January 30, 2017
Author: Scott Hoezee
At a restaurant in California recently I asked the waitress if their Cioppino was good. She assured me it was. Cioppino is a wonderful seafood stew, and the server assured me theirs contained a lot of very fresh clams, shrimp, calamari, and more. I ordered it. And . . . it lacked all salt. Seemed like not so much as a shake of salt had been applied. Most of the seafood had had more salt clinging to it the day it came out of the ocean than it had in my bowl. And though the seafood was fresh and the tomato broth good, the whole dish fell flat. No salt, no flavor.
You are the salt of the earth.” That’s where Jesus starts this part of Matthew 5. Salt, of course, is one of the most sublime as well as one of the most ancient of all cooking spices and additives. Sodium chloride is the only mineral that we human beings take directly from the earth and eat. We would die without salt but we’d also find a good bit of otherwise tasty food to be dull and lifeless were it not for salt. Perhaps that’s why in history some cultures exchanged salt as money. The earliest roads were built to transport salt, the earliest taxes were levied on it, whole military campaigns were launched to secure salt. Salt gave Venice its start as a commercial trading empire in Europe and it helped Gandhi bring India to independence in the mid-twentieth century.
According to Jeffrey Steingarten’s book, The Man Who Ate Everything, we’re probably the first generation of earthlings to be paranoid about salt. Some people do legitimately have a low tolerance for salt, and people who already have high blood pressure need to monitor their sodium intake. But for the most part we need salt to live and the vast majority of us can handle about as much salt as we want.
On average Americans take in 12,000 milligrams of salt a day or about 266 shakes from a salt shaker. And again, why not? Salt is indispensable to good food. When used thoughtfully, it sharpens and defines flavors and aromas, it melds flavors in ways that transform bland dishes into something complex and wonderful. Salt controls the ripening of cheese, strengthens the gluten in bread, preserves meats, and just generally provides what Robert Farrar Capon called the “music of cookery, the indispensable bass line over which all tastes and smells form their harmonies.” Of course, even so, salt needs to be used well. Few things are more disappointing than finishing a dish at the stove only to remember too late that you forgot to add any salt. Then again, nothing can ruin a soup faster than too much salt (they say you can leech out some salt by floating raw potato slices on top of an over-salted soup but I don’t know . . .).
“You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus said to his disciples. (Note: Jesus did not say to become salt but that by virtue of being a disciple, each of us just IS salt.) It was a striking image then and it’s a striking one now, but what does it imply for the life of discipleship? Well, I just mentioned the good effect salt has on the food we eat. Of course, to get that tasty effect, you have to mix the sodium chloride into the food. How foolish it would be to think that just having a box of kosher salt next to the stove will make a difference even if you never sprinkle it into the soup. If you ask a cook, “Did you add any salt?”, then the answer had better not be, “No, but I have a box of it close by. Isn’t that enough?”
That’s an absurd scenario, yet it seems pretty much to be the one Jesus has in mind. In verse 13 Jesus talks about salt losing its saltiness. Actually, however, in Greek Jesus wonders about salt becoming moronos, from which we derive our English word “moron,” or “fool.” If salt becomes foolish, Jesus asks, then what good is it?
To have salt but not use it, to have a shaker of salt sitting next to the stove but never to put any into the pot, is foolish. What’s the sense of having it there if you’re not going to add it to the food thoughtfully and with proper balance? You may as well toss it out the window for all the good such unused salt will do your dinner! Salt has a definite purpose and if you won’t use it for that purpose, then the salt becomes foolish to have around.
The implication for disciples is exceedingly curious: it means that we exist for mixing it up with the world. It means that for us to do our savory gospel task of making this world a better place, we need to be out there, being mixed up into people, culture, and society. Following hard on the heels of his Beatitudes, Jesus is saying that if you’re going to live those grace-filled attitudes, then it’s not enough to work inside the church community, it’s not enough to nurture a strong interior life of spirituality. No, the result of all your piety must be pouring yourself out onto this earth so as to bring out life’s complex and beautiful flavors.
To be useful and true salt, you need to mix into the world, bringing with you gospel savor. But the light still needs to shine, the pathways of God’s kingdom still need to be followed. Maybe it would be easier to let your light shine if you stayed in church all the time, never left home, so to speak. But literal salt that never leaves the shaker does nothing to add zing to your French Fries, and likewise Christian disciples who never interact with non-Christian people have no chance of reaching those people with the influence of that whole new world of God that just is the kingdom.
