Can We Open Ourselves to Mystery?
Who likes a good mystery?
This cold winter weekend has been perfect for settling into a comfy chair with a cup of tea and opening an Agatha Christie or Laura Lippman best-seller. There are countless mystery writers you could choose – and of course the genre isn’t just for books. It fills the plot lines of a myriad of plays, movies and TV shows. All of which – in 500 pages or 50 minutes - offer something we all want in the end – a solution.
Do you know who is credited with introducing the mystery genre in literature as we most popularly know it? It’s a Baltimore native – yes – Edgar Allen Poe in the 19th c. Of course, he was influenced by prior authors – like Dickens. He didn’t invent the mystery story – but he crafted the story in a way that was new and unique. Poe concentrated on what was going on in the mind of the characters.
His writing surely influenced
another favorite Sir Arthur Conan Doyle writing across the pond a few decades later– giving us one of the most beloved and timeless mystery-solvers of all time – Sherlock Holmes – infamous for being able to keenly observe all the concrete details and then use logic, reason and intellect to dispassionately – beyond a shadow of a doubt – solve the puzzle.
And it is such a satisfying feeling to have that epiphany along with the detective, "Ah-ha!" – now I see too – how all the clues are assembled and the answer is clear! The case is closed. Elementary my dear Watson – elementary.
Elementary– implying the answer is basic – obvious – clear as day.
This morning we too hear about a mystery that is obvious to some and a secret to others. We see a star, a manifestation of God’s making that points to a mystery and we are told about this mystery directly in Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus – the Ephesians – who, like the magi are outsiders until now. Several times in this brief passage Paul says the mystery has been made known to him.
He says it is a mystery about Jesus, the mystery of Christ. And he goes on to say that no one has really understood this mystery before because it has been hidden through the ages – but now – the plan of God is to reveal the mystery to all who want to know.
It’s sounds like Paul is writing the beginning to his best-selling novel – building up all this suspense so that finally we can know the solution – the answer – the secret - God had – that Paul is going to reveal.
But of course Paul’s mystery genre – differs greatly from our popular one. The detectives of our mystery novels solve crimes. Tragedy tends to be the starting place. The loss of life – or the loss of something monetarily precious. Paul’s mystery is about a priceless gift – an inheritance, he calls it. And the mystery of this gift is that it’s given freely and it’s given to any who want it – who want to listen for it or see it be revealed.
Well that’s not much of a secret to us now is it? We just had Christmas – and know the message of the angels – do not be afraid for unto you is born a child who brings peace, love and goodwill for all the world. Old news – what’s so mysterious about that?
Well that good news is not something everyone wants - as the story of the wise men reveal. Not everyone likes the idea of a free gift for all. For some – like Herod – it is a fearful tragedy. In the children’s pageant of Luke’s nativity story nearby shepherds follow a star to the warmth of a manger and a swaddled baby nestled safely. In Matthew’s gospel – far away astrologers – magicians – listen to their dreams and follow the star to King Herod. And when he hears of a baby king he is frightened – and all of Jerusalem with him. All of Jerusalem with him.
It’s elementary why the current king would be scared of a star that points to the birth of a new one – but all of Jerusalem? Why would so many be scared of this new life about to be revealed? What is it about the mystery of life in Christ that is still so hard to take in?
Earlier in Paul’s letter – Paul tells the people that there is a deadness inside of them. A part of them that was always looking in all the wrong places and to all the wrong people to find fulfillment – to find peace. He says that we confuse our wants for needs. And we spend much of our time trying to be like everyone else – worrying far too much what others think and proving ourselves to the world. And God saw how we lived this way and was filled with mercy – and so – out of this mercy, out of a great love gave us the immeasurable riches of grace.
A grace filled with pure kindness so that we might now what it is to be alive.
And this is the mystery. It is not something we produce – it is not, nor can it be – a result of our works – but it is a gift of God. For we are what he has made us – created in Christ for good which God intends to be our way of life.
We are created for good which God intends to be our way of life.
When I sit with those words – with that mystery – of the depth, the agelessness of God’s mercy and love – it is a little bit scary, overwhelming. Sure it’s comforting on one level – but on a deeper level – accepting Christ lives in me – calls me to forgiveness and mercy within and with others – calls me to look for the good, always, in myself and in others – calls me to receive the gift of mercy and grace – even when I do not think it is deserved. Which is the starting point for being merciful towards others.
A proverb tells us – the beginning of wisdom is fear of the holy (Proverbs 9:10). So, it makes some sense that as we grow in the knowledge of new life in Christ the mystery is hard to take in. New life is always exciting but its daunting too. Much more daunting even than the resolutions we heap on ourselves in the new year – because we don’t know where it may lead. Perhaps we, like the magi, will also be led to follow a new road when this new life is manifest in us.
To open ourselves to God in this way – Paul says – reveals the mystery. For everyone around us will see the wisdom of this grace, mercy and love in its rich variety. You and I are not asked to follow the star the magi saw – or comb their dreams for our direction. We are called to follow our own star – and unravel our own dreams – to continuously find the manifestations – the epiphanies – of how we are created for the good which God intends to be our way of life.
It is a mystery that requires our keen observation – but the mystery is not a puzzle to be solved requiring superior logic and reason. In fact it requires our whole heart and there may even be shadows of doubt – as we open this ever-incarnating gift - never exhausted – never complete – but found and uncovered over and over again in the mystery of this plan we call life – where every new day brings the possibility of a new beginning.
For this reason – Paul writes that as we accept the gift of this light – let us pray that, according to the riches of God’s gifts to us, may the Holy One grant that you are strengthened in your inner being with power through the Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, in this new year and in each new day - as you mysteriously and wonderfully are being rooted and grounded in love. Amen.