February 09, 2015
Author: Scott Hoezee
“This is my Son, whom I love. Look at him. Isn’t this display something! I mean, just get a load of this light show!”
That’s what I’d expect God the Father to say.
But he doesn’t.
At the Super Bowl recently singer Katy Perry led the now typical halftime spectacular, pulling out all the stops to create a visual spectacle designed to take people’s breath away with lights, explosions, smoke, and then even more lights, usually extending to the whole stadium as each fan in the seats is given a light to shine at some pre-arranged moment in the show.
It’s not the kind of thing designed for radio.
So how odd it would be to hear the producer of the halftime Super Bowl show to say to reporters in the run-up to the event, “People will be amazed to hear this—it will be great even on the radio!!”
No, no, that’s not right.
And yet, in Mark 9 at the climax of one of the Bible’s grandest visual light shows of glory, God the Father comes and advises not that the disciples look at Jesus. Nope, what we get is: “Listen to him.”
Listen to him??
Listen? Did they hear that voice from the cloud right? It reminds me of a scene from the rather quirky film, Forrest Gump. At one point in the movie Forrest’s erstwhile childhood sweetheart (and future wife, as it turns out) is trying to launch a singing career, but the only gig she can secure is one that requires her to appear on stage wearing nothing but her guitar. Perched on a stool naked as the day she was born, she finds it powerfully difficult to get the audience to listen to her singing and guitar playing. The men in the audience had come to look, not listen, and the figure on the stage was ensuring that looking was what it was going to be all about no matter how well she tried to also sing.
Listen to him. It’s not what we expected to be the bottom line of this exceedingly striking event up on that mountaintop. And yet at this juncture in the Gospel of Mark, that is exactly the message that needed to be conveyed.
After all, even though Mark tells us that this incident took place some six days after the preceding story that rounds out Mark 8, we as readers are brought directly from Jesus’ words about death, suffering, and cross-bearing to this moment on the mountaintop. And that’s key because what Jesus had just said had not set well with the disciples and principally with Peter at that. Peter had recently correctly identified Jesus as the Christ of God, and although Mark does not record this part of that famous incident, the other gospels assure us that Peter was mightily blessed by Jesus on account of knowing the answer to that linchpin question: “Who do you say that I am?”
Peter got the answer right but behind his good answer was a whole lot of confused thinking and wrong-headed definitions as to what constituted Christhood / Messiahship. Peter had stars in his eyes—or at least in the eyes of his imagination—as he confirmed Jesus as the Christ. Peter and the others could already envision the posts of honor and glory they’d occupy when Jesus brought in his kingdom by chasing out the Romans and re-establishing the halcyon days of David and Solomon to the people of Israel.
So when, without missing a beat, Jesus then went on to talk about suffering many things, getting rejected by the very people of Israel, and then dying . . . well, the roar in Peter’s ears was so great that he did not even hear the part about “after three days rise again” because everything within him was raging against the first part of what Jesus had said. For Peter the formula was a simple as basic arithmetic: Jesus + Christ = Glory.
So, seeing as he was feeling like he was on a roll, Peter took it on himself to teach Jesus this basic theological formula, rebuking Jesus for this doom-and-gloom talk. Jesus has to wheel on Peter, label him Satan’s little helper, and then go on to explain the real dynamic of the gospel. It’s an upside-down, counterintuitive world that Jesus goes on to sketch. It’s a world where living under the sentence of death, giving up oneself, losing one’s very life, are all the ticket to the top (or to the top by way of the bottom).
It’s been six days since Jesus said that, and you have the feeling that the passage of time has not helped Peter and the others make peace with any of it. We’re not told what their reaction to Jesus’ words were, but subsequent arguments among the disciples as to who is the greatest among them (cf. Mark 9:33ff) and then James and John’s request for the top two cabinet posts in the upcoming Jesus Administration (cf. Mark 10:35ff) tell us that they had not listened to Jesus’ words (or if they had listened, they had not taken the words seriously, much less to heart).
