2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
“If you don’t see the greatness of God, then all the things money can buy become very exciting. If you can’t see the sun, you will be impressed with a street light. If you’ve never experienced thunder and lightning, you’ll be impressed with fireworks. And if you turn your back on the greatness and majesty of God, you’ll fall in love with a world of shadows and short-lived pleasures.” John Piper, desiringgod.org author and teacher
There are no human words sufficient to express the Glory of The Lord, and yet the people of The Lord are charged with that very thing: expressing The Lord’s glory and majesty, and conveying His mercy and His goodness. But as Mr. Piper pointed out, if we know nothing of these attributes of The Lord in a real way beyond what is theoretical, we will be easily distracted by things we can actually touch with our hands and see with our eyes.
These things – and even some persons – are often mistaken for blessings when they suit our purposes rather than to see them as potential distractions and temptations that draw us away from The Lord and His Church. When we do not see beyond the veil which separates death from life, as Paul writes to the Corinthians, we will settle for far less than what The Lord has in mind for His Church.
Whether we are talking about the Transfiguration of Christ or the shining face of Moses, there is more for us to see than just words on the pages. These are about vision beyond what we see right in front of us. They are about what we not only see in these written accounts, but what we continue to see through these lived experiences; because in order for these accounts to have real meaning for us, they have to be meaningful to us beyond theoretical doctrine. They have to matter in worship, in prayer, in study of the Scriptures, in daily living, and in our outward expressions – none of which a disciple of Christ can live without. That is, of course, if we truly wish to be a Church vital to The Lord’s mission to make disciples and to live the Life offered to us in Christ.
Consider, for instance, the lottery. Winning a bazillion dollars may seem like a blessing and we all think we will do better than the poor souls who staked their lives on the lottery, won more money than they could even imagine, and ended up losing their lives, their integrity, their friends, their families, their self-respect, and even in some instances their souls.
This spiritual disintegration actually begins long before the drawing. When we fantasize about winning so much money and try to imagine all the wonderful things we think we would do for The Lord and His Church with all that money, we ignore what we already have, we covet what we don’t have and probably don’t need, and we deny or ignore altogether what we can already do for The Lord and His Church with what has already been entrusted to us. In this fantasy world, we are living behind the veil and are cheating ourselves and The Lord out of the Life we are called to.
I know a lot of people would not agree, but that’s pretty much how we all were when we were silly and foolish teenagers who believed we were filled with kerosene, made of steel, and knew everything. It’s not even about whether buying lottery tickets or having fun with such fantasies is sinful; it is about an enduring vision beyond what is right in front of us, being able and willing to look beyond what we can see or taste or touch. Learning to look and to live beyond the veil.
There are three similarities in these accounts of Moses climbing Mt. Sinai as The Lord had directed, and the disciples following Jesus up what is believed to be Mt. Tabor. The first parallel to the stories is the climb itself. It is said the climb to either is overwhelming. It would take some hardy bodies to be able to make these climbs by foot! These are not afternoon strolls or casual nature hikes! But the vision enjoyed once the climb is endured promises to be well worth the effort.
The second parallel is the Divine summons. Moses had been instructed by The Lord to cut two new tablets before coming back up the Holy Mountain to replace the ones that had been shattered when Moses witnessed the Golden Calf incident (Exodus 32:19). The disciples were instructed to follow Jesus, believing they were going off to pray – both an expectation of encountering the Holy but neither really expecting what they actually encountered. They got much more by their willingness to heed and to follow The Lord.
Finally, there is the Transfiguration of Christ Himself that might be comparable in some ways to the shining face of Moses. Where the similarity might end, however, is knowing Moses saw some manner of what the disciples saw in Christ. Moses witnessed the Divine Reality that is bigger than the moment in which he witnessed it, and Jesus became the Divine Reality that transcended that single moment when He stood in the presence of all He came to fulfill (Matthew 5:17): the Holy Word already revealed in the Divine Law and in the prophets.
For us today, however, it’s all doctrinal theory. We read it, but we do not know what to do with it. Even though St. Peter writes of this experience in his second letter – “We witnessed His majesty with our own eyes. He received honor and glory from the Father when a Voice came to Him from the magnificent glory” (2 Peter 1:16-17) - we still have nothing at our disposal but to trust what is written if we refuse to see beyond these moments, beyond the veil.
There has to be something useful for us in these stories than the mere testimony of an apostle whom we never met writing about something we never saw and cannot really imagine. Reading Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount gives us encouragement and even moral lessons on how to deal with life’s challenges, so there are concrete lessons not only from Jesus’ sermon but also from the Divine Law itself which is actually reflected in the Sermon on the Mount.
We can get from these lessons some profound insight for daily living if we will learn to reach beyond the mere words written on a page. Too often, however, we settle for this instead of allowing the Holy Law to be written on our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33). We must learn to look beyond the veil of these Holy Words written only on stone or paper. They must become more to us than mere doctrinal theory. This requires living these words, for this is what makes these words the truly Holy Word of The Lord.
In the Transfiguration and in Moses’ shining countenance, however, words are all we have about an experience that is surreal, having the intense irrationality of a dream and at the same time very real. We want to believe it, we need to believe it, but we also need for it to be useful for more than simply knowing something took place, having the academic satisfaction of memorizing a few Bible verses, or even affirming Jesus’ divinity. We have to have these experiences for ourselves. We have to answer the Divine Summons, and we have to be willing to endure the heart-popping climb up the mountain.
More than even this, we have to desire this experience for ourselves enough to endure the climb! So our challenge is to look more closely into these experiences and discover what is revealed to us. For it is about far more than an incomprehensible vision; it is about Life itself and whether that Life is defined and informed by the Holy Word or by words we make up to suit ourselves.
Some may consider St. Paul’s words to the Corinthians about this veil to be indicative of the uselessness of The Law itself since we are people of a New Covenant. However, part of the term and The Lord’s desire of this New Covenant revealed in the prophet Jeremiah (31:33) does not diminish the need or the impact of The Holy Word, the Law itself. What is beyond the veil is much more about what is written in our hearts by the Spirit of the Living God than what is written on pages by humans.
When the fullness of the Holy Word becomes central to our daily living and does not remain restricted only in what we choose to memorize, then we begin to “be transformed into that same Image from one degree of glory to the next” (2 Corinthians 3:18). We begin to make a profound transition from “patterns of this world to being transformed by the renewing of our minds” (Romans 12:2).
This is the Holy Spirit moving within us not by compulsion against our own will but by the determination of our response that we will climb that mountain, that we are the people of The Lord, that we are the people of the Holy Covenant, that we are the Body of Christ – the Holy Church. The transformation is measured by our willingness to be transformed rather than to be happy with the knowledge of words written on a page but lacking the spiritual wisdom to live the life our God has set before us.
It is the difference between living life on our own terms and finding pleasure where we can – behind the veil which is death – or living fully into the Life beyond the veil which can only be revealed fully in the Word, in the Messiah who lived the Word and still lives it today. The Body of Christ cannot long endure without it. Amen.