February 05, 2018
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. Why not? Isn’t it about the light show?
We have seen such visual spectacles. They typically happen every year during halftime at the Super Bowl. Recently Lady Gaga’s show lit up a stadium quite nicely.
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. 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.
Of course, Peter still wants to bottle this moment. 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!
Listen to him!
They had to pay attention because 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!”
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: Doug Bratt
I once preached on this text during a worship service in which our church installed new leaders whom we call elders and deacons. At the time it seemed like its story of the transition from Elijah to Elisha’s leadership seemed appropriate.
Yet the Lectionary ends the Old Testament lesson it appoints for this Sunday with verse 12’s “And Elisha saw [Elijah] no more.” So those who don’t cross the Lectionary text’s boundaries leave our hearers “hanging,” as it were. Elisha can no longer see Elijah. End of story. As a result, if one were to apply the Lectionary text to church leadership transition, we’d have leaders leaving. We’d at least figuratively see them “no more.” However, we’d also have no new leaders.
The Lectionary’s Old Testament lesson’s verse 12 boundary even seems odd in combination with its appointed Gospel lesson. After all, Mark 9 describes how the Elijah who disappears at 2 Kings 2:12’s end reappears to Jesus and some of his disciples high on a mountain. But then he promptly disappears again so that no one can see him anymore again!
Yet in spite of all that, those who linger over the Lectionary’s Old Testament lesson may find some nuggets in it – even if they choose to end with verse 12.
2 Kings 2’s Elijah has known for a long time that Elisha will succeed him. Yet it’s almost as though he deliberately tries to shake his successor as he follows him on his travels from Gilgal to Bethel to Jericho. Along the way they encounter, among others, “the company of the prophets” (3). These were people whom the Lord used to counter both Israel’s’ kings claims to absolute power and false religions’ invasion of Israelite society.
Elijah meets several of these companies along his apparently strange trip. He first leaves Gilgal, which is near the Jordan, his final destination. As Elijah travels the short distance to Jericho, he makes a detour to Bethel. It’s hard to know why 2 King describes this meandering, except to show that Elisha is determined to stick with Elijah – no matter what happens.
When he finally arrives at his destination, Elijah rolls up his mantle and strikes the Jordan’s water with it. This parts the river so that Elijah and Elisha can walk through it on dry ground, much as Israel earlier crossed the Jordan and even earlier crossed the Red Sea.
On the other side of the Jordan, Elijah asks his disciple what he can do for him before he leaves. Elisha answers by saying that he’d appreciate a double helping of his mentor’s spirit of prophecy. In other word, he treats his mentor as his father by asking for the inheritance Israelite fathers gave their oldest sons.
However, Elijah insists that before Elisha can inherit that double portion of his prophetic spirit, he must pass a rather strange test. Elisha must somehow see his mentor be taken from him up to heaven. While we sometimes think that happened in chariots of fire, verse 11 insists that Elijah goes up to heaven “in a whirlwind.” Other places in the Bible, such as Job 38 and Isaiah 29, link such a whirlwind to God’s action or revelation.
Elisha passes the test, according to verse 12, by seeing his mentor mysteriously disappear in this whirlwind. In response, he says something strange that we hear again only at his own death. “My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!”
Horsemen and chariots were fairly common symbols of royal power. 2 Kings 2’s particular horsemen and chariots are, however, in some ways extraordinary. After all, they’re horsemen and chariots of “fire,” (11) which the Old Testament so often links to God. They’re part of God’s unseen army, sometimes only visible to eyes of faith, that battles God and Israel’s enemies.
So we sense that these fiery horsemen and chariots are God’s secret weapons. We might even equate them with some of God’s hosts of heaven with which God battles against God’s enemies.
Yet this still leaves us to wonder why God associates weapons like fiery chariots and horsemen with prophets like Elijah and Elisha. A possible answer nudges us toward one of our text’s lessons for God’s adopted sons and daughters. God’s word is, after all, one of God’s most effective weapons. The Lord uses that word the Lord gives to prophets like Elijah to do things like challenge kings, defeat the Syrians and topple royal dynasties.
The need for God’s prophetic word through Elijah to King Ahab was particularly great. After all, while many of Israel and Judah’s kings wandered away from God, Elijah’s Israel’s King Ahab was particularly determined and systematic about apostasy. What’s more, his wife and he turned many Israelites away from the Lord and toward Baal during Elijah and Elisha’s time. So in such a dangerous time, God used those prophets to turn the tide of faithlessness.
