Jesus gives mysteries and puzzles.

Twenty years ago, my husband and I remodeled a hoarder house. It was one of those homes that was piled with decades of personal items, family memories and rubbish. By the time we owned it, it had mostly been cleared away. However, the attic and outbuildings were still jammed full of stuff.

It was the day I tackled one of the collapsing sheds. Immediately in front, where the sunlight fell, there were stacks and stacks of bulgy, black plastic trash bags. A quick investigation revealed they contained the contents of kitchen cupboards and drawers from ten years prior. I did a cursory rummage of the bags before piling them in the dumpster. It was gross, and I was in no mood to pull each item out of the individual bags. After the third bag, I quit looking inside each one.

After I cleared the twenty or so bags of decades old trash piled in the entrance of the shed, I saw that there were older contents in the back. Instead of newer trash bags, these were old cardboard boxes. They were falling apart in the damp. I grabbed at them to continue my cleaning purge. I was tired, filthy and ready to toss everything.

However, in the first box, my eye caught a glimmer of gold. Curious, I peeled back the newspaper stuffing and gasped. Before my eyes was a dinner plate of my grandmother’s china! It was her exact pattern that I had never seen anywhere else. I carefully pulled it out and prodded deeper into the box, pulling out dish after dish of dainty pink flowered bowls, cups, platters and lids. Whoever had owned this house had the same china pattern my grandmother had collected in the 1930’s. The content of the boxes doubled my grandma’s set. In the dark shadows of this abandoned and forgotten shed, I had found family treasure.

Today, I have since inherited my grandmother’s china set, including all the pieces I came upon at the back of that shed. It means more to me now than just a family heirloom, because of my personal discovery and surprise additions. I appreciate it more because I found it myself.

Personal discovery of something often develops attachment. In our spiritual lives, personal discovery is the root of our connection to God. Or, in Jesus’ words, it is the soil. Puzzling out for ourselves who God is and how we can connect with him is in the ground of each person. Like real dirt, our search for God is often murky, dark and hard. Sometimes, we only have a glimmer to follow. However, Jesus assures us that God is at work in the shadows. Although hidden, God can be found. We just have to look.

In Mark 4, Mark gives us another sandwich. A Markan sandwich is a literary device that bookends two stories together to clarify meaning. The meat of meaning is in the middle.

  • In Mark 4:1-9, Jesus tells the parable of soils.
  • In Mark 4:10-12, Jesus explains why he uses parables.
  • In Mark 4:13-20, Jesus explains the parable of soils.

In this post, we will look at the meat of the sandwich, the middle. Why does Jesus teach using parables? Because mysteries and puzzles are how we discover and grow a personal connection to God.

Mark 4:1-12 says,

And again, [Jesus] began to teach along the sea. And so large of a crowd was gathered, he got in a boat to sit in the sea while the crowd was on the shore facing the sea. Then he taught them many things in parables.

He said to them in his teaching, “Listen up! Look! A sower went out to sow. And it happened that as he sowed, one [seed] fell along the road and the birds came and devoured it. And another fell on the rocks where it did not have much soil. It quickly grew because it did not have deep soil. Then, after the sun rose, it was fried. Because it did not have roots, it shriveled up. And another fell among the thorns. The thorns grew and choked it, and it did not give fruit. And the others fell into the good soil, and were giving fruit, growing, increasing, and bearing thirty, sixty and one hundred!

Then he said, “Whoever has ears to hear, listen up!”

Privately, those around him with the Twelve, were asking him about the parables.

And he said to them, “To you is given the mystery of the kingdom of God. But to those outside, everything is in parables, so that they might see, yet not perceive. Also, they might hear, yet not understand. Otherwise, they would turn and be forgiven.”

Jesus used puzzling stories called parables to obscure his teaching. He gives mystery to those who ask to know more, not direct answers. To those who are part of the larger crowd seeking miracles and wonderous signs, his teaching seems cryptic and ambiguous. It is not clear and immediately understood.

Why does Jesus obscure his teaching in riddles and puzzles? Why are the things of God so cryptic and hard to understand?

A mystery invites discovery.

Like a seed in the soil, God is at work in hidden places. Jesus’ mystery and puzzles reflect a God who hides. Isaiah 45:15 outright states that God hides. The Psalmist asks again and again, “God, why do you hide yourself…? (Ps 10:1)” “When you hid your face, I was dismayed. (Ps 30:7)” “Why do you hide your face? (Ps 44:24)” Jesus says that God is pleased to hide from some who even witness his miracles! (Matthew 11:25-26).

God is like the precious china I saw glimmering in the old box at the back of that shed. God is a hidden treasure (Matthew 13:44).

Jesus assures us that those who look, will find him (Matthew 7:7). Here in Mark 4:12,  Jesus confirms that those who look to understand and hear to comprehend, will turn to God and find forgiveness. He invites the multitude of his followers to listen! Look! Discover! He welcomes detectives to probe the mystery of God. God is found only by those who look for him.

Puzzles allow resistance.

Remember, the book of Mark presents a dissonant gospel. Jesus teaches good news that is hidden in mystery. There is a tension between calling everyone to listen and then veiling the message in puzzles. Jesus wants all to follow him, but he knows that not all will. He does not turn away those whom he knows will be lost, but he obscures meaning so they will not be coerced.

Paul K. Moser asks the question “Why isn’t God more obvious?” His short answer is that knowing God is relational, intimate, personal, and voluntary. God will not coerce a relationship from us. To have a real connection with God, we must be free to choose to love and trust him.

In the words of C.S. Lewis, an obvious God would be so beautiful and terrible that no choice would be left us. He writes,

“… I wonder whether people who ask God to interfere openly and directly in our world quite realize what it will be like when He does. When that happens, it is the end of the world… it will be God without disguise; something so overwhelming that it will strike either irresistible love or irresistible horror into every creature. It will be too late then to choose your side.” (Mere Christianity, end of book 2)

Mysteries and puzzles allow people the freedom to discover more … or to resist. Jesus’ parables grant us the choice. Like the box of precious dishes I found at the back of that shed, parables offer a glimmer to investigate. They motivate us to keep searching through the dark places to find where God is hiding.

Like real dirt, our search for God is often murky, dark and hard. Sometimes, we only have a glimmer to follow. However, Jesus assures us that God is at work in the shadows. Although hidden, God can be found. We just have to look.

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