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Sermon Ideas For Exodus 34:29-35 Part 4

The Scripture passages this week all deal with the radiance that results from mystical interaction with the divine. Moses had to cover his face with a veil. Jesus was illuminated as he stood on the Mount of Transfiguration. Paul is concerned that Jesus be the fount of truth, so speaks of the “veil” that hid Moses’ face as a dimming of the truth that Moses received. What these images represent is the Truth that human beings search for, yearn for, and worship, that blazing, white hot, unmitigated moment beyond the subject-object split that unites us with our Source.1 If ever we are so fortunate as to directly experience such a moment, we know that we have encountered something of surpassing value that is vibrant, healing, wondrous, and life giving. Such an experience is called a “religious” experience, even when it is not directly associated with a particular confession or system of belief. That is why it is as well understood by scientists, philosophers, and others not explicitly dedicated to the study of religion as it is by people who have dedicated their lives to a particular form of belief.
Characteristic of these moments is their significance and importance. They are so vivid they become all encompassing. We know our experience is far more vital than anyone else has ever encountered. Our struggles to adequately express what the moment consisted of are brushed aside in the conviction that the reality, so intensely present to us, is conveyed in its entirety by the devices of language. We are driven to share our insights, and doomed to fall short, as Paul so explicitly describes for us in the passage from 2 Corinthians. The changes that Jesus of Nazareth introduced regarding the nature of God and God’s interaction with the world endorsed and sustained some of what Moses communicated, and overturned and abandoned other aspects. The notion that one was wholly true and one was wholly false is a product of dialectical thinking not an aspect of the mystical interaction with the divine we see so convincingly portrayed in these passages.
Unfortunately, when it comes time for us to express our encounter with Truth we fall short, for the limitations of language, our social and cultural conditioning, and the structure of our cognitive capacities can never equal the experience itself. The moment we touch it with our time bound, situation specific constructs, we relativize it. But we have no choice. The time bound and situation specific is our reality, and we have no other way of expressing moments of transcendence.
The intuition that we are more limited in our ability to define the reality of our lives than at one time we supposed is the subject of the exploration of what is termed “postmodernity.” Rebecca Chopp names three points that are characteristic of modernism. “The first point entails the belief in a coherent self that has a fixed, essential structure. The second point contends that there is a true form of reason that can understand this essential structure of the subject as well as the essential structure of the world. The third point in the modern theoretical structure combines the objective nature of reason and the fixed structure of existence to assert that history, culture, and language can be objectively explained and communicated clearly through language.”2
Postmodern thinkers question the notion that selfhood is dependent upon a fixed or essential nature, and suggest that it is an evolving matter, constituted by our interactions with one another and our environments. They also contend that the concept of reason is subject to conventions introduced by linguistic and social presuppositions, and therefore relative and changeable. Without the presumption that selfhood has an essential structure, and minus the conviction that there is a true form of reason that exists independent of the people doing the reasoning, the third assertion, that the structure of existence can be explained and clearly communicated through language becomes difficult to support.
This leads to an interesting reflection on the transcendence reported on in these passages. The reporters who are describing it are framing it with their language and cognitive capacities. From this fact, we can conclude that these mystical moments are not wholly private, but are part of the situation in which the reporters participated. In other words, revelation is not something that is wholly exterior to our common, ordinary existences, but has a place within them. Is it possible that the tangled, murky confusion of our everyday existences, rather than representing only disorder and inconsistency, is the very stuff that yields sought-after information about God? Might it be that the timebound, culturally specific, socially conditioned state of most congregations is not a failure to execute clear theological mandates successfully, but the matrix through which humans express their understanding of their relationship to the divine?
Kenda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster describe the implications of this change of view for the church and ministry. If the ability to experience transcendence is part of what it means to be human, then each one of us is capable of mediating the holy. Dean and Foster call this recognition “incarnational ministry.”3 They suggest that we share moments of transcendence as we witness to Christ. This is a reciprocal process, in which both the ministers and the ministered to share their wonder and awe at what God is doing in the world. They term this approach as “Godbearing.” Perhaps this would be a term that would describe the shining face of Moses, the radiance of Jesus’ face on the Mount of Transfiguration, and provide comfort to Paul that Moses did not have to diminish in order for Jesus to be fulfilled.
Sharon Burch
1. Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, Volume 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), p. 112.
2. Rebecca S. Chopp and Sheila Greve Davaney, eds. Horizons in Feminist Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), p. 216.