Commentary: Exodus 34:29-35 Part 2
This lesson describes the shining face of Moses as he descends from Mt. Sinai with the second set of the tablets of the commandments. Moses’ face reflects the glory of God with whom he has been conversing. The people are in awe of his appearance and Moses adopts a veil as a concession to the people’s fear and anxiety.
The selection of this passage has obviously been influenced by the gospel lesson for Transfiguration Sunday. In the gospel reading from Lk 9:28-36, the disciples see Jesus transfigured on the mountain top in the presence of Moses and Elijah. These are the only two Old Testament figures who commune directly with God on Mt. Sinai (Mt. Horeb). In this transfiguration all three are surrounded by God’s glory and the disciples are afraid. At the conclusion of this sight God’s voice affirms the special relationship with Jesus as God’s Son, the Chosen One. By implication God also had a special relationship with Moses and Elijah, although not as Father to Son.
What are we to make of these stories? We aren’t prone to make much out of the concept of God’s glory. At best it becomes the visual effect glow when the Touched By An Angel cast reveal themselves to mere mortals. Sometimes these stories are just generalized into “mountaintop experiences,” which has come to mean any inspirational high point in our personal spiritual journeys. Then the shining face of Moses and the glory surrounding the transfiguration trio becomes little more than the good feeling of a religious experience. Such experiences may be important faith milestones indeed, but is the glory of God only such an individual and internal matter?
In the Hebrew tradition, the glory of God is associated with the holiness of God. In moments when God’s glory is made manifest, it is an evidence of God’s holy otherness. God is set apart from our human experience and moments of encounter between God and human agents like Moses or Elijah are experiences of a holy reality that is beyond human control or experience. God is not just the sum total of our highest moments or our best feelings. God is other; God is to be regarded with awe and wonder. It is proper, as with the people of Israel and the disciples, to stand in fear before the presence of God’s glory.
In many ways the biblical story is a story told in the tension between the experience of God drawn close to us and God transcendent and holy beyond us. The creation witnesses of Gen 1 and 2 begin with testimony to the God, majestic and powerful, whose very word calls things into being alongside testimony to the intimate God who fashions a human creature and animates it with divine breath. Jesus is the incarnate one, fully human, who is revealed at the same time on the mount of transfiguration to be the son of God filled with divine glory. The centuries long wisdom of the church has refused to resolve this tradition. God is with us and at the same time holy and other, imminent and transcendent.
The texts of this Sunday are an opportunity to remind ourselves and our communities that it is the Holy One who has become involved in our human experience. We have become all too chummy with the glory of God. We sing the praise song “Our God is an Awesome God” with little sense of the wonder and anxiety that should characterize genuine awe in the presence of God’s glory. We craft our worship services to be friendly, even folksy, and warm when at least some of the time we ought to get the sense in worship that the veil of Moses is pulled aside. We catch at least a brief glimpse of something holy and other that lies beyond human experience and is uncontrolled by any human powers.
In the end a God without holiness and glory cannot help us because such a God would only be a reflection of ourselves. It is in the glimpses of a power beyond human power that we become empowered to become agents of hopeful community in the world. Moses invites the people into covenant life and the disciples go down from the mountain to be sent forth in healing and teaching missions. It is the glory of God that enables such activity for we know that mere religious experiences fade and need renewed. At best religious experience points to the unfading, unfailing glory of God, the Holy One. Like Moses we can only reflect such glory. But we can only reflect it if we allow ourselves to glimpse it, to sense God’s holiness, to stand in fear before God’s presence. We can reflect the glory of such a God in full confidence that there is a power capable of meeting the power of Pharaohs, Herods, unparted seas, crosses, and empty tombs. If we quake before the principalities and powers of our broken world we can yet act boldly and confidently as those who have stood fearfully in the presence of God’s glory and know that sin and death do not have the final word. In such confidence the glory of God can shine in our faces too.