So God himself puts in an appearance, throws in some divine razzle-dazzle, brings in two heavyweights from Israel’s past, and he really does do all of that not for the sake of the visual spectacle per se but to back up everything Jesus has ever said, including what Jesus had just said at the end of what we now call Mark 8.
In fact, not long after this incident, the disciples would see something else before which they’d cower and tremble: they’d see their friend Jesus impaled on a spit of wood at the Place of the Skull. But even on that dark day the key activity would be the same: don’t go with what your eyes show you. Listen to him.
“It is accomplished!”
Questions to Ponder / Issues to Address:
I know I can approach things from a quirky angle sometimes (or so I’m told!) but I’ve always wondered: How did the disciples know it was Moses and Elijah? It’s a cinch Peter, James, and John had never seen photos of these two men from Israel’s history. And I suspect oil paintings of them likewise did not hang in some “Saints of Renown” gallery in the Temple. They had never had their faces plastered onto $5 bills or stamped onto a denarius or something. And you likewise suspect they were not donning some “Hi My Name Is ______” sticky badges on their chests.
So how did they know?
Maybe as good Jews these three had been sufficiently well schooled in the belief that Moses and Elijah would have something to do with the coming of the Messiah that they were able immediately to surmise who they were. There were just enough clues on display as to maybe even make it a cinch they’d figure it out.
In February each year in the United States we celebrate what is known as “Presidents Day” (and in fact, in 2015 Presidents Day is the day after Transfiguration Sunday). So if this year some editorial cartoon around the time of that day depicted Barack Obama flanked by two figures completely in silhouette, the cartoonist would need to include only a bare minimum of little details in order to immediately let most any educated American know that the two flanking figures were Presidents Washington and Lincoln. The outlines of a powdered wig on the one figure and a stovepipe hat atop the head of the other figure would be more than enough to do the trick.
Maybe it was like that for Peter, James, and John. Given who they figured Jesus was, what other two ancient figures could possibly appear next to him at such a startling moment except Moses and Elijah!?
Of course, the easy answer to the question “How did they know?” is that the Holy Spirit revealed it to their hearts and minds, and that is no doubt part of the answer, too. But however it was they knew, Peter at least was enthused enough by the gathering as to want to bottle it and keep it going. Maybe he thought the eschaton had come, that heaven had come down to earth and so it was time to just settle in to the glorious reality. Maybe he thought that heaven had come just for them and the rest of the world was on its own but he at least was going to make sure he snagged his own portion of the glory.
Whatever his thinking—or perhaps better said whatever his lack of thinking given the dazzlement of it all—he suggests to Jesus that they build three “shelters.” The actual Greek word is skenas, which is the same word used in the LXX for “tabernacle” and is the root of the verb form John used in John 1:14 when he told us that the Word made flesh “tabernacled/tented” among us.
The Tabernacle in ancient Israel, of course, had been the temporary—and highly moveable—home of Yahweh prior to the formal establishment of the Temple in Jerusalem. Maybe Mark’s use of that word in Mark 9:5 was not meant to carry this much theological freight but there may be a sense in which Peter wanted to capture the glory of God in Jesus, Moses, and Elijah in a kind of latter-day tabernacle right there on that mountaintop. It looked like something worth preserving, after all. Maybe over time the glory of it all would radiate out from that mountaintop and begin to fill the whole earth. Maybe they could move those latter-day tabernacles much like the Israelites used to pack up and move the original Tabernacle—glory and Ark of the Covenant and presence of Yahweh and all—to a new place. Maybe they could eventually cart the glory of those little tabernacles all the way to the Temple in Jerusalem and infuse it with the glory of the Christ, ushering in the kingdom of God once and for all.
Maybe. Or maybe he just didn’t know what he was saying. (I am pretty sure I would have been tongue-tied had I been there so we can give old Peter a break here!)
But here is a curious point: if the apostle John was later right to say in his own gospel that the Word made flesh lived in a skene or a “tabernacle” of flesh, maybe he was himself harking back to this very incident on that mountain. Because as quickly as the Transfiguration had begun, it ended and the disciples were left with just Jesus. Peter did not get to build his little tents to hold in the glory of it all but then, if John was right years later when composing his own gospel account, neither did Peter need to build that tent. The real tabernacle containing the glory of God was still right in front of him.
