Millions of people every year enjoy a good mystery novel. It is an American genre, formed by Edgar Allen Poe and developed in hundreds of pulp paperbacks. It was adopted by the British who added a touch of class, and eventually the stories became a touchstone of western culture: The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Maltese Falcon, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Big Sleep, Ten Little Indians, The Thirty-Nine Steps, The Name of the Rose, The Nine Tailors, Murder on the Orient Express.
In America we were probably raised on mysteries. We paged through blue Hardy Boys books, that still sell over a million copies a year. The Tower Treasure
The House on the Cliff, Secret of the Old Mill. We followed Nancy Drew. But most of all, since 1969, we watched that peak of the American mystery culture: Scooby Doo, the Great Dane of Mystery, Incorporated.
All these appealed to the American need for courage and curiosity and, ultimately, explanation. We learned to love the open ended question of whodunnit, or sometimes, we knew it right from the start and had to find out how. How did they pull it off?! The suspense of the unanswered question was a joy more important than the solution (which was often a disappointing unmasking or disingenuous trick.)
Mysteries engage us. They demanded our thinking apparatus, our "little gray cells", as Poirot would say.
Today we consider the greatest mystery ever. Obviously the divine mystery of the resurrection is fabulously more important than a novel, but the ways we engage a mystery may help.
Problems we have with religious mysteries.
We need some help in this because religious mysteries are not always very engaging. Our first reactions to religious mysteries aren't very helpful.
First we want to explain them. We want the answer to who what when and how before the first chapter is finished. We reach for logical or psychological explanations for this mystery using science and metaphor and anthropology. It's mostly what you want from me in a sermon: an explanation. But like the first Easter, there often isn’t an explanation. The women were perplexed, John was amazed and who am I to understand better than they did? Explaining truly mysterious things strains the fabric of words and logic or they wouldn't be mysteries to begin with. In other words, if I could explain it in 15 minutes, it wouldn't be much of a mystery now would it?
The second approach to religious mysery is to avoid it altogether. Some of us can't stand mystery novels or shows or mysteries at all. "They have too much tension or unresolved issues and I have enough of those in my life already, thank you very much. Why would I want more confusion??" or "I am afraid that a mystery will completely conflict with my logical view of the world so why should I consider it?"
At a deeper level our response to a mystery is fear. We fear the unknown, the unexplained, the dark at the top of the stairs. When we don't know what is coming, we can feel powerless and vulnerable. Through most of a Scooby Doo mystery, Scooby Doo is cowering in terror and he is a big tough dog. Imagine how we must fear the deep mysteries of our lives.
With these responses to mystery, it's not surprising that we don't tend to dwell on them, even at Easter. I'd like to help change that.
When you take a literature class, the teacher of course wants to impart some information, but usually also wants to impart a value, an appreciation, an enjoyment. In that same fashion, I'd like to get you to like mystery more today. I'm not going to explain the resurrection, make it more understandable or even applicable in the slightest bit.
What I would like to do is to help us all enjoy mystery more, and specifically, the mystery of the resurrection. I call it "The Case of the Risen Lord." The mystery is deep and thick. We have a missing body, contradicting witnesses, confusing verbal clues, and disappearing evidence. It's a real mystery!
In the Presbyterian tradition that I come from, we have formal creeds just like the Reformed Church does. You all have the Heidelberg Catechism which begins "What is thy only comfort in life and death?" The Westminster Catechism is a set of questions and answers like the Heidelberg. Ministers forget most of the questions and answers, but we tend to remember the first one. The Westminster's first one is "What is the chief end of man?" The answer is "Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever."
Not explain, not even serve, but to enjoy!
To enjoy this mystery, we must do three things: suspend judgment, see intent, and savor impact. If you keep track of these things, they all start with the letter S.
There comes a point in any good mystery when we get the idea that things aren't really the way we thought they were. There is some very basic understanding of ours that is flawed. After reading mystery after mystery, we may begin to understand that a certain humility is in order. There are things at play that we do not now know. People turn out to be related. There is a hidden passage in the library. The guy who runs the agency actually works for the Russians. Sherlock Holmes usually gets around to telling Watson that "whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." As we follow the intrepid detectives, we learn to suspend our judgment about the probability of things. Who would have guessed that there was a monkey involved? Who would have predicted that they ALL did it? If only I had remembered that remark about the cave from the first chapter!
We live in a world that is governed by the ordinary rules we have developed to deal with ordinary situations. Generally speaking, things fall down . . . except in space, but who has been to space? Our judgments are based on experience and that experience and often limited. To really enjoy a good mystery, we need to relish the fact that there are things we don't know or forget. We do know that there will be red herrings and false leads. A rush to judgment is dangerous in any mystery and in the greatest mystery we need the greatest patience.
Usually mystery novels are about crime. A great crime has been perpetrated and it must be solved. A letter has been purloined, or a man has been murdered, or jewels stolen. But real mysteries of our life are often mysteries of grace. A child is born, a habit is broken, a love appears. Enjoying a real life mystery requires an additional dimension: Why?
In mystery novels why is often a minor point subsumed by who and how. But in life, why is a much more important factor. How do you explain falling in love? We may love our children imperfectly; we may not feed them exactly the right breakfast cereal, but the why of our mystery of love is that we really want what is best for them and that is most important. In the resurrection, however the hows and whens sort out, the why is the most important factor. For God so loved the world, that he sent his only Son.
In school, whenever we had meatloaf, we called it mystery meat. My little secret was: I liked it. I didn't know what was in it, but I really liked the meatloaf at Hufford Junior High. The proof of some puddings is in the eating and the eating of mystery is in the effect. What does a mystery do for you? Sharpen your wits? Increase your attention to detail? Savor the flavors of mystery.
When you look up on a clear night and consider the mystery of the thousands of stars in the sky, do you need it explained to have it create a sense of wonder and humility? The mystery of the creation of the universe can be enjoyed for what it does to us.
The mystery of the resurrection can have an impact on you. You can change how you think people are. It can make us a bit more humble to think that we don't have all the answers of life and death.
Suspend judgment, see intent and savor impact of the mystery.
Finally, remember that "The Case of the Risen Lord" is incomplete. We have not finished the book, the dramatic revelation has yet to be made. We are still on page 146 of a 200 page novel. What shall we do? Stop reading? Be angry that we're not at the end? What are we reading it for anyway? We are in the midst of the greatest mystery, but we are not at the end. Can you stand it?
What we have here is a wonderful, impenetrable mystery. A puzzler, a cipher, a wonderment.
Let us proclaim the mystery of the faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.