Some have said this year 2020 may just become a new profane expression. Can you hear it? “Oh, 2020!” Or, “How 2020 of you!” Let’s admit it: on an individual, corporate, national, and international scale, we have all been shocked, disappointed, frustrated, quarantined, challenged, deprived (of TP and so much more!), and so many more appropriate verbs – sometimes with multiples of these verbs all at the same time. Fifty years from now, I can imagine today’s young people recounting to their grandchildren, “Let me tell you about 2020” and all the little ears will perk up for another crazy Covid story.
So perhaps as we finally begin to slide out of this hard, hard year, we need some encouragement. Paul told the Thessalonians (in 1 Thess. 5), “Encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.” So let’s remind ourselves of a few important truths this morning. Honestly, . . . I have nothing startling or fancy or new for you here (we’ve had enough “novel” things this year, right?) – I want to bring forward some old truths that we need desperately to remember.
First, God is with us! Psalm 31 opens with:
In you, O LORD, do I take refuge;
let me never be put to shame;
in your righteousness deliver me!
Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily!
Be a rock of refuge for me,
a strong fortress to save me! (31:1-2)
And then, he mentions his affliction and distress (v. 7), his grief and sorrow (vv. 9-10). He says his bones waste away, he has become an object of dread, and he is like a broken vessel, and there is terror on every side” (vv. 10-13). How 2020!
But then at vs. 14. . . there’s the turn. The tone changes:
“But I trust in you, O LORD;
I say, “You are my God.”
My times are in your hand;
rescue me . . . !
Make your face shine on your servant;
save me in your steadfast love! (vv. 14-16).
Do you see it, friends? When we affirm our trust in Yahweh we remember that our times are in His hands. He will save us and He will keep us in His steadfast love. Oh, . . . that is good news for the closing days of this most peculiar year!
Paul affirms the same in Acts 17: “And he [God] made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’” (vv. 26-28). Another translation renders this: “God determines our days and the very places where we will live.”
I want to unpack some of this; but allow me just a bit of latitude on this passage – and perhaps I can get myself thoroughly in trouble with some people. Paul makes a statement here that we blow right by; but which in our confused day some people consider to be quite racist. Did you miss it? In his opening line he says, “God made from one man every nation of mankind.” I have communicated, in the midst of the racial tensions of our country in 2020, that there is one race – the human race – and whether you are from Korea or Kazakhstan or Kentucky, we all share a common DNA within this “human race.” But I have had fine Christian friends push back on this idea as racist, denying the racial differences in our culture. My gentle response is, “To say there is one race – the human race — is not racist; rather, it is merely fundamental Judeo-Christian teaching. It’s from Genesis and from Paul.” Rev. 5 says, “And they sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (vv. 9-10). Tribes, languages, peoples, and nations. No races – it is not a biblical concept. In fact, when I looked more closely, when the ESV uses the work race (3 times in the NT not referring to running in a competition) it is from a Greek word meaning “family” “tribe” “people group.” Are there differences between ethnic, cultural groups? Certainly – but “race” per se actually found its power in the hands of some of the original white supremacists seeking to justify the position of white people around the world. For example, the full title of Darwin’s most famous work was: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.
But in God’s economy, as Paul says in Acts 17, all peoples come from one man, thus there is one race, the human race, with every human sharing the spark of God’s image in us, giving all people intrinsic value and dignity. It is important in our day, when words are given new and rather contorted meaning by people who are enemies of God, it is important to remember that words have meaning! As followers of Jesus, in our day of chaos, we need to be people grounded on the unchanging Word of God. That will mean the world – that collective rebellious mentality in opposition to God – the world will hate us. But Jesus told us in John 15, remember when the world hates you, it hated me first. In fact, friends, if the world loves you and embraces your understanding of important cultural movements, . . . you may want to ask where you have gone wrong. Because Jesus did not say, If the world hates you; He said, “when the world hates you.” If we are faithful to the Good Shepherd, the world will push back against us. But, back to the primary focus of this text:
The point is: God is with us; He is not far from us; rather, in Him we live and move and have our being; He gives us life, health, breath, personhood, dignity, all that we have and all that we need. So we can say, “Our times are in Your hands, . . . save us according to your unfailing steadfast love.” God … is … with … us.
Second, theologically, 2020 still falls under the rubric of “The Providence of God” and Providence should bring us great comfort in 2020. Dr. J.I. Packer (who went to be with Christ this past July, just five days shy his 94th birthday) said this: “To know that nothing happens in God’s world apart from God’s will may frighten the godless, but it stabilizes the saints.” Listen to that again . . .
Our Westminster Confession defines providence this way: “God the great Creator of all things doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by His most wise and holy providence, according to His infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of His own will, to the praise of the glory of His wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy.” He upholds, directs, disposes, and governs all things! We see this in subtle ways as in Hebrews 1 when we read that the Son “is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.”
But most clearly in Scripture, the life of Joseph is the arch-typical example of God’s providence in action. As a teenager, Joseph’s life took a downward spiral from bring the favored son to being a slave. Further down he went into incarceration having been unjustly accused. Still further, he languished forgotten in prison. But then, in God’s providence, circumstances beyond Joseph’s control changed everything to the point that he became a prince of Egypt. In the end, in Genesis 50, he told his brothers, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen. 50:20). Joseph could not control the circumstances in his life. But he could control his responses to these circumstances. So with us in 2020. Let that idea settle in for a moment – circumstances versus our response to them.
So first remember God is with us! Second, remember the providence of God.
Third, students at The Geneva School learn from me a key principle we see repeatedly in the Bible: “God is sovereign, but humans are responsible.” And in God’s providence, he uses even sinful acts for the good of His people as we trust in Him. Sometimes the circumstances are not the result of sinful intentions from others; rather many things happen simply because we live in a fallen and profoundly disordered world.
Our friend, Joni Eareckson Tada, for example, recently wrote an article entitled “Paralysis was His Good Plan” (search it and read it! Find it on DesiringGod.com). In that piece, she reflects on her struggles to find God’s providential purposes in the diving accident that left her paralyzed. She focused on Proverbs 16:9: “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.” It may be hard to think about Joni’s steps diving off a raft as steps established by God. But in His deep counsels, she has been blessed to see the good things God has wrought through her difficult life-situation of quadriplegia.
Again, Dr. Packer helps us when he said, “If you ask, ‘Why is this happening?’ no light may come; but if you ask, ‘How am I to glorify God now?’ there will always be an answer.” Again, circumstances versus our response.
Finally, as the waves crash, pandemics spread, elections create potential chaos, riots burn down cities, . . . remember this: God reigns. Yes, we are personally responsible for our actions; but in God’s providence, there is concurrence of our actions and His plans to bring about glory for Himself – often in ways we could least imagine. Covid-19? Job loss? Family disaster? Yes, yes, and yes. William Cowper lived a difficult life full of loss and hardship. But from it, in 1774, he wrote a memorable hymn, “God Moves in Mysterious Ways.” Consider these (partial) lyrics:
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sov’reign will.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
Many of us in this room have been touched by what some call the hand of “hard providence”; but even when it is hard, as we trust in Him, He has promised to redeem all things for our good and for His glory. Dr. RC Sproul closed his book on providence, a book entitled The Invisible Hand, with these words: “The Providence of God is our fortress, our shield, and our very great reward. Providence is what provides courage and perseverance for His saints.” His words bring us back to those opening lines of our psalm:
“In you, O LORD, do I take refuge,
let me never be put to shame;
Be a rock of refuge for me,
a strong fortress to save me!
For you are my rock and my fortress;
and for your name’s sake you lead me and guide me”
Remember, . . . our times are in His hands. So we can rest, find peace, and we can live with confidence, even godly courageous joy, even in times like 2020. May God give us grace so to do.