Sabbath Sermon: I Cannot Tell, But This I Know

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If I were to go down from the pulpit this morning to spend some moments wandering up and down the aisles in the midst of this great congregation…

If I were to go with the intent of gathering up from you the things that are deeply troubling, the seemingly unanswerable questions, all the challenging interrogatives you live with and the things that have kept you awake at night pondering, I wonder what kind of a collection I would make?

I think I would collect questions about sufferings incurred, sufferings endured, loved ones suddenly snatched away, injustices experienced, love unrequited, destinies misunderstood, tragedies unexpected, and the grand scheme of things.

If I do not miss my guess, most of the questions you would surrender would be “Why” questions. We seem somehow better able to answer Who, What, Where, How and When questions. But the “Whys” trouble us, pickle our minds. They quickly and easily push us to the very boundaries of human knowledge and endurance.

Though our questions are troubling, I am encouraged by the realization that things have been this way for a long time. I know this because I have seen in the Bible, recorded from ancient times, some great Why questions.

There is one in the second Psalm. The Psalmist, looking out on the human horizon is constrained to ask, “Why do the heathen rage?”

42nd Psalm has a great question, too, “Why art thou cast down, O my soul?

There is the great and searing question raised up to God almost in anger by the prophet Habbakkuk “Why do the wicked prosper?”

And there is no quick answer for that awful question our Lord raised as he hung upon Calvary, “My God, My God, Why hast thou forsaken me?”

Questions like these are difficult for us and deeply troubling, but our struggle is nothing novel or new.
Things have been this way a long time for humans.

I bring this fact before you not simply to trouble you,
but so that we can face our questions together, and so that I can share some of the partial solutions that have brought me great joy, confidence, and even contentment.

Now, I have brought into the pulpit with me this morning
a very great “Why” question— one that has troubled me more than any other.

It goes like this:

Given the great issues of time and eternity, why is word from God so partial and so frail?

This question, I think, rises from the realization that the primal reality of our universe is one of silence.

Go out from among the habitations and machinations of humankind and you will find it is quiet.

In the woods, apart from some birds and brooks, it is quiet.

In the fields, it is quiet.

Up in the mountains there is a great silence.

But go still farther, up into the stratosphere, or into outer space, and you will find a silence there so profound that those who have experienced it speak of it as being oppressive. Any noise you make gets lost immediately in the vastness, and the vastness extends for light-years.

In the face of that silence, thoughtful people are constrained to ask:

Are we all alone in the universe?

Is there anything alive out there?

Is there anyone in the great beyond?

Is there any word from out there for us?

Many people are interested in this question. Animists are, for one, and they believe some people are able, by various mysterious ways, to divine messages from the spirits of living things.

Psychics are interested, what with their many and various methodologies of discovery. They are popularly consulted, but they are so often vague and wrong as to be entirely without credibility.

Scientists are interested. They have peered into the great beyond and are fascinated. They wonder if there are any other beings out there, if there is any communication to be had from the great beyond. I heard of a broadcast and listening station somewhere, beaming out friendly messages, listening with various devices. I guess the hope is that if others are out there, they will at least speak one of our languages!

So far, nothing at all.

These kinds of experiments remind me of my favorite newspaper cartoon. Two little Martians are flying toward earth talking to each other. One, speaking of Earthlings, says to the other, “We have been picking up their TV signals for years but thought we would come and check for intelligent life anyway!” Hopefully those who are broadcasting messages into space are doing better than common TV!

Those who believe in a Deity of some kind are of course interested in the question. Theists everywhere believe there is credible evidence that Someone is indeed "out there," that there IS word for us.

But my question has to do with the nature of that word. I wonder, why is it so partial, so incomplete, so tentative as never to rise to the point of being coercive?

As Christians, we believe not only that God is out there, but that he has taken pains to send word to us. We believe that the Bible is the repository of that word. We believe that the doings of God in history have been written down, and that those written accounts have been collected, and that today they are together in book form. Of course, we must be careful not to limit God to scripture alone. The doings of God surpass what is in the Bible.

That said, the fact that we have word from God is good news. I believe it, I rely on it, and I try to guide my life by it. But this belief does not come without a struggle, and the struggle is reflected in the great Why question we began with: “Given the great issues of time and eternity, why is word from God so partial and so frail?”

