Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Preaching the Mystery of God

Mark Galli is senior managing of Christianity Today. He and his family were members of St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Glen Ellyn, IL. when I was the assistant rector there. ed.

Why it's good news that we cannot explain everything about God.

By Mark Galli »

We are said to live in a postmodern era, in which logical proofs for God's existence and rational explanations of his character are no longer of interest to people. This may be true of many people, but classic apologetic books like Josh McDowell's Evidence that Demands a Verdict and C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity still sell briskly, and new rationalistic apologists like Lee Strobel are widely read and sought as speakers. It seems we have a God-given longing to make sense of God, and all the postmodernism in the world cannot kill it.

But the more I've probed the sensible God, the smaller he seems to get. I think most preachers, after a few years in the pulpit, start to feel this instinctively. Our heads may be able to form answers as to how God is three in one, why Jesus died on the cross, or how a loving and powerful God can allow evil, but the more we delve into the Word, the less our hearts are satisfied with these answers. The more we try to pinpoint where and how God acts in the world, the less sure we are of our pinpoints, but nonetheless more sure that God acts!

We have the odd experience of Moses: The more God makes himself known, the more dark he becomes:

On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire….1

We hear the thunder and see the lightning of God, but when we try to find God, all we see is smoke.
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This is what I call a "morning of the third day" event. It was on another morning on the third day that there was an earthquake, the appearance of dazzling angels—and confusion and fear. Mary thought she was talking to a gardener; the disciples did not fathom why the tomb was empty; the disciples on the road to Emmaus were blinded to the One walking with them.

To be sure, when it comes to God, "his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse."2 God's presence is sensed, but it's pretty tough to create a profile of a God from a world that includes both daisies and hurricanes, both kittens and rattlesnakes, one who is so in love with the world he's willing to send his Son—and wills that he be killed.
The mind can fashion a rational explanation, but the heart remains both perplexed but deeply moved, in fear and trembling, and in joyful, inexplicable gratitude.


Why is God so elusive? This is not only personally puzzling, but socially embarrassing for preachers who serve the Christian God, the God who is supposed to be in the business of making himself known! We keep telling people that God is near, that God loves them. It would help our preaching if he'd show up and at least shake hands when we're trying to introduce him to people. Instead he often hides behind the door as we yak away about him, motioning him to come on over.

The mystery of God is not a new problem. Some of the most evocative expressions of God's elusiveness come from a deeply religious age and people, and at the very moments when God is supposedly revealing himself. We just read one description from the Book of Exodus. Here is another, from the prophet Ezekiel who had a vision of God:

And … there was the likeness of a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was a likeness with a human appearance. And upward from what had the appearance of his waist I saw as it were gleaming metal, like the appearance of fire enclosed all around. And downward from what had the appearance of his waist I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and there was brightness around him. Like the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud on the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness all around.
Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord…3

Even in this so-called epiphany, God remains shielded by the vague and evasive language Ezekiel is forced to employ: "the likeness of" and "the appearance of." His summary is doubly vague: "Such was the appearance of the likeness…"

In other words, though Ezekiel had a vision of God, God remained hidden.

"To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him?" says Isaiah4 as he strains to find ways to describe God. In the end, I think he just gave up: "Truly, you are a God who hides himself…"5

Paradoxically, things don't get much better when Jesus—"God with us"—shows up. While he does indeed "show us the Father" in a lot of ways, Jesus, the very revelation of God, talked about God's hiddenness time and again. Note how he talks about the "kingdom of God," that is, the experience of God in all its fullness: It is like a treasure hidden in a field. It is like a field in which both wheat and weeds are so mixed up, you can hardly separate them. It is like a parable, which hides as much as it reveals, which for "outsiders" are given that "they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand…"6

Jesus himself—"God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God" as the Nicene Creed says—remained a stumbling block and an offense from birth to death and resurrection. His own people knew him not. The descriptions of God and heaven in Revelation match the excruciating incoherence of Ezekiel. Paul, after trying to explain God's plan for Israel, throws up his hands and says, "How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!"7

While God clearly is about the business of giving us glimpses of himself, he is also clearly in the business of hiding himself. This makes the job of the preacher no small challenge. People expect us to clarify who God is and what he's about, while the one we're trying to explain making it harder and harder to do just that.

The God Who Hides Himself
So, again—why is God so elusive, and why does he make our job so hard?

I believe God hides himself because he does not want to be found if people are apt to mistake him for an idol.

Truly, you are a God who hides yourself,
O God of Israel, the Savior.
All of them are put to shame and confounded;
the makers of idols go in confusion together.8

God leaves us confused and confounded whenever we try to make God fit our ideas of who God should be.

Our God is the God who answers prayer, but he is not a divine bellhop, who jumps at our every request. He refuses sometimes to hear prayers that are attempts merely to manipulate him.

