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Author:Rev. Stephen 't Hart
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Melville
 Melville, Australia
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Baldivis
 Baldivis, Western Australia
Title:The God who controls the present had the future in His hand
Text:LD 10 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:God's Providence

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Songs from the 1984 Book of Praise

Psalm 145:1,3

Hymn 1A

Psalm 3:1,2,3,4

Hymn 49:2

Psalm 145:4,5

Read:  Isaiah 44:24 – 45:13

John 16:16-33

Text:  Lord’s Day 10

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Stephen 't Hart, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved Congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ.

In the aftermath of storms and cyclones, have you seen those pictures of what were once towering trees toppled over, of banana plantations where every single banana palm is stripped of its leaves and bent over double?

“God’s providence is His almighty and ever present power, whereby, as with His Hand, He still upholds heaven and earth and all creatures, and so governs them that leaf and blade … come to us not by chance but by His fatherly hand.”

Have you ever seen pictures of regions in flood, were vast areas of farmland, and even towns, are inundated with water? 

“God’s providence is His almighty and ever present power, whereby, as with His Hand, He still upholds heaven and earth and all creatures, and so governs them that … rain and drought … come to us not by chance but by His fatherly hand.”

The lack of rain and the subsequent famines that ravage Africa and other parts of the world also come not by chance but by His Fatherly hand.

But that is not all.  When a child is born and all is well we acknowledge that this came not by chance, but by God’s fatherly hand. 

And also when a child is born and things are not well.

When we are healthy, we are blessed with health, a gift from God, and when we our bodies, or the body of a loved one wastes away with infirmity and disease we confess that this too comes not by chance, but by God’s fatherly hand.

Is God good?  Does it benefit us to know and are we able to glorify God when His hand controls not just times of prosperity, but also adversity?

Sometimes it is as though we think that we can organize things better than God does.  Sometimes it is as though we would like to arrange things in such a way that nothing would take us by surprise and everything would be good, and that our world would be neat and orderly and predictable.

But that is not what the world is like.  And that is not what God is like.  All creatures are so completely in His hand that they cannot so much as move, but that does not mean that in this fallen world God will always prevent adversities such as cyclones, floods, droughts, earthquakes, volcanoes, famines, sickness and poverty.  Or war.  Or persecution.  Or accidents.

But what our almighty God does promise is that He will not randomly send things for no reason, nor will He send things to drive His people away from Him.  Rather, He controls all things in such a way that even adversity is turned to our good, and He promises us that nothing can separate us from His love.  We may not see  or understand it, but we confess that whatever God sends us in this life of sorrow is for our eternal benefit.

I preach to you the Word of the Lord as we have read it in Isaiah 44,45 and John 16, and the Church confesses it in Lord’s Day 10 under the following theme,

 The God who controls the present has the future in His hand.

1.    His almighty and ever-present power.

2.    His faithful and ever-loving hand.

1. His almighty and ever-present power.

There are times when we are left wondering what is going on.  There are times when the question “why” is left unasked and, even more often, left unanswered.  There are times when we feel sick to the stomach and begin to despair even of life itself.  Jesus said in John 16:33, “In the world you will have tribulation.”  And for many, that word “tribulation” can sound like an under-statement.  For many the trouble and suffering they endure becomes so much that they cry out, “How long, O LORD?”

In the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah knew that such tribulation would come upon the people of Israel.  During the reign of King Hezekiah the LORD had revealed to Isaiah that in the future the king of Babylon would destroy the city of Jerusalem and take the people into Exile.  Although the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile was shown to be an act of divine punishment for Judah’s godlessness, it would nevertheless be a difficult time for God’s people.  Those who loved God and wished to serve Him would be in danger of falling into complete and total despair.  And we can get a taste of that despair when we read, for example, Psalm 137 –

By the rivers of Babylon,

There we sat down, yea, we wept

When we remembered Zion.

With the loss of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple and the scattering of God’s people came the question, “What now will happen to God’s covenant promises?  What will happen to His promise that a descendant of David would be on the throne forever?  What about the promises concerning the coming Messiah?  The people of Judah would be faced with the taunting question, “Where now is your God?” 

And so, in order to comfort His people and assure them that even in the darkest days of Exile He is still in control, the LORD gave them a clear and explicit prophecy concerning the future, giving the promise that Judah would be restored, that Jerusalem would be rebuilt and that He would once more dwell in His temple.  We read together from Isaiah 44 where we could see how the LORD declared Himself to be the Father almighty, the One who has all things in His hand.

In Isaiah 44:24, the LORD began to speak saying,

“Thus says the LORD, your Redeemer, and He who formed you from the womb: I am the LORD, who makes all things, who stretches out the heavens all alone, who spreads abroad the earth by Myself.”

It is God alone who is Israel’s redeemer, the One to whom they could look for salvation from all their troubles.  For it is God alone who formed not just the nation of Israel, not just every individual member of His covenant, but who made all things in heaven and on earth.  And He did this all by Himself.  The LORD has the power and the strength to do all things, and He does not depend on anyone or anything else: He can do anything He wants!