Both those who proclaim and those who hear 2 Kings 2 today also live in a day of faithlessness. Many parts of our culture seem increasingly antithetical to the gospel. We are naturally wasteful, unjust and selfish. God calls God’s 21st century church to prophetically speak out against the evil of things like materialism, greed and waste.
Yet the things against which we speak out are in some ways even more powerful than ancient dynasties and countries. Military might can’t, after all, eradicate them. What’s more, our hearts, even after God has redeemed us, are stubbornly sinful and resistant to God’s will.
Thankfully, then, God’s prophets know that the word of God doesn’t just convey interesting information. It’s also, by God’s Spirit, a mighty force that affects what it speaks. Jeremiah, after all, called the prophetic word a “fire” that burned in his bones and a hammer that shatters rocks in pieces. As it turns out, Elisha’s words too will also be an effective weapon in God’s warfare against his enemies.
2 Kings 2, however, remains pretty mysterious. After all, as Scott Hoezee notes in his fine February 13, 2012 Sermon Starter on this text, it describes an apparently pointless trip that only Elijah’s inner drive seems to fuel. At every point along his way the prophet seems to want to separate himself from the ordinary world. And when Elisha and Elijah finally do reach the eastern shore of the Jordan, fiery manifestations of God’s power separate them.
What’s more, all of this happens in a kind of timelessness. 2 Kings 2 takes place, after all, between the reigns of kings Ahaziah and Jehoram (2 Kings 1:17; 3:1). On top of all that, Elijah also ascends to heaven from a private place on the far side of the Jordan where only Elisha can witness it.
So this is a story about a realm where there is, as Elizabeth Achtemeier writes, (The Lectionary Commentary, The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts) “there is no time or place.” It alludes to the realm of eternity, the realm of God. 2 Kings 2’s is a mysterious realm that God now largely hides from ordinary eyes. God does, however, give, if still imperfect, glimpses of that heavenly kingdom to the eyes of faith.
This story, Achtemeier goes on, gives us a glimpse of the unseen world where there is both great power and no death. From that place the Lord sends God’s Son and Spirit to do mighty things. From that timeless place and reality God also providentially shapes our world. God even uses flawed but called prophets, including God’s adopted sons and daughters, to speak out for righteousness.
Yet even if those who proclaim 2 King 2 don’t rush past its truths to the account of Jesus’ transfiguration, Mark 9 may be a good place to eventually land. After all, it’s not just Elijah who disappears – twice. All of God’s prophets, including both those who proclaim 2 Kings 2 and those who hear it, also eventually disappear.
As a result, in a figurative sense, all we’re left with is Jesus. Yet it’s more than enough. After all, he’s the one to whom God calls us to listen – even when he graciously speaks through prophets like Elijah, as well as all of God’s adopted sons and daughters.
Among the United States’ most memorable transitions of authority was the one from Franklin Roosevelt to Harry Truman’s presidencies. President Roosevelt, of course, died very suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 12, 1945. The United States’ Constitution dictated that as Vice President, Truman immediately succeed him.
However, Roosevelt inadvertently left his successor a kind of “test.” Roosevelt had helped oversee the development of an atomic bomb. However, he seems to have largely kept Vice President Truman “in the dark” about it.
Shortly after Truman was sworn in as President of the United States, Roosevelt’s Secretary of War, Harry Stimson, told him about a new and terrible weapon physicists were developing in New Mexico. Truman then had to decide whether to use that weapon on Japan.
People will perhaps always debate whether Truman “passed” that test when he decided to drop not one but two atomic bombs on Japan. But there’s no question the test required all of his wisdom and skill.
Author: Stan Mast
At first glance Psalm 50 seems an odd choice for the celebration of Christ’s Transfiguration. This last Sunday of the Epiphany season should be filled with talk of Christ’s glory finally revealed to his followers, as in the Gospel reading for today from Mark 9. The reading from the Epistles sings about the “glory of God in the face of Christ.” Even the Old Testament reading from II Kings 2 shows us the glory of God in the departure of Elijah in that fiery chariot swept heavenward by a tornado. Transfiguration Sunday should be about the glory of Jesus, whose name means, “Yahweh saves.”
