February 08, 2021
The Epiphany 6B (Transfiguration Sunday) Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Mark 9:2-9 from the Lectionary Gospel; 2 Kings 2:1-12 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 50:1-6 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 2 Corinthians 4:3-6 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism: Q&A 115 (Lord’s Day 44)
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. It usually looks something like this:
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 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, but you have the feeling that the passage of time has not helped Peter and the others make peace with any of it. Or sense out 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: Stan Mast
The compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary have done us preachers a real favor by pairing this Old Testament reading with the story of Jesus Transfiguration in Mark 9. This juxtaposition of texts will save us from preaching on the importance of mentoring (as many folks will do because the relationship between Elijah and Elisha is an obvious feature of this story). The presence of Elijah at Jesus’ transfiguration tells us that this story from II Kings 2 is ultimately about the Messiah. It reveals how Elijah could appear bodily on that mountain with the Christ and, more importantly, why he would be there. In a word, this story about Elijah and Elisha is the backstory of the Transfiguration.
To understand that, we must recall the historical setting of this Old Testament story. Israel is in a long slow death spiral, because of its wicked kings and sinful people. That descent into chaos and exile took over 200 years for the Northern Kingdom of Israel and nearly 350 years for the Southern Kingdom of Judah. In other words, it took God over 3 centuries to finally impose the curses of the Torah on a stiff necked and rebellious nation. Truly, Yahweh was “slow to anger and abounding in love.” Among the signs of his love for his sinful people were the twin gifts of Elijah and Elisha.
Elijah was the great prophet in the time of Israel’s death spiral. Oh, there were some people who functioned as part time prophets early in that decline (David’s Nathan, for example). And the great writing prophets would come later. But Elijah was the first full time prophet at a crucial stage of Israel’s decline. One of those part time prophets was Moses who laid down the Law/Torah that formed 12 wandering tribes into a duly constituted nation. Elijah was sent to rescue that nation from its violations of Torah and to call them back to an exclusive commitment to Yahweh. Moses and Elijah were the two great iconic figures in Israel’s history, along with Abraham and David.
Our text is in the Bible so that we can be sure both Elijah and Elisha were God’s specially designated prophets. In a world full of false prophets, a world where it is devilishly hard to discern the Good News from fake news, God wanted to make sure that everyone knows these two spoke the Truth from God.
The exquisite craftsmanship of the story is designed to guarantee that we get that point. The opening verse announces what will happen. “When Yahweh was about to take Elijah up into heaven in a whirlwind….” That line is designed to stop the reader in her tracks. Wait! What? We’ve been following Elijah through his bloody battle with Baal’s prophets on Mt. Carmel, a battle that ended with Israel finally confessing, “Yahweh—he is God!” And we’ve watched him run for his life as the Baal worshipping Ahab and Jezebel pursued him to the borders of the Promised Land, where his depression is broken by that “still small voice.” Now, suddenly we’re told that “Yahweh was about to take Elijah up into heaven in a whirlwind.”
How can that be? How will that happen? And what will become of prophecy with the main prophet gone? That’s what the elaborately stylized details of the story tell us. First, Elijah is accompanied by his loyal understudy, Elisha, who has already been designated as his successor in I Kings 19:19ff. They are on a farewell tour of the 3 “schools of the prophets” in Gilgal, Bethel, and Jericho. Is Elijah looking for his replacement? No, his visits are designed to alert the prophets and Elisha to the upcoming departure of Elijah. In each place, Elijah tries to get Elisha to stay behind, but each time Elisha declines, using exactly the same words. The prophets tell Elisha what’s happening, in exactly the same words. In this tree-fold repetition, the action of Yahweh is the point—Yahweh sent, Yahweh is going to take, as Yahweh lives. The imminent disappearance of Elijah and the designation of Elisha is Yahweh’s doing.
To make sure that Elisha is not the only witness of this transition, fifty prophets stood at a distance facing the place where the two prophets crossed the Jordan. They saw Elijah roll up his robe into something that looked like a staff (Moses?) and then strike the river with it. As at the Red Sea with Moses and at the Jordan with Joshua, the water parted, and the twin E’s walked out of the Promised Land on dry ground.
