Sermon 13                                      

Bow Before the Almighty

Genesis 18:14

July 29, 2007


Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.

            At the end of that famous encounter at the oaks of Mamre, we hear these tough words, “Is anything too hard or wonderful for the Lord” to do? (Genesis 18:14). These are difficult words for us because they say that God’s power is unlimited.


Revamping Omnipotence

God’s unlimited power bothers us because of the evil that it seems to allow. For if God is almighty then nothing happens without his say so. Not even a little bird falls to the ground “without your Father’s will” (Matthew 10:29). So being all-powerful, or omnipotent, means that God is in full control of the whole world, for he “determines everything,” ruling “all things… by His will” (Luther’s Works 15:121, 65). But since so many bad things happen, omnipotence gives God a black eye. Therefore we have difficulty, if you will, living with a God for whom nothing is too difficult! While “this is a most important article of faith,” it’s “hard to believe and to translate into life” (LW 21:328).

            This point is powerfully made in the popular book by Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (1981). There he tells the horrible story of his young son’s untimely and painful death. In the throws of his anger and despair over the loss of his son, he asks why a supremely good and almighty God would allow this to happen. But Kushner finally concludes that God couldn’t possibly have done this. So he writes it could only have happened because it was just “too difficult” for God to stop (p. 43). The boy’s illness simply overwhelmed even God. On this view God isn’t omnipotent. Kushner believes we have to bite the bullet and say this. Otherwise God is a monster and we are bereft of all comfort and hope in times of painful loss.

            Now Rabbi Kushner is not the first to argue for this turn around. Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000) also argued that omnipotence must be revamped. No longer can we say that God has “the power to do anything that could be done.” Now that power must be restricted to the “power to set conditions which are maximally favorable to desirable decisions” on our part [The Divine Relativity: A Social Conception of God (1948) pp. 134-135]. If God’s power determines “every detail of what happens in the world,” then, Hartshorne insists, we are conferring on God the “tyrant ideal of power” [Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes (1984) p. 11]. And even though such a domineering view of divine power may appear in the Bible, Hartshorne doesn’t waver, since he says that it’s absurd to honor “a book written, translated, [and] interpreted by people as the very voice of God” [The Zero Fallacy and Other Essays in Neoclassical Philosophy (1997) p. 39]. On this view we must feel free to rise above what the Bible says.

            All criticisms like these are not as sophisticated, however. We also find similar ones to those made by Kushner and Hartshorne in the popular movies, Bruce Almighty (2003), starring Jim Carrey, and Evan Almighty (2007), starring Steve Carell. So dissatisfaction with divine omnipotence is all around us – and in many sundry forms. It must therefore be addressed head on.


Following Isaiah 55:8

Doing that it must first be noted that these revisions of God’s power aren’t informed by the foundational insight in Isaiah 55:8, which says that God’s thoughts and ways are not like ours. So for us to stand in judgment of God is a category mistake – meaning, that we’re trying to play in a league we’re not suited for. When making the same blunder, Job rightly says, “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (Job 42:3). We then, like Job, should butt out when beholding matters “too great and too wonderful” for us to comprehend (Psalm 131:1). We must give up “rarified speculations and stick to the… simple meaning of Scripture” (LW 52:95). For God’s judgments and actions will always look “unprincipled and unjust by human standards,” even though they are certainly and clearly “just and true by his own” standards (LW 33:208).

            But if we plow ahead any way, swimming in waters well over our heads, our critiques are bound to fail, because “heaven and earth cannot be commingled. So our thoughts… and rules are… reproved and driven off by the heavenly” (LW 17:257). Shame, then, will be our only portion. For we will sit like Job, defeated, loathing ourselves in “dust and ashes,” for what we’ve said and done, contrary to God’s words and ways (Job 42:6).


Twisting Jeremiah 32

But that prospect doesn’t end the matter. The debate continues anyway – if you can believe it! Lutherans, for instance, are supposed to confess that omnipotence is “a property of the divine nature” [The Book of Concord, ed. T. Tappert (1580; 1959) p. 487]. But when teaching Jeremiah’s prayer on God’s power, the clear word is twisted. Jeremiah prays, “Ah Lord God! You have made the heavens and the earth by your great power…. Nothing is too hard for you.” God then answers, “Behold, I am the Lord, the God of all flesh; is anything too hard for me?” (Jeremiah 32:17, 27).

But a prominent Lutheran teacher then goes on to say that the premise in this account of omnipotence is “flawed,” since God is “limited by the situation” in which he acts [T. Fretheim, Jeremiah (2002) p. 464]. The truth then is that God can’t actually do whatever he wants to do – contrary to Psalm 115:3. Some things are just too hard for him to do! This construal proves the point in the cynical observation that modern Biblical commentators work “to make the Bible say the opposite of what it seems to say” (Donald H. Juel in Word & World, Spring 1990, p. 168). Lord have mercy!