Questions to Ponder/Issues to Address
The Pharisees are the quintessential bad guys of the gospels. No single group proved more difficult for Jesus to deal with; no single group appeared to be less moved by Jesus. As Robert Capon once wrote, it’s hard to resist picturing the Pharisees as wearing black hats and twirling their moustaches like the outlaws in some Hollywood hiss-and-boo melodrama of the Old West. Next to the Pharisees, even the demon-possessed come off looking pretty good. At least Jesus was able to cast the demons out and so turn these once-possessed folks into friends. But not so the Pharisees–they just keep digging in their heels against the tug of Jesus’ ministry, getting progressively angrier until finally they get Jesus executed.
Throughout the gospels the Pharisees keep coming up like a bad burp. And the reason they are so sour is because the Pharisees saw in Jesus a threat to all that they held dear. For the Pharisees, the hopes and fears of all the years were met in God’s Law. The Torah, they believed, was God’s gift to his people through which they could earn salvation. Once they had the Law all sewn up in near-perfect moral living, then the Messiah would come.
And so they took care to study the Law, teach the Law, and above all to live the Law in every jot and tittle of their existences. At some point they had even decided that since God’s Law was so vital to their future happiness, they would further protect God’s Law by building a fence around it in the form of hundreds of secondary laws that they made up.
So when one day a rabbi named Jesus showed up only to start busting first one and then another of these various sub-regulations, the Pharisees saw red. This Jesus always broke the Pharisee version of the Sabbath, he did not avoid the houses of known sinners, he actually spoke openly with women on the streets, and in general he kept telling stories that made it sound like the Law was not the ticket to heaven after all.
This Jesus fellow was so laced with grace and so quick to forgive even those who had broken God’s Torah that after a while the Pharisees suspected that not only was this rabbi not the Christ, he was the Antichrist! The formula, after all, was simple: keeping the Law would one day bring the Messiah. Therefore, anyone who broke the Law could not himself be the Messiah but could only be a hindrance to the coming of the Christ!
So how shocking it must have been one day when Jesus said, “Don’t think for a minute that I came to get rid of the Law: I came to fulfill the Law in every detail. In fact, if you want to be in my kingdom, then you’ve got to live better than even the Pharisees do!” But how could someone who so freely embraced law-breakers claim to be the fulfillment of the Law? How could someone who always made it clear that the kingdom of God is a gift of grace turn right around and say that getting into the kingdom requires more earnest efforts than even the most devout Pharisee had ever achieved? Surely this struck many people as impossible.
Imagine a beginning piano student struggling to plink out the notes to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Then imagine this student’s piano teacher suddenly announcing, “I tell you the truth, Joey: unless your abilities to play the Chopin etudes exceed that of Vladimir Horowitz, you can no longer be in my class!” It would be enough to make little Joey quit! How could he ever get that good unless his teacher stuck with him?! He’d never make it to the level of Horowitz on his own! Indeed, very few people in the world could! So of what use is a piano teacher who sets the bar so impossibly high?
What were the disciples supposed to think about all this? Well obviously they were to conclude that something had somewhere gone wrong with their ideas about God’s Law. If Jesus really were the fulfillment of the Law, if how Jesus had been going at life really were an extended illustration of God’s Law in action, then the ideas that had been propagated by the Pharisees had been wrong all along.
To employ a modern phrase, Matthew 5 represents a “paradigm shift.” Jesus is turning the world on its head here. To show you what I mean, let’s start at the bottom in verse 20 which, in an upside-down world, is really the top anyway. What could Jesus have meant by holding up the Pharisees as role models–indeed, as imperfect role models at that? Did Jesus really want his disciples to adopt the tactics of the Pharisees ? Did Jesus want his disciples to define their righteousness by keeping track of the number of sinners they had avoided, the number of women they had refused to look at, the number of well-meaning folks who got screamed at for accidentally breaking some fussy little Sabbath regulation? Is that the kind of “greater-than-the-Pharisees” righteousness Jesus is recommending here?!
