(Message given December 9, 2018 at Newberg Emerging Friends Church)
The mystery of Christmas.
It’s something we hear a lot about at this time of year, held out there for us as part of the magic we might be missing in the bustle. Embrace the mystery!
What exactly do “they” mean when “they” say that? Probably not the “Twelve Slays of Christmas…”
…or “Murder for Christmas”.
Nope, I’m guessing the magical “mystery” of Christmas is probably summed up best like this:
Now, far be it from me to argue with “them” or especially with Amy “She-Who-Is-Christmas” Grant, but…
Look, speaking as the self-proclaimed expert on Christmas nostalgia, I gotta say: what’s with the big focus on mystery at Christmas? What I love about Christmas is the traditions, the patterns, the nostalgia, the doing it all the same way! There are no SURPRISES.
That’s why I can listen to the Ray Conniff Singers at Christmas time, because it reminds me of Christmases I knew growing up. That’s why I inflict Steven Curtis Chapman and Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith on my family every year, because they are FAMILIAR! Not because they are a mystery.
And if we think about the story itself: I mean, come on, where is there mystery? We know the plot by this point, am I right? My non-faith friends at work know the plot. Why the word mystery at Christmas? It’s not about surprises, it’s about the tried and true, the known and familiar…right?
What if I told you…and lean close, that’s the cue that I’m putting on my movie trailer announcer voice and am about to say something super obvious…
What if I told you…you can have your known and familiar and nostalgic Christmas AND you can embrace the mystery? What if I told you…mystery, in the biblical sense, in the wonderful sense…isn’t really about SURPRISE at all! (At least not at this point in history.)
Mystery IS a wonderful word to noodle around in our minds at Christmas, to help us delve into a meaningful experience which goes even beyond my love for nostalgia. I love that I was assigned this word as something to explore tonight, because Christmas mystery is both something revealed in the past, and something that invites us infinitely into the future.
But first…we need to untangle ourselves a bit from some of the layers of the word “mystery”.
I grew up with one of the great mystery solvers in history very much in the forefront of my mind.
Scooby Doo! The Mystery Machine! Every single episode, “those meddling kids” followed the clues and solved the mystery. I was taught that’s what mysteries are–mysteries are things to be solved. Figured out. Sleuthed.
It’s strong in our British and American literature. Those great mystery writers, Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers to name two, who created Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple and Lord Peter Wimsey…they have woven their way into our national consciousness.
Not to mention Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his creation of Sherlock Holmes, a detective who keeps appearing in adaptation after adaptation.
In all of these, we learn that in the face of a mystery, you look for information. It’s cerebral, an intellectual exercise. It’s deduction. If you find enough of the pieces, you can put it all together in a satisfying answer that brings closure for everyone.
I think a lot of us have that idea in mind as we hear “mystery” today in our world.
But biblically, the Greek word “musterion” is quite a bit different. We get our English word mystery directly from the Greek “musterion”, not as a translation, but simply by transliterating the letters. We took the word, but we’ve changed the meaning.
In the bible, “musterion” is a secret…a Divine secret. It is a secret that cannot be figured out or deduced or known by human beings. It’s a Divine secret that must be revealed by God, because it is so far out of realm of conception, so far out of the bounds of how the world functions. It’s beyond deduction.
The great thing is, God LOVES being a revealer of mysteries! Mystery in this sense is like the glee felt when hosting a party, where you’ve given thought and time and attention to every detail, and have some special element that each guest will love. You can’t WAIT to get to the day and reveal the mystery of all that you’ve prepared to honor and celebrate each person at the party!
Biblical mystery, Divine mystery, Christmas mystery is just this: God having a plan to show love and care in a way that no one could possibly have guessed; and the joy of revealing the ever-deepening layers of this well-prepared secret!
You see this through the references to mystery in the New Testament.
1 Corinthians 2:7: “No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began.” God’s had this planned for our good for a long time!
What is the mystery? Well, it’s several things, actually. God has a lot of good things planned for us! But first and foremost, Colossians 2:2 lays it out: “…in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ…”
The most profound mystery, the most powerful and essential Divine secret revealed for our love and care, is Jesus himself…God laying aside power and majesty, identifying with humanity, in the most humble way. Jesus taking on brown, marginalized flesh. God forever joining God’s self to humanity and to this infuriatingly unjust and oppressive world.
As confusing as I pretended it was for me at the start of this message, this is exactly why it is right for Christmas to be associated with mystery.
So the Incarnation is the central mystery, the essential secret revealed to the world for our redemption.
But as I said, like a deliciously inventive and creative author, God has more secrets and plot twists to delightfully reveal. Just when the Jewish people started to get their head around the incarnation, here came another mystery, in Ephesians 3:6: “The mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.”
That’s one they couldn’t deduce! That’s one they fought and wrestled with for awhile, and it needed a lot of Spirit work and revelation for everybody to grasp and accept it. Jesus becoming a Jewish baby didn’t make them exclusive winners. The Incarnation is humanity’s mystery to share-it’s for everyone!
