The Mystery Talks Back


Sermon for February 23rd, 2020



I have decided that one of my Lenten disciplines this year will be rereading a book by Abraham Heschel. Abraham Heschel was a twentieth century Jewish philosopher and mystic. This is his book “Between God and Man.” I picked up this book this week and started flipping through it and was reminded of how insightful Heschel can be about the human response to God. Early in his book, Heschel talks about mystery and he says that there are three basic human attitudes toward mystery:


The fatalist, the positivist, and the Biblical.


To the fatalist, he says, mystery is the supreme power that controls all of reality. The fatalist believes that the world is controlled by an irrational, absolutely inscrutable and blind power that is devoid of either justice or purpose. To the fatalist, mankind has zero control over his fate, he may only be resigned to it. Resignation is a fatalist’s response to the mystery. We are just actors on the stage, reading the lines that we have been given. Puppets more like. No free will, no choice in the matter. Just part of a universe that is mystically evolving toward we know not what. Or perhaps we are merely an accumulation of chemical reactions, controlled by universal laws, laws that have no thought or feeling or purpose. A fatalist may believe in God or not, many pagan religions are fatalist in nature. I would argue that some Christians probably take that view as well. Perhaps this attitude lies behind the worldview of all those who call themselves “spiritual but not religious.” Perhaps they are trying to say that “I believe in a mystical force behind the universe, but it wants nothing of me.” That is the attitude of the fatalist.


The positivist, on the other hand, takes a quite different approach. To the positivist, mystery doesn’t actually exist. Mystery is just stuff we don’t know yet. Positivists believe in our ability to figure things out, and positivists believe that once we figure things out, we can take control over them. Positivists believe that all questions will eventually be answered, not by revelation, but by research. People who believe that technology can save the human race are positivists. They believe we have control over our own destinies. Positivists believe that meaning is something that we create. A positivist responds to mystery by trying to explain it away. If your salvation depends upon you understanding and controlling everything, then mystery is a threat to you. So, you try to eliminate mystery. There are, and have been, positivists in the church too; people that want to eliminate mystery.


The positivist response to mystery is the opposite of the fatalist: the fatalist throws his or her hands up in despair; the positivist cracks his knuckles ready to tear the mystery apart.


And then, there is the Biblical attitude toward mystery.


The biblical attitude is that the universe is ruled not by a blind force, but by a God of righteousness. The biblical view is that the mystery has a personality and a name. Heschel says that the biblical view is that the ultimate is: “not a law, but a judge, not a power, but a father.”


Not a power, but a father. That is the biblical view of mystery. It is a force that creates and shapes, but does not control. The biblical view of mystery is a force that we live in relationship with. Not only does it exist apart from us, but it also calls for a response from us. It does not control us or force us to some pre-determined fate, nor is it something that we can ever have complete control and mastery over. The biblical view is that mystery is something that you live with. The biblical view is that mystery is something that you talk to, and argue with, and in the biblical view, sometimes the mystery talks back.


Abraham and Moses, they argued with God. Our psalm today says: “Moses and Aaron among his priests, and Samuel among such as call upon his name: these called upon the Lord, AND he heard them. He spake unto them out of the cloudy pillar” The Bible is full of mysterious burning bushes and cloudy mountains, but in the Bible individuals of faith talk to the cloud and the cloud talks back. The mystery asks people to do things. The mystery seeks a response. It isn’t a force that controls us; and it isn’t a force that we have control over. In the Bible, mystery is something that you live with; mystery is something that you can love and that can love you. That is a very different attitude than either the fatalist or the positivist.


The fatalist throws up his hands at mystery, the positivist uses his or her hands to tear it apart, but in the Bible, mystery invites us to put our hands in its hand and walk with it. We can touch it, we can embrace it, we can respond to it and live in relationship with it. But it will not force our hand nor can we force it.


When Moses ascended Mount Sinai, and saw the mystery of the burning bush, the mystery spoke to him. And not only did the mystery identify itself and say: I am that I am; I am the force behind the universe, but the mystery also said to Moses: do this. Live in relationship with me. Follow these commandments. Respond to my life. You are my chosen, but am I yours?


When Jesus and Peter and James and John ascended a high mountain by themselves, and when a cloud overshadowed them and Jesus’s appearance was mysteriously transformed, the mystery again spoke to them from the cloud claiming its identity: “this is my son. This is who Jesus is.” But the mystery also said: “Listen to him!” Respond to him; live in relationship to him. Live with this mystery. Love it.


To be sure, it isn’t easy living with mystery. We humans are always caught between wanting to do everything and wanting to do nothing. We either want to save the world or watch it all burn to the ground. We convince ourselves that we can fix everything or we can fix nothing. Those may seem like more reasonable options than the biblical option, but are they really?


If we are completely controlled by some outside force that pays no attention to what we do or what we say, then the universe is truly a lonely place and life within it, has no meaning. But if it is up to us to figure the universe out and make right choices, well if you read history, current events, and human nature the way that I do, then you would probably agree with me that in that scenario we are all truly damned.


What our ancestors found in Scripture, what Moses and Peter and James and John found on the mountain was a more compelling third option: a mystery that talks back. A god that neither controls us completely nor abandons us to our own devices, but lives in relationship with us. This is a god that seems to trust our hearts more than our minds. It is a mystery that wants to be loved more than understood.


I think Lent is probably as good a time as any to ask yourself the question: how do I approach the mystery of God in my life? Am I a fatalist, a positivist or is it something I live in relationship with? When I encounter mystery, do I throw up my hands? Do I crack my knuckles? Or to I reach out and grab the hand that is reaching out for me? When I encounter a mystery, do I have the courage to speak to it? Do I have the will to listen and obey when the mystery talks back?