A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr B ~ Epiphany 5 ~ Psalm 147
Today we’re going to tackle a tricky and tender topic. It’s a theological concept called ‘providence.’ I wish I could tell you what it means. I mean, I can, kinda – but its meaning has changed, and evolved, and devolved, and changed again over the centuries, so there isn’t a single meaning. What we have are some common meanings, some antiquated meanings, and some wild suppositions. I’m gonna try my hand at one of those wild suppositions! Mostly it’s because every other attempt to theologize about the word ‘providence’ leaves me cold.
As is so often the case, how you understand providence will come down to your theology of God. How do you view, understand, comprehend, explain, identify with, and wrap your brain around God?
How do you complete this sentence: “To me, God is…?”
My answer would be: “To me, God is Present, and God is Love.”
And really, this may be what this entire sermon series has been about for these past 5 weeks.
Is God ‘present’ in this present moment? I say yes. Obviously. But here’s the question: HOW? How is God present? In what ways is God’s Presence knowable, discernable? Is God’s Presence active? What does that action look like? Is God’s Presence interventionist? (That’s a problematic one we’ll look at in a minute.)
The basic meaning of the word seems pretty obvious, but it isn’t. It seems like: providence = provide. The whole word ‘provide’ is right in there.
But provide what? Ah, there’s the thing. You’re probably familiar with the great saying: “God will provide!”
Really? Is that really true? Does God provide?
I mean, I was kinda hankering for a pizza the other day but God didn’t deliver one. Why didn’t God provide?
I need to pay my mortgage and I’m a little short – will God provide?
We need to be careful how we talk about God’s providence or we can end up turning God into a holy vending machine. Insert prayer here – make selection!
No, obviously providence is much deeper and more complex than that Hallmark Card kind of thinking. But it’s easy to fall into such thinking. I remember meeting a person who described every aspect of their life as a direct act of God. Their language was peppered with expressions like, “I was going to work and I was running late and God sent me 3 green lights in a row and I got there on time.”
Some of us may scoff at such things, but for this person God’s active interventions were a prominent feature in their life. Everything was attributed to God. Good things were blessings. Bad things were explained away with phrases like, “God is testing me,” or “God won’t give me anything more than I can handle.”
Perhaps you’ve encountered such theology before.
On the one hand it’s beautiful that someone sees God’s Presence made manifest in so many ways.
For me though, such an interventionist approach to the fine details of my life makes God into something that I don’t think God is: controlling.
You’ve heard me say repeatedly that God is Love and that because God is Love God can ONLY love.
Love doesn’t send calamity – for any reason.
And if Love loves me so much that Love will change red lights to green why doesn’t Love love me enough to make an illness or challenge disappear?
So no, I reject the interventionist theology of God.
It simply has no theological integrity for me.
So where does that leave me with explaining the concept of providence? Good question!
For me, and I stress this is ‘for me’ – God cannot intervene into a place where God already resides. My core theological affirmation is: Surely, God is in this place. My theology of God says that God is already here, now, present.
This present moment, this sacred moment, is up for grabs. What I mean is, how this present moment plays out is entirely up to me – not dictated by or controlled by God.
But how I live in and through this present, sacred moment is fundamentally impacted by whether or not I perceive God’s Holy Presence in this moment, and draw on and work with God’s Presence to navigate this present moment.
Some people call this idea co-creating – as in we are co-creators with God in this present moment.
To me, that makes God active right now – but only active insofar as I draw on God’s Love to live.
By analogy, your house is wired for electricity. Electricity is always present, but if you don’t plug in your cord you can’t work with that electricity.
And if the electricity starts acting on its own you’ve got big problems!
So how is this providence? What exactly is God providing, if not green lights when I’m seeing red?
God is providing what God has always provided, in the beginning, and now – God provides God’s Presence.
God provides God’s creative spark and energy.
God provides God’s light and love that inspires and blesses.
Does God ‘move’ in our world?
As soon as I put God’s Love into motion God is moving!
‘Cuz I’m not that prone to ‘moving in love’ on my own. I’m too preoccupied with making my own way in the world, taking care of my problems, handling my responsibilities. Quid pro quo is a pretty basic human instinct. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. There’s no God in that – there’s no Love in that.
So God ‘moves’ when I go beyond myself and my own selfishness, and awaken to the needs of others, and draw on something deeper and truer than myself to bring love into action. It ain’t me doing the moving by myself.
It’s God’s Love moving through and with me.
I’m not likely to go there on my own – but God will provide!
(See what I did there?!)
And when love moves in the world, and we take the time to notice, we find ourselves attributing God’s Presence in that moment.
And so we should! That’s kinda the point.
We suddenly discover (or notice) God’s omni-presence that’s been there all along yearning for us to plug in and work with it, and in our awestruck-ness at the power of creativity and love in the moment we blurt out “God has provided!”
