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“The Mysteries of the Faith”
Romans 11:33-36

Pastor Kevin Vogts
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost—August 28, 2011

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Our text is today’s Epistle Reading, which we consider under the theme “The Mysteries of the Faith.”

Americans love a good mystery.  I grew up on the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen.  One of the few television shows I watch regularly is the “Mystery” series on public television.

We love mysteries because they present to us a challenge, a puzzle to solve.  And with a mystery there is a gratifying sense of closure.  In a mystery book, all the pieces fall neatly into place in the last chapter; on a mystery television show, it’s all solved by the hero in an hour or less.  But one time, I videotaped the “Mystery” television show and somehow missed the last few minutes.  You can imagine how frustrating it was for me never to find out “who done it,” the solution to the mystery.

In the Bible we are confronted again and again with what we call “The Mysteries of the Faith,” mysteries which are not meant to be solved but simply to be accepted.  In the Bible, the Greek word musterion means the thoughts and plans and arrangements of God, which, with our limited human understanding, are too profound for us to comprehend.  “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! ‘Who has known the mind of the Lord?  Or who has been his counselor?  Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?’  For from him and through him and to him are all things.  To him be the glory forever! Amen.”

Martin Luther comments on these verses: “Paul’s purpose is to show Christians that the sublime and divine mysteries of God’s essence and his will are absolutely beyond all human thought, understanding or wisdom, that they are and ever will be incomprehensible, inscrutable and altogether hidden to human reason.  When reason presumptuously undertakes to solve, teach and explain these matters, the result is worthless, yea, utter darkness and deception.  If anything is to be ascertained, it must be through revelation alone, that is, through the Word of God, which was sent from heaven.”

The greatest mystery of the faith is the mystery of salvation itself.  Ever since sin came into the world and destroyed the relationship between God and man, the question of how to be saved has troubled humankind.  Throughout history, people all over the world have sought to find a way, some way, to achieve freedom from guilt and the hope of eternal life.  In all cultures of the world religious rites and good works are performed in order to hopefully, somehow, appease the wrath of God and earn his favor and blessing.  And to our human reason, that seems like a sensible solution to the mystery of salvation: You can and must earn it yourself, simply by doing enough good in your life to outweigh the bad. 

But, God demands something that to us seems very unreasonable: absolute perfection.  On a vacation some years ago we drove across a bridge that was being repaired.  On this one bridge there was first a sign that said, “Speed Regulations in Work Zone Strictly Enforced.”  Then a sign that said, “Speed Limit 40 Miles Per Hour.”  And then a sign that said, “Minimum Speed 40 Miles Per Hour”! 

That certainly seems unreasonable to us, but that is exactly what God’s Law demands from us, spiritually: nothing less than perfection.  As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” 

But Paul says in Romans, “All of sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  So our seemingly sensible solution to the mystery of how to be saved—you can and must earn it yourself—is actually impossible.  As the hymn “Rock of Ages” says, “Not the labors of my hands can fulfill thy Law’s demands; Could my zeal no respite know, could my tears forever flow, all for sin could not atone; Thou must save, and thou alone.”

That is God’s answer to the mystery of salvation, something you won’t find in any man-made religion, something no human ever dreamed of: “Thou must save, and thou alone.”  It is not man who earns his salvation, but it is God himself who has earned our salvation for us.

When sin destroyed the perfect relationship between God and man, humankind fell under God’s wrath and damnation.  But God wanted to restore our relationship with him, so the Father sent his only-begotten Son into the world to become a human being and our Savior.  By his death and resurrection, Jesus worked out your salvation for you, earned your forgiveness, merited your pardon for you.  St. John says, “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. . .  and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from every sin.”

Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”  Jesus means that this mystery of salvation through faith in him and his sacrifice is not something to be questioned or debated or judged according to whether it seems logical or reasonable, but it is simply to be believed and accepted, like the trusting faith of a little child.  “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved.”

In addition to the mystery of salvation through faith in Christ and his sacrifice, Holy Scripture presents us with many other mysteries of the faith.  The mystery of Holy Baptism, which is not just a human rite or custom, but is actually God in action, as Peter says, “Baptism now saves you,” and as Paul says in Titus: “He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.”

