| GRAPPLING WITH THE MYSTERIES OF LIFE
By: Jerry S. Maneker
This is a sermon delivered on November 14, 2004 at the Congregational Church of Chico, in Chico, California. A
version of this sermon appeared as an article in the author’s weekly column, “Christianity and Society,” that appears in
the Sacramento Valley Mirror.
Scripture verse: Isaiah 65:17-25.
Gospel Reading: Luke 21:5-19.
In today’s reading from the book of Isaiah, God promises us that He will usher in new heavens and a new earth; old
things will not be remembered, either by us or by God Himself. This promise foretells the creation of “the Israel of God,”
as mentioned by the Apostle Paul (Galatians 6:16): those who have been called out by God to be members of His
Church, His ecclesia, His “called out ones.”
We take heart in the verse in God’s Word where the Apostle Paul tells us that in Christ, “…every one of God’s promises
is a ‘Yes.’” (2Corinthians 1:20) Hence, looking forward to the Incarnation, God, through Isaiah, promises His people that
we will realize the fruit of our labors, and that God will hear our cries and answer our deepest needs.
By being agents of God’s grace in this world, we help usher in God’s Kingdom where finally, after all of our struggles and
tribulations, “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together….” (Isaiah 65:25) The ushering in of God’s Kingdom is our
blessed hope, but Scripture makes it clear that we have many hills to climb and valleys to traverse before we reach our
Canaan, our Promised Land.
As we see from today’s Gospel reading, implacable, enduring faith in God to deliver us through, not necessarily from,
our tribulations; trusting God and His promises over and above seen circumstances, defines us as God’s men and
women, as Christians, who follow Jesus in our exhibiting love and compassion in a sin-cursed world.
There are many mysteries in this world and in our lives that will never be fathomed this side of eternity. Yet, we have
God’s promises to us to never leave our side, regardless of our circumstances, and to help us navigate the many hills
and valleys we traverse until we step into eternity and meet God face to face.
To put some perspective in our grappling with the many mysteries of life, the following verses of Scripture are of help:
“… the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he
said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! For it
is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”’ Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and
waited on him.” (Matthew 4:8-11)
The above passage of Scripture is taken from the account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. While Jesus is weak
from fasting for a long period of time, the devil tempts him to show a sign that He is the Son of God, and also tempts Him
to show trust in God by jumping off the pinnacle of the temple.
In this connection, it is interesting to note that this is the first time that Jesus is referred to as “Son of God.” That title
was hitherto appended to the emperor Augustus!
In any case, Jesus was not only tempted, as are we, when He was weak, but He never contradicted the claims made by
Satan regarding Satan’s right to give Him “all the kingdoms of the world.” In other words, from reading this passage,
from viewing world history, and from examining our own experiences in this world, we have no reason to doubt that this
world may well be in the hands of the devil. Indeed, Jesus says, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were
from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom
is not from here.” (John 18:36)
How many holocausts do we have to see, how much evil do we have to endure, to see that Satan controls this world? A
baby born with two heads and quickly dies; a father who feeds his one week old baby to a dog; corporate and other
outrages that prey on vulnerable people; a husband and father who, yesterday, buried his wife and seven children who
died in a fire in their home, cause virtually all people to question how a loving God can allow such occurrences.
Part of the news story of this latter event states: " ‘This is a day the Lord has made,’ Mr. Woerlen, 41, told the crowd
gathered in the massive church, as he choked back tears. ‘He has decided they must come home.’ He described his 39-
year-old wife as ‘a living sacrifice,’ who endured the return of the back pain that plagued her horribly as a child, every
time she went into labour with one of their many children. ‘She willingly gave herself to pain to bring forth seven
children,’ said Mr. Woerlen, a trim man with close-cropped hair and the reddened eyes of so much crying, who paused
and then began to weep.” (National Post, November 14, 2004)
Scripture shows us grappling with such questions as to why the evil prosper, why bad things happen to good people,
why we are frequently called upon to suffer. These questions concern that branch of theology called, “theodicy.”
Even a cursory reading of the Bible shows us that we don’t live in some cozy world where we can count on “the milk of
human kindness” to protect us from the savagery that, to one degree or another, resides in every human heart! Even
the avowed atheist, Sigmund Freud, concluded that we are all aggressive pleasure seekers and need various external
and internal social control agents to repress and suppress these traits, these inclinations, in order for some semblance
of civilization to exist.
