September 30, 2019 Length: 21:06
Second Corinthians has been summarized as “strength made perfect through weakness.” Preaching from 2 Corinthians 4:6-15, Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon looks at three examples from the Old Testament of God’s strength being made perfect through the weakness of His servants.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
During these weeks, beloved in the Lord, we’re reading the second epistle to the Corinthians, which has been summarized as strength made perfect through weakness, which of course is a line from that epistle. Many years ago I listened to some talks on 2 Corinthians. I was a professor of sacred Scripture at an Anglican seminary in Wisconsin, and there was one professor on the faculty who was actually junior to me, but he was considerably older. His name was Arthur Michael Ramsey, the 100th archbishop of Canterbury. He was on the faculty; we were on the faculty together. He gave some wonderful lectures on 2 Cornithians. I don’t know how much I am indebted to him. It’s one of those things I’ve got planted deep inside me.
I wanted to talk to you this morning about this morning’s reading, and will call it “three visionary perspectives”: three visionary perspectives, based on the texts we had this morning. The first perspective is contemplation. Listen to today’s text: “It is the God who commanded light to shine out of the darkness.” That’s Genesis 1:3, right? God’s first words: “ ’Yehi’or. Let there be light.’ And there was light.” First thing God creates with his word is light, for vision. What light is that?
A few years ago I was a guest lecturer at a university up on Foster, and I asked the students that question, and the closest I got to an answer: one young lady said, “Well, it’s the sun, obviously.” I said, “No, actually, the sun doesn’t get created until the fourth day. So it’s not the light of the sun.” But there’s a light inherent in creation itself, at the very root of creation. It is the God who commanded the light to shine out of the darkness who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
Paul identifies God the Creator with the God whose glory is revealed in the face of Christ. This light is the intrinsic intelligibility of the entire world. You see, if the world, as it’s taught quite commonly now, is really simply chaos, and we’re the ones who impose order on it but there’s no order really there, in that case, there is no inner light. Long before Paul wrote these words, Aristotle asked the question, which I remember asking lots of times when I first came here; it was the question with which I always began my philosophy classes back in those days when I taught philosophy. Does the bird fly because it has wings, or does it have wings in order to fly? Because if the bird flies because it has wings, then you start with the existence of the wings, and the wings happen to be good for flight, so that’s what he uses them for, because they work better at flight than they do, for example, at changing tires. [Laughter] But if the bird has wings in order to fly, then someone said, “Yehi’or. Let there be light,” because now it’s intelligible.
If, as is commonly taught at almost every stage of science in our country—we’ll just leave it to our country right now—things just came to be, they just evolved, then there is no intelligibility in the world, there is no intrinsic light to understand it, and any of our reflections on it are ultimately futile. But we believe with the Bible that all of creation is formed in light and permeated with intrinsic meaning, intrinsic logos. We human beings do not impose meaning on a meaningless world; it is there already. We do not invent it; we discover it.
Now it is Paul’s thesis in this morning’s reading that the light of creation itself is revealed in the face of the Messiah. It is through Christ that the deep inner light of creation is manifest. You see, you can’t sort of tack on something that’s unChristian onto being a Christian. I mean, we’re doing this all the time. I’m a Christian because I belong to a church, and I go to church on Sunday and so forth, but my study of history is not Christian, my study of science is not Christian, my study of philosophy is not Christian, my study of anything else is not Christian. I’m essentially a worldly person, and I have a little thin veneer of the Christian faith spread over it. The knowledge of Christ must permeate absolutely everything else. This means that the knowledge of God in Christ provides the true meaning of all intelligible structures, both in creation and in history.
The contemplation of this inner light is often spoken of in holy Scripture. If we look for a biblical model of this contemplation, I wonder if we can find one better than the one that the book of Chronicles calls Asaph the Seer. When I—you guessed some this morning: Raymond came up and got his blessing before he directs the choir, and I gave him the common blessing that I give everyone who’s going to direct the choir, that the Lord would pour out upon him the spirit of Asaph. Why? Who is Asaph? Asaph is a hymnographer. He’s the one Solomon appointed to be choir director for the temple, back in the tenth century BC. The dates of Solomon, anybody? What are the dates of Solomon’s reign? Oh, come on. I’ve got some people… All right. You get it this morning, and there’s going to be a test later. [Laughter] Solomon begins his reign in 962. One of the first things he does is build the temple. The first choir director for the temple is Asaph.
Asaph is credited with twelve of the canonical psalms, and we’re still praying the psalms of Asaph 3,000 years later. The fourth psalm I prayed this morning on rising was a psalm of Asaph. In these psalms, Asaph contemplates the glory of God as it’s revealed in the structure of the created world. It’s Asaph who wrote:
The mighty One, God the Lord, has spoken and called the earth
From the rising of the sun to its setting,
Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God will shine forth.
