Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister




“How God Get's Things Done”

First Sunday of Advent

Sunday, November 28, 2010




Rev. Dean Snyder

Last evening when I left the building I realized that I did not have the key I needed to double lock the church door. I called Jane and she graciously agreed to bring me a set of keys so I could lock up properly and then give me a ride home.

I was standing on the sidewalk near the bus stop waiting for her when a couple turned the corner from P Street onto 16th street, took a few steps and the man stopped cold pointed toward the signboard where we post sermon titles and said to the woman he was with, “Hah! Look at that.”

He took out his cell phone, walked up onto the church lawn and took a picture of the signboard with the sermon title “God Uses the Secular.”

After he’d taken the picture, he said to the woman, “This guy is amazing,” a comment that could be taken a couple different ways. I was so curious I almost asked him what he meant, but just then Jane pulled up to the curb so I decided just to receive his comment as a compliment.

God uses the secular. This is hardly a remarkable statement. It is certainly not unorthodox. God uses the secular.

I assume that God has a dream for us. I assume God has a dream for God’s creation. I assume the dream is reconciliation…it is shalom…it is peace…it is justice…it is wholeness and health…it is inclusion…it is beauty…it is joy…it is love.

I assume that God is doing something to move us toward God’s dream for us. I assume that God is active in the universe and the purpose of what God is doing is to move us toward God’s good dream for us.

So the question I want to ask this Advent season is how God gets things done. How does God act in the world so as to move us toward God’s dream for us? The theological name for God’s dream for us, by the way, is the “eschaton.” And the study of God’s dream for us is called “eschatology.”

The theological name for the way God gets things done in the world is the Doctrine of Divine Providence. The word “Providence” has sometimes been used as a synonym for God. I was reading a biography of Andrew Jackson and noticed that almost every time he referred to God he used the word “Providence” for God.    

So the topic I want to discuss this Advent and Christmas is the Doctrine of Providence and the textbook I want to use to discuss the Doctrine of Providence is the Gospel of Luke’s nativity account...Luke’s story of the birth of Christ.

The reason the Doctrine of Divine Providence can be difficult is because God is invisible. God is hidden. The 17th century mathematician and theologian, Blaise Pascal (whose grave Jane and I went to France to visit, by the way) – Pascal said that a religion which does not believe that God is hidden is not true.

If you can see your god, your god is an idol.

Foundry’s statement of call which you will find on the cover of our bulletin says that one of our callings as a congregation is to deepen faith through transcendent worship. The word “transcendent” means, according to Immanuel Kant, something that lies beyond the limits of ordinary experience. God is beyond the limits of ordinary experience. God is invisible. God is hidden.  

Because God is invisible, the hand of God is invisible. Because God is hidden, the hand of God is hidden. We cannot see the hand of God acting in our world through our ordinary senses.

Not everything that happens is God’s intentional will. Things happen in our world that God hates. The universe has free will. You and I have free will. We are free to do things that God does not approve of at all.

But God does act in the world in such a way as to move the world closer to God’s dream for us. Only we can’t see it through our ordinary senses.

The story of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Luke is, among other things, a theological statement about how God acts in our world.

And the first thing it says is that God uses secular events to help get done what God wants to get done.

“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinus was governor of Syria. All went to their own town to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.”

What could be more secular than a census that was called by an emperor who didn’t believe in God but who thought he was God or at least allowed other people to call him a god?

A census in the Roman Empire was a big deal. It would take years, if not decades, to prepare for and organize. It would require everyone in the empire to return to the town where their family came from and to be counted. And the purpose of the census was to be sure everyone who lived in the empire would be taxed.

To say that God used a census decreed by Emperor Augustus and administered by Governor Quirinus is like saying that God uses the IRS to get done what God wants to do to move the world closer to God’s dream.

This isn’t to say that everything that happens in the secular world, that happens – say – in the world of government and business and industry is God’s will. Some things obviously happen in the world of government, business, and industry that that run counter to God’s dream for us.

