Owning the Mystery
Since November 30th of 2014 when we began Advent, we have been in the first part of the liturgical year, called Special Time and we have celebrated the special seasons centred in Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Passion, Easter and Pentecost. All of these are centred in Jesus’ life. Today, we step from there into what is called Ordinary Time, the Gospel readings of which do not celebrate the special times in Jesus’ life so much as the life and teachings of Jesus. The Sundays are numbered (ordered), and so ordinary. They are, like our steps through life, one by one, sometimes forward, sometimes back. Today is called Trinity Sunday, named after the most common Christian conception of God. What’s more important on this day, however, than some presentation on this particular conception of God, is that we begin our journey through Ordinary Time focused on God. Since Christians confess that God is our Creator and our Goal (our ending), God is a good place for us to begin.
The real reason I wanted to sing that grand old hymn “Holy God, We Praise Your Name” this morning was actually not because it was Trinitarian, but simply for the last line of the last stanza, “And adoring bend the knee, While we own the mystery.” It is important that we realize that all our thinking and speaking about God neither explains nor penetrates the mystery of God. The hymn would not have us “own” God, but the mystery of God, admitting and embracing the mystery in worship.
It is healthy to own the mystery that God is infinitely greater than our conception of, or our words for God, even words written in the Bible. Of course, the Bible is immensely rich in images and names for God. How do we sort through the welter of material found there? What tends to happen is that we, each one, pick out a few of the names, titles, or pictures of God that make most sense to us, or touch us the most deeply, and major on these. Given the huge number of biblical images for God, this is neither surprising nor all that harmful. The problem comes if we insist that this one (or these few) capture the real God, and the others do not. We have a tendency to stick with those biblical images of God that make us feel good, or don’t push us too hard, rather than owning the mystery that God transcends all our thinking. Most of us, whatever label we use for ourselves, sometimes suppose we have the inside track on understanding God, or give that impression. Every religious group I know of thinks they’re right about God: from Buddhists to Baptists, from Muslims to Methodists, from Jews to Jehovah’s Witnesses. Unless we “own the mystery” that God transcends us and our understanding, we reduce God to a size that exalts ourselves and disowns others with equal claim to a relationship with the Infinite God. And in our world this attitude spells disaster.
In our hymnbook is a little song of three stanzas called “Source and Sovereign, Rock and Cloud” that is simply a rehearsal of a few biblical names or pictures for God. Listen:
Source and Sovereign, Rock and Cloud, Fortress, Fountain, Shelter, Light. Judge, Defender, Mercy, Might, Life whose life all life endowed.
Word and Wisdom, Root and Vine, Shepherd, Saviour, Servant Lamb, Well and Water, Bread and Wine, Way who leads us to I AM.
Storm and Stillness, Breath and Dove, Thunder, Tempest, Whirlwind, Fire, Comfort, Counselor, Presence, Love, Energies that never tire.
At the end of each of the stanzas is this refrain: “May the church at prayer recall that no single holy name, but the truth behind them all is the God whom we proclaim.” Although the song turns out to be a bit like singing the phone book, the point is a good one, and we could add many, many more, each capturing some nuance of the experienced presence of this Great Mystery. That’s one reason to start Ordinary Time with God.
The other reason I wanted to start us off with God this morning, is that, in the next summer weeks I’m going to do the hardest thing I’ve ever attempted as a preacher, and go “off book” from the Lectionary to do a series on the so-called Ten Commandments. These are, literally, called “ten words,” And they begin with God. I already read words from Exodus 20: “Then God spoke all these words: I am the LORD your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” This picture of God reflects Israel’s primary story that God has been known to them as a liberator. The grounds for the Ten Words are gratitude for God’s liberating acts on their behalf. The Ten Words are, as I’ll spell out in weeks to come, a summary of the commitments of people who choose to enter a covenant with this mystery, this liberating God. They describe normal life in relationship to this God. God is the one who does things on behalf of others before they respond in particular ways.
In our Isaiah text, we find that, one day, in the course of what seemed normal worship, Isaiah saw through the fabric of the earthly place of worship into heaven itself and caught a vision of God, surrounded by an army of seraphim, which are balls of flame, and cherubim, which aren’t cute chubby little “angelettes,” but the winged bulls of Assyrian and Babylonian mythology – the pictures of which you may have seen somewhere. God and these “friends” made both the heavenly temple and the earthly shake like a leaf, and left Isaiah speechless and puzzled how he could have seen any of this and survived, being who he was and where he lived. Occasionally, we are given a glimpse of the God who really messes up our neat reality and calls us to uncomfortable ministries. All we can stammer out at the end is either, “No, thank you,” or “Here am I, send me.”