God’s Power in Creation

Now it’s clear that Jeremiah 32 is about God’s power in creation – making the massive mountains, the pounding oceans, the huge redwood trees, the distant stars and all the various plants, insects and bacteria – to say nothing of the human being, who with acute mind and dexterous hands makes not only towering bridges and monumental buildings, but the finest of paintings and music, as well as books on subatomic theory and psychoanalysis. It is this Creator for whom nothing is too difficult. You would think creation would make this as plain as the nose on your face (Romans 1:18-23) – but for the fancy intellectual critiques, it’s anything but. No wonder then that Luther cherished the old German saying, die Gelehrten, die Verkehrten, or “the learned are daft” (LW 46:232)!

And this same almighty power is also in that famous Jeremiah 18 passage, which is carried over into Romans 9, where God molds us however he wishes – just like a potter forms clay into one shape or another at will. So while we may want to mold God to fit our preconceived notions, it can only be the other way around. God “regards us all as… dough,… and does with us as He pleases” (LW 13:214). So if you want to make God laugh, “tell him your plans” (“John Chancellor, Venerable TV Newsman, Dies at 68,” Los Angeles Times, June 13, 1996). “Therefore it is useless for us to kick against the goad (Acts 26:14)” (LW 15:102).

Too bad, then, that it is “the nature of every ungodly man to mold God for himself and refuse to be molded by God…. They want to whittle God according to their purpose” (LW 17:16-17). For we are “by nature unable to want God to be God” (LW 31:10). We therefore need to call upon the Lord to enlighten us that we might have power to dismiss our “own notions of God” (LW 24:63). God alone “pricks the bubble” of our exalted sense of self-importance and creative theorizing about the divine (LW 21:340).


Honoring God’s Power

But God’s almighty power is misunderstood, if it’s deemed a threat. Its purpose rather is to comfort us when we’re up against insurmountable odds. His power is there in reserve for us. It’s not there to frighten us or confound us with puzzles like God creating rocks too big for even him to lift. No, it’s actually the other way around. For when we start revising God’s power on the basis of “opinion apart from the Word of God,” then all that floods back upon us are “endless monsters” (LW 17:140).

And so in addition to the wonders of creation, God’s omnipotence is manifest in his many miracles. These miracles are for us. They signal the omnipotence of God (see my “Misconstruing Miracles,” Dialog, Winter 2000). So we’re told that nothing is impossible for God, when we hear that his only begotten Son will be born of a virgin – quite contrary to the laws of nature (Luke 1:37). This is similar to the word in Genesis 18:14, where we’re told that the post-menopausal Sarah will give birth to Isaac, the child of promise. And we hear the same when we’re told that it’s finally possible for rich people, who don’t think they need God (Revelation 3:17), to have faith in Jesus (Luke 18:27). These miraculous, powerful reports and promises, comfort us.

            Encouragement, then, is the point of divine omnipotence. God is almighty so he can help us “where no man can” (LW 13:239)!


When Bad Things Happen

Why then does God allow so many bad, harmful and destructive things to happen to us? What shall we say to Rabbi Kushner upon the terrible death of his little boy? If God is so good and so powerful, and on our side, shouldn’t the world be a better place than it is – scoured clean of every sadness, illness and calamity?

            First we must be suspicious of such questions – remembering that God’s ways exceed our ability to understand and assess them. “Therefore let us crucify this baneful why, and let us say, ‘Glory to God, who alone is wise; but confusion to us!’ Satan opened our eyes in Paradise , and now our every effort is directed toward closing them again and making them blind. The fact that Adam had his eyes opened is the occasion and cause of death and damnation for all his descendants” (LW 3:173)!

            1. Inscrutability. So the first thing we need to say is that whatever good reasons there are for allowing bad things to happen to us, God keeps them to himself. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any. We believe there are good reasons because God “is just in all his ways” (Psalm 145:17). The problem is he just doesn’t share those reasons with us. He doesn’t help us see how these bad things are actually good for us. So the advice is sound that “the secret things belong to the Lord our God” (Deuteronomy 29:29). So we shouldn’t try to pry into God’s mind to discern what these reasons are, if he has chosen not to disclose them to us. And these secret things are considerable for “how unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways” (Romans 11:33).

            2. Punishment. But that’s not quite the end of the matter. We are given more than this basic orientation of inscrutability. We are also told that sometimes bad things happen to us because we deserve them. We have “provoked” the Lord God to punish us by disobeying him. We have “kindled” the fire of his wrath against us (Psalm 106:28-29, 39-40). Lutherans go even further and say that “as a rule” suffering is punishment for sin, and since we are sinful “from head to foot,” we “deserve nothing but punishment” (BC, pp. 206, 309, 347). So if we do not “repent,” we shall “perish” for our sins (Luke 13:3). Therefore God doesn’t want to tear us down with his punishment. He rather wants his punishment to turn us from our wickedness and bless us. Indeed, “he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness” (Hebrews 12:10).

            But the punishment isn’t always obvious. Sometimes we suffer and we don’t know why. Discernment in these matters is a tricky business. It is certainly so for ourselves, and even more so for others. No wonder then that “discernment” is something to be prayed for (Philippians 1:9). We don’t have it naturally or automatically. At one point Jesus even sidesteps the cause of suffering altogether – putting the stress on resolving the suffering rather than explaining where it came from (John 9:3).

