Scripture: Ephesians 1:3-14
A number of years ago, in a previous appointment, I invited a guest speaker to come to my church and preach. This man had been a member of Dexter United Methodist Church during the time I worked there before going to seminary, and he began his message with a funny story about something I’d said back when I was working at that church. The gist of the story is this. He taught the high school Sunday school class, and the Sr. Pastor had asked me to be his helper. On the first day of class, he asked each of us to say what we hoped to get out of the coming year. According to him, when it came my turn to answer the question I indicated that I wanted to meet someone and get married that year. Well, as it turned out, that was the year I met Caroline and got married. And so he ended his story saying, “The thing I learned from that was that what Drew wants Drew gets. So when he asked me if I’d come and speak at his church, I realized I couldn’t say no to him!” He was clearly being humorous in telling this story, and everyone there took it as such.
With the exception of one church member. This particular person had become upset with me about something but, for reasons I’ll never know, refused to tell me what about. On three separate occasions I asked him what I’d done that had been so upsetting to him, and all three times he refused to say what it was. But what he did suggest was the personal perspective that I was a bit too controlling in my leadership style, and then supported his view by quoting the man who told that story about me. “It’s just like what that guy said about you: ‘What Drew wants Drew gets!’”
Well, though I consciously try to actually be otherwise, I suppose there will always be people who might agree with him. The fact it, leadership can be tricky. Conscientious leaders are always trying to find that balance between doing the work and delegating the work to others. And when it comes to delegating, trying to see to it that the work is done in a certain way without micromanaging or dictating how others are to do it. Through the years I’ve earnestly endeavored to not be overly controlling.
So, with respect to being a “controlling” person, how do most of generally view that trait—as a good thing or a bad thing? To say someone is ‘controlling’ is usually not meant as a compliment. I’ve never heard anyone say, “Wow! I really like working with that guy; he’s so controlling of everything I do! No, by and large we don’t see having a controlling nature to be a good thing.
However, what if we’re talking about a person’s ability to “take control”? That phrase paints a slightly different picture of one’s modus operandi. To take control could indicate someone is being controlling, especially if they’re taking the control away from another person. But it could also mean someone’s stepping up to the plate and providing necessary leadership where there wasn’t any before. It often implies a movement from disorder to order; from instability to stability. We usually see it as a good thing when someone able to take control.
How about being “in control”? Is that good thing? Bad thing? Neither good nor bad? That probably depends upon the context. If I tell you that I’m in control of my actions, that’s probably a good thing, especially if I’m in a situation where it’s best that I remain non-reactive. But if I as a parent inform my teenage son or daughter that I’m in control of everything that happens in my house, that’s probably going to be heard as a claim to be “in charge of” them, a bent towards being authoritarian. Which is more along the lines of being controlling.
So, while being “in control” could mean controlling what others do, there’s another way of seeing it that makes a lot more sense to me. One definition of “being in control” is remaining calm in the face of chaos. To be in control is to remain calm and somewhat unaffected when things around you are in disarray. And that, I believe, is something we can all agree is a good thing! Being in control in this sense is not about imposing a specific outcome ahead of time, or pre-determining how things will unfold. Rather, it’s almost the opposite of that. It’s about responding to what’s happening. It’s not about forcing life happen in a certain way as much as it’s about responding to the manner in which life unfolds.
I know that these days in particular feel like they’ve gotten out of control. 30 million unemployed. Almost 90,000 deaths in the U.S. from Covid-19, which will no doubtwill surpass 100,000 in the weeks ahead. To put it in perspective, in the 2018-2019 season, the CDC estimates that 35.5 million people got sick from the flu and 34,200 died from it. Just to be clear, that’s 34,000 deaths over the course of 12 months caused by a virus for which we practiced no safety precautions (social distancing, masks, stay-at-home, and shuttering of businesses). But in only 2 months we’ve lost nearly 90,000 souls in our country, and that’s with all the safety precautions in place. Government leaders at all levels are trying to find that delicate balance between doing what’s necessary to slow down and stop the spread of the virus while also trying to get the economy up and running again and people back to work.
The problem is, we really don’t know what to expect. Even the infectious disease experts who warn us about the possible negative consequences of opening up too quickly hedge their predictions by saying that they ultimately don’t know what will happen if we open things up quickly. While they have good reason to believe that things could get worse—based on their experience and scientific data—they also recognize the fact that we’re in uncharted territory.
