Many things were going well for Napoleon Bonaparte. He had victories in battle; and was riding on a high. A reporter asked him: “Whose side do you think God is on? Is God on the side of France?” Napoleon Bonaparte thought about it for a while, and then, in a rather sarcastic and dismissive way, said, “God is on the side of those who have the greatest artillery.” Sometime later, there was Waterloo. Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated, humiliated and exiled to St. Helena. He was asked again about God, and he quoted the great St. Thomas a Kempis, who said, “Man proposes, but God disposes.” He had learned one of the great lessons of history, and that is whenever you seem to be powerful and you can define it as military expertise or victories of any kind beware, because you are not sovereign. There is one who is greater: “Man proposes, but God disposes.”
Bonaparte’s earlier answer when things were going well represents a human frailty and propensity to try to dethrone God. We all do it, all cultures, histories, empires, colonial forces, and sovereign powers. Deep down they think they can bring God down from his place of sovereignty and redefine it. Now, it thought that was through the power of the gun, Napoleon through artillery, and many others have thought it has come from other sources as well. Our age is not so different from Napoleon Bonaparte because today rather than dethroning God as sovereign, we redefine God according to our own terms and understanding.
There was a brilliant piece on the BBC some time ago by Christopher Williams, who did an in-depth analysis on how our culture, both in North America and in Western Europe, conceives of God. He wanted to understand what people meant when they used the word “God”. What was really in their minds? What was their conception of God? He discovered some very interesting things, and at the conclusion of his research he defined God as “a moralistic, therapeutic deism”. He said, “When you really boil it down that is people’s definition and comfort level at what and who God is.”
Now, it was defined a little further. The “moralistic” part meant values, a God who has values, and that we gain our understanding of values from this God. He called it moralistic, but it was more along the lines of people having a sense of their own values, and then describing those values as if they are God. The “therapeutic” part is that God is seen as a self-help God, a God who when things go wrong we call upon like a therapist to give us guidance, maybe to intervene, and to listen and be there – a therapeutic God. You could put the Bible in the self-help section of the book store, alongside all the other gurus that come along and coach your life. The Bible and God become another one of those great resources that is there for us, a therapeutic guide to help us in times of trouble. The “deism” is an interesting one. It is such an old word! It goes back to an era when people actually didn’t believe that God was involved in the world. I have mentioned this many times. God was a God who created the world, but then left it to its own devices: not engaged or involved in human history, but detached from it.
Chris Williams concluded that God is like that in most people’s minds: a source of values, a self-help guide, but not particularly engaged or involved. So, if you walk down the streets of London, Paris, Amsterdam, New York or Toronto and you ask people what they think of God, generally speaking, those are the conceptions. As I read this transcript of the interview, I thought, “You know, he is absolutely right!” As a pastor, at times I feel I have strange conversations with people because our understanding of God and the language we are using is a little bit different. I have to deconstruct or reconstruct the language that is being used in a conversation. For example, in the area of values, I don’t know how many people tell me when they have come to talk to me about a crisis in their lives, or something they have done wrong that has led them into a terrible situation, that “I am a good person.” They start out by saying that. They are shocked to find out that bad things are happening to them, but they genuinely believe that they are good people and that they are living according to, and here is the key, their values. I ask them, “But are your values distorted values?” They are confused. How could their values be distorted? It makes for an interesting conversation!
It is the same when you look at deism, at the notion of who God is. For most people, God is as one President put it, “the ultimate” generally the good and successful, on the side of those who do well, those who are achievers. It is very convenient that this God is not engaged in the world except generally in principle on the side of the successful and the powerful. Then again, Napoleon Bonaparte thought that as well. Even in society, the sense of what God is like therapeutically is very real. People really do genuinely have a sense that they can turn to God at times when they need help and are worried and once that crisis is over, they move on, and God simply goes back into the box or into the heavens until the next crisis comes and therapy is need.
That is how God seems to be working these days. This God we are creating and redefining is really more a God who does what we want God to do and to be, rather than God having any autonomy. It all becomes a matter of sovereignty, and by sovereignty I mean the classical Webster definition of autonomous or supreme power. A sovereign is the one with supreme power, autonomous, and above the ordinary. It boils down to this issue of sovereignty. You really notice it most powerfully in our reading today from Psalm 99. This Psalm is a categorical, indefatigable, absolute “No!” for all pretense of sovereignty as created by humanity.
