II Corinthians 4:1-6
February 22, 2009 - Transfiguration Sunday
Mud and fog. So begins one of Charles Dickens’ finest novels. He writes that there was “As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had newly retired from the earth… Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas, in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foothold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot-passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke).” And then “Fog everywhere. Fog up the river… fog down the river. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses…; fog lying out on the yards…; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats…”
It was a bleak picture to begin a book entitled Bleak House. The story begins unfolding as bleakly as the weather. We meet a little cast of characters whose lives are entangled in a lawsuit that has gone on for years and years. A disputed will has left them all living in hopeless hope for an inheritance that is never settled. One of the heirs gave up and blew his brains out. Another went mad. Three others will live in a dwelling known as “Bleak House.” It’s a wonder all of them did not just give up.
It’s a wonder Paul did not just give up, a wonder that he can write at the end of verse 1, “we do not lose heart.” Just look a little ways past our text at some of the words Paul uses to describe himself in verses 8 and 9: “hard pressed on every side,” “perplexed,” “persecuted,” “struck down.” It was a bleak time for the apostle, a bleak time for the church in Corinth, and perhaps for the church everywhere. You and I might say the same.
Part of Paul’s bleakness was defending himself against unfair and ridiculous accusations, all from Corinth, a church he himself had founded, as we read in Acts 18. A few accusations appear in our text: in verse 2 that Paul was deceitful, that he distorted God’s Word; in verse 3 that his preaching, his gospel, was “veiled,” that is, ineffective; and in verse 5 that he was actually glorifying himself. All this from a congregation that had sunk into the worst doctrinal confusion and sexual immorality.
We huddled together this morning as Valley Covenant Church might feel bleak ourselves. Over the past couple years our attendance has shrunk a little. I understand from other pastors that this is true in a number of other congregations. Our financial resources are certainly smaller, which seems to be true for almost any other church I’ve heard about. In any case, we might wonder if what we’ve been believing and teaching is really that effective or whether we’ve all been deceived in some major way.
Moreover, as hopeful as some of us were about the beginning of a new presidency, it’s clear that our country is facing the bleak prospect of a long painful struggle out of a recession that’s not yet hit bottom. Those of us who need jobs are especially dismal about it all, as personal resources run out and public resources dry up. Nothing our government does can change the bleak picture anytime soon.
Yet Paul paints for us here in II Corinthians 4 a picture of a kind of life which looks bleak in many respects, but which is actually full of light and hope. Indeed, the light and hope of the Christian life stands in stark contrast to the truly dim prospects of life without Christ.
My daughter Joanna and I just finished Dickens’ Bleak House together last year. So if you will indulge me to talk once again about a favorite author, we can see in his story an analogy for the contrast between worldly bleakness and Christian hope. There are, in fact, two important houses in the novel. Bleak House is where our protagonists live, but standing over against it is another house, the manor at Chesney Wold.
A wealthy lord and lady live at Chesney Wold. The house was in the family for hundreds of years. It commands a vast estate and is luxuriously furnished. The lord and his wife are well-known and respected in society. All the best people attend their dinner parties. It’s decorated with oak staircases, great fireplaces and bright oil paintings of the family ancestors. Those who live there have every advantage of birth and fortune. Their reputations seem unshakable. As we hear the housekeeper tell an old dark story of a terrible event there, she nonetheless maintains, “Disgrace never comes to Chesney Wold.”
Yet as we read Dickens’ several descriptions of these two houses, the smaller, less important, bleakly named Bleak House, and the great, grandiose manor of Chesney Wold, he reveals the hidden difference. Bleak House is not really bleak at all. From the narrative of our protagonist, Esther, we read,
It was one of those delightfully irregular houses where you go up and down steps out of one room into another, and where you come upon more rooms when you think you have seen all there are, and where there is a bountiful provision of little halls and passages, and where you find still older cottage-rooms in unexpected places with lattice windows and green growth pressing through them.
Such, with its illuminated windows, softened here and there by shadows of curtains, shining out upon the starlight night; with its light, and warmth, and comfort; with its hospitable jingle, at a distance, of preparations for dinner… and just wind enough without to sound a low accompaniment to everything we heard, were our first impressions of Bleak House.
