David A. Davis
February 7, 2016
Transfiguration of the Lord
The rabbi, the imam, and the minister walked into the mosque for the first of our three night presentation/discussion on tolerance in a multi-faith world. As we came from the imam’s office into what is called the multi-purpose room, the room was already full. The members of the mosque were gathering for evening prayer in the worship space, so the folks sitting in the multi-purpose room were pretty much all from the Jewish Center and from Nassau Church. Rabbi Feldman quietly asked Imam Chablis whether we should ask the women from our congregations to cover their heads or ask the men to sit on one side and the women on the other. “No, no, no!” was the answer from the Imam. “You are our guests here! This is your house too. Everyone should be comfortable just the way they are.” It was an act of hospitality. He then invited all of us to observe the evening prayer but requested that we take off our shoes before entering the worship space of the mosque, before entering the holy ground of prayer.
The next night the imam, the rabbi, and the minister walked into the synagogue. The conversation at the Jewish Center, however, was in the worship space. We were speaking from the bimah, the equivalent of the pulpit, the place from which Torah is read. As we entered I immediately remembered being in worship there before for various things and I knew I would be expected to cover my head. Men cover their head as a sign of humility and submission before the Lord, before the teaching of the Lord. The rabbi had his kepah on, his yarmulke. The imam’s head is covered all the time. As I looked around the men from Nassau Church there in the pews, they had picked up the covering at the door and were wearing it. So I asked the rabbi. His answer was a bit different. “You do what you want,” he said, “Just like last night, you’re a guest here.” And as we continued to move through the aisle he turned back and said, “But people will notice. You know they will notice.” So I went and picked up a kepah.
Moses wore a veil over his face because people noticed. They noticed that the skin of his face was shining and they were afraid to come near him. According to the Exodus account offered for your hearing, when Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the second edition of the tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. The people noticed. They noticed and were afraid to come near. But Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the leaders then came close to him, and Moses gave them in commandment all that the Lord had spoken on Mount Sinai. When he was done speaking, he put a veil on his face. He would take it off when he went before the Lord. When Moses went to speak with the Lord, he would take it off. And when he came to tell the Israelites what the Lord had commanded, his face was uncovered still. And as he spoke, the people noticed his face. So after he spoke, after he told them all that the Lord had said, Moses would cover his face again until he went to speak with the Lord. Because the people noticed. The people noticed. You know they will notice.
Moses, the veil, and his shining face. Tradition sort of sums it up as Moses’ face reflecting the glory of God. That’s why this Old Testament reading from Exodus is scheduled for this Sunday. Transfiguration Sunday. The last Sunday before Lent. The Sunday the church reads the gospel account of Jesus up on the mountain radiating God’s glory there with Moses and Elijah. As Luke puts it, “While he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” Yes, the disciples noticed.
Moses, the veil, and his shining face. The Apostle Paul in II Corinthians 3 refers to Moses’ veil. He turns it into a metaphor and applies it to his theological presentation of God’s new covenant revealed in Christ. According to Paul, in Jesus Christ “we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of that glory that was being set aside.” Paul uses the veil as a symbol of the hardening of minds, the hardening of hearts, the captivity to the law. Christ liberates us, sets us free, removes that veil. He sets the veil aside in the power of the Spirit so that “all of us, with unveiled faces” can see the glory of the Lord “as though reflected in a mirror.” In Paul’s theology, in Paul’s argument, in Paul’s sermon, Christ is the UN-veiling of God’s glory.
But any text from the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, every scripture lesson leads to more than one sermon. That’s part of the power of the Word. That’s how the Spirit works. How God still speaks. It’s the mystery of God’s living word. Before taking the veil and turning it into a soaring, complex theological metaphor of the new covenant, there’s so much of the narrative still to ponder. There are details here in Exodus that ought not to be missed. There is something to taking the story of Moses and his covering at face value.
The people noticed Moses’ face that was shining (according to the text) because he had been talking with God. You will remember that this was far from the first time Moses talked with God. The talking started way back at the burning bush. The talking continued all through those plagues. The talking happened out in the wilderness; the manna from heaven and the water from the rock and the people complaining, complaining, complaining. God and Moses were talking then. There was a whole lot of talking the first time up Mount Sinai. And when the whole unfortunate golden calf scene unfolded, the talking with God had an urgency to it: “Go down, Moses.” But this time after the talking, this time after God told Moses to cut another couple of tablets and head up to Mount Sinai, this time after the talking, there was a shine.
