Exodus 34:29-35 CEB
Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two covenant tablets in his hand, Moses didn’t realize that the skin of his face shone brightly because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw the skin of Moses’ face shining brightly, they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called them closer. So Aaron and all the leaders of the community came back to him, and Moses spoke with them. After that, all the Israelites came near as well, and Moses commanded them everything that the Lord had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. When Moses finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face. Whenever Moses went into the Lord’s presence to speak with him, Moses would take the veil off until he came out again. When Moses came out and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see that the skin of Moses’ face was shining brightly. So Moses would put the veil on his face again until the next time he went in to speak with the Lord.
After spending forty days on Mt. Sinai, face to face with God, Moses descends to bring God’s covenant, carved into stone tablets, to the Israelite people. However, he does not look the same anymore, his appearance terrifies even his own brother, Aaron, and no one wants to get close to Moses. His face now radiates light, making him look otherworldly. What happened up on that mountain to have caused him to change so much? This story of Moses reminds us that none of us can encounter God lightly, and there is nothing routine in the exchange between humanity and the divine. My friends, the more we encounter God, the more we move into our Lord’s presence, the more we will find ourselves changed by the interaction. On the other side of the exchange, even the people who knew us best may not recognize the people we have become. They were used to someone who looked a lot like them, and now they must confront someone who distinctly bears the more untarnished image of God upon their persons. The more we meet with God the more we carry God’s glory and God’s very presence in our own presence until people cannot help but come face to face with the divine through God’s people.
Transfiguration, what an odd word, and one that only applies to a few situations in scripture. We have this first with Moses and then again with Jesus when he too ascends a mountain, encounters the glory of God, and is physically changed by the exchange. With Moses, he has long served as a go-between for Israel and God, but now his role has changed his very appearance. In our scripture reading for today, we are told that “the skin of his face shone brightly,” that he radiated the very glory of God. Can we imagine? I mean many of us have seen someone that we would say has a radiant smile or a bright face, but I do not think we mean that light is actually streaming out from their features! The imagery gets even weirder though in other translations of this text. You see, the word used here for “shone brightly” is a unique occurrence in Hebrew. It shares the same root as the Hebrew word for horns, to help us understand that this light protruded or shot out from Moses’ face, but back in the day, St. Jerome translated scripture into Latin for the Western Church, and here he wrote that Moses had literal horns. In fact, if you were to go and look at medieval and Renaissance art, you would see depictions of Moses with horns on his head! Michelangelo’s Moses is a great example of this! You could say translation matters!
Now, this could all be just a strange fact, but I like how this mistranslation reminds us that Moses looked strange. It reminds us that Moses’ face somehow captured the glory of God and radiated it back out. Elsewhere in scripture, we are told just how bright this might have been, for, in the prophet Habakkuk’s writings, this glory is described as “like the sun; rays came forth from [God’s] hand, where his power lay hidden” (Habakkuk 3:4 NRSV). Now, maybe it was not quite that bright, as we are told that Moses did not notice the shine, and I would have to hope that if you had sunbeams coming off your face you might notice that! I think the image that best captures Moses’ face might be the moon. There are many nights where you can go out and the moon will be the brightest thing in the night sky. Is this because it shines on its own? Well, I am sure we all know that the answer is no, and if I were to ask any of you to tell me why it shines, you would remind me that it is because the moon reflects the light of the sun. Even at night, we can still see the sun’s rays through the light of the moon.
We can see this light because the moon’s surface is reflective enough to shine this light into the night. In fact, scientists, being the smart people they are, have determined that the moon is only reflecting back 8%-12% of the sun’s rays. However, it sure feels like more than that on a dark night! Well, I bring all of this up because like the moon, Moses - as imperfect as a vessel as he might be - is reflective enough to shine God’s light into the presence of the people of Israel. Why? How could Moses possibly do this? How could even a hint of God’s glory get captured in the face of Moses? I would like to say that Genesis gives us a clue, for there when humanity is first molded out of the dust of the ground, we are told, “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them” (Genesis 1:27 NRSV). We all bear the image of God in our own persons. What is this image other than the fact that we bear elements of the divine nature in our own persons? We are able to love God, worship God, do good, love our neighbor, and perceive the wisdom of God all because of this image.