But of Chesney Wold we are told that, “The rain is ever falling, drip, drip, drip,” and as it does, ghosts are heard walking on the pavement outside. At one point the lord and lady are away from home and we read,
Chesney Wold is shut up, carpets are rolled into great scrolls in corners of comfortless rooms, bright damask does penance in brown Holland, carving and gilding puts on mortification, and the… ancestors retire from the light of day again. Around and around the house the leaves fall thick…Howls the shrill wind round Chesney World, sharp rain beats, the windows rattle, and the chimneys growl. Mists hide in the avenues… On all the house there is a cold, blank smell…
Which house sounds more bleak? The one named, called “Bleak” is actually full of light and warmth and human comfort. While the house filled with wealth and pride is gloomy, dark and drear. That is exactly the contrast between the Church of Jesus Christ and the great mansion of this world. As we sit here in a little house of Christian worship this morning, our prospects, our situation might be called bleak. But in contrast to the true condition of the world around us, we are in the place of warmth and light and comfort.
Yet the real difference between the houses in Dickens’ novel is not in their furnishings or in the weather which surrounds them. The deepest contrast is in the masters of those two houses. Chesney Wold is inhabited and ruled over by Lord Dedlock, an arrogant man who for most of the book manifests not the slightest compassion for his family and servants. Bleak House, on the other hand, is the home of John Jarndyce, whom we learn is a man of amazing kindness and selfless generosity. In that last description of Bleak House that I read you, I left out this phrase, “with the face of its generous master brightening everything we saw.” And that is exactly the difference between the Church and the world.
Everything Paul says to encourage us in bleakness goes back to who our Master is. Verse 1 said that “since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart.” Our very presence here together is an acknowledgement that everything depends for us on the mercy and love of our Master. As verse 2 says, we renounce “secret and shameful ways.” To be a Christian, to join in Christian worship, is to admit openly that we are sinners in need of the tender mercy of God in His Son Jesus.
That’s why we do not try to deceive or to distort the message we preach in order to make it more attractive, more exciting, more relevant to people around us. There is no need, no point. By His mercy, we may come into the warmth and light of God’s presence without putting on a show, without trying to be something we are not.
If that offer of simple mercy, of grace and the love of God, turns out to be veiled for some people; if they simply cannot see what we’re about, or why we have such hope, it does not mean we need to change the message, to distort the truth about Jesus. It means, as Paul says in verse 4, that the master of that other house, the house of the world, is pulling a veil of darkness over the spiritual eyes of many. Meaning the activity of Satan, he wrote “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”
The answer to our bleakness, then, is to remember our Master, to recall how His face brightens our lives, and to share our Master with those who can’t yet see His brightness.
It’s not that we need to remake ourselves, to re-imagine or recreate Valley Covenant Church or Christianity. That would be to do what Paul says he does not in verse 5, to “preach ourselves.” Instead, in dark times we must keep on preaching, “Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” That’s our bright light. It’s the one and only light we can shine in bleak times. Jesus Christ is Lord and we are servants of love and kindness for His sake. That is being the Church. That is enlightenment.
Will it work? Will the light of Christ really pierce through the veil and fog and gloom of our own lives and of this world? Yes it will. When we trust in our Master, when we let His face shine out through us and in us, the light comes through.
In Bleak House, one of the great scenes is in the last moments of Richard Jarndyce. This young man cast his life away pursuing the hopeless lawsuit I mentioned at the beginning. He devoted all his energy to studying the case, spent all his money hiring lawyers, trying to inherit wealth so he could have his dreams, pinning all his hope on a favorable verdict.
In the process, Richard spurned the generosity and kindness of the master of Bleak House, his uncle John Jarndyce who took him as an orphan into his home and cared for him. Blinded by his desire for riches, Richard falsely thought his kind guardian was trying to steal his rightful inheritance. In the end, his physical strength drained by the constant frustration of his hopes, Richard lies dying.
