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Riddle of Christ
December 3, 2000
By Tony Grant
I now invite you to turn in your bibles to Psalm 25 and follow along as I read verses 1-10. Hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
1 Unto thee, O LORD, do I lift up my soul.
2 O my God, I trust in thee: let me not be ashamed, let not mine enemies triumph over me.
3 Yea, let none that wait on thee be ashamed: let them be ashamed which transgress without cause.
4 Show me thy ways, O LORD; teach me thy paths.
5 Lead me in thy truth, and teach me: for thou art the God of my salvation; on thee do I wait all the day.
6 Remember, O LORD, thy tender mercies and thy lovingkindnesses; for they have been ever of old.
7 Remember not the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions: according to thy mercy remember thou me for thy goodness' sake, O LORD.
8 Good and upright is the LORD: therefore will he teach sinners in the way.
9 The meek will he guide in judgment: and the meek will he teach his way.
10 All the paths of the LORD are mercy and truth unto such as keep his covenant and his testimonies.
Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to God.
Back in 1991, in one of the hottest summers on record, a solid ice pack blocked the sea lanes leading to northern Labrador. And it brought the summer voyage of Myron Arms and his companions on his 50-foot sailing cutter to an abrupt halt.
"That's not just ice out there," Myron lamented to a shipmate, "it's a virtual barrier of ice, covering up to 90 percent of the sea in places. Ice so sharp it could slice through our sailboat's fiberglass hull like a knife through putty."
Since the ice pack broke up most years, it seemed inexplicable that it did not in 1991. For Arms and his crew, the ocean of ice brought frustration, but for the people living along more than 600 miles of Labrador's eastern coast, it brought real hardship. There are no roads in that part of the world; everything comes in and goes out by boat or small aircraft. Emergency supplies could be ferried in by commercial airlift, but all the heavier items, the normal requirements of daily life, needed freight boats, which did not come that summer, nor did the local fishing boats head out to sea. The economy of the whole area took a deep plunge as the ice made a shambles of the mainstay fishing industry. A whole summer season was lost. It was the worst year for ice in memory.
Myron Arms and his crew had no choice but retreat. After waiting nearly four weeks for the ice to clear, they were out of time. But as they sailed homeward, Arms found himself fixated on the "why" behind the phenomenon that had stymied them. In the three years that followed, Arms sought answers from the best scientists and climatologists around, people who shared their time and knowledge generously with him.
What he found, though, was that no one knows for sure what was going on that year, or, in the longer view, what is happening with the ice year after year. There are plenty of theories, and by the time Arms headed north again in the same small boat three years later - this time to find the passage open - he had learned all of them. In his book about that voyage, Riddle of the Ice (New York: Doubleday, 1998), he not only recounts the journey, but also explains each of the theories. These include fascinating accounts of the mechanics of ocean currents and world weather systems, and of the migration of pilot whales. He introduces us to the Great Conveyor Belt theory of oceanic water flow. He explains why the Atlantic is saltier and warmer than the Pacific, and, he considers the latest scientific reasoning on global warming.
But in the end, he is no closer to a reliable answer than when he first bumped up against the ice pack three years before. "For every question answered by the experts," Arms writes, "two more had risen to take its place. For every conclusion drawn in the scientific literature, twice as many had been qualified or contradicted or postponed, pending further study."
Two things he did learn, however. First, the answer, if it is ever found, will likely not be simple. Second, we can make a certain kind of peace with complexity. We generally crave simple answers to problems. We like politicians who tell us our problems are simple. That was one of the most attractive things about Ross Perot, when he ran for President. "Just do it," he said, "It is simple." Unfortunately, not every problem has a simple answer and not everything is simple. There is an inherent messiness about the world. We like to think in linear terms but the world is always nonlinear. We like to have everything neatly solved and wrapped up, but the world always seems to have a lot of dangling loose ends. And we may just have to accept that.
