Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 11, 2018
2 Corinthians 4:3-6 Commentary
It is Transfiguration Sunday and so naturally the Lectionary gravitates toward passages that talk about light and shining and illumination. On that score, these verses carved out of 2 Corinthians 4 fit the bill. But it’s an open question whether this passage is finally all about that light imagery—it may be more about the nature of preaching the Gospel just generally. Probably it is more about the latter but also probably we can weave both together.
Paul’s overall point here is that the Gospel is just not going to get through to everyone. If it does, it is a gift of grace. Bracket out the Holy Spirit’s role in lighting up someone’s heart with the truth of Christ, most people—all people more accurately—would never understand, receive, or embrace the Gospel. This is partly because the spiritual powers that be work hard to block out the light. Sin in this world has so very many effects but not the least of sin’s effects is the fallenness of our understandings and minds. It is sometimes called the noetic effect of sin. We simply no longer know the truths about God and this creation that were instilled in us in the beginning. What’s more, without outside assistance, we cannot recover this knowledge on our own, either.
But that is not Paul’s only point in these verses and in the larger passage of 2 Corinthians 4. There is also something about how God chooses to reveal the Gospel that can make it harder to swallow. Even as the Son of God came as a humble human being from the backwaters of the Roman Empire—he was never much to look at—so the Gospel message about Jesus of Nazareth comes in equally humble trappings. An apostle like Paul had about as much to work with in his day as modern preachers have today: words, water, bread, and wine. Simple stuff. Ordinary. Not flashy.
Indeed, as Paul makes clear elsewhere (and this is a big part of the overall second epistle to the Corinthians), the Gospel is not even supposed to come through high-flying rhetoric, slick orators, outwardly impressive displays. People are not supposed to come to embrace the Gospel because of a given preacher’s fine C.V. and highly burnished credentials. It is the sincerity of the humble preacher that counts, the preacher’s own transparency to Jesus himself.
“We have this treasure in cracked pots” Paul goes on to say just beyond the end of this lection. The apostles themselves looked more like the victims of a bad car accident than handsome Hollywood celebrity types. Paul talks about carrying Jesus’ death around inside of them, being handed over to the same miserable mistreatment Jesus got when he was here. But somehow that match between messenger and message is what it is all about. If glitzy preachers try to glitz up the Gospel by association, something of great value is going to get lost in the translation.
Preachers who love to stand in the spotlight risk grabbing the spotlight from the Holy Spirit. And when the spotlight is on the preacher, the Spirit can no longer shine that light into the hearts of others in the only way that will bring true illumination that will lead to salvation.
It is all a delicate balancing act, of course. Those of us who preach really do stand in a kind of spotlight, whether literal, metaphorical, or both. When we stand up to preach, we are the ones filling up other people’s field of vision. They can get distracted and all but if they try to pay attention or swing their distracted attention back to the sermon, it will be to the preacher’s voice they need to pay attention, the preacher’s face and body language they will see and notice and watch. And good preachers know that what you do with your face, your eyes, your whole body has a huge effect on how well the message gets across.
Some time ago I preached at a large church that was set up in a half-moon configuration with seating not unlike a movie theater. When it came time for the sermon, the house lighting was dimmed, the lights on the stage turned up, and I had to deliver the entire sermon not being able to see a blessed soul. Ah, but they could ALL see me, and that (the lighting people at this church seem to think) is what it is all about. I find it very difficult to preach when I cannot see and make a connection to the listeners. But let’s face it: even when you can do this, they are all looking at you. And so it is tempting to forget about the far more important spotlight that the Spirit needs to turn onto Jesus alone and then bring into the hearts of all those people.
We preachers forget that to our peril because—again, if you read more in 2 Corinthians 4 than just the assigned 4 verses—without God’s help by the Spirit and through the light of the Gospel, we cannot convince a blessed soul of a blessed thing. It’s just words floating on the ether until the Spirit takes those preached words and does something with them. Thanks be to God the Spirit is good at this. It is often very surprising. People thank the preacher for things the preacher is quite sure she never said. But somehow someone heard it anyway and wouldn’t you know, it turns out to be the very thing that person needed to hear by God’s grace that very day. Smart preachers don’t whip out the manuscript to prove to someone that what they heard we never said! Just let that Spirit shine that Gospel light wherever the Spirit wills.
Nothing happens without the Spirit bursting forth that light of the Gospel in people’s hearts. Lots of surprising things happen when the Spirit does do that work. Despite being front and center when we preach, despite being the ones who get the comments at the church door after the service, what we preachers should want more than anything is to be like a shiny mirror off of which the light of the Gospel bounces and then gets beamed straight into the hearts of people who are longing to hear the Word of Life.
No less than Fred Rogers—yes, that’s Mr. Rogers of PBS TV fame—once recounted an experience he had in church listening to a sermon.
“During the sermon I kept ticking off every mistake I thought the preacher–he must have been 80 years old–was making. When this interminable sermon finally ended, I turned to my friend, intending to say something critical about the sermon. I stopped myself when I saw the tears running down her face. She whispered to me, ‘He said exactly what I needed to hear.’ That was really a seminal experience for me. I was judging and she was needing, and the Holy Spirit responded to need, not to judgement.”
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