The Law of the Imponderable ©2003 Herbert E. Douglass
I remember it well, the first time in old Rome. I wanted to see where Paul had spent many weeks, perhaps months, in that Mamertine Prison where Paul most probably wrote his last letter to Timothy.
Ten years later, I stopped by with my children. The Prison is close by the aged marble pillars of the Caesars. I asked my son Herb this week how he remembered that prison and his memory was as clear as yesterday. In Paul’s day, the only light he had, as well as air and food, came through a small hole in the ceiling. Today we can descend 11 steep stairs carved out of the rock. At the bottom where Paul would have been, we found a circular room about 12 ft. across. Only in the middle of this dark dungeon could we stand erect. Herb remembered well when the museum officer turned off all the lights and we saw what Paul saw, day and night—only the light coming from that small ceiling hole, the only light he had unless they gave him a candle.
On my first visit I read Paul’s second letter to Timothy in that prison—his farewell message to his young successor. In the heart of that last letter, we find our text for today:
“Nevertheless the solid foundation of God stands, having this seal: ‘The Lord knows those who are His,’ and, ‘Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity” 2 Tim 2:19). The ellipse of truth: the Lord promises, we respond. For salvation, you can’t have one without the other.
This letter to young Tim is not a theological discussion like Romans. It is a letter of hard facts and clear advice written by a man with his eyes wide open to reality. What could the old veteran say at this late hour that would be most important in making Timothy a courageous church leader?
Have you ever been with a person when he or she is speaking their last thoughts? I have. It’s a time to listen, not the time for a sermon; this is that dying person’s moment, not mine. A person’s last words are precious, important words. When death is tugging the sleeve, a man does not usually share jokes. Many fathers or mothers have words for children that could not be more timely, or more prized.
Back to the Mamertine prison. The chief will soon be executed. The strongest Christian voice would be silenced. Timothy had been his ministerial interne in his youth; now, he was Paul’s most trusted colleague. Is this all that Timothy had to look forward to? Embarrassment, forsaken by once trusted friends, outrageous persecution and a bloody execution. What could Paul say in his last words to faithful Tim?
Paul painted the picture ahead just as Timothy would see it—no rosy pictures of applauding audiences, no keys to the city whenever he approached, no welcoming parties, no medical plan, no retirement benefits.
How would you like to hear from an old veteran just what you need if you were to pick up his flag and keep charging into the future? Listen to Paul:
“I was appointed a preacher, an apostle, and a teacher of the Gentiles. For this reason I also suffer these things. . . . You therefore must endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. . . . Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecutions.”
Paul could not even promise Timothy that his own colleagues, the members of his own church, would prove themselves faithful—never mind the world without. Paul had learned through tears and a heavy heart--
That disappointment lurked around every corner;
That the march of faith was not over beds of roses;
That walking with Jesus did not rule out tension and stress;
That Satan is always present to wear us down.
To prove his point, here Paul was a few days from the executioner’s axe—to die an undeserved death. Is this all that Tim had to look forward to? No, Paul is not finished. Yes, the world around you will let you down, even your best friends will vanish when you need them most, and you might even begin to wonder. But Tim remember this: Nevertheless, there is one thing you can still count on—“the solid foundation of God still stands: The Lord knows those that are His.”
These are words that beat into my soul like the roll of drums and the blaze of bugles on the eve of battle. I have read it many times and I still get that chill up and down the spine. Here is something like the anchor chain of a ship in storm.
This is the law of the imponderable. After everything else has been counted, there is still something left unsaid, there is still God.
What about it? Some of you planned on those retirement years in which to relax and enjoy some things you have been putting off; but, your investment plan and retirement funds are suddenly reduced or you health is fading and the best you can do is simply exist. Or the education you planned on in your youth has been postponed because children came, sicknesses required extra funds, your spouse needed a change in climate, or your own health didn’t keep up with your dreams. Your head is still willing but the pieces don’t come together to make dreams happen.
So many plans are dumped, so many dreams are junked, in our own lives as well as in the lives of so many around us—we must consider the law of the imponderable if we are to keep our sanity. After everything else has been counted and nothing seems to be adding up, we must listen to Paul: “The foundation of God standeth sure—He knows those who are His..”