By this question I mean simply that word from God is of such a nature that it never rises to the level of being incontrovertible. It is never so certain as to be coercive. It is not of such detail and quality that you have no choice but to believe. It always leaves more than enough room for doubt.

Consider the Bible:

It chronicles many thousands of years of recorded human history, but consists of relatively few pages!

More has been written on things as inconsequential as the Boston Red Sox winning the World Series!

The Bible is a very complicated document.

Have you ever given the Bible to a person and told him or her to read it through? He or she will likely get through the stories of Genesis and into Exodus, but by the time they come to Leviticus and Numbers, they will wonder what you are trying to do to them!

The Bible Contains all kinds of different literature. You can find the gentle and sublime zephyrs of poetry, as well as the confusion and cacophony of apocalyptic with all its beasts and mayhem.

The record of Scripture is, by its own admission, only partial.

It appears that some written books are missing. I have in mind 1 Chronicles 29:29 that speaks of the records of the prophet Nathan and of the Seer Gad. We do not have them.

I have in mind the admission of John, as he puts it down in the last verse of each of the last chapters of his gospel.

“Jesus did many other miraculous signs in front of his disciples. They are not written down in this book.” (19:30)

What kind of talk is this?!

And 20:25:

Jesus also did many other things, that, if every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.

Some portions of scripture are, by inspired admission, very difficult to understand.

Have you ever noticed what Peter said about Paul and his writings in 2 Peter 3:16?

As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.

What does it mean when one inspired writer says this kind of thing about another?

Then there is the admission made by Paul to the Corinthians, found in I Corinthians 13:9, 12

For we know in part and we prophesy in part...Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror... Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

All this is present without even getting into the biblical challenges raised by modernism!

See, there is word from God, but that fact does not leave us without difficulty. His word is not as complete as we might wish. There are many things to which it does not speak; it is not so cogent that it cannot be doubted.

I cannot tell you how many times in my adult life I have wondered about this and wished that word from God was of such a nature as to be incontrovertible. Given the great issues of time and eternity through which we must navigate, why could God not have, in his omniscience, given us more detail— more precise information?

Think about just one issue for a moment: the issue of origins. Given all the conflict and controversy that surrounds the subject, would it have been such a hard thing for God to have made the record more specific? A date written down would have been very helpful, along with an explanation. Think of how much aggravation it would have saved us all!

This is what I have in mind when I speak of scripture being frail, partial and incomplete. How much easier would my work have been, how much clearer life would be, if revelation from God were so comprehensive that, when explained, there would be no room for doubt! How troubling it is to see so many who, when faced with these issues, give up their faith because they think revelation from God is too frail to be trusted.

To be fair and blunt, part of the reason we have problems is not because of scripture, but because of what some believers try to do with Scripture. Some there are who rail against the frailty of revelation, who contend that word from God is exhaustive, that the Bible speaks to all things, that answers to all life’s questions can be found there.

They forget that revelation NEVER rises to the level of being incontrovertible!

It is never considerable enough that it cannot be doubted.

It is never so powerful that you HAVE to believe because of it.

Even the greatest revelation of God, the person of Jesus, was of this sort. For he was himself veiled in human flesh to such an extent that even many of those who saw, heard, and spoke with him, did not themselves come to faith!

Let me borrow a metaphor from Fred Craddock:

We who believe in God,
have wished that God had broken the primal silence
with a SHOUT,
a great and mighty shout,
a stentorian bellow
but, instead, He has broken it with a WHISPER,
with whisperings now and then.

Jesus’ coming to earth amounted to a whisper out of Bethlehem.

Those who deny this, I think, have not read the Bible honestly. Perhaps they deny reality in an attempt to shore up their own courage.

I said earlier that the frailty of revelation was a hard and troubling question, but let me tell you, now: I am sleeping well these days. The question troubles me very little anymore. See, I have stumbled upon some important truths about God’s gentle word to us.

First, I have come to realize that a whisper is not an insufficient means of communication. A whisper can get important messages across quite clearly.

Consider the soldier who is in a skirmish line in enemy territory, and he hears a whisper, “Take cover!” And believing the whisper, he hides in time to watch the enemy pass by while he remains unscathed.

A whisper can also be an endearing form of communication.

Some of you, perhaps years ago now, sat with most of your appendages partially intertwined with someone elses. And in the midst of that entanglement, communication was going on in the form of whisperings. You were whispering sweet nothings.

