"A Great Mystery"

June 7, 1998 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon Ephesians 5:31-32

Yesterday, in this very room, we joined two persons together in marriage. As part of the service I quoted those familiar words of the apostle Paul, who was himself expanding upon a verse from the book of Genesis. "ĎFor this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.í This is a great mystery..." (Eph 5:31-32a) Indeed, marriage is a mystery - this linkage of two very different creatures. Coming to understand each other takes a lifetime, and some may argue that even the biblical "four score years and ten" is not enough time to accomplish such a task. Of course, by using the word "understand" we are not just talking logic, a matter of the mind. As Paul wrote long ago, marriage "is a great mystery."

Now, that very word, "mystery," can be troublesome. It brings to mind all sorts of "spooky" stuff. I recall as a child sitting just outside the family room in our home while my older sisters watched "The Twilight Zone," or "The Outer Limits" - television programs I was forbidden to watch because they gave me nightmares. Even though these shows scared me when I was a child, I was strangely attracted to them, and so I would linger just out of sight on those evenings when my folks were away and my older siblings were in charge... When we think of marriage as a "mystery" we do not, for the most part, associate it with a "Twilight Zone" - though there are those moments when we just might!

By "mystery" we, likewise, are not thinking in terms of another genre of television and literary fare. Marriage is not a matter of figuring out "who dunit?" Based upon the clues, I believe the murderer was Mrs. Peacock, who did it in the Library, with the candlestick. I win the game and you lose. Mind you, we often treat one another that way in marriage and in other relationships - making a competition out of something that is supposed to transcend such ways of operating. Thatís not what the apostle Paul meant by "a great mystery," either.

In the context of Paulís words in his letter to the Ephesians, marriage involves "being subject to one another," husbands loving their wives with more than mere words, wives respecting their husbands. Those who live in this institution called "matrimony" often wonder how such mutual submission, love and respect is possible. You live with someone long enough, you discover all their faults. Itís easy to love and respect someone when you donít know them very well. The more you get to know them, the harder it becomes (and the more rewarding).

To say that marriage is "a great mystery" is to confess that these two persons who are joined together, and this relationship in which they have covenanted themselves, are much bigger than our ability to comprehend. There is always more to another person than what we have come to know, even when we think we know them very well. The more we know another, the greater care we need to use in handling our knowledge of them. The joy of growing comfortable with another should never overcloud the awe with which we perceive them.

I remember the wonder of looking at and touching the hands of each of my children after they were born. Such little fingers! Itís amazing how this happens, isnít it? Somehow, we stop looking at those hands as our children grow, except when theyíre dirty, or the fingernails need to be cut. Isnít it just as fantastic how these fingers grow from little to big? And the hand of our bride or groom which we held on our wedding day, placing a ring upon its finger, isnít it also remarkable the ways this hand changes - how it takes on character as the years go by. Yes, arthritis comes along, but "old arthur" canít take away what is really real about this person.

Shouldnít we treat the whole person in the same way, being in awe of what God has created? Perhaps this sounds far fetched, but is it really? Likewise, shouldnít we look at the union, the covenanted relationship between us in the same way? When we cease to see it as a miracle, and rather as something we have created all on our own, then we start losing our reasons for staying together "til death do us part."

In pronouncing a couple to be husband and wife, I still insist upon ending with "what God has joined together, let no one put asunder." Itís not a guilt trip I am seeking to send these people on. Itís an awesome journey, of which God is very much a part. And if God is a part of this excursion, then there is much more to every step than the footprints we leave in the sand, more off in the distance than what we can see on the horizon. Thatís what we mean by marriage being "a great mystery."

Some of you have noticed that I got a hair cut this week. It is rather obvious, I know, since I went from 2-3 inches to a quarter inch. I did the same thing a year ago before our big 7-week trip and liked it, so I wanted to do it again. Both times the barber was my wife. Last year, on the day we left for that trip, we woke up before the children did, and Karen went to work with the shaver. I thought of it then as an act of trust on my part, beginning our journey on the right foot. Maybe it was, maybe it wasnít. Regardless, our sojourn west as a family would need a great deal of all the intangibles: trust, patience, forbearance... the things necessary for living together on a daily basis, no matter where the road leads.

