Sermon: “An Eternal Weight of Glory” (June 7, 2015)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“An Eternal Weight of Glory” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)
June 7, 2015
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Every summer I have flashbacks from my childhood in the days before cable TV and video games, when a bunch of us kids from the neighborhood would spend all day long outside, come in for dinner, and then go right back outside after dinner until after dark—so much fun, so many memories.

Along these lines one of my favorite comedians is Brian Regan—he is absolutely hysterical. Brian is one of eight kids, and in one of his routines he recounts, as was the case with me and my friends back in the day, being sent outside by his parents to “go and find an interesting activity.” He describes one of these “activities”:

Anything can end up being a toy for a kid, including the sun. We used to see how long we could stare at the sun without stopping. I don’t recommend it. But I remember we did. My brothers would say, ‘Okay Brian, the record’s five, five seconds. Ready, go!’ One! Two! Three! Four! Five! Six! Yeah, yeah, I got six! I got six at the sun stare! My parents would be like, ‘Hey Brian, don’t do that!’ (I would reply) ‘Yeah, I was just about to stop, just about to find another activity. That’s not a good activity.

But Brian Regan is not the only one who has tried to stare at the sun, as Bono sings in a song by U2:

I’m not the only one staring at the sun
Afraid of what you’ll find if you took a look inside
I’m not just deaf and dumb
Staring at the sun
(“Staring at the Sun” from their 1997 album Pop).

If you have tried to stare at the sun, you too, have learned it is not a good activity.

Staring at the sun is too much; we cannot handle it.

And yet the sun is but an infinitesimal reflection of the glory of God.

The most vulnerable of the thirteen letters of the Apostle Paul in the New Testament is his Second Letter to the Corinthians, in which he writes not only about God’s glory, but also personal suffering. In one passage he reveals:

Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches (2 Corinthians 11:24-28).

But in today’s lesson from 2 Corinthians Paul writes about something that far surpasses our suffering, aging, and anxiety: “an eternal weight of glory.”

“Even though our outer nature is wasting away,” Paul writes, “our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal” (4:16-18).

Paul writes that, yes, our “outer nature” is wasting away, but at the same time God is renewing our “inner nature.” Paul contrasts our “slight momentary affliction” with “an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.”

Scripture often refers to God revealing this “eternal weight of glory”—“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1). Moses caught a glimpse of this “eternal weight of glory” on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 33:18-19), and Elijah on Mt. Horeb (1 Kings 19:11-13).

The Hebrew word for “glory” is kabod, which conveys not only the sense of “brightness” but also “heaviness.” The glory of God is so bright that, like the sun, it defies staring—and so heavy that it also defies standing, driving us to our knees. Paul himself personally encountered the “eternal weight of glory” of God on the road to Damascus, and was literally “blinded by the light” and driven to his knees.

And Scripture tells us that the most powerful way God reveals his “eternal weight of glory” is in Jesus Christ: “the Word became flesh and lived among us,” John writes, “and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14)—and Peter, James, and John also caught a glimpse of this “eternal weight of glory” on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-2).

But in spite of this “eternal weight of glory” the wasting away of our “outer nature” still hurts, doesn’t it? I suspect the “slight momentary affliction” in your life feels neither slight nor momentary.

In the 2014 film Still Alice Julianne Moore, in an Oscar-winning performance, plays Alice Howland, a linguistics professor at Columbia University who is diagnosed with familial Alzheimer’s disease. In one scene she is in the kitchen making a strawberry and cream dessert with her daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart).

Lydia asks her mom, Alice, “What’s it like? Like what does it actually feel like?” “Well, it’s not always the same,” Alice replies, “I have good days, bad days. On my good days I can, you know, almost pass for a normal person. But on my bad days I feel like I can’t find myself. I’ve always been so defined by my intellect, my language, my articulation, and now sometimes I can see the words hanging in front of me and I can’t reach them and I don’t know who I am, and I don’t know what I’m gonna lose next.”

