16th Sunday After Pentecost
Grace, Mercy and Peace to you from God our Father and His only Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ, Amen.
In an art collection at the University of London, is an 1864 oil-on-canvas painting by Edwin Landseer titled, Man Proposes, God Disposes. The painting depicts an imagined Arctic scene in the aftermath of Sir John Franklin's expedition in 1845 to explore the Northwest Passage.
The 134 men of Franklin's exhibition left Greenhithe in May 1845 on two steam-powered ironclad icebreakers. After five left the ship, the remaining 129 men were last seen by a whaling vessel in Lancaster Sound in July 1845, but then disappeared without trace into the ice. The expedition was well-provisioned for a voyage of several years, but eventually, search parties were sent out as time passed and no further sightings were made.
The phrase "Man proposes, but God disposes" is a translation of the Latin phrase "Homo proponit, sed Deus disponit" from Book I, chapter 19, of The Imitation of Christ, a 15th-century book by the German cleric Thomas à Kempis. A few modernized and paraphrased Bible translations use it as a translation of Proverbs 19:21 which states, “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.” [Proverbs 19:21]
People don’t plan to fail; they just fail to plan. Having a good plan is necessary in many areas of life. If one wishes to borrow money for a new venture, he must have a business plan. The lending facility wants to know their money is not going to be lost through poor management. They too have a plan and they are accountable for their actions.
Whether building a house or skyscraper, plans are designed and drawn, months even years in advance. These plans are scrutinized and reworked over and over again. Even in the construction, these plans can change to overcome obstacles that become evident during the execution of the plan.
When one wishes to attack militarily one must have a strategic plan. The movement of troops, vehicles, fuel and supplies is paramount to the success of the plan. Many of these types of plans are multi-layered. Different degrees and levels of these plans are carried out by different forces. To some, who do not know the complete plan, or the ‘Big Picture’, it may seem chaotic or even impractical, because only a very few ever really know the complete plan.
We can all relate to the different personalities of people of whom some need organization and strategy, while others see serendipity more artistic or freeing. Deep down inside, we all plan for our future. We even try to plan the future for our children or other family members. This is natural. This is considered human nature. We like structure. We rely on the constants of our environment and on the people who live in it.
We plan our lives around the rising of the sun, the seasons of the year and yes, even the actions of our neighbors. We thrive on consistency. We get upset if our plans are derailed. Anyone who has an inconsistent personality is considered a ‘loose cannon’, or an ‘unknown variable’. People find it difficult to work with this type of person and will even choose not to interact with them at all because of the inability to quantify such a person’s reliability.
Again, this is human nature, but I’ll tell you another factor of human nature – sin.
The poem "To a Mouse" by Robert Burns has the much quoted line: “The best laid schemes of mice and men / Go oft awry.” This is a beautiful summation of human endeavor.
Because of our sin against God and our fellow human beings, our plans are doomed to failure. I challenge anyone to relate to me any plan they have experienced working perfectly without any complications. Something always goes wrong. Why? Because we are not God, we are not perfect; we are working with a sin-filled mind and spirit.
Nothing we can do; no best laid scheme can ever come to a perfect conclusion. Only God is perfect, and to him our plans are like mice chasing the cheese. Listen to the word of the Lord from Isaiah 55:8-9.
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways My ways,” says the Lord.
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways,
And My thoughts than your thoughts. [Is 55:8-9]
We seek our own way, our own plan and not His because we are thinking with a sinful heart and mind. We desire our glorification instead of the glory of God.
We live in this earthly realm, subjected to the pain and suffering, the persecution and poverty in which we dwell and we ask God, “Why?” We see loved ones become sick. We see children die. We see catastrophe, war and destruction and we wonder if God is with us.
Death, disease, war and famine is not what God wants. Such things are not the best laid plan of Our Father in heaven, but of men. Our sin brings death. Our hate, envy, lust and idolatry are our work. We connive and scheme for our own personal desire and like the unhappy workers in the vineyard, we take our earthly reward and leave the master’s house.
This is why the Gospel parable from Jesus is so confusing. Jesus begins with the words, “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard.” [Matt 20:1] Right away, we are told that this is not our earthly realm of which Jesus is speaking: “For the kingdom of heaven is like…” It is simple to miss yet it is the most important phrase in the parable.
The parable seems perplexing because our thoughts are not His thoughts; our ways are not His ways. The kingdom of heaven, the rules, the constants, the reign of God, are not like the kingdom of earth. In God’s kingdom there are no ‘loose cannons’ walking around, there are no ‘unknown variables’ to foul His reign.
His plan is as far above us as our plans are above the plans of a mouse. This is why we pray, Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven! We desire God to rule over his people, and God has heard our prayers. How do I know? The Bible tells me so. Since the beginning of time, since our first transgression against God, he has had a plan.
His plan has always been mercy and grace. His plan is the forgiveness of sin and the redemption of our souls. Has his full plan been disclosed to us? Do we know every aspect of his strategy? No. As Christian soldiers, we do not know the mind of the General. We have not been given all the answers because in our current existence, we would never understand.
But we have been given the means of grace. God sent our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, into the front lines of our war against sin and the evil one. Jesus Christ was made man. He took on the mantel of humanity to fulfill the promise of our Father in heaven.
Through Christ’s sacrifice on the tree of death, we have been given the tree of life. Christ’s resurrection from the tomb has won the war over eternal death. This plan was not a covert operation, it was not done in the shadows, but in the light for all to see so that all might believe and be saved.
We now live in the body of Christ. We can now distinguish Christ’s kingdom from all worldly realms. “For the kingdom of heaven is like…” In this world, we may suffer, but in his kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, we live in the glory of our Lord.
In this realm, we are not equal. Some have been working in the fields since the first hour of their lives. From their baptism and through their life, they have sought Christ while others have not yet heard. Some have come to work in the fields later in the day of their lives, yet they receive the same reward from the master. We receive the same reward because the kingdom of heaven is not like the kingdom of earth.
In the words of Dr. Martin Luther:
This is surely a very comforting Gospel for us Christians, that all of us are so wonderfully equal in Christ! …let the world operate with its inequality as best it can. We will continue to take comfort in the fact – our station being high or low – that we all have one Christ, one baptism, one gospel, one Spirit. No one has a better gospel, a better baptism, a different or better Christ, or a different or better heaven – we are all equal! [Sermons of Martin Luther: The House Postils, Volume 1. 1996]
Christ has established a new and different kingdom in which all are equal. No matter if you come to him in the first hour of the day or the last, your reward is the same. This is God’s plan. All of creation is his. He has the right to do his business as he thinks best; we have no right to lecture him on how to deal with his people.
To Him I say, “Thank God!” I am glad that he is in charge. I am glad that his plan is to save a poor and wretched sinner like me. My plans are worthless and will never gain me salvation. Thank God for his Son Jesus Christ. Thank God for bringing us out of the chaos of our sin and into the right, true and glorious reign of heaven.
God did not fail to plan for our salvation and his plan will never fail. Because of this, the kingdom of heaven is the completion of his plan for us.