Philip Casmer

Let’s Reflect

by Philip Casmer on February 27th, 2022
2 Corinthians 3:7-18

Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ — this morning, maybe we need it especially…

I always think this text we have from Paul is a little bit difficult. Perhaps you felt the same as we read it. The words repeat some. He’s doing some literary device stuff in there and imagery and referencing historical texts and things his audience would have quickly picked up on in this section, but might seem obscure to you. It’s almost like you have to read all of chapter 3 and into chapter 4 to really “get it”, maybe – and toss in all of Exodus, perhaps Deuteronomy too.  Anyway, it’s not a text you just quick-read. It kind of draws you back to unconfuse various parts and to make sure what was said. It’s almost like there’s something waiting to be uncovered there. So that’s what we should do – to use Paul’s word in v.18 – contemplate what’s here, or, I say, in a simple way, let’s reflect on this a bit…

Starting with Moses. Because it’s his ministry Paul mentions in these verses. The ministry “which was engraved in letters on stone.” And you remember that, of course… Who could forget? Paul means that glorious moment when Moses received the two stone tablets from God himself on Mt. Sinai; God’s moral will hand-written by him and handed over to Moses. 

And it was a ministry that “came with glory”. Because God’s glory had been roiling away up there in thunderous clouds with fire and lightning. And Moses had gone up into that to receive this ministry from God engraved in letters on stone. And, as our first reading said, “When Moses came down from Mount Sinai…his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord.” (Ex 34:29) And Paul referenced it: “the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory.“ It made Israel afraid – as, I think, anybody with a radiating face might make you or me afraid. Moses had to call them near and when he got done sharing God’s revelation with them, “he put a veil over his face.”

Actually, that’s part of the imagery Paul uses in this section, to illustrate the problem… Moses had to veil his face because Israel was initially afraid of his shining visage. But, you know how things are… I bet after an initial fear, they were also a little enamored with it. They’d be tempted to get caught up in the flashiness, the radiance – craning their necks to see; to wonder whether it was still shiny after a few weeks. You know, like we do with celebrities on TikTok or Instagram – tipping our ears to hear what they say about Ukraine or if they’ll sing “Imagine” together and “heal the world”. Because that would be glorious, right? 

See, Israel had received at Moses’ hand the law of God that measured their relationship with him. And they’d be tempted ever after to think that the shiny, outward keeping of that law was what kept them in covenant with their God. If they did the sacrifices and they worshiped in the right ways, if they were moral and true – everything would be glorious. To adapt words Moses would later say to Israel in Deuteronomy, “You might say in your heart, ‘The power and strength of my hands have made this [glorious relationship with God] for me.’” That, by their doing, they’d be good/glorious even.

Which may not have the same outward trappings, but is very familiar to us. In the ever-more-digital 21st century, are we not drawn to be enamored with everything that shines? And to find our worth and value in the things that work and shine in the shiny world? In a crass way, we’re surely tempted to define success and glory by the world’s way – which often involves a sinful disregard of God’s ways – his law becomes inglorious and kind of an annoyance and we turn from it when we find it unachievable or hard or its utility less than we like. In a seemingly more articulate way, we turn to that law of God to mark us out as glorious as opposed to the world – usually by adding things to it that we feel are lawful. Our new church must be built this way and have these things and not those ones. Real worship doesn’t include that sound. Actual ministry would produce sincere believers who do real, helpful things.

But these are all fixing our eyes on a glory that passes, that fades. And turning “ministry” into our service to God (or, very often, to ourselves); and into what Paul said, “ministry that [brings] death”. That’s what Israel had – a self-focused service that brought death. Right from the start. Do you remember? That glorious two-tablets moment, after which Moses’ face radiated? It was the do-over… Because Moses had gone up once before and come down to find Israel, in fear that God was gone and that Moses had died (he’d been up on the mountain a month or so the first time)… They’d made a shiny golden calf idol they could see and worship and feel good about. And they’d never be able to keep God’s law. They would not be holy as the Lord their God was holy (Ex 19:6). Not by their own doing. And neither are we.

In fact, the real sin, the real temptation, is to focus on the shiny and to miss what’s essentially glorious; to “put a veil over our hearts” as Paul said, to cover ourselves from the reality. The glory of that old covenant wasn’t really in Moses’ shining face or God’s rumbling on the mountain or anybody’s keeping of laws. It was truly found in what Moses heard on the mountain. “Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, ‘The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.’” (Ex 34:5-7) And it was this God, then, who promised to do so many things in his love and mercy to serve Israel despite their sins that, with hearts full of his love, they would love what he had done and live according to his commands.

