One of the most beautiful movies of last year was A River Runs Through It, based upon the novel by the same title. The movie told the story of the Maclean family, who lived in Montana early in the twentieth century. The father of the family was a Presbyterian minister—stern but loving. His wife was supportive and nurturing. They had two sons: the oldest, first-born Norman, who tells the story, and a younger son, Paul.
We meet the Maclean family when the boys are young, squirming in the front row while their father preaches in church. We watch them grow up through childhood, stormy adolescence, and crossing the threshold into adulthood. Norman, the older of the two, is cautious and studious. He eventually goes off to college and becomes a writer and a professor. The younger son Paul is the daredevil, a lady's man, with a quick wit and a winning smile.
These are the characters in the novel, but the real protagonist in the story is the river that runs through their part of Montana. That river becomes the focal point of their family life and the catalyst for everything significant that takes place in their individual lives. It was walking along the banks of that river on Sunday afternoons that the father forged a relationship with his young boys—turning over rocks, teaching them about the world, about life, and about the God who made it all. It was the river that the boys ran to after their studies were over, and sibling rivalry and brotherly affection flourished as they fished for trout together on that beautiful stream.
When it came time for these adolescent boys to prove their moxie, they took a death-defying ride down the rapids in a stolen boat. It was on the river that young Paul made a name for himself as the finest fly-fisherman in the territory. When Norman came back from college searching for himself and his roots, it was to the river that he went to fish, alongside his brother.
The Maclean family knew failure and success and laughter and fighting and change and disappointment, but always the river was there. It was the defining force and the spiritual center of that family. Montana would have been just a wilderness; their home, four walls and a roof; their individual lives just sound and fury—if not for the river running through it all.
I would like to suggest this morning that there is a river that runs through the lives of Christian people, and that river is called the Purpose of God. We read about it just a few moments ago: 'We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son. ... And those he predestined he also called; and those he called, he also justified; and those he justified, he also glorified." (Romans 8:28-30). That's the purpose of God.
The world can be awful
We've been through a pretty awful week together. It's been most awful, of course, for the Wong family. Few, if any of us, can comprehend fully the grief and the pain and the heartache they have and are experiencing right now. But we did walk with them through that valley, and the truth is, we've all had valleys to walk through in times past or maybe present. If not death, then illness or depression or divorce or financial hardship or loneliness or alienation from somebody we love. We know what Paul means when he says the creation is subjected to frustration, that the world in which we live is in bondage to decay, groaning to be released from pain. We know what it means.
To be sure, there are moments when this is a very wonderful world. "Trees of green, red roses, too, / Friends shaking hands saying 'How do you do?' " It can be a wonderful world. As Christian people, we ought to enjoy it more than anyone. But the truth is it is not the best of all possible worlds. The truth is it can be a very awful world.
Ask the people of Bosnia whose lives and homes and children have been shattered by senseless violence and fighting. Ask Somalian parents who have no food to give to their starving children. Stop anyone walking out of family court or out of the welfare office or out of a funeral home. Ask them if it's a wonderful world, and see what answer you get. No, this is a frustrated world. It's creation in decay: a world in bondage groaning to be released from its pain.
This is not what God had in mind from the beginning. No, God created this to be that wonderful world. When he created things, he said they were good. When he created beings, men and women, he said they are very good. His intention was that men and women would enjoy his world and would fellowship with him forever, in all the splendor of his wonder and his love.
But the men and women he created chose otherwise. We thought it best to go our own way, to part company with the God who designed it all. So, sin entered the world, and with sin came death and disease and heartache and sorrow. And the world God made became a wilderness all around.
A river runs through that wilderness, and that river is called the Purpose of God. The purpose of God is to restore that world to its original splendor, to redeem sinful humanity, to rescue us from death, and to enable us to experience the glorious possibilities for which we were created. That's the purpose of God, and he is working always to accomplish it. It's the purpose that flows through time and space and all the tangled events of our individual lives. The purpose of God.
There's a difference between a reason and a purpose
Sometimes when bad things happen, we say things like, "Well, God has his reasons," or "There's a reason for everything," or "Everything works out for the best." We mean well when we say things like that. We're doing our best to make sense out of what has happened, to justify it so that we can live with it all. But a reason for everything? I'm not so sure about that.
