The title of this address is inspired by Isaiah 55: 8 which reads: For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. Fifteenth century German cleric Thomas a Kempis put a more modern spin on Isaiah’s words when he wrote: Homo proponit sed Deus disponit – Man proposes but God disposes.
To illustrate the incomprehensible ways in which God often works, I shall consider three examples from the Bible and one current example. All four examples concern very unlikely characters.
The prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Habakkuk all proclaimed the same message, namely, that the people of Judah and Jerusalem were doomed to destruction because of their idolatry and sinfulness. Isaiah, warned more than 100 years before it occurred that Solomon’s temple would be destroyed and that God would condemn his people to exile. But, like Ezekiel, he prophesied that God would cause the Israelites to be returned to their land and have their kingdom restored.
Isaiah was martyred around 680 BC. Jeremiah witnessed the corrosion and corruption of the Israelites and their pagan ways in defiance of God’s ways. His warnings of the impending doom were scorned and ignored. In 589 BC Jerusalem was besieged for two years until, crazed by famine, the city capitulated to the forces of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. On his orders Jerusalem and its temple were looted and demolished. Those inhabitants who avoided being slaughtered, were rounded up and deported to Babylon. God, through the prophet Habakkuk, provided a graphic description of the ferocity of the Babylonians. He described them as “ruthless, “dreaded people” “bent on violence” (1: 6; 7; 9).
Despair and uncertainly as to their future was the lot of the exiled Israelites for over 50 years. As a result of ignoring the ways of God, they had permanently forfeited the land given to their forefathers. Or so it seemed. Ezekiel, who had accompanied the first batch of Israelites into exile in 597BC, preached a message of hope, deliverance and redemption.
Signs that the Babylonian captivity might not be indefinite occurred from 562 BC with the death of Nebuchadnezzar and the subsequent growing instability within the Babylonian empire. A rebellion in part of the empire led by a warrior called Cyrus of Persia gained momentum. By 546 his Persian empire extended from the Indus River in the East to the Aegean Sea in the West. In October 539, Babylon, the greatest city of the ancient world fell to Cyrus. He was hailed as liberator. The following year he issued the Edict of Restoration which directed all Babylonian Jews to return to their homeland. Furthermore, he directed that the temple in Jerusalem be rebuilt at the expense of the Babylonian treasury.
About 160 years earlier, Isaiah had prophesied those events in chapter 44, verse 28: Cyrus is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please; he will say of Jerusalem, “Let it be rebuilt” and of the temple, “Let its foundations be laid.” In the opening verse of chapter 45, Isaiah stated: This is what the Lord says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of to subdue nations before him and to strip kings of their armor…
Thus, against all expectations, God chose a warrior and an adherent of pagan Zoroastrian beliefs to liberate his people from captivity. Yet Cyrus proved the most enlightened ruler of ancient times. He proclaimed religious tolerance and compassion and, as such, is credited with establishing the world’s first human rights declaration. The book of Ezra has substantial detail about Cyrus whose name is mentioned 23 times in the Old Testament – and on each occasion in a positive spirit. Although he passed on before work on the new temple was completed in 515 BC, he fulfilled God’s intentions and what the prophets had foretold.
Without precedent in history were twelve human beings exposed to the intimate company of God in the form of Jesus. And not for a brief moment, but for three years. The purpose of that exposure or apprenticeship, as it turned out, was to prepare them for the greatest mission ever undertaken: to establish and propagate Christianity, worldwide.
In terms of human thinking and human resources – HR – as we call it, the sort of persons we would have chosen for such a mission would all have had sound affinities and distinctive aptitudes. We would have expected biblical literacy; oratory skills; persons who were socially well-connected; persons with appropriate track records.
Yet the twelve men Jesus chose bear no resemblance to any of those criteria. Some years ago a story did the rounds concerning an HR firm that was given the characteristics of twelve nameless men who happened to be the twelve apostles. The HR firm was asked to do a blind review on each of them in terms of their suitability for the active promotion of a new product. The findings were not very flattering. Only one of the twelve was considered to have some potential. It turned out to be Judas Iscariot.
Jesus’ selection of the twelve apostles is a classic example of God disposing of man’s thinking and of working in a way totally contradictory to human perspectives. “Neither are your ways my ways,” says the Lord. Let’s briefly review who the twelve apostles were. It has to be brief because there is so little hard evidence on them. Peter and Andrew were brothers whose trade was fishing in the Sea of Galillee. Humble, simple, ordinary folk, as was James, the son of Zebedee. John was his brother and was regarded as having firm views. Philip from Bethsaida shared the ordinary social trappings of the others but was believed to have been quick to appreciate who Jesus is. Bartholomew, also called Nathaniel, was regarded as scholarly. Thomas or Didymus as he was also known, was a shallow soul with no particular commendable idiosyncrasy. Matthew was the tax collector of Capernaum. Socially tax collectors were reviled by their fellow Jews. Jude and James the Younger were brothers but beyond that nothing is known of them. The record is equally vague about Simon the Zealot. Judas Iscariot fulfilled the role of treasurer among the group. He was known to be covetous and to have strong Jewish nationalist feelings.
