SERMON: BEHIND THE VEIL – MARCH 3, 2019

BEHIND THE VEIL

A sermon based on 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2

First Baptist Church of Lynchburg

March 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.

 

It has been called “one of the most influential films of its time.” One of the major themes in this movie is that it probes the nature of faith and the search for meaning. It tells the story of a medieval knight returning home from the Crusades to a country ravaged by the Black Plague. The film was made in 1957. Many film critics and scholars still consider it to be a cinematic masterpiece. Remarkably, it is the only film ever to win awards at the Cannes International Film Festival two years in a row. The film that I am describing is Swedish director Ingmar Berman’s The Seventh Seal. It certainly is a great movie—it is one of my favorites, actually—though it must be said that it is not exactly the kind of thing that makes for an entertaining Saturday night at home with a big bowl of popcorn and a 2-liter Coke…Instead, it is the kind of thing that gives you pause to stop and think…and then to think some more. I heartily recommend it to you…

 

Even if you have never seen the film, you are probably familiar with one of its most famous images. This is the image of Death as a chess-playing figure all clothed in black. (I do not know if that image of Death originated with Bergman or not, but he certainly popularized it. And it has been used many times in many different ways—both seriously and for laughs—since The Seventh Seal was made…)

 

Early on in the movie, Death comes for the knight as he awakens from is sleep on a rocky beach. As Death approaches, the knight says, “Wait…” to which Death sarcastically replies, “You all say that.” Then the knight challenges Death to a game of chess with the agreement that, as long as the knight can hold out against Death on the chess board, then Death cannot take him. And Death agrees to the bargain. The knight uses his reprieve from death to travel to his home and his wife after being gone for ten years. And along the way, he is looking for some answers to the riddle of life—and the mysteries of God—all the while playing chess with Death at various intervals in the journey…

 

One of the movie’s most dramatic scenes occurs in a church that the knight encounters. He stops, goes into the church and enters the confessional booth to make his confession. He assumes that he is confessing to the priest, but it turns out to be Death in disguise. The knight says,

 

I want to confess as best I can, but my heart is a void. The void is a mirror turned to my own face. I see myself in it and I am filled with fear and disgust. Through my indifference to my fellow man, I have isolated myself from their company. Now I live in a world of phantoms…Is it so cruelly inconceivable to grasp God with the senses? Why should He hide himself in a mist of half-spoken promises and unseen miracles? …Why can’t I kill God within me? Why does he live on in this painful and humiliating way?…Why, in spite of everything, is He a baffling reality that I can’t shake off?[1]

 

It is worth noting that Bergman was raised in a devout Christian home. In fact, his father was a Lutheran pastor. Given that background, I am confident that Bergman was well acquainted with the Scriptures. I do not know if he had Second Corinthians 3 in mind when he wrote the dialogue for this scene or not, but there are a couple of similarities that I wish to point out between the confessional speech in The Seventh Seal and our text for this morning…

 

First, there is the reference to seeing one’s face in a mirror. The knight in the movie recoils with disgust at his image in the mirror, declaring that all he sees in it is a void. The Apostle Paul in verse 18 writes that “All of us, with unveiled faces, see the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror…” You may remember from a sermon preached from this pulpit not too long ago that 1 Corinthians 13:12 also used the image of looking into a mirror. There, Paul wrote that, “Now we see but a poor reflection in a mirror; [but] then we shall see face to face.” The movie and the Apostle Paul record different responses to peering into different mirrors for knowledge about God…

 

Second, the knight points out that God hides Himself in “a mist of half-spoken promises and unseen miracles.” The knight laments the fact that it seems to be that God intentionally conceals Himself from human view. And then he questions why God would do that. He asks why faith should be so difficult for some people. On the other hand, the Apostle Paul also takes up the topic of the hiddeness of God—and he comes to a very different conclusion…

 

Paul starts off by talking about an odd story about Moses found in Exodus 34. When Moses came down from the top of Mount Sinai with the two tablets containing the Ten Commandments, it is said that “the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.” Consequently, the people of Israel became afraid when he would talk with them due to his frightening countenance. And it continued to be that way. Whenever Moses would meet with God face-to-face in the Tabernacle as they journeyed in the Wilderness, his face would shine again. So Moses decided to put a veil on his face. That way, the people would not be afraid. They could approach him and listen to him as he passed along the commands that God had given without being afraid or being distracted by his appearance.

 

The apostle says that the Old Testament law was like that. He writes that the ways of God were hidden from our view—just like the veil that Moses wore hid the glory of God shining and reflected in his face. Paul says that God’s plans and God’s ways were only partially revealed in the Old Testament. They were obscured from view. He says that, at best, the Old Testament gives only an incomplete picture of who God is.