Our God is full of mercy and love—yes!—but he is not the Cosmic Nice Guy. Just when we think we need a pat on the back, he gives us a kick in the rear. Just when we expect a little praise for how much money we raise for him, he gets out a whip and drives us from the Temple. Just when we need him most, when we're hanging on a cross looking for him to strengthen and sustain us like he's supposed to, he is nowhere to be found, even when we cry about feeling utterly forsaken.

To know God, to live with God, and to love God, one must be willing to embrace this sort of confusion. It means you will be regularly mystified by God. An old bumper sticker described conversion with the phrase, I found it. That is part of the journey of faith. But it should be matched later by another: I lost it.

God is beyond everything that exists and every conception we can have of him, says Eastern Orthodox theologian Vladimir Loski. "In order to approach him, it is necessary to deny all that is inferior to him," especially our small and confined images of who he is. "It is by unknowing that one may know him…"9

I misplaced my keys one day. I looked in each place where they should have been, where I always leave them: in my coat pockets, my pants pocket, on top of the chest of drawers. I checked and rechecked these places over and over in disbelief that the keys were not to be found in one of those places. Only after many minutes of rising frustration did I give up that search. I then started to look in places where the keys were not likely to be. That's when I found them, lying on a window sill.

God is often near, right there on the window sill, but only when we give up our ideas about where he is and how exactly he is to be found, will we find him. That's why we can rejoice when we bump into the mystery of God, when God seems more confusing than ever. That's the first, necessary step in discovering where he really is.

The Elusive Lover
The mystery of God also acts like a magnet for us. It is not dissimilar to falling in love.

As I started to fall in love with the woman who was to become my wife, I became increasingly fascinated with her. I wanted to know what books she liked, what hobbies she enjoyed, what her favorite color was. I wondered what her family was like, if she had previous boyfriends, and what goals she had for her life.

The more I probed, the more I became curious. When I learned she had two sisters and a brother, I wanted to know how she got along with each. And once I found that out, I wanted to know why.

There came a time in our marriage when, sadly, Barbara no longer seemed a mystery to me. I thought I pretty much had her figured out. I knew her so well, she began to grate on me—her opinions, her habits, her turns of phrase were all so predictable! Instead of longing to be with her more and more, I wanted to get away.

This is a necessary chapter of marriage: We must become disillusioned with the familiar before we can move toward deeper intimacy. The problem was not that Barbara had become boring; it was that I had put her in the Barbara Box, a neat little container that defined who she was.

Becoming "born again" is like falling in love, and our spiritual courtship is a series of emotional highs as we discover the manifold wonders of God. But a little knowledge of God is a dangerous thing, and after awhile, we think we've got him figured out. And we put God in that neat little container.

Then one day, we go to get God out of that container—we expect him to answer a prayer or bless a venture, or we look for an answer to some tragedy we face—and we open it and find he is not there. Just when we needed him, he's up and gone! And we are angry. What happened to my God?

We stomp around the room in a fury, and we pout, and we vow never to be so naïve again about religion. And then we start to cry. We remember our first love. Even more than our desire to manipulate God is our desire to love God. More than wanting to merely use God, we simply want God.

That longing is not only resurrected by the mystery of God; it is heightened by it. We can, yes, say many things that are true about God. We can list and discuss his attributes and learn much in the process. But we will not have grasped God until we have recognized that the more we understand him, the more we don't know about him. But the more elusive God is, the more we want him. The more he teases us—flirts with us—the more we chase after him.

This can become the beginning of a new stage of faith, where the mystery of God becomes not a stumbling block, nor a puzzle to be solved. It is a new falling in love with the Lover of our souls. It is a mystery that ever draws us toward him, in both wonder and joy.

Preaching the Mystery

The upshot for preachers is simply this: Let's not shy away from proclaiming the mystery. Yes, week by week, we need to explain the gospel and its implications in the clearest language possible. As Hosea put it, the people perish from lack of knowledge. This should be a portion of the homiletical meal we serve our parishioners. At the same time, if every sermon and every class is wrapped up neatly, with every question answered and every concern addressed, then we have probably misconstrued the truth about God. If the God we preach is one whom we can explain, we are not preaching the God of the Bible.

This means it's okay to tell our people that we don't understand some parts of Scripture, that we don't get why God acts or doesn't act as we think he should, that despite the truthful revelation of God in Jesus Christ, it is not a full revelation. There is still much about God that we cannot fathom.

But we must preach this as good news—not with a shrug of the shoulder or in resignation, but in hope. For while the God of the Bible can be an elusive one, he is elusive precisely because he wants to share more and more of himself with us, drawing us to himself like a lover draws the beloved, slowly, teasingly. He wants to reveal himself not as some dime-store idol who makes perfect sense to us, but as God Almighty, Holy and Wondrous, the God who in his infinite love revealed himself to us in Christ and started us a journey of love that will never end.

1 Exodus 19:16-18 (ESV).

2 Romans 1:20.

3 Ezekiel 1:26-28.

4 Isaiah 40:18.

5 Isaiah 45:15.

6 Mark 4:12.

7 Romans 11:33

8 Isaiah 45:15-16.

9 The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Press, 1957), p. 25.


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