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How Mighty is Almighty?
I'm beginning a series of sermons on basic beliefs this morning. Next Sunday we will discuss the controversy between creationism and evolution. I'm using the Apostles' Creed as the outline. The word "creed" ("credo" in Latin) means "a statement of beliefs". About 150 A.D., the Apostles' Creed was formulated and adopted by a Church Council as a statement of what the apostles believed.
We begin this morning with the first phrase of the creed, I believe in God, the Father Almighty. The question is: How Mighty is Almighty? Christians have debated this question for centuries, and can still be divided into two camps. Both positions were stated on CNN's Larry King Live, by none other than Billy Graham and Bill Cosby!
Larry King asked Billy Graham how he would comfort a family whose little girl had been killed. Billy Graham said, "I would tell them it was God's will." A few weeks later, Larry King asked Bill Cosby if he believed the murder of his son, Ennis Cosby, was God's will. Bill Cosby replied, "No, it wasn't God's will. The devil walked with Ennis' murderer." Even though I have a great deal of respect for Billy Graham, and attended his evangelistic services in the Minneapolis Auditorium when I was a teenager, and in Wheaton, Illinois, when I was a seminary student; in this instance, I agree with Bill Cosby's theology.
The difference between the two is: Billy Graham is a Calvinist. Bill Cosby is an Arminian (spelled with i not e). Calvinism was a theological movement in the 17th century, based on John Calvin's teachings that emphasize the sovereignty of God. Because God is almighty, God is in control and has predestined everything that has happened and will happen. Jakob Arminius was a Dutch theologian in the 17th century who disagreed with Calvinism. Because God has given humans free will, we are not predestined, but determine our own destiny.
Historically, Presbyterians and Baptists were Calvinists, and Methodists were Arminians. Did you hear about the Presbyterian who fell down the stairs, picked himself up, brushed himself off, and said, "Thank God, that's over." However, many modern Presbyterians have moved away from Calvinism. After a discussion in a Ministerial Association, the Presbyterian pastor told me, "You're more of a Calvinist than I am." Denominations today do not fall easily into one position or the other.
How mighty is almighty? Did God plan everything that has happened? Is God in complete control? Is everything that happens God's will? Was the Holocaust, where 6 million human beings were slaughtered by the Nazis, God's will? Was the killing of some 160 innocent children, men and women in the Oklahoma City bombing God's will? Was Timothy McVeigh, soon to be executed, an instrument of God? Was the bombing predestined? Was it God's will that the dangerous respiratory virus, RSV, put my twin granddaughters in the hospital? I certainly believe it was God's will that they are made well; but is disease God's will?
To state the dilemma theologically-- and these questions have been debated for centuries-- if God is in control, then God is responsible for evil; therefore God is not good. On the other hand, if God is not responsible for evil, and did not will the Holocaust, and does not will cancer or RSV, then God is good but not almighty. There is the dilemma-- how mighty is almighty?
I find it helpful to make the distinction between "in charge" and "in control." God is in charge, but not in control. The Bishop appointed me as Interim Senior Pastor. As senior pastor, I am in charge of the staff; but I'm certainly not in control! A principal is in charge of a school, but he/she cannot control what goes on in the school. Queen Elizabeth reigns but she can't control her subjects. Our God reigns, but does not control. God is in charge of the planet, but does not control humanity
Why? Three reasons:
1) God is constantly creating order out of chaos. According to the first chapter of Genesis, God created the world out of chaos, and God is still creating order out of chaos. Chaos is not yet under control. Cancer, where cells are out of control, and order needs to be restored, is an example of chaos. Cancer is not God's will. I will develop this further next week when we look at creation.
2) Human beings have free will. We can choose right or wrong, love or hate, good or evil. We can choose to ignore God and to oppose God. When we choose to oppose God, are we not responsible for the consequences of our actions? How can we say it is God's fault?
3) There is evil. Call it what you will-- the devil or evil or a force-- evil is constantly attacking, constantly trying to undo what is good, thwarting the will of God. As Bill Cosby said, "The devil walked with the murderer." The Scripture lesson this morning, the first Sunday of Lent, is the conflict between Jesus and the devil. Following his baptism, Jesus went into the wilderness for forty days where he was tempted by the devil. Even Jesus was confronted by the devil, even Jesus throughout his ministry had to contend with the forces of evil. Nor can we expect to be immune.
God is in charge, but not in control because of chaos, free will, and evil.
Where is God? Outside, looking in, pulling strings like a puppeteer with a puppet? Or, is God inside, involved in working things out? The theological words are transcendence and immanence, outside and inside. Of course, God is in both locations, but which one you emphasize says a great deal about your theology. Calvinists emphasize the transcendence of God, the sovereignty of God, where God is sitting on a throne, above it all, decreeing, ordering, dictating. Arminians emphasize the immanence of God where God is within, inside situations, inside illness, working, healing, influencing, transforming.
What is God doing? God is bringing order out of chaos and fighting the forces of evil. Sometimes chaos and evil seem out of control in the world today, but God never gives up. The Bible promises victory. Ultimately, God will prevail and will bind the devil in chains.
What is God doing? God is working, influencing, bringing good out of bad. Romans 8:28, "We know that in everything, God works for good." (Revised Standard Version) God is redeeming, saving, reconciling, loving. From cover to cover, the Bible has the same message. God is at work calling everyone to be reconciled, to be saved, to be powered to do God's work, to become disciples and work with God in the task of redemption. God is working constantly in all that happens to redeem situations and to transform people, and God calls us to be disciples who co-operate with God. We are co-workers. We are the body of Christ on this earth.
By this time, you might be asking, "What difference does it make? You are giving us an intellectual exercise this morning by asking us to think about theology, but what difference does it make what I believe?" Oh, it makes a great deal of difference. If you believe that almighty means God is in control, then you are tempted to resign yourself to whatever happens. You are tempted to be lazy and let God do it. After all, if everything is predestined to happen, if God is in control, what difference can I make?
On the other hand, if you believe that God is in charge, but not in control; if you believe that God is in every situation and every life working for good, and that God calls you to be involved in the task, then you are not resigned to whatever happens. You can make things happen. You can go to Guatemala or sponsor a doctor to go to Guatemala, and make a difference! You are hopeful, not acquiescent. You fight. You press on, as Paul said. And you pray. You don't pray, "Oh, Lord, I know this terrible thing is your will so help me bear it." No, you pray, "Thy will be done." Jesus taught us in the Lord's Prayer to pray that God's will be done. Why? Have you ever wondered why Jesus prayed for God's will to be done? Because often God's will is not done.
Make this your prayer: "Oh, Lord, help me to be open to your spirit, help me be free of any evil, of any obstruction, so that you can work in my life, so that you can heal, reconcile, and transform me, so that your will may be done. Oh, Lord, thank you for your love, thank you for your power. Make me a disciple. Use me in your work." That's a far different prayer than giving in, acquiescing, and resigning yourself to whatever happens.
I believe in God, the Father Almighty. God is in charge, and God calls you and me to work so that God's will be done.
© 2001 Douglas I. Norris