Saturday, February 13, 2021

The Sunday next before Lent (Quinquagesima)

Here is the transcript of my sermon for this week, the Sunday next before Lent (Quinquagesima).

The Sunday next before Lent

Reading: 2 Corinthians 4:3-6

Last week, our Gospel reading was the first eighteen verses of St John’s Gospel. This is what is known as the prologue to St John’s Gospel. We focused in particular on verse 14:

‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.’ (John 1:14)

Our Gospel reading this morning is St Mark’s account of the event in our Lord’s life known as the transfiguration. This is when Jesus takes three of his closest disciples - Peter, James, and John - up a mountain where he is ‘transfigured’ before them. Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets, appear to him. The Voice that had proclaimed at his baptism that Jesus was God’s Son does so again. St Peter, writing years later, describes this experience with Jesus on the mountain as seeing Jesus receive glory (2 Peter 1:16-18).

In St John’s Gospel, St John describes Jesus’ miracles as ‘signs’ that point to his glory. This glory is revealed in its fulness when Jesus’ hour has come and he dies on the Cross. St John writes that ‘we’ have seen his glory, including in the ‘we’ himself and his fellow disciples, those who believe through them, and those who are with him when he writes including the Blessed Virgin Mary herself. St John invites us his readers to see Jesus’ glory through what he writes, so that we too, like them, might come to believe.

This is one side of the story. There is, however, another side. Many of those who saw Jesus’ signs did not believe in him. Many since who have read the Gospel account of Jesus’ life and who have heard the good news of Jesus also have not come to believe in him. They have seen Jesus, but they have not seen his glory.

This is puzzling: why is it that some see Jesus and see his glory, but others see him and see only another ordinary human being? More puzzling still is that although Jesus came first and foremost ‘to his own’, that is, to his own people the Jews, ‘his own received him not’ (John 1:11).

Jesus came as the Messiah his people had been expecting and hoping for. His first disciples followed him believing he was this Messiah, the Son of God, the One who would redeem Israel. At first, his death shattered them and led them to question their faith, but when the Risen Jesus appeared to them, they came to see that the Messiah had had to suffer and die. St John’s Gospel is written with the express purpose of convincing those who read it that Jesus is the Messiah and that through believing in him they may have in his name (John 20:31).

Originally, the first believers, who were themselves all Jews, thought that Jesus had only come unto his own, that is, to the Jewish people. However, they became persuaded that the good news of Jesus was also for the pagans, that is, the Gentiles (it is the same word in Greek). But again, while many Gentiles did believe in Jesus, more in fact than those from his own people, many more did not.

So why did people not see Jesus glory? Why did they not even see it when he was with them performing miracles amongst them? And why, we can ask, do people not see it today?

These questions St Paul seeks to answer directly in what we now know as his second letter to the Church at Corinth. We only have a small part of his answer in our second reading this week. St Paul has been writing, since the beginning of chapter 3, about the glory of God and of why people do not believe in the Gospel. As I have said many times, one of the major issues for the early Church was why Jesus’ own people did not receive him. St Paul will discuss this issue again in his letter to the Church at Rome, chapters 9 to 11. Here, in 2 Corinthians, he tackles both the specific question of Jesus’ own people’s unbelief and, also the question of why people more generally don’t believe. St Paul does this by reflecting on chapters 32 to 34 in the book of Exodus and, in particular, on chapter 34.

To understand what St Paul writes, it is essential for us to be familiar with the events described in these chapters of Exodus. (As an aside, this reinforces the importance of reading and knowing the Old Testament!)

In chapter 34, we read how Moses, like Jesus in this morning’s reading, has gone up a mountain to meet with God and to receive God’s Law for his people. This is the second time Moses has been up the mountain to receive the Law. The first time he had gone up to receive the Law, the people of Israel had become impatient and had got fed up waiting for him to return. So, they asked Moses’ brother, Aaron, to make them idols who they can see and who can lead them. Other nations can see their gods, why should they be different? It didn’t end well for the idolaters, but that’s another story.

Now this second time, while up the mountain, Moses sees the glory of the Lord and talks to God face to face. When Moses descends from the mountain, he does not realize that his face is shining as a result of him having been in the presence of God. When the Israelites see him, they are frightened by his unnaturally shining face, so Moses puts a veil over his face to cover it. He only removes it when he goes into the Tabernacle to talk with God.

