SCRIPTURE – Exodus 34:29-35
29 When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord. 30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him. 31 But Moses called to them; so Aaron and all the leaders of the community came back to him, and he spoke to them. 32 Afterward all the Israelites came near him, and he gave them all the commands the Lord had given him on Mount Sinai.
33 When Moses finished speaking to them, he put a veil over his face. 34 But whenever he entered the Lord’s presence to speak with him, he removed the veil until he came out. And when he came out and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, 35 they saw that his face was radiant. Then Moses would put the veil back over his face until he went in to speak with the Lord.
Feb. 10, 2013
Today is the last Sunday before we move into the season of Lent, which starts this week with Ash Wednesday. Because Lent has traditionally been seen as a more contemplative, somber season in the church year, this last Sunday before Lent is set aside for looking at a supernatural story, the transfiguration of Jesus. During that event, Jesus and three of his disciples go up a mountain, and Jesus is changed from his human form into this dazzlingly bright display of divinity. Then the ghosts of Moses and Elijah appear beside him, and God says, “This is my son! Listen to him.” The transfiguration serves as the final definitive statement about Jesus’ identity before he will be killed. The Transfiguration is a mysterious, majestic story, and it is appropriate as the final mountain-top experience before Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem and the cross.
The Transfiguration is also a peculiar story with no real parallel in our modern world. This just doesn’t happen anymore. “Where’s Joe? Oh, he’s at the spa getting a transfiguration treatment.” We have no reference point for making sense of this story. But instead of looking in our modern context for a better understanding of the story, we’re probably better served to look back, because many of the peculiar stories in the New Testament have equally peculiar predecessors in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Transfiguration is no different; our passage today from Exodus serves as a prototype for understanding the Transfiguration.
To fully get this strange story, we have to start a few chapters back in Exodus. Moses has led the Israelites out of Egypt and through the Red Sea, and now they are making their way through the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land. But there’s a problem. The Israelites aren’t very good traveling companions for Moses. In fact, they are a bit on the whiny side. “I’m hungry!” “I’m thirty!” “Are we there yet?” “I wanna go back!” They caravan takes a much-needed rest stop in chapter 20 at Mt. Sinai, where Moses goes up to the mountain top and is given the law by God to take to the Israelites. It takes a while to carve all those laws into the stone tablets, and while Moses is gone, the Israelites get restless. “Where did he go? When is he coming back?” So they give up on Moses and make for themselves a golden calf to worship. Much partying and debauchery ensues.
After 40 days, Moses comes down the mountain with the tablets containing the law, but when he sees the disobedience of the Israelites, he gets so mad he smashes the tablets. After a harsh punishment for the wrong-doers and some cool-down time for Moses, he goes back up the mountain and makes a second set of tablets. While he’s up there, Moses asks if he can see God, because the two have become so close. This is a bold request, because the traditional belief back then was that God was so glorious, no one could look at God and live. God says this to Moses, but relents and lets Moses see God’s backside as God passes him by, in what is referred to in scholarly circles as “the divine mooning.”
So that brings us up to our scripture today. Moses has been exposed to God’s glory, has fashioned a new set of tablets containing the law, and is now making his way back down the mountain to the Israelites, who have learned their lesson from the Golden Calf debacle and are sitting quietly and keeping their hands to themselves as they wait patiently for his return. But the Moses who’s coming down the mountain is not the same Moses who went up the mountain. He’s been changed by his encounter with God, transfigured we might say, and now his face glows like he’s doused it with Avon’s Skin So Bright. Moses has seen God’s glory, and some of it has rubbed off on him. The Israelites are already skittish about encountering God, so when the see the divine residue on Moses, they are terrified. So after Moses gives them the law, he starts wearing a veil over his face to hide the glow, only taking it off when he’s talking with God.
Well, how about that! What do you make of this story? I hope you have an answer, because down through the years, this has been a notoriously difficult passage to interpret. In fact, the language itself is challenging. For example, the Hebrew word for “shining” is very similar to the word for “horn,” so some early translations didn’t say Moses’ face was shining, it said he had grown horns! In fact, if you look at Michaelangelo’s famous statue of Moses, you’ll see that Moses has two horns growing out of his head.
