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Sermon Ideas For Exodus 34:29-35 Part 1

On the campus of Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, a large relief of Moses holding the two tablets of the covenant graces the entrance to the library. Underneath the statue are the words, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." Students often ask why two golden horns protrude from the head of Moses. A colleague of mine, raised in the Jewish faith in New York City, preaches and teaches in nearby rural South Dakota parishes. He still encounters those who want to know if Jews have horns or if he has them. This rather absurd insinuation rose from the interpretation of this Exodus text. "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom..." For the preacher or theologian who works with this text on Transfiguration Sunday the fear is that the wisdom of the text not be turned into anti-Semitic fears. We raise this issue of anti-Semitic interpretation in light of this text and its subsequent interpretation within the Christian tradition.
This text for the eighth Sunday after Epiphany marks the end of Epiphany as the theme of transfiguration turns to the passion of Christ and the Lenten season. How one preaches on this text depends on how one connects it both to the second lesson and to the gospel in Luke. The history of interpretation of the Exodus text is ambiguous because many Christians have interpreted it in light of St. Paul's commentary on it in 2 Corinthians 3:1-18. As Michael Lodahl, a process theologian, notes, this Pauline text has been formative in Christian pneumatology and to Christian anti-Judaic studies.1 This passage has been interpreted as meaning that the law will fade just like the glory of Moses' face faded. Jews are still accused of blindly missing the point of the new covenant, which far outshines the old covenant of Moses. This anti-Judaic interpretation must be kept in mind as one attempts to preach upon this lesson in Exodus in light of the other two lessons.
To begin with, one must examine the role of Moses in Exodus and the connection it has to the Festival of the Transfiguration. Moses stands as an agent of the covenant and a mediator between God and God's people. Moses is a figure on the boundary between God and God's people. The light of the divine presence or Shekinah was communicated to Moses on the mountain. As a result of a conversation with God, the glory of God shone on the face of Moses. This boundary figure, or mediator, is recognized both by God to whom he appears and by the fear of the people who recognize the glory of God. The issue of conversing with God or being in the presence of God is theologically less one of the visibility or invisibility of God but more one of the gracious endowment of God's favor. Even in this text in which Moses dons a veil or mask, it is surely not for God's sake, but possibly for the sake of God's people. The glory of God is revealed when God converses with God's people and communicates divine favor upon those whom God loves. The communication of divine favor is a covenant offered by God. When God glories in God's people, they in turn are given the freedom to know that they are pleasing in God's sight. This covenant is a claim to the freedom and fidelity of those who delight in God's presence. The transfiguration of Moses is linked homiletically to the transfiguration of Jesus. For the Christian liturgical year, Lent stands as the beginning of the season for which Transfiguration is the opening of and ending to Epiphany. In both texts, the glory and favor of God is bestowed on those with whom God is pleased.
All three texts for this Transfiguration Sunday share the theme of the glory of God, which is so prominent in this Exodus text. In Exodus 33:18, Moses prays to God that God's glory might be shown to him. In these verses the glory of God is shown on the face of Moses. The face of Moses shines so brightly that, when he speaks with the Israelites they are afraid. While this text has been interpreted to indicate the role of the mask or veil which Moses puts on his face, it seems to say much more about how we experience the glory of God. In his famous work, On the Bondage of the Will, Martin Luther noted that: "Now he who glories in God is he who knows for sure that God looks on him with favour, and deigns to regard him kindly so that what he does is pleasing in God's sight, and what does not please God is born with and pardoned... This is the glory of those who have faith in God. To those that are without it belongs confusion of face, rather than glory, in God's presence."2 God's glory is a sign of and promise of a special relationship with God's people. Faith is trusting in that promise.
Ann Pederson
1. Michael E. Lodahl, Shekinah/Spirit: Divine Presence in Jewish and Christian Religion (Mahwah, N.J., 1992), pp. 17-25. 2. Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, translated by J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston (Fleming H. Reveil