Last Epiphany C
February 25, 2019
The Last Epiphany C Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Luke 9:28-36 from the Lectionary Gospel; Exodus 34:29-35 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 99 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 2 Corinthians 3:12 – 4:2 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Psalm: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 99 & 100 (Lord’s Day 36)
Author: Scott Hoezee
Not for nothing are they called “Mountaintop Experiences”! In the Bible, when a story takes us up to a mountaintop, it’s a fair bet that something dramatic is going to happen—indeed, it’s a fair bet that something deeply revelatory is going to happen. Luke 9 is no exception. But the drama up there on that mountain seems to have been only partly intended to make an impression on the disciples. The rest of the event seems to have taken place for Jesus’ edification.
Consider the wider context of Luke here. As Jesus prepares to make his final trek toward Jerusalem (see Luke 9:51), he is talking increasingly about suffering, betrayal, and death. It’s weighing heavily on his mind. But the disciples seem lost in a fog of cluelessness. They are not really tracking all of what Jesus is saying, and so when Jesus speaks openly about his impending death, the disciples sometimes say nothing at all (note what happens after Luke 9:27: we fast-forward 8 whole days with no reported reactions whatsoever of the disciples to what Jesus had said). Or they find Jesus’ rhetoric merely baffling and bewildering (see what happens in Luke 9:45 after another direct prediction of betrayal). Or they respond to Jesus’ talk about sacrifice and humility by incarnating its opposite in a wrangling over and jockeying for power and privilege in Jesus’ coming kingdom (see Luke 9:46-50).
How did Jesus put up with all this!!??
In other words, long about the time Jesus could use all the support he could get, the disciples are simply unavailable to him in any meaningful way. They cannot encourage Jesus to stick with what they don’t understand (and would resist if they did understand it). Indeed, by their very demeanor and words, they are actually tugging Jesus another direction! Every time they respond to Jesus’ predictions about suffering with indifference or with actions that tug another direction, Jesus must surely have heard the tempter’s voice whispering into his ear, “See, even your friends don’t buy it! Go another way! Seize the day! Go on and at least try to establish an earthly kingdom. For THAT your friends will follow you to the bitter end!”
With no human or earthly voices available to encourage Jesus, his Father steps in to provide new voices in the conversation. Commentators have long pointed out that Moses represented the Sinai Covenant/Law (as well as the Exodus) and that Elijah represented the prophetic voice of the Old Testament as well as God’s covenant faithfulness in sending servants to continue speaking to and ministering to even a wayward Israel.
Having both of them appear on the Mount of Transfiguration seems to be a neat way of coalescing the whole Old Testament into Jesus’ ministry. Probably there is something to all that, but it does not appear that Moses and Elijah spent their time with Jesus reflecting on the ins and outs of the Law and Prophets. Instead we are told only that they “discussed his departure.” That’s why they were there. These recognized giants of the faith come to point Jesus in the direction he needs to go and to encourage him that down that path lies the salvation of the world. If they were not there to encourage Jesus in the direction he had to go, I cannot think of what else they would have had to say about that departure.
The way Luke frames it, the whole dazzling event ends up being kind of sweet in its own way, as though the Father—sensing the apprehension of the Son—sent down some reinforcements to buck him up and help him make it across the finish line. It’s the kind of thing a loving Father does for his beloved Son. That Jesus perhaps needed this boost is testament to his true humanity. That Jesus did indeed go on to suffer and die is testament to his true divinity. That he will eventually be raised again bodily gets at both and assures us that the salvation about which Moses and Elijah showed up to discuss with Jesus is just the truest and grandest thing you could ever imagine!
Given all that, it’s a little tough to figure out how in the world the disciples came close to sleeping through this thing. We are told that the appearance of Jesus was as bright as “lightning.” Now lightning is pretty bright. A bolt of lightning is one of the most powerful forces on planet earth, discharging 1,000,000,000,000,000 watts of electricity (that’s 1 trillion if you don’t want to count up all the zeroes) at a temperature of 20,000 degrees centigrade (which is considerably hotter than even the surface of the sun). Anybody who manages to radiate the energy and light of a lightning bolt is mighty powerful and mighty bright.