In another moving 2014 film, The Fault in Our Stars, two teenagers (Hazel Grace Lancaster, played by Shailene Woodley, and Augustus Waters, played by Ansel Elgort) whose “outer nature is wasting away” due to cancer, fall madly in love. In a voice-over Hazel Grace recounts an experience she had in the ER:

When you go into the ER, one of the first things they ask you to do is rate your pain on a scale of one to ten…I remember once early on when I couldn’t get my breath and it felt like my chest was on fire, flames licking the inside of my ribs fighting for a way to burn out of my body, my parents took me to the ER. A nurse asked me about the pain, and I couldn’t even speak, so I held up nine fingers. Later, after they’d given me something, the nurse came in and she was kind of stroking my head while she took my blood pressure and said, “You know how I know you’re a fighter? You called a ten a nine.”

But after Augustus died, Hazel Grace went on to reveal the real reason she held up nine fingers that day in the ER:

I called it a nine because I was saving my ten. And here it was, the great and terrible ten, slamming me again and again as I lay still and alone in my bed staring at the ceiling, the waves tossing me against the rocks then pulling me back out to sea so they could launch me again into the jagged face of the cliff, leaving me floating face up on the water, undrowned.

The truth is that the wasting away of our “outer nature,” the “slight momentary affliction,” can be awful—and every one of you are either personally experiencing it yourself, or been present with a loved one as they have experienced it. Our outer nature is wasting away, and although medicine and plastic surgery may slow it down a bit, we are utterly unable to stop it.

But that is where the good news of the gospel comes in—because there is something else we are utterly unable to stop: the love of God in Jesus Christ.

Back to Still Alice for a moment…in the final scene Lydia finishes reading a story to her mom, Alice. “Did you like that?” she asks, “What I just read.” Her mom mumbles something unintelligible. Lydia adds, “What was it about?” Alice has a slight smile and manages to mumble, “Love, yeah, love.” Lydia’s face is filled with compassion, “Yeah, mom, it was about love.”

And that is what the story of the gospel is about, the love of God for you that not only far surpasses the wasting away of your outer nature but also includes the “eternal weight of glory” being prepared for you. And like that “eternal weight of glory,” the love of God is also “beyond all measure”—as Paul also wrote, “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (Ephesians 3:18-19).

The love of God is so great that Jesus laid his glory aside and took upon himself the eternal weight of your sin, a weight that literally drove him to his knees, and on the cross he endured wave after wave of pain, the “great and terrible ten” that slammed against him again and again, and his “chest was on fire.”

And on the cross, God revealed an “eternal weight of glory” brighter than the sun, glory that moves beyond brightness and heaviness, glory that is centered on forgiveness—because as one of the collects in The Book of Common Prayer tell us, God is a God “whose glory is always to have mercy” (218).

In fact, Scripture tells us that as Jesus died it grew dark (Matthew 27:45). Why? Because as John Donne put it in his final sermon, a sermon he gave after watching his beloved wife and teenage daughter waste away and die, a sermon he gave in the final stages of the wasting away of his own outer nature: on the cross Jesus’ “glorious eyes grew faint in their light: so as the sun, ashamed to survive them, departed with his light too” (The Showing Forth of Christ: Sermons of John Donne, 228). You could not stare at the sun if you wanted to.

One more illustration…toward the end of The Fault in Our Stars Augustus dies, and at the graveside service Hazel Grace, carrying her oxygen tank with her, stands near his casket and gives her eulogy:

I’m not going to talk about our love story because I can’t. So instead, I’m gonna talk about math. I am not a mathematician, but I do know this: There are infinite numbers between 0 and 1. There’s .1 and .12, .112 and an infinite collection of others. Of course, there is a bigger infinite set of numbers between 0 and 2, or between 0 and a million. Some infinities are simply bigger than other infinities. A writer we used to like taught us that. You know, I want more numbers than I’m likely to get, and I want more numbers for Augustus Waters than he got. But, Gus, my love, I cannot tell you how thankful I am for our little infinity. You gave me a forever within the numbered days, and for that I am eternally grateful. I love you so much.

Yes, “some infinities are simply bigger than other infinities,” including the infinity of God’s love for you, who like Hazel Grace toward Augustus, loves you so much.

And good news of the gospel is that although your outer nature is wasting away, God continues to prepare an “eternal weight of glory beyond all measure” for you.

Amen.