This sermon is part of the sermon series "Discovering God (part one)". See series.
I began this series by quoting A. W. Tozer's famous contention that "What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us." The picture we have of God—what we believe his nature or character to be—profoundly influences the way we move through life, approach relationships, manage resources, or handle the difficulties we encounter along the way. In the past two weeks we've considered together the Christian belief that God is sufficient and that he is also good. Today we're going to reflect on the conviction that God is trustworthy. Let's look at Psalm 62:5-8:
For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence,
for my hope is from him.
He only is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress; I shall not be shaken.
On God rests my salvation and my glory;
my mighty rock, my refuge is God.
Trust in him at all times, O people;
pour out your heart before him;
God is a refuge for us.
Can any of you remember a time when you were counting on your mom or dad to be there for you at some critical moment, but they failed to show up? Did you ever give your heart to some girl or guy, only to have that person drop your heart on the ground and walk away? Have you ever invested in a business arrangement where the other parties proved untrue? Or shared a secret with a friend, but they gave it away? Have you ever put your faith in a doctor, financial advisor, or counselor of some other kind only to have their "wisdom" prove disastrous? Have you ever believed in some authority figure, but rather than doing you good, they abused you instead?
Few things are more sacred than trust between people, and few things are more ravaging than to have that trust fail. When you've had your trust broken many times, it is easy to start seeing God through the lens of these experiences as well.
Can God really be trusted? we wonder sometimes. If he is so sufficient and good, then why did he let me lose that baby, or my job, or that opportunity I so needed? God, my kids are messed up, and I don't know what to do. My marriage is in trouble, or my finances are desperate. My body is letting me down now, or, My friend is dying. I'm honestly trying to do right, God, but I'm scared. Will things turn out okay? Are you really trustworthy, God?
Have you ever wondered this?
We can pray honestly to God.
If ever there was a moment when someone would be understood for having such doubts, it would have to be Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane on the night before his crucifixion. The Bible says that Jesus went there with his disciples to pray and that his heart was "deeply distressed and troubled" (Mark 14:32-34). Of course it was. Jesus saw the storm clouds gathering over him and the agony of what lay ahead. He would soon be arrested and thrown into chains. He would be tried and tortured by his enemies. He would be splayed out upon a cross and have cold nails driven through the flesh and bones of his hands and feet. Every human being who had ever appeared faithful to him was going to prove untrustworthy. All the friends who'd claimed devotion to him were going to find that they had other appointments. All the people of the crowd who'd cheered him when he fed and healed and entertained them were going to turn against him.
Two things are particularly striking to me about what Jesus said to God in his prayer that night, and the first we find in these words: "Going a little farther, [Jesus] fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. 'Abba, Father,' he said, 'everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me'" (Mark 14:35-36). I love this prayer, don't you? I have prayed prayers like this many times in my life. I've come to moments of trial or tragedy in my life, and I've said to God: "I believe you are all-sufficient, just like your Word says. If you could create this Universe in the first place, then this problem I see here is not a problem for you. You have the power to do whatever you want. You can stop the earth in its orbit. You can heal this person. You can raise people from the dead. You could give the Cubs the World Series! Everything is possible for you! So change these circumstances, God. Find a plan B, God. Take this cup of bitterness and exchange it for a cup of blessing. You can do it. I know you can. You are the all-sufficient God."
Sometimes we are afraid to talk to God this honestly. We think it disrespectful to tell God what we want. It seems a lack of faith to question the way things are unfolding. But Jesus shows us that it is not. It is not a sign of lack of trust in God to beg him for a plan B. Jesus shows us that prayers like these are the natural behavior of someone who sees himself not as some conglomeration of atoms in a blind and uncaring universe, but as a beloved child of the Heavenly Father. First John 3:1 declares: "How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!" Not to talk honestly with God would be the actual failure of faith, the break of authentic relationship.
God knows what's best for us.
But it is also important to notice the second part of Jesus' prayer. "Abba, Father," he said, "everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will." Do you know what the most important word in that prayer is? Do you know the one that is the key to understanding the Cross of Christ or the cup of bitterness that you may be asked to drink? It is that Aramaic word Abba. It is a word of intimacy and respect that is perhaps best translated as "Dear Father." Jesus had taught his disciples what his Father was like when, long before, he had instructed them in how to pray.
As James Bryan Smith so helpfully observes, the Lord's Prayer is aimed at giving his disciples the right ideas about the God who runs this universe. "This, then, is how you should pray," said Jesus. Start by saying, "Our Father who is in heaven …" Sometimes people say that phrase "in heaven" and think it is telling us that God is way out there someplace staring down at us from the balcony of heaven, but it actually means just the opposite. To the Jews, the word heaven meant "the invisible plane all around us." When you say, "My Father in heaven," you are reminding yourself that God is present to you, as near as here.
Then say to God, "Hallowed be your name." You are saying, "God is holy"—as in completely pure-hearted. That means there is nothing darkened, distorted, deceitful, or double-minded about him. He will never act in any way toward you that is not completely pure. Say also, "Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven." Remind yourself in this way that God isn't struggling to get his will done, hoping that maybe it might happen. He is the King of the Universe. He is unthinkably powerful. There are people who resist, defy, or miss his will at this stage of history, but, in more places than are visible to you, his will is being accomplished, and in the end it will be fully done.
And then comes a series of petitions that tell us even more about God's heart. "Give us this day our daily bread," we're told to pray. Why? Because God is concerned with providing for his children. He cares for us. He wants us to have what we need to make it through today. "And forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven our debtors." This is a reminder that God is a graciously pardoning Father. He wants to repair broken relationships. He shows his goodness in his giving and in his forgiving. "And [finally] lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil," says Jesus. Remember that God is your protector and rescuer, your shepherd and your redeemer. He does not wish to see evil triumph in your life.
Do you see the composite picture here? This is the "Dear Father" Jesus personally knew. He is a Being always out for his child's best interests. It's why Jesus knew it was okay to ask if there might be a plan B. But the reason that Jesus concludes his Gethsemane prayer by saying, "Yet not what I will, but thy will be done, Father," is because he knew with perfect clarity the thing that is understandably hard for us to remember: If God is as the Bible says and as I believe—utterly sufficient in his power and completely good in his character—then there is only one possible explanation for why he sometimes lets those painful plan A's go forward. It must be because he knows something that we don't yet know about what ultimately advances our best interests.
God is completely trustworthy.
I will never forget being in the pre-op room with our 18-month-old son many years ago as the doctor readied him for surgery. Our son did not understand what was happening to him, and he was very scared. There was no way to adequately explain to a child of that age that this operation had to be done. The doctor needed to go inside of his head and implant some tubes so that the terrible motion sickness and constant ear-infections might finally stop, and he would be able to truly hear again. As the hospital staff tried to put the anesthesia mask over his face, he began sobbing hysterically and fighting the physician. With tears on our own faces, Amy and I pinned his arms down. He looked from one hand to the other hand and then up at us through tear-swollen eyes with a gaze of horror and sadness I will never get out of my mind. I saw his mouth move beneath the clear plastic mask now pressed to his face. I'm not sure what words he spoke, but the message was obvious: "I thought you had power sufficient to save me. I thought you were good and actually loved me. Why have you betrayed me?"
Hours after that night in Gethsemane, a crowd of soldiers took Jesus to a hillside outside of Jerusalem and pinned his arms down to a cross. In an act of courage greater than any other, the Son of God chose to lay himself on that wood. He went there voluntarily, to heal a world that had lost its hearing. Courageous though he was, the agony of the experience eventually overcame him. At one point, he cried out to heaven in the Aramaic of his childhood, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani," "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46).
And then something seemed to settle in Jesus as he hung there. Maybe the anesthetic of the wine vinegar they then gave him dulled the pain a bit. Perhaps the tears in his eyes cleared for a moment, and he was able to see beyond the faces of the jeering crowd and into the invisible place where Someone else had drawn very near. The Bible simply says: "Jesus called out with a loud voice, 'Abba, Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.' When he had said this, he breathed his last" (Luke 23:46).
There will be many times when we find it difficult to understand why God allows one of us or our loved ones to endure the agonies we do. It is okay to cry out, to ask God if there might be a plan B. Sometimes there is. But when there is not, remember the words of the psalmist and the example of Jesus: "Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us." Remember also that one day the operation of his grace will reach its final fulfillment, and the work of healing Jesus began will be completely done. On that day, all of God's children will rise from the table utterly and wonderfully whole. We will see our Dear Father, the Great Physician, the Holy Spirit, God Three-in-One, standing by us. We will see the scars in his hands and the love in his eyes, and we will know then with total assurance that even in our darkest hour, he was always with us, fully trustworthy, at work for our good, as he is even now.
Dan Meyer is pastor of Christ Church.us, a nondenominational, multisite church with locations in Oak Brook and Lombard, Illinois.