One day recently my son asked if I had heard about The Chainsmokers. I remarked that yes, I had indeed met a few of those during the course of my life. He then let me know that The Chainsmokers he was referring to are a pop music duo that he likes to listen to. After some research, I discovered that one of their songs, Closer, was number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for 12 straight weeks not too long ago.
Billboard also tracks gospel music as a separate genre, but occasionally a gospel song crosses over and leaps to the top of the pop charts. Only one gospel song has ever reached Number One on a U.S. pop singles chart, however, and it was in 1958. Do you remember it? The song is He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands as recorded by a 14-year-old British boy named Laurie London, accompanied by the Geoff Love Orchestra.
Although Laurie London went on to make other recordings, He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands was his only hit record.
But now here’s the question: Do you believe God has the “whole world in his hands”?
Some might reply, “Well, of course I do. Why else would I be here in church today?”
But others might respond, “Yes, I’m here, but sometimes I’m not so sure. There’s so much trouble and pain in the world, including in my corner of it. Sometimes it seems as if nobody has the world in his hands.”
In today’s reading from Acts, the apostle Paul finds himself in Athens, one of the most cosmopolitan centers of his day. The intellectuals of that city loved to debate and often gathered at the city forum, called the Areopagus, to do so. Never one to miss an opportunity, Paul seized the moment there to present his case for the God he worshiped and served. The Athenians worshiped many gods, but didn’t know much about that God. They had constructed many altars to various gods, but Paul noticed one with an inscription reading, “To an unknown god.”
Paul viewed that altar as a sign of a human need to worship God, and he said, in effect, to those gathered, “This altar shows that you have the yearning to worship, but you don’t know who to worship.” He proceeded to tell them about the God of heaven and earth, who made the world and everything – and everyone – in it. He even quoted one of their own poets, referring to God: “In him we live and move and have our being.”
In saying this, Paul asserted that not only his own life, but also the lives of the Athenians, were in God’s hands. “In him we live and move and have our being,” is just another way of saying, “He’s got the whole world in his hands.”
Perhaps you understand this intuitively because there’s something in your heart that wants to connect with Something or Someone bigger than you.
But to express it in a contemporary context, let’s think about the apostle Paul showing up on Kennedy Boulevard. What do you suppose Paul would say if he showed up not on the Areopagus in ancient Athens, but in Tampa? What if he undertook his teaching not on the brow of a Greek hill surrounded by temples, but rather inside a Starbucks, handing out mocha lattes all around?
“Tampans, I see how extremely religious you are, in every way,” Paul might begin. But instead of speaking of temples to unknown gods, he might say something like this: “I have observed how many of you are fond of saying, ‘I’m spiritual, but not religious.’ I’m aware how increasing numbers of you never cross the threshold of a church, but spend hours browsing religious books at Barnes & Noble. Many of you wear crosses around your necks, but hardly know why. You finger them in moments of fear or anxiety and feel vaguely comforted. You sit at home, channel-surfing the televangelists and religious talk shows, hoping to glean some spiritual comfort, but you never linger very long. You have an insistent curiosity about things religious, and vow that one day you will do something about it. But somehow you never find the time … you just never find the time.”
The religious or spiritual impulse is a significant clue to the reality of God in our world and God’s sovereignty over it. In varying degrees, most of us have that same hunger, although we may be more aware of it at some times and seasons of our lives than at others. We may or may not have pursued it, but this “will to believe” (to use William James’ expression) can help us to know who has “the whole world in his hands.”
But there’s no proof. Nothing whatsoever in the way of scientific proof one way or the other. Can’t prove or disprove the proposition that “he’s got the whole world in his hands.” It’s just not that kind of conversation. Although such discussions can be interesting and perhaps, for some, even persuasive, ultimately, whether you’re Billy Graham or Christopher Hitchens, there’s just no incontrovertible proof that holds up under the scrutiny of the scientific rules of evidence.
What we know, we know by faith. The affirmation that God has “the whole world in his hands” is a conclusion reached by faith, not by indisputable data as science understands data and evidence. But that does not make the conclusion less reasonable. Frank Schaeffer, in his book Crazy for God, points out that whether we are secular or religious, we all make our biggest life-shaping decisions by faith. Schaeffer said, “You would have to live a lifetime to be qualified to make any big decisions.” And since we can’t do that, “we make a leap of faith when it comes to what we should believe in, who we will marry and our careers.”
He goes on to say, “Who we happen to meet, one conversation when you were eighteen, the college course you happened to sign up for, the teacher you liked, the elevator you missed and the girl you met in the next one, decide whole lives. … Only the trivialities – say, buying cars, washing machines or airline seats – are chosen on the basis of good information. … I’ve always known I like aisle seats, but what does one really want in a wife?”
Trusting God is a choice. Okay then. Choosing a spouse, believing in God – there’s a huge leap of faith involved … well, at least in choosing a spouse. Not as much believing in God. What it comes down to is that trusting God is a choice. Mature faith is not so much a feeling as it is a decision. We’ll always have enough evidence to make a leap of faith as well as to not make that leap. One way or the other, it’s a choice.
Another thing to consider is that it’s not about overcoming doubt or having all questions answered. It’s about knowing or having a conviction that the ultimate answers to life are known by God – and only by God. Yes, we can know a lot. We can understand, we can come to terms with, we can accept a lot. But ultimate, full, all-comprehending knowledge is beyond our pay grade. We live on a “need to know” basis, and we’ve got to be comfortable with that. Some things are for God and God alone to know.
But our conviction that “he’s got the whole world in his hands” is totally plausible and rational – a belief that springs from the very core of our being. We know that, as the apostle Paul reminds us in today’s lesson, “In him we live and move and have our being.”
Lord knows that there are so many struggles and crises in our lives that we sometimes feel that nobody has the world in his hands, nobody is at the wheel. We have so many questions that we often seem to be wandering in circles.
But Jesus knows us, too, and says to us, “Come unto me. I am the Alpha and Omega. I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. You need not wander or wonder. You know me, you know God. And I will be with you always, even unto the end of the age.”