And from the overflow of that humble tent of glory, the whole earth really would eventually become filled with the knowledge of the glory of God!
It’s interesting that verse 2 says that when Jesus took the three disciples up onto a high mountain “they were all alone” (monos in the Greek). Then in verse 8, after the cloud lifts, the disciple see “Jesus alone” (again, monos). Perhaps there is nothing to this, but it’s curious that this incident is bracketed by the sense of being “alone.” Perhaps one idea that can be drawn from the Transfiguration is that it reveals how when you are with Jesus, you are never really alone—you are always in the company of a great host, a great cloud of witnesses (no pun intended on the cloud in this story!). In the end, they see Jesus alone, standing by himself again. But when it is Jesus you’re talking about, you never have just him all by himself. The Father and Spirit are always with him and great glory is never far away.
In his fanciful “Theological ABCs” book Whistling in the Dark, Frederick Buechner muses on the Transfiguration this way: “[In the Transfiguration] it was the holiness of [Jesus] shining through his humanness, his face so afire with it that they were almost blinded. Even with us something like that happens once in a while. The face of a man walking his child in the park, of a woman picking peas in the garden, of sometimes even the unlikeliest person listening to a concert, say, or standing barefoot in the sand watching the waves roll in, or just having a beer at a Saturday baseball game in July. Every once and so often, something so touching, so incandescent, so alive transfigures the human face that it’s almost beyond bearing” (Whistling in the Dark, Harper San Francisco, 1988, p. 108).
In one sense Buechner here is maybe rendering the actual Transfiguration of Jesus a bit too mundane, a bit too much like what could happen to us on most any given afternoon while riding the bus or walking down a sidewalk. But on the other hand, he may be on to something, and I would add to his musings this one: Even on all kinds of days when the disciples and Jesus were by no means having a mountaintop experience and when dazzling garments whiter than white were nowhere to be seen, even then when Jesus smiled kindly at lepers, looked pained to see a “sinner” being shunned by the Temple establishment, or looked winsome after telling a hurting prostitute to go in peace because her sins were forgiven, there was sense in which the disciples were seeing the face of the divine transfigured in also those ordinary moments. They were seeing hints of glory. They were seeing true God of true God, vividly and surprisingly and, yes, dazzlingly on display in God’s One and Only Son, full of grace and truth.
2 Kings 2:1-12
Author: Scott Hoezee
This story in II Kings 2 is strange enough as it is. But ending it at verse 12—before we get to what most commentators agree is the whole point of what can otherwise look like a pointless story—is odder still. The whole movement of this narrative appears to be in the direction of confirming that Elisha had inherited the prophetic office and power of the great prophet Elijah. That gets confirmed for us readers in verse 14 when Elisha’s question “Where now is the LORD, the God of Israel?” gets answered as Elisha’s striking of the Jordan River with Elijah’s cloak has the same effect as earlier when Elijah did so; viz., the waters divide. But stopping—as the Year B Transfiguration Sunday Lectionary has us do—at verse 12 with Elisha tearing his own clothes at the departure of his beloved master does not get us to that crucial moment.
Ending it there ends the story in sorrow instead of in confirmation, which is surely the point of the story.
But even if we agree that seeing this transfer of prophetic office and power is vital for the narrative of II Kings, it could still be pointed out that we take a highly roundabout way to get there. Elijah’s path meanders from Gilgal to Bethel to the Jordan for no discernible reasons even as Elisha tags along loyally and even as both men are shadowed by the Greek chorus-like “company of the prophets” whose main job seems to be only to remind Elisha repeatedly that Elijah was soon to depart this earth. And each time Elisha hears of this, he replies (again, for no easily discerned reason) “Yes, I know, but do not speak of it.” It may be emotionally hard for Elisha to own up to this imminent departure. It may be that Elisha believes that the mysterious nature of it all required that people not speculate or speak of it openly. We don’t know and cannot really tell from the terse narrative.
In the end it takes the chariots of fire from Yahweh himself to finally separate the two men (Elisha had been sticking like glue up to that point). And so Elijah departs in spectacular fashion, never to be seen again until the Transfiguration of Jesus nearly 1,000 years later (which is clearly why this text is the Old Testament lection for Transfiguration Sunday in the Year B cycle).
Of course, we cannot conclude anything metaphysical about this manner of departure. It is true that both of the men who appeared with Jesus in Mark 9 were not only key Old Testament prophets and leaders but both also had been whisked away in non-standard fashion by God himself (Moses from Mount Nebo and Elijah in this chariot of fire). But we need not and cannot conclude that they had been preserved bodily somehow from the typical manner of human death and decay and use that as the explanation as to how they could later appear next to Jesus and before the eyes of Peter, James, and John.
So what is the point of this story and how in the world can one preach on a text so shrouded with mystery and so laced with narrative loose ends? The whole story seems so removed from ordinary experience—even ordinary experience in ancient Israel much less in the church today—as to make it mighty tough to find real-life connections for people to latch onto today.
Perhaps we can get a little homiletical traction on this by picking up on something Elizabeth Achtemeier wrote on this text in the first volume of Roger Van Harn’s The Lectionary Commentary (Eerdmans, 2001). Achtemeier notes that both this story and really also the Transfiguration accounts in the gospels take place somehow just outside the ordinary realm of space and time. Neither event is typical or the kind of thing anyone would expect ever to happen again (all those good old songs and spirituals about all of us getting picked up in a chariot of fire by and by notwithstanding). Both events are shot through with the divine and with the unexpected.
But above all both events assure us that God is always at work and that the power of God that saves the world and that preserves his people (and his whole creation) is always present and is always active often just beyond the limits of our physical sight. Indeed, Elisha obviously learned this lesson well. By the time we get to II Kings 6 and see Elisha and his servants in peril, Elisha is able confidently to say “Those who are with us are more than are with them” and asked that his ignorant servant have his eyes opened so as to see the great host of chariots and horses of fire that had been surrounding Elisha all along.
Often today when theologians and pastors dialogue with people who work in the physical sciences, the point has to be made—especially in the face of the Richard Dawkins types who insist that reality is limited to what science can see and study and investigate—that there are dimensions to reality that go far beyond what physical eyes can detect. Divine revelation and the invisible machinations of divine providence are real even if no scientific instrument could ever detect or uncover them.
But I sometimes think that even those of us who make that important point in the face of scientific and philosophical naturalists and materialists are not ourselves sufficiently open to or aware of the spirit dimension to reality, to the mysterious but certain workings of God that surround us and infuse us and indwell us at all times. Our scientific age and the scientific mindset that has come to dominate the world has co-opted even the more religious among us to define “hard reality” to what we can see and touch and smell even as we relegate the spiritual to something we ponder rather seldom and believe in only in more “soft” ways.
What Elisha saw that day by the Jordan River—like what the disciples saw on the Mount of Transfiguration—may have taken place just slightly outside the ordinary flow of the space-time continuum but it was still a part of the fabric of this world. Jesus did not change into something he had not ordinarily been all along that day—the disciples just saw a different dimension to Jesus than they could usually spy. And Elijah’s being taken up by a chariot of fire may have been out of the ordinary but the existence of that chariot was no ephemeral thing that came into existence only for that moment and then winked back out of existence the moment Elisha could no longer see it blazing its way heavenward.
We should not conclude from either II Kings 2 or Mark 9 that events like these are things we can anticipate witnessing any moment now in our own lives. But it likewise would be a mistake to conclude that the spiritual and divine realities both stories allowed us to get a glance of are not still real at also this very moment.
The Peter Jackson film versions of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic The Lord of the Rings trilogy contained numerous visual flourishes and flashes of brilliance as Jackson brought the richness of Tolkien’s imagined worlds to the screen. But one set of images stands out in connection to the Transfiguration story of Mark 9 and this Old Testament lection about the chariot of fire from II Kings 2.
