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I’ve had a variety of jobs over the course of my life that involved talking to people on the phone. Training for these jobs often included the advice to smile. This was before video calls, so why would it matter if you smiled? It seems like it wouldn’t, but it does. We sound different when we are smiling, and when people hear our smile, they are more likely to smile themselves, and they will often reflect the mood they hear in us.
It’s good advice, but advice that isn’t always followed, because the impact is less tangible. It is much easier to see the benefit of something with more quantifiable results. That is our ongoing struggle with our faith in Jesus, and essentially the struggle that Paul is trying to explain in his letters to the Corinthians.
How can we see whether following Jesus is making a difference in our lives and in the world around us?
I find Paul’s explanation to be quite frustrating, because he uses intangibles to explain intangibles. He says that following Jesus and being guided by the Holy Spirit brings glory. But what is glory? In one sense, it’s giving someone compliments and praise, giving them credit for doing something. That’s not exactly the sense Paul is using, though. The Bible equates glory with light. Now I don’t want to make light of this, but light is also in a lot of ways intangible. We can see the impact of light, we know through the science of particle physics that there is actually something tangible involved in creating light, but we can’t actually touch it or hold it. We notice it more in its absence.
At the beginning of the passage that Diane read for us, Paul talks about Moses. Paul is referring to Exodus 34 in which Moses spends forty days on Mount Sinai talking to God and comes down from the mountain with a radiance on his face that made the people down below afraid. So Moses put a veil over his face to hide that glow.
Why were they afraid? One reason might be that they had just melted their gold jewelry down and made it into a golden statue of a calf, and had a big party worshiping that statue. It’s not entirely clear why they thought this was a good idea. Maybe they made an idol for themselves because they’d gotten tired of waiting for Moses to come back. Maybe they just liked shiny things. Seeing the glow on Moses’ face from spending time with God may have made the people feel ashamed and guilty, and that’s why they were afraid. They’d just seen God part the Red Seas and wipe out Pharoah’s army. Maybe they thought they were in big trouble.
Was Moses’ face literally shining? I don’t know. Maybe. When we look at the moon in the night sky, it looks like it is literally glowing. But it’s not. It’s reflecting the light of the sun. On its own, whenever Earth gets in the way and blocks the sun’s rays, the moon is dark. Like the moon reflects the sun, Moses is reflecting God.
That glow on Moses’ face is what Paul calls glory. It is God’s glory shining through Moses.
Paul points out that the glow on Moses’ face would fade over time. It was renewed whenever Moses spent time with God in the Tent of Meeting (Ex 34:34), but it didn’t last.
That is why what we have in Jesus Christ is better. It doesn’t fade.
In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. – 1 Peter 1:3-4a
The Old Covenant that God made through Moses was based on following the law, which no one could ever do perfectly. The New Covenant that God has made with us through Jesus, who is God in the flesh, is based on God’s mercy and grace. God’s mercy never fades.
We should be careful to note that Paul is not being antisemitic here. Paul is himself Jewish. He’s not encouraging people to turn away from Judaism. Judaism is all about believing in God who is revealed through prophets like Abraham and Moses. Paul wasn’t expecting to start a new religion; he was encouraging people to see that God has now been revealed in Jesus Christ, and that their faith in God was more than rules to be followed, more than just words on a page, or carved on stone tablets like the ones Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. Through faith in Jesus Christ, the word of God is written on our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Ez. 36:26, Jer. 31:31-33).
“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. –Jeremiah 31:33
Paul is concerned about showing how “written requirements are rigid and inflexible and promote death. The Spirit, however, is fluid and flexible and promotes life (cf. Rom. 2:27-29, 7:6).”
But those results are so often intangible, and immeasurable. It is easier to measure ourselves against written requirements. This is the trap of legalism.
The point that we often miss is that God isn’t asking us for blind obedience. God wants our hearts. But if we take that literally, we’d be laying people on an altar and cutting them open to take out that organ from our chests and hand it to God. Obviously, literalism is not where it’s at.
Even in civic matters, we struggle over the interpretation and application of the letter of the law. It’s why there are judges and juries and lawyers, and books and books and books of legal opinions and commentary.
There was a case just a few months ago in which a truck driver was convicted of 42 counts of manslaughter from a crash that happened on I-70 in 2019. Following the letter of the law, the judge sentenced the truck driver to 110 years in prison. Some people felt that the punishment was far greater than the crime warranted, and the public outcry resulted in a petition signed by over three million people asking for the sentence to be reduced. Just when the case was about to be revisited in a hearing to ask for a shorter sentence, the governor of Colorado stepped in and reduced the truck driver’s sentence to ten years.
Not everyone was happy with that outcome. The judge felt disrespected. Some of the family members of the people who’d been killed in the crash thought ten years was too short. There was no one right answer that would please everyone. There was no one right answer that everyone would agree was fair.
Some might say this would be what God wanted. But how can we really know? We can say that this is similar to what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, but instead of reducing our sentence, God gives us complete grace.
How can we tell whether we are reflecting God’s glory in our lives? If, as Paul says, God’s glory is the Holy Spirit working in and through us, then the results can be quite subtle.
