Reflections on Exodus 34:29-35 and 2 Cor. 3:12-18 (while reading Hauerwas)
Below is a portion of a sermon given at an evening service on February 10. Students from my Ethics course would likely tell you that my reading of Exodus 34 and 2 Cor. 3 are both influenced by our interaction with the work of Stanley Hauerwas. They would be right.
. . . Now let’s look at chapter 34. In the first few verses we read about God’s instruction to Moses to make new tablets. This time Moses had to do the work. Once again, Moses and God talk together. God describes himself, verses 6-7, and Moses asks that the LORD go with the people, verse 9. God agrees, and describes the conditions of this arrangement, verses 10-27. It’s the whole idea of the covenant in short form. In verse 28, we read that again this encounter lasts for 40 days. The historicity of that number isn’t important for the author of Exodus. It stands for the fullness and completeness of the experience. So let’s not get hung up on whether or not it’s possible to go 40 days without water.
It is the second half of this chapter that we read earlier this evening. Moses comes down from the mountain where he conversed with God. He relays the LORD’s instructions. What Moses didn’t realize at first is that his face was radiant. The encounter left him glowing. The radiance of Moses’s face first made the people afraid, as we read in verse 30. Remember that in chapter 32 the people had questioned Moses’s authority and intentions. Now God has reflected his glory in Moses’s face. I imagine the sort of thing that happens when you see someone working on a laptop in the dark. Because they look at the screen their face is lit up. Moses’s face is lit up. He is marked as someone who works with God, and the people know his word can be trusted.
. . . We didn’t just read from Exodus this evening; we also read two passages from the NT. For the followers of Jesus the story of Israel’s impatience and Moses’s radiant face would have been well known. The account of the transfiguration in Luke 9 is significant for several reasons. Like Moses’s encounters with God, it occurs on a mountain. It also involves God’s presence in a cloud. To further make the connection between Jesus and Moses, Moses himself appears along with Elijah. Part of the message of Luke 9, then, is that Jesus is the new Moses. He relays God’s message to the people.
But if Jesus is the new Moses, where is the indisputable evidence that he speaks God’s words to the people? Where is the radiant reflection of God? How do we know it’s true?
Near the end of Luke, after Jesus’ death, two of his followers were walking to a village called Emmaus. As they walked, a third person joins them. They don’t recognize that it’s Jesus. Even after the resurrection he possesses no obvious radiance. The transfiguration was a momentary glimpse of the truth. But most of Jesus ministry isn’t like that.
In the book of Revelation we are transported into a different realm. In chapter 21, the author’s vision carries us into the future. We are given a tour of the renewed heaven and earth. In light of the Scripture we’ve read, Rev. 21 verses 23-24 are striking: “The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of earth will bring their splendor into it.” There the glorious radiance of the Lamb is unquestionable.
Have you ever been in a situation where you were trying to explain something to someone and they just didn’t get it? . . . Why is it that what we believe to be true about the world is so hard for some to see: the fact that God stands behind creation; that God has called it good, that despite the evil of our world, God still loves it and wants to redeem it. That’s a bit of the issue Paul is addressing in II Cor. 3: Why don’t other Jews view Jesus in the way they do? Here Paul likens the veil Moses wore to the fact that not everyone could identify with the hope of Jesus’ followers.
Not everyone gets it because hearts are ‘veiled’. Not everyone gets it because we are still on the road. Not everyone gets it because we have not yet reached the new, heavenly city of Rev. 21. We cannot avoid this. Following Jesus will occur amongst those that don’t see. The truth of our witness can’t be proven. It just can’t.
Yet, Paul goes on to say something quite interesting in verse 18: “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with every-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” When Moses relayed God’s message his face reflected the beauty of God. It gave his words weight. No amount of skin care products can pull that off. It comes from communion with God. Paul is suggesting that here and now there is a way in which God’s beauty is demonstrated. It’s through the transformation of people into his likeness. The story we tell about creation, God’s justice and mercy is given credibility by our own transformation. If there’s not transformation our witness has no weight. . . . As our lives are increasingly characterized by the work of God’s Spirit others will know that we have been with God.
What does such a transformation look like? It’s not that our faces will glow, or that we’ll smile all the time. It’s that our lives will take on the character of Christ, which involves growth in important virtues. There’s a list of those in Gal. 5:22-23. They are known as the ‘fruit of the Spirit’, and they are all things that stand out in our culture. Our communion with God should be evidenced by a growth in faithfulness, patience and gentleness (to name but three). These are virtues that must be developed, that must be learned. Here is my concluding thought: if our community is to have a legitimate witness to the truth of the gospel, it will start with this—we will be a place where faithfulness, patience and gentleness are learned. These virtues are radiant. They show just a bit of God’s glory. They are the product of meeting with God.