Of course not. The truth is that it would be impossible for most folks to live more purely than the Pharisees and anyway, the truth is that Jesus did not like the attitude of the Pharisees in the first place. Jesus is setting the bar impossibly high in verse 20 to be ironic. He’s reminding us that righteousness is a gift. A holy status before God is something we can’t achieve on our own, so God gives it to us in grace.
On the other hand, however, this grace-given righteousness leads to a new kind of life. No, you can’t earn your way into the kingdom by racking up brownie points with God. Then again, once you get into the kingdom by grace, you can’t pretend that living a moral life doesn’t matter, either. The righteousness of which Jesus is speaking in Matthew 5 is both gift and demand, both God’s grace and our responsibility.
The Law, Jesus says, is not quite what the Pharisees have taught you, but it’s not unimportant, either. In fact, the Law is beautiful. It shows you how God set up the cosmos. The Law is the blueprint for happy living in creation. “The Law,” Jesus says, “is terrific and I’m here to make it full and rich and complete. I’m here to reclaim this universe for God and so, naturally, I’m here to point to the Law as the best way to get on in God’s good world.” So you can’t get into the kingdom by your own sweat, but once you are in by grace, the Law gains a new urgency. Of course, Jesus admits, people follow the Law to varying degrees of success. Those who do less well will be called “least” those who do better will be called “great.” But did you notice that the least and the great are both “in the kingdom of heaven”? That was Jesus’ subtle way of reminding his listeners that being in or out of the kingdom is not a matter of moral merit points.
Leave it to Jesus to find a way to talk about even the self-righteous Pharisees and still manage to turn everything in the direction of grace alone!
A while back someone asked the preacher and writer Eugene Peterson what he would say if he were writing what he knew would be his very last sermon. He replied, “I think I would want to talk about things that are immediate and ordinary. In the kind of world we live in, the primary way that I can get people to be aware of God is to say, ‘Who are you going to have breakfast with tomorrow, and how are you going to treat that person?'”
Peterson suggests we need to stop thinking that being a Christian means always being part of only obvious religious contexts. We just need to pay attention to what the people around us are doing most every day and then help them do it in ways that glorify God. “In my last sermon, I guess I’d want to say, ‘Go home and be good to your spouse. Treat your children with respect. Do a good job at work.” We need to be salt in the real world, and that involves genuinely being with real people, listening to them well, and treating them as the little images of God they all are.
Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12)
Author: Doug Bratt
God expects our lifestyle to reflect our worship. That is to say, God’s not pleased when God’s children act one way on Sunday, but quite a different way during the rest of the week.
Isaiah 58 oozes frustration. Clearly Israel is frustrated. After all, she assumes that she takes God very seriously. Israel claims to “seek out” the Lord, because she believes she’s eager to know “his ways.” Israel even insists that she asks God for direction and answers. In fact, she complains to God, she takes God so seriously that she worships God exactly as God commanded, with fasting.
Fasting was an integral part of Israel’s worship on the Day of Atonement. However, passages from Zechariah show that Israelites also fasted on other days, particularly after they returned from exile. Such regular fasting, Israel maintained, showed that she took God and God’s will very seriously.
While relatively few of us fast for religious purposes, Israel’s claims have implications for God’s 21st century sons and daughters. After all, you and I too generally claim to take God seriously. We too believe we seek out the Lord because we want to know God’s ways for our lives. You and I also try to faithfully worship the Lord in ways that God commands.
Israel’s is frustrated because God seems to take no notice of how faithfully she worships the Lord. “Why have we fasted,” she asks the Lord in verse 3, “and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?”
That suggests that Israel believes that if she just does the right “religious” things, God should help her. She believes that if she just worships the Lord in the right way, God should take notice and act accordingly. However, Israel complains, God seems to completely ignore her humble obedience.
Those whom we teach and to whom we preach may feel the same way. Look, God, we may at least want to say, “I go to church almost every Sunday. I put money in the collection plate every week. I even teach and preach in church. So why don’t you notice me? Why don’t you help me out more?
I’m glad I’m not like those adulterers and swindlers, those gossips and terrorists. But it’s not easy. I must, after all, resist much pressure to disobey you, Lord. So shouldn’t that be worth my while? Why don’t you seem to care that I’m such a nice person I am, Lord? Why don’t you somehow reward me for being such a good person?”
