Welcoming Mystery
by Jack Wald | November 10th, 2006

Colossians 1:13-27

Peter Lee preached last week about Immanuel, God’s gift to us of his presence. He reminded us that Immanuel is a Hebrew word meaning, God with us, and that this word came from Isaiah to a nation troubled by the imminent prospect of war. Immanuel, God with us, came into a time of trouble. Over the centuries to people who have faced difficulties, God has continued to be Immanuel, God with us.

This is the great promise of God, that he will be present with us. The promise is not that we will have an easy life, not that we will never suffer from injustice or illness or tragedy, but that no matter what we face in this life, he will be Immanuel, God with us. And when we die our physical death, he will take us and we will be with him.

We celebrate this good news; we sing this good news, but when you set it down and try to analyze it, you can’t get very far.

How could the creator of the world be created? How could Jesus, the second person in the Trinity, be with God and be born of Mary? How could he be in two places at the same time? How could Jesus, God in the flesh, who is omnipresent – everywhere present, be a baby in a manger, filling not the whole world but just a small feeding trough? How could the one who rules the world lie helpless as a baby needing to be nursed by his mother? If she did not feed him, he would die. How could this be?

The birth of Jesus is a mystery to us and so is his death. How could God die? The birth and death of Jesus are the two most perplexing parts of his life story.

A modern writer, Peter Larson, spoke to this:
Despite our best efforts to keep him out, God intrudes.
The life of Jesus is bracketed by two impossibilities:
a virgin’s womb and an empty tomb.
Jesus entered our world through a door marked “No Entrance”
and left through a door marked “No Exit.”

The Christian faith is full of mystery. Mystery is at the heart of Christmas and Easter. Pay attention to the words of the Christmas hymns we sing and you will see mystery written all through them. We come near a truth and strain to grasp it and discover that with all our reasoning power and all our reflection, the truth remains a mystery.

Saints throughout church history have been aware of this mystery. If you have been here on prior Christmases, you know I like to read part of Augustine’s sermon 83 written in the 4th century. This is partly because Augustine was a North African Berber and partly because he was such a brilliant thinker.

The Mystery of the Incarnation
Maker of the sun,
He is made under the sun.
In the Father he remains,
From his mother he goes forth.
Creator of heaven and earth,
He was born on earth under heaven.
Unspeakably wise,
He is wisely speechless.
Filling the world,
He lies in a manger.
Ruler of the stars,
He nurses at his mother’s bosom.
He is both great in the nature of God,
And small in the form of a servant.

Guerric of Igny was a 12th century French cleric who was similarly amazed.
Do you want to see the humility of God? Look in the manger and see him lying there. Surely this is our God. Seeing an infant, I wonder how this could be the one who says, “Do not I fill heaven and earth?” I see a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes. Is this the one who is clothed in the beautiful glory of unapproachable light?
Listen! He is crying. Is this the one who thunders in the heaven making the angels lower their wings? Yes, but he has emptied himself in order to fill us.

Mystery is an integral part of our belief as Christians but many of us are uncomfortable with mystery because mystery means we don’t fully understand and we cannot fully explain much of what we believe.

We will never be able to fully understand the doctrine of the Trinity. Three persons in one being? The shell, egg white and yolk of an egg? Water, steam and ice? Father, son and brother? You can take any analogy you want and you will never escape our four dimensional world that limits our understanding.

Ask me to explain the Trinity and I will have something to say but the truth is that I cannot explain it.

Ask me to explain how God could be made man and I will tell you what I know but the truth is that I don’t understand it.

Ask me how God could die and I will tell you I am mystified.

We say so easily that God loves us. But how is it that God who created the universe in all its grandeur and perhaps universes beyond this one also cares about us? Do you realize how small we are in the universe? One species on one planet of one solar system in one galaxy of the universe. This is a great mystery. It would be absolutely preposterous if it were not true.

Don’t be uncomfortable with mystery. Don’t be embarrassed by mystery. If there was no mystery, there would be no Christian life. You don’t have to be able to explain something to make it true.

The truth is that truth about God is going to be greater than our understanding. If God is indeed the creator who preexisted his creation, this is as it should be. If this were not so, then we would have a man-made religion limited by our imagination. Mystery is good news for us because it is the logical consequence of belief in a God far greater than our imaginative thinking.

We do not and cannot understand all of what we believe because we believe in the God who pre-existed creation, who created the laws of physics that hold the universe together, who is the great orchestrator and makes all things work together for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose. We believe in the God who is truth which we can only partially grasp.

Mystery in the Christian faith is good news because it reveals that we believe in a God far greater than we are and because it means we will never exhaust the delights of discovering who God is. You will never, in your relationship with God, get to the point of boredom, “Well, I’ve mastered that, now what do I do?”