That’s actually what you saw in the Gospel, wasn’t it? There in the gospel were Moses and Elijah – bearers of God’s law to his people – long passed from this earth. And they’re shining and talking with Jesus, who’s shining too in glory. And I bet that was everything those disciples had been waiting for…glorious! But then a cloud came and covered that up. You know why? I wonder if it’s because that wasn’t the real glory. The glory was in what God said, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” And then, they looked up, and there was nothing but Jesus. Almost as though they were supposed to find all the glory in him… Not shiny-face, not radiance – glory still. In the one who’d been talking in that shining glory, of all things, “about his departure”…or his death at the cross coming soon. 

And that’s what Paul meant this morning. There was an old covenant ministry that was certainly glorious because it came from the God of mercy and love. But that ministry brought death when people sought to achieve holiness themselves but found they could not; and so it was transitory: it pointed to another ministry that would do everything we could not do – perfectly fulfill what God demands by God’s own work and promise. That ministry came in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, your Savior – who with all the glory of God, set it aside and hid it for the purpose of serving you. Paul calls it in v.9, a “ministry that brings righteousness.” As he said in his first letter – a ministry that is not pride in your service, nor transacting with God – payment you make so that he will love you, but resting in his mercy; trusting “in [the work of] Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God: our righteousness, holiness, and redemption.” (1 Cor 1:30) In Jesus’ perfect dedication to die as the payment for sins, my sins are paid and I am perfect and holy in God’s sight, bought back from whatever I have done, and able to look God in the face without fear – no separation. 

And to sum Paul’s argument in this section, that’s glorious. That’s far more glory than Moses ever got to deal with. That’s glory that will last by the power of Jesus’ resurrection to life – the capstone on his work which promises resurrection to everlasting life for you. That’s glory that surpasses, that makes anything else fade out in its incomparable light. And, upon reflection, that is an astounding, life-changing thing that begs a question…

For some reason it reminded me of some words I heard long ago. A paraphrase of a poem by Walt Whitman. Went like this: 

“O me, O life of the questions of these recurring. Of the endless trains of the faithless. Of cities filled with the foolish…What good amid these, O me, O life? Answer: that you are here. That life exists and identity. That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”

And the speaker asked, “What will your verse be?”

That’s beautiful, actually, the poem… and a powerful question. It’s actually a little bit sad, though. You know why I remembered it? It was in an iPad Air commercial in 2014…not, I think, the heights Walt Whitman might have designed for his poem – pushing self-achievement through new technology… But that’s how fickle this life’s glory is…

It’s not a bad question, however… Noting some grand and glorious design as the poet did, what is the part you will play? This morning we reflect on God’s glorious design, but you don’t have to reach within yourself for the answer… You have something that makes Paul say in v.12, “since we have such a hope, we are very bold.” Boldness is not inactivity. Boldness is not quiet contemplation. Boldness is the spirit that moves action… And that’s finally the glory Paul’s talking about. We aren’t self-serving and thus cowering and covering ourselves before the Lord with our own work. We’ve unveiled hearts by the work of God’s Spirit and where his Spirit works, v.17: “there is freedom”. Here we are, in Jesus Christ, receivers of his work by the Spirit’s power, righteous and free so that we boldly act. And I mean it as another translation puts it well in v.18: “we all, with unveiled faces reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another…”

We’re not just contemplating difficult words or even beautiful, poetic ones, my friends. We’re contributing by God’s Spirit. And asking, “What will your verse be?” About what God has done and promised in Jesus Christ, we preach, we sing, we shout, we share, we comfort, we work, we play, we encourage – because that’s glory – from the Lord revealed in his mercy and love in Jesus Christ, received by faith and in us reflected… A ministry: our whole lives in bold words and action all that others might see it–what’s truly glorious. And it’s promising: we are transformed by God’s work day by day more and more, from this glory of being his righteous children, into that other glory that we will see finally, the one that never fades away…

Paul brings it into focus this morning: how God uncovers it all for us in Christ – his Son, in whom he hid his glory, so that he might hide it in turn in us – there’s nothing more glorious than that. Reflecting on it, let’s reflect it…

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