Exodus 34:29, 32-35, NRSV
Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God…. Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the Lord had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; but whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.
2 Corinthians 3:12-18, The Voice
In light of this hope that we have, we act with great confidence and speak with great courage. We do not act like Moses who covered his face with a veil so the children of Israel would not stare as the glory of God faded from his face. Their minds became as hard as stones; for up to this day when they read the old covenant, the same veil continues to hide that glory; this veil is lifted only through the Anointed One. Even today a veil covers their hearts when the words of Moses are read; but in the moment when one turns toward the Lord, the veil is removed. By “the Lord” what I mean is the Spirit, and in any heart where the Spirit of the Lord is present, there is liberty. Now all of us, with our faces unveiled, reflect the glory of the Lord as if we are mirrors; and so we are being transformed, metamorphosed, into His same image from one radiance of glory to another, just as the Spirit of the Lord accomplishes it.
The Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.
On Friday night our church’s confirmands [6th graders learning to embrace their faith as their own] went to Beth Israel, our local synagogue, to attend a worship service and talk with Rabbi Stephen Wylen about Jewish worship. Our neighbors at Beth Israel have graciously invited us back each year, and this field trip is always a great opportunity for the kids and their faith friends see God worshipped through the eyes of brothers and sisters with a different perspective and a different view of what it means to be God’s people. Our Jewish neighbors have walked through the history of God’s people for generations and generations, long before God opened wider the gates and invited Gentiles (non-Jews) like us to be grafted into the family tree. It was so special to be welcomed in to worship where we prayed and sang together in Hebrew and English and heard an incredible message from the very same book I’d been studying for my sermon: Exodus. After the service Rabbi Wylen took time to chat with our group to answer questions, point out differences and similarities between the Shabbat service at Beth Israel and the ones we’re used to on Sunday morning at Galloway, and explain what some of the symbols and traditions we observed meant to the folks worshipping together. We really saw the community live into a theme that was common in the prayers throughout the Shabbat—warm hospitality to strangers and outsiders.
As I simultaneously prepared for this field trip and worked on my sermon, though, I started to feel some tension between the warm welcome our neighbors showed us in repeatedly inviting our confirmands and their faith friends to join in worship and the sort of hostile feelings Paul seems to be expressing towards his Jewish brothers and sisters in this passage from 2 Corinthians. Some translations put it more gently than others, but in all of them Paul seems to suggest the Israelites and their Jewish descendants are hard-headed and unenlightened about Christ. That perspective is something folks sometimes call “replacement theology” which basically means that they say, Look, God tried with the Israelites. God tried a lot. God sent prophets and worked miracles and saved them from slavery and all kinds of crazy stuff, and they still kept turning away from God’s love. So finally God gave up and said, ‘Fine then. Be that way. I’ll just pick a new people,’ and Christians are the new people of God’s covenant. That kind of thinking says that the Church has replaced the Temple and Christians have replaced Jews as God’s chosen people.
Seems simple enough, but that’s not the situation we saw reflected the worship of God we got to participate in on Friday evening. And that’s not the God we see reflected in all of Scripture. God’s promise of forever means forever, not “Forever or until I get sick of your nonsense, whichever comes first.” So if Paul isn’t saying out with the old and in with the new, what exactly is he saying here?
The crux of Paul’s comments here is this idea of a veil. Specifically, that we do not need a veil like Moses. But to understand what we’re comparing ourselves to, we need to know why Moses did need one. We need to know the story to catch the reference.
Moses spent a lot of time with God up in the mountains. We talked about that a little bit on the Sunday morning the Galloway mission team worshiped together in Honduras a few weeks back. We were staying and working around Lake Yojoa in Honduras, a body of water surrounded by ancient volcanoes that have become inactive, forming mountains covered in gorgeous greenery. It’s breathtaking, and nestled into the side of one of those mountains across the lake is a place called the Ark of Christ, a camp where someone has built up scenes from the Gospels as a teaching tool. We had the opportunity to hike up to this place in the mountain and sit at the base of three life-sized crosses and reflect on Moses on the mountains, from Mount Horeb where he met God in the burning bush to Sinai where he received the Ten Commandments to Mount Nebo where he climbed high enough to see the Promised Land before he passed away.
Not only in Judeo-Christian faiths, but in every major religion I can think of, mountains are considered spiritual places. There’s something about making the climb, positioning ourselves a little closer to heaven, apart from the crowd, where the air gets thin and quiet that allows us to experience God more clearly than in our everyday lives. On Mount Sinai, Moses goes to the mountain to talk with God on behalf of Israel, to discern what God has planned for God’s people. Then Moses takes the stones with God’s Law written on them and carries them back down to the community waiting below. I invited our group to take a stone from the mountain in Honduras, too, a reminder of our own mountaintop experience. Mine was confiscated by TSA on the flight home (the symbolism was totally lost on the gentlemen searching my luggage), but hopefully the rest of the group made it back with their little reminders of that holy space.
When Moses went up to Mount Sinai to talk with God, he got to do it face-to-face. Moses spent time getting so lost in the radiant light of God, that when he came back down he didn’t even noticed that he carried some of it with him. He had no idea that his face was still glowing from his heart-to-heart with the Creator and Redeemer and Sustainer of all life. In that moment, Moses wasn’t self-conscious. He was God-conscious. His focus is on sharing what God has spoken, and he talks with Israel about all that God has shared with an unveiled face. The light of God reflecting from Moses’ face becomes a testimony to the truth of what he says. Moses descends to an open place where all the Israelites can come near. Usually in the Bible when there are large crowds described or we hear about how big Israel’s numbers were, they only count men; however, multiple times in Scripture when God’s law is read or prophets speak about their revelation from the law, absolutely everyone is included. Women, children, men, slaves, free persons, immigrants, native-born folks, even the animals are invited to gather around and hear what God speaks: the same Law and the same Love for all.