That’s where Elijah asked the crucial question, “What can I do for you before I am taken from you?” In what initially sounds like a greedy answer, Elisha says, “Give me a double portion of your spirit.” But he wasn’t asking for twice the power or influence of his mentor. He was simply asking to be Elijah’s oldest son. The inheritance laws of the day gave a double portion of the inheritance to the oldest son. Elisha was asking to be Elijah’s legitimate son, an heir to the mantel of prophecy. “Let me be your beloved son, so that people will listen to me as I speak the word of God.”
Elijah knows that he can’t bestow that gift. Only God can give his Spirit and make a true prophet. Elijah can only tell Elisha the secret of being a prophet—keep your eyes open to the actions of God. “If you see me when I am taken from you, it will be yours….”
As they were walking along, getting farther and farther from the prophetic witnesses, “suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.” Like Moses, Elijah was taken away outside the Promised Land with no grave to be found. Like Enoch, Elijah did not die and have his body rot in the ground until the resurrection at the Last Day. His body went immediately to heaven, so that it could appear with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration.
That ultimate Epiphany of Jesus Transfiguration was a transformative moment for the three disciples who witnessed it (II Peter 1). So was this moment for Elisha. In spite of the fiery epiphany, Elisha did not look away in fear. Instead, he “saw this.” And what he saw revealed something he didn’t know before, as we hear in his cry, “My Father, My Father, the chariots and horsemen of Israel!” All his life he had seen the physical chariots and horsemen of Israel; now he saw the heavenly hosts that had been there all along and would always be there.
These fiery beings were the real defense of Israel. They were the real source of Israel’s salvation. So, later, when Elisha and his servant were surrounded by the army of Aram, he told his terrified servant, “Those who are with us are more than those who ae with them.” And when he prayed for God to open the servant’s eyes so he could see, the servant looked and “saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around them (II Kings 6:16-17).”
But Elisha saw Elijah “no more.” And he was grief stricken, so he tore his clothes in sorrow. But apparently an article of clothing had floated down from the whirlwind. It was Elijah’s robe. Though our reading stops before this little detail, it is a big deal, so we can’t omit it. Elisha walked back to the Jordan, and in full view of those 50 prophets rolled up that robe into a staff and struck the water. As had happened for Elijah, the Jordan parted. And the 50 prophets fulfilled their God given role as witnesses. They bowed down to Elisha and said, “The spirit of Elijah is resting upon Elisha.” The transition is complete. There is still a Prophet among the prophets, even though the Main Prophet is now in heaven.
But the Bible doesn’t forget Elijah. He becomes a Messianic figure or, more accurately, a forerunner of the Messiah. After mentioning Moses, the last book of the Old Testament concludes with this promise, “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes….(Mal. 4:5)” When Zechariah was told that he would have a son, the angel of the Lord said, “And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah (Luke 1:17).” When Jesus disciples were doubting that he really was the Messiah because Elijah had not yet come, Jesus replied, “But I tell you, Elijah has already come, but they did not recognize him….” Then, says Matthew 17:13, “the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist.”
But the actual Elijah had come, too, in the Transfiguration that had occurred earlier in Matthew 17. Now we know how it was possible that the body of Elijah could appear from out of nowhere to stand with Jesus. And now know why it happened. Moses and Elijah were the great representatives of God in the Old Testament. One had spoken for God at the birth of Israel and the other as it began to die. They were his faithful witnesses, his beloved sons whom he sent so that his people could listen to his Voice. Now, on the Mount of Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah are in the presence of that Incarnate Voice in order to bear witness to Peter, James, and John that this one is The One. All the work that Moses and Elijah had tried and failed to do, Jesus will do perfectly. “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him.”
But Jesus Christ did not come only to be the Prophet to whom we should listen. As the accounts of the Transfiguration in Luke (9:30) and Mark (9:10) suggest, Jesus also came to die and rise from the dead. We will fail to heed his teachings, but Jesus came to die for our sins and rise for our justification (Romans 4:25).
