Thursday, March 22, 2012

J. W. McGarvey: On Providence

The following is part of an ongoing commentary on J. W. McGarvey's Sermons Delivered in Louisville Kentucky. For an introduction to and table of contents for the series, see Happy Birthday, J. W.

J. W. McGarvey believes in the power of stories. In introducing the first of six consecutive sermons on individual cases of conversion, McGarvey justifies the minute examination of figures in Acts: "Now, the Lord knew, before men discovered it, the power there is in examples to make a matter plain, and also to stimulate men to action." True to this conviction, McGarvey spends much of his time in each of the following sermons simply retelling the story as it appears in Scripture. There is obvious value in this, especially as there is in modern preaching a tendency to lean too heavily on application. Perhaps the gradual shift away from a more narrative style typified in McGarvey has contributed to the rampant biblical illiteracy of this present generation. Regardless, McGarvey's commitment to the power of examples is not limited to conversions in Acts, and he immediately follows that series with a series of three sermons on providence which follow much the same pattern.

"God is not mocked." This is perhaps not where most, if any, modern preachers would ground a lengthy series on providence, but for McGarvey the text functions perfectly. He examines it and determines that to mock God is to attempt to circumvent providence:

This he lays down as the universal law of God's government over us, and when he says, "Be not deceived" about this, "God is not mocked," he means to inform us that, if we should think that we can sow one thing and reap another we would be thinking that we had the power to mock God--that is, to defy him by overriding his plans and arrangements. Men are very apt to think they can do that. They do so many things by means of their perseverance and determination that they are very apt to conclude they can do anything they choose, whether it pleases God or not; that they can go on trampling God's laws under their feet as long as they choose, and still come out well. Paul knew very well that men were prone to deceive themselves into such an idea as this, and hence he says, "Be not deceived; God is not mocked. For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap."

With this understanding of mocking God established, McGarvey offers us three stories over the course of three sermons which examine the character of providence. He begins, unsurprisingly, with the story of Ahab in which he establishes, among other things, that providence is patience. McGarvey retells the story of Ahab as essentially the tale of "a spoiled child," at one point literally describing Ahab as throwing a temper-tantrum up in his bedroom, refusing to eat, to bath, or to get out of bed until his "mommy" comes in and gives him what he wants. What he wants, a piece of land that isn't his, he gets through means of violent coercion. No sooner has he claimed his prize, however, than the Lord makes a declaration of providence through Elijah: "And thus saith the Lord God before whom I stand, Dogs shall lick thy blood, even thine, O king, where they licked the blood of Naboth." Ahab was scared sick. But, as so often happens, years went by and time and apathy worked to make Ahab forget the ominous promises of God. He went on with his life, secure in his amnesia, waging war, forging alliances, and belligerently ignoring the prophets of God. Lo and behold, years after his offense and in an apparently unrelated military incident, "it was proved that God could not be mocked." Ahab died and dogs lapped up his blood.

The second sermon centered on the story of Joseph, whose narrative is so familiar that it would be imprudent to retell it here (in direct contradiction to my earlier exhortation to preachers to retell the familiar stories). Here, again, McGarvey makes a point of demonstrating the patience of providence, noting that, after all, God could have "wrought one great miracle to translate Jacob and his children through the air, and plant them on the soil of Egypt." Certainly that would have been faster. But, somewhat unexpectedly, McGarvey sees in the actual operations of God in the story of Joseph the truth that providence is mysterious. He notes that God did not use a series of neat, clean "links" in his providential chain. Quite the contrary, "some of them are desperately wicked deeds, some of them are good deeds." Some are moments of inspiring fidelity, others of nauseating infidelity. It was a providential plan which involved the wickedness of Joseph's brothers, their suffering under the guilt of what they had done, the harsh famine that drove them to Egypt, and the blessings they found there. McGarvey notes that much of what the characters experienced must have felt like the severest punishment, and he imagines that many in his audience "whom God has disciplined, whether less or more severely than he did these men." For them he has a message about providence, "The same chain of providence which brought them unexpectedly into Egypt, had fitted them for the high honors which were yet to crown their names." However stern the workings of God may have seemed, "the kind Redeemer whom you rejected, and sold, as it were, to strangers, stands ready to forgive you more completely and perfectly than Joseph forgave his brethren."

