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Sermon Briefs: Exodus 34:29-35

Exodus 34:29 is a verse that has inspired many sermons. One of these, The Radiant Life,1 was preached by Charles R. Brown (1862-1950) early in this century. Brown, who had a distinguished career as a pastor, professor, and Dean of Yale Divinity School, directed many of his sermons to young people. This sermon appears in a volume called Sermons I Have Preached to Young People.
Brown asks, How did Moses' face become shining? He sees three factors: 1. Moses was a man with a social vision. "He was called into the service of God by a direct appeal to his social sympathies." Unfortunately, Brown finds that greed is much more evident in the modern work place than are the sort of social sympathies that moved Moses.
2. Moses had a far-reaching purpose. He wanted to get the Israelites out of the house of bondage. The motivations that drive you and me are usually on a much smaller scale and are more self-centered.
3. Moses had the spirit of self-sacrifice. He prayed to God, "Blot me out, if need be, but spare these sinful people." He was ready to give his life for theirs. When people have such an attitude, there comes into their faces the kind of light that we behold in the saints.
Brown opens and closes with the assertion that the Christian life, far from being thin and dull, is exciting. Consider the Book of Acts: "Men were doing something, and the sheer joy of it caused their faces to shine with a radiance which the world at large had never seen before."
Most of the sermons that have been preached on this text make much of the fact that Moses was unaware that his face was shining. This is the central point of Self-Conscious Piety,2 a sermon preached by James I. Vance (1862-1939) at the turn of the century.
Vance contends that "the most dangerous counterfeit is the one that most nearly resembles the genuine." There is a popular counterfeit religion that Vance calls "self-conscious piety." This is "a religion that spends much time before the glass."
This piety "stresses its own states and moods and seeks grace only for personal experience and development." It insists on its generosity being known. Its first question of anything is, What will this do for me? This kind of religion is absorbed with self, brags about its shining face, and is "an intolerable form of conceit."
This kind of religion is contradicted by two notable examples in the Bible. First is the example of Moses. What did he do when he discovered that his face was shining? He hung a veil over it and went about his work! "He was so busy trying to serve that he had neither time nor inclination to think of himself."
The second example is that of the apostles, who did not make a display of their graces. While we call them saints, they saw themselves as sinners.
In conclusion, Vance cites Jesus' parable of the great judgment in Matthew 25:31-46. The truly righteous were unconscious of their good deeds. They did not know that their faces shone.
In Shining Faces3 G. Campbell Morgan (1863-1945) observes that the shining face is a common phenomenon: the face of a mother beholding her child, the love light in the faces of lovers, the faces of martyrs such as Stephen (who is said to have had the face of an angel), the transfiguration that accompanies high heroism, and the like.
Morgan asserts that "a dull and sombre face is a denial of Christianity." What we need are more faces that shine--faces that show confidence, hope, and sympathy.
There are two secrets of such shining. First, there must be time on the Mount-- "time which we give to the cultivation of our fellowship with God." Second, there must be silence before God. "To silence, deliberately sought, reverently guarded, God will for ever more speak."
Morgan includes a story of something that profoundly affected him many years previously. A Yorkshire factory lass who had given herself to Jesus Christ was walking up and down the platform of York Station waiting for a train when she was spotted by a lady of title and culture who was sitting in a first-class car. After a while the lady said to the lass, "Excuse me, but what makes you look so happy?" The lass expressed surprise that her face was perceived as shining, but she was happy to share her joy with the woman who was in agony. In the end this woman was led to the same Christ, and her face also became transfigured. (The preacher may be reminded of other examples of how Christians have influenced others through personal appearance and/or unconscious behavior.)
Alexander Maclaren (1826-1910) has given us one of the most original and thought provoking sermons on this text. In Blessed and Tragic Unconsciousness4 he teams up Exodus 34:29 with Judges 16:20: "And Samson wist not that the Lord was departed from him."
Maclaren's thesis is that "strength, like beauty, is dependent upon contact with God." He uses Samson as an example of that great body of people who have lost their strength because they have, perhaps unknowingly, lost their hold on God. "Spiritual declension, all unconscious of its own existence, is the very history of hundreds of nominal Christians amongst us."
In face of this danger, Maclaren admonishes us to watch and be sober in our estimate of ourselves, determined to root out every evil that lurks in us. The eye salve that we need comes by communion with God. So let us keep near enough to Jesus Christ "to carry down with us into the valley some radiance on our countenances."
Sandy Wylie
1. Charles R. Brown, Sermons I Have Preached to Young People (Norwood, Mass.: The Plimpton Press, 1931), pp. 15-21. 2. James I. Vance, Drew Sermons 2nd Series, Ezra Squier Tipple, ed.(New York: Eaton & Mains, 1907), pp. 97-108. 3. G. Campbell Morgan, The Westminster Pulpit, Vol. 4 (London: Pickering & Inglis LTD), pp. 85-96. 4. Alexander Maclaren, The God of the Amen and Other Sermons (New York: Funk & Wagnalis Company, 1966), pp.