Which takes us back to Moses. In Exodus 33, Moses said to God, “Show me your glory.” And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,” God said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” (Ex. 33:19-20)
No one can see God’s face and live because God is too too…like last Tuesday 2.22.22. Too too wonderful for us to see and live. We only get glimpses in this life. God’s goodness, mercy and compassion are God’s glory. We reflect God’s glory when we reflect goodness, mercy, and compassion in our own lives.
One example is in the ways we shine light on one another through stories and art. We’re in the last few days of Black History month in which we learn about people we might not otherwise have known. This week I learned about Laura Wheeler Waring (1887-1948). She was an African American painter who is known for painting portraits of Black leaders. Waring’s paintings celebrated the working-class community’s strength and elegance, depictions that countered the many racial stereotypes prevalent during her time. One of her most celebrated paintings is of a woman named Anna Washington Derry, an older, working-class woman.
Stories and paintings are very tangible ways to immortalize and remember people’s lives, but it’s also important to pay attention to the ways we tell the stories and paint the pictures, to reflect God’s goodness and mercy.
Another example is through the actions we take and the actions we celebrate. This week, Time Magazine announced their Kid of the Year, 11-year-old Orion Jean. Orion calls himself the ambassador for kindness. In 2020, he organized the donation and delivery of 100,00 meals to families across the country, and 500,000 books to kids. He says, “While we can’t force others to be kind, we can be kind ourselves and hope to inspire other people.” When we are kind, we reflect God’s goodness, and inspire others to be kind, and in this way reflect God’s glory.
Actions are one way we make the intangible tangible. It’s an ongoing struggle, though, to have integrity about our motivations, so that we are reflecting God’s glory and not our own. It’s kind of like focusing a telescope.
Reflecting telescopes use a mirror that has to be set at just the right angle to see the object in focus, and to reflect that image. If the angle is wrong, we will just be looking back at ourselves, and then what we reflect to the people around us is selfishness. We need to keep on adjusting and refocusing so that our mirror is seeing both God and the people around us. With a telescope, adjusting and focusing can be done using coordinates, and computers can keep the focus on track. With human beings, it’s not so straightforward. We have to keep asking God to help us, and trusting the Holy Spirit to guide us, and thankfully through Jesus we have God’s grace for our many mistakes in calculation.
There’s an episode of the sitcom One Day At A Time in which we see this grace. This is a reboot of a 70’s show. The new version is about a Cuban-American family that lives in an apartment building in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Echo Park. The Alvarez family includes a divorced mom, her two teenage kids, and the grandmother who lives with them. Their building is owned by a man named Schneider whose rich father gave it to him hoping it would make him into a successful businessman. But Schneider struggles with addiction and is lonely, so most of the time he’s just trying to be included as part of the Alvarez family, and most of the time they do include him. One day the rich father decides to come check in on his son, so Schneider works hard to get the building fixed up to show his father what a good job he’s doing. It works. The father is impressed and gives Schneider the praise he’s always wanted. Schneider is so happy, and the Alvarez family is happy for him…until they find out that the father has talked Schneider into converting the apartments into condos. It’s a brilliant and profitable business move for Schneider and his father, but many of the families in the building will have to leave because they can’t afford to buy in, including the Alvarez’s. Schneider is crushed. He’s in a quandary. Either he can please his father and lose the Alvarez family, or he keeps the Alvarez family and loses his father.
What should he do? What would you do? What do you think Schneider does? (Spoiler alert.) Schneider decides not to convert to condos. Schneider chooses the family that loves and accepts him despite his quirks and faults instead of the father who only loves him when he’s increasing the size of the father’s bank account.
Ok, so that was probably the obvious answer. It isn’t always as easy to figure out. So Paul encourages us: “…since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.” (2 Cor. 4:1)
It’s not always easy to know how other people are impacted by our decisions, our actions, our prayers, or our words, but as we keep on trying, keep on turning to God for help and letting the Holy Spirit guide us, the more we become a living reflection of our glorious God who sent us Jesus to show us how much he loves us all.
And we are transformed one degree of glory at a time.
3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!(A) In his great mercy(B) he has given us new birth(C) into a living hope(D) through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,(E) 4 and into an inheritance(F) that can never perish, spoil or fade. – 1 Peter 1:3-4a
 Photo by Mateus Campos Felipe on Unsplash
 Photo by Seif Amr on Unsplash
 Liz Goodman in “Sunday’s Coming” weekly commentary email from Christian Century.
 Photo by Benjamin Voros on Unsplash
 Guy Nave in True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary, Eds. Brian K. Blount, Cain Hope Felder, Clarice J. Martin, and Emerson B. Powery. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), p.314.
 Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash
 Photo by Yassine Khalfalli on Unsplash
 Angelina Jolie,”Kid of the Year,” Time Magazine, February 9, 2022, https://time.com/6144632/kid-of-the-year-2021-orion-jean/
 Photo by Jaredd Craig on Unsplash
 Season 3, Episode 10 “The Man”