The Hands of God

Published: Monday, 22 January 2018

This sermon was preached by Geoff Pound at the Ashburton Baptist Church on the 31 December 2017.

Reading: Matthew 8: 1-4; 14-17

Think of all the ways in everyday conversation that we mention hands. We decline an invitation because we’ve got our hands full. We take matters into our own hands. When we ask for help we say, “Can you give us a hand?”

We talk about acting high-handedly. We speak about someone who gave us a real backhander. We throw up our hands in horror. If a cricketer has a safe pair of hands they’re put into the slips. All week at the cricket we’ve wondered, ‘Which team has the upper hand’?

In the Sydney to Hobart yacht race when you’ve got strong winds, you need all hands on deck. By the way, were all your Christmas presents new or were some second hand?  When President Reagan was asked for changes to his defence policy: “Don’t tie my hands on the arms issue.”

The Bible also uses such figures of speech.

We’re thinking this morning of a handful of ways that we might experience God’s hands upon our lives.

1.For starters, we learn about God’s Creative Hands.

Isaiah has God saying:

“My hand laid the foundation of the earth, and my right hand spread out the heavens; when I summon them, they stand at attention.”

-          Isaiah 48: 13

Like a bricklayer this God with creative hands lays out the foundations of the earth then stretches out the heavens. When we look at the vastness of this universe, it should cause us to wonder, to love this Creator, and to trust God with all our concerns. Isaiah goes to say:

“We are all the works of your hand.”

-          Isaiah 64: 8  

No wonder when we walk the bush or stand on the beach we can sense such a connectedness with creation. We are part of this whole cosmos and our role is to be caretakers of this amazing universe.

On Boxing Day Melburnians awoke to see pictures of the St Kilda foreshore absolutely littered with boxes, cartons, food scraps and broken bottles.[1]

People were expressing sadness and anger toward these drunken vandals, for their lack of respect towards the locals and families wanting a beautiful and safe place to picnic.

What was horrifying was this enormous concentration of litter and the $18,000 clean up bill, but this rubbishing of our leisure areas goes on all of the time in quiet hidden ways. It’s fuelled not by booze but ignorance and laziness.

Those who believe in God’s creative hands should lead the way in protecting creation, enhancing beauty, keeping waterways clean and ensuring the air is pure.

If we truly love God’s handiwork, when Clean Up Australia Day rolls around next year on the 4 March (2018), we shouldn’t leave the clean-up to a few greenies.[2]

If we’re grateful for the work of God’s hands we should be out there in droves, saving this suburb from being called ‘Trashburton’ and making it the place of beauty God intended it to be.

If the Creator has made us creative, we should be at the forefront of helping to solve crises to do with energy conservation and climate change.

  1. The Bible speaks of God’s Safe Hands.

When a person dies, do we just say that their death was a stroke of bad luck?

That they’ve pulled up stumps or they’ve fallen off the perch?

The Bible teaches us to say with the Psalmist:

“My times are in your hand.”

-          Psalm 31: 15

What a comforting thought. What a confident thought that is.

Our time will not be up until God sounds the siren.

All Jewish children at night are taught to pray the prayer of the psalmist in the same Psalm:

“Into your hand I commit my spirit.”

-          Psalm 31: 5

What a great prayer as we turn off the light at night.

To put ourselves and our loved ones into the safe keeping of our Creator and Sustainer.

“Into your hand I commit my spirit.”

When we’re losing consciousness and succumbing to sleep, to what, to whom do we entrust ourselves?

“Into your hand I commit my spirit.”

What a marvellous prayer as time is running out on this old year and a new year is commencing:

“Into your hand I commit my spirit.”

This Goodnight prayer was the prayer of Christ as he looked death in the face:

Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said,

“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

-          Luke 23: 46

This prayer doesn’t focus on death and the unknown but on the familiar Father and God’s sure, safe hands.

  1. The Bible also speaks of God’s Shaping Hands.

God says to the people of Israel through Jeremiah:

“Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand.”

Jeremiah 18:6

The divine potter wants to shape us into something useful and beautiful.

The Lord asks with a note of desperation: “Can I not do with you as the potter does?”

I can’t get the flaws out of you. You’re not willing to be moulded.” You just want to stay a useless crackpot.

If we take this potter image too far, we’ll think of ourselves only as weak and submissive clay rather than seeing that we have a part to play with the divine potter in the design and fashioning of our lives.

How easy is God finding it to fashion our lives?

How willing and open are we to change as a church community?

How pliable?

How malleable are we as we embark on a new year?

In the story of Albert Schweitzer, his biographer said that each night in the hospital in Africa the doctor would announce a hymn and walk over to the piano and play. The piano was 50 years old. The keyboard was badly stained. Large screws fastened the ivory to every note. One or two strings were missing. And the humid conditions made it impossible to keep the piano in tune.

But now one of the world’s finest musicians sits down.

The greatest living interpreter of Bach’s music begins to play the dilapidated old instrument.