The blazing chariot and horses that represent the armies of Yahweh reminded me of C.S. Lewis’ persistent efforts to imagine what angels look like. In his space trilogy, he populates other worlds with eldila, which are invisible, sort of. In Perelandra, two eldila are trying to make themselves visible to Ransom. “And suddenly two human figures stood before him, perhaps 30 feet high. They were burning white, like white hot iron. The outline of their bodies… seemed to be faintly, swiftly undulating as though the permanence of their shape, like that of waterfalls or flames co-existed with a rushing movement of the matter it contained….” As he moves through the planets of our solar system, Ransom becomes aware that the air around him is filled with these eldila, which reminded me of Jesus words in the Garden of Gethsemane. “Don’t you know that I could have called 10000 angels.” They were and are present all the time.
The idea that the story of Elijah and Elisha might have happened so that Elijah could be there as a witness on the Mount of Transfiguration—that ridiculous idea hints at the incredible complexity of God’s plan to save the world. Every detail, every nuance, every person is an important part of that plan. And that thought reminded me of the old saying by Benjamin Franklin about a nail.
For the want of a nail the shoe was lost,
For the want of a shoe the horse was lost,
For the want of a horse the rider was lost,
For the want of a rider the battle was lost,
For the want of a battle the kingdom was lost,
All for the want of a horseshoe—nail.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Read just the first six verses of Psalm 50—as the Lectionary would have us do apparently—and it all looks grand. It is a powerful summation of the almighty power of Israel’s God. The imagery is majestic and even fierce. God sallies forth from Mount Zion cloaked in splendor with tempests and fires and bright flashes of light all around. It is not the least bit difficult to discern why the Lectionary chose these verses for Transfiguration Sunday in the Year B cycle. All of these verses scream “Glory!”
Alas for Israel, however, the psalm has another seventeen verses to go. And starting in verse 7 once you delve into the remaining stanzas here, things grow a bit grim. You know all that majesty and awesome power the first half-dozen verses used to describe God? Well, it all gets pressed into the service of declaring a severe judgment on Israel for its sin and faithlessness. All that majesty is not here to inspire awe. It is here to inspire holy fear. It is here to say “Straighten up spiritually and fly right or else!”
Of course, we have read this kind of thing before. Such declarations of judgment against sin are not uncommon in the Psalms and certainly are a mainstay in the Prophetic literature in the Old Testament. Hence very little of the remainder of Psalm 50 strikes us as odd or surprising. But it might strike us as unexpected if we are to use the first six verses the way I suspect the RCL wants us to use them; namely, to just capture some of the glory of Christ’s Transfiguration in the New Testament (and from Mark 9 in this year’s readings).
In that case, we are perhaps properly taken aback here. Because what this can say to us as Christians gearing up for the Season of Lent is that we also are not supposed to stop with delighting in the glory of the transfigured Christ and the appearance of Moses and Elijah at his side. That was Peter’s initial mistake, of course. Let’s just bottle this glory. Let’s keep a good thing going. Because to the minds of the disciples THIS radiant Jesus is finally the one who looks like he could kick some Roman butts and re-establish Israel as a powerful nation to rule the earth. If we just stop the action with looking at the majestic glory, then as with stopping the reading of Psalm 50 after the sixth verse, we end up missing the real point.
What might be the real point? That a holy God is going to deal with sin, however severely, and if it takes this God’s mustering all the glory and majesty and power God can in order to do it, then that is what is going to happen. The holiness and glory of God cut two ways: yes, if this God is on your side, good news! The God who is for you holds all the cosmic power. But if this God is against you or your sinfulness, bad news! Because then the fierce power of God’s holiness will judge and punish, and all that majesty could crush you.
This was more or less Jesus’ point as he and the disciples descended the mountain after the Transfiguration. To the disciples, Jesus’ starting to talk about suffering, death, and resurrection so soon after the glory they had just witnessed seemed like Jesus was changing the subject. It would be like a man following up a highly romantic moment with his wife to then all of a sudden start talking about different brands of motor oil. What has THAT got to do with what just happened? But of course Jesus was neither changing the subject nor making some unwarranted leap to something disconnected to what had just taken place. The glory and majesty the disciples had witnessed was going to get pressed into the service of sacrifice, of dealing with sin once and for all.