God doesn’t tell Israel, “You should just fast anyway, no matter what the result, because it pleases me.” In fact, later God seems to suggest that God graciously rewards righteous living. Instead of challenging this “reward” system, God shows God’s frustration by challenging Israel’s morality.
After all, while verse 2 suggests she thinks she’s “a nation that does what is right,” actually, God declares in verse 1, Israel is rebellious. While Israel claims to follow God’s commands, in reality, God insists in verse 1, Israel sins against God.
So while Israel claims to worship God by fasting, God insists she’s actually just going through the religious motions. In other words, as J. Clinton Mc Gann writes, Israel’s “liturgy and lifestyle do not cohere.” Her worship and witness don’t match. In fact, they actually conflict with each other.
For Israel has combined worship with her own rather than God’s pleasure. How does she show that? Isaiah’s answer is long and, to thoughtful Christians, not a little troubling. The prophet reports that even on the very days they worship God by fasting, Israelites exploit their employees and quarrel with each other. They believe they can worship God and then turn right around to be selfish toward each other.
As Isaiah 58’s preachers and teachers consider the modern implications of verses 3a and 4, they might ask their hearers and themselves how we go home from our own worship services. Do we somehow contradict what we’ve just sung, prayed and heard? As Nick Wolterstorff has written, we sing and talk about God’s holiness in church. But do we reflect that holiness out there?
How often, for instance, do argue with each other or criticize someone right after we leave church? How quickly do we spend at least part of Sunday pointing fingers at rather than building up people? What does that say about our hearts that were just turned toward God but now so quickly turn on people?
Verses 6 and following remind us that God most pleased with lives that mirror our worship. So, as one scholar notes, Isaiah parades a variety of vulnerable people before us in our text. He shows us the disenfranchised, those who are down and out, slaves, the hungry, the homeless and the cold.
Isaiah reminds us that those who “fast” in ways that are acceptable to the Lord don’t turn our backs on these vulnerable people. We don’t ignore what the prophet refers to in verse 7 as “our own flesh and blood.” Instead we actively oppose injustice where we see it and work to free people from oppressive systems. Christians work to ensure that everyone has adequate housing and proper clothing.
That’s why we thank God for opportunities to minister in our communities and neighborhoods. That’s also why we thank God for opportunities to work for reconciliation in our workplaces and around the world. Yet verse 7 also reminds us that we perhaps especially “fast” by sharing our food with the hungry. You and I, in Isaiah’s words in verse 10, fast by spending ourselves on behalf of the hungry.
In some ways, of course, it would be easier to “fast” by just giving up food for a day or two. World hunger is, after all, staggering. Bread for the World says that 840 million people, that is, about three times the number of North Americans, are malnourished. So how can we fast by sharing our food with that many hungry people?
As of January 2002, more than a billion people had no access to sanitary drinking water. Roughly 25,000 people, about the equivalent of a population of a mid-sized American city, died each day of from hunger or causes related to hunger. How, then, can we fast by spending ourselves on behalf of that many thirsty and starving people?
There are even a stunning number of malnourished people in wealthy North America. Bread for the World says that an average of 31 million Americans, 12 million of whom are children, live daily without enough food. Some Americans work full-time at low-skill jobs, but don’t make enough money to provide enough food, medical access and clothing for their families. How, then, can we really spend ourselves on behalf of that many hungry North Americans, most of whom we never see?
When you and I share our food, we do more than to just feed hungry people. For Isaiah, in verse 10, insists that our “light will [then] rise in the darkness.” When we spend ourselves on behalf of hungry people, our night, according to the prophet in verse 11, “will become like noonday.”
Once you and I walked in the spiritual darkness that is rebellion against God. Now, however, by God Word and Spirit, God has shone God light in our hearts and lives. The Lord has graciously brought us to himself, giving us the gift of faith by which we receive God’s amazing grace.
Now God wants you and me to respond by reflecting God’s light in the spiritually dark world around us. In verses 9 and 10 Isaiah insists that when we do things like fight world hunger, we not only feed people, but we also point them to God.
That’s vitally important because the Lord not only wants to feed them physically, but also spiritually. God doesn’t want to just feed hungry people Wonder Bread, but also Jesus, the Bread of life. For God knows that when people receive Jesus with their faith, they’ll never really hunger again.
