March 4, 2019


Divine Mystery

Preacher:
Passage: Psalm 99: 1-5; Luke 9: 28-36

Synopsis: Child dedication services are special because blessing a child puts us in touch with a divine mystery. The divine, which we name as “God” is not something that can be proved with airtight, rational arguments. There’s always a gulf between the divine mystery and our limited ability to comprehend and explain. Instead, as theologian Bryan Stone explains, “When truth and goodness are connected to beauty, faith comes alive.”

 

To hold and bless a child is to experience a divine mystery. I think of Mary and Joseph presenting their baby Jesus at the Temple and the sheer delight of the priest Simeon and the elderly prophetess Anna as Simeon took Jesus in his arms and blessed him. Blessing a child is so magical and hopeful.

 

I still have a way to go until I reach the age of Anna who was eighty-four years old. Still, I’m getting there and will be retiring later this year. There’s a kind of world-weariness that can come with age. We’ve been around the block a few times and have experienced things that tempered our youthful idealism. Hopefully, this leads to wisdom and not to cynicism and despair. Blessing children opens our hearts and our imaginations.

 

The other thing that gets tempered by age (at least for many of us) is our drive for rational and moral certainty. (Others of us just dig in and become combative.) I was once talking with an acquaintance about my interactions with young adults who had given up on the church and questioned the existence of God.

 

This person recommended the book Evidence that Demands a Verdict, by Josh McDowell. The title itself told me that this book would be better at buttressing the belief systems of the already convinced then it would be at convincing a skeptic. The promotion of the book says it all. “The truth of the Bible doesn’t change, but its critics do. Josh McDowell gives Christian readers the answers they need to defend their faith against the harshest critics and skeptics.”

 

I never read the book so I don’t want to be too critical. The reason I haven’t read it is because I don’t believe that Christian faith or the existence of God is something that needs to be or can be defended with airtight theological arguments. I’m more into embracing the questioner, blessing babies, and inviting people to come and see.

 

God doesn’t need to be defended. Perhaps our notions about God do; and that’s the rub. You see, “God” is the name we have given to the ultimate mystery of life. In face of this mystery, we all fall silent. The Jewish writers of our Hebrew scriptures (which we call the Old Testament) were so aware of this that they refused to speak the holy unnamable name. They instead used the unpronounceable Hebrew consonants YHWH. In English, we added a few vowels to come up with the pronounceable name Yahweh.

 

When I was a seminary student, Mennonite theologian Gordan Kaufman who taught at Harvard University, wrote a book about God titled In Face of Mystery. He put the word “God” in quotation marks to emphasize the difference between the divine mystery and what we, in our limited capacity, name as “God.” Some of my fellow seminary students were convinced that Gordon was an atheist who didn’t believe in God. They completely missed the point.

 

I love the way Psalm 99 uses different adjectives and descriptors for the divine mystery without being directly named. It uses descriptors such as “Lord and king seated above the cherubim,” “lover of justice,” and the “one who established equity.” The emphasis is on the restorative and redemptive effect of the divine.

 

Each description ends with the phrase “Holy is he.” The word “holy” defines the numinous or mystical, transcendent “other” that engages us.  It’s not a matter of convincing people of the existence of God—all our rational arguments fall short. Furthermore, the way the word “God” is habitually used in our culture in association with nationalism easily becomes idolatrous. I deeply respect sensitive souls who question or reject such conceptions of God.

 

The story of Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration is about an epiphany or a mystical encounter with the divine. Biblical scholar Fred Craddock says that it’s fitting to not attempt to explain it too quickly but to remain there for a while in awe of its mystery and power. Peter’s impulsive desire to build a shrine would certainly lose the mystery which cannot be captured.

 

The transfiguration takes place after Jesus told his disciples about his looming death and resurrection. They were completely confused because it contradicted their understanding of Jesus as the Messiah who would deliver his people from Roman oppression. The conversation between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah is about his approaching death. Then there’s the ominous cloud signifying God’s presence and the words” This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.”

 

We cannot see or completely comprehend the divine mystery but we do see Jesus who reveals God and the way of God to us. Jesus’ changed, dazzling appearance on the Mount of Transfiguration symbolizes this. I like the way biblical scholar Walter Wink explains transfiguration:

Transfiguration is living by vision: standing foursquare in the midst of a broken, tortured, oppressed, starving, dehumanizing reality, yet seeing the invisible, calling it to come, behaving as if it’s on the way, sustained by elements of it that have already come, within and among us. In those moments when people are healed, transformed, freed from addictions, obsessions, destructiveness, self-worship, or when groups or communities or even, rarely, whole nations glimpse the light of the transcendent in their midst, there the New Creation has come upon us. The world for one brief moment is transfigured. The beyond shines in our midst.[1]

 

A congregation that loves and blesses children is one glimpse of this New Creation coming. As the apostle Paul told the church in Corinth, we become an open letter to be known and read by all, not written on tablets of stone, but written on our hearts (2 Cor. 3: 2-3). This is not a logical, airtight argument for our version of the truth. It’s more of a thing of beauty. According to theologian Bryan Stone, “When truth and goodness are connected to beauty, faith comes alive.” He explains:

[Beauty] both “belongs” and yet stands out from among the ordinariness around it. The notion that beauty is sacred, then, means that it stands in contrast to the profane—not as the other-worldly stands in contrast to the this-worldly but as a rupture in the everyday experience that signals and mediates an inbreaking of the divine that is at once unsettling and captivating.[2]

 

This is not a how-to recipe for reaching people or growing our church. It’s instead about giving ourselves over to God’s beauty and, consequently, becoming transformed. This is our witness to a watching world. It’s a subversive, nonviolent, and attractive alternative to the world as we know it.  It’s different from the logic of nation-states that would have us believe that peace is secured through violence. We inhabit the “story of a God who creates the world in peace and who rules and redeems it through peace.” We faithfully live within that story and, in doing so, offer it to others as an inviting possibility.[3]

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[1] As quoted in Imaging the Word, Vol. 1 (Cleveland: United Church Press, 1994), 142.

[2][2] Bryan Stone, Evangelism after Pluralism, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018), 121.

[3] Ibid., 126.

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