Mysterious Ways

Sunday 20th September 2015
The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
BCP Evensong
Exodus 19.10-25
Matthew 8.23-34

"God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform", wrote hymn writer and nature poet William Cowper in 1773 who then goes on: "He plants his footsteps in the sea and rides upon the storm". Cowper was surely thinking of the first part of our Gospel reading when he wrote but few authors have had the temerity to become two entangled in the second part which deals with the healing of a demoniac or, rather, because it's Matthew who has a thing about duplicates - remember Jesus riding on two donkeys on Palm Sunday - two demoniacs. Why, for example, did Jesus transpose the evil spirits into a herd of pigs and then cause them to destroy themselves? I don't know. As Cowper says "God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform".

The problem with this line of argument is that we are beaten to intellectual pulp by atheists because we can't explain and so our reaction is to search for explanations when there aren't any. We just have to get over it, as the saying goes.

Our Old Testament reading poses the same problem in a different guise. What's the point of worship? After all, says the atheist, God is self sufficient and doesn't need it and we, being human, aren't very good at it. But the point is precisely that: in crating us as imperfect creatures so that we could worship freely, if poorly God, in a mysterious way, abandoned his logically pure form of self sufficiency in favour of something much more complex: we are part of God's self sufficiency.

Atheists offer a related line of argument when they consider the relative merits of Christians and themselves: "We don't need a God to be ethical" they say. "We are quite capable of being ethically self sufficient". To which my reply is that this is a delusion. The delusion of self sufficiency - which we might more properly call pride - is at the root of all our ethical blunders because we do not recognise that our starting point in creation is our very imperfection or, what I might more dramatically call our "brokenness". Our ethical judgments, on balance, may be no better and no worse than those of atheists but at least we know, when we think about it and pray about it, that we are broken.

Which is why our lives in Christ should be book-ended, so to speak, by the two concepts in our readings, by worship and mystery. We worship because God is mysterious, because mystery has its entitlement. Contrary to what too many Christians seem to think - and that's the key word - Christianity isn't an eternal seminar, it isn't a quest for coherence or completeness, it's a journey into our own incompleteness, into an understanding of our brokenness and the purpose of it.

Which leads me to a kind of heretical question. When the author of Genesis depicts a serpent tempting Eve to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, is it God speaking through the serpent or is it really the opposite of god which, for purposes of shorthand, we will call "The Devil"? I am inclined to think that the story of Eve is not intended to be the reporting of an event but is, rather, to use a technical term, etiological; it explains how things are as they are rather than trying to record how God thought they should be. Without the knowledge of good and evil we would just be virtuous zombies or, to use a nicer word, angels.

Mystery, then, presents us with a God to which our only transactional response can be worship; one of the purposes of creation is that we should freely worship God; but an intrinsic part of our brokenness is also our transactions with each other which constitute our imperfect project to build the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

It may seem like a somewhat unhappy state of affairs, then, but the answer to the mystery of God and the mystery of our broken lives is that there is no logical answer; but there is one more, literally crucial, piece of this existential jig-saw puzzle, and that is the death of Jesus in solidarity with our human perfection. Compared with the giving of his life, the offering of his broken body on the cross and his broken body in the Eucharist and the triumph of his Resurrection, calming storms and expelling demons is pretty small stuff. As human beings we cannot help but try to work out why things happen but creation and redemption are properly beyond us.

Which brings me full circle, back to Moses in the wilderness preparing his people for worship by cleansing themselves and back to Jesus calming a storm: we have all become involved, as broken human beings, in trying to achieve a kind of aesthetic perfection, in logical argument, in art, in the pursuit of virtue; but never forget the theorem of the greatest mathematician of the 20th Century, Kurt Godel, which states that the more perfect a thesis, the less universally applicable it is, so we can have episodes, or blotches, or glimpses, of perfection, we can know what perfection might be, but we will never achieve it while we are on earth. That is another way of saying the same thing with which I began: the only thing that can save us is our own brokenness.


  1. Heavenly Father, we thank you for the beauty of creation and for the wondrous mystery of your purpose: help us to be good stewards of your great bounty, directing our efforts to building your Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
  2. We venerate the mystery of our salvation whereby Jesus lived and died in human solidarity with our brokenness: help us to learn to see ourselves as truly broken in ourselves and truly mended in Christ's death and Resurrection.
  3. We thank you for Christ's gift to us of the Church: help us to be humble supplicants within it, offering our worship as your due.
  4. We thank you for our guides and teachers who help us to enfold ourselves in the mystery of your love: help us to be more diligent in our prayer and in our study that we might know you better.
  5. We thank you for each other and for those made in your image whom we do not yet know: help us to make a proper distinction so that we learn to love those we do not like.