Yet we are told that for a time during this epiphany of glory, the disciples were sleepy! It took a bit, apparently, before they even fully woke up (and then saw something so odd they must have wondered if they were not, in fact, still asleep and seeing a dream). But how could anyone be drowsy, even briefly, when such a spectacle was right in front of them?
What’s more, how could these disciples walk away from this event and yet, as verse 36 informs us, tell no one what they saw and experienced? In parallel accounts of this we are told that Jesus tells them to keep it under wraps but not here: they just don’t say anything. From the looks of the text, it would not be an unwarranted leap to think these three did not tell even the other nine disciples what had taken place. So what’s up with that?
Finally, how can it be, following on one of the most dazzling visual spectacles that ever took place on this planet, that the bottom line from God the Father is “Listen to him.” Listen? Listen, and not “Look”? Why go through all this razzle-dazzle, bright-as-lightning stuff if the whole incident ends up being more about ears than eyes? It’s not what I expected to hear the Father say!
So often we read incidents like this one in the Bible and we rarify them, put them up on a pedestal, and assume that if such a thing were to happen today and to us, it would change the world and shake up everything. Yet in the Bible events like these sometimes play out rather differently than we think. In this case this stunning revelation of glory took place well out of the public eye and then, even for those human eyes that did take it in, there was a mixture of confusion, sleepiness, and then reticence to speak of it in the future.
It is not what you would expect. But maybe behind these questions something of the core truth of the gospel starts to come out. Maybe the sleepiness of the disciples is emblematic for how often they had missed the glory of Jesus when it shined right in front of them day in and day out throughout Jesus’ ministry. The truth is that Jesus did not need visibly to glow to display glory. His glory shined—for those with eyes to see—just as brightly when he talked to lonely prostitutes and outcast lepers, when he saved wayward tax collectors and offered forgiveness to people who had never heard a forgiving syllable their whole lives long up to that point. The glory was there. It’s still there today in the church if only we don’t just sleep through it.
And if we find it odd that the disciples kept mum about this then perhaps we can turn the camera around to ourselves to wonder how often we keep silent about the great and glorious truths of the Gospel that we celebrate in church on Sundays but then fail to mention in the week that follows.
And if it seems odd to hear God the Father follow up this visual display with advice that has to do with listening and not looking, maybe that’s because we, too, are often overly fixated on outward fame and power and glory as the world defines all those things and maybe that gets in the way of our truly listening to what Jesus says about humility and sacrifice and being servants of the lowest of the low in also our societies yet today.
Maybe this reminds us, as we in this Year C Lectionary cycle are on the cusp of the Season of Lent, that we need to listen really closely to what Jesus says from the cross when—having given the last full measure of his own devotion to this broken world—he cries out, “It is accomplished!”
We need to listen to him. Really carefully.
Luke says that this epiphany on the mountaintop took place “eight days” after Peter’s famous confession of Jesus as the Christ. The other gospels suggest that this took place six days later. Either expression, as Stephen Farris points out in “The Lectionary Commentary,” could be the loose equivalent of saying “about a week later.” Yet, as Farris also suggests, in Luke’s context “the eighth day” could be a prefigurement of the resurrection as well. Luke is mindful of that eighth day significance, after all (he is the only evangelist to give us the Emmaus Road story, replete with Jesus’ being made known to the disciples “in the breaking of the bread”). So it is possible that this little detail on the timing of the Transfiguration could be a hint pointing toward Easter and the glory that awaited Jesus also then.
Frederick Buechner once mused that maybe the oddness of the Transfiguration is not so odd after all. It is interesting to note that although Luke tells us that Jesus’ garments shone as bright as a flash of lightning, we are not told that Jesus’ face shone, only that it “changed.” In the Greek this is literally that the EIDOS of his face changed, the image, the appearance, of his face was altered. How so? We’re not told, but it seems that maybe the true image of God, the image of the Son, the spittin’ image of the Son who was his Father all over again—maybe this is what shone through in a way the disciples managed to miss seeing most days.
But then we all often miss seeing this in each other as often as not. Scripture assures us that we were all created in the image of God, but as we hustle past people in the malls, as we jostle next to them on the train, as we get annoyed with them when they crowd us in our airplane seat, we miss it. But as Buechner says, there are moments of transfiguration in all our lives. No, not exactly on a par with what happened to Jesus but still . . .