For many people in this congregation, life is touch and go; your best motives are misunderstood; your best work is not always appreciated; those whom you can help, only scoff; your future seems to rest on the whims of others; the light seems about to go out on all your plans.
All that, Paul could also say, but he had learned to apply the law of the imponderable—that when everything is counted and nothing seems to add up, God is still there underneath if all. For what purpose? I’ll tell you what it means to me. When I remember this law, Jesus has His way of bringing peace to my anxieties, a way of bringing calm to my mind so that I can see more than the downside of reality.
Let’s think about another way this law works: many have been told so often that they are losers, that they are lousy lovers, that they can’t finish what they start, that they are lazy or not as pretty as their cousin—and on it goes. They really begin to think of themselves as second-rate or born losers. So they act out what they have heard—if you have the name, play the game.
Too many young people have been beaten down by the tough words, “They don’t have a chance!” And so they live up to these minimal expectations. But some don’t listen to these wet blankets and they go off to climb mountains that others said couldn’t be climbed.
Too many older people have heard: “His future is behind him, he’s through!” Too many believe what they hear and cave in. They forget that many over 65 have made their greatest contributions or undertake their greatest adventures. How many times did people from throughout the Roman world count Paul out through the years?
What a list we could make of great movements and great inventors and great ideas that others said about them: “They don’t have a chance.” For example, the 13 colonies in 1776, a fantastic dream, a scary moment when even America’s friends feared the worst. Every signer of the Declaration of Independence knew he was signing his own death warrant. Many Americans went back to England because they didn’t believe the rebels had a chance, fearing for their lives. But history has an uncanny way of vindicating the faith of those who fall back on the law of the imponderable—the God of the incredible.
The Samaritan woman at the well didn’t have a chance. Why was Jesus wasting His time with her? But she became the first evangelist to her countryside. What about Mary Magdalene? It seemed like everybody had counted her out. Yet Jesus loved the unseen in her and Mary became the first to preach the good news of a risen Saviour.
I am emphasizing the law of the imponderable today because I wish that I had emphasized it many more times over the years. Too many of my friends, young and old, have looked around and said, “I don’t have a chance.” “I don’t have any money” “Or, I don’t know the right people.” Or, “I’ve tried and nothing I do seems to work.” “There’s no sense in trying any longer.”
I remember my pastorate in Aurora, Illinois. The days were always busy, too busy. This particular night I skipped supper and went to my church office to prepare for the Prayer Meeting, something that I had never done before at that time.
Five minutes had not gone by and someone knocked on my door. Standing in the doorway was this young father in his early thirties, a man I had baptized three years before. He and his family had moved to another state in the meantime. But he was not now the same happy man I once knew. Just plain despair written all over him. I let him lead the conversation, giving him every indication that I was enormously pleased to see him again. Eventually he told me his despair in trying to keep his home together, that his wife had run off. He loved his 3 children and he was trying to be both father and mother to them. But the pressure was too much and he was now doing things that he would be imprisoned for if caught.
From all indications, my words were not making any dent. I finally said, “John, just what is your next move?” Calmly he said, “I am going to kill myself.” And I knew there wasn’t much left to keep him from doing just that.
We recently completed the remodeling of the sanctuary and I thought it would be worth a try, if we changed the scenery and conversation. We went upstairs to see the remodeling. He was amazed and gratified at the new beauty in the church where he had first found Christ. I said, “John, you were baptized up there in the baptistery and God is not going to let you down now.” The thought seemed to strike home like an arrow; he collapsed in a pew and sobbed horrible signs, a big, rugged farmer. I walked to the foyer of the church and left him alone. In a few moments, he came rushing through the doors, the anguish on his face I never want to see again, ever. A struggle for his heart was going on and the devil was not giving up easily. He rushed at me, screaming, “take it, take it,” and slammed this into my hand—a “Bulldog 38,” and ran madly down the steps and into the night.
Several hours later he came to my home and we had a joyous time together. He told me that he had walked out from Chicago, hitchhiked part of the way without any prior intentions of coming to Aurora or to me. He kept walking through the streets of Aurora and how he arrived at the church he did not know. And then to find my office light on was his greatest surprise. When he left Chicago, He was through with life
This gun will forever remind me how baffled, how desperate, how hopeless, men and women can get. In every congregation there is someone who has come very close to what I have just described.