But in Psalm 50 we have a stern word to Israel from the Yahweh the Judge. Identifying himself in stentorian tones as “The Mighty One, God, Yahweh,” he hauls them into court (“summons”), calling on heaven and earth to be witnesses of this judicial proceeding. In verses 7-15 he accuses them of misdirected worship and in verses 16-23 he lashes out at their lawless behavior. Throughout those verses he speaks with withering sarcasm (“if I were hungry I would not tell you,” verse 12) and fierce anger (“I will tear you to pieces,” verse 22). It’s no wonder the Lectionary leaves out the last 17 verses and focuses only on verses 1-6.
And that’s too bad, because those last verses give us the opportunity to do something very unusual and necessary with Transfiguration Sunday. Those early verses of Psalm 50 are perfected suited for this Sunday, because they are filled with glory. “From Zion, perfect in beauty, God shines forth. Our God comes and will not be silent; a fire devours before him and around him a tempest rages.” Here is an epiphany of God’s glory that reminds us of Mt. Sinai in Exodus 19:16, 18.
But those last verses of Psalm 50 turn this fiery Epiphany into a day of covenant renewal, a day to confront our sins and return to the God who has saved us once and will save us again (verse 23). That’s not just an interpretation of what’s happening here in Psalm 50. It is exactly what verse 5 says, “Gather to me my consecrated ones (i.e., those who are faithful to me in covenant) who made covenant with me by sacrifice.”
Picture the scene. Israel is gathered in the courtyards of the Temple at one of the three annual pilgrimage feasts—Passover, Pentecost, or Tabernacles. A prophet/priest speaks in God’s name to his people. But it’s not a call to worship as in so many other Psalms. Rather, it’s a summons to court. Even as the courtyards of the Temple become the courtroom of God, our sanctuaries become the courtroom of God on this Transfiguration Sunday. We are going to encounter the glory of our God in an unexpected way, not first of all as our shining Savior, but as our stern Judge (though our Savior does appear here).
We preachers might not want to go in this direction, because it seems so old fashioned, so non-seeker friendly, so, well, negative. But ask yourself these questions. Have our people gotten confused about the purpose of worship and have they wandered away into patterns of behavior that are destructive of their very lives? Is it pastoral to just let them go in wrong directions because we want to be positive all the time? And could it be that that glory of Jesus shines all the more brightly against the dark backdrop of our sin? Could this vision of Yahweh the Judge help us see a new vision of Yahweh the Savior, speaking of his death on the Mount of Transfiguration?
Psalm 50 is designed to help God’s people renew their covenant with their God, and that‘s a good thing. They have drifted away from faithful covenant worship and life, because God has been silent. “These things you have done and I kept silent; you thought I was altogether like you. But I will rebuke you and accuse you to your face.” Here’s an important preaching point. When God does not speak into our lives, we assume that he approves of what we’re doing. We assume that he is just like us. We end up making God in our own image. And that can be deadly for us.
So here in Psalm 50, God breaks his silence. He comes to his people and his major act in coming is speech. He begins and ends our section of Psalm 50 by identifying himself. “The Mighty One, God, Yahweh,” or “Yahweh the God of gods.“ “God himself is Judge.” Indeed, no less than 7 different names or titles are given to God in Psalm 50. Make no mistake about who is addressing the gathered people of God.
After years of silence, God “speaks and summons the earth (and the heavens, verse 4).” “Gather to me my consecrated ones (verse 5).” “Hear, O my people, and I will speak, O Israel, I will testify against you; I am God, your God (verse 7).” Those last words, of course, echo the central covenant promise (“I will be your God and you shall be my people”), and they identity God as both the Judge and the Key Witness. (“State your name, sir, for the record.”). The Voice that identified Jesus as the Son of God on the Mount of Transfiguration identifies himself here on Mount Zion as the offended God of Israel.
Why is Yahweh offended? What did Israel do wrong? What is the sin we have carried into church this bright morning? Verses 7-15 address the well-intentioned sin of misdirected worship. It’s not that Israel was offering sacrifices; God had told them to do that. Indeed, they sealed the covenant with sacrifices (verse 5) and continued to approach their covenant God with sacrifices. The problem was that they had begun to see their sacrifices as something God needed, as something on which God depended. This idea of the care and feeding of the deity was endemic in the neighboring pagan religions. By providing sacrifices, worshippers made the gods their clients or customers who were at their beck and call. If we just do worship right, we can turn our God into our servant who will do what we want. This subtle but deadly distortion of worship slithers into our minds like a hissing serpent.