It is "a great mystery" this traveling we do together. You know, earlier I only partially quoted Paulís words to the believers in Ephesus. I ended the verse too soon for he had more to say. Listen. "ĎFor this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church." (Eph 5:31-32) The apostle Paul wasnít just talking about marriage. He was making a connection to something bigger. Much of what I have said about the relationship between a husband and wife can be applied to all human relationships, as well as to the relationship between Christ and the church, between God and us. It is a Ďgreat mystery"- not something "spooky," nor some grand "who dunit?"

We are treading on sacred ground as we walk together. It is with this in mind that I turn a corner to talk about the Christian doctrine of the "Trinity." In the liturgical year, an annual cycle of days which other churches practice more than we do, today is "Trinity Sunday." Pentecost, the celebration of the beginning of the church and the coming of the Holy Spirit, was just last Sunday. It makes sense the week after Pentecost to broaden the picture. Whereas seven days ago we wondered over the wind and fire and sounds of the birth of the church, today we wonder over the awesome width and depth and breadth of our relationship with God.

Our Creator, the One who saves us in Christ, and who empowers us to live through the Holy Spirit, our God is much bigger than our ability to comprehend. There is always more to God than what we have come to know, even when we think we know him very well. The more we know God, the greater care we need to use in handling that knowledge. The joy of growing comfortable with our Lord should never overcloud the awe with which we perceive him.

Back to my haircut. After Karen finished the dirty work last Monday, I went up to Tessa, our nearly four-year-old daughter, to get her reaction. Did she like my new look? No. She said so very emphatically. I suppose the Daddy in whose lap she snuggles in, who is good at singing "one little monkey jumping on the bed" as she acts it out, this Daddy was now different. "Why donít you like it, honey?" I asked. Because "it looks like a monster." Of course, she had a smile on her face when she said this.

Now, I donít mean to compare myself with God, but Jesus did open up some connections when he encouraged us to pray to our "Daddy" in heaven. That is a very familiar term, "Dada or Mama," one of the first words we ever learn to speak. The faith we have received encourages the intimacy of turning to someone as familiar as a parent when we turn to God. "Our Daddy in heaven," we say with childlike trust in that well-known prayer. And then Jesus taught us to make a radical shift from comfort to awe, "hallowed by thy name." There is much more to this heavenly parent than we can comprehend.

Iím sure there are times when my children wonder about their Dad. I am, after all, still bigger than they are. Do they sometimes see me as a monster? Unfortunately, some Dads are monsters; so are some Moms. Persons who grow up in such homes may have a difficult time praying to a heavenly Father. Thank God, literally, that we have been given many ways of perceiving him. This is what the doctrine of the Trinity is about. God has been revealed to us in three important ways.

God is our Father, we say. By this term we do not mean some male figure. Rather, we emphasize that the One who created everything, the One who is the greatest power in the universe, is as accessible as a loving parent. Comfort and Awe all wrapped in One. A "great mystery," indeed!

God has also been revealed to us as the Christ. We call him "Godís only begotten Son" not to separate the two of them, so much as to give us someone tangible to see and follow. We call him Savior and Lord, as well as Friend. Awe and Comfort all wrapped in One. A "great mystery," indeed!

And then thereís a third way in which God has been revealed to us, as the Holy Spirit - Godís actual presence among us and in us, here and now. Someone to Comfort us as well as the Power by which we live. Comfort and Awe all wrapped in One. A "great mystery," indeed!

Please understand, the doctrine of the Trinity was never intended to be 3-fold box in which to place the One who said "I am who I am." Even as the early church was formulating the words, there was (as I read the story) a hesitancy to nail them down too secure, a caution to not make these boundaries too hard and fast. Elsewise, we lose sight of the "great mystery." After all, this is not so much a doctrine as it is a relationship, a covenanted relationship. When we cease to see this relationship we have with God as a miracle itself, and rather as something we have created all on our own, a system of belief, then we start losing our reasons for trusting our Maker and Savior all the way, "til death and beyond." God, experienced as Father, Son, Holy Spirit, is very much a part of this earthly journey we are all on. Indeed, there is much more to every step we take than the footprints we leave in the sand, and more off in the distance than what we can see on the horizon. It is, as the apostle Paul said, "a great mystery."

The number for our final hymn was accidentally omitted from the bulletin. Would you stand and join in singing with me #121, "Holy God, we praise thy name."

©1998Peter L. Haynes

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