A LESSON FROM A CARNIVAL
A sermon based on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
February 3, 2019
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
This morning’s sermon text is undoubtedly one of the most well-known passages in the New Testament. And it certainly is the best-known of all of the Apostle Paul’s writings. Many people know 1 Corinthians 13 as “The Love Chapter” due to its exquisite description of love in verses four through eight. If you are like me, then as you heard those words a few minutes ago, they likely brought back to mind a wedding ceremony that you attended—or maybe even your own wedding. I know that I have conducted or attended very few weddings over the years where the reading of 1 Corinthians 13 was not included as a part of the ceremony. Couples are fond of its description of love for a good reason. It makes for a good reminder of what they are committing to when they take their marriage vows.
And why not? 1 Corinthians 13 is a beautiful poem that describes the many kinds of love, including that which makes for a successful marriage. You have heard the words from verses four through eight many times before. Let me repeat them again: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” Magnificent and inspiring words, aren’t they? They are true whether they are talking about love between a married couple, our love for God or God’s love for us…
1 Corinthians 13 is also one of those Bible passages that has managed to transcend its use in church to make occasional appearances in the wider culture. Consider verse twelve in the old King James Version: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as I am known.” That phrase “through a glass, darkly” is used as the title of a 1961 Oscar-winning movie by the great Swedish master of film, Ingmar Bergman. It’s one of his films that explores the nature of faith and considers who God is. I confess that it is not a movie of Bergman’s that I am familiar with. But still, the title is evocative of what I imagine the film’s themes are, given what I know of some of Bergman’s other movies…
And then there is its appropriation by The Rolling Stones. (Really—The Rolling Stones!) The title of their second greatest hits album—released in 1969—is a play on that same phrase. It is called Through the Past, Darkly. Does that mean that, in spite of their notorious reputations, that The Rolling Stones are actually Bible readers? Who knew?!…
For the next few minutes, I want to focus our attention on verse twelve. You may have noticed that the King James Version varies a bit from the more modern New Revised Standard Version that was read earlier. Instead of “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face,” as it is in the King James, the New Revised Standard Version translates it as, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face…”
The difference between the two can be traced to the Greek work used. The Greek word used is the word esoptron. It is a word that translates as “mirror.” The only other place esoptron appears in the New Testament is in James 1:23-24. There James writes, “Anyone who listens to the word [of God] and does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.”
What accounts for the difference between those words “glass” and “mirror” in the two translations? When the King James Version was translated in the early 17th Century, mirrors were made of glass as they are today. Glass coated with a reflective material such as a tin/mercury compound or silver, or later on, less expensive aluminum paint. These are the kinds of mirrors that we are still familiar with today. (By the way, it was only about 50 years earlier during the 1500’s that the term “looking glass” became known as a “mirror” in the English language. Consequently by the time of the 17th Century, the word “glass” was often used as a synonym for “mirror.”)
But in the ancient world, mirrors were different. They were not made of glass. Instead, mirrors were made of highly polished metals, most often they were made of steel. And because of the way that they were produced, ancient mirrors seldom had a perfectly flat surface. Consequently, most ancient mirrors could only give a distorted view of the person looking into it. This would have been the kind of mirror that the Apostle Paul would have had in mind when he wrote these verses.
When I was growing up in north Georgia and central Alabama in the 1960’s and’70’s, I always enjoyed going to the carnival whenever one came to town. Sometimes it would be as part of the county fair or sometimes with the circus. Sometimes the carnival would come by itself. When it came to the fair, I was seldom attracted to the agricultural exhibits or in the various competitions. They honestly held little interest to me. But I loved going to the midway and riding all of the rides. It was a fun way to spend an evening with friends.
[Side bar here: As I reflect back on those days, I have to wonder about the safety of riding the “Tilt-a Whirl” or the “Himalayan Express” or the Ferris wheel. Those were rides that seemed kind of rickety to me. They were designed to be assembled and taken apart in a very short amount of time when the carnival was ready to move on to the next town. There was a reason that they seemed to be unsteady. I had no fear of them back then…You could not get me on one of those rides today…]
Most carnivals or midways also had a “fun house” as one of the attractions. Remember them? Fun houses had lots of different things in them. Usually they had a revolving tunnel that you had to walk through to leave. (If you ever lost your footing and slipped down in the revolving tunnel, it was tough to find your “sea legs” and manage to get back up on your feet again!) Sometimes there was a room with uneven floors—where water appeared to flow uphill and billiard balls seemed to defy gravity. Sometimes there was a section of the house that was a dark maze that you had to fumble your way through to get to the end…
Most every fun house also had a hall of mirrors. Lots of mirrors that provided different kinds of comical illusions. Some mirrors were set up so that it appeared that there were multiples of you all around the room wherever you turned. Other mirrors deliberately distorted your image. Some made you look tall and skinny. Others made you look short and squatty. Some made your head or your feet look way out of proportion to the rest of your body. Looking into those mirrors was usually good for a few laughs—especially when you were looking into them with your friends…
When I read Paul’s words in verse twelve, it brings to mind the mirrors in the carnival fun house. As you gazed into the fun house mirrors, the images that they reflected back were certainly recognizable as you—but they were not 100% accurate. You certainly would not want to buy your clothes based on the image of you presented in any of those mirrors. The clothes would not fit, and even if they did fit, they would probably look hideous on you. Clown shoes, clown clothes…
In this verse, Paul is talking about spiritual realities as he writes “Now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.” He says that living the spiritual life is like looking in one of those mirrors. Yes—the image is recognizable as God. Yes—it can show him what it is that God wants him to do. Our understanding of God is similar to an image as it is presented in the mirror—and a dim mirror at that. It is not total knowledge. It is only partial. And what we do understand of God is distorted because our knowledge of God is incomplete.