 

There is another instance of the veil being removed to reveal more of who God really is. We find this story in the gospels of both Matthew and Luke. It happened right after the time when Jesus was crucified. Both of them record that, at the same instant that Jesus breathed his last on the cross, “The veil of the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom.”[2]

 

Do not miss the significance of that statement. The veil of the Temple was a large curtain that separated the Holy Place in the Temple from the area known as “The Holy of Holies.” The Holy of Holies was the place where God would meet with the high priest face to face. According to Jewish law, it was only to be entered into once a year on the Day of Atonement. And then, only the high priest could enter and make atonement for the people. No one else had any access to the Holy of Holies, because it represented the place where God lived. It was deemed to be too sacred…and too holy.

 

Matthew and Luke reported that the veil in the Temple was torn in two the very instant when Jesus died. The symbolism is unmistakable. It means that a more complete access to God was available for everyone. The veil had come down. It had been stripped away. You no longer had to be a priest to enter God’s presence. You no longer had to wait until the Day of Atonement to approach God. NO—Everyone could now come before God. Everyone had the same access to God’s presence as the high priest. And you no longer had to wait for one day a year to communicate with God. God was granting access to everyone regardless of who you are or what your station in life is—24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

 

Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3 that it is as if the veil has been removed. It is gone. It is history, because now we can now peer behind the veil to get a better understanding of who God is. Christ has lifted the veil that hid the purposes of God from us. Jesus has revealed God more fully to us than the Old Testament law ever could have. How is that? Well, Colossians 1 tells us that Christ “is the image of the invisible God…In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”

 

What Paul is saying is this: “Look—if you really want to know what God is like, then take a good look at Jesus.” That is because Jesus reflects all of who God is…all of what God desires for you…all of what God wants you to be. Paul says Jesus has revealed more of who God is than anyone or anything else ever has. The image of God that we see is still not complete, though. It is not perfect by a long shot. He compares it to looking into an imperfect mirror—but he says that it is enough to give us a better glimpse of God than we ever could have otherwise…

 

And what is this God like? What does the dropping of the veil between us and the Almighty show us about God? George Buttrick, one of the premier American scholars and preachers in American in the 20th Century, put it like this. He wrote, “What is God like? He is not like a scheme of ‘justice’ with an invisible police force; [God is] not like the space-time continuum or any other abstraction; [God is] not like the vast cosmic holocausts of fire from which new constellations emerge; [God is] not like mere pity or mere terror or any temporary catharsis. But God is really like a man dying on a cross. He is as helpless and as mighty, as vigilant in truth and as utterly self-giving in love.”[3]

 

And why has God done this? What is God’s point? Paul gives us the answer in verse 18 in an evocative phrase. He writes that those of us who follow Jesus “are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another…”

 

Following Christ is not a walk down the aisle, shaking the preacher’s hand, getting baptized and then getting your ticket punched to heaven. That is NOT all there is. Far from it. Following Christ is not a “one and done” proposition. Instead Paul says that we are being transformed “from one degree of glory to another.” That is, we are to be continually progressing to become more Christ-like in our lives. This is the goal of the Christian life. We attain one level of being more like Jesus—and then we progress to become more like him—continually taking it to the next level. That is what he means by “one degree of glory to another.” Always moving…always progressing…always becoming more like Jesus…

 

By common consent, Charles Wesley is one of the greatest and most influential hymn writers who ever lived. It is estimated that Wesley wrote somewhere around 9000 hymns and poems during the last 40 years of his life. That breaks down to averaging two hymns every three days—a remarkable feat. His hymns consider practically every topic conceivable to be found in the Bible. His hymns are also chock-full of scriptural allusions—so much so that it has been said that, if we ever lost the Bible, we could almost entirely reconstruct it just from Wesley’s hymns.

 

Wesley’s hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” is considered by many scholars to be one of his finest. The final stanza of “Love Divine” picks up this image in 2 Corinthians 3:18 of being transformed from “one degree of glory to another,” and then he goes on to take it to its logical conclusion—our total redemption in the new creation that God is bringing:

 

Finish then Thy new Creation, pure and spotless let us be;

Let us see thy great salvation perfectly restored in Thee;

Changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place,

Till we cast our crowns before Thee lost in wonder, love and praise.[4]

 

In a few minutes, we will be celebrating the Lord’s Supper together—an act of worship that helps us to recall when it was that God removed the veil to give us a better picture of who He really is. Let us celebrate together with thanksgiving for the God who loves and cares for us so much…even as we resolve to move from one degree of glory to the next.

 

To God alone be the glory! Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] This is a condensed version of the dialogue found at www.youtube.com/watch?v=lqjUIwGaMAs (Accessed February 27, 2019).

[2] Matthew 27:51 and Luke 23:45.

[3] George A. Buttrick, Christ and History (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1963), 129.

[4] www.hymnary.org/text/love_divine_all_loves_excelling (Accessed February 26, 2019)

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