Here God speaks loudly and clearly against the misuse of worship. I don’t need your sacrifices to survive; I own all of creation. I don’t need your tender loving care; I am “the I am what I am.” What I want from you is simple thanks and heartfelt prayers for help. You need me, not the other way around. I love you so much that, when “you call upon me in the day of trouble, I will deliver you and you will honor me (verse 15).” Then keep the vows you made when you were in trouble. Just be faithful and keep your promises to me, as I keep my promises to you.
That is the gentle, though sarcastic, word God speaks to those who have failed at worship. He isn’t so gentle with “the wicked (verse 16).” These may be the same people as in verses 7-15 but now identified as those who have intentionally turned their backs on God’s covenant law (verse 16). Using several of the ten commandments, God excoriates them for talking a good line (taking his covenant law on their lips in church), but walking a wicked line. They engaged in what Brueggemann calls “a trivialization of Torah when covenantal statutes are resisted and then completely forgotten.” Upon such as these, upon Christians who worship regularly and give lip service to the Ten Commandments while living in open disobedience, God pronounces stern judgment.
On this Transfiguration Sunday, we can say to our people that the coming of Jesus in all his glory does not give us license to worship any old way we want or live like hell as we head for heaven. Here God comes to us in a different manifestation of his glory, the glory of a righteous Judge. Preach what Psalm 50 says, and then point them to verse 22. “Consider this, you who forget God, or I will tear you to pieces, with none to rescue.”
Those are incredibly harsh words, words we don’t want to speak. But think of it this way. Sin tears us to pieces, and God in his fierce love tries to call us away from it with a threat like this. To save us from the consequences of sin, God speaks in words designed to put the fear of God in us. Brueggemann puts it this way. “Those who violate covenant cannot count on the guarantees of the covenant Lord. They choose for themselves disorder, and they get what they choose.”
The Psalm does not end with punishment, just warning and instruction. “Consider this,” says the Judge. Don’t brush it off as “hell fire and damnation preaching.” Take it in and think deeply about it. And instead of trying to buy my favor with your sacrificial worship, just give me thanks for the grace that saved you in the first place (verse 23). Humble gratitude and heartfelt cries for help, these expressions of genuine faith, will “prepare the way so that I may show him the salvation of God.”
It may be difficult to wade through the hard words of Psalm 50, but if you dare to try, you will put the Transfiguration of Christ in a whole new light. Here is the Judge of all the earth humbled in human flesh, on the way to the cross to die for sinners like us. We don’t worship properly and we don’t live obediently, so we deserve the Judge’s sentence. But instead of carrying out that sentence on us, the Judge commutes our sentence by executing it on Christ. His greatest glory was not seen on that shining Mountain, but in the darkness of another Mountain.
That, of course, was exactly why Moses and Elijah were talking to Jesus about his death on that mountain (Luke 9:31). He came precisely for those who disobeyed the Law that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai and for those who ignored the prophetic call to return to the covenant Lord. The greatest glory of Jesus was that he did what Moses and Elijah could not do. He saved sinners who call on his name. To paraphrase Psalm 50:2, “From Calvary, perfect in beauty, God shines forth.”
It is fascinating that the very sins condemned by God in Psalm 50 are now in the headlines. After decades of glorifying sexual sin of all sorts in the movies, Hollywood is in an uproar because it has discovered that some of its brightest stars are sexual predators. After producing thousands of movies about criminal activity, society is shocked that young basketball stars would shoplift in China and then have one of their fathers downplay the importance of such a crime. And our whole culture is overwhelmed by the blizzard of evil words blasting out of Washington. Our politicians, aided and abetted by the news media, “speak continually against your brother and slander your mother’s son (verse 20).” The church can be an Epiphany of the glory of Christ by considering the hard words of Psalm 50 and allowing the Spirit of Christ to transfigure sinners into saints who show the world another way to be fully human.
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
Author: Scott Hoezee
It is Transfiguration Sunday and so naturally the Lectionary gravitates toward passages that talk about light and shining and illumination. On that score, these verses carved out of 2 Corinthians 4 fit the bill. But it’s an open question whether this passage is finally all about that light imagery—it may be more about the nature of preaching the Gospel just generally. Probably it is more about the latter but also probably we can weave both together.
Paul’s overall point here is that the Gospel is just not going to get through to everyone. If it does, it is a gift of grace. Bracket out the Holy Spirit’s role in lighting up someone’s heart with the truth of Christ, most people—all people more accurately—would never understand, receive, or embrace the Gospel. This is partly because the spiritual powers that be work hard to block out the light. Sin in this world has so very many effects but not the least of sin’s effects is the fallenness of our understandings and minds. It is sometimes called the noetic effect of sin. We simply no longer know the truths about God and this creation that were instilled in us in the beginning. What’s more, without outside assistance, we cannot recover this knowledge on our own, either.