Yet, we are called upon by God to be sources of grace, mercy, and love in this world in order to fulfill the ministry or
ministries to which He has called each one of us. To the degree we fulfill God’s will for our lives, it is to that degree we
truly live “the abundant life,” as well as enacting God’s will for this world as preparation for ushering in His Kingdom of
which we are assured by Scripture.
The Christian, in addition to his or her will power, has the Holy Spirit indwelling him or her Who enables that person to
transcend his or her animalistic inclinations and choose God’s ways of manifesting grace, love, and compassion. Non-
Christians must merely rely on their will power. Nevertheless, all of us are obligated to follow God’s ways, either
primarily out of loyalty to Him if we are Christians or, for non-Christians, out of acknowledgment of the need for civility in
our affairs in order for there to be some semblance of predictability that makes civilization possible.
But following God and/or exercising our will power to repress and suppress inclinations that are antithetical to God’s
ways and the possibility of having some semblance of civilization is no easy task in a sin-cursed world. This world is for
some inscrutable reason controlled by Satan! In my opinion, one can’t come to any other reasonable conclusion!
In his excellent book, Love Not the World (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1980.), the wonderful Bible
expositor and Christian martyr, Watchman Nee came to the same conclusion and wrote, “…we may say that before the
Fall there was an earth; after the Fall there was a ‘world’; at the Lord’s return there will be a kingdom. Just as the world
belongs to Satan, so the Kingdom belongs to our Lord Jesus.” (p. 16) “When we are faced with alternatives and a
choice of ways confronts us, the question is not: Is this good or evil? Is this helpful or hurtful? No, the question we must
ask ourselves is: Is it of this world, or of God? For since there is only this one conflict in the universe, then whenever
two conflicting courses lie open to us, the choice at issue is never a lesser one than: God…or Satan? (p. 20)
God shows us the way to live an abundant life, by trusting Him in all of life’s circumstances, and by loving others. We
are to never tire of doing good to and for others (Galatians 6:9) and, in so doing, reflect God’s grace to others and to
However, when God created us He took a risk! He gave us “free will!” We have the ability and capacity to choose
whether we follow God’s ways or whether we follow the ways of the world and our own desires regardless of the cost to
Unfortunately, most people choose not to follow God’s ways and choose the well traveled road that may well ultimately
lead to our collective destruction. We can’t blame God for our choices! Yes, there are occasions of God’s miraculous
intervention in our affairs, but those intrusions are not to be counted upon in our governing of our affairs and in relating
to the affairs of others.
God has made His claims upon us very clear! We are to seek His will for our lives, and we are to love and not judge
others! These claims are His recipe for living the abundant life! Indeed, adhering to these claims defines a Christian!
Yet, when looking at the human condition we can see that something has gone horribly wrong! We were created to be
perfect, living in a Garden of Eden that bespoke a perfect creation. Then, through “free will,” God’s perfect plan was
thwarted, His perfect will for us was tainted, and He adapted to our destructive willfulness by sending His Son to die for
us so that we could be reconciled to Him, as was His intention from the very beginning of creation.
Now, this is the good news of the Gospel, but it is also a wakeup call for us to appropriate God’s free gift to us by, in
fact, loving God by seeking His will for our lives, and by truly showing love and compassion to others. Our relationship
with God doesn’t merely hinge on our intellectual assent to these commandments, but to our actually living them out in
our daily, frequently confused and suffering, lives.
Yet it is particularly difficult to live out the Gospel of love when issues of theodicy (why “evil” is allowed to exist by a
loving God) are involved! These issues force us to question such mysteries as the essence of God, why we were even
born, why evil frequently seems to prosper, why we struggle and suffer, why we die, what happens to us after we die.
These are insoluble mysteries this side of eternity.
Such questions, these mysteries, leave many people in a state of helplessness, rather than in a state of awe and
wonder. Many of these people look to self-appointed or even institutionally appointed gurus or leaders to tell them how
to live, how to view life, and what to think about themselves, the world, and God.
I marvel at the resplendent churches and popular ministries of clergymen and others who fill this void for those who view
these mysteries as a source of helplessness rather than view them as a source of awe and wonder. There are those
who claim that if you have enough faith, God will make you wealthy and healthy. There are those who get handsomely
paid to teach their own philosophy of life when, in fact, they don’t have any better idea as to how to live than does
anyone else. There are those who preach a false gospel of legalism and perfectionism, falsely telling people that if they
want to please God they have to behave in certain ways, and think like they do.
The fact is that we are all struggling, we are all confused, most of us are anesthetizing ourselves with such diversions as
work, alcohol, drugs, sexual obsession, or frivolous activities to keep us from thinking about the many mysteries of life.