Or as Buechner put it, “Even with us something like this happens once in a while. The face of the man walking with his child in the park, of a woman baking bread, of sometimes even the most unlikely person listen to a concert or standing barefoot in the sand watching the waves roll in, or just have 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.” (From “Beyond Words” by Frederick Buechner, Harper San Francisco 2004).
Author: Stan Mast
Fittingly, the season of Epiphany ends with Transfiguration Sunday. With the possible exception of his resurrection, Christ’s Transfiguration was the most spectacular exhibition of his glory in his life. Indeed, the Transfiguration was arguably even more glorious than the Resurrection, because Jesus resurrected body did not have about it the unmistakable glory of his transfigured body. Witnesses of Jesus resurrected body were amazed to be sure, but some were confused, some doubted, and some didn’t even recognize him at first. As world changing as his resurrection was, Jesus transfiguration was more visibly glorious. And it wasn’t just a sound and light show for the three who witnessed it, a kind of fireworks finale to his usually ordinary life (with a some sparks of miraculous glory scattered here and there). This glorious event had serious salvific import, as we shall see.
But we don’t get to preach on the Transfiguration of Christ today, because our assignment is Exodus 34:29-35. It is a marvelously complex little text, filled with serious import for Israel, but not anywhere near the magnificent Epiphany of Christ’s divine glory that we see in the Gospel reading in Luke 9:28-36. But before you go running off to that story, let me suggest how you can legitimately use this Old Testament story as a run-up to that New Testament narrative. Or, better, by seeing the account of Moses’ “transfiguration” as an adumbration, or preparation, or even prophecy of Christ’s transfiguration, you will be able to preach Christ with more power.
There are so many parallels between the two stories that some New Testament scholars see the transfiguration story as an re-enactment of the Moses’ story, even a fictional story deliberately invented by the writer/the church to show that Christ has taken the place of Moses. I don’t have that skeptical a view of the historicity of the New Testament story, but the parallels between this Moses story and the story of Christ’s transfiguration are stunning, and instructive.
Before exploring those parallels, let me set the stage for this story of Moses. It is part of a three chapter “interlude” in the story line of Exodus. God has been giving Israel instructions about building the Tabernacle where his glory will permanently dwell. Those instructions end at Exodus 31. They resume at chapter 35, with almost the same words about Sabbath regulations and materials for the Tabernacle and the selection of Bezalel and Oholiab to oversee the building of that sacred tent where Israel will always be able to meet their covenant Lord.
In between that tabernacle talk lies the terrible story of the Golden Calf in Exodus 32, an epic sin that nearly broke the covenant between Yahweh and Israel. Indeed, the rest of chapters 32 and 33 and 34 show Moses interceding for Israel, Yahweh coming back to Israel in a glorious Epiphany to Moses, and God re-issuing the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone to replace the ones Moses had shattered in his rage at Israel’s sin. Up the mountain Moses goes again, and again, to receive the commandments that spell out Israel’s covenant obligations and tell them how to build the tabernacle.
In other words, what we have in the three-chapter interlude in the Exodus account is a renewal of the covenant that Israel had nearly ended. And the story we have before us today is the exclamation point to the whole story/event, God’s way of saying, “Moses is my man, my servant, my Voice on earth. What he says is what I say, so listen to him, and obey the words he speaks to you on my behalf.” That’s what Moses’ “transfiguration” was designed to accomplish—to establish Moses’ authority as God’s representative once and for all.
Interestingly, that was the precise purpose of Christ’s transfiguration. Just before the Transfiguration in Luke 9, Peter has given that great confession about the true identity of Jesus (“the Christ of God”). Jesus follows that monumental moment in his story with the first prediction of his coming passion (“the Son of Man must suffer….”). The juxtaposition of those two ideas (Christ and suffering) was stunning; the latter would disprove the former.
So, to show the disciples once and for all that Jesus really was the Christ and that the suffering of the Christ was indeed what God had always planned, God displayed the glory of his Son. Many years later (II Peter 1:16ff), Peter would identify that event as the crucial Epiphany for the disciples. The Transfiguration finally convinced them that Jesus was God’s Man, God’s Son, God’s Voice on earth, the one who replaced Moses and Elijah and all the servants of God who had come before. Jesus is “The One.” His Transfiguration proved it.
And this story of Moses’ “transfiguration” helps us to see the surpassing greatness of Christ. If I were going to make a sermon on this text in Exodus in relation to its “fulfillment” in Luke, I would entitle the sermon, “A Tale of Two Mountains.” Moses went up on Mount Sinai; Jesus went up on the Mount of Transfiguration.
Moses received from God the Two Tablets of the Testimony, the summary of the old covenant, the old way of knowing God and his will. Jesus received from God the two representatives of that old way, the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah), whose authority he would supercede. Jesus would be the new way of knowing God and his will, not in contradiction to the Law and the Prophets, but in fulfilment of them.
Moses’ face shone with the reflected glory of the God he met on the mountain. He spoke with the Lord face to face, without a veil. Jesus’ face shone with the very glory of God, because he was the Son of God. In his face, the disciples saw the very face of God, unveiled for the first time.
Israel was appropriately terrified of seeing even the reflected glory of God. Both the leaders and the common people pulled away from the glory. Moses had to call them back so they could hear the commands God had given him. While Peter, James, and John were also terrified (according to Mark 9), they didn’t want to leave; indeed, Peter wanted to preserve the experience by building booths so they could stay. And they didn’t have to come closer to hear the Word of God. As Peter would later write in II Peter 1, they heard “the voice… of the Majestic Glory.” That Voice identified Jesus as the Son whose words should become the center of life for his followers.
In Exodus 34, God was re-establishing the old covenant with his “stiff necked people.” In Luke 9, Jesus is on the way to establish the new covenant in his blood that would be poured out for the forgiveness of sins. Moses was the mediator of that covenant renewal between Yahweh and Israel (see Exodus 32-34). Jesus was Mediator of the covenant between God and all people (I Timothy 2:5). God’s reflected glory on Moses’ face proved that he was the most important mediator in Israel’s history. God’s actual glory in the face of Christ Jesus proved the he is the Only Mediator in the history of the world.
The point of both stories is glory. In the Moses story, the glory of God had been leading Israel through the wilderness in the form of a shining cloud and a pillar fire. When the Golden Calf so incensed God that he threatened to withdraw his Presence from them, Moses interceded and begged God to show him his glory. Reminding Moses that no one can see his full glory and live (recall Isaiah’s reaction when he saw just the hem of Yahweh’s glorious robe in Isaiah 6), God shows Moses “the back” of his glory and proclaims the glory of his name. Now here, Moses’ radiant face gives Israel just a hint of God’s glory as God gives them his Law again. At the end of Exodus, the Tabernacle has been built and the glory of the Lord has descended upon and now dwells in that Tent. The glory of the Lord is now present with his people.
But that wouldn’t last, couldn’t last, because Israel (and all of us) would always fall short of the glory of God. So, God came among us, “tabernacled” among us (says John 1), as one of us. Permanently! “We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14). Moses’ glory was fading, and that, says Paul in our Epistolary reading (II Cor. 3), was a symbol of the fading of the glory of the old covenant. Christ’s glory was permanent and ultimate, because it pointed to his most glorious act where he would seal the new covenant with his blood. And if we gaze and gaze on his glory, we will be transformed from one degree of glory to another. (II Cor. 3:18). We can look directly into the glory of God in the face of Christ (II Cor. 4:6), and not die, but live. “Veiled in flesh the God head see, hail the incarnate Deity.”
The Medieval mystics had one goal in their lives of contemplation and discipline—to attain the Beatific Vision, to see God in all God’s glory. Few people have that goal these days. But we still love glory– substitute glory like the glory of sports, reflected glory in spectacular sunsets, attributed glory where there seems to be none. In that last phrase, I’m thinking of the glory some people see in, say, warfare. Most Americans don’t think about the historical context that gave birth to that great patriotic hymn, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” As the slaughter that was the Civil War broke out, Julia Ward Howe took a popular tune and gave it new words that came to her in a rush. So, the victory of the North over the South became an occasion of glory, an Epiphany. “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord….” The song even ends connecting the Civil War with the work of Christ. It is human, I suppose, to claim the Lord as our ally and see his glory in our cause. But we must be careful. We see the glory of God in the face of Christ most powerfully in his crucifixion for “poor ornery sinners like you and like I.”