Such an image of God may not make us comfortable, but there is that in God that acts just as Isaiah says. We may also not be comfortable with other biblical images of God, such as judge of all the earth, but there is also that in God that does just that. Of course, if you’re like me, you’d much rather have God’s love and grace. Yes, and that’s certainly there, too. Too. Here, in these uncomfortable texts, God continues to do things on behalf of others, even us. We can be certain that, if we’re always comfortable with God, we have not owned the mystery. That’s why, in my better moments, I’m even thankful for those parts of the Bible I don’t usually talk about or like very much. They keep me from getting too comfortable or familiar with one who is the Lion of Judah, and the Judge of All the Earth, whose power to shake up my world is infinite. Can we own the mystery that God is the one who disturbs our world and summons us out of where we want to be, into where we need to go?
The Gospel Lesson is the story of a respected old rabbi named Nicodemus to whom Jesus said that working side-by-side with God required him to start again. I get a little uptight with students who tell me, at age 68 (next week), that I’ve got to undo all my thinking and get a Twitter account and do my teaching in pod-casts. It’s no wonder that Nicodemus said, “How can such things be”? Is he, at this point, beginning, at least to recognize that there is Mystery as a first step to owning the mystery? All his life Nicodemus had been taught to be “right” about God and how God worked in the world. And there’s this young upstart, so-called rabbi from Nazareth who said, “You have to start from scratch with what I’m telling you.” At one point, the author of the Fourth Gospel stands aside and simply tells us the place of starting again in thinking about and experiencing God: “God loved the world this way: by giving the only son that whoever trusts in him should not come to a dead end, but enjoy the very life of God.” Once again here, God is doing things – giving things – on behalf of others, including us.
God loved this world, John says, by giving the very best in the divine store of blessing, the one who is most like God by which he meant Jesus. God is still the one who both calls folks to start over, and also loves the world through giving the very best. God is the re-starter of lives. To own the mystery of all this really messes up our thinking sometimes, for we tend to want a more comfortable, controllable, knowable God who says, “It’s OK to do whatever you want.” God cares too much for that.
Paul, in Romans 8, spoke of the spirit of God. Last week we thought about the spirit on Pentecost. As I said last week, a good Hebrew like Saint Saul would think of God’s spirit as the liveliest and nearest presence of God to enable and sustain. Paul pictures this enabling, sustaining God drawing us close by assuring us in the depths of our hearts and minds that God is Abba. This word is one of the few common Aramaic words that have crept into Christian vocabulary. And this is because Jesus used Abba as a name for God, as did some of his contemporaries. Abba is not, necessarily, as some popular works have asserted over the past decades, the word for “daddy.” It is the word, however, that describes much more than a generic “father,” but the father of our family. God is the one who brings assurance that we are not on the outside looking in, but encircled in the family-love of the God who shows that love by giving, and giving, and giving again. God is the one who does things on behalf of people. At the climax of what Paul has been saying, he wrote: “Since God is for us (literally, “on our behalf,” the same word we’ve used all along), who is against us. The unspoken response is “no one, really.”
Our texts seek to help us look intently into that great mystery of God with some understanding. It is important for living the Christian life that God is powerful and uses that power to liberate people from various kinds of slavery in this world. It is important for living the Christian life that God is the one who both expects and enables re-starts and re-do’s in our lives in this world. It is important as well that God is as close and present to us as a loving parent. Most of all it is important for us, that, in Jesus, we find the very best gift God could give, and that, in Paul’s words, God is for us – God works on our behalf. And, yet, God is greater and more and different than all of these. There was a famous 3rd century (CE) Jewish rabbi, named Rabbi Kahana, who assured his students that although God appears at different times and in different roles through history, that indeed, it is the same God. Speaking for God, Kahana said, “Come to no false conclusions because you see me in many guises, for I am the One who was with you at Sinai: I am the LORD your God.”
This year, let Trinity Sunday remind us of the manifold ways we may own the mystery of God. Whatever else God is and does, these ways are surely crucial for us as we begin to celebrate Ordinary Time. And, so I say, as ever I do…
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.