The biblical account is a bit ambiguous as to what Moses actually saw in terms of God’s glory. Back when God first called out to him from that burning bush, when God told Moses to come no closer and to take off his sandals because of the holy ground, back when God first introduced himself to Moses, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob,” Moses hid his face and was afraid to look at God. Later when Moses would go into the tent of meeting, a pillar of cloud would descend and hang there are the entrance to the tent as a sign that God was speaking to Moses. All of the people would rise and bow down right then because they knew God was speaking to Moses. “Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (33:11). Face to face. But soon after, when Moses asked to see God’s glory, God gives a “talk to the hand” kind of response. “You cannot see my face; for no one will see my face and live” (33:20) From the cleft of the rock as the Lord passed by, after the Lord takes the hand away, Moses could only see the backside of God’s glory. So while tradition holds that it was God’s glory that caused Moses’ face to shine, what Moses saw, how much of God’s glory Moses actually saw, it’s all a bit fuzzy. They spoke face to face. You can’t see my face.
There’s something about this second trip up to Mount Sinai with the fresh tablets. Something happened then related to the shine. There’s something about God and Moses talking this time, talking after Aaron made that calf and all the people were running wild. That’s what it actually says, “they were running wild”. Running wild so much that Joshua described what he heard as the noise of war. But Moses said no, it’s the sound of revelers. And his anger burned hot and he threw the tablets and broke them at the foot of Mount Sinai.
So with two new tablets, Moses goes back up to talk with God. God sort of introduces Godself to Moses like they were starting over. The Lord. A God merciful, gracious, abounding in steadfast love. A God who takes sin seriously in every generation but a God who forgives. Moses quickly bows his head and prays. “If now I have found favor in your sight, O Lord, I pray, let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, pardon our iniquity and our sin and take us for your inheritance.” Moses and his request for forgiveness. Not just for them but for us. “We’re a stiff-necked people, Lord. We always have been, we always will be. It’s who we are. Will you still take us, Lord? Take us with you.” The Lord said, “I will create a covenant with you, before all your people. It’s an awesome thing that I will do with you.” God’s faithfulness, God’s forgiveness. God’s once and future promise of steadfast love. It’s an awesome thing. So incredible, so powerful, so life-changing, so transforming, so glorious that it made Moses’ face shine. And the people noticed. You know they will notice.
Cathy and I were at a memorial service yesterday morning for the mother of a friend of ours. The church was packed. The family shared memories. The preacher proclaimed the gospel of resurrection hope. There were some great hymns. A soloist sang “Amazing Grace.” Early in the service I noticed a young couple in front of us and a bit to the left. I noticed her because she never took off her coat and she had one of those scarves that looked like it wrapped around 35 times. The heat in the church was fine. But it was like she didn’t want to get too comfortable, or she wanted to make sure she wasn’t staying, or she didn’t want to get “coodies” or something. She had such dour look on her face. When we stood to sing she never opened her mouth, never reached for a hymnbook. When we said Psalm 23 together, there was nothing. The last hymn was “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” The congregation was rocking, the organ was shaking the place, and I looked over — nothing. I just wanted to lean up to this young person and say, “What are you afraid of?” This, this, this… can be so life-giving, life-sustaining, life-changing!” There was a shine in that sanctuary yesterday morning.
“Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves.” That’s how John Calvin begins his Institutes of the Christian Religion. The knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves. There is a compelling lesson to learn about our humanity here in the Exodus account of Moses, the veil, and his shining face. Oh, there’s something to know about God here. God and God’s steadfast love. For sure. But the people, the people, they were afraid of that shine. Afraid of the shine of God’s forgiveness. Moses’ veil. It’s a symbol of humankind’s lust for reveling and the sounds of war. A relic that ought to remind us of humanity’s innate preference for judgment, and grudges, and keeping score, and winning, and being right. A lasting sign of the fear of God’s faithfulness, forgiveness and grace. That’s sounds so counter-intuitive, the fear of God’s promise. It is so counter-intuitive and yet so true. Look around. Look within.
Calvin goes on to argue that people can never really understand themselves without first looking upon God’s face. So, may the Lord bless you and keep you, may the Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you, may the Lord lift His countenance (His face) upon you and give you peace.
Shine. Shine. Shine.
© 2016 Nassau Presbyterian Church
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