Author: Scott Hoezee
All these millennia later it is easy to read the Psalms, especially one like Psalm 99, and forget how at once scandalous and vaguely ridiculous they might appear to be. Or at least how they could appear to some outsider to Israel who was looking in. After all, in poems like this one, the psalmist is making some breathtaking and sweeping claims. But it is the locus and focus of those claims that properly might widen your eyes when you really think about it.
After all, the Lord God of Israel, Yahweh, is said to be a Ruler of such cosmic might and grandeur that all the other nations must tremble and bow down before his holiness. Now, when we read this today, I’d wager that most people envision God high and lifted up beyond the rim of the known universe. We see our God as King—and now with Jesus as the King of kings—sitting on a glorious celestial throne from which he upholds billions of galaxies and gezillions of stars and so on.
Ah but wait: that is not quite what Psalm 99 says. That is not where the psalmist directs our gaze. No, we are brought to Mount Zion, to the Temple, to the Holy of Holies, to the Ark of the Covenant, to the two carvings of cherubim that sit atop that Ark. The camera of Psalm 99 keeps zooming in, and in, and in, and in with ever-smaller objects filling up the frame. We end up staring at a rectangular surface that’s about 51 inches long and 31 inches wide, something smaller than the surface of your average dining room table. And THAT is where Yahweh is said to be sitting and from that perch he is doing all this global ruling and such.
Now I mean no disrespect to Ancient Israel but . . . “Mount” Zion is really little more than a big hill. Everest it is not. And Israel itself, even in its heyday under Kings David and Solomon, and the city of Jerusalem and the Temple at the center of that city: none of that made the cut of being included in the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Those wonders included the Hanging Gardens in Babylon, the great Pyramid at Giza in Egypt, the statue of Zeus at Olympia in Greece, the Temple to Artemis in Ephesus. The Holy of Holies and the Ark of the Covenant within it were not on the list. Not even close. The Wonders of the World tour bus did not stop there.
Yet Psalm 99 is one of many psalms that tell us that Mount Zion and that Temple and that Ark of the Covenant were together the most important place in the cosmos, theologically speaking. From the outside looking in, that seems ridiculous.
What’s more, the psalmist then goes on to detail more reasons why that God seated on that Ark between those cherubim deserved praise. But the list is all pretty intramural to Israel. We hear about Moses and Aaron, Samuel, and how God spoke out of a cloud and doled out laws. This is all very much in-house stuff regarding just Israel. Sure, maybe if you were an Israelite this all seemed like a big deal but honestly on the grand scale of human events across history, this is a little like claiming that the goings-on of the Smith family from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, far outstrip other things like, say, the events involving World War II or the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. Maybe to the Smiths their family history seems powerfully important but, honestly, we’re talking about very tiny fish in a huge historical pond.
In short, we miss the audacity of something like Psalm 99 when we forget the true and original historical framework of these words.
And yet . . . if we are Christians preaching on this Psalm in the 21st century, then we are doing so because at a very important level, we think the psalmist here is correct. Yahweh is the one true God of the cosmos. He is the Creator of everything that exists. He was doing a special thing in Ancient Israel by laying the groundwork for a salvation that would finally be global, perhaps cosmic. Yes, from the outside looking in, little old “Mount” Zion and that little box known as the Ark of the Covenant seem like an unlikely center for such galactic-level activity.
But that’s just it: this is how God operates. If we can see what makes Psalm 99 audacious by all objective standards, we can also celebrate all over again how God is forever operating in the hidden margins of life to accomplish his grand purposes. After all, eventually in the biblical narrative our focus will also get very, very small: all our hopes will be pinned to a miracle zygote growing within the small uterus of one young woman in the backwaters of the grand Roman Empire. And if THAT does not strike you as also an audacious, scandalous, miraculous claim . . .!!!
God so often works through the very particular, through the very small and the seemingly insignificant things of this world to accomplish a salvation that could not be more grand. In the end, all of the holiness Psalm 99 celebrates got concentrated down into that small, microscopic zygote that then grew into an ordinary-looking baby and that further grew into an otherwise unremarkable carpenter’s son from Nazareth. Yet God was in that Christ to reconcile nothing short of the whole world to himself. Yes, that is an audacious claim. It is also either the truest and dearest thing anyone has ever heard or a piece of utter nonsense. The particularity of the Christian claim in the Gospel really brooks no middle ground.
