Embrace the Mystery

June 13, 2021 / 3rd Sunday after Pentecost / Richard Holmer

First Reading Ezekiel 17:22-24 Second Reading 2 Corinthians 5:6-10, 14-17 / Gospel Mark 4:26-34

2021-06-13 Pentecost 3
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Embrace the Mystery

Many of us enjoy a good mystery. Whether in the form of a book or a movie, our interest and imagination are engaged by stories that offer up a challenging mystery to be solved. It might be Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, or Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, or Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe – in any case we are intrigued when “the game is afoot” - and a mystery unfolds.

Christian faith teaches us to embrace mystery in a different sort of way. Such mystery is not like a riddle to be solved or a problem to be answered. Instead it involves recognizing and coming to appreciate the mystery of God. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul speaks of “the knowledge of God’s mystery, that is Christ himself.” (Colossians 2:2)

It was surprising to find that in Webster’s Dictionary, the first definition of mystery reads as follows: “1. A religious truth that can be known by revelation alone, and cannot be fully understood.” The Bible presents any number of mysteries. The Bible is not a textbook or an answer book like an almanac of an encyclopedia. Christianity doesn’t explain everything – it invites us to engage the mystery of God, God who is fully present in Jesus Christ, reconciling the world to himself.

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Of course science is a tremendous resource. It’s another means by which truth is made known. Science looks deeply into the nature of things – it accounts for how things work. Science empowers marvelous technology and breakthrough medical treatments. The Covid vaccine is a great example. Science knows a lot about “what” and “how,” yet not as much in regard to “who” and “why.”

Who and Why are by nature religious questions – questions that engage the heart as well as the mind – and especially our spirit and our imagination. To be religious is to approach the world as God’s creation – and to experience it with a kind of wonder. G.K. Chesterton observed: “This world does not lack for wonders – only for a sense of wonder.” Christians realize that there is more to this world than what meets the eye. As we heard in a reading last Sunday: “we look not at what can be seen, but at what cannot be seen – for what can be seen is temporary but what cannot be seen is eternal.” (1 Corinthians 4:17)

A favorite verse from the Book of Proverbs points to the wonders all around us.:

“Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a maiden.” (Proverbs 30:18-19)

Such mysteries are worth pondering – and appreciating. To see the world with the eyes of faith is to perceive wonders and mysteries all around us. God’s fingerprints are everywhere.

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Christians claim Jesus as our Lord and Savior – not the Answer Man or the Explainer in Chief. Jesus Christ is himself a mystery:

  • Where is he from?

  • How did he get here?

  • Why did he come?

  • Where did he go?

  • Where is he now?

In his First Letter to Timothy, Paul says this about Jesus: “Without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great; He was revealed in flesh, vindicated in spirit, proclaimed among Gentiles, believed in throughout the world, taken up in glory.” What’s more, his teaching was often not in the form of direct, didactic instruction – but by way of parables, which are a wonder in and of themselves. We heard a couple parables today – two of the many “parables of the Kingdom of God” that are found in the gospels.

Here’s the interesting thing: The Kingdom of God is itself a mysterious notion. It’s not like any earthly kingdom It’s not a place with palaces and thrones. It’s more like a holy relationship – a God-blessed community. In one sense the Kingdom is already present, and at the same time it is still to come. Jesus relates the mystery of God’s kingdom to another mystery: “The Kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, HE DOES NOT KNOW HOW.” The farmer knows how to plant and how to harvest – but how the seed, buried in darkness, actually grows is a mystery.

Like that farmer, I plant flowers and vegetables each spring – yet how they bloom and prosper is a mystery to me. So it is with the Kingdome of God, says Jesus. Faith happens. Persons are moved to repent and follow Jesus. Grace happens in amazing ways. Persons are blessed, lives are redeemed. Enemies are reconciled. Hope blossoms. We cannot explain how or why. But we give praise and thanks to God.

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Jesus shared another parable that places two mysteries side by side so that they interpret each other. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24). Here again is the wonder of organic growth. A single grain is buried, and it brings forth abundantly, bearing fruit that sustains life. Jesus likens that mystery to the mystery of his own death and resurrection. The buried Christ rises to bring life to all who live in the shadow of death.

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Today is First Communion for two of our members. In preparation, we reflected on the mystery of the sacrament we share week by week. A seed is planted, which grows to be wheat, which becomes flour and then bread, which wondrously becomes for us the Body of Christ. In the same way grapes are transformed to be the Blood of Christ. Luther humbly admitted we cannot explain how this happens – but we believe it does. Bread and wine do not literally become Christ’s flesh and blood. Yet they are much more than mere symbols. Christ is truly present with us in , under and around these forms. We believe his word: This is my body, given for you. This is my blood, shed for you. Grace happens. We do not know how. We celebrate the mystery of Christ with us.

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The truth is, if you enjoy mysteries, you will never be bored as a Christian. Consider just a few of the mysteries that enrich our faith:

+ We believe in One God, who co-exists in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. How can this be? It’s a mystery.

+ Mary’s son, Jesus, is fully human and fully God. How is that possible? It’s a mystery.

+ Jesus rose from the dead – and so will we. How will it happen? It’s a mystery.

+ Lose your life to find it, the last shall be first, surrender in order to triumph? Say what? It’s a mystery.

+ In troubled and stressful times, God gives a peace that defies explanation and surpasses understanding. How? It’s a mystery.

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Our faith contains many mysteries, yet you and I are not called to be detectives – we are called to believe and follow. Our purpose is not to solve every mystery or explain every wonder. Our purpose is to worship the God who is at the heart of all these wondrous mysteries. When trying to explain his function to the new Christians in Corinth, St. Paul offered this:

“Think of us as servants of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God.” (1 Corinthians 4:1)

That sounds right to me! It’s not for us to prove anything about God or convince anyone to believe. We proclaim the mystery of God’s transforming love for sinners like us, and celebrate Christ’s gracious welcome to his kingdom.

Thanks be to God.