It always makes me nervous, and quite frankly skeptical, when anyone makes definitive statements about God or the Christian faith in ways that are rigid, unbending, and dogmatic. You know what I’m talking about—pronouncing judgments or condemnations of others in the name of the Lord. Sometimes famous preachers or other religious people will make self-righteous statements—allegedly speaking for God—as if they have God’s cell number and have direct access to the voice and mind of God. But they don’t. They are just like the rest of us. When it comes to comprehending and understanding God’s truth
None of us understands all there is to understand about God. God is so much more than we know. God’s love for us is more than we can possibly fathom. The ways of God sometimes seem to us to be inscrutable, for his thoughts are not our thoughts and his ways are not our ways. God is ultimately beyond our comprehension, and yet, he has drawn close to us in his Son Jesus. Seeking after God is like looking into a dark, imperfect mirror. We can see and recognize SOME things, but the image that we have of God is far from perfect. And yet, Paul tells us that there will come a time that we will understand it all—in the same way the we ourselves are know by others. No more distortions, no more false ideas, no more wrong mental images of God. Our understanding of the holy will be made complete.
So what’s the point? What are we to do in the meantime? Are we to simply sit idly by and twiddle our thumbs waiting for the day when God makes our knowledge of him and of the life of the Spirit complete?
The Apostle Paul writes emphatically NO. In the preceding verse of 1 Corinthians 13—verse eleven—he writes, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” God expects us to grow in our faith and in our understanding. A relationship with the Risen Christ is not something that is a once and for all event. A relationship with God is a living, dynamic thing. It is a process—a journey.
Too many times as Baptists, I am afraid that we have done a disservice to others when we present the notion that once one decides to follow Jesus, then that is all that there is to it. Folks make a decision to follow Christ…and then they get stuck. It’s as if they have now arrived at their spiritual destination. That such a decision is all that God requires of us. And once we make that decision, then we are all good with God…and God is all good with us…and that is all there is until we ultimately meet him face-to-face.
Such thinking is not God’s intention for us. God expects us to grow in our devotion to Jesus. God expects us to grow in our service to others as we invite others on the “Jesus Journey” with us. God expects us to be transformed more completely into the image of Jesus by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. There’s nothing static about the life of the Spirit. Even though we have imperfect knowledge of the mystery of God, and even though we still are broken people living in a broken world, we can—and should—make progress in becoming more of who God created us to be. It is a process that has a definite beginning…but it has no end…
In a few moments, we are going to close the service by celebrating the Lord’s Supper together. The Lord’s Supper represents one of the central mysteries of God and the Christian faith that we cannot fully comprehend. For over 2000 years, preachers…and teachers…and writers…and poets…and theologians have tried to explain the full meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Plenty of ideas have been put forth. Plenty of theories have been taught and suggested. How does the death of God’s Son on a cross two millennia ago bring us into a relationship to God? How does it work? Though some of history’s greatest minds have spent lifetimes trying to explain it, no one has been able to completely describe how God accomplishes it. And I would be the first to admit that I certainly do not understand all that there is to know about it. I have some ideas and clues—I have spent much of my life studying and pondering it—but it is kind of like looking into a mirror darkly. I have only caught glimpses of its power and truth.
But this one thing I can say. While I do not fully understand how or why Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection bridges the gap between us and God, I know that it works. I know that it brings me into a closer relationship to God and I know that it has done the same for many, many others through the centuries. And for the power of the cross and the power of the resurrection, we give thanks today and celebrate what God has done—and what God is continuing to do in the lives of believers. For now, we understand in part. For now, we only see through a mirror dimly. But then we will understand it better by and by. Because then we will see face-to-face.
To God alone be the glory! Amen.