Unfortunately, this image is not what it once was. Like silver that has long gone unused or a fine painting above a smoky fireplace, our image has been obscured. It is no longer clear due to sin, so we lose our way. We fail to see the divine nature in ourselves and fail to see it in our neighbor. We fail to see God as we should. Thankfully, God acting like a divine silversmith or art restorer comes along with grace to polish and to clean. God’s grace works to restore us until we shine like we were supposed to in the first place. I like to imagine that Moses encountering God did a bit of this shining, a bit of this polishing until Moses began to shine like the moon, able again to reflect God’s glory into the world.
Now, this is all well and good, but what does it mean for you and me? Well, it means God’s glory is no longer confined to mountaintops. God’s glory is no longer confined to tabernacles or temples or churches. God’s glory first started to come into the midst of the Israelite people through Moses. He first had to go up onto the mountain, until he carried the divine glory into the tabernacle. Jesus first had to go up onto a mountain to be filled with God’s glory, but he then descends and puts that glory back into this world. My friends, we do not have to climb mountains to encounter God, though I am certainly not saying that people have not encountered our Lord there on a high peak or two! Instead, I am saying that we can encounter God all around us. In our worship, in our prayers, in our songs, in our sacraments, in one another, out in the world, and yes, we can still encounter God’s presence in the words of scripture. Wherever we encounter God, we should embrace that and continue time and time again to go back and keep meeting with the Almighty. Just be prepared, you might end up being changed by the encounter!
I have one final thought from today’s scripture that I think ties everything together. I was curious about how Moses had to cover his face with the Israelite people, and would only uncover it when in the presence of God. Usually, it feels like it should be the opposite, but Moses felt like he could be with his God, face uncovered, no hiding or disguise. Today, however, I hope that we do not feel that we need to veil God in our hearts and lives. Now, I should make clear that I am not talking about the surface-level stuff that we as Christians sometimes do. You can go into any Christian store these days and find something that someone has slapped a cross on so to speak. Do you like rock and roll? Guess what, there’s Christian rock! Do you like romance novels? Well, guess what, there are Amish romance novels! I am not saying any of these things are wrong, but they do not make us any more or less Christian. What I am asking is do we veil the changes that God is bringing about in our lives because others would draw back from us if they could see that divine presence?
For instance, have you ever had a bad habit, maybe even an addiction? Have you noticed that when you get rid of that bad habit, the people who knew you before do not know how to handle you now? They can only think of you like back when you had that bad habit. When they see you, they may even try to get you to fall off the wagon and indulge in that habit again! Like Aaron and the Israelites, they do not know what to do with you now that you are different! So it is with those who keep encountering God. The more you lean into that relationship, the more glory and presence of God you take with you. Suddenly, you will find that you are changing, and the rest of the world wishes you wouldn’t. Maybe, you are generous when others are worried about being swindled. Maybe you will find you are patient when others are screaming. Maybe you will find that you actively love another that others had given up on as lost. The more you encounter God, the more you interact with God: the more you will be changed. The more strange you will look to the world.
My friends, the strangest thing of all is that we may not even notice the change. Others will look at us like our faces are glowing or that we have horns sprouting out of our heads. My friends, when the image of God begins to be restored, people will notice. When your heart is overcome with the presence of the living and loving heart of our Lord, you will not move through the world as you did before. In fact, you may very well have to call out to people who are afraid to come near the transformed you, to invite them over as Moses did with Aaron and the Israelites so that they can encounter God face to face through you. You know, Moses spent forty days with God and found himself changed, and we are about to enter forty days of preparation with Lent. I hope that at the end of this Lenten season perhaps something of God will be shining through our faces, ready to light up all the shadowed places of this world and to fill them with the radiant love and grace of our God. Amen.
Pastor Paul Grossman