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God Is Able

A Sermon by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., edited for today by Charles Henderson

At the center of the Christian faith is the conviction that there is a God of power who is able to do exceedingly abundant things in nature and in history. This conviction is stressed over and over again in the Old and New Testaments. The God whom we worship is not a weak and incompetent God. God is able to beat back gigantic waves of opposition and to bring low prodigious mountains of evil. This ringing testimony of the Christian faith is that God is able.

There are those who seek to convince us that only humanity is able. Their attempts to substitute a human centered universe for a God centered universe is not new. It had its modern beginnings in the Renaissance and subsequently in the Age of Reason, when some people gradually came to feel that God was an unnecessary item on the agenda of life. In these periods others questioned whether God was any longer relevant. The laboratory began to replace the church, and the scientist became a substitute for the prophet. Not a few joined Swinburne in singing a new anthem: "Glory to Man in the highest! For Man is the master of all things."

The devotees of this topless religion of humanity point to the spectacular advances of modern science as justification of their faith. Science and technology have enlarged our human bodies. The telescope and television have enlarged our eyes. The telephone, radio and microphone have strengthened our voice and ears. The automobile and airplane have lengthened our legs. The wonder drugs have prolonged our lives. Have not these amazing achievements assured us that only humanity is able?

But alas! Something has shaken the faith of those who have made the scientific laboratory "the new cathedral of our hopes." The instruments which yesterday were worshipped today threaten to plunge all of us into the abyss environmental catastrophe. Humanity threatens to destroy the world in which we all live. Unless we are guided by God's creative spirit, our new found scientific power will become a devastating Frankenstein monster that will bring destruction to us all.

At times other forces cause us to question the ableness of God. The stark and colossal reality of evil in the world - what Keats calls "the giant agony of the world;" ruthless floods and tornadoes that wipe away people as though they were weeds in an open field; ills like insanity plaguing some individuals from birth, the madness of war - why do these things occur if God is able to prevent them?

This problem, namely, the problem of evil, has always plagued the human mind. Of course much of the evil we experience is caused by our own folly, ignorance and also by the misuse of our God given freedom.

Beyond this I can only say that there is and always will be a penumbra of mystery surrounding God. What appears at the moment to be evil may have a purpose that our finite minds are incapable of comprehending. So in spite of the presence of evil and the doubts that lurk in our minds, we shall not surrender the conviction that our God is able.

Let us notice, first, that God is able to sustain the vast scope of the physical universe. Here again we are tempted to feel that humanity is the true master of the physical universe. Our jet propelled aircraft compress into minutes distances that formerly required weeks of tortuous effort. Our space ships carry astronauts through outer space at fantastic speeds. Is not God being replaced in the mastery of the cosmic order?

But before we are consumed too greatly by human arrogance, let us take a broader look at the universe. Will we not soon discover that our fastest rockets seem barely to be moving in comparison to the movement of the stars and planets? Think about the fact, for instance, that earth is circling the sun so fast that the fastest jet would be left sixty-six thousand miles behind in the first hour of a space race. In the past seven minutes we have been hurled more than eight thousand miles through space. Or consider the sun. Our earth moves around this cosmic ball of fire once each year, traveling 584,000,000 miles at the rate of 66,700 miles per hour. By this time tomorrow we shall be 1,600,000 miles from where we are now. Six months from now we shall be on the other side of the sun -- and in a year from now we shall have swung completely around it and back to where we are right now. So when we behold the expanse of outer space, in which we are compelled to measure stellar distance in light years and in which heavenly bodies travel at incredible speeds, we are forced to look beyond humanity and affirm anew that God is able.

Let us notice that God is able to subdue all the powers of evil. In affirming that God is able to conquer evil, we admit the reality of evil. Christianity has never dismissed evil as illusory, or an error of the mortal mind. It reckons with evil as a force that has objective reality. But Christianity contends that evil contains the seeds of its own destruction. History is the story of evil forces that advance with seemingly irresistible power only to be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice. There is a law in the moral world - a silent, invisible, imperative, akin to the laws in the physical world - which reminds us that life will work only in a certain way. The Hitlers and the Mussolinis have their day, and for a certain period they may wield great power, but soon they are cut down like the grass and wither as the green herb.

In his graphic account of the battle of Waterloo in Les Miserables, Victor Hugo wrote: "Was it possible that Napoleon should win this battle? We answer, no. Why? Because of Wellington? Because of the valor of his opponents? No. Because of God. ... Napoleon had been impeached before the Infinite, and his fall was decreed. He vexed God. Waterloo was not a battle; it was a change of front of the universe." In a real sense, Waterloo symbolizes the doom of every Napoleon and is an eternal reminder to a generation drunk with military power that in the long run of history might does not make right and the power of the sword cannot conquer the power of the spirit.

Once an evil system, known as colonialism, swept across Africa and Asia. But then the quiet, invisible law began to operate. The wind of change began to blow. The powerful colonial empires began to disintegrate like stacks of cards, and new, independent nations began to emerge like refreshing oases in deserts sweltering under the heat of injustice. In a period of less than fifteen years, independence swept through Asia and Africa like an irresistible tidal wave, releasing more than 1,500,000 people from the crippling manacles of colonialism.

More recently a similar fate swept away the empire of Soviet communism, freeing nation after nation in Eastern Europe.

In our own nation, another unjust and evil system, known as slavery, for nearly one hundred years inflicted black people with a sense of inferiority, deprived them of their personhood, and denied them their God given rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Slavery was the shame of America. But as on the world scale, so in our nation, the wind of change began to blow. One event followed another to bring an end to slavery and the system of segregation that was created in its aftermath. Once long ago people justified slavery by quoting the scriptures; today we know with certainty that discrimination and racism are wrong. The only question remaining is how long their pernicious effects will continue to cripple our democracy.