St Paul uses this to illustrate the difference between God’s covenant with Israel and the new covenant in the Spirit. It is a careful and detailed argument, but, essentially, what St Paul argues is that if the old covenant came with such glory, how much more glory does the new covenant come with. St Paul writes:

‘For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, much more does the ministry of justification abound in glory!’ (2 Corinthians 3:9)

The old covenant, based on the Law, was a covenant from God, but it was ineffective. It was not able to achieve what was needed for people to experience the life of God. 

In explaining why the Law did not work, St Paul writes that when the people of Israel heard God’s word being read, it was as if there was a veil over their minds to keep them from seeing its meaning and understanding it, in the same way that there was a veil over Moses’ face to prevent people seeing the glory that radiated from it.

It is only when a person turns to the Lord, St Paul writes, that the veil is removed and a person is able to understand what the Law is pointing to. It is only then that they can experience the life of Christ. The Lord who makes this possible, St Paul explains, is the Holy Spirit: ‘for where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom’ (2 Corinthians 3:17). The Holy Spirit sets people free to understand the truth of God.

St Paul, however, goes further, and says that not only are we now free and able to see the glory of God in Christ, we share in his glory and are being transformed by it. He writes:

‘And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.’ (2 Corinthians 3:18)

St Paul begins chapter four by telling the Corinthian believers that because he and his co-workers are engaged in this ministry of preaching the Gospel, they do not lose heart despite the great opposition and severe suffering that it brings, and despite the fact that people still do not believe in the message they preach.

The problem, then, wasn’t simply a matter of understanding. The reason that the people of Israel did not come to Christ wasn’t only because they did not understand the Law and the One to whom it pointed. The problem was that it was if there was a veil over their minds to hide what the Law meant and to stop them understanding what the Law was telling them. But people, in general, don’t understand and respond to the Gospel either. How does St Paul explain this? He uses the same image of the veil.

The Gospel is veiled, he writes, to those who are perishing, and the reason it is veiled is that the ‘god of this world’ has blinded people’s minds to keep them from seeing Christ’s glory. This introduces a whole new dimension to the problem.

The failure of people to respond to and believe in the Gospel is not just about human weakness and people’s inability to understand the Gospel. It is not even simply about human disobedience, although all this is part of the picture. St Paul is saying that not only do people not understand or not want to understand, they cannot understand because they are prevented from understanding by the one whose power and control they are under.

The situation sounds utterly hopeless. And that’s the point: it is utterly hopeless. Absolutely hopeless. Hopeless, that is, unless God intervenes and does something, and that’s the amazing message that St Paul wants us to see. He writes:

‘For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.’ (2 Corinthians 4:6)

Yes, we have seen his glory. But we have seen his glory, not because we have eyes to see it; not because we are good people; and not because we are clever, spiritually aware, or responsive. We are none of these things. We have seen his glory solely and only because he has shown it to us. No words can begin to express how wonderful this is. Charles Wesley expresses something of it in his great hymn (that goes with the sermon this week), ‘And can it be’. In verse four he captures what St Paul is saying:

‘Long my imprisoned spirit lay
fast bound in sin and nature's night;
thine eye diffused a quickening ray;
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
my chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.’

1. We have seen his glory

Most of us watching, listening to, or reading this have responded to the Gospel invitation and have seen his glory. But we need to remember that we have seen his glory. The emphasis is on what we have seen and not on us who see it.

Imagine someone having been to see a famous picture in an art gallery, perhaps the Mona Lisa or one painted by another great artist. Then, when describing the experience, they talk not about the painting, but when they went, where they stood, how long they stood there for, and what glasses they wore when they viewed it. We would think that they had missed the point. What they were doing as they viewed the painting should be secondary to seeing the painting itself. The point is the painting.

So, too, the emphasis is, or should be, not on our ability to see Jesus’ glory, but on the glory he has shown to us. On the Third Sunday of Epiphany, we saw that at the wedding at Cana of Galilee, Jesus revealed his glory and his disciples believed in him (John 2:11). We too are only able to believe in him because he has revealed himself to us.

Now when we hear this instead of rejoicing at what has been revealed to us, we push back against it. We don’t like the thought that it is not at all about us, we want to get some of the credit for having seen his glory. At the very least, we want to be given credit for having believed in what we have seen. This is why we cling so fiercely to the idea of human free will. For unless we have free will, how can we be praised for exercising our wills and choosing to believe? So confident are we in our freedom to choose, we are pleased with ourselves that, even though we may indeed be weak and sinful, we have at least recognized it, admitted to it, and believed the Gospel. Surely we deserve some praise for that, don’t we?

