For the vast majority of us here today, our understanding of the term mystery and of how mysteries take shape in everyday life is informed in large part by the books that we read and the shows that we have watched from early childhood and which we continue to enjoy well into our adult years. Be it the Bobbsey Twins, Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Scooby Doo and the Mystery Machine, Harry Potter or Harriett the Spy from childhood; John Grisham, Father Brown, Perry Mason or Stranger Things for adults a similar idea emerges. Mysteries are only momentary. Eventually, and in due time, they are always untangled, resolved and logically explained.
This way of thinking about the term and idea of mystery is easily imported into the way that we approach mysteries connected to God, our faith and the unknowns in the spiritual life. We convince ourselves that they are momentary, solvable and that eventually all of them with be resolved and logically explained.
Occasionally, this is what happens. From time to time as we learn more, probe scripture further or experience more of life there are mysteries of the faith that do begin to resolve themselves. In fact, just this past week, I was reading about how Biblical archeologists, historians and experts on the New Testament have learned an amazing amount in the last 75 years about a small group mentioned several times in the gospels called the Essenes. Learning about the Essenes has led many to conclude that John the Baptist may have been from the Essenes community. This information has helped unlock the mystery of who John the Baptist was, where he came from and perhaps solves some of the questions around the unusual way he is described in the New Testament. (Gleaned from The Jesus Way by Eugene Peterson)
But, more times than not, the term mystery from a Biblical, spiritual and faith point of view is a very different concept. It is a way of describing that which in this life we will never understand, never figure out, never completely wrap our arms around. For our faith to mature, we must become comfortable with this way of thinking about mystery, faith and God. For, and listen to me carefully hear, to continue to make God and faith a puzzle that we must solve at all costs will be to diminish God and to live a frustrating life of faith.
Habakkuk, yet another one of these little, forgotten books and figures from the later Old Testament gives a person and an experience to this reality.
Habakkuk writes at the point in which the Southern Kingdom or southern portion of Israel also called Judah is on the verge of being taken over by the Babylonians. Habakkuk, with honest words, struggles to get his mind around this reality. What is interesting is what gives him so much trouble. Habakkuk isn’t necessarily troubled mainly by the fact that judgment is coming on he and his fellow Israelites. He seems to understand that they have failed to live up to God’s expectations and that this fragmenting of their culture and cities is the natural consequences of their own decisions and actions.
However, what Habakkuk cannot get his arms around is the method that God plans to use. God will not use a God fearing, ethical people to judge the Southern Kingdom. God will use a pagan, blood thirsty people in the Babylonians. Habakkuk gives voice to the fact that as bad as the Israelites are, the Babylonians are far worse and so why on earth would God use them to carry out God’s work? Why would God apparently allow the Babylonian Kingdom to grow on the back of and at the expense of the Israelites? It makes no sense to Habakkuk. It is a mystery of God that literally stops him in his tracks. In fact, he says that he will go and sit in a watchtower with the night watchmen and wait for God to answer. It should also be said that while this is Habakkuk’s main issue, there are other subsequent smaller struggles that he also alludes to in these three short chapters too. When will God’s judgement come? If God is going to use the Babylonians? When will God judge the evil Babylonians too? And, when and how will God put Israel back on its feet after this time of humbling and failure?
Even though Habakkuk’s name and situation may be fairly unknown to us, we are a lot like him. We have similar questions. Lord, why do I have this disease? I am not perfect, but, I am not as bad as others who seem to have excellent health. God, what is fair in all of this?
Or, God why are you ignoring me and not giving me a timeline for making things better in this time of financial crisis? Or, God when will you ease this turmoil in our family? Or, God when will the pain and grief that I feel in my time of loss go away?
Again, Habakkuk’s questions are our questions and while like him we sometimes hear a response of some type from the movement of God’s spirit in our lives, through the reading of scripture, through the wisdom of a trusted fellow believer or through a clarifying moment in worship, we rarely if ever get a straightforward, clear cut response. Like Habakkuk, we can find ourselves sitting in the watch tower waiting for the crystal clear response that never fully comes.
In turn, I think there are a few things we must say.
First, unsolved mysteries are simply a natural part of relationship with God. In fact, this is what makes God, God. The very notion of God is of the supreme being that we as humans can’t and never will fully understand, thus God.
Second, if we do not learn to live with God’s mysteries, we will run the risk of putting words in God’s mouth. Hear me clearly at this point. There are always going to be those in our midst who will unlock all of God’s riddles for us. If we must find an answer, we will often find an answer and often one of our making and not Gods. The list is long of those who claim God has said things or given a definitive answer on every mystery in their lives. Yet, there are few, if any, Biblical passages to support this. Many major Biblical figures speak of unknown elements of God in this life. Do you remember Paul’s famous words, “now we see through a mirror dimly…”? (I Corinthaisn 13:12)
Third, to live with mysteries is to also at the same time learn to live with faith. Faith as scripture teaches is “the belief in things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1) which is to say it is a trust in God and a belief that God is ultimately working for our good even when we don’t see it, when we can’t feel it and when we can’t explain it. This is ultimately where Habakkuk lands. The ending of the book at the very end of chapter three, which we read earlier is such a beautiful example. Habakkuk ends by saying even though everything around me says otherwise, I have staked my life on God as a good God who works on my behalf as God’s child. Thus, I will trust in God even though I cannot explain what is going on, even though I have questions and even when there is no evidence to back up my trust.
Truth be told, we do a lot of this. In fact, we do it every day. I carry a set of car keys to my car in my pocket virtually every day. And, I regularly, through these keys, put blind faith to work. I am not a scientific person and I am not a mechanic. I cannot explain how a car works. I have more questions about how it works than answers. I am amazed based on the speeds that we drive and the lack of attention we really pay to what we are doing that more folks are not killed every day on the road than are. Yet, almost every day, I trust what others before me and what my own life has taught me which is that my car will get me where I need to go and usually that it will do so safely. It is beyond my comprehension and yet I am compelled to trust in spite of what my own mind would suggest. In fact, if I were to wait to drive again until it all makes sense, until I can all work it out and until all of the mysteries of travel by car are satisfied, I will be sitting right here for a long, long time.
It is an over simplification I know, but, in essence God works the same way. Every day we have the same chance to put that similar trust, that faith into action. Amen.