This is a fascinating passage because this is Transfiguration Sunday, when the Christian Church throughout the world remembers that moment in Matthew 17 where Jesus goes onto the mountain, and there he meets Elijah and Moses. Jesus experiences a metamorphosis, and the disciples see that he is the Son of God, the sovereign Lord, and they worship him. Then they come down from the mountain and are instructed to tell no one. Psalm 99 sounds like that. There are parallels between Psalm 99 and Matthew 17. As I read Psalm 99, I realized this Psalm has some power on its own. It speaks to our world today with a message that really does need to be heard because it affirms ultimately the sovereignty of God. Look how this passage begins: “The Lord reigns! The Lord reigns! Above all others, the Lord reigns!”
Why would the psalmist need to write something so poignant, so powerful and simple? He did it because there were pretenders out there claiming that real sovereignty. For example, some of the kings have thought that they were replacing God, and the people were replacing God with the kings. Some of those were known as The Enthronement Psalms, where the King assumes the royal, lofty sovereign position. The problem with the monarchy is that in Israel it had become corrupt. It had a lot of power, but it was no longer listening or fulfilling the objectives of the God who had put them in power in the first place. There were foreign powers intervening in the life of Israel when the Psalm was being written. They wanted to manipulate the monarchs and military leaders, and these foreign powers were claiming a form of sovereignty over and above the sovereignty of God. There were even religious leaders, people who were normally very highly regarded and respected who were being given God-like status, a bit like the disciples that I mentioned from Paul’s letters earlier this past month. There were those who were claiming to have power and sovereignty. The priests in particular thought that they were sovereign and all-powerful. “No!” Says the psalmist, “The Lord reigns. Exalt the Lord only.”
If there was one of the great movements of the Reformation, which is celebrating 500 years, is a movement to say to religious, political and ethnic powers, “No! God alone is sovereign!” It doesn’t matter whether you read Luther or Calvin, Erasmus, Melanchthon or Zwingli, they all affirmed the sovereignty of God above all states, powers and empires. It doesn’t matter whether it was the emerging new power of Germany or the Papal power in Rome, it didn’t matter which empire was claiming power, Holy Roman or otherwise, the Reformers said, “No! There is only one God who is sovereign.” If anyone really pushed that envelope, it was John Calvin.
Why is it important? It is important because we are in a day and age where there are many attempts to seize sovereignty and to place sovereign earthly powers above all other powers. You see that, for example, in government. Even in a democracy there is a sense in which the people are sovereign. Or certainly, the government that has been elected by the majority is sovereign, but in no way does that guarantee that there is no tyranny of minorities. There are social forces that claim to be sovereign. There are ideas that the successful are sovereign, that the wealthy and powerful are given sovereignty, and that they are the ones before whom we bow down give our praise. In other words, sovereignty is something that is often seized when there is an absence of awe in God. The psalmist says to all pretenders of sovereignty, “No! Before all peoples, they tremble before God. The earth quakes before God.” Does it matter the source? Does it matter the power? Even this planet trembles before God!
I don’t know about you, but I have been fascinated this week with Trappist 1 and the notion of planets that can sustain life beyond what we have previously known. I think it is an incredible thing because it is a humbling thing. Not only the “I” the ego, thinks it is sovereign at times, not only do nations and states, not only the earth and its inhabitants, but it is a reminder that there is more. I am a lover of Walt Whitman, I think he was crazy at times, but I like him. He wrote about astronomy and the astronomer in an incredible piece:
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
There was a sense that Whitman, who was not a real believer, was in awe and wonder of the universe. Even though this was the nineteenth century, no more could mathematics or lectures about what was up there appeal to him, when compared to looking at the stars. Whitman has a sense of awe, of wonder. He had a sense of the mystery that was beyond, and it is that notion that causes all our attempts to dethrone God, to pale.