Those who preach and teach on Isaiah 58 will want to look for examples of God’s people’s work of feeding the hungry through their own denomination or an organization with which they’re familiar. One example of such work is that being done by the Christian Reformed Church’s World Renew ministry in places like Mozambique.
Mozambique’s population is growing at an annual rate of about 2.5%. That places a huge strain on the country’s resources that can’t meet that increase in demand. So World Renew is partnering with the Canadian government to share existing and appropriate agricultural technologies that increase food production. They’re also working to improve water use.
Says Sofia Zoconi, “We started the community garden in August 2016 with 10 members—six men and four women. Our main motivation was to see how much we could achieve working together as a group sharing experience and knowledge.
Now we are able to work bigger fields in less time, increasing the amount of time we can use to take care of our families and improve our family nutrition. We are also making some economic gains, which are used mostly to invest in the savings groups and start other small businesses.
This project has made our work as women much easier, since crop irrigating is considered a women’s activity. With the treadle [water] pumps we managed to increase the land area under irrigation; we reduced work time (as well as work strain) in comparison with bucket irrigation; and our fully irrigated fields yielded improved crop quality.”
Author: Stan Mast
Well, they did it again. I mean the compilers of the lectionary. For the second week in a row, the lectionary returns to a Psalm that we studied less than half a year ago. I know, I’m beginning to sound like one of those “grumpy old men” who complain about everything. But, really, with 150 Psalms to consider, some of them long enough to warrant several weeks of study, why should we recycle so often and so soon? For my earlier and more exhaustive comments on Psalm 112, see the August 22, 2016, entry on the “Sermon Starter Archive” section of the website for the Center for Excellence in Preaching.
When I stop being critical, I can see a bit of wisdom in repeating a reading so often and so soon. It teaches us that there is always more in a text than we saw the first time. Over 45 years of preaching, I often discovered that I preached a very different sermon on the same text because so much had changed in the world and the church and in me. Though the Word didn’t change, I saw new things in it and preached the gospel in a fresh way even though I used the same text. So, here are some comments I didn’t make last August because I didn’t see Psalm 112 this way then.
First, Psalm 112 is what Walter Brueggemann calls a Psalm of Orientation, a Psalm in which everything is the way it should be in a world ruled by a just and righteous God. The righteous prosper, their children flourish, and the wicked waste away and come to nothing. That’s the way it’s supposed to be, the way all the righteous wish it were.
But life isn’t always the way it’s supposed to be. Sometimes the orientation to the world described in Psalm 112 is shattered by trouble that disorients us. As in Psalm 73, the righteous suffer, the wicked prosper, and the faith of the righteous is deeply shaken. The Psalter is filled with Psalms of Disorientation which express with great pain and sorrow what it’s like to live in a world where things are not the way they are supposed to be.
And then there are Psalms of Re-orientation, in which the Psalmist comes to a more mature and realistic faith in God, one that takes account of both God’s faithful love and the rough edges of life in a fallen world. Rather than losing faith because of trials, the righteous see the world and God more clearly.
Brueggemann’s scheme of Orientation, Disorientation, and Re-Orientation is a very helpful way to make sense of the many voice we hear in the Psalter. Like any attempt to explain the complex messiness of life, it may not explain everything with equal clarity, and his scheme may force an occasional Psalm into a mold it doesn’t fit. But as a way of making sense of the Psalms and life, it is very helpful. The Psalms are so varied precisely because they represent the wildly different experiences of God’s people as they try to trust and obey their sovereign Lord.
Psalm 112 gives voice to the (hopefully) many children of God who are celebrating the goodness of life under God. They are blessed and they know it. They fear God and God has blessed them abundantly. You can preach it that way, as a call to thanksgiving and as an encouragement to keep pursuing righteousness.
But when you preach such a sunny message, you must remember that some in your congregation are living in the midst of shattering disorientation. They will hear your sermon with great skepticism because Psalm 112 does not describe their lives, even though they have tried their best to be righteous. Others in your congregation will smile happily at your sunny exposition, but tomorrow the sun will stop shining for them, when the doctor gives them that diagnosis or their spouse suddenly dies or the stock market drops 20%. As you preach on Psalm 112, you must take account of these people, too.
