“God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform.
He plants his footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm
Deep in unfathomable mines of never-failing skill,
he treasures up his bright designs, and works his sov’reign will.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take; the clouds ye so much dread
are big with mercy and shall break in blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust him for his grace;
behind a frowning providence he hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast, unfolding ev’ry hour;
the bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flow’r.
Blind unbelief is sure to err, and scan his work in vain;
God is his own interpreter, and he will make it plain.”
If you filled out your “Bible or Not” quiz and marked the phrase “God works (or moves) in mysterious ways” as a “not,” you were correct. This phrase is not in the Bible. It was made popular in the 1700s by the hymn quoted above. It’s called “Light Shining Out of Darkness” and was written by William Cowper (pronounced cooper), one of England’s most beloved poets.
But, even though this phrase isn’t taken directly from Scripture, we can find a lot in Scripture that supports Cowper’s words. According to Isaiah, God tells us that our ways of thinking and acting are not the same as God’s. “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways,” says the Lord, according to Isaiah. So, from the outset, we’re dealing with someone who is unlike us. And anyone who is unlike us is, at least to some extent, a mystery to us. But, we also worship a God who has demonstrated over and over again a desire to dispel some of that mystery and to be intimately known.
We affirm our belief that God takes an active role in the world. But, if you’re like me, you may have some conflicting feelings about that. I’m plenty grateful to God when someone walks away from a terrible accident without a scratch, or a child survives and thrives in spite of what was thought to be a fatal illness, or an addict gets and stays clean, or survivors of a disaster are rescued long after hope has died. But, what do I do with the person who didn’t walk away, the child who didn’t make it, the person who relapsed, the disaster site that’s sealed with a memorial to dead?
Often we say, “Well, that was God’s plan.” I’ve never found that to be an acceptable response. In fact, I think it can be a terribly hurtful response. Because the God I know wouldn’t plan for anyone to suffer injury or pain or addiction or abandonment. When my mom reached the point in her dementia where she couldn’t speak, couldn’t move, couldn’t smile or cry, her sister, my aunt, said sadly, “I can’t understand what God wants to teach us from this.” I don’t believe God ever says, “Well, this bunch needs to learn a lesson, so I’ll just give their loved one a terrible illness.” No. I just can’t accept that as “God’s plan.”
But, I also can’t let go of my conviction that God takes a deep and personal interest in what happens to each of us, and that God can and does act in the world. So, when all of my questioning leaves me with no answers, I end up with Cowper’s words: “God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform.”
The Jews of Isaiah’s time must have been asking the same kinds of questions we ask when things go badly. Our reading for today comes from what is sometimes called Second Isaiah. Isaiah is such a long book that scholars divide it into two or three sections. In the first 39 chapters, the prophet speaks words of warning about how the Jewish people’s behavior is courting disaster. The rest of the book is called Second Isaiah, and it focuses on the time when the prophecies have come to pass. The temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed and many of the skilled and wealthy Jewish people had been taken to Babylon as exiles. The poor and the unskilled had been left behind to fend for themselves in a ruined city.
So, both the exiles and the left-behinds must have been wondering the same thing. How could this have happened? They were God’s chosen people! They’d been promised land and prosperity and peace! How could they end up as exiles and prisoners, or as refugees in their own devastated city? Did the God they worshipped—the God who had brought their ancestors out of Egypt, fed them manna when they were hungry, and led them into a land of milk and honey—cause all these bad things to happen to them, just to teach them a lesson?
Isaiah, who for 39 chapters had warned them of the likely consequences of their bad behavior, might have said, “In this matter at least, God’s ways are not so mysterious. You were warned, you ignored the warnings, and bad things happened as a result.” But, in Second Isaiah, the prophet speaks God’s words of rescue. God is going to forgive these people and restore them and offer them—once again—abundant, joyful life.
Now, there’s a mystery for you. Why on earth would God bother with these people, who time after time would prove themselves unfaithful, forget who they are, sink beneath the consequences of their sin, and then cry out for help? Would we be so forgiving? Would we be so patient and loving? It’s a mystery how God put up with them through all the unfaithfulness.
Fortunately, for them and us, God doesn’t think the way we think or act the way we act. Where we are judgmental, God judges righteously. Where we see a lost cause, God sees potential for the future. Where we see a hopeless case, God sees a case for hope.
And then God acts on what God thinks. God saves. God redeems. God invites. Listen to these words, which come just before our passage: “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.” That God would offer all that to people who turn their backs on God is truly a mystery to us. But God’s ways are mysterious to us because they are so unlike our ways.
When you think about it, though, is God such a mystery really? Oh, I know that there’s a point in our understanding that we can’t get beyond. God is so much greater than our human minds can comprehend. When I think about the transcendence of God, I feel the way I do when look at the photographs from the Webb telescope. I just can’t wrap my mind around how I can see a picture of light generated billions of years ago! And, I can’t wrap my mind entirely around the God who created that light and the space that contains it. Truly, “God moves in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform.”
But, the thing about God is that God doesn’t want to remain a mystery to us. God keeps finding ways to reveal God’s self to us. The whole Bible is the story of God showing us, in countless ways, who God is.
God’s nature is revealed through the wonders of creation, described in the words of Genesis and the prophets and the psalmists. Who are we that God is mindful of us and creates a world of such incredible beauty for us to revel in? We could exist in a world without color, without the perfume of flowers, without the sound of music, without the delicious flavors of a near-endless variety of foods, but God created all these and then gave them to us to enjoy. Even if the way God created everything from nothing remains mysterious, the fact that God did reveals God’s creative power. And, more than that, God’s creation reveals God’s delight in beauty and God’s desire that we should delight it in, too. There’s no mystery about that.
God is revealed in our human capacity for loving relationship, for we are created in the image of our Triune God—one God in three persons. God is love. God is connection. God is embracing and hand-holding and bridge-building. God is revealed in every loving, grace-filled relationship that we are part of or that we witness. There’s no mystery about that.
God is revealed in God’s law. In the law, God revealed what is close to God’s heart. It reveals that God wants us to be faithful to God alone—to make God the only object of our worship and the only authority on how we should live. And, God wants us to be just and compassionate in our dealings with others. The law gives us a glimpse into the heart of God. There’s no mystery about that.
God is revealed in the stories of Scripture. The revelation isn’t so much in each story individually, because each story comes from a particular time and place and culture. But, the revelation comes in the overarching themes of Scripture: that God created the world and cares for it. That God created us and loves us. That God has never given up on trying to gather the world to God’s self. Over and over again, we read the stories of God forgiving sinful human beings and giving us another chance to be what God has created us to be. Over and over again in the Biblical saga we see God working to draw us closer. There’s no mystery about that.
God was most clearly revealed in the human face of Jesus. When we were unable to see God clearly in creation and the law and Scripture, God came to us as a human being so that we would have a living, breathing person to help us better understand God’s ways and God’s thoughts so that we can make ours more like them. There’s no mystery about that.
God has done so much to disperse the clouds of divine mystery but, still, we have questions. We still find ourselves mystified by things that we can’t explain—things we call miraculously good or disastrously bad. If, as Cowper said, “God is his own interpreter,” then when will God make things plain?
Jesus often taught in parables, and sometimes they left his listeners wondering the same thing. His parables even left the disciples wondering why he didn’t just come right out and say what was on his mind. Our Gospel passage for today comes after the disciples had asked him to explain his parable about the seeds that fell on different kinds of soil. In that case, Jesus did explain it to them, but then he offered them an assurance. He said, “Nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, and there’s nothing secret that won’t become known and come to light.” Then he gives some advice: “Pay attention to how you listen.” This is good advice for us when we are confronted with what we might feel are God’s mysterious ways.
I’ve mentioned before that my husband and I enjoy watching police and detective dramas on TV—basically, they’re all mystery stories of one kind or another. These stories all have certain patterns in common, and Marc and I have gotten pretty good at paying attention to them. This often enables us to solve the mystery way ahead of the detectives on the screen.
We can use the same detective skills when we’re pondering God’s ways, because God has a consistent M.O. Psalm 25 even spells it out for us: “All the ways of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness.” We can expect that all of God’s ways will be consistent with who God is: loving, compassionate, and just. It is impossible for God to act in ways that are other than that. There is no mystery about that.
So, we can pay attention to the evidence of that pattern that God leaves everywhere. We find God’s fingerprints in the medical advances that help our bodies, and we feel God’s touch in the loving comfort and support of other people when medicine fails. We see God’s footprints when someone walks away from a destructive lifestyle. We witness God’s care for creation in the actions of those who work to protect our environment and slow climate change. We see God’s generosity and hospitality when resources are shared, opportunities are expanded, and invitations are extended. We hear God’s voice when people cry out for justice. God’s DNA is all over our lives and our world, and we simply need to use our spiritual detective skills to identify it.
But, just as a detective can interpret the clues of a case in multiple ways, we can interpret what we see of God in different ways. Jesus tells us to pay attention to how we listen—to how we perceive and make sense of what is in front of us, because the ways in which we hear and see have consequences for how we understand God’s thoughts and ways. Jesus cautioned his disciples to take care, saying that “to those who have, more will be given; and from those who do not have, even what they seem to have will be taken away.”
The better we listen and watch for God all around us, keeping in mind God’s nature and trying to think as God thinks, the more understanding we will be given. But, “leaning on our own understanding” (as Proverbs warns against), offers no real understanding at all, and we’ll lose what understanding we seem to have.
And, there’s more to lose than that. If we act as though creation is ours to exploit however we wish rather God’s own property left in our care, we’ll lose its beauty and bounty. If we treat others as less deserving than ourselves, we’ll create a culture that is devoid of justice and righteousness. If we refuse to even try to think as God thinks and follow in God’s ways, we’ll lose our moral authority in the world. If we neglect God’s thoughts and God’s ways, we will lose what we seem to have.
I don’t expect ever to really understand how the Webb telescope can show me light that’s billions of years old. I find it hard to understand how someone’s heart can be so grace-filled that they can forgive the murderer of a loved one. It’s a mystery to me how some people can be so compassionate and committed that they’ll risk their lives for others.
It’s also a mystery to me that God chose to come to us in the person of Jesus, who perfectly conveyed God’s radically loving thoughts and who lived a life that perfectly mirrored God’s ways. And, most mysterious of all is that, when those who couldn’t bear the prospect of God’s ways and God’s thoughts upending the world that seemed to be theirs, and they murdered Jesus on the cross, God used the death of God’s own Son to forgive and redeem and save a sinful world. That is a mystery.
But, God’s ways become less mysterious when we remember Jeremiah’s words in Lamentations: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is God’s faithfulness.” God reveals this faithfulness in every place, in every event, in every moment. God doesn’t want to remain a mystery to us. God wants us to know God’s thoughts and ways, so that we may adopt them as our own. And so, God reveals God’s self to us whenever we “seek the Lord while he may be found, and call upon him while he is near.” Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young