Preaching Exodus 34:29-35
Certain historical interpretations of Exodus 34 to the contrary notwithstanding, this passage is paired with Luke's account of transfiguration as an evidence of continuity. (Review my comments from last Sunday on this issue.) The two figures on the mountain with Jesus symbolize The Torah (the Law given to Moses) and The Prophets (of whom Elijah was counted as premiere in Jewish theology). At the time of Jesus, the Hebrew scriptures had only these two divisions firmly defined. The exact form and content of the third division (The Writings) was not yet determined. Therefore, on the mountain Jesus is in dialogue (continuity) with the totality of the accepted scriptures. What are they discussing, these three? Most English translations obscure the matter, alas. "They...were speaking of his departure," says the NRSV (9:31). But the Greek is blunt: "They were speaking of his exodus...." None of the first readers of Luke's Gospel could have missed the force of that word and its inevitable connotation in Jewish piety. Nor is it insignificant that the first Christians interpreted Jesus' death and resurrection as a crossing of the sea and entrance into a new land. Thus, in Jesus, God is doing again what God has done before: bringing deliverance from bondage in a most unlikely manner.
So it is hardly surprising that the countenance of Jesus should shine with divine glory, as did that of Moses. (While Jesus is transfigured before and Moses after their respective exoduses, many scholars believe the transfiguration story was originally a post-resurrection appearance that has been relocated in the Synoptic chronologies as a theological introduction to the journey toward death in Jerusalem.) All of this is background that the preacher needs to know but which may not need to appear in the sermon. For preaching purposes you may wish to begin by asking, "Of what practical importance is the testimony of Scripture that God sheds divine light upon us?"
For human beings, whose eyes are not designed to see well at night, light is an indication of clear-sightedness, of vision and purposeful direction. The Israelites, wandering aimlessly in the wilderness, are guided by divine graciousness mediated by The Commandments via Moses. Those whom God delivers from bondage, God does not willingly abandon to confusion. The sermon may well begin with this assertion of divine grace.
But then the preacher may quickly move to a complicating factor: So willing is God to share with us, that the fullness of direction sometimes dismays us: Moses veils his face, lest the people be overcome. Peter, James,and John are dazzled by what they see; Peter's mind is confused to such an extent that he makes an inane suggestion about erecting monuments on the mountaintop. When the transfiguring events are ended, things seem no better than before. Paul testifies to the hardness of heart that settled upon Moses' people (2 Cor 3:14). The apostles, asked to heal a convulsed child, are unable to act effectively (Lk 9:37-43). Is it not also the case with us? We can rejoice in an exalted passage of scripture, be moved by emotion during the singing of a hymn, find great joy in receiving the sacrament, marvel at the goodness of God in our midst, and then go out and live no differently than before! (Such a homiletical point can be crucial in deflecting an interpretation of today's epistle that castigates Jews but leaves Christians uncriticized.)
What to do? Paul suggests that we are "seeing the glory of God as though reflected in a mirror" and that we "are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. Therefore...we do not lose heart" (2 Cor 3:15-4:1). The Apostle is suggesting in more ways than one that we are expecting too much if we expect immediate and total perfection. First, we see only a mirror image: a two-dimensional representation in reverse, not a three-dimensional reality. Second, it is this imperfect image into which we are being transformed. Third, our transformation is occurring only bit by bit. There are indeed good reasons for losing heart. We do not do so, says Paul, simply because we believe God mercifully continues to work in us. Is not the whole history of Israel after Moses an account of God's continuing struggle to bring a wandering people to greater obedience? After the transfiguration, did not God have to continue to wrestle with Peter, James, and John (and the others)? This Peter who was so enthusiastic about the mountaintop experience is the same Peter who denies Jesus in the face of the cross. Human failure to comprehend, let alone live up to, divine revelation is a hard fact of life. God calls us to accept it as fact but to be strengthened by the divine determination never to give up on us, never to abandon us to failure.
Thus the sermon moves on to the hope of the Gospel, which on this day can readily be tied in to the liturgical calendar: Herein is the deep meaning of Lent, so shortly before us. Lent is not about giving up chocolate for six and a half weeks or saying one more prayer a day during that time in order to fulfill some religious obligation. Lent is about the faithful determination of our covenant God to engage us and assist us in the struggle toward sanctification. We will falter and resist and even momentarily defect, perhaps. But God continues to shine upon us, to transform us almost imperceptibly, one degree at a time. Therefore we do not lose heart. Instead we examine ourselves and our commitment to the faith, and we press on toward a cross on a hill and an unsealed sepulcher.