September 23, 2018 Sermon
It’s a Mystery
Isaiah 11.6-13 & Ephesians 3.1-12
Sandra Larson & George Furniss dialogue
S: VERY long, long ago, in this galaxy right here, God created the heavens and the earth. AND:
G: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of humankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. [Jn1.1-5]
S: A theology teacher asked an exam question about what these verses of John’s gospel mean. A gutsy student who had not studied for the test answered, God only knows the answer. The student recognized that John spoke of a mystery, but the professor wanted a scholarly exegesis and missed the student’s point. He wrote, God gets an “A” but for you, an “F.” * This sermon on mystery is part II of a theological perspectives series to help explore theological priorities for a new pastor. What role does mystery have in your faith? Here’s a quiz for you: Raise your hand high and wave if you completely understand God or Jesus. It’s a mystery. You all get A’s
G: God—the Trinity--Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit are beyond our knowing. A humorous graphic in a book about John Calvin shows Jesus leaning in to tell one of his befuddled disciples, “It’s like Super Glue. It’s mystical!”
S: North Americans are culturally conditioned to think logically. If something makes sense, it is credible. Even people of faith tend to question anything that cannot be proved,. In contrast, Paul bluntly explained faith: “We look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. The things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. [II Cor 4.18]
G: Thomas Aquinas summarized faith by saying: “Faith has to do with things that are not seen and hope with things that are not at hand.”
S: Such unknowability still makes me squimish. I want to KNOW answers. Yet God is beyond knowing. Faith requires trust--like the toddler who hurls himself into his loving parent’s outstretched arms. Anne Lamott explains faith this way: I do not at all understand the mystery of God’s grace—only that grace meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.
G: Do we trust God even though scientific proof is unavailable? Many people seem to have abandoned faith. Yet, profound and beautiful mystery remains. This reality is only partly accessible to our minds and hearts.
S: Science has revealed new knowledge about the universe—yet many more mysteries remain. Modern advances in biology have revolutionized the views we have of ourselves and our significance in the world. Nearly 2000 years ago, St Basil the Great commented: “Our reasoning brain is weak, and our tongue is weaker still. It is easier to measure the entire sea with a tiny cup than to grasp God's ineffable greatness with the human mind.”
G: The N Testament uses word "MYSTERY" 27 times. “Mystery” comes from the Greek "musterion" which means "a hidden secret." The Bible uses innumerable metaphors and parables to describe the mysteries of God, such as a mother hen or an eagle, as in Ps 91.4: God “will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge…” For a faith stretcher this week: Try to recall metaphors in the Bible that describe mysteries of faith. Better yet—come up with metaphors of your own. A metaphor from a comic pictures a tough looking woman lifeguard who weighs about 250 lbs. The caption reads: “Saved by Grace.”
S: Kallistos Ware**, a Bishop in the Eastern Orthodox Church offers guidance to overcome our Western bias to demand hard facts: “Faith in God is not at all the same as the kind of logical certainty that we attain in Euclidean geometry. God is not the conclusion to a process of reasoning, the solution to a mathematical problem. To believe in God is not to accept the possibility of his existence because it has been “proved” to us by some theoretical argument, but it is to put our trust in One whom we know and love. Faith is not the supposition that something might be true, but the assurance that someone is there.”
G: The Eastern Orthodox Bishop explains: “The culture and educational system of the contemporary West are based almost exclusively upon the training of the reasoning brain and, to a lesser degree, of the aesthetic emotions. Most of us have forgotten that we are not made only of mind, will, senses and feelings. We are also spirit and soul. Modern people have, for the most part, lost touch with the truest and highest aspect of ourselves; and the result of this inward alienation can be seen all too plainly in restlessness, lack of identity and loss of hope.”
S: Bishop Ware writes about Christian faith: “…it is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery. God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder.” “Christianity is more than a theory about the universe, more than teachings written down on paper. Christianity is a path along which we journey—in the deepest and richest sense, the way of life.”
