Even if Not, No Matter What - Part 3

Series: My Preaching Bucket List

July 22, 2018
Brad Shockley

Episode Notes

In his book Where is God When it Hurts? Philip Yancey tells the story of Brian Sternberg, a track star in the early 60s holding several records in pole vault competition. 

At just nineteen years old Brian enjoyed stellar success. He made sports headlines regularly

Three weeks after Brian had set a world record, everything came crashing down. On July 2, 1963, while preparing for competition, Brian landed on his neck. At that moment he became a quadriplegic.\

Brian Sternberg was a Christian, and he had faith that God could and would heal his paralysis. However, less than a year after the accident, Brian was asked to write an article for Look magazine. He ended it with a Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego kind of understanding: “Having faith is a necessary step toward one of two things. Being healed is one of them. Peace of mind, if healing does not come, is the other. Either one will suffice.”

Ten years after the accident, Philip Yancey went to visit Brian. Things had changed. He had been convinced by well-meaning Christians that since God loved him, God wanted him to walk again. They convinced him that if he would just have enough faith, he could stand up and walk away from his wheelchair. In Brian’s mind, faith now meant that there remained not two options for God, but only one, and that was complete healing.

We certainly can’t blame Brian for wanting to believe that if he just had enough faith, God would heal him no matter what, for wanting to limit God to just one positive option. 

Is that how it works, though?

Is it God’s job to answer our prayers the way we want only? If we have enough faith will God give us whatever we ask, no matter what?

The early church prayed for both James and Peter after they were arrested, but only one left prison alive, and there’s no indication in the text they felt like God had failed them.

And last week we left three fellows facing the fiery furnace for not worshipping the idol King Nebuchadnezzar had set up (we’ll see what happens later), and, if you remember, their response to the king revealed how they approached God…

Daniel 3:16–18 (NIV) — 16 Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. 17 If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. 18 But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”

They acknowledged God’s unquestionable ability to deliver them from the king’s threat, but they left the door open for God to say no. They didn’t limit God to just one option.

They knew something about God Brian, and other well-meaning folks like him, overlook. Something the Bible teaches us about the way God works, and it has not so much to do with how much faith we have but who God is.

They understood that God is SOVEREIGN and he works PROVIDENTIALLY in all things to accomplish his will.

That’s why the early church was satisfied with God saving Peter and not James and why our three men would have been satisfied if God had abandoned them to the fiery furnace (hint, hint).

Believe it or not, King Nebbie helps us get a grip on this difficult teaching. After the fiery furnace incident, he had another dream and asked Daniel to interpret it…

Daniel 4:24–25 (ESV) — 24 this is the interpretation, O king: It is a decree of the Most High, which has come upon my lord the king, 25 that you shall be driven from among men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field. You shall be made to eat grass like an ox, and you shall be wet with the dew of heaven, and seven periods of time shall pass over you, till you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will.

King Nebbie was a living example of what sovereign means. He was probably one of the most powerful rulers ever to rule an earthly kingdom. His wealth was immense, his kingdom vast, and his power absolute among men.

But God is the Most High, the sovereign of all sovereigns. His wealth is unmatched, his kingdom the universe, and his power infinite.

There’s much irony here. If you remember, Nebbie issued a decree declaring all would worship the idol when the music played or die. But he is about to face the decree of the sovereign king of the universe. God would afflict him with mental illness so as to humble him and teach him more about himself… 

Daniel 4:28–33 (ESV) — 28 All this came upon King Nebuchadnezzar. 29 At the end of twelve months he was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, 30 and the king answered and said, “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” 31 While the words were still in the king’s mouth, there fell a voice from heaven, “O King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is spoken: The kingdom has departed from you, 32 and you shall be driven from among men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field. And you shall be made to eat grass like an ox, and seven periods of time shall pass over you, until you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will.” 33 Immediately the word was fulfilled against Nebuchadnezzar. He was driven from among men and ate grass like an ox, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven till his hair grew as long as eagles’ feathers, and his nails were like birds’ claws.

Nebbie went from sitting on a throne eating the finest foods to eating grass like livestock in a field. Oh, how the mighty fall! But God, in his graciousness, brought it to an end...

Daniel 4:34–37 (ESV) — 34 At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever, for his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; 35 all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?” 36 At the same time my reason returned to me, and for the glory of my kingdom, my majesty and splendor returned to me. My counselors and my lords sought me, and I was established in my kingdom, and still more greatness was added to me. 37 Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, for all his works are right and his ways are just; and those who walk in pride he is able to humble.

It was rough getting there but Nebbie came to the realization that God is SOVEREIGN and he works PROVIDENTIALLY in all things to accomplish his will.

The prophet Isaiah got this too…

Isaiah 46:5, 8–11 (ESV) — 5 “To whom will you liken me and make me equal, and compare me, that we may be alike? … 8 “Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors, 9 remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, 10 declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’ 11 calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.

Isaiah preached that God is SOVEREIGN and he works PROVIDENTIALLY in all things to accomplish his will.

I could keep going. The Bible is full of direct and indirect references to this truth.

