2 Corinthians 3:12 – 4:2
“A Shine That Never Fades”
The biblical texts set in the lectionary for this “Transfiguration Sunday” are very strange. They invite us to hear about two mysterious spiritual experiences of encounters with God on mountain-tops, and then to consider what these stories may mean for us today.
Most of us have probably heard the New Testament story about the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain-top with his disciples. We usually read one version or another of that story every year on the Sunday just before the Season of Lent – Transfiguration Sunday. Although I know that sometimes it does get skipped, as preachers aren’t always sure what to say about such a strange and mystical experience.
This year, the story about Jesus on a mountain-top is paired with one from the Book of Exodus about Moses on a mountain-top. In both cases, God is present and meets with them. And both men are transformed physically by the experience, with their faces (and in Jesus’ case, his clothing too) beginning to shine.
Moses has been on a mountain-top to meet God before, of course. Back when God first called to him out of a “burning bush” and sent him on a mission to get the Hebrew People out of Egypt, that was on a mountain-top. And after Moses does actually lead the people out of slavery, and across the sea, and into the wilderness, God speaks to Moses on mountain-tops a couple more times.
The first time Moses went up Mount Sinai, God spoke to him and gave him the commandments for the people. But Moses wasn’t actually able to look at God during that encounter. God was so holy, so bright, and so perfectly divine that it was just too much for Moses to handle. God places a hand over the face of Moses, and he is allowed to glimpse only the back of God.
After 40 days and 40 nights on the mountain, Moses brings down the first set of instructions from God to the people. Unfortunately, they have used that extended time of waiting to get themselves into trouble – worshipping other gods, and even building the famous “golden calf.”
I won’t get into all the details, but the second trip up the mountain represents God’s compassion for the people and God’s grace in giving them another chance. This time, Moses gets even closer to God – engaging in a personal conversation and meeting God face-to-face. More instruction is given, and Moses serves as an intermediary between God and the community – going back and forth, listening to God, and bringing God’s message to the people.
And as I’ve already mentioned, when Moses speaks with God the skin on his face begins to shine. And interestingly, it says that Moses didn’t realize at first that his face was shining. He only seemed to become aware of it when the other people reacted to him with shock, surprise, and even fear.
We don’t really know what the shining was all about either, but we may presume that being up close with God is a very powerful experience. Perhaps God is literally so bright that a human being in God’s presence soaks up that light and begins to reflect it out into the world. Perhaps it’s more like a poetic way of saying that Moses was transformed by the experience of talking with God. Or maybe it’s a beautiful way of expressing Moses’ role in the community to receive God’s wisdom and reflect it to the whole community.
I suppose that shining face would have been pretty scary for the people if they recognized that the Almighty God was going to speak through Moses to them, and they didn’t know if that would be a message of judgment or grace.
Anyway, as the story goes on, Moses gathers all the people around him and gives them the commandments from God. And when he finishes speaking, he puts a veil over his face. The text says, “Whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with [God], 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 on his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with [God].”
It sure made me wonder why Moses was covering up his face with a veil like that. Did he feel different and strange, and didn’t want to stand out in the community as he went about among the people? Was he trying not to draw attention to himself when he wasn’t engaged in transmitting God’s laws to the people?
Well, the Apostle Paul, in our text from 2nd Corinthians today, suggests a possible reason for the veil. Paul says that Moses “put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside.” Paul assumes that the shining of Moses’ face was particularly bright just after he finished speaking with God. But after a while, it would begin to fade. Maybe Moses didn’t want the people to look at his fading glow.
Of course, Paul is arguing that although the Law of Moses is a gift from God and a good guide for living in loving community as God’s People, that it is not enough. Living by the commandments can only take us so far because as human beings we cannot follow the law perfectly. We need the compassion and grace of God to help us and save us from ourselves.
We see in the witness of the Hebrew Scriptures that even those people who encounter God, and embrace God’s teachings, and strive to follow God’s ways turn away at times. We make mistakes, choose selfish ends, and do the things that God has commanded us not to do. And God responds again and again – first with judgement: calling us out through prophets and preachers – and then with grace: “Come back to me. I am giving you another chance. Be my people and I will be your God.”
And Paul has experienced that same grace of God in a special way through Jesus the Christ. Paul points to the encounter that he and other Christ-followers have had of meeting God in Jesus Christ, just as Moses once met God on the mountain. Like the disciples on that other mountain with Jesus, we also have seen the Light of the Divine Love shining in the face of Jesus, and we have been transformed by it.
In the Transfiguration story about Jesus on the mountain-top, the disciples don’t literally get shining faces. When they come down the mountain to continue their ministry, they may not look much different, but they have nonetheless been transformed by the experience of meeting God.
And whereas the shine on Moses’ face may have begun to fade after a while, Paul argues that our transformation is permanent. It’s not that we have become perfect, but God’s grace in Jesus Christ continues to let us reflect God’s love.
Just as Jesus went with the disciples on the Way after they came down the mountain and went about their work, the Holy Spirit accompanies us in all that we do. We don’t need to go up any mountains to re-charge our shine, because the source of our love and light is with us always.
I’m reminded of a couple of years ago when I was travelling in Quebec, doing some of my Moderator visits to various congregations. I flew into Montreal, and I picked up a rental car at the airport. From there I had a few hours to drive up to a town East of Quebec City where I would be attending a Presbytery meeting and then preaching at one of the churches.
I really had very little idea where I was going, but I programmed the address into Google Maps on my phone, and off I went. I can’t remember how long I was driving before I realized that my phone battery was rapidly getting used up. Using the GPS was draining the power more quickly than usual, and I realized that it would be dead long before I reached my destination. I’m sure that I had fully charged it that morning, but it was fading fast.
I wondered… should I stop and find somewhere to plug in my phone to an outlet? That would take time that I probably didn’t have, and who knows if it would be enough to get me there? I needed to plug it into the car itself if this was going to work. I needed to take my power source along with me. So I stopped at a Walmart and bought the adapter I would need to plug in my phone to the car. Big sigh of relief! When I arrived safely, my phone battery was still going strong and getting stronger.
The Transfiguration Sunday stories remind us that our encounters with God change and transform us, empowering and equipping us to reflect God’s light and love in the world around us. And Paul assures us that “it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, [so] we do not lose heart.”
We have encountered God in the face of Jesus Christ, and God goes with us every day through the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit. We do not need to veil our faces as they lose their shine because we have a never-ending source of power, light, and love that “comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” We have a shine that never fades.