These great changes are not mere political and sociological shifts. They represent the passing of systems that were born in injustice, nurtured in inequality, and reared in exploitation. They represent the inevitable decay of any system based upon principles that are not in harmony with the moral laws of the universe. When in future generations people look back upon these turbulent, tension packed days, they will see God working through history for our salvation. They will see that God is able to conquer the evils of history.

God's control is never usurped. If at times we despair because of the relatively slow progress being made in ending racial discrimination, let us gain new heart in the fact that God is able. In our sometimes difficult and often lonesome walk up freedom's road, we do not walk alone. God walks with us. God has placed within the very structures of the universe certain absolute moral laws. We can neither defy nor break them. If we disobey them, they will break us. The forces of evil may temporarily conquer truth, but truth will ultimately conquer its conqueror. Our God is able. James Russell Lowell was right:

"Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne,
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own."

Let us notice finally that God is able to give us interior resources to confront the trials and difficulties of life. Each of us faces circumstances in life which compel us to carry heavy burdens or sorrow. Adversity assails us with hurricane force. Glowing sunrises are transformed into darkest night. Our highest hopes are blasted and our noblest dreams are shattered.

Christianity has never overlooked these experiences. They come inevitably. Like the rhythmic alternation in the natural order, life has the glittering sunlight of its summers and the piercing chill of winters. Days of unutterable joy are followed by days of overwhelming sorrow. Life brings periods of flooding and periods of drought. When these dark hours of life emerge, many cry out with Paul Laurence Dunbar:

A crust of bread and a corner to sleep in,
A minute to smile and an hour to weep in,
A pint of joy and a peck of trouble,
And never a laugh but the moans come double;
And that is life!

Admitting the weighty problems and staggering disappointments, Christianity affirms that God is able to give us the power to meet them. God is able to give us the inner equilibrium to stand tall amid the trials and burdens of life. God is able to provide inner peace amid outer storms. This inner stability of faith is Christ's chief legacy to his disciples. He offers neither material resources nor a magical formula that exempts us from suffering and persecution, but he brings an imperishable gift: "Peace I leave you." This is the peace which surpasses all human understanding.

At times we may feel that we do not need God, but on the day when the storms of disappointment rage, the winds of disaster blow, and the tidal waves of grief beat against our lives, if we do not have a deep and patient faith our emotional lives will be ripped to shreds. There is so much frustration in the world because we have relied on gods rather than God. We have genuflected before the God of science only to find that it has given us the atomic bomb, producing fears and anxieties that science can never mitigate. We have worshipped the god of pleasure only to discover that thrills platy out and sensations are short lived. We have bowed before the god of money only to learn that there are such things as love and friendship that money cannot buy and that in a world of recessions, stock market crashes, and bad business investments, money is a rather uncertain deity. These transitory gods are not able to save us or bring happiness to the human heart.

Only God is able. It is faith in God that we must rediscover. With this faith we can transform bleak and desolate valleys into sunlit paths of joy and bring new light into the dark caverns of pessimism. Is someone here moving toward the twilight of life and fearful of that which we call death? Why be afraid? God is able. Is someone here on the brink of despair because of the death of a loved one, the breaking of a marriage, of the waywardness of a child? Why despair? God is able to give you the power to endure that which cannot be changed. Is someone here anxious because of bad health? Why be anxious? Come what may, God is able.

As I come to the conclusion of my message, I would wish you to permit me a personal experience. In India Mrs King and I spent a lovely weekend in the State of Karala, the southern most point of that vast continent. While there we visited the beautiful beach on Cape Comorin, which is called "Land's End," because this is actually where the land of India comes to an end. Nothing stretches before you except the broad expanse of rolling waters. This beautiful spot is a point at which meet three great bodies of water, The Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea, and the Bay of Bengal. Seated on a huge rock that slightly protrudes into the ocean, we were enthralled by the vastness of the ocean and its terrifying immensities. As the waves unfolded in almost rhythmic succession, and crashed against the base of the rock in which we were seated, an oceanic music brought sweetness to the ear. To the west we saw the magnificent sun, a great cosmic ball of fire, as it appeared to sink into the very ocean itself. Just as it was almost lost from sight, Mrs King touched me and said, "Look, Martin, Isn't that beautiful!" I looked around and saw the moon, another ball of scintillating beauty. As the sun appeared to be sinking into the ocean, the moon appeared to be rising from the ocean. When the sun finally passed completely beyond sight, darkness engulfed the earth, but in the east the radiant light of the rising moon shone supreme.

To my wife I said, "This is an analogy of what often happens in life." We have experiences when the light of day vanishes, leaving us in some dark and desolate midnight - moments when our highest hopes are turned into shambles of despair or when we are the victims of some tragic injustice and some terrible exploitation. During such moments our spirits are almost overcome by gloom and despair, and we feel that there is no light anywhere. But ever and again, we look toward the east and discover that there is another light which shines even in the darkness, and "the spear of frustration" is transformed "into a shaft of light."

This would be an unbearable world were God to have only a single light, but we may be consoled that God has two lights: a light to guide us in the brightness of the day when hopes are fulfilled and circumstances are favorable, and a light that guides us in the darkness of the midnight when we are thwarted and the slumbering giants of gloom and hopelessness rise in our souls. And so we know that God is able to give us the interior resources to face the darkness as well as the light.

Let this affirmation be our ringing cry. It will give us courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom. When our days become dreary with low hovering clouds and our nights become even darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a great benign Power in the universe whose name is God, and God is able to make a way out of no way, and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. This is our hope for becoming better people. This is our mandate for seeking to make a better world. Amen!

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.