And yet I’m guessing you may be thinking: I’m not sure I completely understand it.

I’m not sure I do either, friend! God is so much higher and bigger and more mysterious than we could ever imagine, so much so that pretty much anything we learn about him is just touching the hem of his garment.

Pastor John Piper, who is smarter than all of us, explains God’s sovereignty this way: 

“God has the rightful authority, the freedom, the wisdom, and the power to bring about everything that he intends to happen. And therefore, everything he intends to come about does come about. Which means, God plans and governs all things.

When he says, “I will accomplish all my purpose,” he means, “Nothing happens except what is my purpose.” … nothing has ever happened, or will ever happen, that God did not purpose to happen. Or to put it positively: Everything that happened or will happen is purposed by God to happen.”

This means that God is sovereign over all creation, so that whatever happens in the universe couldn’t have happened unless he purposed it. God is sovereign over all human actions too, so that nothing anyone does happens unless he purposed it. And somehow, I don’t know how, God’s sovereignty allows for us to have a free will, the ability to make choices.

Now, that sounds good and all at first hearing, but when you really think about it (process it), it can seem downright scary.

It means God can choose Peter over James, he can choose to let his servants burn in a fiery furnace, he can choose to let suffering into our lives, he can choose not to answer our prayers the way we want, and he’s still just as much God, blameless and just and right and good, as he ever was.

One fellow said…

Of all the doctrines of the Bible none is so offensive to human nature as the doctrine of God’s sovereignty. To be told that God is great, and just, and holy, and pure, man can bear. But to be told that “He has mercy on whom He will have mercy”—that He “gives no account of His matters,” that it is “not of him that wills, nor of him that runs, but of God that shows mercy”—these are truths that natural man cannot stand. J. C. Ryle

For many, this is a dealbreaker. They cannot believe in a God who is not accountable in some way. He must explain himself or be explained away as myth or downgraded to something less than what he is. Think about what that does: it makes the sovereign of the universe accountable to us!

CS Lewis wrote…

“The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man, the roles are quite reversed. He is the judge: God is in the [witness stand]. He is quite a kindly judge; if God should have a reasonable defense for being the god who permits war, poverty, and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that man is on the bench and God is in the dock.” 

― C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics

Another fellow says… “you may be overwhelmed at the extent of God’s sovereignty — at least I am. And we will face a choice: Will we turn from our objections and praise his power and grace, and bow with glad submission to the absolute sovereignty of God? Or, will we stiffen our neck and resist him? Will we see in the sovereignty of God our only hope for life in our deadness, our only hope for answers to our prayers, our only hope for success in our evangelism, our only hope for meaning in our suffering? Or, will we insist that there is a better hope, or no hope?”

Ultimately God’s sovereignty means God can do whatever he wants and is accountable to no one.

Anything less is a God of the shallows, anything less is an impotent God, a God that cannot save you. 

Conclusion: Poor Brian wanted a God who would only say yes to his prayers for healing. But our three men, King Nebbie, Isaiah, and all of Scripture presents a God who in his sovereignty is able to say no.

He said no to a wonderful lady named Joni Eareckson Tada, who, as a young woman, became a quadriplegic after a diving accident. Her perspective, after decades in her condition, is very different than Brian’s…

“Most of us are able to thank God for his grace, comfort, and sustaining power in a trial, but we don’t thank him for the problem, just finding him in it. 

But many decades in a wheelchair have taught me to not segregate my Savior from the suffering he allows, as though a broken neck—or in your case, a broken ankle, heart or home— merely “happens” and then God shows up after the fact to wrestle something good out of it. No, the God of the Bible is bigger than that. Much bigger. 

And so is the capacity of your soul. Maybe this wheelchair felt like a horrible tragedy in the beginning, but I give God thanks in my wheelchair. . . . I’m grateful for my quadriplegia. It’s a bruising of a blessing. A gift wrapped in black. It’s the shadowy companion that walks with me daily, pulling and pushing me into the arms of my Saviour. And that’s where the joy is. 

. . . Your ‘wheelchair’, whatever it is, falls well within the overarching decrees of God. Your hardship and heartache come from his wise and kind hand and for that, you can be grateful. In it and for it.”

I realize I’m falling far short of presenting such a lofty thing, but maybe it’s planted a seed God can nurture. I do know the truth of God’s sovereignty sheds light on many difficult passages in the Bible. We’ll look at some of them as we explore this more next week.

But just apply what we know to the whole Peter and James thing. And to the fiery furnace thing. We understand why there’s not a hint in Acts that the church felt let down. They trusted God’s sovereignty and plan in letting James die, and rejoiced over that same sovereignty and plan in letting Peter live. Our three men went into their fiery furnace ordeal trusting that whatever happened, God was God and in control. 

Thankfully, though God is sovereign and can do whatever he wants with all his purposes and plans coming to pass without fail, he is also equally good and patient and kind. Once again, the same things that scare us about God also amaze and comfort us…

Ephesians 1:3–11 (ESV) — 3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, 8 which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight 9 making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11 In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will,

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