Norman Cousins says:

“The amazing thing was that the piano seemed to lose its poverty in Schweitzer’s hands. It’s tinny-ness and clattering echoes seemed subdued. Its capacity to yield fine music was now being fully realised.”

The piano seemed to lose its poverty in his hands….

Its capacity to yield fine music was now being fully realised.

That’s exactly what happens to us when we yield ourselves to those shaping hands of the divine potter.

  1. Another feature the Bible reveals is God’s Caring Hands.

The Reader’s Digest ran a popular series entitled, ‘I am Joe’s body’ with articles like ‘I am Joe’s eye’ or ‘I am Joe’s appendix’.

In an article entitled ‘I am Joe’s hand’, the author writes about the marvel of the human hand. The hand can lift and clasp and for its size it’s extremely strong.

In fact, one of its special features is the hand’s amazing combination of strength and gentleness. The nearest thing to the hand is an elephant’s trunk which also has the dual capacity for strength and sensitivity. A hand can be extremely strong but there’s nothing as gentle as a lover’s hand.

We don’t know what Jesus looked like but the gospels are constantly alluding to his hands.

Can you picture this scene in Matthew’s Gospel?

And there was a leper who came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately his leprosy was cleansed.

-          Matthew 8:2-3

 

Why did Jesus so frequently touch the people he healed, especially when so many like this man with leprosy were considered untouchable? Jesus could so easily have said a word. Why didn’t he get people into groups? It’d save time to heal them in mass?

Jesus was ministering to people. By singling them out one by one and touching them he was showing that he cared. He came not just to heal disease but to remove stigma and minister the therapy of social acceptance.

As late as 1920 the death rate among infants in some American hospitals was as high as 100%. Then Dr Fritz Talbot of Boston brought from Germany the unscientific sounding concept called ‘tender loving care’.

In a children’s clinic in Dusseldorf, he noticed an old woman wandering through the hospital. She was usually balancing a sick baby on her hip.

‘Who’s that’ he asked?

His guide said, ‘That’s old Anna. When we’ve done everything we can do medically for a baby and it’s still not doing well, we turn it over to old Anna and she cares for it.”

The American scoffed at the notion that touching could improve their care but statistics soon convinced him.

In the Bellevue Hospital in New York they established the rule that all babies must be picked up and mothered several times a day. The infant mortality rate dropped dramatically (from 35 to less than 10%).[3]

The touch of Jesus’ hand transmitted power and love.

And today as his new body, the Lord calls us to touch the sick, to reach out the hand of friendship, to bless the children and to lay our hands on those at the beginning of some new task.

  1. The Scriptures introduce us to God’s Inviting Hands.

See the way Isaiah captures God’s powerlessness:

I held out my hands all day long
    to a rebellious people,
who walk in a way that is not good…

-          Isaiah 65:2

God says I’m stretching out my hands to you. I’m inviting you to join me in friendship. But you’re refusing me.

Picture God’s hands stretched out to you today in invitation regardless of whether we are rich or poor, asylum seeker or long-time resident, toddler or senior adult, gay or straight, married or single.

What a lovely picture of what it means to be a Christian.

Taking God’s hand.

We symbolise this when we welcome new members with ‘the right hand of fellowship’.

When we make a commitment or a transaction we shake hands but this is an ongoing relationship where we walk with God hand in hand. What a fantastic privilege this is.

There’s no place where God’s inviting hands cannot reach us.

It’s our part to accept God’s hand of welcome and clasp God’s hand of friendship.

  1. 6. Finally, and fittingly for this end of year, it is good to know God’s Guiding Hands.

At the end of Psalm 78, which reviews the story of the Hebrew people it says:

“God guided them with a skilful hand.”

-          Psalm 78: 72

As we leave this challenging year and journey into the unknown, we’re assured of God’s skilful hand to guide and lead us.

I wonder if you tuned in to the Queen’s message at Christmastime?

It was 1939 that firmly established the Royal Christmas message as a British tradition. Sitting in front of the microphone, King George VI spoke live his message of reassurance to his people. It was a landmark speech. It had a calming effect on the listening public as they were plunged into the uncertainty of war.

The King said:

“A new year is at hand. We cannot tell what it will bring. If it brings peace, how thankful we shall all be. If it brings us continued struggle we shall remain undaunted.”

He went on to quote from Minnie Haskin’s poem which goes like this:[4]

“I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year,

Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.

And he replied ‘Go out into the darkness and put your hands into the hand of God.

That shall be for you better than light and safer than a known way.”

With this thought we can leave 2017 in peace and with our hand in the hand of God we can stride confidently into the new year.

Amen.

 

[1] Ebony Bowden, Daniella Miletic, ‘St Kilda Foreshore Trashed: ‘Appalling’ Drunkenness as thousands gather on beach, leave trail of destruction, The Age, 26 December 2017.

[2] Clean Up Australia Day 2018, Clean Up Australia.

[3] P Brand and P Yancey, Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, 1987, 138.

[4] Minnie Haskin, ‘The Gate of the Year’ (1908), Wikipedia.