But in all honesty, that is just as easy to believe as the fact that his face glowed like a lava lamp. And what’s up with Moses wearing a veil? The apostle Paul, never one to shy away from a story just because he didn’t understand it, tried to explain the veil by saying Moses was actually losing his glorious glow and didn’t want the Israelites to know, so he veiled himself until he could meet with God and recharge his batteries, so to speak. While I think Paul got that wrong, I agree with Paul’s conclusion that those of us who believe in Jesus don’t need to recharge our glow, because the glory God has given us through Jesus never runs out, like the divine Energizer Bunny of blessings.
Do you see any connection here to the transfiguration story? Both Moses and Jesus go up the mountain, have a divine encounter, and come back down changed. Moses’ change is as plain as the glow on his face, but for Jesus, God took it one step further and tucked the glory inside of him, to be radiated out in the way he healed and loved and taught. But after their mountain-top experience, both men had been changed.
Have you ever had a mountain-top experience? I would venture to say we all have. We’ve all had moments in our lives when we felt God’s presence in almost tangible ways, when we caught just a glimpse of God’s glory, like shafts of light sneaking through a closed doorway or rays of the sun penetrating a cloudy day. One author calls those thin places, places where the fabric between heaven and earth is translucent and you can almost see God, if only for a moment. For me, I can remember certain moments in worship that have been like that, like my ordination. The day my kids were born were mountain-top experiences. Being overwhelmed by the awesomeness of creation can be a thin place for us.
But those moments don’t last, do they? It would be great if we could capture that feeling, bottle it and save it for a rainy day, but the glory of God refuses to be contained. I look at pictures that I took of those moments in my life, but they are only pale two-dimensional reproductions. Those moments of transfiguration for us can be life-changing, but not life-long. They happen, we experience them, and then they are gone, and we have to come back down the mountain.
So then what? Do we lose our glow? Does the glory of God that has been tucked inside of us fade? I hope not, but I believe the answer to that is up to us. Someone once said that faith is what happens in between our encounters with God. Faith is what happens when we come down from the mountain. Because of those divine moments, because of the experiences of God in our lives, we are changed. We aren’t the same person coming down from the mountain that we were going up. God’s glory peeks through the thin places in our lives and we are transformed…so why would we go on living like nothing ever happened?
What we are called to remember, and what the experience of Sunday morning gently reminds us, is that we haven’t lost the glow. The glory of God has been imparted to each of us, and we are the containers for it, the clay jars which have been filled with God’s goodness. When we come together for worship, when we lift our voices in song, when we hear God’s word, when we take communion, our batteries are recharged, and we are sent out into the world again to glow.
There’s a sign at the bottom of our stairs at home, right in your line of view when you’re coming down. It says, “Rise and shine and be happy.” I love that, because it’s a reminder of who we have been created to be, how we are called to live out the glory of God within us each time we come down. As we come down to start our day, whether we’ve slept well or poorly, whether we woke up on the right side of the bed or the wrong one, we are called to shine, to embody the glory that has been poured out on us, to be the incarnation of God’s presence in this dark world. We are called to shine.
Thankfully, we don’t have to be our own power source. The light we radiate is merely a reflection of what we’ve received. Through Jesus Christ, God has given us this blessing of grace and forgiveness and compassion and mercy, things that, if left to our own devices, most of us probably couldn’t conjure up ourselves. Sure, I can be forgiving or merciful for a moment, but I can’t sustain that very long. None of us can. But we don’t have to; all we have to do is take what God has given us and reflect it into this world. One commentator wrote, “The presence of God should make our lives distinctive.” Is your life distinctive? Could someone pick you out of a lineup as a Christian because of the way your life shines, the way you reflect the best qualities of God?
For me, some days I shine more than others. Some days I feel less like a mirror and more like a brick wall, days when I want to knock down that stupid sign about rising and shining and being happy. That’s OK. We’re not called to be God. Sometimes our embodiment of God’s glory will look more like funhouse mirror distortions than accurate reflections. That’s why we’re here this morning, to once again go up the mountain, encounter the living God through the bread and the cup, and then to go down again into this world, shining our light into all the dark places.
Singer Pearl Bailey is quoted as saying, “People see God every day, they just don’t recognize him.” So here’s what I wonder. People see us every day. Do they recognize God?