One way to do that is to give the counter-example of Job. There was a man who could have written Psalm 112. Life was ridiculously good. Job was ridiculously good. Even God pointed out his goodness, though the Devil claimed that Job was good only because God had blessed him so much. To prove the Devil wrong, God removed his “fence” and let the Devil have his way with Job. Everything came crashing down. He suffered the kind of disorienting disasters that would cause most people to “curse God and die.” But Job was persistent– beat up, bitter, and belligerent, but still a believer. He argued ferociously with his friends and even dared to call God on the carpet. But he didn’t follow the counsel of his well-meaning wife.
Then, in the end, God answered all his questions, not with a rational explanation of what had happened to him, but with a personal appearance, a once-in-a-lifetime theophany. And Job arrived at a newly re-oriented faith. “My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” But that’s not the end of the story, because that’s not what God wanted for Job in the end. As at the beginning, God wanted to bless this man. In the end, God blessed him in such an abundant way that Job could have written Psalm 112 all over again in capital letters. He was once again “blessed.”
So, if you’re going to preach on Psalm 112, be sure to preach to those who shiver in the shadows as well as to those who bask in the sunlight. And don’t forget to preach Christ. His life followed the Orientation, Disorientation, Re-orientation pattern. From the perfection of heaven and his early life where he knew exactly what his life was about (“I must be about my Father’s business”) to the suffering of rejection and the agony of the cross (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) to his glorious resurrection and re-coronation in heaven as the Lord of all, Jesus experienced all the chapters of our lives. As we preach Psalm 112, let’s be sure to remind folks that we have a sympathetic high priest who “had to be made like us in every way.” “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” (Hebrews 2:17, 18)
One more note on preaching this Psalm. Be sure you highlight what a righteous life looks like to God. The righteousness that God blesses is not an uptight, tight fisted, grim lipped, rules oriented life. It is open handed, delightfully joyful, wildly generous, people oriented life. God gives us all the blessings of family and fortune not so that we can simply enjoy the blessings and thank God profusely, but also so that we can share our blessings with the poor. A righteous person is “gracious and compassionate.” She is “generous and lends freely.” He even “scatters abroad his gifts to the poor.” Such a person is truly just, and that’s what counts to God.
Indeed, such a person will ultimately be impervious to the disorienting disasters of life, because her security is not based on those blessings. Even though the sun doesn’t shine for a while, “even in the darkness light dawns for the upright.” Even when the foundations of his fortune and his family are shaken, “surely he will never be shaken.” Even when the headlines are filled with bad news, “he will have no fear of bad news….” Such a person holds her power and prosperity loosely because she holds her God so tightly. “[H]is heart is steadfast, trusting in the Lord. His heart is secure, he will have no fear; in the end he will look in triumph on his foes.”
All of which is to say, if you preach on Psalm 112, let your final focus be on faith. Don’t trust the blessings; trust the One who blesses. Don’t focus on the good life; focus on the goodness of the God who gives that life, and sometimes takes it away. That’s the ultimate re-orientation to which Psalm 112 points us. Just before he died, Jesus said, “In the world you will have trouble. But take heart. I have overcome the world (John 16:33).”
In the Presidential election, President Trump promised to “make America great again.” Clearly that resonated with many people. Who doesn’t want to live in a great nation? But Psalm 112 suggests none-too-subtly that greatness is to be measured not in how much we have but in what we give away. In God’s eyes, a nation’s (and a person’s) greatness is not counted in the currency of power and prosperity, but in the currency of compassion and generosity. In the language of Psalm 112:9, the person who resists the temptation to put himself first and instead puts others first will find that “his horn will be lifted high in honor.”
1 Corinthians 2:1-12 (13-16)
Author: Scott Hoezee
Already on the first pages of J.K. Rowling’s first “Harry Potter” book we knew she was going to come up with a whole little universe of wild and funny things. The first such gadget we encounter is Dumbledore’s “deluminator.” It was the opposite of a cigarette lighter—you did not use the deluminator to light a candle but to snatch the flame from a burning candle and put it out. The device could similarly snatch the light from already lit street lights and table lamps, storing the energy inside the deluminator until you decided to put it back. Clever. (Most of us who were pre-reading that first book before allowing our kids to read them were hooked from the deluminator forward!)
