Counterfeit Christianity - Mysticism

Mark 4:26 He also said, "This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. 27 Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. 28 All by itself the soil produces grain-- first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. 29 As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come." 30 Again he said, "What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. 32 Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade." 33 With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. 34 He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.

Years ago, a former Sunday School teacher in my previous congregation called me up to say, “Pastor, I want to get a divorce.” Before I could pick up my jaw from the floor, she added, “I’m not happy in my marriage and God wants me to be happy.” That is mysticism. Mysticism is putting feelings over God’s facts.

When I confronted a former confirmand about his lack of worship attendance, he explained, “I don’t need to go to church to be close to God. I’m a big hunter and God is all around me in nature. When I’m outdoors, I can talk to God and God can talk to me.” That is mysticism. Mysticism is finding God’s presence in anything.

Over the years I have had numerous conversations with people asking me what God has to say about gay marriage or the roles of women in the church or other timely social issues. But really, they weren’t asking what God had to say. They were more wondering how they could get God’s thinking to conform to their way of thinking. That is mysticism. Mysticism is substituting our words for God’s words.

There have also been plenty of people who believe that God is giving them signs when the sun is shining or they’ve recovered from a serious illness or they have a strange feeling in their heart. But all of those could be explained away as coincidence or modern medicine or gas. Yet this kind mysticism abounds within our culture … even within our Christianity.

“Mysticism is the belief that direct knowledge of God, spiritual truth, or ultimate reality can be attained through subjective experiences of God or something godlike” – Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary. Mysticism is nothing more than worship of our emotions.

Mysticism has found many ready listeners in American culture because our culture is a melting pot of trying to feel good. Bruce Jenner, the head of the NAACP in Spokane, and a whole litany of other examples are proof that we have made feeling good into an art form.

Mysticism affects Christians as much as it does non-Christians. We spend just as much time casting about for something to consume that will make us feel better. That is our way of life. It is our economy, our national pastime, and our greatest export. We believe, teach, and confess that discomfort and any type of negativity is bad, and that happiness is our highest goal and achievement. We’ve become so successful at it that we assume God approaches religion the same way.

Why wouldn’t God want me to be happy? Why wouldn’t God want to meet my needs and take away my worries? Why would God ever want to say no to me, allow me to struggle or suffer pain? Surely God must want me to feel good all the time.

That is the original lie of the devil. It is the same lie that Satan has been telling ever since the beginning. He substitutes his words, the world’s words, our own words – it doesn’t really matter whose words they are, as long as they replace Jesus’ real, actual words. That’s exactly what he did in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve. The devil asked, “Did God really say …?” After Adam and Eve thought about it, they were ready and willing to replace God’s clear and saving words with the cloudy and damning words of their hearts.

The devil has been doing the very same thing for generations. He’s very practiced at it. He slowly leaches away God’s words for other words. The world’s treasures. Other spiritualities. Our feelings. This is counterfeit Christianity. And we have all bought into it!

We Christians in America tend to be mystics. We try to discern God’s will by looking at the world and events around us. We are not satisfied with the words and the will that God has already given us. As Lutherans we know that the apostles and the prophets have already given us God’s final words. We know from confirmation classes that God does not desire to have a relationship with you apart from His Word. And by His Word I mean His actual, revealed Scripture. But that’s not enough for us. We want more. … Or actually less.

We want more of our feelings and less of God’s words. That is mysticism.

We all buy into mysticism when we are not satisfied with a God who has already laid everything out for us. We really don’t want a God that we can trust. We want a God that we can manipulate, and contact, and barter with. We don’t want a God that says, “This is the way it is, believe it.” We want a God that gives us the authority to find and divine the way that our world acts and connects with us.  

But God loves us too much to send us messages that are hidden beneath the clouds or in the sunshine or in the feelings of our hearts. It’s not that God has a problem with hearts or emotions. After all, He created them. But He didn’t create our hearts and emotions in order to speak to us through them. That is why He created words.

The other reason God doesn’t speak to us through our hearts is because, as Martin Luther said, our hearts are “idol factories.” They will create any kind of idol imaginable, as long as it is apart from the true God. Plus, our hearts and emotions are always changing. God’s Word is unchanging and unchangeable.