Frodo Baggins in the Ringbearer in the story, charged with the unenviable task of returning the evil Lord Sauron’s one ring of power to the fires of Mount Doom. The only way this powerfully evil ring can be destroyed is by casting it back into the molten fires whence it was forged millennia before. But now and then, while undertaking this potentially fatal quest, Frodo feels compelled to put on the ring and when he does, the world around him is transfigured.
What had been light now appears to his eyes to be shadow and what had been shadowy and ghost-like now blazes forth in terrifying clarity. But above all what Frodo can see when wearing the ring is the great Eye of Sauron—a fire-wreathed and lidless eye that scans to and fro across the whole of Middle Earth from the top of Sauron’s black tower in the Land of Mordor. No matter where Frodo may be when he puts the ring on, soon the eye of Frodo’s imagination finds itself captured by the intensely evil gaze of that awful Eye even as the otherwise inaudible voice of Sauron threatens Frodo and all the earth with every form of mayhem imaginable.
Of course, as soon as Frodo removes the ring from his finger again, the world returns to “normal.” But having seen what is really present just underneath and beyond where his eyes can ordinarily penetrate, Frodo can never view that world quite the same way again. There are more dimensions to our everyday existence than we usually suspect, both for good and for ill.
In a way, that may be the point of these two Transfiguration Sunday stories, too.
Author: Doug Bratt
Psalm 30’s superscription claims it’s a song for the dedication of the temple. Yet its modern relevance seems greater than that. After all, it appears to be a song of thanksgiving to God for deliverance from a perilous situation. It doesn’t require much imagination to deduce that God has rescued the psalmist from some type of life-threatening illness or other dangerous circumstance. In that way Psalm 30’s language is reminiscent of that of Psalm 130’s poet, Jonah and Jesus.
Those who wish to preach or teach this psalm may want to ask themselves who might be able to join the poet in singing this psalm. Is it a child in whose life her classmates have intervened to rescue her from a bully? Is it an infertile married couple that God has empowered to conceive and bear a child? Is it a grandparent whose cancer God has managed or cured through chemotherapy? In fact, those who preach or teach Psalm 30 may want to relate the story of someone they know or about whom they know who could sing this psalm.
The tone of this psalm is one of praise. Commitments to praise and thank God frame it. Yet as James Mayes notes, it’s both a prayer that is completely praise and praise that arises out of God’s answer to prayer. The psalmist praises God for God’s deliverance of her. Yet she also recognizes that that deliverance arises out of God’s “yes” to her prayers for it.
The praise that arises out of such deliverance has a communal dimension. This psalmist doesn’t want to be a soloist. She longs for God’s saints to join her in a full-throated song of praise. Good news such as the psalmist shares in Psalm 30 can be a powerful stimulus to others to join in praising God’s holy name.
However, the psalmist’s remembers that his dire circumstance was once a threat to that praise. Had God not delivered him, he would be unable to fulfill his vow to praise the Lord. Silence rather than praise would then reign. The “dust” (9), after all, is unable to praise the Lord or proclaim God’s faithfulness.
Yet Psalm 30’s author insists that there’s more at stake in her healing than just praise to the Lord. Her demise might have led her enemies to gloat over her, much like a warrior might gloat over a fallen enemy or a football player might gloat over someone he tackled.
Psalm 30 is full of “lowness” imagery. It speaks of the depths, the grave, the pit and the dust. At the same time, however, the psalmist also fills it with rescue imagery. He describes being lifted out of the depths, healed, brought up from the grave and spared from going down into the pit. In that way the psalm is suggestive of a wide array of human circumstances and emotions, as well as God’s actions. This makes this psalm one that nearly everyone has sung, can sing or will sing at one point or another.
Psalm 30 is replete with contrasting pairs. The “negatives” reflect the psalmist’s enemies’ desire for her harm. Its “positives” reflect both the psalmist’s own rescue by God and the shalom for which God longs for God’s sons, daughters and whole creation. So, for example, while the psalmist exalts the Lord, her enemies wish to exalt in her destruction. God’s anger lasts only for a moment, but God’s favor lasts for a lifetime.
