Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Stewards of the Mysteries...

Although I did not preach on that text Sunday, the section from First Corinthians in which St. Paul describes himself as a steward of the mysteries and the hiddenness of God has always tugged at me.  The world and Christians living in the world have always sought neatness and order.  One of the great failings of Christians is the need to tidy up after God, to explain away all the unknowns and unresolved issues of His Word.  We tend to treat the Word of the Lord as an encyclopedia with reasoned and ordered explanations and answers to our questions and our desire to tie up all the loose ends.  Some Christians, even great Christian thinkers, have succumbed to this temptation and tidied up to the point that God's Word has spoken a different word, an unfaithful word, and even a false word.

I guess my own affection for history over systematics is showing here.  The systematician is at work in the things of God, like a passionate librarian, organizing, shelving, and boxing up God's loose ends, unrelated strands, and confusing excursuses (now when have you ever heard that word in plural -- this is an intellectual blog for sure!).  I am not so much bothered by the things that do not add up.  I am not at all bound by the great intellectual curiosity over the apparent contradictions in Scripture or in Christian theology in general.  I do not have all the answers -- I am not sure I have many answers at all except Jesus Christ whom the Spirit has revealed to reveal to us the Father and to bring to light that which was hidden in the ages -- the saving will and purpose and plan of God.  Even there I find myself often tongue tied to explain it all -- not knowing how nor feeling a burning need to wipe the mist away from St. Paul's dim mirror.  May parents said to me, perhaps too often, all things in their time.  It stuck.  What we do not know now, will be revealed eventually or it will be revealed as unimportant.  Either way I am content to wait.

What we as Pastors bring to the world are not the answers to their questions but the awesome reality of Christ both hidden in and revealed in the great mysteries of... the Word made flesh, made like us in every way except sin, whose healing blood has the power to save a whole sinful world, whose victory is made present in the moment but not fully revealed until the consummation of all things, who reaches out in baptism to kill and make alive, who speaks absolution and it is done, who makes bread to be His body and wine His blood... the endless list of mysteries of which we are not explainers but stewards.

It seems to me that often -- too often -- we surrender this role of stewards of the mysteries in order to be therapists to the wounded soul, answer men to the intellectually curious, hawkers of the things of God to those shopping for a bargain, and inspirational speakers to the unmotivated.  We do this poorly and it is a shame of religion to enshroud this activity in the aura of holiness.  The holy is fearful and pushes us away.  It is only in Christ that we find the strength and courage to stand on the holy ground of His presence.  We do so not as the casual and comfortable visitor but as the stranger and alien who is declared at home but struggles with this since we are still by nature sinners tempted by the lure of the bright lights and big city of Satan's last hurrah.

As a parent I often made the mistake of thinking that if I explained it well enough, my children would choose the right path (should I say "my path").  But my children either were not listening or did not appreciate my long and preachy explanations.  What they sought from me and what I should have given them more are firm words of truth, conviction, and direction.  God does not explain Himself to us, does not have to explain Himself to us, and refuses to explain Himself to us.  Like Job of old we may cry out "why" but what we get in response are the firm words that remind us His ways are as far above us as the heavens above the earth.  For Job it was enough so that he could cry out in faith "I know that my Redeemer liveth..."  We still struggle for that to be enough for us.

On Glenn Beck the other day an assembly of evangelical and pentecostal preachers were given religious credibility to Beck's rant of the day.  When out of the blue one reminded the rest that they were not here on a mission from God to condemn or judge or revel in the mud of worldly wrongs.  They were there to speak hope.  This is the mystery -- that God approaches us in mercy and sustains us in grace.  This is the mystery -- that His Word for the world is hope!  Hidden in the terrible instrument of death called the cross, we find the surprise of hope.  Hidden in the earthly elements we find the heavenly grace that plants, grows, and harvests hope. Hidden in the fearful reality of His return in judgment, we find hope that calls us home to the perfect place prepared for us that we may be with Him and He with us forever.

Speaking ever so personally, I do not want God to explain Himself to me.  I want Him to direct me and govern my heart and tame my willful desire.  I want a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night to lead me through the wilderness to the eternal land of promise.  I want to approach the mystery of His grace hidden in the Word and Sacraments with the holy fear of those who know He is God and we are not.  I long not for order or reasoned explanation but the immanent and eternal grace that visits me, unworthy sinner that I am, and clothes me in righteousness, plants me in hope, sustains me in joy, for the way of the cross in which I walk today until I close my eyes and awaken in His presence and in His glory.

As I write this I listen to Bach's cantata on "What God Ordains Is Always Good."  It defies reason and earthly vision.  It defies explanation and order.  It is accessible only by faith.  I sing this hymn as one who lives in the shadow/mystery of this grace and favor and whose vocation it is to proclaim it to God's people and the world.

What God ordains is always good:
    His will is just and holy.
As He directs my life for me,
    I follow meek and lowly.
        My God indeed
        In ev'ry need
Knows well how He will shield me;
To Him, then, I will yield me.

What God ordains is always good:
    He never will deceive me;
He leads me in His righteous way,
    And never will He leave me.
        I take content
        What He has sent;
His hand that sends me sadness
Will turn my tears to gladness.

What God ordains is always good:
    His loving thought attends me;
No poison can be in the cup
    That my physician sends me.
        My God is true;
        Each morning new
I trust His grace unending,
My life to Him commending.

What God ordains is always good:
    He is my friend and Father;
He suffers naught to do me harm
    Though many storms may gather.
        Now I may know
        Both joy and woe;
Someday I shall see clearly
That He has loved me dearly.

What God ordains is always good:
    Though I the cup am drinking
Which savors now of bitterness,
    I take it without shrinking.
        For after grief
        God gives relief,
My heart with comfort filling
And all my sorrow stilling.

What God ordains is always good:
    This truth remains unshaken.
Though sorrow, need, or death be mine,
    I shall not be forsaken.
        I fear no harm,
        For with His arm
He shall embrace and shield me;
So to my God I yield me.


OldSouth said...

Thank you, Pastor. Exactly the right word, at exactly the right moment.


Padre Dave Poedel, STS said...

My brother, you have written words that encourage and validate my thoughts, but also words that give me pause for examination of conscience.

Thank you....this entry is particularly helpful to me right now.

Sue said...

A friend of mine is a mystery writer (published author). In one of her books, her main character says, "I wouldn't want to believe in a God small enough for me to understand."