Advent also have a lot of dangling loose ends, and unanswered questions: Why would God send a Savior into the world without doing more to ensure the immediate success of his mission? What was the mission of this savior? Or, how about this: Why does God intervene in human affairs at all? Why does God care? What does Bethlehem mean anyway? Myron Arms spoke of 1991's wall of sea ice as an "unsettling anomaly." Is that not just what Christ is? An anomaly. Something that occurred once, and is not going to reoccur. God is not going to do the Babe of Bethlehem again. He has already done that once, for us and for our salvation. Christ is an anomaly and a riddle. Myron Arms titled his book Riddle of the Ice, because there were some things that neither he nor those he consulted understood about the icepack of the northern latitudes. My sermon today is about the "Riddle of the Christ." Much about Christ, about his coming into the world and living among us as God incarnate, we do not understand. Even the genealogies given for him in Matthew and Luke do not make any sense. The genealogies are genealogies of Joseph, and Jesus was not the son of Joseph. So what is Christ? A riddle, an anomaly.
Thus we must stand with the psalmist who pleads in vs 4-5 of PS25: "Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long."
Psalm 25 is an acrostic. This special literary form begins each line of the psalm with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. That is a point that we miss if we only read our Bibles in translation. It may be a moot point however.
The theme of Psalm 25 is the teaching of God. The psalmist continually asks God for enlightenment. V 4 says, "Show me thy ways, O LORD; teach me thy paths." And v5 says, "Lead me in thy truth, and teach me." V8 says, "Therefore will he teach sinners in the way," and v9 says "The meek will he teach his way." So the emphasis throughout the psalm is that if we seek God's instruction, God will gives us his wisdom and guidance.
Another common image in this Psalm is the "way" or "path" upon which God leads the righteous. Again, v 4 says, ''Show me thy ways, O LORD; teach me thy paths," and v10 says, "All the paths of the LORD are mercy and truth unto such as keep his covenant and his testimonies." The term "path" refers to God's manner or method of guiding his people. God is not with us just on certain occasions. God is always with us to show us the right path, that is to help us to make the right decisions.
If I open a highway atlas to a map of the United States, one which shows the Interstate system, and ask you to point out a route that you would take to drive from York SC to Los Angeles, you could probably rather quickly identify a good route. You might also identify some bad routes. You might say, well you do not want to go to LA by way of New York, for example. God has given us an atlas to live by. To help us avoid the detours and bad routes of life. This atlas is the Bible. Today's Scripture says: "Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths" (Psalm 25:4). There are at least three excellent paths found in PS25: The way of "steadfast love," the path of "faithfulness," and the route of following God's laws, keeping his "covenant and his decrees" (v. 10). All of these paths lead us closer to God's Son, Jesus Christ, the one whose birthday we will be celebrating at Christmas.
We did not read v12 today, but in v12 the author of the Psalm brings up an idea that is found frequently in the OT, namely, the fear of the Lord. Thus v12 says, "What man is he that feareth the Lord? Him shall he teach in the way that he shall choose." And again v14 says, "The secret of the Lord is with them that fear him: and he will show them his covenant." People who have been instructed by God are people who live in awe of God. The instruction of God leads us to some sense of what God is and that always produces a reverence for God.
Now you might ask the question: How does God instruct us? By what means does God instruct us. Inwardly he uses the Holy Spirit to make us aware of his presence and his will. Outwardly he uses the Bible and the community of God's people, the church.
The Jews call the first five books of the Bible the Torah. The root meaning of the word Torah is "instruction." It is the same root for the term "instruction" which occurs in PS25:8. The Bible is God's Instruction book. This Bible, this book of instructions, is also the blueprint of the covenant community, bound together by the Hebrew calls "chesed." "Chesed" is God's steadfast covenant love and faithfulness. The term is mentioned so often in the Psalms, and mentioned in PS25 in v6: "Remember, O LORD, thy tender mercies and thy lovingkindnesses; for they have been ever of old." Sometimes in the KJV the hebrew word "Chesed" is translated as "Mercy." Thus v7 says, "Remember not the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions: according to thy mercy remember thou me for thy goodness' sake, O LORD." The word "mercy" is the Hebrew "chesed" the verse could be translated, "Forgive my sins, o Lord, because of your steadfast or unfailing love. All our dealings with God's mercy are dealings with God's love. And the basis for any community of God's people is "chesed"--love. Those who live in awe and reverence of God are bound together in a covenant of love.
Another term with deep meaning found in Psalm 25 is the verb "rkz" translated by the NRSV in verse 6 as "be mindful," and in verse 7 as "remember." One of the many nuances of this verb is its connection to the Israelite notions of time and eternal life. In ancient Israel, one attained immortality not by being resurrected into an eternal afterlife, but by being part of the future life of the people through one's descendants who would "remember" that person. Someone who was not "remembered" ceased to exist. But one who had descendants became immortal through the continued life of the community.
In verses 6-7, the psalmist begs God to remember, not his sins or iniquities, but himself. He is praying that God will give him immortality by remembering him, but that his sins will cease to exist because God chooses not to remember them. The reason he may appeal to God for this is that God's covenant faithfulness, God's chesed890-=/.,,,,,, is "from of old." It is forever.
"Forever," for us, is a concept that stretches from now into the future. For the ancient Israelites, it was a concept that stretched backward in time. For them, immortality meant becoming part of the infinite past, where the righteous gained immortality in the remembrance given them by their descendants. Remembrance was life, and for that reason God's remembrance brings eternal life, and God's non-remembrance of sins brings eternal forgiveness.
The NT makes explicit what the OT hints at. Christ is Gods eternal life and God's forgiveness. Let us seek God's instruction then about the "Riddle of Christ." Earlier we mentioned some questions about Christ. There is nothing wrong with such questions. Our questions about Christ take us on a voyage into the mind of God, and give us a fresh look at why a Savior unexpectedly appeared in Bethlehem of Judea. We do not necessarily receive answers to our questions, but at least the questions help us to look at Christ in a different and hopefully deeper way.
We cannot begin to understand the Babe of Bethlehem without remembering that God is a God of paradox. The Christmas story is full of anomalies. The angelic choir appears to the shepherds to announce the birth of the Christ child. These shepherds were poor and illiterate men. They were what we would call today marginalized members of that society. There is a message about Christmas in that choir singing to those shepherds.
When the shepherds find the Child, he is where they might find one of their flock: in a place that was shall we say inelegant, a smelly shelter for farm animals. There is a message about Christmas in the fact that Jesus was born in a stable.
Neither the religious establishment nor the political powers were present for the birth of the Messiah. It was not that they refused to come; they were not invited. There is a message there too.
When God could have intervened in human history by divine decree. When God could have broken open the skies and used a legion of angels to bring about his will, he chose instead to use the vehicle of human flesh.
Still, after years and years of Christmases, we are no longer surprised by these paradoxes. What continues to astound us instead, and to soak up a lot of our daily energy, is how our own lives can be so complex and ragged around the edges. Our lives tend to have a lot of dangling loose ends and seem to be going in many directions. But what can yet astonish us even more is that somehow that which began with the birth in Bethlehem can give us an anchor for our lives, a center that holds when all around is as unstable as last season's ice.
Myron Arms made his second voyage with a crew of four, all young adults. One of these, identified only as "Blue," became argumentative and surly every time Arms as skipper decided it was necessary to run the sailing vessel's diesel engine. Finally, Arms confronted the young crewman. He learned that Blue was one of these idealistic young people who very concerned for the environment. Blue found it especially irksome that on a voyage to raise consciousness about the buildup of greenhouse gasses, Arms would run a diesel engine at all. Like any motor running on fossil fuel, that engine contributed 22 pounds of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere for each gallon of fuel it consumed.
Myron Arms pointed out that he actually agreed with Blue in pure theory, but he also lived with the contradictions of modern existence. The crew, each of whom had other obligations in the fall, would not have been able to come on the voyage without the certainty that a schedule could be kept, even when wind died--so they had to have the engine. Arms went on to say that the choices humans face regarding their impact on the environment do not yield to simple yes or no answers. We live with the complexity.
And we do in areas beyond the environment as well, including in the realm of the spirit. In the face of the contradictions of life, we embrace the Christ of Bethlehem by faith, and then to pray, along with the psalmist, "Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation" (vv. 4-5).
And what does God promise when we come to him in this way. He does not promise easy answers. He does promise help, courage, hope, faith, forgiveness. He promises all the important stuff. He promises his love. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified, November 30, 2000