The lawsuit actually ends before Richard’s death, but the upshot is that there is nothing left. Richard was named an heir, but the whole estate was exhausted in legal fees. As he finally recognizes the total emptiness of his life, Richard’s heart changes. In the last minutes, his guardian comes to the bedside. When Richard sees him he says, “O sir, you are a good man, you are a good man!” And John Jarndyce takes Richard’s hand, sits beside him and says, “My dear Rick, the clouds have cleared away, it is bright now. We can see now. We were all bewildered, Rick, more or less. What matters!”
That is the hope we offer to each other and to everyone blinded by this world’s god, by this world’s false hopes, by this world’s darkness masquerading as brilliance. Especially in a time when it’s so obvious that trusting in this world is bleak, we offer the hope that the clouds will clear away, as they did for Rick, as they did for the disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration, as they do for everyone who believes. The clouds will clear and we and those around us will be able to see the goodness of Jesus Christ.
Our hope is not in this world as it is. That is the message of light we have for bleak times. Money, success, good fortune or poverty, failure and bad luck. “What matters!” says Mr. Jarndyce. “What matters!” says Jesus Christ. We live in and hope in his light, not in the fluorescent and incandescent light of this world.
We hope in Jesus, because this world is not yet what it will be. As Rick expires in Bleak House he has one of those strange bursts of energy that sometimes come to the dying. He announces that he is finally ready to embrace real life instead of his false hopes. “I will begin the world!” he says, more than once. Then he confesses his failures to his wife and asks her, “You will forgive me all this, my Ada, before I begin the world?” And we read, “A smile irradiated his face, as she bent to kiss him. He slowly laid his face down upon her bosom, drew his arms closer around her neck, and with one parting sob began the world. Not this world, O not this! The world that sets this right.”
There exactly is our own hope. “Not this world. O not this!” Our hope is not this world as it is, often bleak and hopeless, but this world remade by God. We hope in this world made new, a new world set right by the grace of Christ.
Our riches and success are in the world set right, but in the meantime we do have hope, we do have light, we do have the glorious presence of Jesus. Verse 6 tells us, “For God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.”
Imagine Peter, James and John from our Gospel lesson. Imagine them in their own bleak days. James the first of the apostles to be martyred, ordered by King Herod to be put to death with the sword. Peter captured and crucified by the Romans. John forced into lonely exile as an old man. Yet that memory from the mountaintop, the shining face of Jesus, brightened everything they said and did, enough that even Paul who heard their testimony felt Christ’s light shining into his own heart.
The face of the master of Bleak House brightened everything in his home. Likewise, the face of Jesus Christ brightens everything in a Christian’s life, no matter how bleak it seems. Believe in Jesus and His light shines in you regardless of the darkness you are in.
The light of Christ shines in our hearts. He shines in us. We shine. It’s an incredible promise. When you and I look to Jesus rather than to false hopes and dreams the light of His face begins to enlighten our own faces.
Part of the complicated story of Bleak House is that the narrator Esther suffers a horrible bout with smallpox. Beforehand she is very pretty, but afterward her face is disfigured. At the end of the book we find her contemplating her old looks, wondering what might have been. She shares this thought with her husband. He asks whether she ever looks in the mirror. Of course she does. And he replies, “And don’t you know that you are prettier than you ever were?”
She’s not sure she knows that she is pretty, but the book closes with thoughts about what she does know, that her daughters are pretty, that her dear friend is beautiful, that her husband is handsome, “and that my guardian has the brightest and most benevolent face that ever was seen; and that they can very well do without much beauty in me…” But we understand that in character she has become a beautiful woman, shining with her own light.
Dickens wrote some terribly extravagant sentiment. His portrait through Esther’s eyes of John Jarndyce as wonderfully generous, kind and selfless is probably more than almost any human being could really be. But it’s a fine image of the one Man whose countenance truly is the brightest and most benevolent face that ever was seen. When we look into His face, when His light shines in us, He makes us better, more attractive than we ever were on our own. Even our ugliness grows beautiful when Christ lives in us, when His light shines in our hearts with the knowledge of the glory of God. May that light shine in you and me today and drive out all bleakness.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2009 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj