April 23, 2023
• Rev. Rob Fuquay
That was Dr. Adolf Hansen, our Theologian in Residence here at St. Luke’s, sharing about the death of his and his wife, Naomi’s daughter, Bonnie, in 1996. That experience of intense grief led to his new book Three Vital Beliefs, the source of this sermon series in April. Adolf shares the three beliefs in God that were most vital in helping him find his way through that grief, beliefs that can be very helpful to each of us in our lives.
We started last week with Pastor Jevon looking at the belief that God is good. This belief focuses on the character of God. Goodness defines God’s character. Today we move to the expression of God’s character and that is the activity of God; the belief that God is at work in and through every circumstance.
When I came to St. Luke’s in 2011, I had an Installation Service. At a luncheon following the morning worship several people spoke offering words of encouragement and challenge. Adolf presented me with this framed picture of Paul’s words in Romans 8:28…
But how easy is it to believe this truth, especially when things are dark and difficult? How can we know God is at work?
Let me try something here. (turn on lamp) We all do this dozens of times a day. We flip a switch or turn on a light. When we do, what can we know? There’s work going on we can’t see. Because that light came on it means there are people working right now in an electrical plant. It may mean technicians are working on electric lines to make sure there is a flow of electricity getting to us. We can’t see that work, but we can experience it.
Or think about the work going on in the airwaves around us right now. We can’t see it, but just pull out your phone or computer and tune into the wifi signal and you see all the real time news being reported and the articles being written, right now. We can’t see it, but we can experience it.
Of course, lamps and smartphones are one thing. Experiencing God is another yet equally true. The question is how. How do we experience God working for good in everything, all the time, especially when the events in our lives are no good? To get at that answer there are three questions we have to consider; questions I want to build the sermon around today:
How does God work?
What do we mean by good?
and, How do we experience God working for good?
How Does God Work?
Dr. Hansen observes in this second chapter of his book that questions about the way God works deals with the nature of God’s power and control. If God is all-powerful and in control then why does God allow bad things to happen? I find this sentence in his book particularly helpful: “God sometimes chooses to act in a way that does not bring about the highest expression of what God wants.” (p38) Like a cow we need about 4 stomachs to fully digest that sentence!
Let me say it again, God sometimes chooses to act in a way that does not bring about the highest expression of what God wants. Many things happen in life that are not what God wants. A young, gifted teenager is shot for simply knocking on a door at night; a young woman is killed after driving down the wrong driveway; terrible flooding our west threatens the welfare of many people. These are just a few things from this week’s news.
Does God have the power to stop such things? I believe so. Why believe in a God if we don’t believe in an all-powerful God. But God chooses to limit God’s power. Why? For the sake of God’s goodness and ours!
Could God step into every situation in our lives that isn’t good and straighten it out? Certainly, but then we aren’t making a choice. And its our choices to make good responses where goodness lies. You see goodness isn’t based on the conditions of our lives, but on how we respond to our conditions. A world where people hurt each other is not good, but what is good is people choosing not to hurt.
Its like the old fable about the debate between the wind and the sun. They argued over whose power was greater. The wind spotted a person on earth wearing a coat and said, “Here, I will prove my power is greater. I will blow the coat right off that person.” So the wind huffed and puffed with all its might, but the harder it blew, the tighter the person held onto the coat.
Finally, the sun said, “Let me have a go.” And the sun beamed down its powerful rays causing the person to get warmer and warmer until the person removed the coat.
The nature of true power is not about the force it takes to make someone act, but the influence that causes a person to choose to act. That is Godly power.
And this thought leads into the idea of God’s control. Does God cause everything to happen so that things turn out the way God wants? Some people would say “yes.” They need to believe in a God who is orchestrating all the events of the world according to God’s plan. So that nothing is by accident or chance. God is behind everything.
But this idea can get very problematic. Just think about it practically for a minute. Some couples fret over the decision to get married wondering if this is Mr or Miss Right. Is this the person God wants me to marry, because there can only be one right person out there. So they marry, but then things don’t work out. They get divorced. They conclude they made a mistake. This wasn’t Mr and Miss Right.
But what happens if the real Mr and Miss Right married someone else? It means they are married to the wrong person. And then the people they were supposed to marry are married to the wrong people. You see where this is going? Pretty soon you realize we are all married to the wrong person!
This gets at the distinction between God’s Plan vs. God’s Purpose. Pastor Mindie remembers her first big shock as a young evangelical in seminary. Someone asked her professor in class one day about God’s plan? The professor turned around and said emphatically, “God doesn’t have a plan for your life!” And they all gasped in shock. Then he said, “But God does have a purpose!”
That’s an important distinction. Do you need to believe that God has a plan and orchestrates everything that goes on in your life? Or that God has a grand purpose and is working through all the events of this world, events that are often the result of human choices, choices that aren’t always good, but working through these things to drive toward a divine completion that is good?
Think of it this way. You board a plan to go from Indy to San Diego, but midflight the pilot informs you that there are weather delays in San Diego and you will have to be rerouted to Denver. Once in Denver you have to change to a plane going to Portland. In Portland, you are finally able to catch a flight that arrives at your destination. Now was it your plan to go to Denver and Portland? No. But what was the purpose of your trip? To get to San Diego, and you finally did.
God works not by forcing and controlling every event in our lives, but working through all the events to achieve God’s ultimate purpose. And nothing can stop that.
And that leads to the next question: What Do We Mean by Good?
Often when we use the term good, what we really mean is “my” good. We want to know God is working for my good in everything. But good in the Bible has a much larger understanding.
Dr. Hansen points out in his book how in the creation story in Genesis, God concludes each day with God looking over that portion of what God made and says, “It was good.” What did that mean? There was nothing wrong with creation at that point. So good could not mean the opposite of bad. It meant more. It meant the fulfillment of God’s intended purpose. What made something good was that it caried out God’s purpose. As Dr. Hansen wrote, “God gave a word of approval to what God saw because all of creation fulfilled the purpose God had in mind.”(p51)
You could say that with all that went wrong with creation because of human sin, God is working now to restore our original condition. God is always at work to restore creation’s goodness.
What I’m getting at here is that goodness is much bigger than an isolated condition. It’s much larger than just one event that turns out in our favor. Goodness is about God’s power to bring about God’s intended purpose and outcome for this world.
That’s why I sometimes say we can’t ever put a final verdict on events in our lives as good or bad. There are good and bad conditions, but we can’t say something is permanently good or bad, because God is always working. God is working for good.
Its like the story of the young man whose father gives him a horse. The villagers tell the rabbi and say, “Isn’t that a great thing?” The rabbi says, “Good, bad, who knows?” Then the boy falls off the horse and breaks his leg. Villagers say to the rabbi, “What a terrible thing.” The rabbi says, “Good, bad, who knows?” Then the army comes through and conscripts all the young men to go fight, but the boy has a broken leg, so they leave him. They say to rabbi, “What a good thing.” And the rabbi says…..?
The wise rabbi understood good is something only God can determine. Goodness goes beyond the individual events of our lives. It even goes beyond our lives. Goodness is the completion of God’s intended purpose. God is always working toward that end through all the events of our lives. All we can do is choose to believe that no matter what happens to use. No matter what we face, God is still working for good.
And that brings us to the final question: How Do We Experience God Working for Good?
One way we do this is By claiming the goodness of God we have already experienced. Can you look back over events in your life and see how God was at work through those events that you might not have realized at the time? Adolf shares in the book how he and Naomi can look back at the tragedy of losing their daughter but now see things God brought out of that tragedy. For instance her organs were donated and helped a number of people including a 27-year-old man who received her kidney and was able to function at a much higher level of life as a result.
Funds were donated to build homes in Indianapolis in partnership with Habitat for Humanity. These were called “Bonnie Builds” and they supported numerous families.
A scholarship was also established in her name at Depauw University.
In the Old Testament when people experienced God’s presence or help they would build a stone altar to mark that experience. It was often called an ebenezer which means “stone of help.” It would serve as a reminder that God did something there. God showed up. You recall the activity of God.
What are your ebenezers? What are those places, moments, events where you know God worked though those times? They are important to keep alive because they encourage your faith the next time the bottom drops out. Ebenezers refresh your faith with the understanding that the God who was at work then is still working. As the psalmist says, “God never slumbers or sleeps.” God is still on the job. God hasn’t clocked out.
And then, another way we experience God working for good is By participating in God’s good works. God doesn’t just do good things for us. God wants to do good things through us. Often the way we experience God’s goodness to us is when we participate with God, when we let God use our lives as sources of goodness for others.
Let me share a story about a family in our church that sort of pulls together everything we’ve been considering in this sermon. Dawn McCord is a hairstylist. Some years ago her family went through some very un-good times when her son developed a drug addiction. They became trapped in a cycle of addiction, regularly emergencies, and hospitalizations. It eventually ended up with Carson going to a wilderness rehabilitation program, which was really a last resort to save his life.
There were times when it felt impossible to see God at work, much less anything good coming from this. But they kept leaning into their faith and not giving up hope. Carson experienced something lifesaving at the camp. He got his life back.
But something even deeper happened. While they didn’t look at all the pain and agony as something God planned, the experiences led to a greater understanding of God’s purpose for them.
Dawn realized that she had a unique perspective to share as the parent of someone who had struggled with addiction. She started taking classes on how to be a family support advocate, she wrote a book about their experience called “Chasing Carson” (SLIDE), and just a couple of weeks ago, she accepted a new position providing family support at Fairbanks.
Carson graduated from his program, moved to Utah, and is now an EMT. He’s training to become a wilderness EMT.
You look at their lives and you a HARD story. You see trauma and pain. But in the aftermath, you see more. You see the goodness of God and how God took their pain and is now using it to tell an bigger story.
Sometimes it’s hard to believe that God works for good in everything. We wait for God’s goodness to show up and we don’t see it. Its easy to believe God isn’t present. But when we believe anyway, believe what we can’t see, that God is moving, that God is doing good thing, there comes a day when we do see the goodness of the Lord.
Again, as the psalmist said, “I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” (Ps 27:3)
This is what I believe allowed Paul, and the Hansens, and many others to say, “God works for good in everything.”