Another wonderful bit of intrigue is the Hogwarts Castle and its “Room of Requirement.” This was a real—and very large—room that did not appear on any castle maps, had no entry or exit door anyone could ordinarily see. It was said to be the repository of many mystical objects (and a few dangerous one). It was an assemblage of vast secrets—the place where all things were hidden. But getting into the room was itself a trick. You had to sort of believe in the room and wish your way inside. And there was a standard way to refer to how to find and get into the Room of Requirement and it went like this:
“If you have to ask, you will never know. If you know, you need only ask.”
That pretty well sums up 1 Corinthians 2 as well.
Paul rounded out the first chapter of this letter with a meditation on the glorious mystery that is the cross of Christ. The cross turns everything on its head in this world. Its weakness is true power, its apparent failure is galactic success, its utter folly as a source of hope is nothing short of the truest wisdom of God for all hope and new life. Now as Paul turns the corner into what we call the second chapter, he reflects on the message about all this mystery that he preached when he first came to Corinth years before. The message was something straight out of anything and everything the rest of society (then and now) would label as a non-starter, as foolishness, as a formula for going exactly nowhere in life.
“I came to you determined to know only Christ and him crucified” Paul writes. Think about that: that is ALL Paul wanted to know about. That was the full content of his mind and heart. If he knew that, he knew it all. If he could get others to know that and understand what that cross of Jesus means, they would know all they’d ever finally need to understand for eternal life, too. It was at once that simple and that complicated. Paul was an unapologetic one-trick pony if ever there were one. He was all one note. He sold exactly one flavor of ice cream.
But simple and consistent though his message was, it was no cinch for people to grasp it. It required a whole new set of mental software and only the Holy Spirit of God was capable of installing the necessary program components. Once this gift of faith is received and duly installed, everything would become clear. The apparent foolishness of the cross would become the wisdom of God, the dead-end nature of the proclamation would become the gateway to life. But it was going to require a whole new way of thinking to get one’s mind around this. Because it is finally a very great mystery.
But a true mystery can never be explained. That’s part of a mystery’s charm! If you could explain it, break it down into bite-sized pieces, square everything at the corners or tie off every loose end, it would not be a mystery. It might be a math problem. It might be a recipe for the best chocolate soufflé ever. But if you can reduce it, explain it, break it up into logical component parts, then it’s not a mystery.
When it’s a mystery, the most you can say at the end of the day is something like “I don’t know how or why it works but it does.” Science hates mysteries. Hardcore scientists insist they can—sooner or later—explain everything, even love. They are probably wrong about that and what they are even more profoundly wrong about is the idea that everybody wants something like love explained and broken down into so many neural transmitters, electrical flashes, and enzymes. What is love? Well, if you have to ask, you’ll never know. And if you know, you need only ask. To coin a phrase.
What we believe as Christians about how we get saved through a death on a cross of all things is a mystery like that. Now, we can wield this fact arrogantly, turning our noses up at unbelievers and taunting them with some version of the playground chant “We know something you don’t know!” But that’s hardly Christ-like. All we can do is bear humble witness to the fact that we cannot really tell you, either, why we believe in the Gospel as ardently as we do. It’s a mystery to us, too. And it’s all frankly a little crazy and far-fetched. We know that. But we also know and believe its truth in a way we can but pray will come to more and more people through our loving witness.
“We have the mind of Christ” Paul writes at the end of 1 Corinthians 2. That’s a, no pun intended, mind-blowing claim. But so it is. We have been grafted into Christ and now share his life and his very mind. We didn’t do that. We didn’t earn that. It was a sheer gift. That is what we know for sure. But unlike the Room of Requirement, in this case if you do not know, you still need only ask and the Spirit of God may lavish you, too, with the knowledge of the mystery that had been kept hidden for ages past but is now revealed to us. Thanks be to God!
From Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC. San Francisco: Harper & Row 1973, p. 64.
“There are mysteries which you can solve by taking thought. For instance, a murder-mystery whose mysteriousness must be dispelled in order for the truth to be known. There are other mysteries which do not conceal a truth to think your way to but whose truth is itself the mystery. The mystery of your self, for instance. The more you try to fathom it, the more fathomless it is revealed to be. No matter how much of your self you are able to objectify and examine, the quintessential living part of yourself will always elude you; i.e., the part that is conducting the examination. Thus you do not solve the mystery, you live the mystery. And you do that not by fully knowing yourself but by fully being yourself.
To say that God is a mystery is to say that you can never nail him down. Even on Christ the nails proved ultimately ineffective.”