Sermon Ideas For Exodus 34:29-35 Part 6
It is a gorgeous, dangerous God who is behind today’s text. The same God who twenty chapters back panicked the Egyptians by revealing the terrible beauty of the Divine face (14:24) now turns the light of the Divine countenance on Moses. What sent the Egyptians screaming away, fell unnoticed on Moses (v. 29b). Apparently he soaked it up like a sun-starved tourist laying out at Malibu.
Who wouldn’t? Who wouldn’t take advantage of every moment that God was willing to meet with them? Who wouldn’t stand on tiptoe, waiting to be called up to the mountain or out to the tent of meeting again? Who could resist stretching out their fingers to touch the shiny, golden skin of their friend? Who wouldn’t be absolutely fascinated? Who wouldn’t want to fling wide their arms, throwback their overcoats, and lift their faces to drink in the light of God’s glory if given a chance? Apparently there were a lot of people. Not only the Egyptians, not only the calf-worshippers, not only the general run-of-the-mill Israelite, but even the leaders of the congregation—even Aaron—fell back. It is worth noting that they fell back not at the sight of God’s glory itself, but at its reflection in Moses’ familiar face.
There is a strain within the human race that resists light. We are often surprised when we find it in ourselves. But it happens more often than we might like to think. A resurgence of interest in Nazism and Satan worship among the young and the rise in violent images on every media platform are only the most obvious examples. “Men loved darkness, rather than light for their deeds were evil” (John 3:19), as the non-inclusive translation of King James put it. However it is potentially still true, and true not only of men and women but even children. Something about us doesn’t love a searchlight. It could be any one of us covering our eyes with the inside of an elbow as Moses comes down the mountain, whether we are befuddled by it into saying stupid things as Peter was (Luke 9:33), sent screaming off in every direction as the Egyptians were (14: 24), or yanking down our tent flaps like the stiff-necked people of today’s text. In the human phenomenon of resisting the Light, is one possible focus for the sermon.
Another is suggested by the device of the “veil.” The meaning of the Hebrew word itself is contested. (It has sometimes been translated as “horned,” giving rise to a number of paintings of a bovine Moses.) However, the controversy over translation is nothing, compared to the controversy over the homiletical significance of the veil. 2 Corinthians 3 and 4 provide one example of a homiletical application. There have been others, some more, some less fanciful. It is the kind of juicy image that makes tempting homiletical fodder. The most prudent interpreters are careful not to exceed (or not to exceed by much) the guidelines provided by the text: 1) the veil is something that helped the Israelites manage their fear; 2) the veil operates in a way that seems similar to the way the “cloud” operates to shield God’s “face” (Ex 13, 15 and 19); 3) the veil is needed “because (Moses) had been talking to God” (v. 29 and 4); the veil is used only when Moses is not speaking to or for God.
Of all the clues the text gives, the last is most intriguing, as it seems to suggest that human beings can only take so much of the Divine. Communication is essential, but constant communion is overwhelming. Nevertheless, the text also suggests a reassuring continuity or on-goingness to the Divine-human relationship. The verb “to speak” reoccurs seven times in this short passage and the verb tense used implies on-going action rather than events of a story that is over and done with. When this story is read as our story, the veil is a reminder of the way we “live in the tension” between our longing for communion with God and our experience of finiteness. We are the people who shooed God away from the mountain and, as Annie Dillard puts it, “What have we been doing all these centuries but trying to call God back to the mountain….Hello?”1
Finally, there is a possible sermon focus in the light’s contagion. As Walter Brueggemann says, we are not all called to be light-bearers of Moses’ ilk, but we are all issued an invitation to notice the glory of God in the faces of those who are carriers of the light. If we follow the lead of the text, we might pay special attention to the faces of those who 1) don’t bow down before the golden calves of our generation; 2) who place themselves in the gap between God and humanity and 3) who bring the word of God to the congregation. A sermon that holds such faces up before the congregation, tells their story and evokes their effulgence is a sermon likely to unleash this beautiful story’s peculiar power.