But when you see and recognize this truth, you fall back in awe and wonder and, with Psalm 99, can but declare, “Exalt the Lord our God . . . for the Lord our God is holy.”
When we praise God for specific blessings in all the small and particular ways God works, then, as Walter Brueggemann has said, we bear witness to another world. We burst the narrow horizons and the shrunken boundary lines within which most people live to declare our belief in a larger world in which God is the King. “The act of praise opens a world for viewing but also for participation,” Brueggemann has written. In our act of praising God for his specific wonders we not only sing to God, we sing against the false gods of this world–the gods of self-sufficiency, of homemade salvation, of narrow human achievement in a world where everything is the result of luck or hard work but never the result of God’s work. But in our praise of God, we declare our faith not just in his transcendent power but in his down-to-earth love for us.
C.S. Lewis once wrote that for now we can only tune up our instruments in preparation for the heavenly symphony of praise. But if you’ve ever been to an orchestra concert, then you know that there is something lovely and exciting about even the warm-up time. When you hear that cacophony of sounds, you know you’re getting close. And then, every once in a while in the midst of the jumbled sounds of percussion, woodwinds, strings, and brass, every once in a while someone plays a few measures of the Mozart piece that is coming up. And when you catch those few strains of the real music, your heart skips a beat in anticipation.
In this sinful world we can but tune our instruments, but tune them we must. And as we do so, we shout “Hallelujah” to everyone around us, inviting them to join us in our chorus of praise to the Savior, to the God of small things, to the Lord of our everyday lives.
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Author: Doug Bratt
Sometimes the lessons the Lectionary appoints for a particular Sunday seem about as loosely tied as some teenagers’ tennis shoes. On this Transfiguration Sunday, however, that’s not the case. It doesn’t take much work to recognize the themes that run through the Old Testament, Psalm, Gospel and Epistolary lessons. Each in its own way reflects God’s glory.
In his fine February 1, 2016 Sermon Starter on this text, my colleague Scott Hoezee notes that if we didn’t believe the Spirit had inspired Paul write this, we might be tempted to accuse him of questionable exegesis of the Exodus 34 passage that he seems to riff on here. Those who proclaim 2 Corinthians 3 & 4 will do well to consult Hoezee’s piece for a further exploration of that.
I suggest that this passage’s preachers and teachers consider exploring its grief at some readers’ hardheartedness and joy at others’ faithful reception of God’s amazing grace. The Spirit might use such an approach to help bolster this passage as a “stand-alone” text rather than just as an “appendix” to this Sunday’s more commonly used and familiar Gospel (as well as Old Testament) lesson.
We can almost feel Paul’s grief at the failure of many of his fellow Israelites’ to grasp just who Jesus is. “Their hearts were made dull,” he grieves in verse 14. The Greek word the NIV translates as “dull” is eporothe. It suggests that many Israelites hearts, the very center of their emotional and spiritual as well as physical beings, were as hard – and inanimate – as petrified wood.
Yet what the apostle says in Romans 11:7-8 may deepen both his and our grief at that assertion. There, after all, as Ernest Best notes (2 Corinthians: John Knox Press, 1987, p. 32), Paul says it’s God who hardened the hearts of those who refuse to faithfully accept Christ. 2 Corinthians 3’s similar language at least suggests that Paul also intends our text’s readers to understand that it’s God who somehow hardened unbelievers’ hearts. So the apostle refuses to lay all the blame for unbelief at unbelievers’ doorsteps. 2 Corinthians 3 suggests that God somehow also shares some of the blame for it.
Those who proclaim this passage will do our hearers no favors if we simply brush over this assertion as if it causes neither questions nor pain. God’s relationship to unbelief has long puzzled even those most committed to the Scriptures’ reliability.
The stakes are in some ways even higher for those for whom God’s role in unbelief is not just a theological mystery, but also a source of personal, familial or relational heartache. Those who teach and preach 2 Corinthians 3 and 4 will want to be perhaps even more pastorally sensitive than usual as we handle the very painful part of its message.