Many don’t stop there. They want more than praise for having made the choice to believe, they want some praise for themselves: who they are and what they have done. They are convinced that they are not all bad. There is good in everyone, they believe, and that good, they argue, should be recognized. After all, they claim, we are all children of God, and even if we belong to other religions, we are at least all seeking after the truth, aren’t we?

We have to give the devil some credit here. Jesus described the devil as ‘a liar and the father of lies’ (John 8:44). The devil has done a good job in persuading many of us to believe his lies. It is a lie that we are all free to choose for ourselves. It is a lie that there is good in all of us. It is a lie that people of different faiths are all seeking after the same truth. It is a lie that we are all going to be saved if we do our best. The truth is that we are all slaves to sin, blind, perishing, and lost in the darkness. And, as Jesus puts it, unless we believe he is who he says he is, we will die in our sins (John 8:24) and be lost forever.

This sounds like a message of total desperation. It is about as bad as it can get. And this is why the Gospel is such good news. It is not, however, good news for those who believe in themselves; it is not good news for those who are proud of their achievements; it is not good news for those who think they can ‘just do it’ without needing anyone else’s help.

It is, though, very good news for those who know their weakness and inability to do even the little good they want to do. It is good news for those who are poor, weak, lonely, and desperate; it is good news for those who think of themselves as a failure and who don’t where to turn.

So, here’s the thing: if you have given up on yourself and see yourself as a lost cause, you have been given the gift of seeing what is true of all of us. And now, in the darkness of your despair, God wants also to give you the gift of seeing the light of the glory of God in the face of Christ. The light that transforms our despair into hope.

So, what is our hope?

2. Our hope is sharing in the glory of God

If you were to ask most people this question, they would answer in terms of going to heaven when they die. This is understandable given the way the Church has spoken of our hope in the past. There is a positive side to this belief, given that heaven is the dwelling place of God. Often, however, the belief that we are going to heaven when we die carries with it the idea of leaving behind, not only this earthly existence, but this physical and bodily existence as well.

For many years during the Church’s history, believers had a negative view of the body. This was due to the influence of a certain type of Greek philosophy on Church thought. This saw the body as, at best, a burden and a limitation and, at worse, as a prison and intrinsically evil. Death on this view became a liberation, a time when we experienced the joy of heaven. Heaven itself was seen as a place of bliss and happiness where we would live forever, free of all physical burdens and limitations.

We may not nowadays have the same negative view of the body, but the sort of thinking it led to is still very much with us. I hear this sort of thinking expressed all the time at funerals, and it is there in many of the hymns we sing. All of which is a bit odd given that the New Testament stresses that Jesus rose bodily from the dead and that the Risen Jesus goes out of his way to prove that his body is real and not an illusion.

For example, Jesus insists that Thomas, who has doubts that Jesus is risen, touch him and put his finger in the marks of the nails and his hand in the wound in his side (John 20:27). Jesus says to the disciples:

‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ (Luke 24:38-39)

Jesus goes on to eat fish with them. He does this to convince them he is real, and being real means having a body and not simply being a disembodied spirit.

Our hope is not just for our bodies to be raised, but for them to be transformed and renewed. Where the Greek dissatisfaction with the body gets it right is that our present bodies are weak and decaying. It is not though that they are evil, and the physical world of which they are a part is certainly not evil either.

St Paul, in his letter to the Church in Rome, writes about the glory that will be revealed to us, glory that the creation itself will share in (Romans 8:21). Our hope is the redemption of our bodies, not getting rid of them altogether (Romans 8:23). We don’t know exactly what this will mean. In his first letter, St John writes:

‘Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.’ (1 John 3:2)

We do not know all the details, but we do know that being like him means that we too will have bodies that have some likeness to our existing bodies just as his body had the marks of the nails and the wound in his side!

3. We see his glory in our weakness

Our Lord’s appearance and our full redemption is something in the future that we look forward to. However, as an assurance of it, God has given us his Spirit in the present. The Holy Spirit acts as a guarantee of what is to come (2 Corinthians 1:22; 5:5; Ephesians 1:14). What we experience now is real and wonderful, but it is just the beginning. The fulness of our salvation is still to come. ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory’ St Paul writes (Colossians 1:27). Our present relationship with Christ through the Spirit gives us the confidence that one day, as St Julian of Norwich put it: ‘all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well’.