And then in verse 25 the LORD declared that He upholds and governs all things to such an extent that He makes a mockery of “the babblers” and that He “drives diviners mad.”  When people, even so-called “wise” people attempt to find meaning to present events and gaze into the future, explaining what they think they see, the LORD laughs.  For He alone knows all things, and He alone controls all things.  In contrast to the so-called wise men of this world and those who claim to know what the future holds in store, the LORD says in verse 26 that He

“confirms the word of His servant, and performs the counsel of His messengers.”

And then, in Isaiah 44:28 and chapter 45, we have one of the most explicit prophecies in the entire Bible.  In this prophecy the LORD tells His people exactly what would happen.  God would raise up a man called Cyrus and it would be through Cyrus that God would deliver His people from Babylon and allow them to return to Jerusalem.  Concerning Cyrus the LORD says in Isaiah 45:13,

“I have raised him up in righteousness, and I will direct all his ways: He shall build My city and let My exiles go free, not for price nor reward,” say the LORD of hosts.

The Bible tells us that Isaiah gave this prophecy of the LORD during the reign of King Hezekiah.  That means that in Isaiah 44,45, Isaiah was prophesying what would take place 150 years later, and he gave such an accurate prophecy, that He gave the exact name of the one who would allow God’s people to return to Jerusalem, and the manner in which this would take place.  And we know from Ezra 1:2-4 and from many other parts of Scripture, and we even know from a discovered historical record that is called “the Cyrus Cylinder”  that Cyrus the king of Persia did exactly what the LORD had predicted.

In fact this prophecy is so detailed and so accurate that some people have concluded it is impossible that Isaiah could have prophesied this.  They conclude that the second part of Isaiah, chapters 40-66 could not have been written by him, but was written by an unknown prophet who lived in Babylon, writing after Cyrus of Persia became king and sent God’s people back to Jerusalem.

But that misses the point of what God is revealing!  The point of God’s prophecy in Isaiah 44,45 is to demonstrate that the God who controls the present also has the future in His hand.  The LORD declares that He is in such control over everything that takes place on earth that He could even give a name to the one He would raise up 150 years later to set His people free.

But there is also something else that the LORD wished to make clear to His people ahead of time.  Cyrus would not arise from the nation of Israel and nor would he be a gentle king.  He would actually be a tyrant, often cruel and oppressive.  He would subdue many nations and terrify their kings.  He would be powerful enough to break bronze gates in pieces and cut up bars of iron.  Further, the one whom God called His “shepherd”, Cyrus, was a pagan king, an idol worshipper.  Yes, he did acknowledge the hand of the LORD in Ezra 1, but he also acknowledged his own god, Marduk.  He did not worship the LORD God alone, nor was he in any way one of God’s covenant children.  And this would have left God’s people fearful and confused.  When Cyrus and the armies of Persia bore down on Babylon, no doubt many of the Jews were frightened.  What would this mighty king do to them?  Would this be a case of escaping the frying pan, only to fall into the fire?  Would God really be able to use a powerful, pagan king to fulfil His plans?  Is the LORD then God almighty?  Is this the way that He should fulfil His promises and redeem His people?

But God makes it abundantly clear that even Cyrus is completely in His hand.  In verse 28 of chapter 44 He says,

“Cyrus – he is My shepherd, and he shall perform all My pleasure.

Cyrus might not acknowledge it; he might proudly declare it was his might and his cleverness that made him king of the world, he might ascribe his success not just to the LORD but also to his god Marduk, but every step of the way he was a pawn in the hand of almighty God.  The LORD is almighty, and He will use anyone and anything to fulfil His purposes.  Even Cyrus.   And it was God’s choice to direct and control things in this way.

And that is a strong thing to say.  When Cyrus took the world stage, there would have been some who recoiled at the idea that this Cyrus was the one whom God called His shepherd.  People would have been tempted to think, “What is going on here?  We want deliverance, but we were hoping for a leader like Moses, for an exodus like we experienced coming out of Egypt!  Under Cyrus there will still be no sovereign state of Israel, nor will we see a son of David sit on his throne.” 

Now because this all happened many years ago, and because it is all written in the Bible, we know the rest of the story.  We know that this was all a part of God’s plan to work towards the sending of the Messiah.  But in the middle of the Exile and when Cyrus became king of Babylon, it would not have been possible to know all that God had planned, to understand how the LORD would turn this adversity to the benefit of His people.  And that would have made the people worried and even in danger of asking if this was good.  And so the LORD warned his people further in Isaiah 45:9

“Woe to him who strives with his Maker!  Let the potsherd strive with the potsherds of the earth!  Shall the clay say to him who forms it, “What are you making?”   Or shall your handiwork say, “He has no hands?”

It is not for us to challenge God’s providence.  It is not for us to question the acts of God.  Who are we to ask, “What can God be thinking?”   His power is almighty and ever-present.  He knows what He is doing.  And we are not almighty and ever-present.  And we do not know all things. 

And that should make us humble.  And that should cause us to echo the words of Job 2:10,

“Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?”