Moses keeps his face unveiled while he is sharing God’s word as a testimony of its truth. When he’s finished, though, he covers himself with a veil. Moses is careful to avoid confusing his position as a prophet with the position of God, distinguishing when he is quoting God versus speaking for himself. According to Paul’s interpretation of this story, Moses wears the veil so the Israelites won’t stare as the light from his encounter with our radiant God slowly fades from Moses’ face until their next meeting. See, Moses had to make regular trips up the mountainside to see God face-to-face and then hike back down with the Word from the Lord before covering up with the veil. In between these visits, the people were not allowed to see behind the veil and to engage God’s glory face-to-face. We don’t hear about a lot of people wearing veils in Scripture but this idea that we need some kind of a buffer between us and God is pretty common, bleeding over into the design of the Temple in Jerusalem where a veil was hung to separate the general worship space from the Holy of Holies, the most sacred part of the inner sanctuary where God was said to dwell. When Christ willingly goes to the cross, though, when he breathes his last breath and gives up his Spirit to God, the veil in the Temple is torn in two, split from top to bottom.
The veil between the sacred and secular has been removed. How beautiful! … How uncomfortable. The lack of separation is so freeing and yet, it can be disorienting, too. It can mean stuff starts to get sticky and spill over into places we didn’t mean for it to go. There’s a song by Meat Loaf that frets over this kind of a division, demanding to know, “Is nothing sacred anymore?” That’s the side of things we’re used to hearing. When someone starts messing with our beliefs or the way we worship or the stuff we set apart in our own little Holy of Holies, we want to know, “Is nothing sacred anymore?” But the part of this equation that tends to get to me is wondering, “Is nothing secular anymore?” I do sacred all day long. I have a degree in it. Do I have to bring it home with me too? Can I not just say what I want and do what I want when I’m off the clock at the church? Can’t I have some stuff that’s just mine?
Sometimes it is comforting to have that veil firmly in place. It’s better to rely on someone else to do our talking to God for us so we can stay at a nice safe distance down the hill. In a sense, it’s a way of insulating ourselves so we don’t have to be held accountable to God directly. It’s kind of nice to feel low enough on the totem pole to think we’ll never really get called in to the principal’s office to answer for how things are going. We’re intimidated by the idea that we might really be responsible for our own actions, for our own faith. And we especially don’t want to have to start worrying about how our beliefs and actions might impact the people around us. It’s not something we are used to anymore—although to be honest I’m not sure human beings ever really were. We just really don’t like seeing things through to the bitter end. We like to say our piece and do what we’re going to do and then move on. The idea that we might have to come back and answer for those things we did in college or posted on the Internet, that we could be held accountable to the people we may have hurt with carelessness or a bad decision, well that’s just downright frightening.
But this is not a principal’s office sort of face-to-face that God is speaking of. It’s a heart-to-heart with a Loving Parent. We’re talking about crucial conversations with someone you can say anything to, someone you can hear anything from, and then continue to be in relationship. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. There is freedom from the need for a buffer, from dancing around the point, from pretending to be something we are not. Certainly, as with any loving parent, there is bound to be discipline. There are consequences for our actions and no amount of love will simply erase all of those—in fact, love of God and neighbor often dictates that we face those consequences—but Love Incarnate, Jesus Christ, teaches us how to do so with grace.
There is freedom with the Spirit of the Lord, the Comforter who comes to show us God’s glory face-to-face. How? As we gaze in the mirror, the Spirit works in us to transform our reflection more and more into a reflection of God. That’s not to say that we become our own little gods, ruling our own personal universes however we see fit. Instead, we are made in God’s image and we gradually grow to look more and more like God. From our time in our mother’s wombs until our very last breath, God is constantly working within us, knitting us together into beautiful, unique reflections of the Lord. Slowly, sometimes imperceptibly slowly, we grow up in the Spirit from infants to children to adults who bear a striking resemblance to our Heavenly Parent. It’s not something we always notice happening as we catch our reflection in the bathroom mirror each morning, but with patience and with faith, we see dramatic changes take hold in our hearts, spilling out into our heads and hands and feet and mouths. Our beliefs, our words, our behavior, our stewardship all begin to take a distinctly cross-like shape as we become the sort of people who put God first, others second, and ourselves third, not out of obligation but because that is just the kind of people we’ve grown into.
Moses returned to the mountain again and again and again. His transformation was not a one-and-done kind of thing. Neither is ours. Our lives are a process of sanctification, or growing in grace, by the power of the Holy Spirit. A professor in seminary put it this why: “Sanctification is something God wants, we need, and the Spirit makes possible.”
John Wesley compared this process to healing from a chronic disease, lessening the symptoms of sin in our personal lives and in our communities bit by bit until they will one day be eliminated completely in God’s redeemed creation. Some days we do better than others, some treatments will be more effective for some than for others, we recover quickly from some things while others take repeated and concentrated efforts to get under control, and the progress certainly isn’t always in a straight line forward, but Christ is the Great Physician who will not give up until we are free and healed. God’s steadfast love endures forever, and remember what we said about God’s promises of forever.
Praise God, though, that we do not have to wait forever to draw near to this great God who loves us. Because Christ came to live as one of us, because God’s Spirit abides with us as our Comforter and our Guide, we don’t have to wait another minute to enter into God’s presence with the confidence of children of God. Now all of us, with our faces unveiled, reflect the glory of the Lord as if we are mirrors. However dimly, we each bear a reflection of the divine image. And for those of us whose reflection of God has grown dim, the only remedy is to let the Spirit of the Lord transform us by degrees from one radiance of glory to another. Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom. Let go of the veil and embrace that freedom today.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.