The mystery of Holy Communion, which we celebrate today, in which the bread and wine do not just symbolize or represent Christ’s body and blood, but in which Christ’s body and blood are really present, in, with and under the bread and wine.  As Paul says in 1 Corinthians: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?”

The mystery of Holy Absolution, which Jesus proclaims: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  The words in our Liturgy “in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins” are at times questioned and doubted, by both visitors and members too.  But this is no Lutheran hocus-pocus.  Jesus gives to all his followers, including you, the power to forgive sins in his name.  As Jesus says in John’s Gospel: “If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven.”

The mystery of the Trinity, the teaching of the Bible that there is one God in three Persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  And yet there are not three Gods but one, which is as irreconcilable with human reason as the equation 1+1+1=1.  “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, our God is one.”  “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

The mysteries of the incarnation, God becoming flesh, and the two natures in Christ, who is God and man, divine and human.  As Paul says in Colossians, “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him,” and in 1 Timothy, “Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great: He appeared in a body.”

And the mystery of the inspiration of Scripture, which is the very Word of God but in the words of men.  “Men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”

None of these mysteries of the faith are in accord with human reason.  That is why it’s called “faith.”  As Paul says in 2 Corinthians, “We live by faith not by sight.”  And as Hebrews says, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”

These and other mysteries of the faith are not mysteries meant to be solved but simply to be accepted.  In fact, every heresy has its origin in a futile attempt to solve one of the mysteries of the faith, to somehow make it agree with human reason.

“Salvation by faith alone?  Whether or not I go to heaven doesn’t even depend on what I do?  That doesn’t make sense, that’s not even fair!”  And so arises the heresy of salvation by works. 

“How can such a common thing like the water, which just moments before came out of a faucet like any other water, actually wash away my sins?”  And so arises the heresy that Baptism is only symbolic.

“How can it possibly be that the body and blood of Christ are actually received in Holy Communion?  That is a medieval superstition.”  This is the 21st century!  And so arises the heresy that the bread and wine merely symbolize Christ’s body and blood.

“How can the minister or anyone else, who’s just as much a sinner as I am, announce to me ‘I forgive you all your sins?’  I don’t believe it.”  And so arises the heresy that Christian absolution has no divine power.

“Three-in-one?  That doesn’t make sense!”  And so arises the heresy of denying the Trinity.

“You don’t seriously believe that God became a man, that he was actually born and lived as a human 2,000 years ago?  Of course, Jesus was a great teacher, a pivotal figure in human history, but God?  How can that be?”  And so arises the heresy of denying our Lord Jesus Christ.

“Holy Scripture?  Well, every religion has its ‘holy’ books.  We must interpret the Bible like any other piece of human literature.  And so arises the heresy of denying the infallibility and inerrancy of God’s written Word.

Luther says: “We should humble ourselves before God and acknowledge that we cannot understand, we cannot teach God in such matters.  We should give him, as our God and Creator, the honor of better understanding himself and his purposes than we do . . .  Therefore, it is a shameful presumption on the part of the world to presume by its own powers to ascertain and discover God’s essence, his will, and his works, and to counsel him . . .  we should be satisfied and thank God for having given us his Word, in which he shows us what is pleasing to him and how to be saved. . .  we should confine ourselves to the revelation he has given us.”

Human reason and intellect is not the judge over Scripture but the servant of Scripture.  We do use our human reason and intellect to study and interpret the Bible, for example our ability to read the written Word.  But, the moment anything in Scripture conflicts with human reason, then we must humbly subordinate our reason to the Word of God.  To put it in the form of bumper sticker: “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.”

In 1 Corinthians, Paul says that Christian ministers such as myself are to be “stewards of the mysteries of God.”  My job is to be a steward, a waiter, serving up to you nothing but the spiritual nourishment God himself gives us in his Word.  Unfortunately, today many Christian denominations and ministers and theologians are not content to be “stewards of the mysteries of God,” to preach and teach what God says in his Word, but instead they stand in judgment over God’s Word and reject whatever they don’t understand or disagree with.  St. Paul prophesied in 2 Timothy: “For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.”

Paul tells us the right attitude in our text:  “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! ‘Who has known the mind of the Lord?  Or who has been his counselor?  Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?’”

“The Mysteries of the Faith”; not to be solved but simply accepted.

“For from him and through him and to him are all things.  To him be the glory forever! Amen.”

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