It turns out that this is really good news. You can know everything that God wants you to know, and you can know it firmly. We call that the Small Catechism in the Lutheran Church. That is the “small” portion of God’s Word that we want to repeat and remember over and over. It contains everything we need to know for our soul’s salvation. Then everything else we need to know for our day to day living can be figured out from that clearly revealed Word.

So if I need to know what I should be doing in my everyday life, I don’t look for signs and wonders in the present. Jesus said it Himself, “It is a wicked generation that asks for a miraculous sign” (Matthew 12:39). Instead, I take the Ten Commandments and apply them to my life. How best can I worship my God? How best can I serve my neighbor? It’s all laid out there in the Commandments. This work I do in serving God is all done under the Good News of the grace of God in Christ Jesus on the cross. That is His real, final word to me … and you.

God made the sunshine. He likes it a lot. But He doesn’t want you to use it to listen to Him. God has given you feelings and emotions. He wants you to enjoy them. But He doesn’t want you to figure out His will for your life based on them. That is why He gave you Jesus.

Jesus’ plain words in Holy Scripture are the antidote for the poisoned dish of mysticism. Reading those words carefully and learning their context is to inwardly digest the faith that God is not only real but also gives us real, pure, true answers. God is far more generous to us than to force us to endlessly seek Him in the flurries of the wind or the palpitations of our hearts. He wants us to do far more than merely imagine what His will for us might be. He wants us to be certain. You don’t need to wait for a break in the weather to hear and know what God thinks about you. He says it very clearly in His love letter to you that is contained in His Holy Scriptures: “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10).

We pay attention to God’s Word because it brings us truth. In a world of rumors, deception, and passing fads, the Bible gives us the trustworthy, solid, enduring truth of God for our lives. It shows us our sin without pulling any punches. It also shows us our salvation through Jesus Christ. 

God’s Word affects change and transformation. It is like a seed planted underground. Suddenly, without any help from the gardener, the seed sprouts and grows. It first produces a stalk, then a head, and then the full kernel. Or it is like a mustard seed that is so tiny that it can be blown off your finger with a light breeze. Yet it grows to become the largest of all the garden plants. God’s Word gets planted in your heart through Baptism. It converts your old, dead heart into the throne room for the kingdom of God. It chases away the devil and makes room for the Holy Spirit. When you hear or read the Bible, you’re not just connected with a book or a story. You are receiving the Spirit of God and a message that justifies, sanctifies and saves.

That’s because the Bible is all about a real man named Jesus who came down from heaven with real words that we still have. Words that are inspired and inerrant. Spirit-filled words. Words that produce life. Words that prepare for the harvest at the end of time. Words from God made man at His incarnation in the womb of Mary. This God-Man then went to the not-so-nice hill called Golgotha so that He could hear and feel God’s wrath poured out on Him. All so that you would be able to escape hearing and feeling what God really thinks about you as a sinner.

Jesus endured the cross, scorning its shame and pain. He put His will and emotions aside, submitting to the will of His Father, which had been recorded for centuries in His divine Scriptures. Mysticism met its match in Jesus who could not be tempted to do anything other than trust God despite all that He was seeing and experiencing. He is the one who told off the devil, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).

Jesus took upon Himself all our reliance on mysticism as our hope for finding God. He took the divided, fractured, idol-maker of our hearts and nailed them to His cross. Then His blood and water flowed over those hearts to purify and sanctify and save us from ourselves. All so that we might not trust ourselves or our hearts or the wind or anything else in our world. Only that we might trust in Him and His Word which proclaims Him.

God’s act of saving the world did not happen in me, but outside of me. That’s the seed that is planted in your heart. That’s the Word. Not a feeling, but a written, spoken, and sung reality. A reality that is not found in the mystical means of whatever makes us happy. But a reality that is based on the solid rock of Holy Scriptures, Holy Baptism, Holy Supper, and Holy Absolution. Everything else that we try to divine God’s will are the ancient lies of the devil. The seed of God’s Word is the greatest treasure of God’s grace. That is true Christianity. A Christian treasure planted in your heart and bearing fruit until the harvest at the end of time. It counteracts our counterfeit Christianity. Amen.