Is the mystery gone? No, I’m not talking about your relationship with your spouse – I’m talking about your relationship with God. I have been thinking about his question for some time now, for I have a strange vocation. I am a pastor – which means that I have been called to be a steward of God’s mysteries. This provides me a great deal of time reading God’s words and praying in private, as well as, leading my church in worship and adoration of God through reading, preaching, praying, and administering the sacraments twice on Sunday. But all this time around God’s truth can be difficult – and one of the primary struggles is not allowing the divine mysteries to become common-place. But this is not just a problem that minister’s face – this is a trial that we all face, as I have been reminded from my current sermon preparations for preaching through Habakkuk.
The very history of the church, going back to the Old Testament is that the people of God have always tended to forget God and what he has done for us. In Sunday morning worship, I have been using texts from Deuteronomy for the reading of God’s law. One of the common themes running throughout the texts so far, is the command not to forget the Exodus. The Exodus was the miraculous, supernatural, gracious work of God to free his people from slavery and bondage in Egypt – and so to help them remember, he gave them the sacrifices – means of grace to shape their faith and obedience.
What is even more astounding is that God promised even more blessings in addition to the Exodus – a land flowing with milk and honey, safety from enemies, and God’s very presence dwelling with them in the Temple. In addition to the commands to remember the Exodus to the degree that it shaped their everyday lives, the church was also told that the blessings of God in the land (not salvation) were contingent on their obedience. If they disobeyed then God would not provide them the rich abundance of the land, nor would they be safe from their enemies. No, God would cause their enemies to conquer them and take them away into exile – away from the promised land, away from his Temple presence.
Despite the commands not to forget God, despite their incredible supernatural history, despite the sacrificial system, despite the additional blessings, and despite the warnings that they could lose them, the church did forget God – repeatedly. They were the only nation that possessed the covenants, the oracles of God, the sacrificial system, and the one true God’s Temple presence, and yet, they took God, his redemption, and his blessings for granted. Some tried to add the worship of foreign gods to their worship of God. Others outright rejected the worship of God. But many just lost the wonder of the mystery and so they fell into the sin of following God by going through the motions.
I think many of us struggle with falling asleep at the wheel when it comes to our pilgrimage of faith. We get caught up with the things of our everyday lives and God just gets pushed to the back burner. This is not because we are engaging in explicitly sinful and immoral lives, and not because we have consciously rejected God, his worship, and our faith and obedience. What happens is we just kind of assume he’s there and that he is merciful enough to realize that sometimes there is just stuff that we have to do. He knows we would like to acknowledge him through Bible reading and prayer – but he also realizes that clothes have to be washed, dinner prepared, children raised, homework accomplished, and money made to support our families and the church.
I would humbly suggest to you that this presumption upon God’s mercy and grace is the sin of forgetting God and his divine mysteries in our lives. We go through the motions, tipping our hats to him as we go about our responsibilities, but not really stopping what we are doing to sit down and have a cup of coffee with him.
As I have been reading and studying Habakkuk this was the situation facing the prophet, himself – not just the church. In the first eleven verses of the first chapter, we read an exchange between the prophet and God, where the prophet complains about the explicit sin and immorality being practiced within the church and asks God to do something about it, and where God shocks Habakkuk with what he is going to do about it. God is going to enact the covenant curses that he warned them about back in Deuteronomy 28 (not quite 1000 years before Habakkuk’s day) by bringing the Babylonians in to conquer them and take them away. In essence, God is going to cure the disease of decay and death in his people through death!!
Habakkuk is not pleased with God’s answer. It exposes his self-righteousness and self-centeredness. It also exposes his fear. The Babylonians are wicked, evil, killing machines who throw off the rule of God to be their own authorities! How can God use a people more wicked than the church to purify her of sin?! This is a shocking, fearful, message, indeed! God’s instrument to deal with his people’s sin is death!
And yet, this is what we need – to be shocked and to experience fear- especially when we have fallen asleep at the wheel and are presuming upon God’s grace. Fear can be good for us when we allow it to pull us out of our preoccupation with ourselves, our feelings, our circumstances, and our schedules into a world of wonder. Fear of God should always be present with us so that we don’t forget his redemption and don’t presume upon his blessings. But we don’t look to the Exodus or the sacrificial system (both of which were other ways in which God had already been dealing with death through death – think about it), but instead we look to the final and ultimate shocking instrument of death that God has provided to cure his people of the decay of sin and death – we look to the cross.
But we don’t look to the cross alone – we look at it through the perspective of an empty tomb. And we do this so that we will wonder and awe at the ultimate mystery that God has cured us from sin and death by taking our sin upon himself and dying on the cross in our place, and rising in victory in the resurrection. We must remember this – we must live in awe and wonder and godly fear.
So what is godly fear? Eugene Peterson, in his book Living the Resurrection: The Risen Christ in Everyday Life, describes godly fear as “fear-of-the-Lord.” Fear-of-the-Lord ingrains in us a cultivated awareness of the presence of God in our lives through union with Christ by faith. Peterson notes that there are several benefits to living in the fear-of-the-Lord:
- We are reminded that we are not the center of our existence – God is.
- We are reminded that we are not the sum total of what matters – God is.
- We are kept on our toes to keep our eyes on Jesus no matter what circumstances arise.
- We are prevented from thinking that we know it all – for we are humbled by the divine mystery revealed in Christ.
- We are prevented from closing our minds to what is new – for all is now new because of the resurrection.
- We are protected from thinking and acting presumptuously – for our minds and faith are fixed on the true, beautiful, and good that is beyond our understanding and control.
When we get wrapped up in our own circumstances and schedules, we can become caught off guard when something suddenly changes – loss of job, illness, struggle with sin, relational troubles, a bad grade, a sick loved one, death, conflicts in the church, and even a new pastor. This is not an exhaustive list, but they do represent different ways that our lives can be caught off guard in a way that changes our routine. We become frustrated and afraid because things are different and we don’t know what to do. Our presuppositions and assumptions no longer account for what we’re up against, and we don’t know what will happen to us. In a sense, what happens is we grow to be in wonder and awe of the difficulty – and that is because we have not been cultivating wonder and awe in the divine mystery.
God brings these difficulties into our lives to wake us up and jar us out of our self-absorption. These trials are evidence of God’s grace in our lives that he is committed to purify us from our sins, even as he has forgiven us and freed us through the cross of Jesus – God curing death with death. And yet, he also provides the means of grace to help us cultivate fear-of-the-Lord. His means are divine mysteries that direct us to the divine mystery of the cross and resurrection. Preaching is nothing less than dying men speaking to dying men about Christ crucified. The sacraments reminding us of life provided through death – whether that be signified through the waters of baptism or the bread and the cup. And prayer, the words of those still struggling with the presence of sin and death, asking for God’s help to persevere in taking up our crosses.
God’s ways truly are mysterious – and yet they have been revealed to us in Christ to help us cultivate God’s presence in our lives. We do not have to choose between the divine mysteries and our schedules – instead, let the divine mysteries shape the way we go about your responsibilities, so that we will be more prepared to deal with the things that can make us afraid, for we will see them through the fear-of-the-Lord.
Have you forgotten the fear-of-the-Lord? Have you reduced your life and faith to what you can manage through your attempts to control? Is the mystery gone?