            3. Chastisement. But these two considerations – inscrutability and punishment – don’t cover everything. There’s also the matter of chastisement and discipline. Sometimes we suffer so we can build our “character” (Romans 5:2-5). Job suffered even though he was “blameless…. and the greatest of all the people of the east” (Job 1:1-3). So he suffered for reasons other than punishment. Job suffered so he could “come forth as gold” (Job 23:10). For “iron sharpens iron” (Proverbs 27:17) – and in his case it was suffering that sharpened or built the character of Job. Suffering enabled him to “see” what he had missed before (Job 42:5). And similarly, Jesus learned obedience “through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). Obedience, then, was the gold that came forth from his suffering.

            The day before Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) was assassinated, he preached at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee, that “only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars” [A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. J. M. Washington (1986) p. 280]. That is the same point being made about chastisement. And so we have come to learn that God chastises “those whom he loves” (Revelation 3:19). Suffering is indeed loving, precisely because it is eye-opening. Nothing else will do this wonderful thing for us.


Our Paschal Lamb

With all these words of explanation in hand, can we now truly bow down before the almighty power of God? Or will we still balk in the presence of the omnipotent One?

            Struggle though we may, we will not be able to settle this on our own. So we’re told in Luke 10:42 that only one thing is needful or necessary. The Old Latin Bible translates it unum est necessarium. Yes, unum est necessarium! Now why is that? What makes Jesus all we need? 1 Corinthians 5:7 says that “Christ our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed.” Here is the necessity! Only Christ has been sacrificed for us, to cover our sins that we might not be punished for them. No one else has done this for us. He alone is our paschal lamb.

            In Exodus 12 we learn about the first paschal lamb. This was the best of the flock, an Ovis dalli. If the enslaved people of God were to kill this sheep and smear its blood on their front doors, God’s angel of death would “passover” their homes and not kill their children along with all of the first born of Egypt . This lamb’s blood, then, would save the people of God from his murderous wrath. This makes this lamb a passover lamb or paschal lamb

In the same way Jesus’ blood also saves us from the wrath of God. When his blood is smeared on us through faith in him and baptism in his name, we are saved (1 Corinthians 15:3; Mark 16:16; BC, p. 437). God’s wrath will no longer rest on us for our disobedience (John 3:36; Romans 5:9). This is because what we had coming God levels against Jesus in our place. He is our substitute. Our sins are pounded into him instead (1 Peter 2:24).


Drawn to Jesus

In this suffering and dying and bleeding, Jesus draws us to himself mysteriously (John 12:32). Here is a power we find nowhere else. For here is a death unlike the one offered from that flock in Egypt long ago. For this death, you see, is even good for the Egyptians (1 John 2:2: 1 Peter 2:24), if they but believe in Christ. It’s for the sins of the whole world. Here is a power that overcomes our fear of God’s almighty power. Here is a supreme power that’s clearly on our side. It purifies us who were dirty, it makes us rich who were poor (2 Corinthians 8:9, 5:21). And this it does for us, who couldn’t, and wouldn’t clean-up our own lives (Romans 7:24). It comes for us who cannot help our own unbelief (Mark 9:24). This is a power that dazzles and opens up faith. It was able to turn Paul around on the road to Damascus – changing him from a killer of Christians to a preacher and promoter of Christianity (Acts 9:1-22). That same power will be at work in the baptismal font in our church today. When the words are said over, and the water is poured on, little Laird Arden (Krebs) Foster, he will be made into a child of God by the power of the Almighty. Rejoice in this. Bow down before its grandeur. Witness a miracle at the font this day. That same almighty power that rescued the slaves from Egypt long ago, is here today at the font. That same power that draws us to Christ on the cross, is here today at the font. Behold God’s glory!

            And then also receive Christ this day at the altar. You who have heard his word and believe (Romans 10:17), come this day to the altar. Bow down before the throne of the Lamb. Eat and drink of the Lord’s Supper. Do so that Christ may abide in you, and you in him (John 6:56). It’s a gift for you that your faith and love may grow and become strong and make you new (2 Corinthians 5:17).


Make God’s Word Fully Known

And when you leave this holy house, go on your way doing good works in Jesus’ name – knowing that faith without works is dead (James 2:26). Colossians 1:25-28 says we should make the word of God “fully known,” that we may become “mature in Christ.” So there’s much at stake here. There will be no maturity but only half-hearted Christians if the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27) is not fully and carefully known among us. Having one’s favorite Bible verses will not do. Instead we need it all, in its depth and breadth. We need the hard Word with the easy. We need the Law with the Gospel. So pray for help that this gets done. Do it yourself as much as you can. Pray for those in leadership roles that they may get it done throughout the church. And pray for this “to the glory of God,” and to him alone (1 Corinthians 10:31). Amen.


(printed as preached, but with some changes)