Flawed and vulnerable, uninitiated and unschooled for the task at hand, nonetheless, each was obedient to Jesus’ invitation to “follow” him. But once infused with the Holy Spirit, with the obvious exception of Judas, they proved unstoppable in propagating Jesus’ message and his Resurrection. Each one of the eleven was martyred for his love for and loyalty to Jesus. Each one and many more ordinary men and women after them gave their lives for Jesus and for securing the foundations of the Christian faith.
The third example
The most widely travelled among the early propagators of the faith; the man who contributed 13 of the 27 books of the New Testament – seven of which are considered entirely authentic and were dictated by him; the man who has made history’s most remarkable personal contribution to religious thought and practice: - St Paul.
Yet from his early life a more unlikely person to lead and to mentor the growth of Christianity would have been difficult to find.
Saul of Tarsus was a Greek-speaking Jew from Cilicia in Asia Minor, then part of the Roman Empire. A tent-maker by trade, he was a member of the Pharisee religious party and a keen student of the Hebrew bible. As was common amongst such members, he had memorised large tracts of scripture.
Although he believed in life after death, he rejected the view that Jesus had been raised from the dead and that God had chosen to favour Jesus in that way. Alarmed at the growing groundswell of conversions to the new faith based on the teaching and example of Jesus, who the Jews rejected as a false messiah, Saul headed a mobile persecution unit. He travelled from synagogue to synagogue urging punishment to Jews who accepted Jesus as the messiah. He endorsed the stoning to death of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and was present when it occurred.
Chapter 8 of the Acts of the Apostles tells us that a general persecution followed Stephen’s execution. Saul led a house to house search for Christians. Men and women were summarily thrown into prison. Fledgling Christian communities were shattered and dispersed throughout Judea and Samaria. As the opening lines of chapter 9 of Acts state, “Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to The Way, [as converts to Christianity were called] he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.”
From this it is obvious that Saul was spear-heading the persecution and annihilation of Christianity. He was the leading, proactive protagonist in the struggle of the Jewish religious authorities to halt what was considered an insidious movement threatening the very foundations of the Mosaic law and Judaism’s religious structures.
Yet Jesus chose Saul to lead his Church and to spread his message. Saul’s conversion from antagonist to protagonist of the faith is one of the most remarkable events in early church history. Jesus’ dramatic intervention in Saul’s life is well-known and gave rise to the phrase “Damascan conversion.” In the blinding flash that toppled Saul to the ground and by Jesus directly confronting him as to why he was persecuting Jesus himself, the direction of Saul’s life was changed in an instant. Three days later Saul was infused with the Holy Spirit and baptised. Thus the early church gained a unique and powerful champion known as Paul. To appreciate that, one has only to consider how much poorer the New Testament would be without the writings of Paul and those he influenced.
Fourth example: a phenomenon of our times
From the examples of Cyrus and Saul, it is apparent that God’s ways are confounding and astounding. But we should not take the view that such interventions are confined to ancient history. One began in 2016 and continues to unfold.
Grave concern for the direction their country was headed, gripped many Americans by 2016. The land of freedom had become the land of debt, unemployment, excessive regulation and declining morals. The number of adults on welfare food stamps had grown from 35% to 47%. Three quarters of the states were financially insolvent. Powerful political forces in Washington DC prevailed regardless of election outcomes and of the needs and opinions of ordinary Americans.
When the presidential election campaign kicked off in February 2016, little attention was paid to a wildcard candidate known only for his brash television show, his billionaire status as a savvy businessman and his materialistic lifestyle. Besides, he was one of 16 candidates running under the Republican Party banner. The mainstream media wrote him off as a joke. Few people even within the Republican Party establishment took him seriously.
But the wildcard candidate entered primary after primary in state after state. Primaries are polls held by states for candidates to test their popularity and acceptability so that ultimately a party can see which of its candidates would be best to field in the November presidential election.
To the astonishment – and dismay of the political elite – the wildcard candidate edged out one Republican candidate after another, progressively narrowing the field. His public meetings with the message ‘Make America great again,’ drew capacity crowds wherever he went. Despite his wealth, he connected with the common man; he empathised with unemployed and the marginalised, whilst the opposing candidate dismissed such voters as “deplorables.”
