“God’s Faithfulness Surrounds You”

I will sing of the Lord’s great love forever; with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known through all generations. I will declare that your love stands firm forever,that you established your faithfulness in heaven itself. You said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to David my servant, ‘I will establish your line forever and make your throne firm through all generations.’ ”          

The heavens praise your wonders, O Lord, your faithfulness too, in the assembly of the holy ones. For who in the skies above can compare with the Lord? Who is like the Lord among the heavenly beings? In the council of the holy ones God is greatly feared; he is more awesome than all who surround him. O Lord God Almighty, who is like you?

You are mighty, O Lord, and your faithfulness surrounds you.

This Psalm is known to look back upon the Old Testament story and recall a vital fact in our faith- that even though life can deal unexpected twists and turns, such as terminal illness, floods, earthquakes, tempests, pestilences, famines or fires, wars, racism, slavery, genocide or slaughter and various kinds of oppression, God’s faithfulness is steadfast.  We need to hear this message.  The headlines give bad news daily, and this good news of God is something that we can hold onto.  God’s faithfulness keeps us together when the world, or we, feel as if everything is coming apart.
The popular book of Reformed theology, Knowing God, by J. I. Packer, describes six ways we can consider God’s faithfulness:

1. God’s life does not change. Created things have a beginning and an end, but God does not. God is constant, not growing old or mature or weakening.  God is already perfect, and will not change for the worse or be affected by time.

2. God’s character does not change. In Exodus 34:6–7, where God reveals himself to Moses, saying, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.” In the days of the Exodus from Egypt, God is like that, and still so today.  God can be counted on to be as kind, gracious, forgiving (and holy) as he always was.

3. God’s truth does not change. The Bible contains many stories of how humans encounter God.  Humanity stumbles around as it encounters God.  It is as if we are touching and describing different parts of the elephant like the blind men in that old story, describing different parts, but God’s everlasting truth is always being revealed, little by little.

4. God’s ways do not change. Packer writes: God “…blesses those on whom he sets his love in a way that humbles them, so that all the glory may be his alone. Still he hates the sins of his people, and uses all kinds of inward and outward pains and griefs to wean their hearts from compromise and disobedience. … Man’s ways, we know, are pathetically inconstant—but not God’s.”

5. God’s purposes do not change. Even though the world is constantly shifting, God’s purposes remain the same.  There is a purpose that cannot be set aside or changed, even though it seems as if obstacles are hindering it, God’s purpose cannot be stopped. God’s plan for the world cannot be thwarted.

6. God’s Son does not change. Our model for living, Jesus Christ, gives us a way to look outward from ourselves in service toward others.  The grace of Jesus reaches out to us always.  Even when we feel as if we are far from it, that fantastic grace finds us.  When Oliver Cromwell was on his deathbed, filled with despair and depression, he asked the chaplain, “Tell me, is it possible to fall from grace?” “No,” said his minister. “It is not possible.” “Then I am safe,” said Cromwell, “for I know that I was once in grace. I am the poorest wretch that ever lived, but I know that God has loved me.”

These six traits point us toward hope in a world that includes pain and suffering.  When we ask, “How could God allow this to happen?” the only answer to that question might be that “nothing can separate us from the love of God”, as Paul wrote. It is easy to abandon faith when we ask this question. We look at evil, both natural or moral evil, and are left perplexed. Cancers, disease, and death convince us that life is a series of losing one thing after another.  We need to remember the faithfulness of God so we will not lose hope in the face of those terrifying realities.  We need to remember that God wants us to proclaim love in this world, even in difficult times, and to allow the promise of a new time and place, a heaven where there is no evil, tears, or suffering, to lift us in this life out of despair to hope.

When we look at the oldest story of suffering, found in the book of Job, we can see how Job’s friends initially sat in silence with him.  “They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great”  (Job 2:13).  Many times silence, or rather, presence, is the best way to encounter the reality of evil and suffering.  When we try to explain away something like this week’s shooting at the opening of the Batman movie in Colorado, our words of comfort fall flat.  We cannot explain it.  The Apostle Paul wrote  “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror. . . .  Now I know in part.”  (1 Co 13:12)

Questions of why bad things happen have baffled people for thousands of years. In each of our lives we encounter the question of “why?”  When my father suffered and died from cancer, I realized, as Job did (Job 21:7, 13) that righteousness is no sure protection against hard times or an early death. Job’s friends tried to give him answers, but Job is not persuaded by his three friends’ pious answers to the question of evil. Job refutes their simplistic solutions and points out that the wicked, who don’t even care about God and who don’t even pray, (21:14-15), seem to flourish in all they do. The book of Job exposes the weakness of theology which equates godliness with blessing.

We cannot explain the existence of evil, but we can look to what we do know. We know that God designed the universe to be run by a system of natural laws, and by these laws everything functions. When natural disasters such as earthquakes, seaquakes and tsunamis occur, they are the consequence of these natural laws, such as plate tectonics, the movement of giant plates under the surface of the earth and the ocean floor. As far as we know, our planet is unique in having plate tectonics. According to scientists, without this geological feature, there would be no large mountain ranges or continents. While natural disasters occasionally wreak havoc, our planet needs plate tectonics to  produce the biodiversity that enables complex life to flourish on earth. Without plate tec tonics, earth’s land would be submerged to a depth of several thousand feet. Fish might survive in such an environment, but not humans. We might ask, “Why didn’t God devise a world that didn’t require plate tectonics so we wouldn’t have to put up with earthquakes? Surely God could have made a universe that operated according to a different set of laws.” Our only answer is found in the Biblical story, that even though we cannot know the answer to that question, God’s presence, God’s faithfulness, still surrounds us.

In our memorial services, we sometimes quote Habakkuk, who learned this as he looked to God for answers:  “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen, and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior” (Hab 3:17-18).

Habakkuk has learned the lesson of faith—to trust in God’s faithfulness regardless of  circumstances.  We also quote the verse from the ending of Job, when Job is certain that death is not the end of existence and that someday he will stand in the presence of his Redeemer and see Him with his own eyes (Job 19:25).

These Old Testament verses point to the Redeemer, Jesus Christ, who we know has won a victory, both personally and in the cosmic sense, over evil represented in his resurrection from death to life.  The theologian Dorothy Sayers said, “God was willing to take His own medicine,” as “a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering” (Isa 53:3), Jesus went through “the whole human experience. When he was man, he played the man.”

The theologian N.T. Wright points out that “. . . once God decides (with the call of Abraham) to work to address the problem of evil through people who are part of the problem as well as part of the solution, there is going to be an awful lot of messiness, which will reach its climax when God not only gets his feet muddy with the mess of the world but his hands bloody with the nails of the world.”

Times of personal tragedy tend to call into question the love and goodness of God, and that justifiable question is definitely answered in Jesus, where God’s goodness and love are apparent. Therefore, in those tragedies where God seems silent and absent, the  Christian’s foundation is not destroyed, even though there are times of perplexity and doubt. The love and goodness demonstrated by victory over death upon the cross is a greater assurance of God’s unspeakable love than any conceivable tragedy can be a denial of that love and goodness.

Even though God does not take away evil that is inherent in the universe, God does  promise to see us through. The apostle Paul put it: “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” (Romans 8:28). This does not say that all things that happen to Christians are good. But the promise is that in everything—good or evil—God can and will work to bring good out of life.

C. S. Lewis put it well: “I know now, Lord, why You utter no answer. You are Yourself the Answer. Before your face questions die away, what other answer would suffice? Only words, words; to be led out to battle against other words.”

Let us remember that God’s faithfulness, secured through the love of Jesus Christ, surrounds us always.

Amen.