Preaching is bound to take one into regions of the Word that one can only explain as mystery. One does not have to go far. Genesis 1:1 immediately informs the reader that one has entered into a revelation in ways both impenetrable and unimaginable. Hence, I cannot recall a week when, assigned the homiletical task, I have not felt a sense of utter desperation. Discerning and interpreting the scripture, both for myself and the congregation, are the highest of privileges, yet the most unnerving of journeys.
When I returned from Europe, making the shift from preaching in a church to teaching in a seminary, I was relieved to know I did not have to face the rigorous experience of weekly preparing sermons. Teaching practical theology Monday through Friday, with weekends off, felt liberating. No more weekly angst dealing with divine mystery. I was content to attend church, watching other poor pastoral souls head to the pulpit to open Scripture and expose the fruit of their labors. Preaching has a way of unmasking one’s soul, revealing one’s intellectual shortcomings, and exposing the interior of one’s heart. One’s mood, one’s disposition, and one’s strengths (and weaknesses) are laid bare on the altar. It can be a very naked experience. I did not miss this—at least for a week. And then I began to long for the experience again. A few months later, I entered into a bi-vocational life of preaching and teaching, now fourteen years and counting.
There is something both unnerving and thrilling about dealing with divine mystery. This past weekend, we looked at King Saul. Here was a man God changed into another man, sending the Spirit into his life (I Samuel 10:8-10). But there was a relapse of sort, and after a series of sinful choices, God left Saul (I Samuel 16:14). I was faced with the theological question, “Can God leave a man?” It has been a matter of theological debate for centuries. People on both sides of the argument have cited scriptures to make their case. John 10:27-30; Rom 8:1; Phil 1:6; and I Peter 1:3-5 are stockpiled on one side to take on John 15:6; Matt 18:35; Heb 6:4-6; and 2 Peter 2:20 on the other.
Somewhere in the middle are working pastors, seeking to sort this out. Here are two certainties that seem to collide—the certain truth that our salvation is secure versus the potential one may lose God’s generous gift of election. We face the same dilemma with divine sovereignty and human responsibility. Mystery seems a safe place to turn, though there is the caution that crying “Mystery!” is not a get-out-of-jail-free card than can be played anytime a pastor is in a logical jam. That’s the warning of Steven Boyer and Christopher Hall in their recent book, The Mystery of God: Theology for Knowing the Unknowable. The appeal to mystery at any particular point has to be justified.
This weekend, I did play my card. I sought to justify my reasons. The reality of both truths transcends my reason. But I am okay with this. I actually believe, in this theological case, that it is quite helpful to know I live with the divine promise God will keep me until the end, yet also aware of the potential that God could give me over to my unholy affections (Rom 1). I am no longer so unnerved with illogic and mystery. I actually embrace them.
In earlier years, I felt compelled to explain most everything in the pulpit. After all, isn’t this what parishioners pay their pastors to do? There is a reason Moses was disqualified for striking the rock; surely there is something in the Hebrew that will give insight. There must be some explanation for why Jonah ends abruptly and why Jepthah is in the hall of faith. How does one explain the Trinity, the incarnation, and world religions? How does one illuminate the mysteries of prayer? Thankfully, a pastor worth his weight will shed light and remove the mystery. I used to think this way.
We do have a God who has chosen to make Himself known in Christ. We do see God and know Him. But as Boyer and Hall note in their really good book, we do face challenges that transcend rational exploration. This does not invalidate the exploration—which can be the fun part. However, it is important to know that there are matters that are of an unimaginable depth or density, that go well beyond our rational capacities. We do see only “darkly” (I Cor 13:12). And this is good. We ought to expect God to be reasonable and beyond reason. We ought to anticipate theological issues where certainty seems to collide with certainty (e.g. divine sovereignty and free will). As they put it, “If God is really God, then recognizing a limitation of reason at just this point is really the most rational thing we can do.”