G: Bishop Ware explains mystery: “In the Christian context, we do not mean by a "mystery" merely that which is baffling and mysterious, an enigma or insoluble problem. A mystery is, on the contrary, something that is revealed for our understanding, but which we never understand exhaustively because it leads into the depth or the darkness of God. The eyes are closed—but they are also opened.”
S: In addition to seeing with eyes closed, Bishop Ware uses hearing the Word (Logos in Greek) as John used Logos to introduce the Gospel of John. Faith is the discipline to listen for the Word of God. Bishop Ware wrote: “At the heart of each thing is its inner principle or logos, implanted within it by the Creator Logos. We enter into communion with the Logos God, who is above and beyond all things, yet as Creator God is also within all things— “panentheism”, not pantheism” [adapted]
G: The O.T. Book of Isaiah recounts this message from God: “To whom will you liken me and make me equal, and compare me, that we may be alike? Hearken to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from your birth, carried from the womb; even to your old age I am He, and to gray hairs I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save.“ [46.3-4]
S: Martin Buber described God as the “Eternal Thou.” God, the Eternal Thou connects all beings and all created things in intimate relationship with one another.
G: In contrast to our Western resistance to paradoxes, Bishop Ware readily accepts paradoxes of faith. He states: “In our spiritual vision--we are not only to see each thing in sharp relief, standing out in all the brilliance of its specific being, but we are also to see each thing as transparent: in and through each created thing, we are to discern the Creator.”
S: Not all people in our society are resistant to divine mystery. Mysticism is gaining adherents. George is studying historical and contemporary mystics. He is excited that these mystics point to the basic foundations of Christian faith. However, most North American Churches give little attention to the mysteries of faith.
G: The ancient St. Dionysius the Areopagite offers a taste of wisdom from Christian mysticism: “Leave the senses and the workings of the intellect, and all that the senses and the intellect can perceive; and through unknowing-- reach out, so far as this is possible, towards oneness with God who is beyond all being and knowledge. In this way, through an uncompromising, absolute and pure detachment from yourself and from all things, transcending all things and released from all, you will be led upwards towards that radiance of the divine darkness which is beyond all being. Entering the darkness that surpasses understanding, we shall find ourselves brought, not just to brevity of speech, but to perfect silence and unknowing. Emptied of all knowledge, humans are joined in the highest part of ourselves, not with any created thing, nor with ourselves, nor with another, but with the One who is altogether unknowable. In knowing nothing, the person of faith glimpses God in a manner that surpasses understanding. [adapted]
S: If you are a bit stymied by the UNknowing described by Dionysius, remember Jesus’ comment that children can model an intuitive sense of mystery. You may know stories of childlike awe from your own life. I love the example of a little boy who played an angel in the Christmas pageant. The teacher told him to come down the center aisle. He asked, “Do you want me to walk or fly?” This tot felt as if he could fly because he was an angel. May we never lose the wonder and mystery of faith.
G: In the Ephesians lesson this morning, Paul is quoted as saying that it’s a mystery that God revealed Christ to him. Paul goes on to claim: “I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace… to make all people see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.” How much can we identify with Paul? God calls all Christians to help others discover the wondrous mysteries of God.
S: God is unknowable--beyond and above all that we can think or express, yet closer to us than our own heart. It’s a Mystery! May we all discover deeper glimpses of the divine mystery that offers peace that surpasses understanding.
PRAYER: Lord, we sense in our inner being, that the mysteries of the gospel are great. Therefore, we want to more fully trust your grace for all that is beyond our comprehension. Lord we believe; help us to move beyond our unbelief.
*William Phelps taught English literature at Yale for forty-one years until his retirement in 1933. Marking an examination paper shortly before Christmas one year, Phelps came across the note: "God only knows the answer to this question. Merry Christmas." Phelps returned the paper with this note: "God gets an A. You get an F. Happy New Year." ** All quotes from The Orthodox Way.