Our God shall come and shall not keep silent.
A fire shall devour before him, and a storm be round about him.
He shall call the heavens from above to the earth, that he may judge its people.
“From the rising of the sun to its setting.” Throughout these twelve psalms that bear his name, Asaph celebrates the judgments of God as they are revealed in the created structure of the world in the course of history. Gazing into the mysteries revealed by God’s creating light, the contemplation of Asaph is sort of an exemplar for all Christian contemplation of the truth.
A second perspective in this morning’s reading: this one is contrast. The second epistle to the Corinthians is very much an epistle of contrast. In today’s text we read—we heard:
For we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us.
We’re made out of dirt, aren’t we; according to Genesis, we’re made out of dirt. I’m happy to tell you, as you get older it’s becoming more and more obvious to me. [Laughter] We’re made out of dirt. We are exercises in ceramics. “We have this treasure”—what is this treasure? it’s the Gospel, the presence of the Holy Spirit—“in earthen vessels”—that’s what we are; we’re earthen vessels.
This contrast between the inner treasure and the outer vessel is one of the major themes of the second epistle to the Corinthians. I think this theme is manifestly autobiographical. That is to say, Paul is describing his own experience. He goes on in this same chapter this morning to say that “we are always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body.” Carrying about in our bodies the dying of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our bodies. “For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.”
Now if you look for a biblical model for this contrast, I suggest we take a close look at Gideon. I have a particular text in mind with respect to Gideon. Remember the care that God took to guarantee that Gideon would never be able to ascribe to himself the coming victory over the Midianites. See, Gideon was raised up to defeat the Midianites. Just read the text: the Midianites had it coming. I mean, they really had it coming. I mean, these were bad dudes, the Midianites.
Gideon starts out with an army of 22,000 men. The Lord says, “Well, if you win this battle, it’s because you have such a big, powerful army, and you’re going to think that you did it. I don’t want you to think that, because that would defeat the entire purpose.” So bit by bit, the Lord cut his forces from 22,000 down to 300. Rather a small squad, wouldn’t you say? He makes this point to show that victory does not come by might nor by power. Remember the great text by the Prophet Zechariah: “Not by might nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the Lord of hosts.”
We call to mind as well how the mystery of power made perfect in infirmity was symbolized in those clay jars, those vessels of clay, that Gideon’s men carried into battle. Inside those clay jars burned the flames that would in due course rout the forces of Midian. Now this was truly a case of a treasure borne in earthen vessels. We ourselves, beloved, bear this same flame in our own earthen vessels. When in due course these clay vessels of ours are shattered in death, they will shine forth the glory that will put our own threatening Midianites to flight. That’s why death in Christ is victorious.
And third this morning, the third perspective: conquest. Listen to this morning’s text. “He who raised up the Lord Jesus will also raise us up with Jesus and will present us with you.” The ultimate conquest, according to the sacred Scriptures, is the victory of Christ over death. It’s the highlight of the year, when we all come here and chant, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death!” That’s the highlight of the year. This is the victory that we celebrate not only in our Sunday eucharistic worship, but also in the daily struggle of the Christian life.
A bunch of people I could pick in the Bible for this one, but let me pick Ezekiel. We recall that this prophet knew all the bitterness of defeat. He was among the Israelites carried away to Babylon in the first deportation of 597. We remember the dramatic call of Ezekiel at the banks of the Kebar Canal in Babylon. We know that it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiakim, the fourth month, the fifth day of the month. He wrote it down; he told exactly when he had the revelation. He’s keeping a journal, tells exactly what day it happened: the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiakim, the fifth day of the fourth month. That is to say, August 4, 593 [BC]. He wrote it down.
It was Ezekiel that God chiefly charged to inspire hope in the bosom of the exiles in Babylon, especially after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in the summer of 587. It was to assure the people of their ultimate conquest that God gave Ezekiel in chapter 37 the famous vision of the dry bones. It is most significant that the Church reads this account each year on the night of Good Friday, the dry bones, toward the end of the matins service of that night. We are very fortunate in this parish that a distant relative of Ezekiel [Laughter] and who has inherited Ezekiel’s vocal chords chants that for us every year. You newcomers who haven’t heard this yet, you’ve got that to look forward to. It is Ezekiel the Church chooses each year to affirm: he who raised up the Lord Jesus will also raise us up with Jesus.
In these three men—Asaph, Gideon, and Ezekiel—I believe we are presented with the models that exemplify contemplation, contrast, and conquest, all of this promised in our reading from 2 Corinthians. Amen.