A sermon preached on May 22, 2016, based on John 16:12-15
Can I tell you a secret?
Of course I can. Everybody loves secrets, as long as we are the ones who know the secret, of course. Other people's secrets drive us crazy - the conversations that stop when we walk in the room. I walk into my little girls' room to find them sitting in the floor giggling to one another with exaggerated smiles and their hands over their mouths. "What's so funny?" I ask, and they fall to giggles all over again. "Don't worry about it, Dad, it's just between us."
At this point I have a choice, I can leave them to their secret, their giggles, and to the special, sisterly bond they are forging between each other, or I can lean on them a little bit, trusting that the 4 year old will crack like a piggy bank and spill all the treasured plans they've shared. The obvious decision is to let it go. They're having fun; I've got things to do. And, After all, being age 4 and 7, their secrets have a very limited potential for damage. Worst case scenario, they are planning to booby trap the house in a way they involves ribbons and rubber bands. I should just just walk away.
So, of course, I don't. Tell me, tell me, tell me! What's so funny! They're kids, so I don't even have to try to play it cool. I just want to know what everyone's laughing about. Can you tell me your secret, please?
They take pity on me. "It's not really a secret, Dad, it's a joke," the 7 year old says. "What do you call a vase with flowers on it?... A flower vase!" and they collapse into giggles all over again. Now their secret is mine, but it's not doing me any good - I don't get it. There is some high comedy at work here that I will never understand. What on earth are they talking about? It doesn't make any sense. That's not how jokes work! Why are they still laughing?!? It's not a secret anymore, but now it is a mystery.
Let's put some definitions on this. A secret is a truth you don't know. A puzzle is a truth you haven't figured out. A mystery is a truth you can't handle.
As Christians, we don't have too much use for secrets. We prefer words like witness, proclaim, and confess. We aren't trying to hide anything; we are inviting everyone to come into the light, and we invite them by out example, we begin by bringing ourselves.
Now, I want to pause here for a moment and emphasize that the witness, proclamation, and confession we give are supposed to be our own, not someone else's. Gossip is what we call it when we spill secrets other than our own, and it is consistently listed among the worst and most destructive sins in the church. If we want to be a people where confession replaces shame and witness replaces secrets, then we must be a people who prove we are worthy of being trusted with what other people share with us. Maintaining a confidence is not the same as keeping a secret, and wisdom knows the difference. This, also, is a mystery - if you can't handle it, then don't be surprised if there's a lot people don't tell you.
So, as Christians, we confess our own secrets, we witness and proclaim. But some of the things become harder to understand when we say them, not easier. Some of the things we announce to the world are mysteries - they are truths that we can't handle with such rudimentary tools as words, or pictures.
Faith is a mystery, because it comes by grace. Faith is not something that we accomplish on our own, it's something that comes from God. This becomes a great sticking point for a lot of folks when we talk with those who are mystified. We say things like "You just gotta believe" and they say "how do I do that?" and we say "you just need to do it." and the cycle plays on. Once, a man brought his son to Jesus to be healed, and Jesus said, "He can be healed, if you belive." The man replied with one of the great paradoxes, and great confessions in all of scripture: "Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief."
Many centuries later, an English preacher named John Wesley went on a mission voyage to start a new church in the savage wilderness of a place Georgia. He went full of confidence that he was doing the right thing, and had a true gospel to share, and he thought that his confidence was faith. But as the boat sailed to the New World, it passed through a storm. Wesley noticed tthere were a group of mysterious passengers who seemed unfazed. It was a little band of Christians called Moravians, who met every morning and night to sing through the psalms. Even when the storm was raging, they would sing. "Weren't you afraid?" he asked one of the Moravians after the storm was over. "Weren't your women and children afraid?" The Moravian gently responded, "No. Our women and children are not afraid to die." Their faith was anything but secret, yet it was a mystery. For the next three years, Wesley prayed and preached and hoped for a faith like that of the Moravians. When he got back to England, one of the Moravian preachers told him "preach faith until you have it, and when you've got it, you'll preach it all the more." And in indeed, Wesley wrote in his journal that one day, heading home from Bible study, as Wesley felt his heart strangely warmed, and knew that he trusted in God.
Faith does not come by having the right words, or plans, or arguments. It is not a technique that we master or get a handle one. Often times, faith is most evident when we confess the strange truth that we do not have enough. This is a mystery.
But of course our faith is a mystery, because the one whom we trust is a greater mystery still. The moment you think you have figured out God, then you have stopped worshipping the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God whose name is Yahweh, "I am what I am." When we worship truly, we worship the truth we cannot handle, the God we cannot capture with words or images or systems. "I have so much more to say to you," says Jesus, "more than you can bear."
"But when the Spirit comes, he will guide you."
This is a mystery. We cannot bear what God would say to us in Jesus, but God will say it in the Holy Spirit and guide us into all the truth. The same God who is far beyond our comprehension, the God we cant even believe in except by grace, is the God who comes to guide us, teach us, comfort and encourage us, and to give us faith. The God whose prsence is light and heat and refining fire is the God who passed through hell itself to make us ready to stand in glory.
Last weekend, I was at Duke Chapel for my brother's graduation, and I remembered once hearing from the old dean of that chapel. Now I should mention that Duke Divinity School and Duke the undergraduate university are very different places. The Divinity School is like most seminaries, full of people from all manner of ages, and backgrounds, and academic ability. We were doing all manner of things before we were called to preach. One of my professors used to joke that no one is qualified for seminary until they've failed at one or two jobs. Most of the students are from North Carolina, and most attend there because it is close. On the other hand, Duke undergrads come from all over, especially from New Jersey for whatever reason, and they usually represent some of the highest achievers.
So, the dean of the chapel used to refer to the first Sunday of the year as "shock the heathens Sunday." That was the day to play all three organs, and bring in the orchestra. It was the day to pray prayers of confession and take communion, and generally pull out all the stops. The dean says "I know I've done my job when a freshman who scored perfect on his SAT walks out and says; I dont know what just happened." I know that kid will come back, because for the first time in his life, this kid is discovering that there might be something in the world that is true, but that he cannot understand. Something he'll only get by faith."
There, I've told you our little secret. You'll never figure this God out. But if you can worship God anyway, and your life will beomce oh so much more intriguing to folk around you. They'll ask questions like "why does you do that?"
And you'll find that you have an answer. It may not be simple, but it will not be a secret. You will have become a witness, to all that you know, and all is yet to come. You questioners may not be able to handle you. But when you realize what is happening, the wonder of it may make you grin like a fool, you may even want to cover your face as you giggle, realizing that you are part of a marvelous mystery.