The good news of that is the Gospel truth that this means the punishment for our sin will NOT come crashing down upon us after all. The majesty of God will not crush us. It will crush God’s only Son. That is the Good News of the Gospel for us. However, it does not lessen the severity of what is required even of God to make an end of sin and evil. This is why any self-help schemes of salvation are wrong. Or think of the perversion of the Gospel that the Galatians were guilty of in terms of their needing to finish salvation through their own efforts added to Christ’s work. Paul knew that such thinking is desperately in error. It requires all that majestic power and tempest and fire and lightning of God’s glory to put sin away. Salvation requires the blinding brightness of God’s glory. What do we think we can accomplish in offering up some 25-watt light bulb?
We really ought not stop reading Psalm 50 at verse 6. We need the whole picture. But because of who Jesus Christ is and what we know about the Gospel, the rest of Psalm 50 need not terrify us. It just reminds us of how great a gift our salvation truly is. “Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small; love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”
The character of Sheldon Cooper on the TV show The Big Bang Theory is a study in obsessive-compulsive hang-ups and other social difficulties. He is averse to touching or being touched, hugging or being hugged. And he has lived his life determined never to be in anyone’s debt. So when one December he and his friends decide to exchange names to buy one another Christmas gifts, Sheldon hatches a plan. He and his next-door neighbor Penny will be giving gifts to one another. So Sheldon goes to a Bed, Bath, & Beyond and buys half a dozen gift baskets of varying sizes and hence of varying amounts of money. His plan is to receive Penny’s gift, go to his bedroom office to Google the cost of the gift he receives, and then give Penny the gift basket that has about the same monetary value as his gift from Penny. That way they will be even. He will then return the other 5 baskets for a refund.
Except that when Sheldon receives Penny’s gift, his plan melts down immediately. Penny is a waitress at a Cheesecake Factory restaurant and one evening waited on Sheldon’s idol, the actor Leonard Nimoy, “Mr. Spock” of Star Trek fame. So she asked Nimoy to autograph a yellow cloth napkin with a Sharpie and make it out to “Sheldon.” For Sheldon, this is a gift of inestimable value. It carries no price tag. So Sheldon disappears into his bedroom only to return with all 6 gift baskets that he foists upon Penny. But even THAT was clearly not enough. So Sheldon overcomes his social awkwardness long enough to give Penny a hug.
Psalm 50 reminds us that the gift of salvation we now receive through Christ carries no human price tag. You cannot calculate its value and realistically you can never pay God back. All you can do is swoon in love and gratitude and give this God everything you’ve got.
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
Author: Doug Bratt
This text has taken on a very personal character for members of my church, its food pantry ministry and me, especially in the past ten months. After all, 2 Corinthians 4’s description of the “veiled” nature of the gospel wasn’t, at least originally, alluding to all non-Christians.
Chapter 3 makes it quite clear that Paul is speaking of Jewish people as those to whom the gospel is “veiled.” In verses 14 and following the apostle writes, “Their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It is not removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts.”
The people whose minds were made dull and hearts veiled are the spiritual ancestors of many of our church’s neighbors whose startling generosity helps our church’s food pantry feed more than 3,000 of our neighbors who are hungry every week. In fact, Paul at least implies that the minds and hearts of many of dear friends and partners in this ministry without whom our food pantry would be stingier are dull and veiled.
Yet it isn’t just Jewish people whose hearts seem dulled and minds veiled (and who are also very generous with our food pantry). Paul might say the same thing about our loved ones who don’t (yet) share our love for Jesus. He might say the minds and hearts of our neighbors and co-workers who haven’t yet received God’s grace with their faith are dulled and veiled.
2 Corinthians 4’s proclaimers will want to wrestle with these painful realities. We can be sure, after all, that at least someone who hears us loves people whose minds seemed dulled and hearts appear veiled to the gospel. Even some of our hearers may quietly (or publicly) live in this spiritual darkness.
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers might begin by lamenting that some people are, as Paul grieves, “perishing.” Those who hearts are veiled and minds are dulled are spiritually dying. They are, quite simply, endangering their eternal well-being. So it isn’t like those whose minds are dulled and hearts are veiled are choosing, for example, Corn Flakes over Wheaties or the Toronto Maple Leafs over the Montreal Canadians. They’re choosing to endanger their eternal well-being.
Yet Paul is quick to add that they haven’t blinded themselves. In verse 4 he insists, “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” Eugene Peterson’s Message, however, seems to highlight unbelievers’ culpability. He paraphrases verse 4 as “It’s because these people are looking or going the wrong way and refuse to give it serious attention.”