While weeping may remain for a night, rejoicing comes in the morning. When God favored the psalmist, God made her stand firm. Yet when God hid God’s face, the psalmist was dismayed. God turned the psalmist’s wailing into dancing and replaced her sackcloth with “clothes” of joy.
Among the most striking features of Psalm 30 is its blunt honesty with God. In the context of a North American church that sometimes seems afraid to be honest with God about disappointment or doubt, the psalmist is very candid. So those who preach and teach this psalm may want to use it to help people explore how we can be more honest with God about our plight. The stifling of such honesty can, after all, be very unhealthy.
In contrast to at least some modern church language, the psalmist talks about the depths, grave and pit. She’s very candid about enemies who long to revel in her destruction. She’s even bold enough to ask the Lord what good it would do anyone if she died. The psalmist adds language about weeping, wailing and sackcloth.
Yet she’s also very honest about her own arrogance. In verse 6 she tells God that she once felt that nothing could “shake” her. She assumed that she’d somehow made herself “secure.” Yet the psalmist remembers how God’s hiding of God’s face shattered that illusion. When, after all, God hid God’s face, the psalmist was dismayed.
However, the psalmist is also very confident in God’s power to transform the difficult situations of even arrogant people. God, after all, lifted him out of the depths and healed him. God brought him up from the grave and spared him from going down into the pit. God turned the psalmist’s wailing into dancing, stripping off his grief and replacing it with joy.
The contrast the psalmist cites between God’s momentary anger and lifelong favor is reminiscent of the second commandment. There God insists that God punishes the children for the sins of their parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate the Lord. Yet God shows love to thousand generations of those who love the Lord and keep God’s commandments.
Biblical scholars note that “remaining for a night” (5) is lodging imagery. So it’s as if the psalmist suggests that weeping is like an uninvited guest who comes into the home that is our life for the night. It may make for a long night, just as God’s anger sometimes seems to last through our “nights.” Yet rejoicing comes in the morning, expelling the unwanted weeping and making its lasting home with God’s favor in God’s children’s lives.
As Mayes also notes, this psalmist makes a rather bold link between her experiences and God’s sovereignty. She, after all, attributes her once-prosperous life to God’s royal pleasure (7a). Her dismay is a result of God’s hiding of God’s face from her. Her restoration is a result of God’s transforming her situation (11).
As Mayes notes, such a direct linkage between the course of one’s life and God’s sovereignty can be dangerous. It may lead worshipers to blame God for the evil of which God is never a source. However, it serves as a good corrective to 21st century assumptions about human autonomy. We naturally think of ourselves as “mountains” that little can shake. Psalm 30 reminds us that our true help and security is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
At the same time, however, many of our contemporaries also think of themselves
as completely at the mercy of enemies such as economic upheaval, environmental degradation, catastrophic illness and terrorism. While they may think of themselves as largely helpless against such onslaughts, Psalm 30 reminds us that God is sovereign and that God longs for the complete restoration of all things.
In verse 4 the psalmist follows her vow to “exalt the Lord” with a call to God’s saints to join her in singing to the Lord and praising God’s holy name. In that way God’s sons and daughters can be a bit like mockingbirds.
After all, mockingbirds have their own beautiful song. However, they’re also famous mimics. Their repertoire can include over forty different songs, including the barking of a dog. Some ornithologists claim mockingbirds even mimic things like squeaky gates, pianos and sirens.
When Christians praise God for God’s work of rescue and redemption, we provide an appropriate song for the “mockingbirds” that are other believers to mimic.
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
Author: Stan Mast
How fitting that the season of Epiphany ends with a celebration of Christ’s Transfiguration, that bright and shining moment near the end of his ministry when his true glory burst through the veil of his humility! And what a fitting text this reading from II Corinthians 4 is! It fits so perfectly with the other readings for this day, summarizing what happened on that mountain (Mark 9) where the glory of God shone (Psalm 50) in the face of Christ as he talked with Moses and Elijah (II Kings 2). As I meditated on these few verses, I kept hearing that soaring refrain from Handel’s Messiah—”and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed….”
