by David Phelps
“Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.” – Mother Teresa
This past year, during preparations for the annual “hanging of the greens” at church, Tom and I were in charge of setting up the Christmas tree and untangling the lights. I don’t know much about Hell but I’m pretty sure there are hopelessly tangled Christmas lights there and that poor doomed souls are forced to untangle them for all eternity. It would be something close to Hell for me, anyway; either that or being lost forever with no map, directions, or anyone to ask. I hate both situations and either would be about as close as I would ever want to come to Hell.
At one point, I wondered aloud how the strands had gotten so tangled. If it took so much time and effort to untangle them, surely they couldn’t have gotten that way by chance, could they? Tom simply replied, “God only knows and He’s not telling,” and we got back to work untangling the strands. No one—except God—knows how the strands get so tangled or why there’s usually at least one burned out bulb on each when there weren’t any burned out bulbs last year. This is—at least in part—a request for whoever takes down the lights and puts them away this time around: Please try not to get them quite so tangled. I might have to untangle them again next year.
There are a number of mysteries in the Christian faith, things we don’t understand, things God isn’t telling. Then again, if there weren’t, it wouldn’t be the Christian faith; it would be the Christian knowledge. Many if not most of these mysteries have to do with Jesus’ return. The original disciples wanted answers and they wanted them now. Quite honestly, they sound a lot like me. Faith comes hard for me; I want to know, not just believe, and I want to know now. And yet, I realize that’s simply not the way things work. There were times when Jesus told the disciples, in essence, “God only knows and He’s not telling,” (Mark 13:32, Acts 1:7). He said to them, “Yes, I will return some day but you don’t need to worry about when.” His last instruction to Peter was not “Wait for my return” but “Follow me.” (John 21:19). Luke puts it more bluntly in Acts, Chapter 1, when he has the angels ask the disciples, who are staring at the sky where Jesus ascended for the last time, “‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?’” (Acts 1:11 ESV).
Paul writes to the early Christians about “mysteries” numerous times. For example, he tells the Corinthians “Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.” (1 Cor. 15:51-52a ESV). He writes about the mystery of salvation of the Gentiles at length to the Ephesians in Chapter 3 of his letter to that church and closes his letter by urging them, “To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel,” (Eph. 6:18b-19 ESV). And he tells the Colossians, “Continue steadfastly in prayer, . . . pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, . . . that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak.” (Col. 4:2a, 3b, 4 ESV).
We don’t have to know or understand everything as long as we tell what—and who—we do know. Our mission is not to stand around waiting for the end but to work and pray and serve in the now, not to wait for something to happen but to make it happen. We are not commanded to stare at the sky but to redirect our gaze down to earth, not to wait but to follow; to open our mouths “boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel,” the mystery of what—and who—we know. We believe that all will be made clear someday. John wrote in Revelation, “And the angel . . . swore by him who lives forever and ever, . . . that there would be no more delay, but that . . . the mystery of God would be fulfilled, just as he announced to his servants the prophets.” (Rev. 10:5a, 6a, 6c, 7b ESV). But for now, faith will have to be enough. And in the meantime, the old hymn “We’ll Understand It Better By and By” says it well:
“By and by, when the morning comes,
when the saints of God are gathered home,
we'll tell the story how we’ve overcome,
for we’ll understand it better by and by.” (Charles Albert Tindley, 1905.)