It is our habit, at the beginning of a new year, to begin with a short series of sermons on the topic of stewardship. The ideal of a new year, and an opportunity to re-set and make resolutions for the coming year. In some ways the changing of the year is a bit of an arbitrary point, but I think turning the calendar over does give us a handy way to package the past and claim the promise that God’s mercies are new every morning. In some ways new years resolutions are always available to us, but the passing of the year, a new number counted down, is an easy way to internalize this wonderful truth that today we can begin fresh with our Lord, forget what is behind and press on ahead.
I wanted to start our series off by zooming all the way out to the big picture.
Providence, next to creation, is one of the fundamental concepts a Christian’s worldview. (Though we rarely name it.) It is the bedrock of our faith, and the more I dwell on this concept, the confident I become in God, the more I am able to trust Him with everything. The more readily I can cast all my concerns and burdens on His shoulders.
The more I can say: “God is in control. He’s got this. I do not have to worry about anything, and I never have to be afraid.” The doctrine of Providence gives teeth to God’s command to “Fear not!” And provides the basis for His exhortation to trust Him.
What is Providence?
We are pretty good at repeating the teaching that God is the sovereign creator of all that exists. That by God’s mighty power, from nothing, with a word, God spoke into existence light, land, water, stars, the sun and the moon, plants animals, and that he arranged them according to His pleasure.
In creation, God, in His great wisdom, designed everything that exists, out to the remotest galaxy of the two trillion star systems that we’re aware of, down to the most minute particle that we have observed, and the atomic structure that we’ve theorized under that. He spoke them, individually, into existence, according to a great master plan, with an intended goal: to show His mighty power and great Glory.
Providence is God’s personal care for His creation. Namely preservation of it, and His governing (steering) all of it toward the end for which He created it.
Neither chance, nor fate
Believers since the beginning have taught this, and have taught it in opposition to the prevalent pagan philosophies of chance (randomness, God’s total hands-off-ness), and fate (causal determinism, we are a product of everything that happened before.) By contrast, the Bible teaches that God is intimately and personally involved in every aspect of everything that is happening.
The idea, “providence”, as believers have sought to articulate it over the centuries has three main prongs: Preservation, Governance, and Concurrence.
Preservation: God sustains the existence of His creation. Nothing exists apart from His explicit will, and everything that exists and everything that happens, does so only by His permission.
“He upholds the universe by the word of His power.” - Hebrews 1:6. (The word here is “cosmos” or “the everything.” )
Governance: God directs all history, including every action of individuals (in a way that does not “do violence to the free will of man”), to it’s appointed end
“...Him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.” - Ephesians 1:11b
Concurrence: God normally (typically, usually, ordinarily) works THROUGH His creation to accomplish His ends.
“Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” - Philippians 2:12-13
He uses your faith-filled actions to bring about His plan, and He uses sinful acts to bring about His plan as well.
“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.“ - Genesis 50:20
Including the most sinful thing ever done by man, the crucifixion of Jesus. It was all part of His plan.
“...this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” - Acts 2:23
God works through people’s good and bad deeds, but also provides through natural processes, cause-and-effect, circumstances, and everything else in creation. All these things are the “all things” in Ephesians 1:11 through which He works to achieve His will.
It is important for a minute to talk about miracles. Miracles are, by definition, things that happen apart from nature. These are the times when God works immediately in creation, rather than through the mediation of creation. Miracles are super-natural interventions of God. And these things do happen. There are debates about how frequently miracles happen, but that’s not the point of my sermon today. Miracles are an important but distinct part of God’s providence. But typically when we say providence, we mean the things besides miracles.
Sometimes people confuse the providential (God working in his normal way through creation) with the miraculous (God choosing to intervene directly). I’m not sure it’s really that important to worry about the distinction, but I’m going to say that it is okay to hope for, and ask for miracles, but we are fundamentally to trust God’s promise of providence. And this promise is something I want to get to in a bit.
Story: “Miraculous providence”
A quick story, and I know that several of you have experienced similar things, but, there have been a couple of times in our marriage when my wife and I experienced, for a variety of reasons, a period of immediate financial need, with no obvious way of meeting the need. In one case a few years ago, it was a very hefty car repair, during a particularly down season in our business when cash was tight.
We sat down to pray and brainstorm ways to make a little extra money, and I believe we were being faithful with what God was calling us to do at the time, and relatively conservative in terms of our spending, but there wasn’t an obvious way this need was going to be met.
Very shortly after this, an envelope of cash showed up in our mailbox. And then another was dropped off, and then another, to the exact amount of the needed repair, just in time.
Our life group had found out about the need, and decided to rally together to meet it.
I like to say here that in times like these, the lines between the miraculous and the natural blur a bit, and the distinction becomes less important. You have men and women, leveraging natural resources in obedience the scriptures to bear one another’s burdens, fueled by a supernatural faith and love that would not exist apart from God’s work in their life.
I have experienced this sort of thing, and seen it happen elsewhere in this church over and over again. God never lets His people down.
God uses all these things, and manages them actively! God is actively and personally in control!
God is Personally in Control!
The scripture teaches that the whole universe is always under his pervasive, personal, “hands-on” control. Dozens and dozens passages describe God’s absolute and intimate nurture and management of His creation, His utilizing of the natural processes and physical mechanics that He has set up, His influencing and guiding the free will and agency of man all toward His ends.
“We are never in the grip of blind forces (chance, luck, fortune, fate); all that happens is divinely planned, and each event comes as a new summons to trust, obey, and rejoice, knowing that all is for one’s spiritual and eternal good (see, Romans 8:28)” - J.I. Packer
“The idea that there is some impersonal mechanism called nature or natural law that governs the universe is absent from the Bible.” - John Frame
All this to say the very simple and, to us believers, obvious: God is in control. All the time. But do we consider the fact that He is actively and directly in control all the time. He is not simply passively noticing and allowing: He is acting and directing.
God's Promise in Providence
TURN IN YOUR BIBLES TO: 2 Corinthians 9:8–12 (ESV)
And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. 9 As it is written,
“He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.”
He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God. 12 For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God.
Notice in verse 8: God is able to give you everything you need, and in verse 11, God will give you everything you need. (According to His definition of need, not ours.)
“And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.” Philippians 4:19
But here’s an important point: You are given what you have in order to be an instrument of God’s providence in this world. See verse 11. The purpose of the things that God gives you, your life, your time, your talent, you money, is to be generous, and to supply the needs of the saints. (Or “abound in every good work.”)
And it’s on top of this overarching worldview that Paul approaches the topic of money with the Corinthians.
Our Response: Stewardship
Stewardship is thoughtful, prayerful, willing participation in God’s plan to use you as an instrument of His providence.
2 Corinthians 9:6–7 (ESV)
The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
2 Corinthians 8:9 (ESV)
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.
Follow Christ’s Example: Give yourself, so that others might be enriched. Page 5 of 6
Take stock of what you have been given: money, skill, expertise, gifting: How are you using these things in God’s mission? Or are you using them to build your own kingdom?
This passage says you must decide in your heart what you should give. Have you taken time to deeply consider this? To make up your mind what you should give, and to set a plan to systematically give it? Be that in time spent in a ministry in the church, your commitment to regular financial contribution to the work of ministry in Stonebrook?
Perhaps you have been following a plan or a commitment that you made a very long time ago. Take some time to re-evaluate, pray, and see what God might put on your heart to do. You might be surprised at the result.
Take that time, here at the start of 2017, to take stock of all the amazing ways God provides your every need, to thank Him for this, and to ask Him freshly what He would have you do.