But that is not Paul’s only point in these verses and in the larger passage of 2 Corinthians 4. There is also something about how God chooses to reveal the Gospel that can make it harder to swallow. Even as the Son of God came as a humble human being from the backwaters of the Roman Empire—he was never much to look at—so the Gospel message about Jesus of Nazareth comes in equally humble trappings. An apostle like Paul had about as much to work with in his day as modern preachers have today: words, water, bread, and wine. Simple stuff. Ordinary. Not flashy.
Indeed, as Paul makes clear elsewhere (and this is a big part of the overall second epistle to the Corinthians), the Gospel is not even supposed to come through high-flying rhetoric, slick orators, outwardly impressive displays. People are not supposed to come to embrace the Gospel because of a given preacher’s fine C.V. and highly burnished credentials. It is the sincerity of the humble preacher that counts, the preacher’s own transparency to Jesus himself.
“We have this treasure in cracked pots” Paul goes on to say just beyond the end of this lection. The apostles themselves looked more like the victims of a bad car accident than handsome Hollywood celebrity types. Paul talks about carrying Jesus’ death around inside of them, being handed over to the same miserable mistreatment Jesus got when he was here. But somehow that match between messenger and message is what it is all about. If glitzy preachers try to glitz up the Gospel by association, something of great value is going to get lost in the translation.
Preachers who love to stand in the spotlight risk grabbing the spotlight from the Holy Spirit. And when the spotlight is on the preacher, the Spirit can no longer shine that light into the hearts of others in the only way that will bring true illumination that will lead to salvation.
It is all a delicate balancing act, of course. Those of us who preach really do stand in a kind of spotlight, whether literal, metaphorical, or both. When we stand up to preach, we are the ones filling up other people’s field of vision. They can get distracted and all but if they try to pay attention or swing their distracted attention back to the sermon, it will be to the preacher’s voice they need to pay attention, the preacher’s face and body language they will see and notice and watch. And good preachers know that what you do with your face, your eyes, your whole body has a huge effect on how well the message gets across.
Some time ago I preached at a large church that was set up in a half-moon configuration with seating not unlike a movie theater. When it came time for the sermon, the house lighting was dimmed, the lights on the stage turned up, and I had to deliver the entire sermon not being able to see a blessed soul. Ah, but they could ALL see me, and that (the lighting people at this church seem to think) is what it is all about. I find it very difficult to preach when I cannot see and make a connection to the listeners. But let’s face it: even when you can do this, they are all looking at you. And so it is tempting to forget about the far more important spotlight that the Spirit needs to turn onto Jesus alone and then bring into the hearts of all those people.
We preachers forget that to our peril because—again, if you read more in 2 Corinthians 4 than just the assigned 4 verses—without God’s help by the Spirit and through the light of the Gospel, we cannot convince a blessed soul of a blessed thing. It’s just words floating on the ether until the Spirit takes those preached words and does something with them. Thanks be to God the Spirit is good at this. It is often very surprising. People thank the preacher for things the preacher is quite sure she never said. But somehow someone heard it anyway and wouldn’t you know, it turns out to be the very thing that person needed to hear by God’s grace that very day. Smart preachers don’t whip out the manuscript to prove to someone that what they heard we never said! Just let that Spirit shine that Gospel light wherever the Spirit wills.
Nothing happens without the Spirit bursting forth that light of the Gospel in people’s hearts. Lots of surprising things happen when the Spirit does do that work. Despite being front and center when we preach, despite being the ones who get the comments at the church door after the service, what we preachers should want more than anything is to be like a shiny mirror off of which the light of the Gospel bounces and then gets beamed straight into the hearts of people who are longing to hear the Word of Life.
No less than Fred Rogers—yes, that’s Mr. Rogers of PBS TV fame—once recounted an experience he had in church listening to a sermon.
“During the sermon I kept ticking off every mistake I thought the preacher–he must have been 80 years old–was making. When this interminable sermon finally ended, I turned to my friend, intending to say something critical about the sermon. I stopped myself when I saw the tears running down her face. She whispered to me, ‘He said exactly what I needed to hear.’ That was really a seminal experience for me. I was judging and she was needing, and the Holy Spirit responded to need, not to judgement.”