What is so wonderful about Psalm 99, and central to what Judaism brings to the world, is this recognition that there is content to sovereignty, one of justice and equity. There is a phrase in here that talks about God treating with justice and equity the land of Jacob, the land of Israel. God is not just a god who has such a general idea of what is right and wrong, but a God who is just, a God who practices equity amongst the nations and people. Equity really means more than everyone having the same; it means the principle that before Almighty God all people are equal, that there is equity to God. I love what the great St. Augustine wrote: “In the absence of justice, what is sovereign becomes organized brigandage.” We would know it as banditry. If there is no justice, then sovereign powers can become corrupt. Justice is the organizing principle, and it is not as if, like Plato and Aristotle, there is a natural law in the universe. There is no way that the psalmist would subscribe to that. In fact, natural law can make one look at the universe and see that Darwin was correct: that the powerful will rise to the top. No! There is something greater than natural law, and that is the just, holy, righteous Almighty God. This is not just an Almighty God that is and holy and righteous, who treats all people with justice and equity, but this is a God who listens and interacts with us. There is no place for deism in the definition of God. God is sovereign and God listens. We are told so here. Moses, Aaron and Samuel all cried out to God for help and God answered them. He didn’t always tell them what they wanted to hear. Sometimes he had to forgive them when they made mistakes, because even the greats like Moses and Aaron and Samuel made mistakes. God avenged them at time, corrected them and put them on the right road, but God was involved and compassionate in justice and righteousness.
This is why I think sometimes we want to lower God. We want a therapeutic God who only cares for our problems rather than concern for others and the world. At times, we like to think that God is disengaged simply because then we are left to our own devices, and sometimes we talk about values as if they could be just our own cultural values. We don’t like to hear that God is sovereign. It is part of the reason why people turn their back on God. They don’t understand that God’s sovereignty is just, it listens and is compassionate. That is why when we look at the life of Jesus in the light of Psalm 99, we see that Jesus is the fulfillment of all of this, the embodiment of the God who listens and cares, but before whom all sovereign powers tremble.
I think it makes a huge difference when God is sovereign. Let me give you an example. It was about thirty-six years ago, and as many of you know, I was serving an African congregation with a senior pastor and me, the student minister. One day, we got a note that one of the boys who had sung in our choir had been arrested for stealing a loaf of bread. But, not only that, the store manager who was serving that day was the one who called them. The paddy wagon came along, saw the boy with the bread under his arm, and took him to the police station. The pastor didn’t know what to do.
He knew that this boy was only young, and it was so unlike him. What was wrong with this picture? He had been in Sunday school class and was just about to begin Confirmation Class. He was a good kid. What on earth was going on? Of all the boys in our church, he would be the last one we would think would be arrested for stealing. Finally, the pastor decided to call the store owner. He said to him, “Look, a young boy from our church has been arrested for stealing a loaf of bread from your store.”
The owner said, “Yes, that is right. I have just heard that myself.”
The pastor just said, “I will leave it with you. I know you are a Christian. I know you attend the local Reformed Church, but I just thought I would let you know he is a member of our church” (a black church, not a white church).
The store owner said, “Thank you. Leave it with me.”
Sometime later, he came back and asked “Can you tell me where the boy lives? I would like to go and visit his home and his family. So, the store owner went to the boy’s home. When he went in he saw that there was an ice box, because there were no refrigerators; they didn’t have the money. He opened the ice box and there was no food in it. He opened the cupboards and there was no food in them. He went beside the bed where the boy and his brother slept and there was no food in the drawers next to the bed. The store owner met with the parents and said, “Leave it with me.”
He went back into town, to the police station, and informed the sergeant on duty that he was not going to press charges. Everyone was shocked. The clerk, who had done the right thing in reporting the theft, was shocked. The police officer, who had arrested the boy was shocked. No one had done anything wrong here. But the store owner decided not to press charges. When asked why, because the sergeant thought this set a terrible precedent for the community, he simply said, “I have gone into the boy’s home. I have seen where he lives. I have concluded that after it all, I, as the owner of the store, am accountable to only one power, and that power is God, and God sent me to his home.
Sovereignty. The state was right. The clerk was right. The boy was wrong. But the store owner believed in a higher power! It is that kind of sovereignty that this world needs right now. It is that kind of understanding that God wants from all powers that He and He alone has created. Amen.