For now, the purpose of our life must be to serve him in this world. And we serve him in this our present bodily existence, not by denying or abusing our bodies, but by offering them and all our gifts and abilities to God in worship and service (Romans 12:1).

The composer Bach used to sign his finished compositions, Soli Deo Gloria (SDG). This is a Latin phrase that means to God alone be glory. When man is glorified, God is not, but when man seeks to glorify God, the result can itself be glorious - as Bach’s music demonstrates.

St Paul continues in this letter by writing:

‘But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.’ (2 Corinthians 4:7)

Our present bodily existence in this world is a time of pain and suffering. We long to be delivered from this existence, not because the physical world and our physical bodies are evil, but because spiritually this world is subject to sin and death, and under the control of the god of this world, who has the power of death (Hebrews 2:14).

We know that Christ has won the victory over sin, death, and the devil on the Cross, but we do not yet see all things subject to him (Hebrews 2:8). The last enemy (still) to be destroyed is death (1 Corinthians 15:26). The forces of evil in this world are still all too real, but we can, nevertheless, be of good cheer knowing Christ has overcome the world and that through him we can overcome it too (John 16:33).

Our experience now in this world, where we do not belong, is meant to prepare us for the world to come, where we do. Again, St Paul writes:

‘For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure …’ (2 Corinthians 4:17)

St Paul himself was no stranger to suffering, and great suffering at that. St Paul is not meaning to suggest that suffering is anything other than painful and terrible for those experiencing it. It is, however, as nothing compared to the glory that awaits us as believers, and God being God can use even the most terrible suffering to prepare us for what is to come for ‘all things work together for good to those who love God’ (Romans 8:28).

The eternal glory that awaits us puts this world and everything that happens to us in it, both good and bad, into a proper perspective. Here and now, in this world of sin, suffering, and death, we are, as St Paul writes, being transformed by the glory of Christ.

Conclusion: We too must speak

If we believe this, then it is clear what we must do. St Paul later in chapter 4 will quote the Psalmist who wrote, ‘I believed, and so I spoke’. St Paul responds, ‘We also believe, and so we speak’ (2 Corinthians 4:13).

We too must speak, not to increase our Church attendance figures, not to boost our finances, not to win praise from people or to gain popularity for ourselves, but so that people may hear the truth of God.

But in doing this what we are up against is not simply human resistance, disobedience, indifference, or sin. We are up against a spiritual power that holds people captive and prevents them from seeing the truth and who, as our Lord explained, like the birds of the air, snatches away the seed of God’s word the moment it is preached (Mark 4:15). ‘Our struggle is not against flesh and blood’, as St Paul puts it (Ephesians 6:12).

One of the holy grails of military research is coming up with military hardware that is invisible to the enemy. If an opposing army can’t see you, or believes you have not entered their territory when you have, then you have a huge advantage. The devil has been thrown a huge advantage by many in today’s Church who have decided that the devil does not exist and is just a figment of the imagination of previous generations. The devil may be invisible to many in the Church today, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t there.

The devil doesn’t need people to believe in him. He is not trying to bring people under his power; he has them there already. His task is to keep them there. And that is made all the easier by people thinking he isn’t real. You aren’t going to worry too much about someone who you don’t think exists.  Meanwhile, because we are not worried about him, the devil, who very much exists, can get on with his work unhindered.

One of the most frustrating experiences as a preacher is not that people don’t like you or reject what you say, but that they don’t give what you say even a moment’s thought. I know that as preachers we often don’t do ourselves any favours, but that’s not always true. Some preachers are good preachers. And yet still people remain stubbornly indifferent. The reason for this is not simply that people don’t care, but that the devil is preventing them from caring. St Paul writes of how people are held captive by him to do his will (2 Timothy 2:26).

People’s only hope is that God will grant them repentance and the knowledge of the truth (2 Timothy 2:25). As preachers, and as those who want people to hear the Gospel, we need to focus on the truth of God’s word and not on the results. Yes, of course we want people to respond and to come to a knowledge of the truth, but that is God’s responsibility not ours. Ours is to be faithful in speaking the truth of God’s word.

‘We have seen his glory’.

We pray, then, that God may grant others to see it, and in seeing it, that they may bring glory to God.

‘For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever.’ (Romans 11:36)


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