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02.10.13 Contemplating God, 2 Corinthians 3.12-4.2 Sermon Summary

by on February 11, 2013

In Africa I saw a number of Muslim women wearing veils. My feeling and thought responses were interesting. The veil Moses wore also generates interesting ideas about our relationship with God.

Summary Points

  • The point of Moses’ Veil in the Older Testament
  • Paul’s interpretation for the Corinthians
  • Luke’s interpretation on the Mount of Transfiguration
  • Two things we learn about God’s glory
  • Questions for Discussion and Reflection

According to the Exodus reading, after speaking with God Moses would put on a veil to alleviate the terror his fellow Israelites felt in the presence of the Holy Divine. Only Moses was allowed to approach God; everyone else was prohibited upon pain of death (see Exodus 19:12, 21-23, and 33:20-23). So it is little wonder that when Moses returned from his mountain top conference with God, and his face was shining, the people were afraid. Moses veiled himself to calm those fears and be able to communicate with his people.

In the Second letter to the Corinthians, Paul offers a peculiar interpretation of this event. Throughout his relationship with the Corinthian churches, Paul was in competition with other preachers. These opponents were more eloquent speakers and apparently were arguing that in order to follow Christ, one had to follow Moses first. To be a Christian, one had first to be a Jew. Or in the language of Paul’s letters, to experience the Spirit, one first had to observe the Law (see not only this passage and it’s context, but Romans 8 and Galatians 5, for example).

So Paul was constantly in a battle for legitimacy in the eyes of his audience. It is in this context that he offers his interpretation of Moses’ Veil. The veil, according to Paul, was to conceal the fact that the glory with which Moses’ face shone was fading. In contrast to this glory, Paul places the glory of Christ which is unfading and perpetual.

So those opponents of Paul who were exalting the virtues of the “old covenant” (a term that appears nowhere else in the Bible), that is, the glory of the Law revealed through Moses, should be regarded with less esteem than Paul and his gospel of the Spirit. As Christ’s revelation is greater than Moses’, so Paul’s gospel is more authoritative than his opponents’. The Spirit of Freedom, which was Paul’s gospel, is greater than the Law which enslaves.

It’s helpful here to remember Paul’s conversion experience (see Acts 9, 22, 26). His name used to be Saul, and he was a Pharisee, someone who sought to be faithful to the Law in his present day. His zeal was such that he tried to extinguish the Jesus-movement by persecuting and even supervising the execution of Christians. Then, on his way to Damascus, he had a vision of the glorified Christ which blinded him temporarily. In his illumination he found liberation, and became the greatest evangelist and author of the majority of the Newer Testament.

In other words, Paul moved from Moses to Christ. And now, in Christ’s absence, he urges his churches to follow Christ’s Spirit. Paul contemplated Christ, and now his life reflects this glory, just as Moses contemplated God and his face reflected God’s glory.

Before Paul’s conversion experience, Jesus closest disciples had a similar vision. Jesus took his disciples up to a mountain (like Moses’ mountain). There Jesus was transfigured—his clothes and appearance becoming dazzling white (remember Moses’ face). Then Moses and Elijah appear—the Lawgiver and the premier Prophet. They discuss Jesus’ coming departure, that is, his death, and a cloud descends (like upon Moses’ mountain) and a voice declares that Jesus is the Son and the disciples are to listen to him.

In other words, in the presence of Jesus, the Law and the Prophets (what we call the Older Testament) have authoritative but relative status. The Law and the Prophets are, for Christians, interpreted by and through Jesus. In a similar conclusion to Paul’s, Luke’s account of the Transfiguration exalts Jesus above Moses, Elijah, and the older covenant.

While one could say much more about these passages and how they relate, let me close with two considerations.

First, Jesus reveals that God’s glory is not reserved for the mountain. Peter, James, and John want to stay on the mountain, making three booths for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. But Jesus takes them back down into the difficulty of ministry and ultimate to his own suffering and death. This first lesson continues Luke’s overall teaching about God’s glory. Remember the Christmas story? Remember the glory surrounding the shepherds? Where were they to find this new born king? In a manger, in a stable, behind the inn. Why Mary of all people? Why Bethlehem of all places? Because God’s glory is no longer reserved for the mountain.

God’s glory is even found in the valley of the shadow of death. Where there is suffering, death, grief, and sorrow, God’s glory can be found. We know this because on the Mount of Transfiguration previews the death and resurrection of Jesus. How? Jesus, Moses, and Elijah are talking about Jesus’ departure from Jerusalem (his death). Jesus appears in glory, a preview of the resurrection. His disciples are “weighed down with sleep” but not so much as they will be on the Mount of Olives when they actually fall asleep as Jesus prays before his betrayal. The point of all these allusions built into Luke 9 and 22 is that God’s glory is found even suffering, death, grief, and sorrow. God’s glory is no longer reserved for the mountain.

Second, everyone can see it. It isn’t just those who obey the Law (though the church often enough still teaches this). In fact, according to Paul, law-abiding even gets in the way. We can be so proud of our religiosity that we fail to see God’s presence. Instead, Paul says, we are simply to “turn to the Lord”—to look to Christ. All of us, Paul assures, can turn to God with unveiled faces and behold God’s glory. Lent, which begins Wednesday, is a good time to turn to the Lord and to remove our veils.

What veils do we wear? Or put another way, what keeps us from seeing God? What are we distracted by? Religiosity? Impressing others? Being too busy? Our destructive coping mechanisms?

Some of these veils we can remove ourselves. Some have to be stripped away in a blinding light by God. But bit by bit, Paul tells us, we behold God with “ever increasing glory,” through ever decreasing veils. This Lent, I pray you identify some veils that are keeping you from contemplating God, and that you, with God’s help, will be able to remove those veils, and that you will reflect God’s glory in your life more and more. Amen.

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

  • What are your feelings around the “holiness” and “glory” of God? Is it something you’re afraid of? Why is that?
  • Using Paul’s interpretation, what are some of the veils in your life that keep you from seeing God’s glory?
  • Since God’s glory is no longer reserved for the mountain, where have you seen it? In the taste of your morning coffee? In the sound of traffic outside your office? In the emptying of the dishwasher?
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