A sermon based on Jeremiah 23:1-8 and Ephesians 3:1-13 preached on June 25th, 2017
“It’s all a mystery,” we say.
“Everyone likes a good mystery.” We say that, too.
“I think the butler did it,” one says.
“No way!” says another, “It’s the cook in the kitchen. She’s the one with all the knives!”
Most mysteries can be solved. All we need is time and a bit of detective work. Some snooping around.
Most are solved within the sixty minutes of a TV show. Before we get to the bottom of our gigantic bucket of popcorn in a movie theater. By the last page of a book.
Most things we call “mysteries” simply take careful discernment. The combing over of evidence left behind or gathered together. Facts will be collected. Lies will be dispelled. Stories will be set straight. Fingerprints will be lifted, but the truth will be reached. Solving these sorts of mysteries is not only possible but likely. Most times, we can be confident that with the right help we’ll figure it all out. It might take a while, but we’ll get there.
Then there are those mysteries without end. The ones that cannot, by definition or essence, be sorted through. Mysteries without answers. These sorts of mysteries are not the kind we solve. They’re the kind we live. Fathomless. Their very incomprehension is the thing that draws us in.
Some mysteries are meant to be immersed inside of, rather than figured out, enjoyed instead of scrutinized. The miracle of birth. The ways of the human brain or heart. What the soul is and what it is made of and where it resides. Why ice cream tastes so good.
Some things are best left unscrutinized. Untouched. It’s best to hold them up—behold them—lose ourselves inside of. Wonder about. And getting to the bottom of them, if we ever tried, would drain the beauty, the sensation, the miracle out of them. This is the type of mystery Paul mentions in these verses.
In English, the word mystery means “dark,” “obscure,” secretive,” “puzzling.” But in Paul’s language, Greek, the word mystery is used to talk about a truth into which someone is initiated. It’s God-language. Jesus-language. Mystery is what we’re invited into. Led to see. Become included in. Grow eyes for.
And we’re not brought in, as investigators are, in order to figure it out. No, we are brought into mystery in order to live our lives inside of it. Traverse it. Explore all its parts. Enjoy its landscape. Have our eyes opened further the deeper we go.
Paul is under house arrest. There areRoman guards standing at his front door 24/7. He has not a window to look out of. In ancient times, only the rich had windows. Paul was not of the lackadaisical sort. One could make an argument that by this time, he had logged more miles than Caesar. He was no homebody. We can easily imagine Paul restless as he wrote this letter to the church in Ephesus while under the custody of Rome.
If you want to get into technicalities, Paul was a prisoner of Nero, the Roman Emporer from 54 to 68 AD. Nero was ruthless. He had it out for Christians. Nero considered this small group of believers a great threat to his power. Nero was the one who fed Christians to lions inside of Roman colosseums. But as Paul gets personal here in this passage, explaining his current situation as a prisoner under house arrest, nowhere do we find the name Nero. Paul refuses to use it. As he saw it, No Nero, no Caesar had the final say about him. Only Jesus did.
Throughout his letters, Paul refers to himself as a prisoner of Jesus, because Jesus was the only one he belonged to. Paul was evidently a tiny man. Small in stature and in voice, but he was large in spirit. Imprisoned often, there was no containing him. His essence belonged and resided in the wide open and hope-filled landscapes of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
That was the only way he allowed himself or others to define him. A prisoner of Jesus Christ. In this way, though often bound in chains, Paul was nonetheless free. That frustrated his captors to no end.
This vast and wide-open mystery is ours, too. This Jesus-life. This boundless, eternal purpose. We have been invited into it. We have been let in on it. Some still, small voice has whispered something into our ears, and we woke up. This mystery is too big for us to handle. No mind or heart can fathom it. No fence can hold it in or keep it out. This is a revelation that includes us and all who hear it.
There’s no room for barriers or boundaries here. This mystery is like a treasure each and every one of us is invited into. A mystery as big as the cosmos. There’s room here for all of us. No matter what room he was quarantined inside of, jail cell he was thrown into, Paul never felt cut off from it, alone, hopeless, anxious, forgotten. And the same should be true of us, too. Despite our current circumstances, we are a part of an eternal purpose, heirs together, in on a mystery and a promise together, members together, sharers together. In Christ Jesus, we are together, together, together.
Paul knew why the caged bird sings. That’s an image given to us by the poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar. It’s from a poem called Sympathy.
I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—
I know what the caged bird feels!
I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting—
I know why he beats his wing!
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
I know why the caged bird sings!
Source: Twentieth-Century American Poetry (2004)
Never alone. Always connected. Always together.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. We are made in the the image of God, after all. God is, in Himself, community. That’s another mystery we’ve been invited into. The mystery of the Truine God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It’s hinted at but left unnamed in these verses. Verse 6: Together, together, together. Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Holy, holy, holy! Trinity. This is who God is. Not one or the other at different times in different places, but always and everywhere one. Don’t ask me to explain it.
There are many things I can’t explain. The list is too exhaustive to read off right now, but here are the first to come to mind: The art of Salvador Dali. The reason why The Bachelor is still on the air. Why people suffer and good men die too soon.
There are many things we simply must wonder about. Including this one. God is one. God is three. Both at the same time. Not one of these—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—are ever separate from one another. This too is a mystery not for us to solve. That’s been tried before to no avail. It is one to hold onto, be invited inside of. This is a holy mystery, so it’s not the sort we gaze at with our head cocked to the side and with sqinty eyes. It’s not the kind where we throw up our hands and say, “I don’t get it—the numbers just don’t add up!”
The Triune God is the sort of mystery in whose presence we lift up our hands in praise. With awe and reverence, we give ourselves to it. God is a mystery we participate in. Trinity is a way of God revealing Himself to us that says,
You cannot know Me as some impersonal abstraction, as some nameless force, some warm and fuzzy thought, some new age aura swirling around, so don’t even try! Neither can you reduce Me to something you use, or understand, or need for your own bidding, on your terms.
God refuses that, too. Trinity says that God will not and cannot be known on our own. Under your own power, or mine. With our own wits. Solitary isolation is forbidden. The Truine God, the Holy, Holy, Holy, Himself lives in community. So, we, who are created in His image do not try to live on our own. In so doing, we will destroy ourselves. We will uncreate ourselves. Unravel.
The manifold wisdom of God plays out when we are together, together, together.
So, it’s not a stretch for Paul to declare that of course the Gentiles, those who for centuries upon centuries have been understood as not a part, not a people, have always belonged. This isn’t God doing something new, re-drawing the circle wider. This is God’s people realizing that God’s love for every bit of His creation has always been this big. So, of course, come in! You are a part. We are a part. In fact, we’re all nothing if we’re not a part! We all have always been a part. Sorry it took so long for us to realize this about you, O God, O neighbor, O stranger! But, now we know.
Isn’t that how it has always worked, friends? History is full of moments when suddenly we are let in on the truth that is always been right in front of us. We only needed to grow eyes big enough to see it. The mystery is no secret. It’s God grace for God’s creatures.Each one of us, each one of them, loved beyond reason. Until love is enough to get rid of those words: Us and Them.
Then, all of us will be able to see one another for exactly what we are: each one of us heirs together, members together, sharers together. Together, together, together. What a marvelous plan! Holy, holy, holy!
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!