But it is to say that God doesn’t avoid the secular world. God isn’t above using secular politics, business, and industry to get done something God wants to get done in the world.

This is a theological assumption and affirmation of Luke’s nativity narrative. God uses the secular to act in the world. The secular can be directed by God’s hidden hand.

Here’s why I think this is important. I think that people of faith like us are tempted to look down our noses at the secular. We have a certain aristocracy of the godly.

Turn to your neighbor and take 30 seconds to discuss what you think the most godly work is. What is the most godly profession anybody could have?

How many said being a missionary? How many said selling bonds on Wall Street?  

We tend to have somewhere in our psyche, a hierarch of godly work. Toward the top of our aristocracy is mission work. (I don’t know the exact order of things.) Mission work is near the top. Then, there is public interest work. Then maybe education. Then, maybe, government service. Then, maybe, law. Then, maybe, commerce. Then, maybe, business.  

We have in our psyche a hierarchy of godly realms. The more secular it is in our minds, the less godly it is.

The nativity story in Luke says God can and will use the most secular, political, commercial, seemingly crass things to get done what God wants to do. You will be as likely to find God at work on Wall Street as at Martha’s Table.

Sometimes people will ask me for career advice. Should I get out of the law firm I’m in and go do AIDS education in subSahara Africa? I suspect God needs you more at the law firm and it may turn out to be harder to serve God at the law firm than in subSahara Africa. I can’t tell you what your calling is but I’m pretty sure God would like to use the law firm to move the world closer to God’s dream for us just as much as the mission in Africa.

It is a great temptation for Christians to want to live in a Christian world…to listen to Christian music by Christian artists, to read Christian novels from Christian bookstores, and to hang out with Christian friends at Christian coffeehouses. It is a temptation for us Christians to want to create this goofy little “Christian” world, where everything reinforces our “Christian” worldview and “Christian” values, and where Christians will be protected from worldly influences.

But Luke’s nativity story says that God is at work in Emperor Augustus’s palace and Governor Quirinus’ city hall where people don’t much even talk or think about God and godly things but where God is trying to get some things done.

I can’t tell you what God’s will or intention for your life is. I can’t tell you whether God wants you to be a missionary or a bond salesperson. All I’m trying to say is for you not to rule out any realm of the world as a place where you can serve God.

Say you work in the for profit world and you have a really greedy boss, and you think you should leave that place and find a place that is less dominated by greed. That may be true. It may also be true that God can use you to heal the culture you are in.

I wish there were more people of faith in some of the realms that Christians tend to look down our noses at.

God uses the secular.

Luke’s nativity story is actually saying even more. It is coming to be Board of Ordained ministry season. We who are board members will spend many hours reading candidates for ordination’s papers. One of the questions they need to answer is what does it mean to say that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Eight or 9 out of 10 candidates will say: it means that Christ is Lord of my life. I have accepted Christ as my Lord and Savior so he is Lord of my life. One or two out of 10 will say: it means that Jesus Christ is Lord of the universe. It means that Jesus Christ is Lord of history. It means that ultimately every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that the way, truth, and life we see in Christ is the ultimate and supreme way, truth, and life.

Luke was saying that even emperors and governors are Christ’s subjects. God will have God’s way with even them.

The hand of God is hidden. We can not know through ordinary means where God is at work. We can know what God is doing because this has been revealed to us in Christ. God has a dream for us.

God’s dream is reconciliation…it is shalom…it is peace…it is justice…it is wholeness and health…it is inclusion…it is beauty…it is joy…it is love.

And God is as likely to be at work on God’s dream in the emperor’s palace as here in church. So let’s not be afraid of anywhere, any realm of commerce or government or business. Let’s not be afraid of Hollywood or Madison Avenue or the Rock and Roll Museum in Cleveland. There is no place or nothing that God will not use. There is no place where Christ is not Lord. There is no place where we can hide from God’s call to serve his dream.


Quoted by Carl Michalson, The Witness of Radical Faith (Tidings, 1974), 63.