Life is so easily snarled, sins seem too great to be forgiven, weaknesses seem not worth battling with, financial situations seem impossible to manage—and many either leave school, or their families, or their church. All because they have left out the law of the imponderable. They have left God of the incredible out of the equation.
Why am I saying all this today? Partly because most everybody needs to take a deeper breath and trust this law of God’s exceeding greatness of power (Eph 1:19). But perhaps for an even greater reason.
The day is soon coming when all the forces of evil will be concentrated, not especially on fostering a war between the Israelis and the Palestinians, not especially on fomenting a broader war of militant Muslims against Americans and Brits; not especially on deepening class wars between the rich and the poor, even here in the United States. These conflicts may seem to get worse before they get better. But the point is, they will get better before the end of time.
How can I say that? On the basis of a very reliable authority! Satan’s white-hot fury will bend all our current international hostilities into a common enemy. Under the quiet direction of the Papacy, the United States will present a peace plan that will dazzle weary negotiators with its simplicity and its charm. The entire world will even worship the plan that will end all wars and usher in world peace, once and for all. It will surpass everyone’s hopes. The stock market will race past 190,000. Preachers, legislators, judges, scientists—Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Protestants, Catholics—all will suddenly see how foolish it has been to look upon each other as the enemy.
Then suddenly they find a common enemy in home-towns all over the world. Suddenly, they are led to believe, the real enemy of all peace-loving countries is that group that is speaking clearly about the big picture behind all these events on this planet. They call it the Great Controversy. This smaller group is exposing the real intent of this global coalition between the Papacy and its strongest supporter, the United States of America. The issue focuses on the sudden move to have all nations of the earth show their brotherhood and love of peace by legislating an international day of rest—Sunday, the world over.
It will be a time of great agitation. The truth about God’s holy day will be proclaimed as never before. More fully will the case be made for the seventh-day Sabbath, in this “land of the free and the home of the brave.”
And more fully will each Sabbath loyalist face this extraordinary turn of events when all the world is ready to obey the fourth commandment on Sunday—the international day of rest.. The road map is very clear in Revelation 13 and 14. The timetable will get clearer as we near the end of the end-time.
You who have been weathering tough times already will be better prepared to live through this astonishing time of trouble that precedes the seven last plagues, never mind, through the plagues themselves.
God’s loyalists will keep their heads clear. As the billboard says, Tough times do not last, tough people do. God’s loyalists in the end-time endure whatever evil throws at them because they have made a life habit of resting on the law of the imponderable. They have practiced hanging on a little longer, always a little longer, when tough times come because they keep trusting this law of the imponderable.
What are some of those tough times? Jobs and steady income will be in severe jeopardy as it has been for many Seventh-day Adventists for more than a hundred years. Secure neighborhoods will suddenly not be friendly places when friendly neighbors turn on those Adventists who are standing in the way of national unity and international peace.
Freedom, constitutional protection, will become hotly debated words. All hell will break loose before probation closes, before the plagues fall. God’s loyalists will come to hug our sermon text for today: “Nevertheless, the foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal: The Lord knoweth them that are His.”
And the last chapter that Paul ever wrote, the 4th chapter of 2 Timothy, will become the song of your heart: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for e the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to be only but also to all who have loved His appearing”(1 Tim. 4:7,8).
The law of the imponderable. We can count the tough times all around us, we can recognize how bleak circumstances are becoming—all that is ponderable, that is, able to be counted. But beyond all this, we know the law of the imponderable is as sure as the law of gravity. “Nevertheless, the foundation of God standeth sure—He knows those who are His.” And the rest of the truth—He “knows everyone who names the name of Christ and departs from iniquity.” And that’s the ellipse of truth: God’s promise and man’s responsibility!
That text is all that anyone of us needs in the days ahead, even the last days. The law of the imponderable will carry you through every dark, miserable situation that you can’t even imagine today. No problem! The Lord knows those who are His and He knows where to find you. Hang on to His promises; they are stronger than anything that Satan can throw at you.