905) God in Control?

 From a funeral sermon:

     As you all know, Cheryl suffered a great deal in these past several months.  All that time in the hospital, all the tests, all the reports (usually bad), all the pain and anxiety, all the uncertainty, the surgeries, and everything else she went through.  And for you the family; all the trips to the hospital, all the long days and nights; all the signs of improvement and glimmers of hope, and then, all hopes dashed, again and again.  And these last three weeks were the worst of all.  Cheryl finally got out of the hospital and was finally making such remarkable improvement, looking better than she had in a long time; and then to again fail so rapidly, and die.  What a heart-breaker.  It doesn’t get much worse than what you are going through right now– enduring so much, and then, still losing Cheryl at such a young age.

     My job today is to stand up here for a little while and attempt to bring a word of comfort and hope.   But even after 32 years of doing this, I still don’t have anymore to offer now than when I started.   All I have now is what I had then, something not from myself, but from God– a few words from God’s Word.

     And what I want to bring you today from God’s Word is some bad news and some good news; and, oddly enough, it is the same message that comes as both bad and good news.  The message I want to say this morning is simply to tell you that “God is in control.”  That is not a Bible verse.  Nowhere is it put exactly like that, but that is indeed the message of the entire Bible.  God is in control.

     However, on a day like today, that message comes first of all as bad news.  If God holds all the cards and if God really is in control, well, we might think that he did not do a very good job of it for Cheryl in these last several months.  Why put someone through all that, only for it to end like this?  Is there really a God who cares about us?  We might like the hymn What a Friend We Have in Jesus, but sometimes He doesn’t seem too friendly.  Hearing someone on a day like today say that God is in control is certainly going to sound like bad news.  Theologically we can talk about the difference between what God causes and what God allows.  We can talk about the various ways suffering can serve a good purpose.  And we can talk about a lot of other important and Biblical and true things.  And if after all that we are still confused and unclear, we are in good company.  No less a man than the great Old Testament prophet Jeremiah often complained about his inability to understand God, one time saying, “Why do I keep on suffering?  Why are my wounds incurable?  Why won’t they heal?  Do you intend to disappoint me like a stream that goes dry in the summer?”  There is a lot of that sort of talk in the Bible.  Even back in Bible times there was much they did not understand.

     But there is also in the Bible the vision of God’s kingdom and God’s power that extends far beyond the confines of this little world, these frail bodies, and this brief life.  It is with this broader understanding that we can begin to see the message that God is in control as the good news that it really is.  God IS in control, he does hold all the cards in his hands, and death is not the last card to be played.  Death is never the last word from God.  The Bible opens our eyes to an entire eternity in which God is able to work out his purposes and make things right, even those things that now seem to be so very wrong.  The message God is in control may come to our limited vision as bad news.  But when we remember God’s promise of an eternity in which to work out that control, that message comes as the very best news.

     Cheryl wondered about all this, as you might well imagine.  She had a lot of time to think about it, and think about it she did.  More than once she asked me, “What purpose do you think God could have in all of this suffering that I am going through?”  Cheryl believed in God, and she was asking that question as a believer.  She was not shaking her fist and declaring “I can’t believe in a God that would allow this!”  Rather, she was asking about the God she believed in.  “What purpose does God have for me in all of this?,” she wondered.  She didn’t know, and I didn’t know either; but she did not let go of God.  She left it as one of faith’s many unanswered questions.

     But I was able to tell Cheryl about a time when Jesus was here in person.  Many people then were like us, also confused by what Jesus was doing and by his saying, even though he was right there with them.  John chapter six tells the story.  Beginning in verse 66 it says, “At this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed Jesus.”  Jesus then turned and asked his 12 closest disciples, “Do you want to leave too?”  And Simon Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  Only you have the words of eternal life.”

     They were saying what we could say on a day like today: “We don’t always get it, Jesus, but where else are we going to get a message like the one we get from you?”  Jesus has for us a word and a promise that transcends all of our questions, even all of life, and even this whole world.  I told Cheryl that I did not know the answers to all her questions, but  that we do know the One who knows the answers.  He is the only one who can make this all right in the end– if not in this life then in the life to come.

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Jeremiah 15:18  —  (Jeremiah said), “Why do I keep on suffering?  Why are my wounds incurable?  Why won’t they heal?  Do you intend to disappoint me like a stream that goes dry in the summer?”

Romans 8:18…. 28  —  I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us…  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.

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O Lord, you have made us very small, and we bring our years to an end like a tale that is told; help us to remember that beyond our brief day is the eternity of your love.

–Reinhold Niebuhr  (1892-1971)

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