In most of life, the deeper you research the more completely you understand and the less mystery there is. This is not the case in Christian faith. The more you grow in faith, the more experience with Jesus you have, the more you discover, the greater the mystery.

In the first letter of the apostle Peter he wrote:
I Peter 1
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead …
10 Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care,  11 trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow…. Even angels long to look into these things.

When angels long to look into something, you can count on mystery being present. Welcome the mystery of Christ. Welcome the mystery of the birth and death of Jesus. Welcome the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

Let’s take a closer look at this marvelous mystery.

Christmas focuses on baby Jesus, lying in a manger. Who is this baby Jesus?

Perhaps the best place in the Bible to look for an answer to this question is the letter Paul wrote to the Colossians. Paul’s letter to the Colossians was written to counter some accusations being made in the church community of Colosse. They viewed the material world as evil and thought it impossible that God could take on a material, human body. Therefore, they argued, Christ could not have been Emmanuel, God in the flesh.

They did not argue that Jesus was not a baby and then a man, but they limited him to that. So listen to Paul as he told the Colossians just exactly who Jesus was.

Colossians 1:15
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.

God created this beautiful world. Wouldn’t it be nice to see him? To see who it is who created? Paul wrote that if you want to see God, just take a look at Jesus. The writer of Hebrews wrote that Jesus (1:3) is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being. To see Jesus and to watch Jesus speak and act is to see God speak and act.

The phrase firstborn over all creation does not mean that God existed and then Jesus was created. The phrase means that Jesus existed before anything was created. In the beginning was Jesus. And if there was any confusion by what Paul meant by Jesus being the firstborn over all creation, this next phrase makes it clear.

For by him all things were created:

All things? All things

things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.

Who is this baby Jesus lying in the manger?

He is creator of angels and stars and solar systems and galaxies. He is creator of all that we see in our world. He created the Himalayan Mountains, the Serengeti Plains, the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Indian Oceans. He created all the life in this world. He created us. He created the laws of physics and principles of chemistry. He created all life and all forces in the universe.

As the apostle John wrote in the beginning of his gospel
Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.

All things were created by him and for him. All things were created by Jesus and the purpose of all he created was to bring him glory. All things were created for him. Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and wise men, the sheep and cattle in the manger were all created to bring glory to their creator who now lay in the manger.

Who is this baby Jesus?
He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

In a confrontation with the Jewish rulers, Jesus told them:
“I tell you the truth,”… “before Abraham was born, I am!”

Before Abraham, Jesus existed. Before all the characters of the Bible, Jesus existed. Before anything, Jesus was.

Jesus is before all things. This means in addition to preceding all things, he is ranked above all things. He is higher in authority and power than all things. Jesus is the ace of trump in a card game.

In Morocco there is a caid who is ruled by the wali who is ruled by the governor who is ruled  by regional governors and over them all is the king. When the king travels to another country, he meets with his counterpart, another king or president. But Jesus is not just another ruler. He is not just another king. He is the King of kings and Lord of lords.

Who is this baby Jesus?
Jesus is before all things and he sustains all things. In him all things hold together. The tense here means that he is continuing to hold all things together.

I already quoted the first part of this verse from Hebrews 1 but listen to how he continues
The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.

Jesus is continuing to hold all things together, sustaining all things by his powerful word. When will the world end? The world will end when Jesus releases his hold on it.

There are four fundamental forces in nature. Gravitational force, electromagnetic force, the weak nuclear force and the strongest of these is the strong nuclear force.

You know that when you take two magnets and put the two north or two south ends together, the magnets push away from each other. In an atom, there are electrons which are negatively charged and protons which are positively charged. The electrons revolve around the nucleus of the atom but the protons, all positively charged, are packed densely into the nucleus where they want to push away from each other. The strong nuclear force is what holds these protons together. If this force ceased somehow to exist, the universe would be instantly destroyed.

I use this picture to help me understand Jesus holding all things together. When Jesus releases his hold on creation, it will instantaneously cease to exist.

Who is this baby Jesus?
And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.

This baby Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men and at the age of thirty he began his public ministry. He taught with authority. He healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, cleansed the lepers, drove out demons and raised the dead. He gathered to himself followers and at the end of three years of training, turned his face toward Jerusalem and his death on a cross.

Jesus did what every man or woman before him had done. He died. This fact is what drove Qohelet, the writer of Ecclesiastes, to conclude that all is meaningless, everything is chasing after smoke, spitting into the wind. It doesn’t matter whether you are good or bad, wise or a fool, rich or poor. At the end you are defeated by an unconquerable enemy, death.

The devil thought he had won. The devil thought he had been victorious in his battle against God. In a stunning move, God had taken on bodily form but then the devil played his cards and Jesus was put to death.