By late June 2016, the wildcard candidate, against all odds, had become the Republican Party’s presumptive presidential candidate. But his success attracted the most vicious, character-hating campaign ever seen in the democratic world, promoted by every major newspaper and television network. If the wildcard was to survive that onslaught, he needed a running mate – a vice presidential candidate – to temper the critical heat. He had a few names in mind but Mike Pence, the Governor of Indiana, was not on that list – until July 12.
On that day Donald Trump was in Indiana for a short campaign swing when his plane broke down on the runway. Nowhere to go he accepted a dinner invitation from Mike and Karen Pence. Three days later Trump announced that Mike Pence would be his running mate.
Who is Mike Pence? Born in 1959 into a Catholic Irish family, he became a born-again Christian in 1978. He describes himself as a Christian, a conservative and a Republican in that order. His favourite Biblical passage is Jeremiah 29:11: For 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.
If Trump was to win the presidency, like George W Bush before him, he would need the Christian evangelical vote. Mike Pence delivered that vote but not before having to endure relentless accusations that he had sold his soul to a brash, worldly materialist. But Mike Pence prayed and prayed and stayed the course. Like Paul, whom initially the apostles doubted as a convert, so Pence assured his critics that he had made the right decision.
Against all odds, the Trump/Pence ticket secured victory on 8 November 2016. When the combined wrath of the political establishment, the enemies of Christianity and the dark forces that constitute the underworld, is taken into account, it is difficult to deny the role of the hand of God in the outcome of that election. Like Cyrus, who began as a rebel leader whom God chose to liberate his people from captivity, Donald J Trump, in many respects irreverent like Cyrus, with the help of a devout Christian, Mike Pence, was elevated to the world’s most powerful secular position.
And just as Saul’s conversion energised and strengthened the Christian movement, after one year in office dramatic changes have come about under Trump and Pence. Last Christmas, for the first time in decades, nativity scenes were exhibited in government buildings in 25 states. Of 15 cabinet secretaries, eight are evangelicals. Unprecedented access to the White House has been granted to evangelical Christians. Trump’s nomination of pro-life judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court was successful despite huge opposition from the anti-Christian network. On the political side, Trump has overturned much of his predecessor’s socialist agenda, slashed taxes, brought back jobs that had been lost to Mexico and elsewhere, defused the nuclear threat posed by North Korea and recognised the great danger Islamic extremism poses to freedom.
The practice of Christianity was an unquestioned fundamental in the founding of the USA which accounts for much of what made America great. With the influence of Mike Pence, Trump, despite his character flaws, is steering Christian ethics of dignity, honesty and respect for life and law back to its rightful place in American life. Here are some examples: he has issued an order enforcing the provisions of the First Amendment – freedom of religious practice and expression; he has restored the freedom of military chaplains to espouse biblical morality which Obama had curtailed and instead encouraged transgender morality; Trump has revoked an Obama order that public school toilets be open to both genders. On May 4, the Republican Governor of Iowa, Kim Reynolds, signed into law new legislation concerning abortion. The new law prohibits abortion if a foetal heartbeat can be detected. Only in cases of incest and rape may abortion be carried out. The state of Mississippi has already passed similar legislation. On May 9, the Secretary for Education, Betsy de Vos, announced that regulations restricting faith-based education institutions from obtaining government grants and student aid, were to be amended.
Three Sundays ago, after the FBC service, Beverley and I spent 83 minutes on Youtube watching Donald Trump address a public meeting held on April 28 near Detroit in Michigan, a state which had not voted Republican since 1988. Ten thousand people were in the venue and as many outside. Some people had travelled over 100 miles to be present. Many got there the day before so as to be assured of a seat inside the venue. Their enthusiasm was evident also from their hand-held slogans, banners and the T-shirts they wore. Although we were watching a recording of the event, we felt the awe and the spirit of those people. We saw their deep appreciation for President Trump and the patriotic roots he stirred in them. We saw the range of support he has which the mainstream media prefer to ignore: African Americans holding placards bearing the words ‘Blacks for Trump;’ women of all ages holding placards with the words ‘Women for Trump.’ But beyond that, what energised the whole occasion was the message of sincerity and success, illustrated by the banners on the stage: ‘Promises made and Promises kept’; the sense of good triumphing over failure and falsehood; a sense of upliftment and hope; a celebration of traditional values.
The roles of the 45th President of the United States and his Vice President are a work in progress but we should recognise that it is another instance of God working in unexpected ways.
-----------------------------------Duncan Du Bois © May 2018