Pentecost 8: Nothing Random in the Big Picture

The second reading for this coming Sunday is Romans 8:26-39. It includes these verses:

28 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified….


35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all day long;

we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.


The Gospel reading is Matthew 13:31-33; 44-52, which includes these verses:

[Jesus says to the disciples,] 51 “Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” 52 And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”


Some of the very oldest stuff in the Bible is the very basic, practical life-instruction in the Book of Proverbs. Many of the sayings of this book come from times before Israel, and long before the Law of Moses. The basic idea behind many of them is that there is nothing random in life. One proverb says it all: “Whoever digs a pit will fall into it, and a stone will come back on the one who starts it rolling (Proverbs 26.27).” That is, there is in this universe a certain, unbreakable chain of cause and effect. You make your bed, you lie in it.


Of course, it isn’t just Proverbs that claims this as truth. It is a premise of most religious world-views. So, what you do today creates either bad or good karma that will come back to you. Be nice to the people on your way up, because you will be sure to meet them on the way down. Good triumphs over evil. Honesty is the best policy.


Today, however, there is another worldview. It has no room for a chain of cause and effect. There is certainly no chain that goes back to any Big Guy in the sky. There are only sub-atomic particles that collide randomly—and even chaos can be computer modeled, given enough bits and bytes.


So, going on beneath the surface of all the information, misinformation, and disinformation being spread upon us like so much wheat and weeds, is a struggle of these two competing worldviews, and what they mean.


Matthew’s Gospel is the only one of the four that contains this little saying about scribes trained for the kingdom of heaven. Scribes get mixed reviews in the Bible. From the time of Ezra on in the Old Testament, they are the ones with the sacred task of studying the Law of Moses—the instruction from God—and teaching it to the people. But Jeremiah had already warned about fake news:

                            How can you say, “We are wise,

and the law of the Lord is with us,”

when, in fact, the false pen of the scribes

has made it into a lie? (Jeremiah 8.8)


Yet, the Bible never disputes that there is such a thing as instruction from God. Scripture’s persistent claim is that nothing falls outside of God’s control. There are no words to the plot of Life that God hasn’t written.


And, the Bible contends consistently, that people who have been touched by God’s Spirit, and who trust in God, are granted a special insight. Isaiah tells us in chapter 41 that false gods are of no use. They cannot tell you what has happened or what will. But God has shared God’s good plan for all of history with those who reverence him: “I first have declared it to Zion, and I give to Jerusalem a herald of good tidings.” In this same tradition Jesus tells us, people of faith become “scribes trained for the kingdom of heaven.”


The message of the Bible on randomness and purpose has matured. Job and Ecclesiastes told us that sometimes things do, for all practical purposes, act in a random manner. Sometimes, in the short term, good does not triumph over evil. Sometimes, in fact, it seems the opposite. Surely these are such times. When the treasured Public Broadcasting Service “Newshour” program shows us photos, and tells, in brief, about the creative, love-filled lives that have been snuffed out by the Covid-19 menace, we have to think, the randomness of molecules have surely won out over the good purpose and meaning.


But the message of Job is that God is the only infallible interpreter of nature or history. We are not smart enough to determine that the Big Picture is random. And Jesus tells us that we might wrestle with the meaning of suffering, and seek to understand every link in the chain of causation; but, in the end—in the Big Picture–all that happens must make room for the healing and wholeness that is God’s work (John 9).


And then there is the Apostle Paul who puts the Big Picture in sharp focus. No matter where the pandemic originated, and no matter how much pain we feel in the present moment, we who are trained in the kingdom of heaven recognize that the hand of God is still at work. All these things may not be good in and of themselves, but they will work together for good as we are moved to love God by God’s unstoppable love for us. Before anyone was struck by this plague, struggled to draw breath, and died alone, Jesus Christ went to the cross to join her. No hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword, or microscopic organism has the power to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.


Do you believe in God? Do you believe in Jesus Christ? Then you have been touched by the Holy Spirit.


Do you feel love in your heart? Does that love consume you at times–and consumed with the certainty that it isn’t some random mistake at work within you? Does it show itself to be the most beautiful thing you can have in your life or leave to those who follow you?


Then witness!! You have been given insight that neither science nor any form of fake news can give. You must tell your friends and family and the whole world. In the Big Picture nothing is random. It all takes us up into the service of the love of God.




About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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