s095e99 Somerton Park 19/12/99 Advent 4
"To God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ ... the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed ..." Romans 16.25,26
There are many mysteries in this life, things that I simply don't understand. I don't understand, for instance, why there are so many refugees throughout the world, exiles from their own homeland. Groups of refugees who seem to be mainly composed of the elderly, women, children and similarly helpless and innocuous people, without even the bare necessities of life. It is a mystery why so many other people seem to enjoy such an extravagant lifestyle, not so very far away from them.
It is a mystery to me why members of families spend lives of acrimony and resentment towards one another.
It is a mystery to me why Jesus was killed. I'm not sure that when we say Jesus was without sin, it in fact means that Jesus never had an evil or lustful thought. I feel sure that when the Bible talks about him being sinless it is not saying he never even swatted a mosquito when he was young. I'm sure it means that Jesus went about doing good, that he essentially did nothing to warrant being killed on a cross. It is a real mystery why the religious authorities were so opposed to him.
Indeed it is a mystery why everyone isn't a believer. Jesus on the Cross is a most powerful symbol of God's love, if nothing else. Why wouldn't everyone believe? There is nothing to be afraid of. In my meditations in the psalms of late, I was caught by the words of Psalm 130:4 (APBA p 364). "But there is forgiveness with you: so that you shall be feared." I suppose forgiveness, on our part, doesn't necessarily inspire love for us in others. Sometimes it might engender contempt, but fear is also likely, as the forgiveness confronts a differing world view.
And it not just that everyone else is mysterious and therefore in a sense unreliable. There is a level in which I can truthfully say: "I don't know myself". St Paul agonises over the good that he would do, but his own inability to do it. In Romans chapter 7 he laments: "I do not understand my own actions" (v15). And so the actions and motivations of others are essentially mysterious. We can never really know another person, even those to whom we are married.
But I want to point out that all these mysteries concern mysteries about humanity - and not about God at all.
"God is love" - "in him there is no darkness at all". There is no mystery about God and the totality of his love for all of the creation. As I have already said - if nothing else, the Cross shows us this.
If God is the same yesterday, today and forever, God always has been a God of love. So the sorts of sentiments like the God of the Old Testament was an angry God, but the Cross of Jesus placated that anger, and now God is a loving God - are the stuff of Sunday School teaching and simply and obviously untrue.
But if God has always been the God of love - why Jesus? It is no easier or harder question than: "Why did God create mosquitoes?" So Jesus was moved to say: "Many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it." (Lk 10.24)
The solution to the problem of why such esteemed personages should have failed to perceive the obvious, can be attributed at least partially to humanity. God would indeed be unjust to a significant proportion of humanity - all those living before Jesus - if they have been condemned to non existence through no fault of their own.
St Paul, in his agonising over his own willingness but inability to do the right thing, points me at least in a helpful direction. God continues to proclaim his love for the creation. Humanity, even my own self, shies away from such unmerited and unconditional love for myself and for all. There are always those who profit from keeping humanity and God separate, and most often they are those who sound the most religious or spiritual. The money changers and the pigeon sellers in front of the Temple. The disciples discouraging the parents from letting the children come to Jesus. I myself wonder how God can love some people - especially when those people have committed horrific crimes, or taken something which I consider my own.
I am often drawn to the lovely self description that the prophet Amos gave of himself when the religious authorities of his day questioned his message. "I am no prophet, nor a prophet's son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees ..." God does not need great orators to point out that those who make "the ephah small and the shekel great" are not doing as God desires. One does not need to be a Billy Graham to speak the Lord's message: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream", though it is indeed a real talent to bring forth such felicitous phrasing. (Amos 5.24)
Recently I had cause, in my surfing of the Internet, to have a brief browse through the offerings which came under the heading of "paganism". My browsing was very brief, but I was interested to see how frequently such people talk about mysticism and spiritualism. So many other people other than "Christians" talk about whether one believes things or not. So when we talk about "belief" we need to be careful not to move away from the central thrust of the message of God's love for all. God is not the God only of those gullible enough to believe in esoteric phenomenon.
Often spirituality and mysticism can be used to drive a wedge between those who believe and those who don't believe in the divine nature of the particular phenomenon, so, while a phenomenon may be of God, it is being used to build walls around God's kingdom, not break them down. If it is used thus, it is used contrary to God's will. Every gift of God can be used and misused.
I frequently hear religious leaders speak of a deep seated religious hunger among the present generation, and looking with some longing (or is it envy?) at the New Age movement. The obvious solution appears to make Christianity more mystical. But there is no mystery about God as yet unrevealed. We know that God loves us, that God sent Jesus to die and to rise again for us and for all. The essence of the message is all about this love God has for us and how that unconditional love extends to our neighbours, even those who do not believe, or believe in different terms to us.
If mystery and spiritualism means denying some people the possibility of God's love, I am happy to be regarded as straight-forward and unspiritual.
We are told: "the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages ... is now disclosed ..."
The mystery of God's love has been revealed, it can no longer be a mystery. The proclamation of Christ can be heard week by week in church by all and sundry, can be read by those fortunate enough to be literate in the pages of sacred scripture. The gospel has been announced. There is nothing more to add to it. There is no mystery, indeed it is by tradition, enacted through the ministry of ordinary, down to earth, peasant parents, Mary and Joseph.
The story of the angel Gabriel coming to visit the ordinary girl named Mary which has begun this and every other season of festivity at Christmass is known far and wide. God coming to an ordinary person and using her acceptance for the bringing of that good news. God comes - and comes to redeem humanity from the helplessness of our situation, to come and say, as the angel said to Mary - play your part in the bringing of the kingdom. Mary was no different from any of us. She was not born in a palace, and there is no evidence that she or Joseph were in any sort of privileged position in society as far as wealth or influence went.
God comes to initiate, to enable and to accept the contribution of saint and sinner alike - not just to those who label themselves spiritual. Humanity, myself as much as anyone else, wants to hide from this.
I guess we all feel that sense of unworthiness, and desire that God should ask someone else more gifted. It would be much more easy (or so we think) for God to choose the gifted, the wealthy, the spiritual, the mystics, the orators, the theologians, the clergy ... But God is not interested in getting us to own up to all our sins, or that we should become politicians, orators, truly repentant sinners or deeply spiritual people.
God asks us simply to let others, saints, sinners or whoever, make the contributions they are moved to make to our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ as they perceive God's presence and blessing in their lives. God invites us to see the Holy Spirit at work in all sorts and conditions of people.
In doing so we spread the good news - certainly to those we so regard, but also to ourselves as we can rejoice to see God at work, albeit surprisingly, in many, many people.
And in this very down to earth way we ourselves are strengthened ... Amen - for each and every one of us.
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