No one on this earth has the answers to these mysteries! One of the seductions of cult leaders, both within and outside
of the Church, is that they promise the gullible that they have the answers to these mysteries and, that by following them
and adhering to their teachings, others will be similarly enlightened.
It is at the juncture of confronting the mysteries of life with our own terminal existence here on earth, that we are forced
to make a decision. And it is a decision based on faith!
There are three possible decisions of faith one can make: one can have faith in the vehicles used to ignore the
mysteries of life; one can have faith in one’s own attributes of intellect and “reason” to confront the mysteries of life; one
can have faith in God.
For much of my life, I have relied on the first two decisions of faith to deal with my existential angst. Yet, they failed to
satisfy my desire, not for certitude, for we don’t live in “time” but we do live in “eternity,” but for some grasp or
comprehension of the fact that we are really not physical beings who may or may not be “spiritual,” but we are spiritual
beings who inhabit physical bodies.
One can only live an “abundant” life when one’s own spiritual life is in synch, or reconciled, with God Himself. Such
reconciliation is frequently the result of first having faith in one or both of the first two decisions of faith and then seeing
how they fail to ultimately satisfy. Such failure leads us, perhaps forces us, to rely totally upon God.
Not only when our backs are against the wall are we frequently forced to cry out to God, but God can, and frequently
does, come to us through revelation. Having ridiculed Christianity for most of the forty-two years of my life, I took a
chance, not needing or wanting anything, save to satisfy my curiosity, by praying, “Jesus, if you’re real, please come into
I couldn’t believe it! I tell you the truth, I was filled with a certain knowledge, an “electricity” for want of a better term, that
Jesus was who He said He was and that if you prayed to Him everything you prayed for would be granted. I still don’t
understand the latter part of my certainty, that revelation, but I sure understood and still understand the first part.
I don’t merely “believe” that Jesus is who He said he is; I “know” He is the Messiah, the Son of God! I was pacing up and
down the house, not believing God’s revelation to me. He came into me, and I knew, as I now know, that Jesus is real
and is our Deliverer, our only source of deliverance.
I know all about “the self-fulfilling prophecy,” and other assorted “rational” explanations of my experience, but I know as I
know nothing else that Jesus came into me and, for the first time, I was able to understand the Bible. As a matter of fact,
at one point shortly after God’s revelation to me, when I picked up and read the Bible it was filling me to such an extent
that I had to put it down as I thought I was going to get a heart attack.
Given my predilections and training, I certainly am not gullible! Believe me, I know what happened to me and I know the
truth of God’s revelation to me!
Since that day over twenty-two years ago, when I was so ashamed of being seen going to church, given my public
ridiculing of Christianity, that I went to a church several miles outside of Chico, though I have faltered, my knowledge of
Jesus’ saving power has never faltered!
That’s one of the reasons I take such offense at the legalists, the perfectionists, the purveyors of a false gospel that
puts people in unnecessary bondage. How we view God and the Bible are largely based on what we hear and take for
granted, and on meeting our own needs. Unfortunately, when we defer to others, be they clergymen/clergywomen or
not, or defer to our own desires to impose our sense of “order” on a universe made by a Creator “…who does great
things beyond understanding, and marvelous things without number,” (Job 9:10) we usurp the role of God.
And if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that we should never defer to any mere human being in our living out our
spiritual lives. Mere human beings, well-intentioned or not, seek to address and resolve the mysteries of life for
themselves and for us, assuming that they have a corner on the truth.
Moreover, after following many of those well-traveled roads, some people come to the point where they “take a chance,”
and make the third decision of faith. Given God’s revelation to me, I can’t say that I came to make that third decision of
faith based on my choice among rational alternatives. Moreover, although I seek to live by trusting God over and above
seen circumstances, and even after having received God’s revelation to me, I still view the many mysteries of life as both
troubling and puzzling.
It may well be that God merely wants us to acknowledge and surrender to the mysteries of life, and our temporal inability
to ever fathom them; unfailingly trusting in Him through all the many phases and dimensions of our existence, as by so
doing we may well be most closely united with Him as we will ever be this side of heaven.
Our reconciliation with God, our serving as His agents of grace in this world, is a mere prelude to the ushering in of His
Kingdom where, as God says through the prophet Isaiah, “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together….” (Isaiah 65:25)
When we inhabit the new heavens and the new earth, the New Jerusalem, the scales will finally be removed from our
eyes, and the many mysteries of this life will unfold and reveal to us that we did not fight the good fight of faith in vain.