O God whose never-failing providence ordereth all things
both in heaven and earth, we humbly beseech thee to put away
from us all hurtful things, and to give us those things that be
profitable for us…
(Collect: Trinity VIII)
We concluded last week’s sermon with an exhortation to zeal. Having learned that the Divine desire for all men is that they faint not, but rather feed continually on the living Word of God, we opened our souls to the ongoing nutriment that overcomes sloth. I hope that we prayed fervently that the love of God might grow in us, grafting in our hearts the love of His name, increasing in us true religion, nourishing us with all goodness, and…keeping us in the same. In a sense, what we prayed for was that the same providence that ordereth all things in heaven and in earth, might rule and govern our lives zealously. Its actualization, we learned, would depend upon our willful desire and longing for its ongoing, effectual operation.
But what is this never-failing providence that we pray should overcome things hurtful to our pious zeal? Providence comes to us from the Latin providentia, and it means literally looking for or seeing into. In former times the word was used to describe God’s knowledge of all things –past, present, and future, in the eternal now of His perfect vision. Some theologians used it to defend the Divine Grace against the claims of others who were insistent upon the claims of free will. The doctrine of Divine providence insists that God knows every particular form of created life in all ages and simultaneously. Perhaps a simpler way of putting it is that nothing ever has or ever will escape His all-penetrating gaze and knowledge. Nothing escapes God’s seeing and knowing, because his never failing providence orders all things in heaven and earth. Whether men acknowledge it or not, God’s thinking of all things is present to and determinative of everything that ever has, does, or will happen. What happens in the universe is subject completely to God’s will at all times. Even evil itself –a rejection of God’s Wisdom and Will, much to its own rage and resentment, has meaning only in relation to God and His Goodness!
We might find this view of Divine Providence not a little bit intimidating and disconcerting. The all-seeing eye of God, the surveyor and judge, might startle and shake us. But as your preacher, I would like you to know that I think that this is a good and healthy thing! Post-modern, materialistic Christians have become far too at ease with treating God like the aider and abettor of temporary earthly happiness. They gather and fancy presumptuously that God’s chief role and function in the universe is to overcome any material impediment to generate a kind of bodily buzz. Of course, what they have forgotten is God is not really interested in earthly and impermanent expressions of happiness. He is far more concerned with the state of the soul that is required of us if we hope to find eternal happiness. All of the comfort in the world cannot save a man. And it might even be so powerful as to impede and prevent him from ever finding the way to everlasting salvation.
Worldly, earthly, or temporal happiness is not what God intends for us to be consumed within this life. We do well to remind ourselves that God does see and know all things, and that His ever-present gaze sifts, weighs, and measures the devices and desires of our own hearts and the intentions and motives of our choices. Not only does He see, but also He knows; not only does He know, but also He judges and discerns where our voluntary choices situate us in relation to His Divine Wisdom and Love. God is nothing if not fair. St. Paul reminds us: Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting. (Gal. vi. 7,8) What we will to think, say, and do shall, in the end, determine where we end up.
What we should want, then, is to embrace the Divine Wisdom in such a way that ensures our salvation. First, we need to discern how God sees or knows all things. What I mean is that we should discover what things are and how they might affect us. Next, we must learn how to use them appropriately. Put away from us all hurtful things and give us those things which are profitable for our salvation. Providence, again, is the vision or knowledge by which God enlivens, orders, rules, governs, informs, and defines created beings. It is also the Wisdom that reveals to us why and for what purposes God intends for us to use them.
