"Focusing on the Essentials"

November 30, 1997 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon 1 Corinthians 13:12

"For now we see in a mirror, dimly." Or, as the old King James put it, "now we see through a glass darkly..."

Slowly but surely we're getting ready for Christmas. We've put the Advent candles on the window ledges of this sanctuary. In doing so, our attention is pulled toward the glass which doesn't allow much more inside than a hazy image of what's outside. Not that these panes were ever clear. They've always performed the utilitarian function of bringing the sun's light in, but little else.

"For now we see through a glass darkly..."

Our view of what's really real in life is a bit like looking through these windows. Don't you wish you could see more clearly the things that are most important? For all our new-fangled techology, we're still as much in the dark as we ever were. None of us have all that much of a grasp on the way things will turn out in our lives. Would that we had the ability to foresee what tomorrow will bring.

...One company is taken over by another, leaving employees wondering how everything is finally going to shake down when duplicate jobs are eliminated. "Will I be the next one laid off?," they ask. "Will life go on?"...

...Parents watch their children grow and try to imagine how they will turn out. Will they pick up more of the good traits of their father and mother, or will it be just the reverse? How will they come through the maze of the stages of life?...

...What will happen to this old body in the years to come? After all, you don't get any younger. Will I be a burden to those I love? What if something happens to my spouse, or my children for that matter? Will I survive?...

...Those of younger years may wonder when, and if, and who that spouse or those children will end up being. Furthermore, what will tomorrow bring in the way of a meaningful career, or will a life’s work, spread between several job changes, just occupy time to make enough money to retire at age 70 rather than 65?...

All these are questions about the future, but they aim toward what we find most meaningful in life. Would that we could have a clear view down the road of life but, "for now we see in a glass darkly."

This is one of my favorite verses in the Bible, found in what may be the most beloved chapter in scripture. I appreciate this very brief line because it is both descriptive and prescriptive at the same time. It tells it like it is with a very simple metaphor, and yet it moves beyond that description with a promise.

Our ability to see what is most important in life is like looking through the windows of this sanctuary. At best we can see only a hazy image of what’s on the other side. Of course, as most translations put this verse, the metaphor Paul used is actually a mirror. What is a mirror, though, but a piece of glass with a dark backing? You can't look through a mirror, unless, of course, you are behind it - that is, if it is a one-way mirror like what might be found in a police station.

Looking in a mirror, we see ourselves. Sometimes we like what we see, sometimes we don't. We often view the road ahead using a mirror, thus we base the future on the past. When it comes down to it, that's really about all most of us can do. Our experiences from the past - how we have handled what has come our way - these give us hints of what's to come. If, in looking back, our days have been dark, or if, in looking at our own reflection, we don't really like what we see, there's a good chance we'll be rather pessimistic about the future. Is an optimist, then, someone who sees more bright days than overcast ones in the past, or who has come to terms with the self they see in the mirror and have grown to actually like this person? I don't know. What do you think?

The book of James picks up this metaphor of a mirror and relates it to walking the talk of faith. "Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves," James wrote, and then went on to say that "if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror, for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like." (1:22-23) Now, I'm sure there are many among us who would like to forget what we see when we look in the mirror, for we are not satisfied with who we are - on the outside or the inside. James, however, calls us to remember who we really are. Who are we, really? We are God’s fruit in this world, that’s what James says (1:18). Not only are we to "bear fruit" as we do what God says, we actually are "God’s first fruits." In other words, when we look in the mirror, we need to see someone whom God has created, whom God loves, and from whom God desires the best.

"For now we see in a mirror, dimly..."

This business of gazing at our own reflection, however, is not really what this verse is about, though in a way it is. To see ourselves as a creation of God begins to draw our attention beyond ourselves. What are we really trying to see? God. This verse is about seeing God. "For now," says the apostle Paul, "we see in a mirror, dimly." This is so very true. We may have had some very profound experiences of the presence of God in our lives. I know many of you have, for we have talked about it. Perhaps it was in the exercising of a spiritual gift, or a moment of weakness when you felt God’s strength, or a time when you thought you heard God speak very directly, or in a nudging sort of way you could not ignore.

Even so, our experiences of the holy presence (however we speak of it), our "seeing of God" is a "poor reflection" (NIV) in a mirror, a "cloudy picture" (CEV) at best. Literally, the verse speaks of it as "puzzling" (NEB, Phillips), or as a "riddle" (NJB). In Greek, the word is ainigma, which has become part of our English language. Webster’s dictionary defines an enigma as something "obscure," "hard to understand or explain," a "mystery."

In the Old Testament, a story is told of Miriam and Aaron, the sister and brother of Moses. At one point, both started raising questions about their sibling’s leadership of the children of Israel. "Has the Lord spoken only through Moses," they asked. "Has he not spoken through us also?" (Numbers 12:2) God heard their grumbling and replied with an enigma rabbis have been puzzling over for thousands of years. "When there are prophets among you, I the Lord make myself known to them in visions; I speak to them in dreams. Not so with my servant Moses; he is entrusted with all my house. With him I speak face to face - clearly, not in riddles; and he beholds the form of the Lord." (12:6-8a) For Moses, then, there was none of this "mirror, dimly" stuff. However, even the best of the rest who were called to speak "thus saith the Lord," never got beyond that mirror.

Did that all change with the coming of Christ? Not really, as Paul said, "for now we see in a mirror dimly." What did change, perhaps, is the promise. In his second letter to the folks in Corinth Paul again referred to this mirror, but indicated a difference. God’s Spirit is now active, he wrote, setting hearts and minds free to really hear the Word James said we should be "doers of." When Moses spoke for God he covered his face, for the children of Israel couldn’t hack seeing the glory, the "shine" if you will, on the face of someone who had met God face-to-face. Too frightening, apparently. Paul saw this veil as still blocking their ability to hear God speak through the Torah, the law of Moses. "When one turns to (Christ)," Paul wrote, "the veil is removed." He then went on to say, "all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another." (3:18)

Now, did you catch that? We still see through a mirror dimly. That’s reality. But we live with an ongoing promise. It’s not always going to be that way. In fact, we are in the process of change even now. The old way of seeing things is passing away. The new is coming. New heaven, new earth, the time for mirrors to be put away. There will come a day when we will behold, we’ll see God face to face - and we won’t be blown away by it. That’s the worry of scripture - God is just so awesome, so deep, so vast, so much more than we could ever comprehend, that encountering him fully would blow our motherboard, so to speak. We are in the process of being changed, even now, so that some day we’ll truly see what’s most important.

"For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known."

Advent is preparation time. No, not the last minute rush before Christmas type of preparation, but the "being transformed into the glory of the Lord" type of preparation. We’re not just getting this room ready for the holiday, the Holy Spirit is getting us ready for the coming of the Lord. Part of our responsibility in this is working on our focus. Yes, the reality is that our ability to see what’s most important is like looking through the windows of this sanctuary. Our prayer life may sometimes feel like facing into a mirror, wondering if were talking to God or just ourselves, or if what we hear is the Lord or our own pipe dreams. Even so, remember who you are. Remember also that you/we are in the process of being transformed. Some of our present struggles are part of that process. Amid all the uncertainties of life, focus on the essentials as best you can, using the resources God has provided.

What are the essentials? Well, in the verse after the one we’ve been walking with this morning, Paul wrote, "and now, faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love," after which he said "pursue love." Take those words with you.

1997Peter L. Haynes

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