A reason implies a simple cause-and-effect relationship an underlying motive that makes logical sense out of everything that happens. Reason looks to justify every event as good and worthwhile and meaningful and significant. "Things don't just happen," we say. "They're done for a reason." But I'm not so sure about that.
Tell me, who is responsible for cancer, for an insidious disease that destroys our own bodies and snatches away loved ones before their time? Who's responsible for that? Satan, the destroyer? Is he the one? Or is it we who have polluted our own environment and failed to care for our own bodies and souls? Or is it God because he is sovereign over everything? Who's responsible? It's not so easy. What is the logical explanation for a stray bullet that finds its way into the chest of a toddler sitting in a stroller or a car that jumps a curb or a disgruntled employee who shoots up an office? What's the justifiable motive for mass starvation or for child abuse or for annihilation of a people over racial hatred?
A reason for everything? I'm not so sure about that.
I'm afraid it's not as simple as that, where every effect can be traced to its logical cause. There are too many forces loose in this universe, too many factors colliding with calamitous results.
First of all, there is Satan on the loose. The hymn writer says, "His craft and power are great, / and armed with cruel hate, / on earth is not his equal." He and his minions are out to steal and kill and destroy. Short of that, they will deceive and discourage and divide. Satan's at work.
Then there is this fallen world in which we live, a spoiled universe where the forces of nature sometimes run amuck. Rivers overflow their banks, and the earth quakes and shakes. The heavens dry up, and the earth produces no food. Cars crash, and planes fall from the sky.
And this world is inhabited by sinful people, people like you and me, whose hearts are prone to greed, to hate, and to vengeance and violence.
A fallen world inhabited by sinful people with a maligned power at work.
And, of course, God is there too, and he knows and sees all things. But with such a complex interplay of forces and factors, who is to say who is responsible for what, or what the justifiable reason is for some particular event? It's just not that simple. A reason for everything? I'm not so sure.
But this I know. A purpose runs through it—the eternal purpose of God to restore this universe to its intended splendor and to enable men and women to become the eternal beautiful beings we were created to be. When it comes to weeks like the one we just had, I prefer to talk about purpose rather than reason.
Reason looks at the isolated event; purpose looks to the big picture. Reason is fixated on the present; purpose looks down the road to future outcomes. Reason insists on an explanation; purpose says let's get on with it. Reason hangs on to the event; purpose hangs on to God, who is at work in it all.
Romans 8:28 is about purpose not reasons. Romans 8:28 does not say everything that happens is good. It doesn't even say that all things work together for good. No, it says that God works in all things, good and bad, to accomplish his purpose. He works. It's the image of the strong hand of a potter taking a piece of clay that looks like nothing and working it over with skill and strength to fashion it into something beautiful. God works in all the events of our lives to accomplish his eternal purpose.
Suppose you are a parent who has purposed in your heart that your child will be an outstanding athlete. You came up with that purpose before the child was even born. Before he was even conceived, you said to yourself, "My kid is going to be a star!" So, from day one you worked with that child, giving your best time and energy and skill and know-how and training to develop his abilities, and you give the child every opportunity to be that athlete you're dreaming that he will be.
But there are other factors at work that you can't control—the coaches of his team, his teammates, his physical body, and the injuries he may receive, the outcomes of games. And you certainly don't want to run on the field and play the game for him! It's his game. No, you can't control all those things. So what you do is you take what the game dishes out, and then you work it together to an advantage to developing that child into the athlete you purposed he or she should become.
On a much grander scale, that is how God works in our lives. I realize God is sovereign, all-powerful and all-wise. But he has put parameters on his work in the world. He has limited himself. He allows Satan to roam the earth, and he gives men and women the freedom to choose even when those choices are foolish and hurtful to themselves and the world. He doesn't control and manipulate everything. He works with the things that happen, working them together in his strong hands so that his purpose is accomplished.
Do you remember what Jesus said when they came across a man who had been born blind, or when he got the news that a tower had fallen over in Siloam and killed eighteen innocent people? People came and asked him, "Why? What's the explanation?"
Jesus said, "You're asking the wrong question. These things happen, but watch for the work of God to be accomplished here. These things have happened. Now, what will you do as you respond to the Creator and the Lord of all things?"
A reason for everything? I'm not sure about that. But a purpose in everything? Absolutely—God's purpose to restore this fallen earth and to redeem men and women for himself.
God's purpose will prevail
The best thing is that his purpose will be accomplished. There is no stopping him. In spite of Satan's schemes, in spite of the unpredictability of this world, in spite of the foolishness and even the wickedness of human beings, God's purpose will be accomplished. That's what Paul tells us. Neither height nor depth nor anything else shall separate us from God. If God is for us, who shall be against us? No one.
Paul says that those he foreknew he predestined. And those he predestined he called. And those he called he justified. And those he justified he glorified. Paul is so certain that you and I will be glorified that he describes it in the past tense, as if it's already happened. God's purpose is going to be done. Nothing can thwart God—nothing in space, nothing in time, nothing in earth or in heaven or under the earth, nothing in life, and nothing in death.
For the Christian, death may be a loss, but it's never a defeat.
A little girl died this past week, and it's a loss—a terrible loss to her family, to her playmates, to this church family, to the community, to the world. The world needs people with a sweet spirit and faith in God as Michelle demonstrated. It's a loss, and no amount of preaching or rationalizing will make it anything other than a terrible loss. But it's not a defeat.
Be careful, because we might be tempted to think that on this particular occasion an enemy got the best of us: "If only we had used the right weaponry. If only we had fought longer or harder or better, this might not have happened!" That's not true. This battle belonged to the Lord as does every battle, and the sovereign Lord does not lose his battles.
Don't you see? The enemy did his very worst to thwart God, to separate this little girl and the rest of us from God. But he couldn't do it because Michelle is with the Lord today. And you and I are here this morning in his house. The enemy did his very worst to separate Michelle from those that she loves, but he couldn't do it because those of us in Christ will be with her again sooner than we think—in the twinkling of an eye. He did his very worst to destroy the good work of God in her life and in ours, but he couldn't do it because she is nearer now to becoming the person she was created to be than she ever could have been in this life. And you and I are being brought to maturity in Christ, and others, perhaps, will be brought to salvation as a result of God's work in the bad things that have happened.
No, in all things, Paul says, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us, who called us, and who works all things together according to his purpose. To restore this world to its splendor and to redeem men and women that we might be who we were meant to be.
It's a powerful scene that comes toward the end of the movie A River Runs Through It. The boys are grown up now. Norman has decided that he will leave Montana for good and go to Chicago to teach and to write. Paul is going to stay, but his drinking and his gambling are catching up with him. Father and Mother are getting on in years, and the family is beginning to spin apart.
But one more time, the father and sons go fishing together. Norman and his father tire early, and they retire to a perch up on the bank of the river where they watch young Paul deftly and gracefully casting his line across vast water to a tiny pool on the other side, where a large trout strikes.
The fish puts up a mighty fight. Paul loses his footing and tumbles down the river hanging onto the fish, bouncing off of boulders and disappearing beneath the foaming water and then bobbing up again. Finally, down river he emerges from the river victorious. And father and big brother stand and cheer. The young man poses there on the river bank, the river running behind him, trophy in his hand, hair glistening in the sun and a smile on his face as big as the Montana sky.
This is what Norman writes: "He wasn't just standing beside the river; he was suspended above the earth. I was looking at perfection."
No, he was looking at glory. A young man at his best. A father and sons together for the day. The earth at its most magnificent. There was love and joy and beauty all around. Everything was the way it was supposed to be. That's glory.
In this life, those moments are few and fleeting. But someday they will be yours and mine to enjoy forever because that is God's purpose—that you and I should attain to the highest possibilities for which we were created, men and women in the image of God and conformed to the likeness of Jesus Christ, spending eternity with the ones we love in Christ and with him, in worlds beyond our imagination.
It will be good. It will be very good. It will be beyond anything you and I have ever experienced or can imagine. That is the purpose of God. There is no power on earth or in heaven or under the earth that can prevent that from happening because God works in all things for the good of those who love him and who are surrendered to his will.
Christian, whatever has happened to you in the past, whatever your present circumstances may be, whatever the future might hold, know this: A river runs through it, and that river is called the Purpose of God.
For Your Reflection
How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition:
Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.