We know that God does not sin.  We know that God is  not evil.  It is not right for us to blame God for the wickedness in this world, nor for the suffering that accompanies that wickedness.  And yet God also tells us that there is nothing outside of His control.  All creatures are so completely in His hand that without His will they cannot so much as move.  He who created heaven and earth and all creatures still upholds and governs all things. 

There is some tension in there, for we are tempted to ask, “If God is fully in control, why do I have to suffer?  Why doesn’t He put an immediate end to the wickedness that is going on?  Why does life have to be so hard?  But the LORD warns us.  “Woe to him who strives with his Maker!”  We need to let God be God.  We need to accept that the God who controls the present has the future in his Hands and trust that He knows what He is doing, and that what He does is good.

And we can do so, for One went before us who is our Great Example.  In John 16 the Lord Jesus spoke to His disciples and He told them that in a little while they would not see Him.  Christ knew that in front of him was a road of suffering.  He would be betrayed into the hands of lawless men, condemned to death, crucified and killed on a cross.  And if that wasn’t bad enough, His own disciples would run away and abandon Him.  There would be an intense period of suffering not just for the disciples but also, even more so, for Jesus Christ the Son of God.

But the suffering of Christ also was not outside the Father’s control. All of this was foreordained by God, the Father almighty.  As Peter proclaimed in Acts 2:23,

“Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death.”

Yes, it was wicked, lawless hands that crucified our Lord.  But even that was not outside the providence of God.  But the God who controls the present has the future in His hand.  He knows what He is doing, and what He is doing is good.  And He promises us that He is working all things together not for our sorrow, but for our future joy.  We will see that in our second point.

2. His faithful and ever-loving hand.

There is not necessarily a lot of comfort in a God who is merely powerful.  But there is a lot of comfort in knowing a powerful God who governs and directs all things for us, His people, for us, His Church.

In Isaiah 45 the LORD declared the reason why He gave such power to Cyrus.  He gave this power first of all so that Cyrus might know and acknowledge the God of Israel (Isaiah 45:3).  But He also used Cyrus for the benefit of His people Israel.  The LORD declared in Isaiah 45:4,

“For Jacob My servant’s sake, and Israel My elect, I have even called you by your name.”

“Make no mistake about it” the Lord tells Cyrus.  “It is for My people Israel that I am giving you the power to do all these things.” 

And that was God’s word of comfort for the Jews who were living in Babylon in that tumultuous time.  They may have felt powerless in the face of the war machines of Babylon and later of Persia.  They may have felt unable to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land.  But God wants His people to know that He, their God, is in control.  And the God who controls the present has the future in His hand for the benefit and well being of His people.

And that is God’s promise to us as well.  We do not always understand His ways.  Many times we can not explain why this person or that person is suffering so much.  We do not have all the answers to the question “why”?  But that’s ok.  For God does have all the answers, and He knows what He is doing.  And He has told us that he’s working all things together for the good of us, His children.  And if that is what God says, then we should be content with that.

In John 16 the Lord Jesus was saying “farewell” to His disciples.  He knew that soon he would die.  He knew that when he left them – first in going to the cross, and later in ascending into heaven, that His followers would suffer.

“They are going to put you out of Synagogues” He warned in verse 2.  “They are going to kill you.   You are going to suffer.  You will filled with sorrow.  And it will be real suffering, and real sorrow.”  Indeed Jesus went on to say, “In the world you will have tribulation.” 

But that was not all that Christ wished to tell them.  He also said, “But be of good cheer!” 

Be of good cheer!  Why?   “Because I have overcome the world!”  If the world is throwing things at you, remember that they threw things at Jesus first.  Jesus suffered insults, pain, tribulation, and death.  But Jesus took everything the world could throw at Him.  And in doing that, Jesus crushed the head of Satan.  And that is why even when we suffer, we can be comforted.

Jesus warned His disciples.  “It won’t look like that tomorrow, on Good Friday!  It won’t look as though I have overcome the world.  On Good Friday you are all going to be so overwhelmed that you will run away and leave Me alone.  It will not look as if God is all-powerful and God is using this power for His children when I am led like a lamb to the slaughter.  It will not look as though God is working all things for good when I breathe My last breathe on the cross, nor when they lay My cold, stiff body in the grave.  But be of good cheer!  For after Good Friday will come Easter Sunday.  The time will come when you will see me again.  And when you see Me again, you will ask Me nothing.  There will be no need to ask questions, for you will see that I have overcome the world.”

And that is how it is for us too.  God’s ways are not our ways.  How He works all things for our benefit is something we do not always immediately see or appreciate.  We too will face tribulation. Just as they did to Jesus, so you will suffer insults, pain, tribulation and death.  There will be things that threaten to take away your joy, and you will not be able to fully understand it.  But Jesus says, “Be of good cheer!  The world will rejoice and you will be sorrowful.  But that is not the end.  Wait for Easter Sunday.  Wait for the time when you see the Lord again.  And then you won’t need to ask any more questions, for then you will see that Christ has indeed overcome the world, and then you will know for certainty that He has worked all things together for you and for your salvation.  Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Stephen 't Hart, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2011, Rev. Stephen 't Hart

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