than the decrees of God and connects the things that happen to us with God’s “fatherly hand.”  Thus, the goodness of God is brought more strongly to the foreground and is affirmed to be at work in what we would call both “the good times and the bad times” that we experience in life.  It is this perspective that has consistently informed the Christian doctrine of providence down through the ages.  In both the good times and the bad times, God is at work and God is good.  Thus, the doctrine is deeply rooted in faith.  One need only note that out opening hymn, “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” is probably sung at Christian funerals more than any other hymn of the modern era.  Nothing is darker than death.  But it is precisely in the face of death that Christians sing about the goodness of God!

Perhaps the most important thing to observe about both of these catechisms from the period of the Reformation is that the doctrine of providence is non-controversial.  Both devote only one or two questions to providence.  That God is active in the creation and that his activity accords with his goodness is taken for granted.  It is conviction that most of us in this church would continue to share with the saints down through the ages.  It is precisely this affirmation, though, that is particularly objectionable in the modern world.  The doctrine of providence should now be a point of reference to us to appreciate that the world has changed.   We now need to be able to articulate and explain in a more nuanced way what was once taken for granted.   This is the danger of the church planting its confessional flag in the work of previous generations and calling it good—as if the last word has been spoken.  The truth, indeed, has been spoken from the beginning; the confessional challenge—giving a reason for our hope—changes from generation to generation.

The modern world objects to the notion of providence on several fundamental grounds.  Many in the scientific disciplines object to the notion that a divine hand is somehow operative in the creation.  The Reformers, for their part, were careful to insist that God’s providence established “second causes” or what have been called “the laws of nature.”   However, the mainstream of modern science—at least as it is popularly presented—insists on a closed, materialist system in which, if there are any “invisible hands” at work, they belong to the system and not to Someone outside of it.  In a similar way, the doctrine of providence is seen as being incompatible with modern notions of human freedom or autonomy.  Moreover, the abysmal scale of human destruction and suffering and mutual inhumanity unleashed in the modern world has led to a deep skepticism about either the goodness or power of God. Related to that, the difficulty of accounting for exactly how God’s power might be brought to bear on the creation creates additional skepticism about the doctrine.

This is an all too sketchy and inadequate account of the challenge of affirming God’s providence in our current cultural context.  But, faithfulness to Scripture calls us to take up the challenge and in Scripture we will find clues to a way forward. 

Our texts today present God’s providence in its beauty and difficulty.  The word of God affirms without hesitation and apology that God does things in the world, and that his action is in accordance with his grace and justice.  Our modern world longs for justice.  The cry for justice is ultimately a move toward the transcendent.  Justice is elusive on the human level.  History is a catalog of continuing injustice.  The doctrine of providence, though, presents God as good and just.  The possibility of God’s action in the world can create hope.  Psalm 146 declares that the Lord defends the orphan and widow.  In a world that is skeptical about providence, the Scripture’s commitment to justice for the weak and powerless provides a point of engagement. 

Each of our texts presents us with the plight of widows.  One might argue that the presence of widows in the world speaks against the goodness and power of God.  If God is good, and God is all-powerful, why does his action in the world allow women to be left in these hard circumstances?  The doctrine of providence, however, is most insistently affirmed, however, against the background of trouble.  “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”  Psalm 46.  Scripture is in no doubt about the origin of human misery; it is with us and not with God.  Providence affirms God’s special concern for us in our misery and for those who are most vulnerable and grieved in a lost and broken world.  As Jesus warned his disciples, the nature of human sinfulness is such that the outwardly pious and religious can be the most predatory.  The providential judgment and justice of God against sin begins with them.

Finally, our texts point to the manner of how God’s power is brought to bear in the creation.  In short, God is active in the creation in the same way that he brought the creation into existence, namely by his Word and Spirit.  God told Elijah that he had commanded a widow in Zarephath to take care of him.  It appears at first glance that, when Elijah arrived, the woman had not yet received the message!  Yet the point is clear that the Lord’s word had in some way prepared the woman to respond Elijah’s request for food.  Moreover, the point of the readings from 1 Kings 17 and Mark 12 is to show us how the God of providence turns the world upside down.  God uses a widow with no resources, but a believing, obedient heart to provide for the Man of God.  A widow’s two pennies enriches the temple treasury more than the gold and silver of the wealthy. 

How does this happen?  How does providence work?  Does God sit in the heavens pulling cosmic levers or pushing celestial buttons in the machine of the universe?  Does he run some kind of ethereal code in the Grand computer?   Scripture affirms that he speaks.  We are not part of a machine.  He does not treat us like material to be manipulated.  He speaks to us.  He establishes a relationship with us.  Through the death and resurrection of his Son—his surest Word to us—he brings us into his family and makes us his daughters and sons.

The Son taught us to pray, “Our Father,” which is another way of saying that Jesus taught us to believe in the doctrine of providence, that “all things, in fact, come to us not by chance but by his fatherly hand.”

Amen.


Pastor Paul Copeland
Faith Presbyterian Church
West Lafayette, IN 47906