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Disturbed by Mystery

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not my ways, says YHWH.* Just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. For just as the rain and the snow descend from the heavens, not returning there without watering the earth, making it produce and sprout, giving seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so also is my word which goes out from my mouth: it does not return to me in vain but does that which I desire, and succeeds in that for which I sent it.

Isaiah 55:8-11

Dear People of God,

“God works in mysterious ways.”

I imagine all of us have heard this seemingly innocuous phrase at one time or another in our lives. Perhaps it was used as a word of comfort during a difficult time. Perhaps we heard it expressing awe at a precarious situation that had somehow worked out perfectly. Or perhaps it was used with an eyeroll, an overused cliché that doesn’t do justice to the deep struggles of the life of faith.

Though it does not appear anywhere in the Bible, it does communicate a truth which can be found throughout both testaments of scripture. Whether it is God’s strange dealings with Abraham in Genesis 15, God’s work through violent empires in Habakkuk, or even the death and resurrection of Jesus, God consistently does things which go against our expectations. While we sometimes get glimpses of the overall plan, in the moment such things are hidden from our limited view. God may know exactly what the plan is, but to us it typically remains a mystery.

This mysterious hiddenness of God has always been a challenge to faith, and perhaps most acutely so in the situation of the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem, described in 2 Kings 25. Nearly six centuries before the birth of Jesus, the Babylonian army moved against Jerusalem, tearing down its fortifications, looting and destroying the temple, and carrying off many of the people. Over the next 70 years of their captivity, this national tragedy devastated the people physically and spiritually, leaving them questioning just what had happened. Some said (including the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel) that this was God’s punishment for abandoning the covenant, others insisted that was impossible, for God would never allow foreigners to tear down the temple. The Babylonians, for their part, claimed that their victory came from their god Marduk, who was simply more powerful than the God of Israel.

Defeated and taken into exile by a foreign empire, the people of God were divided. Some questioned God’s faithfulness. Some began worshiping the apparently more powerful Babylonian god. And some stayed faithful to the God of their ancestors.

It is into this situation that Isaiah 40-55 is addressed. Throughout these chapters, the prophet repeatedly insists that everything which has befallen the people has been done under the power and authority of the very same God who led their ancestors out from their slavery in Egypt. Though the nation is to blame for their disobedience, their God is ultimately the one responsible for the tragedy which they have experienced: “I am YHWH, there is no other. Forming light and creating darkness, doing peace and creating calamity—I, YHWH, do all these things.” (Isaiah 45:5-6) Their captivity under the Babylonians and their impending release by the Persians all come at the behest of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In response to this revelation, the prophet can only marvel: “Surely you are a God who hides!” (45:15)

This attribution of their calamity to the God that they worship is not in itself good news. After all, if the God who formed their ancestors into a great and numerous people could inflict such pain on them, how could this God be trusted? God’s answer through Isaiah, and through the rest of scripture, is twofold: God is immeasurably beyond our limited understanding, yet God’s words can be trusted. Though the methods are beyond us, God keeps God’s promises.

Of course, this does not do away with the difficulty of life. We still witness tragedies, we still undergo calamities, and we still suffer on our way through the world. And as much as we might try to rationalize it all, to cleverly explain away the scandal of injustice and suffering in the world, these explanations bring at best a fleeting comfort. Only in God’s promises can we truly find rest and peace with God. Only God’s word which “does not return in vain” can provide the lasting shelter we need to weather the storms of life in this world.

This is the art of faith. It is trusting in the enduring promise of God in the midst of trials that appear to be from God’s own hand. It is fleeing from the ambiguity of God hidden in mystery to the safety of God hidden in a promise. It is walking in relationship to Jesus, God’s Word in the flesh, who underwent death at our hands only to conquer it in resurrection. It is the joy of discovering God wrapped up like a gift in the waters of baptism, the bread and wine of communion, the words of scripture delivered from one person to another, and even in creation itself. Sustained by God’s unfailing promises, faith flourishes in the midst of hardships, bearing fruit for the sake of the world.

“The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:7)

Your brother in Christ,

-Pastor John

*YHWH: the personal name of God revealed to Moses in Exodus 3:13, written without vowels in Hebrew. English translations traditionally render it “the LORD,” following Jewish convention.

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