People are restless and anxious, as evidenced by protests outside of state capital buildings. And violence between persons on opposite sides of the issue. People of faith are itching to come back together for worship. We’re trying to find ways to be together in each other’s presence without endangering ourselves. We keep hearing that life as we knew it before the coronavirus will be a thing of the past. We’re literally being forced to figure out how to do life in brand new ways. And if that’s the case, then it’s easy to understand why our collective anxiety is so high.
And if that alone weren’t enough, there’s also the added anxiety for you and me that comes with my appointment to Port Huron, especially given the fact that it’s happening in the middle of this whole pandemic, when we can’t be together. What makes this so difficult is that we know how important it is to make a good transition. And the ways in which we’ve normally accomplished this are not available to us because it pretty much involves us being together, both for worship and for a meal of some sort. And so even this process of saying good-bye to the Hart’s and hello to the Stone’s feels out of control.
Switching gears slightly, my message today is entitled, “Guess What? God’s Still In Control.” Seeing how life these days feels very much out of control, you couldn’t fault someone for expressing the opinion that God’s not in control. Which, of course, would be true if we’re looking at control from the perspective of pre-determining an outcome, making something happen a certain way ahead of time. But what if, instead, we look at control from the perspective of it being a response to what’s happening? Does the other definition of being in control – remaining calm in the face of chaos – reflect what we know and believe about God in light of the uncertainty surrounding us these days?
I believe the answer is yes, but not in the usual sense. That is, I don’t think there’s Scriptural support to the notion that God’s in heaven doing a lot of “self-talk,” trying to keep himself from overreacting. That’s what we do to counteract anxiety. Rather, with God it has more to do with our understanding of what it entails for him to be the Creator of all that is. As the Creator of the universe, of everything that is, seen and unseen, he has an eternal perspective on human life and history. You and look at the chaos in our world today. But God sees it from the perspective of eternity. And as the Creator, from the very beginning he set into motion his plan for all of creation, and nothing in this world can ultimately thwart that plan. So in that sense, God doesn’t get anxious in the face of earthly chaos. You could even say that by nature, he remains eternally calm in the face of earthly chaos.
So, what’s his response the chaos around us? I believe he responds by constantly reminding us that his eternal plans and purposes are unfolding even when it’s hard for us to comprehend it as such. In Jeremiah 29:11 he tells us, “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” And in Romans 8:28 he tells us that “in all things, God works for the good of those who love him and have been called according to his purpose.”
Even as we acknowledge the belief that his purposes are unfolding, it’s also important to keep in mind that the unfolding of his purposes doesn’t insulate us from misfortune or difficulty in this life. The Bible tells us that we’re under God’s protection, but even that promise has to be understood from the perspective of eternity. For example, in Psalm 91 we read,
“Surely God will save me from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover me with his feathers, and under his wings I will find refuge; his faithfulness will be my shield and rampart. I will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday (rather apropos for these days, wouldn’t you agree?) A thousand may fall at my side, ten thousand at my right hand, but it will not come near me” (vv. 3-7).
Taken at face value, Psalm 91 would seem to suggest that God will keep his people out of harm’s way. But of course we know that’s not true; people who love God and have devoted their lives to him experience every manner of human suffering. But if we look at this promise from the perspective of eternity, we see a different promise. It’s a promise to keep us eternally out of harm’s way. God protects our souls. From a Christian perspective, it’s in Jesus Christ that we’re eternally protected and kept safe.
When God called the Apostle Paul to the ministry of traveling around and telling people about Jesus Christ, he revealed something important to Paul. God told Paul that he it would be through the church that he would reveal himself to the world. Until that point in time, he’d only revealed himself to the Jews. But his eternal plan was such that it was now time to let the rest of the world know about him, and his chosen avenue for this would be the people of Jesus Christ. And all of this would happen “according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ephesians 3:11).
There it is, in Ephesians 3:11, a reference to God’s eternal purpose. The purpose for all of creation which he set into motion from the beginning of time. The purpose which continues to unfold according to his plan, which will not be thwarted by anything in this world, and which will be fulfilled someday. In this sense, God is fully in control.
Let me ask you a question. How are the events of today any different than the events from the entire course of human history? In the big picture, we’re not dealing with anything today that human beings haven’t already dealt with in one way or another. And God’s been there through it all. And through it all, God’s continued to unfold his eternal purpose. It’s no different today. As we lean into what is an unknown future for us, let’s keep in mind that everything that will happen is already known to God, and responded to by God.