One challenge 2 Corinthians 4’s proclaimers face is identifying theous tou aionos (“the god of this age”). It’s literally the “god” of this era and world. It’s often understood to at least allude to the devil and his allies. But might we think of the god of this age, as well, as greed, materialism, racism or some other sinful attitude that plagues so much of our society?
In either case, a traditional interpretation of 2 Corinthians 4 is that unbelievers haven’t actively chosen spiritual blindness. The god of this age has spiritually blinded them. It’s as if some evil force has thrown acid into their eyes so that they can’t recognize God’s glory as God has revealed it through Jesus Christ.
So it’s very appropriate for this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s to publicly grieve not just people’s unbelief, but also the danger it puts them in and the insidious forces that conspire to spiritually blind them. We can voice the pain that causes those who love people who are spiritually blind to God’s glory in Jesus Christ. The RCL’s proclaimers might also find ways to publicly pray for spiritually veiled and dulled people, as well as those who love them and share the gospel with them.
Paul, however, quickly shifts from the pain caused by unbelief to the joy of proclaiming the gospel’s light into the darkness of unbelief. “What we preach is not ourselves,” he writes in verse 5, “but Jesus Christ as Lord.” In doing so, the apostle continues his practice of relentlessly pointing away from himself and toward Jesus Christ. It’s as if he says people’s hearts aren’t dulled and minds are veiled toward his ministry and him, but toward God’s glory revealed in Jesus Christ.
Yet Paul, in language that echoes last week’s Epistolary Lesson but actually literarily follows this week’s, speaks of himself as the Corinthians’ “slave” for Jesus’ sake. This might lead its proclaimers to ask us what this says not only about Paul, but also those who follow him in proclaiming the gospel of God’s glory. We aren’t, as it were, just Jesus’ slaves. We’re also, in a sense, “slaves” of those to whom we proclaim the gospel.
In verse 6 Paul circles back to chapter 3’s light imagery. Echoing the Scriptures’ first verses, he speaks of the “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of the darkness’.” Clearly the apostle sees that darkness into which God speaks as not just physical, but also spiritual.
God has “made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.” This again seems to allude to chapter 3:15’s “veil” that Paul says covers unbelieving Jews when Torah is read. So it’s as if the apostle says God has graciously lifted that veil of unbelief so that we can God’s glory in Jesus’ face.
So what are some themes that this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers might develop? One might be the humility that the Spirit longs to cause to flow from it. God has graciously lifted the veil from our hearts when the Scriptures are read not because we’re especially smart or good people. The quickening of our hearts toward Jesus Christ is a gift of grace alone that we can only receive with our faith.
A second theme that runs through 2 Corinthians 3 and 4 is that of deep mystery. We can and should admit that veiling of some hearts while others are unveiled remains something that we don’t understand. It’s resistant to the kind of explanation that some proclaimers like to offer and hearers wish to hear.
Things like our unbelieving neighbors’ sometimes-startling generosity raise a third theme. Some of our neighbors whose hearts are veiled and minds are dulled to the gospel’s glory are, in fact, more generous with our neighbors who are hungry than Christians than some of Jesus’ followers.
This might lead to a fourth theme that this Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers might explore. What, or more properly, who causes our unbelieving neighbors to sometimes act in such godly ways? And, in addition, what causes some whom God has shone God glory in their hearts to act in decidedly ungodly ways?
John Murray was a 20th century Scottish-born prolific theologian and writer. In The Collected Writings of John Murray, he asks (in admittedly dated gender language): “How is it that [people] who still lie under the wrath and curse of God and are heirs of hell enjoy so many good gifts at the hand of God? How is it that [people] who are not savingly renewed by the Spirit of God nevertheless exhibit so many qualities, gifts and accomplishments that promote the preservation, temporal happiness, cultural progress, social and economic improvement of themselves and of others?
“How is it that races and peoples that have been apparently untouched by the redemptive and regenerative influences of the gospel contribute so much to what we call human civilization? To put the question most comprehensively: how is it that this sin-cursed world enjoys so much favour and kindness at the hand of its holy and ever-blessed Creator?”