It was at this point that Jesus demonstrated his absolute supremacy. He broke the chains of death. He burst forth from the grave. He defeated the devil and took his greatest weapon from him. He rose from the dead and announced that we who follow him will also rise from our physical death to eternal life.

No one but Jesus could have done this and in his defeat of death, being the first to rise from the dead, he demonstrated his supremacy.

Who is this baby Jesus?
19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him,  20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

Jesus was the first to rise from the dead. If you are like me, you are thinking of exceptions and ask about the widow’s son Jesus raised from the dead and Jairus’ daughter and Lazarus. But these miracles, as great as they were, only brought them back to this physical world. These three had their life prolonged a bit, but they all still died and went to the grave. What Jesus did is break the power of eternal death so that death no longer needs to be feared by his followers. When we die we do not stay in the grave but are raised to new life lived in eternity. Death for Christians is not the end but the beginning. Christians can say along with Paul,
“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

Jesus did not do this for himself. This was not a battle with the devil to defeat him for the sake of a victory. Jesus defeated the power of death for we who would believe and follow him. Jesus went voluntarily to the cross, taking upon himself our sins. In a song by Michael Card he sings:
why did they nail His feet and hands; His love would have held him there.

He willingly suffered on our behalf so that we could be at peace with God with a certain hope of eternal life lived with God.

In his death and resurrection Jesus demonstrated with authority who he was. Paul began his Epistle to the Romans with this declaration about Jesus:
Romans 1
who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.

The cross of Christ was the definitive display of the supremacy of Christ. David Bryant pointed out that because of the cross:
Slaves of the fall are liberated; Satan’s minions bound; Death is destroyed; Sin is demolished; Judgement is absorbed; Fear is banished and because of the cross, All who believe are conquered by grace and transferred into the Empire of the Son.

Who is this baby Jesus?
He is the Exalted Christ. In John’s gospel, Jesus declared: (John 12:32)
I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.”

You cannot escape the double meaning here. They laid Jesus on the cross, nailed him to the cross, and then lifted him up as the cross fell into the hole in the ground to anchor it and in so doing, Jesus was lifted up from the earth. But in the greater sense, in his resurrection, Jesus was lifted up from the earth by the Father to his proper position.

The end of the early hymn of the church Paul quoted in Philippians declares
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Who is this baby Jesus?
He is the unique Christ. He has no competitors. He has no equals. He is not one among many religious leaders. As creator, he stands above all of his creation. Only Jesus broke the power of death. Only Jesus can offer hope of eternal life.

There are not and cannot be any successors to Jesus. There have been many who have come after Jesus claiming they can offer salvation but they cannot do so because they lack the qualifications. Who among all the religious leaders in the world have died and been resurrected? What hope can a religious leader offer if he or she died and lies rotting in a grave? Their efforts take us back to the meaninglessness of the world of Qohelet. Only Jesus died and broke the power of death by rising to new life.

Who is this baby Jesus?
Christ is all and in all (Colossians 3:11b)

Augustine wrote (paraphrased)
The one who has Christ has everything.
The one who has everything except for Christ really has nothing.
And the one who has Christ plus everything else
does not have any more than the one who has Christ alone.

Who is this baby Jesus lying so sweetly in the manger?

There is a wonderful poem printed in the bulletin, written by John Shea

Sharon’s Christmas Prayer
She was five,
sure of the facts,
and recited them
with slow solemnity
convinced every word
was revelation
She said
they were so poor
they had only peanut butter
and jelly sandwiches to eat
and they went a long way from home
without getting lost.
The lady rode a donkey, the man walked,
and the baby was inside the lady.
They had to stay in a stable
with an ox and an ass (hee-hee)

but the Three Rich Men found them
because a star lited the roof
Shepherds came
and you could pet the sheep but not feed them.
Then the baby was borned.
And do you know who he was?
Her quarter eyes inflated to silver dollars.
The baby was God.

And she jumped in the air
whirled around, dove into the sofa
and buried her head under the cushion
which is the only proper response
to the Good News of the Incarnation

We fall on our knees. We do not and cannot deserve this. Forgive us Lord for presuming to treat you casually, for using you for our convenience, for taking you for granted, for putting other interests before you. Forgive us for reducing you to a size we can handle.

Forgive us for running away from the mystery of your love for us, the mystery of the birth and death of Jesus. These things are far more than doctrines of the Christian faith. They are a grand and glorious mystery. Help us to embrace this mystery, to be filled with joy because of this mystery.

And thank you Father that you love us, that you are a servant to us. We cannot comprehend this. We cannot begin to understand this. But we gratefully acknowledge your sacrificial love for us.
Amen.
************************
I Timothy 3
Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great:
He appeared in a body,
was vindicated by the Spirit,
was seen by angels,
was preached among the nations,
was believed on in the world,
was taken up in glory.