Reflecting the Divine Radiance -- Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday (Exodus 34)
Today we bring to a close the season of Epiphany. We began Epiphany by traveling with the Magi to the home of the Holy Family so homage could be paid to Emmanuel, “God with us.” From there we encountered other manifestations of God’s presence in the world. Now we come to the moment when we get to climb the Mount of Transfiguration with Peter, James, and John, so we can witness Jesus’ encounter with Moses and Elijah. We watch with them as the divine radiance within Jesus shines through, revealing the glory of God which Jesus embodies. Then, even though we are already overwhelmed with wonder, a cloud envelopes us, and we hear the voice of God declare: “This is my Son, the Chosen; listen to him.” (Lk 9:28-36).
The reading from Exodus 34 reveals another divine encounter on a mountain top. While Jesus took three disciples on his journey to the mountain top, Moses goes alone on this journey lasting forty-days and forty-nights. And like Jesus in his wilderness sojourn, Moses fasted from food and drink during this entire period.
The biblical parallels between Jesus and Moses are striking. That’s because Jesus is, in many ways, the new Moses. Even as Moses was the mediator of God’s covenant with Israel. Jesus mediates a new covenant with all of creation. You might say that Moses’ encounter with God on Mount Sinai is a forerunner of Jesus’ transfiguration. They’re not the same, but both events reveal the radiance of God in powerful ways.
Today’s reading is really the closing moment of a story that begins much earlier in the Book of Exodus. We see Moses’ descending from Mount Sinai carrying the two tablets that define God’s covenant with Israel. We watch as he shares the news of the covenant God has made with Israel while Moses was with God on the mountain. This was actually the second attempt at making a covenant. The first time around, Moses discovered Aaron and the people of Israel in the midst of celebrating their new creation, a golden calf, who would be their god. Moses broke the first set of tablets, but in the end God was merciful and Israel got a second chance. So Moses goes back up on the mountain and spends those forty days and forty nights in the presence of God. During that sojourn on the mountain, God gives Moses instructions for the people and a set of commandments on which God will base the covenant with Israel.
Just before Moses returns to the people with the two stone tablets, he asks God for a favor. Moses asks the LORD, “Show me your glory, I pray.” (Ex. 33:18). Moses makes this request even though we’re told God spoke to Moses “face to face, like a friend” (Ex. 33:11). While that may be true, apparently Moses never really saw God’s face, as the LORD told Moses, “no one can see me and live.” Nevertheless, God agreed to let Moses see the divine glory, but only from a cleft in the rock. He wouldn’t see the face of God, only the back of God. Now, you might be wondering, does this mean God has a body? The answer is no. But, Scripture does suggest that God has ways of appearing to creation. This is one of those occasions.
Whatever the nature of these divine appearances or theophanies, we only see these signs of God’s presence as if they are reflected in a mirror. As Paul told the Corinthians: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12).
Apparently, this glimpse of God’s back was enough for Moses, because when he descended from the mountain, “the skin of his face was shining.” His appearance was altered so that he reflected the glory of God to such an extent the people were overwhelmed by his appearance. They were afraid, but perhaps they were also overcome with wonder and awe.
I recently was listening to a podcast that featured Jose Morales discussing his PhD dissertation that explores the theology of wonder. Jose suggests that “We have no control over wonder.” It simply happens to us. This was true of Peter, James, and John when they witnessed Jesus’ visit with Moses and Elijah on the mountain top. It happened to Moses when he was exposed to the glory of God. It happened to the people of Israel when they saw God’s glory reflected in Moses’ face. They knew Moses had been in the presence of God, and that they should listen to him. Now, after Moses became aware that the glow was a bit overwhelming, he decided to put a veil over his face, except when he was standing before God or speaking with the people on behalf of God.
Now, I’m a preacher. Each week I try to bring a message I believe God would have us hear, but I’m not Moses and I’m not Jesus. I don’t glow like either of them, so, you’ll have to take what I have to say with a great deal of discernment. You’ll need to be like the Bereans, who checked out what Paul said with the Scriptures (Acts 17:10-11). I simply don’t have that extra confirmation that Moses had.
Even though we may only see God’s glory dimly, as if reflected in a mirror, there are signs of God’s glory all around us. These signs are expressions of wonder that simply overwhelm us. It might be the moment we lift up a new born baby. That can be an awe-inspiring moment. I know it was for me. It was also a transformative moment. Before I lifted my son for the first time, I wasn’t sure I was ready to be a father. That seemed to change in an instant. Wonder will do that to you!
It also might be a walk in nature, where we see God’s creation in all its glory. Experiences of glory like this are important to our faith, as Ched Meyers points out in his commentary on this passage:
We cannot hope to heal our weary world without deeply grasping its beauty and “holiness.” We will never understand how bad things have been if we have no clue of how good the undomesticated, unadulterated creation truly is, mirroring its Creator. Glory fuels righteous indignation. (Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, p. 114).
We don’t have to take the creation stories of Genesis 1 and 2 literally to hear in them a reminder of the goodness of God’s creation and an invitation to share in that goodness. When we encounter this goodness of creation, it should spur us to action.
For me, the difference between Jesus and Moses is that the divine radiance was inherent in Jesus’ being. As John reminds us, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn. 1:14). Moses, on the other hand, reflected God’s glory that came from outside his being. The same can be true for us. We may not glow to such an extent that we have to put on a veil, but we can glow with God’s radiance in the way we live in the world.
I don’t mean that we should put on a good face, and smile all the time, no matter the situation. But, our encounters with the divine radiance can create within us a witness to God’s love, mercy, and grace. It will serve as the foundation for the pursuit of social justice.
As I was reflecting on ways in which we as a congregation express God’s radiance, a recent message sent to the office through our website about our rainbow flag came to mind. I got permission to share this word with you, because it speaks to a congregational witness to the broader community we might not even be aware of. Here is the message:
I am not a member of your church, but I just wanted to let you all know that I pass your establishment every day on my way to work, and I see the rainbow flag displayed proudly in front, and I just wanted to let you all know how happy it makes me every time I pass by. This world can be very negative, and it always makes me smile so big and warms my heart to see you open your doors for the LGBT community when so many others shut their doors so tightly for us. It may not seem like the biggest gesture in the world, but it means so much to me and I’m sure countless others as well. Thank you so much for making me smile every day, and I wish each and every one of you the very best.
As Jose Morales reminds us, “We have no control over wonder.” All we can do is try our best to reflect the divine radiance into the world, with unveiled faces! Wonder will take care of itself. Let us, therefore, shine brightly with God’s love and glory!
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
March 3, 2019