Finally, McGarvey concludes with a sermon on Esther. He of course reinforces the previous ideas about providence, but he sees in Esther a unique opportunity to demonstrate that truth that providence is mundane. Esther is the perfect story to demonstrate this fact because, unlike the stories of Joseph and Ahab, "the story of Esther follows without even the name of God." Yet, McGarvey believes that it is impossible to read Esther without seeing God and His providential guidance writ large across the narrative. The fact that Esther was brought before the king to replace Vashti, that the king had trouble sleeping, that Haman arrived just moments too late to have Mordecai hanged, that the king extended the scepter a second time to Esther. All these coincidences--"you call it an accident, perhaps"--had they not worked together in harmony, God's will may have been thwarted, a possibility McGarvey is not ready to admit. Yet none of these is a great, spectacular miracle. They are great and spectacular, especially when viewed as an integrated story working toward divine ends, but they are certainly not miraculous. The same was the case for Joseph, whose purpose was achieved "without the intervention of miraculous power except here and there; for in all this long chain of causes God touched the links only twice, directly...all the rest were the most natural things in the world." In fact, contrary to popular perception, there is a strong sense in which much of the Old Testament is dominated by a providence which works itself out through natural rather than supernatural mechanisms. Mechanism is perhaps a good word, as McGarvey compares providence to the workings of the wondrous new technologies of his day:

A few days ago I stood in the great fair at Chicago, before a weaving machine--a wonder. There were coming out beneath the shuttles bands of silk about as wide as my hand, and perhaps a foot long, four or five coming out at one time at different parts of the loom, woven with the most beautiful figures in divers colors. One of them was "Home, Sweet Home," the words woven by that machine, and above the words was the music. There was woven at the top a beautiful cottage, trees in the yard, bee-gums, and children at play, and down below the words and music, a lone man sat, with his face resting on his hand, thinking about that distant home. All coming out of that machine. The shuttles were flying, threads were twisting and dodging about, the machine was rattling, and no human band on it, yet there the song, the pictures, the music, were coming out. Did they come out by accident? By an accidental combination of circumstances? I could not, to save my life, tell how it was done, but I saw a pattern hanging up at one side with many holes through it, and I was told that that pattern was ruling the work of that intricate machinery, and leading to that result. I was bound to believe it. Now you could make me believe that this beautiful piece of work came out of the loom by accident, and without any man directing and planning it, just as easily as you can make me believe that this chain of circumstances, of facts, bringing about, in accordance with God's faithful promises, the deliverance of his people, was accomplished without him. God was there, my brethren. And just as little can I believe that all those intricate circumstances in my life and yours, which shape and mould and direct and guide us, which take us when we are crude and wicked men, and mould and shape us and grow us up until we are ripe and ready to be gathered into the eternal harvest--that all this is human, or all blind force, or accident, and that there is no hand of God in it.

The purpose here is not to strip the wonder and mystery out of providence, as it has already been seen that McGarvey believes that the mundane workings of God are in fact the most mysterious and wonderful of all. In truth, the purpose is to reassure his audience that God is in fact working deliberately in the lives of his people, whether they recognize it or not, whether they are surrounded by supernatural miracles or apparent coincidences. It is a message of hope for people who were living in a culture where every new Christian movement tried to be more attuned to the supernatural than the last. The spiritualism and Pentecostalism of the early twentieth century was simmering somewhere just beneath the surface. McGarvey's message was that Christians may still have faith in an active, engaged, loving God who is guiding human affairs, even without the ostentation of outpoured miracles. "My friends, God is dealing with you to-day, to-night. You can not see his hand; you may not, as in this story, hear his name; but he is here. Will you believe it?"

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