Because that’s exactly how it feels.
Because it’s true – God has provided!
The Love that permeates every moment, making every moment sacred, has been embodied and made known and because it’s so powerful and sacred it feels like a miraculous blessing.
Because it is!
Even the hard stuff.
Yes, I just said that.
No, God doesn’t manufacture the hard stuff, but if God is always present then even in the hard stuff God’s Love is there – luring us to notice and inviting us to grab hold and let that love inspire us to kindness, and strength, and compassion, and care.
I don’t get my rent, or a pizza, or a cure magically delivered – but God does provide loving strength to rest in, draw from, and work with so that I can live lovingly in that circumstance.
Maybe love will lower my pride so I can seek the help I need.
Maybe love will grow in me clarity of mind and peace of heart to help me perceive options I can’t notice when I’m frantic.
Maybe love will carry me in the arms of supportive family and friends who will love me no matter what.
Some people may think such a view renders God impotent or irrelevant.
I believe the opposite is true.
I believe God’s Love – in this present moment – is the most powerful thing that could ever be provided me, if I can notice it, and embrace it, and work with it.
I’ve probably just articulated a classic theological heresy of some kind.
I don’t care.
My theology of God is Love – present, and powerful, and waiting for my participation.
I really ought to say something about the psalm we’re supposed to be looking at today.
It’s Psalm 147. It’s in three distinct parts, and each one begins with an expression of praise for God’s blessings – for God’s providence.
The first section speaks of how God heals the broken-hearted and binds their wounds. It doesn’t say how. Surely it’s not meant literally. I mean, it’s a psalm – a hymn – a poem – it’s like reading someone’s journal or diary exploring all their intimate thoughts and reactions. To the psalmist God’s Presence feels healing.
Verse 4 gushes about how God knows and names every star. The implication is that if God can do that then God can know me too!
I’m known! I’m not alone! God is here, helping and nurturing me, lifting me up. It’s the psalmist’s reaction to their experience of God’s Presence – and God’s providence.
Section two shifts from the self to the world around the poet. God is present through clouds, and rain, and growing grass. God is present for animals and birds. Then it offers a keen theological insight in verses 10-11.
God doesn’t delight in war horses or feats of great accomplishment.
Instead, God takes pleasure in those who notice – those who are awestruck.
Yes, literally it says ‘those who fear him’ but we know very well now that ‘fear’ in this sense doesn’t mean terror it means to be overwhelmed by awesomeness and holiness – to be awestruck.
And it says that not only does God take pleasure in those who notice but also those who trust in God’s steadfast love – or hesed.
How does God provide?
God offers presence and loving-kindness to those who are willing to resonate with that Love.
Not that God withholds it from anyone, just that some haven’t found (or refuse to look for) that electrical outlet to plug into!
God’s creative spirit is noticeable in our surroundings, and we can resonate with it when we open ourselves to awe and receive the hesed, the steadfast love that permeates this present moment.
God will provide!
Will we receive?
And in the third section of Psalm 147 we get the big message.
The psalmist writes about how they perceive God’s blessing on their community, their city – Jerusalem. But it isn’t soldiers, or war horses, or weapons that give them strength. What does God provide if not those things?
God provides God’s word!
15 God sends out God’s command to the earth; God’s word runs swiftly.
Then we hear of challenges like snow, and frost, and hail. Not your everyday occurrences in the Middle East. (Surely, we can relate to dealing with out of the ordinary challenges these days!) The psalmist imagines such things are given by God, but then in the next breath imagines their relief also coming from God with melting warm winds and flowing waters.
And what is it that brings the relief? Psalm 147:18-20
18 God sends out God’s word, and melts them; God makes God’s wind blow, and the waters flow.
19 God declares God’s word to Jacob, God’s statutes and (commandments) to Israel.
20 God has not dealt thus with any other nation; they do not know God’s (commandments). Praise the Lord!
In the end the psalmist perceives a great theological truth.
God isn’t magic, nor does God manipulate and control every circumstance.
God is present within every moment, and God provides something that guides, strengthens, protects, and flourishes the community – if they choose to receive it, and embrace it, and work with it.
God sends God’s word.
What does that mean? What is God’s word?
It’s not one single thing, that’s for sure. We could probably do a couple of sermons just on the concept of God’s word.
We call the bible God’s word.
We say that Jesus is God’s word.
We quote John chapter 1 saying “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God!”
The word was/is God.
And we know that God is Love. So that means the word is Love.
The bible as Love written down – Jesus as Love incarnated.
God’s word is God’s Love – present in every moment.
What does God provide?
God provides Godself – which is Love – here, now, always.
That is the providence of the present moment.
Present, powerful, waiting for us to participate.
Praise the Lord!