|The Light of the Word by William Holman Hunt - |
Keble College, Oxford.
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
We began the service by singing:
Shine, Jesus, shine
Fill this land with the Father's glory
Blaze, Spirit, blaze
Set our hearts on fire
Flow, river, flow
Flood the nations with grace and mercy
Send forth your word
Lord, and let there be light.
With this song we ushered in our celebration of Jesus’ transfiguration. Transfiguration Sunday brings the season of Epiphany, the season of light and revelation to a close. The Gospel of Mark tells us how Jesus took Peter, James, and John on a hike up a mountain. When they reached the summit, the three disciples watched with amazement as Jesus’ whole being was transformed. His appearance radiated dazzling light, and his clothing was brighter than bright. But that’s not the end of the story. Before they knew it, Moses the Lawgiver and Elijah the Prophet joined Jesus on the mountaintop. While these three figures—Moses, Elijah, and Jesus—converse, the Holy Spirit descends like a dove from a cloud that envelopes the mountain. Then a voice from heaven proclaims: “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him” (Mark 9:2-8).
I don’t know whether the reading from 2 Corinthians is rooted in the transfiguration story, but it’s clear why it was chosen for the lectionary reading for Transfiguration Sunday. The Transfiguration story speaks of divine revelation. It speaks of the light of God that shines into the darkness. Paul declares in verse 6: “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 Cor. 4:6 CEB). When Jesus is transfigured, his countenance, his face, shines forth a brilliant light, revealing the glory of God within him. This is the light about which Paul speaks.
The question on the minds of many is: How do we know God? Where do we look? Who has the truth? We are living in an age that some call postmodern. Unlike earlier generations, people today don’t necessarily see things in black and white. We tend to see things either as shades of gray or in living color. Our Disciples tradition was born in that earlier age, when people assumed that true was true and false was false. Right now, to quote from Jonah, it seems as if no one knows their “right hand from their left” (Jonah 4:11). In the story of Jonah, God shows mercy to a city known for its wicked ways, because it responds to God’s call for repentance. You might say, that in that moment, they saw the light of God.
As we live in this postmodern age, where so many of us find it difficult to know our right hand from our left, we hear this word from 1 John: “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 Jn. 1:5). And in the Gospel of John we hear: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (Jn. 1:5). That light, according to John, is Jesus, the Word of God made flesh.
While this light from God shines forth from the face of Jesus, apparently not everyone can see it. In this passage Paul speaks of a veil that covers the hearts and minds of those who do not believe. He tells them that the “god of this world” has blinded some among them from seeing the light by covering their faces with a veil. This word about veils goes back into the previous chapter of 2 Corinthians, where Paul speaks of the veil that Moses wore after visiting with God on the mountain top. When Moses descended from the mountain, carrying the stone tablets, his face radiated the glory of God. His countenance was so bright that the people asked him to cover his face so they wouldn’t be blinded. Unfortunately, Moses kept the veil over his face long after that glory started to fade.
Paul uses that story to contrast the Law of Moses with the Gospel of Jesus. Here again, we have to be careful about how we read Scripture. Down through the ages, Christians have read passages like this in anti-Jewish ways, suggesting that Christianity supersedes the Old Testament and replaces Judaism as God’s covenant people. I don’t believe that is what Paul has in mind. I also don’t believe that is what God has in mind! The reason I’m bringing this up is that we can’t understand this word about veils without its broader context in this letter, but we also have to be careful about how read this word.
When it comes to the veil that Paul describes in chapter 4, it doesn’t cover fading glory. It keeps people from seeing the glory of God present in Jesus. The question for us is whether we can see the light of God that radiates from the face of Jesus, so that we might be transformed by that encounter.
There is a word at the end of chapter 3, which I think will help us understand this moment of Transfiguration and how it applies to us. Paul invites us to look at the glory of God with unveiled faces. This is what he writes:
All of us are looking with unveiled faces at the glory of the Lord as if we were looking in a mirror. We are being transformed into that same image from one degree of glory to the next degree of glory. This comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. [2 Cor. 3:18 CEB].
As we look upon Jesus with unveiled faces, we not only see the fullness of God present in him, but we can begin to reflect that glory in our own lives. We reflect God’s glory in our lives, as we are transformed into the image of God, from degree of glory to the next. In other words, this transformation is an ongoing process.
Unfortunately, too often we allow our faces to be veiled. We allow darkness to cover our hearts. For those of us who enjoy Star Wars, we know about the power of the dark side of the Force. One of the messages of the films is that the dark side shouldn’t be underestimated. As Yoda warned Luke before he faced his father, Darth Vader: “But beware. Anger, fear, aggression. The dark side are they. Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.”
Anger, fear, and aggression, they mark the path of darkness. Fortunately, Yoda was wrong about one thing. The dark side doesn’t have to determine a person’s destiny. There was, as Luke discovered, a path of redemption for his father, but first he had to let go of his own anger, fear, and aggression. Only then could he truly reach out to his father. Of course, this isn’t a perfect analogy, but it might help clarify the nature of the veils that keep us from being transformed by our encounters with Jesus.
Each of us faces our own veils. It might be racism. It might be white privilege or male privilege. It could be greed, nationalism, or nativism. It might simply be fear. The list can go on and on. There will always be some who cannot see the glory of God present in Jesus. At times, that probably includes each of us. I am very aware of my own susceptibility to putting on veils. I have my own fears and insecurities. I know that like many religious folk I am also susceptible to self-righteousness. That’s why it’s good that Ash Wednesday is on the horizon. The point of confession of sin is to acknowledge the veils covering our faces, which keep us from seeing the glory of God. Confession allows God to remove the veils so we can see Jesus with unveiled faces and be transformed by that encounter.
When the three disciples stood on the Mount of Transfiguration, they saw Jesus with unveiled faces. They got a glimpse of God’s glory present in Jesus. They didn’t fully understand what that meant, but in time they were transformed by their encounter with the glory of God that radiated from Jesus. Then they began to reflect that light to the world.
When we ask the question, who is God, the Scriptures point us to Jesus. As the Gospel of John declares: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” And this “Word became flesh and made his home among us. We have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:1, 14 CEB). According to John’s Gospel, while “no one has ever seen God. God the only Son, who is at the Father’s side, has made God known” (Jn. 1:18 CEB).
With that word about the light that has been made known in Christ, we can sing that old children’s song:
“This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
February 11, 2018