And then another delicious plot twist, as the mystery deepens even more, as a more complete plan was revealed. Ephesians 1:8b-10: “With all wisdom and understanding, God made known to us the mystery of God’s will according to God’s good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment.”
What is this mystery? “To bring unity to ALL things in heaven and on earth under Christ.”
Not just the people group Jesus was born into.
Not just the Gentiles, not just all humanity. But EVERYTHING. Jesus becoming human is transforming and bringing unity to EVERYTHING. All things in heaven and on earth. All of creation. All of the spiritual realm. All the powers that seem at war with each other, destructive to humanity and creation, EVERYTHING is going to be brought into proper alignment and unity by Jesus.
This is the far reaching power of this mystery which God has revealed! This is the glory of God’s plan from before creation.
This is our bright and shining hope in a dim and dark existence; a divine secret and a cosmic hope that keeps finding new layers of depth as time passes on.
From the cosmic stretch which includes everything in the universe, all the way to the intimate personal connection with us…this mystery knows no bounds.
Colossians 1:27: “God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”
Christ in you! Not only joining in solidarity with marginalized people long ago. Not only spreading beyond Israel to all of humanity. Not only coming against cosmic spiritual darkness and bringing all of creation and heaven and humanity into unity with Jesus.
Christ in you. Christ with you. Christ living, breathing, surrounding, healing, empowering, encouraging, convicting, forgiving, and leading…in you!
Some would say the ultimate mystery of God is the union we can experience with God’s very self, all made possible by Jesus.
Do you see?
Do you see how mystery is the past, what God has already done, the amazing truth revealed in Christ’s birth? And do you also see how it is future, infinite, ever-expanding…drawing us deeper, calling us to a union with God in which we cannot help but be surprised and beautifully moved to new and never-before-seen places?
Richard Rohr says it powerfully in The Divine Dance:
“Remember, mystery isn’t something that you cannot understand–it is something that you can endlessly understand! There is no point at which you can say, ‘I’ve got it.’ Always and forever, mystery gets you!”
It took me several weeks after they asked me to speak on mystery tonight to realize this topic had a big connection to my own spiritual life over the last 6 or 7 months.
I’ve been reading Christian mystics; specifically, medieval women Christian mystics.
David Benner writes,
“…Mystics differ from non-mystics in their rejection of the notion that the mysteries of life are simply gaps in knowledge. They realize that the really important mysteries of life will not be eliminated by reason or experimentation. They teach us how to love mystery rather than fear it. They teach us humility, tolerance and wonder.”
Mystics show us a pathway outside of our rational, deductive spirituality and help us embrace mystery and union from a different place. And like an onion, layers upon layers unfold before us in our exploration. Always, always, the mystics are describing an inexorable movement toward intimate union with God.
Mechthild of Magdeburg, from the 1200’s, captures this:
Love leads us into mystery, binding us layer by layer, piece by piece with the Creator of the Universe. It is rooted, so essentially and eternally rooted, in the work of God through Christ, bound with the manger-born one who taught and healed and bled, out of love for us.
Listen to Hildegard of Bingen, 100 years earlier in the 1100’s:
Reading, praying, meditating, dwelling in the words and the worlds of these women has helped me truly embrace the Mystery.
It’s deepening my connection to the past reality of Jesus who lived and breathed and walked our world. It’s returned a sense of awe, a sense of wonder…a profound awareness of the great ‘otherness’ of God, but this is the kind of awareness that produces longing. This journey has opened up a new future, caused a desire in me to “endlessly understand”, as Rohr describes it.
Side benefits have appeared along the way. Reading back almost a millennium, the cultural barriers and blinders sometimes so obviously appear. Even for Hildegard, an accomplished theologian who wrote popes and kings, who toured Germany twice on preaching tours as a woman in the middle ages…even for Hildegard, who critiques abuses of the power systems in the church and the state…it’s so easy, from a thousand years distance, to see that even some of those critiques themselves are bound by the time and culture in which she lived.
But then there are these moments…these holy moments when words seem to literally have dripped from the heavens through her pen, and almost a thousand years later they can soar off the page and explode with power into my soul.
In these words and moments I see the God I know today; I glimpse the Divine One, beyond time, beyond culture. And there are even times where the power of the words gives me glimpses of yet-unknown facets of our Creator, creating a yearning in me to experience and live in a yet deeper union with God.
Friends, the proverbial “they” are right!
Mystery beckons us this Christmas and always. The mystery of Incarnation, the mystery of union with God lies open before us. May we receive it. May we pursue it. May we be transformed by it.
May we, with humility, acknowledge our own barriers of culture and time which interfere with our judgments of right and wrong, just and unjust. May we acknowledge we may not have it all nailed down. May we let the Divine lift off the page, into our minds and hearts, and may we walk into the ever-deepening unknown intimacy, with Jesus as our guide.
I’ll close with the words of Catherine of Siena, from the 1300’s, letting her words lead us into a time of open worship: