This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 2/27/22, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture reading for this sermon was: 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2 & Luke 9:28-36. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)
“Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”
This is how Paul describes the reign of God to the church at Corinth. This is what it looks like when God is truly present in our midst, and we are participating in his life: We are set free.
This is an important reminder. Because so much of our talk about God is about rules and regulations. I can’t tell you how many times I have had someone, after they learn I am a Christian pastor, apologize to me because they used a curse word in front of me. They apologize to me, because they assume that, as a Christian pastor, I must be very sensitive, very concerned about following the rules around naughty language.
It’s funny, of course, because I have a pretty foul mouth and am not offended by bad words. It’s funny, but it’s also very revealing. For most people in our society, the definition of religion is saying the right things and being a “nice person.” Being an upstanding citizen. Having a good reputation. Religion is about coloring within the lines and not getting into trouble.
But in our scripture readings for this morning, we get glimpses into a life of power and spirit, an experience of God’s presence and direction, that blows all that superficial religiosity out of the water.
Sure, maybe I’d be a better person if I swore less. But cleaning up my language is nothing compared to the life Paul is describing. A life of hope. Of boldness. Of tearing away the veil of half-measure religion and encountering the God of the burning bush with all his fire and fury and majesty – his power and love.
This is the God that Peter, James, and John encountered on the mountain that day, when Jesus took them up with him to pray. Jesus was transformed. He was shining and brilliant. Moses and Elijah appeared, talking with Jesus about the ordeal he was to go through. And a cloud came and was in the midst of them, like the pillar of smoke that led the Israelites in the wilderness long ago. That cloud overshadowed them and a voice said, “This is my son, my chosen – listen to him!”
It was a psychedelic scene. It was such an overwhelming experience that Peter just starts talking nonsense about alpine camping – he has no idea how to respond! God has shown up, and the glory of the Lord is shining on them. They see the face of God in Jesus, and they hear the testimony of God’s voice in the cloud.
But yeah – clean language and tithing. Circumcisions and baptisms. Quaker business process and committee reports. This is where religion spends most of its time: In the weeds.
This is what Paul is trying to speak to us about in our reading this morning. The religious people of his day were just like us – off on a head trip about God; off on a human trip about words and traditions and identity. But that’s not the essential thing, says Paul. What’s really critical is that we turn to the Lord – because when we do that, we no longer receive God through a veil. When we turn to the Lord, we see past the crude human finger-painting and come into the presence of the master artist himself.
You may remember, way back in the day, when Israel was in the wilderness of Sinai after escaping bondage in Egypt: After Moses would speak with God on the mountaintop, he would return to the people to share what God had told him. But his encounter with God left his face shining. His face was shining so brightly that the people couldn’t handle it. It was like a giant floodlight! And so when he spoke God’s word to the people, he did it through a veil, so that they could hear him.
Knowing that background helps us to make sense of our readings this morning. What Paul is saying to the Corinthians is that the time of veils is over. Jesus is our new Moses, and he doesn’t settle for veils. Jesus brings us directly into God’s presence. He invites us to shine with the same light that covered Moses and Elijah, the light that shines out of Jesus and speaks to us in the cloud of witness.
When we turn to Jesus, the veil is removed; we encounter God face to face. And when we have stepped into that presence together – when we are being led by God directly – religion becomes a secondary concern.
Don’t get me wrong: Religion isn’t bad. Our traditions and structures and buildings and rituals, they can be helpful. We humans need rhythms and patterns and forms. These things provide a framework in which we remember what God has done for us, and open ourselves to receive God’s power and glory.
After all, Moses and Elijah were there, in the cloud, talking there with Jesus, whose face was changed and whose clothes were shining. Moses and Elijah: The Law and the Prophets. Right there, the religion of Israel was present in fullness. That mountaintop was filled with the glory of the God who inspired the religion of Israel in the first place. Peter, James, and John came to understand their religion as never before, now that Jesus stood in the midst of them.
But in the end, as the disciples stood there on that mountain top with God, Moses and Elijah – the law and the prophets – faded away. And they saw Jesus alone. They turned to the Lord, and God pulled aside the veil. He revealed to them that the law and the prophets had always been pointing to Jesus.
We’ve let so many things get between us and God’s full presence and guidance in our lives: Addiction. Unhealthy relationships. Political and religious ideology. Fear. Our own need to be right, to be in control. So often, we’ve been led astray by these petty gods of our own making.
“But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.” Turning to Jesus, we can be made whole again, centered and grounded in body, mind, and spirit.
It is good for us to be here, praying on the mountain top with Jesus.
It is good for us to be here, waiting for Jesus to conclude his conversation with Moses and Elijah. To bear witness with him when the Cloud of God rolls over us and says, “This is my son, my chosen; Listen to him!”
It is good for us to wait in silence, to humbly abide with Jesus after all the glory fades. To wait until we see that there is only one thing left for us to do: To continue following him. To walk with him, back down the mountain.