Yet as Best notes, God’s responsibility for some Israelites’ hardness of hearts doesn’t free them from responsibility for rejecting Christ. The apostle doesn’t excuse his fellow Jews for refusing to receive God’s grace with their faith in Jesus Christ. After all, when, as Best notes, Paul deals with this painful problem in Romans 9 and 10, he insists Israel remains morally responsible for its failure.
So what might those who proclaim 2 Corinthians 3 and 4 say about this vexing mystery? We might say that unbelief of any sort brings God deep grief rather than any kind of satisfaction. We might also gently remind our hearers that none of us would receive God’s grace with our faith without the convicting work of the Holy Spirit within us. That is to say, God’s hardening of unbelievers doesn’t impose on them something they haven’t already naturally chosen for themselves.
However, perhaps rather than causing believers to argue about something like the percentage of blame we might assign God for people’s lack of faith, the Epistolary Lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday should stimulate believers to bring that gospel to those who don’t yet believe it. “How,” after all as Paul asks in Romans 10:14, “can [unbelievers] believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?”
Those who proclaim 2 Corinthians 3 and 4 will do well to remind our hearers that while we may at least suspect we know whose heart God has hardened, we can’t know how permanent God intends that “dullness” to be. We can’t know whom God has chosen for eternal life. So God’s adopted sons and daughters relentlessly, indiscriminately and lovingly share the gospel by what we both say and do with the people over whom the “veil of unbelief” still hangs.
2 Corinthians 3:12-18a suggests that even those who have received God’s grace with our faith in Jesus Christ naturally have hearts that are veiled against that faith. That is to say, all of us naturally choose to see in Jesus something far less than the Son of God given for our lives.
Yet, Paul insists, God has graciously given us, the “hope” (12) of a glory that God’s beloved people can only begin to imagine. For God’s own reasons in Jesus Christ, God has “unveiled” our “faces” (18) so that we may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the fulfillment of all hopes.
Now, Paul adds, “we, who with unveiled (anakekalymmeno) faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed (metamorphumetha) into his likeness with ever-increasing glory” (18). This is a startling assertion! Paul’s word for “transformation” is, as Karl Jacobson notes, the same Matthew use to describe Jesus’ transfiguration. He was transformed, transfigured in his disciples’ eyes. Jesus’ transfiguration, according to Matthew, removed the veil from his disciples’ eyes so that they could see Jesus more clearly.
Now the apostle insists that it’s not just that God’s beloved sons and daughters reflect the Lord’s glory, that the Spirit has transformed us to somehow resemble Jesus Christ. It’s not just that God so somehow fills us that when others glimpse us, they see something of our glorious God.
It’s also that God is making God’s people more and more glorious. That God is, by God’s Spirit, graciously making Jesus’ adopted brothers and sisters somehow more and more like our glorious “big brother,” Jesus.
In fact, as Carla Works notes, this transformation is so radical that Paul claims it’s affecting even his Corinthian audience.
Imagine that! The Spirit is transforming the Corinthian church that Paul’s letters show has inflicted so much misery on both the apostle and its own members. The Spirit has somehow convinced Paul that the Spirit is working even in those miserable Corinthians.
This perspective may encourage those who dare to somehow proclaim the text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday. Preachers and teachers, after all, sometimes feel skeptical about the Spirit’s work in both those who hear us and us. We may wonder how on earth the Spirit can make the hardhearted people whom we teach and to whom we preach know more and more like Jesus Christ.
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2 offers hope. After all, as Hoezee writes in his Sermon Starter on it: “When you embrace Christ as the Lord of all, you are flooded with goodness and light and life and glory. And then everything God has done from the beginning – including the place the Law occupies in our lives and in salvation history – falls into place. It all makes sense. No more veils. No more confusion. What remains is … glorious!”
Commenting on John Baille’s book, Our Knowledge of God, Neal Plantinga asks, “Do our doubts have moral roots?” Are our souls, as Plato suggests in his Laws, 886 a and b, “Urged toward an irreligious life by a lack of self-control in the matter of pleasures and desires?”
Baille comments, “Part of the reason why I could not find God was that there is that in God which I did not wish to find. Part of the reason why I could not (or thought I could not) hear him speak was that He was saying some things to me which I did not want to hear . . . When we do not relish God’s commandments we are tempted to deny his being.”