But this is not just a text that helps us soar; it is also very earthy. It helps us grapple with two very important and knotty questions. Why don’t some people respond to the preaching of the gospel of the glory of Christ? And how can human beings come to know God in all God’s glory? These issues arise in the context of Paul’s ongoing defense of himself and his gospel against the attacks of false teachers who have invaded the church at Corinth. They claimed that Paul wasn’t really an apostle, that his gospel was a perversion of the truth, and that his methods were manipulative and self serving. “On the contrary,” says Paul in verse 2, “by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every person’s conscience in the sight of God.”
Why then don’t people respond in faith to this plain preaching of the truth? How do we account for unbelief? This is a very practical problem for every preacher. Every year in my ministry I had to give an accounting of how many people had been converted under the influence of my preaching. Many years there weren’t very many, and I felt bad about it. Was it my fault? Was my preaching deficient? Did I need to make it a little less plain, a little more nuanced, a bit more eloquent, a lot more technologically sophisticated, just a tad more market driven? Perhaps all of that was true, but that’s not the answer the plain spoken Paul gave.
He says, I speak plainly, but “even if our gospel is veiled,” the problem is not in the preaching. It is in those who don’t believe. Earlier (in 3:13-18) Paul has said that when the Jews hear Torah read, “a veil covers their hearts,” so that they can’t hear its testimony to the Christ who is Jesus. Now he says that the Gospel itself is veiled, but only to those who are perishing. That’s because “the god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers so that they cannot see the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ who is the image of God.” In other words, the unbelieving response of some listeners cannot be traced to the way Paul preached, as his detractors claimed. Rather the blame for unbelief lay in the hearts and minds of the unbelievers and, ultimately, we can attribute their unbelief to “the god of this age.”
That explanation of those who don’t “get it” when we preach is problematic in at least three ways. First, who is “the god of this age?” Most scholars think it is the Devil, but we don’t hear that expression applied to him anywhere else in the New Testament. Yes, Paul speaks of “the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.” (Eph. 2:2) I John 4:3 and 4 alludes to the work of the spirit of the anti-Christ who is already at work in the world. Both of those references can be traced back to Jesus in John 12:31 and 14:30 and 16:11, where he speaks of “the prince of this world.” But only here in II Corinthians 4 is the Devil called “the god of this age.” This cannot mean that the Evil One actually has the same power and majesty as the true God. The Bible knows nothing of such dualism. It must mean that he pretends to the Throne and is at work everywhere in the world, as God is. The Devil functions as god for many people and wields an enormous influence in their lives.
That raises the second issue with this verse. If the Devil is behind the unbelief of those who don’t get the Gospel, then how can they be blamed? If they cannot be see the light of the Gospel because someone else has blinded them, what fault is that of theirs? They are unwitting victims of the devil, not villains who choose to disbelieve. They can’t help it. They cannot do otherwise. And if that is true, then how can God judge them?
The fact that God does judge unbelief (John 3:18) indicates that they aren’t unwilling victims. Here we encounter the dark side of the traditional problem of divine sovereignty versus human responsibility. As Paul put it in Ephesians 2, “the ruler of the kingdom of the air… is at work in those who are disobedient.” Which came first—the work of that ruler or the disobedience of those on whom he works? Does this mean that God holds sinners responsible even though they have been influenced (even blinded) by the Devil, because they actively chose disobedience quite apart from his work.
That theological problem leads to the third issue with this text, a very practical one. If unbelievers cannot see the truth because they are willfully blind, then what is the point of preaching to them? It’s like waving a warning flag in front of a blind man about to step off a cliff. What possible good can it do? That is precisely Paul’s point. The Gospel is the only thing that can do any good for unbelievers, because the “God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” Only God could bring light out of darkness at the beginning of creation (Gen. 1:2-4). Only God can bring light into the darkness of unbelief. And he does.
He did that for Paul as he was on his way to wipe out the Church, utterly convinced that Jesus and his followers were an evil influence in the world, worthy only of death. Then a light broke through his darkness and a voice spoke into his deafness. “Who are you, Lord?” “I am Jesus….” From then on, Paul spoke only of Jesus, because in Jesus the darkness was dispelled, the unbelief was shattered, and the Devil was defeated. So, says Paul, we preach “Jesus Christ as Lord.” Unbelievers cannot see the light of the glory of Christ, so what I do is preach “Jesus Christ as Lord.” That is the only thing that can open their minds and hearts.