The author of this morning’s Old Testament lesson tells us that man best begins to open up to Divine Providence and Wisdom through the fear of the Lord. All wisdom cometh from God and is with Him forever. (Ecclus. i. 1) We ought to fear God for His Wisdom. This means that we ought to have a healthy trepidation of the fact that God knows best what things are and how they can be used or misused. Air is necessary for ongoing life. Fire is made to rise and to heat. Water is made to nourish and fertilize or to cleanse and to purge. Man is made to know also that air can contaminate, fire can burn, and that water can drown. The knowledge of these kinds of things ought to inform and condition our wills. The fear of the Lord is that healthy state that cautions us in relation to all things. Whoso feareth the Lord, it shall go well with him at the last. (Ecclus. i. 14) The fear of the Lord is a salutary reminder that we ought to use the creation only in God’s service now so that it may go well with us in the end. It is a salubrious sense of God’s omnipresent vision and desire for us. For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones. (Isaiah lvii. 15) The fear of the Lord engenders humility of heart. Humility of heart sees the truth and intends to will the best. The fear of the Lord is to hate evil: pride, and arrogancy, and the evil way, and the froward mouth, do I hate, [saith the Lord]. (Prov. viii. 13)
God’s providence is His Divine Wisdom. St. Thomas Aquinas, quoting Aristotle, links it with order. He says it belongs to the wise man to order….The name of the absolutely wise man, however, is reserved for him whose consideration is directed to the end of the universe, which is also the origin of the universe. That is why, according to the Philosopher, it belongs to the wise man to consider the highest causes.(SCG i. 1) The wise man orders his life with virtue to pursue the highest ends. The wiser man knows that it belongs to the gift of wisdom to judge according to the Divine Truth. A man judges well what he knows. (Eth. i. 3, ST, ii, ii, xlv. 1) Of course, the pattern and model of Divine Wisdom in the flesh has been given to us in the life of our Saviour Jesus Christ. In Christ, we find the Divine Wisdom ordering human life perfectly. And the same Wisdom that was made flesh long ago forever longs to share its life with us. He teaches us that we should be debtors not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. (Romans viii. 12). Rather, the Divine providence intends that we should be illuminated and liberated by Christ the power of God and the Wisdom of God. (1 Cor. i. 24), remembering that if we through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, we shall live. (Romans viii. 13) Wisdom intends that we should serve a higher end. In this morning’s Gospel, the wise man is compared to a good tree that bringeth forth good fruit. (St. Matthew vii. 17) The good fruit is the virtue that grows up out of a body tamed by the soul that serves the spirit. Wisdom can be operative only when we intend to submit the body, soul, and spirit to the gift of God’s Grace in Jesus Christ so that the Holy Wisdom might purge us of all things hurtful to us in the world, through the flesh, and by the influence of the devil.
In the face of Divine Wisdom, we must ask ourselves this morning these questions: Do I humble myself before the never-failing providence that orders all things in heaven and earth? Do I thank God because I know that my creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life depend upon His providence? Do I desire that His Wisdom might enter my soul and crucify all things hurtful that distract and delay my adhesion to His will? Do I remember that I was born to be a child of God’s omnipotent Wisdom through the fear of the Lord, seeking, knocking, and asking? As many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. (Romans viii 14) Proverbs remind us that the Spirit of Wisdom crieth in the chief place of concourse, in the openings of the gates: in the city She uttereth her words, saying, How long, ye simple ones, will ye love simplicity? and the scorners delight in their scorning, and fools hate knowledge? Turn you at my reproof: behold, I will pour out my Spirit unto you, I will make known my words unto you. (Proverbs i. 21-23)
Today’s lesson is not merely about vision or even willing a limited good. Today Wisdom calls us to cultivate the intention to please God in all of our lives so that we shall be saved. William Law tells us that it was this general intention, that made the primitive Christians such eminent instances of piety, and made the goodly fellowship of the saints, and all the glorious army of martyrs and confessors. Mr. Law tells us also that if we wonder why the Wisdom of God is not giving us the same intention that the primitive Christians possessed, we shall find that it is neither through ignorance, nor inability, but purely because we never thoroughly intended it. What we intend is inspired by what we love. So let us intend to love God above all things in order that by His Wisdom we might find those things profitable for us, profitable to our salvation.