We know now that those whisperings were not unsubstantial! We know they were endearing. We know you believed them because, when a marriage proposal came along, you accepted it. And you accepted at least partially because of those whispered sweet nothings!

So much for the frailty of whispering!

If a whisper is a substantial means of communication, and one that is often very personal, why should God not avail himself of its usefulness?

The second truth I have learned is that the tentative and partial nature of revelation can preserve us from arrogance.

Arrogance is NOT an admirable quality, but it seems to be possessed in abundance by some of God’s professed followers. How many there are who spout off exactly what God is saying, who explain what God is doing, and then tell you and me precisely what we should do.

They assemble bits and pieces from here and there, and they put them together into a neat package so that they can answer even the questions people aren’t asking.

This reminds me of a Definition for “fanatic” I once heard: “A fanatic is one who knows just what God would have done had He been as well informed!”

Such people have no humility— at least not humility of opinion. And we see them acquiring many followers and building vast kingdoms. But time reveals that the kingdoms they build are not of God but are of their own making— memorials to human arrogance.

Perhaps God, in his omniscience, couched his word in incompleteness and frailty in order to preserve his people from arrogance. We ought to be very humble about what we know, and even more humble about what we think we know!

Finally, there is a third comfort that has come to my mind as I've thought about God's word to us. It is that the tentative and incomplete nature of revelation is what leaves room for human volition. It calls for the willing risk of belief and trust. And in this crucible, love is born and love thrives.

See, there is something about volition that is truly grand. When you and I choose something, when we offer a willing compliance, a willing acceptance, a willing risk, somehow there is room for love to grow. I do not completely understand this, but I rejoice in it. The partial nature of revelation makes it necessary for us to risk belief of our own free will- to listen, believe and obey.

I quote from Craddock again:

Whoever has looked upon the crucified Jesus and said, "Son of God," has believed not just because of but also in spite of. The believer has chosen, has taken a risk, has said Yes in a world of Nos. The believer has leaned forward, heard the whisper, and trusted it to be the voice of God. (Preaching, p. 37.)

From this dynamic grow love and adoration.

Some of the most sublime thoughts a human can contemplate are those associated with the way God uses this dynamic to take people who are against him and transform them into people who are for him- who love and adore him of their own free wills.

God is enlisting our free choice to accomplish his ends. If that doesn’t fascinate you, I am inclined to ask what in the world you are doing with your life and time!

And, it seems to me, the non-coercive nature of revelation plays a key role in this eventuality. If you are struggling with sin in your life, trust in Jesus. If you are fascinated with the great love of God toward us, then trust in Jesus. Come in humility to him. He will give you a new life, and he will make you a part of his family.

Those who do this participate in the cosmic wonder of being rebels who turn into sons and daughters! If word from God was so clear and cogent as to be coercive, then even those who hated would be forced to believe. And God is not interested in that kind of universe.

As I said, these answers, however partial, have settled me.

My big “Why” question does not bother me much anymore, and the critics who agitate it don’t bother me either.

I have come to see that word from God, while it is NOT exhaustive, IS sufficient!

I understand that there are some things I cannot tell, but there are others I can know. Such knowledge is sufficient for me. I am content to believe that God knows what he is doing, and that if revelation is partial and frail, it is still considerable enough to sustain belief. I believe that the most important things we need to know about God have been made extremely clear, and that the dynamic of faith and love cannot survive coercion. I am willing to give God the benefit of the doubt, as I would to a trusted friend. I stand here and invite you to do the same.

Now before I close, I must tell you that there are some credible indications that things won’t always be the way they are now. One day the whisperings we struggle to hear will be transformed into a great and mighty shout:

For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first... (I Thess 4:16.)

Here our thoughts are projected forward to a day when there will be no more doubt, no wondering, no frailty, and nothing incomplete. On that day, all those who have leaned forward into whisperings will be made glad. They will be caught in a great up-rising of people who will go on to inhabit a kingdom of righteousness, to enjoy association together in the corridors of eternity.

So, I invite you to belief today- to a long, consistent, persistent faithfulness in the same direction, until we see God face to face.

Dave Thomas is Dean of the School of Theology at Walla Walla University. This sermon was preached in the Walla Walla University Church on April 8, 2006.



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