In those three words, Paul summarizes his gospel. He preaches “Jesus,” the very human Jew who lived and died and rose. He preaches that he is “the Christ,” the Messiah who fulfilled all of God’s redeeming promises by becoming the prophet, priest and king everyone needs. And he preaches that Jesus Christ is now Lord of all, sovereign in the Empire and sovereign in each self. That is the message that can give sight to the blind and bring light into the darkness ruled by “the god of this age.”
How can that be? Here again we meet that sovereignty/responsibility paradox. Unbelievers cannot see, but our sovereign God can make them see. Paul knew it from experience. So did Augustine, and C.S. Lewis, and every one of us who has ever come to faith kicking and screaming. The creator who simply spoke light into the universe can “make his light (the Gospel of Christ) shine (through the illuminating power of the Spirit of Christ) in our (sin darkened) hearts.” Where we could not know, now we can know “the glory of God in the face of Christ.”
That last phrase gets us into the second big issue this text addresses. How can we know God in all God’s glory? The world is full of answers. Use your reason. Examine your experience. Follow your feelings. Experiment with drugs. Do your science. Practice your disciplines. Observe your rituals. Obey the rules. At the risk of oversimplifying the vastness and complexity of the human search for God, perhaps we can boil them all down to these two—Moses and Elijah, the way of law and the way of prophecy, the way of ritual and the way of ecstasy, the way of living within the bounds of some rule and the way of stepping outside of yourself in some supernatural experience.
On the Mount of Transfiguration we see God’s answer to the endless human search for God. The disciples saw Moses and Elijah, but it was Jesus who was filled with glory. The law and the prophets bear witness to Jesus Christ our Lord, but only the face of Christ can show us the glory of God. Any attempt to know God apart from Christ is ephemeral and useless, however well intended and rigorous it may be. John Calvin warned that we should not try to know God “in his secret essence or in his inscrutable majesty, but only as he appears to us in his Son.” In other words, the only way to know God is through an epiphany. The Gospel says that the Epiphany of the invisible God is in the face of Christ who is the image of God. “No one has ever seen God, but God, the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.” (John 1:18)
Sermons on this text should address those two issues. First, the only way to break through human unbelief is not through market research or through technological inventiveness or through advanced training in rhetoric or through a re-imaging of the truth, but through the clear preaching of Jesus Christ as Lord. Only the Gospel of the glory of Christ can dispel the darkness and make the blind see. Only the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16) and the Gospel is always about Jesus Christ as Lord. We cannot say enough about him. Second, the only way people can know God in all his glory is through Christ. This is a crucial message in a world filled with “nones” who pursue all varieties of spirituality and “others” who pursue all varieties of religion. It takes courage to say it in this cultural setting, but all of these ways up the mountain to God are “blind alleys.” Only through the face of Christ can we find “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God.”
Ancient Greek mythology tells the dramatic story of the Trojan Wars. They were started because Helen, wife of the Spartan king, Menelaus, was kidnapped by Paris, son of the king of Troy. Helen was the most beautiful woman of her day. Writing about Helen’s legendary beauty centuries later, Christopher Marlowe asks this memorable question in his Doctor Faustus. “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?” The thousand ships refer to the immense armada that set out from Greece to reclaim Helen from the Trojans. Her beauty launched a thousand ships. Our text in II Corinthians refers to “The Face That Launched a Thousand Lives,” and more.
In her wildly popular book, Eat. Pray. Love., Elizabeth Gilbert describes her threefold attempt to find happiness. In the second section, Pray, she says that she was passionate to attain a personal knowledge of God. However, she absolutely refused to follow the way of orthodox Christianity, because the idea of Christ as a single historical person was too narrow and bigoted. So, she looked for God within herself by following the more inclusive practices of eastern mysticism in India. The face of God ended up being her own face, as she discovered that “God is you and you are God.”