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Sunday next before Lent

02 February 2024

11 February, 2 Kings 2.1-12; Psalm 50.1-6; 2 Corinthians 4.3-6; Mark 9.2-9

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THE New Testament reading begins mid-argument, with the word “And”. That is a signal: we need some context to understand Paul’s argument. One of its key words is “ministry” (which can also be translated “service”). Paul speaks of a double ministry of death and condemnation, and a double ministry of the Spirit and justification (3.7-10). He explores his own vocation to ministry under the new covenant, and the old covenant that must give way to it. This ministry (diakonia in Greek) shows how he sees himself as a servant of Christians more than as a leader.

Knowledge is power, Francis Bacon said. Paul would agree. Both men saw knowledge not as an acquisition of information, but as a process of discernment. Through his ministry to God’s people, Paul has recognised that “knowledge” is not to be desired because it confers status and wins respect; rather, it is a gift from the Spirit, which “blows where it will” (John 3.8; with Isaiah 11).

Whatever the original significance of the Law consigned to stone tablets, or the later significance of that Law in the lives of Jewish people, a change has taken place as some people have responded to the good news of Jesus. Paul has himself experienced that change. He has been transformed, and so has begun to tread the “new and living way” (Hebrews 10.20). He is given a revelation, a voice — but only for a moment (Acts 9). The rest of his life is labour and endurance for the sake of the gospel (1 Corinthians 9.23).

Likewise, when Jesus is transfigured, Peter, James, and John momentarily see him in glory. But they are not permitted to abide in the glory of that vision. Like Jesus himself, they must let it go awhile.

If we climb an actual mountain, we may do so alone, or as part of a group. When we reach the top, there may be others there already. But, alone or in company, we can reach a place of peace, even communion, there. That is also true of the metaphorical mountains that we climb in life: relationships, families, careers, finances. Every summit reached confers both pride and relief.

But all the mountains that we ever climb, whether real or metaphorical, take at least as much effort on the descent as on the ascent. The last time I climbed a mountain, my knees throbbed for a week. Going back down, we are tired, we have had our moment of peace, or communion, or even exaltation; but there is no abiding home for us on the mountain top. We — not Jesus, Moses, and Elijah — would need those shelters (Mark v.5) if there were.

On the descent, we learn what happens when gospel ecstasy gives way to daily discipleship; when the thrill of a vocation to follow Christ begins to be worked out in the details of a rule of life: worshipping, praying, serving, self-denial, and the like. Now we must draw on that hard-won experience at the summit.

Moses’s face had to be veiled because it shone with divine light. Now, Paul transfigures the veil of Exodus 34.33-35. He applies the term “veil” (kalumma) to an obstacle in the way of faith: a covering lying over the mind, blocking the light of the gospel. Other New Testament writings use a different word (katapetasma). But the Jewish writer Philo is helpful here: he records that, in the tabernacle (the model for the Temple), there were two veils (or curtains). And he uses those two words to refer to them (Moses 2.21.101).

To Paul, a veil shuts out the light of faith. Its removal means illumination. The curtain in the temple stood for the division between things earthly and heavenly. The death of Jesus tore it apart: Mark (15.38), Matthew (27.50-51), and Luke (23.45) all say the same.

Veils and curtains seem like barriers, but in reality are mere flimsy fabric, easily parted, or “rent in twain” (AV). Here is our encouragement as Lent begins. What divides us from God, however solid it seems, is, in fact, insubstantial. Light is already leaking through and around it, like a bedroom curtain on a sunny morning. If it were not, we could have no conception at all of God, and could not seek, never mind find, him. As it is, we find reassurance: our Saviour, Jesus Christ, is “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God”.

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