Saturday, February 6, 2016

His Face Was Shining

Exodus 34:29-35
Transfiguration / Mardi Gras
February 7, 2016
William G. Carter

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. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. 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.

Rob Bell is a popular speaker in Christian circles. In one of his books, he writes,

I remember the first time I was truly in awe of God. I was caught up for the first time in my life in something so massive and loving and transcendent and true. Something I was sure could be trust. I specifically remember thinking the universe was safe, in spite of all the horrible, tragic things in the world. I remember being overwhelmed with the word true. Underneath it all life is somehow good, and I was sixteen and at a U2 concert… When they started with the song “Where the Streets Have No Name,” I thought I was going to spontaneously combust with joy. This was real. This mattered. Whatever it was, I wanted more.

            I had never felt that way before.[1]

People tell stories like this. From time to time, they make field reports of God. It isn’t always the kind of God who goes to church and sits quietly in the pew. It’s a God as Rob describes: massive and loving and transcendent and true.

The fact that most of us don’t feel that most of the time is a testimony that God loves us enough that He doesn’t come repeatedly to supercharge us with energy that sets us on fire. What we get instead are hymns that describe God from a distance with a lot of adjectives (immortal, invisible, God-only wise, or holy, holy, holy). Or we hear accounts from the Bible of somebody somewhere who had a brief holy moment, which the Bible writer struggles to contain in mere words. 

Moses was up on the mountain, spending time face to face with God. The experience changed him. When he came down, everybody could tell. His face was shining with the reflected glory of God, so much so that it scared the people of Israel. They kept their distance. They wanted to stay safe.

It reminds me of what somebody said about the people who always sit in the back of the church. I think it was a scholar at Yale University. He said the reason people sit in the back of the church is because they want to be in the presence of something Holy, but they don’t want to get too close. Some of you back there will have to tell me later if that’s true.

We hunger for the ecstasy that comes from the power and presence of God. But that bright power also scares us, so we want to keep it away, to keep it at a safe distance.
I think that’s something of what it means a limited human being in the presence of the Infinite Love that is God. We want it, but it’s almost too much for us. So when holiness comes close, it often gets filtered. Or deflected. Or veiled. Because we sense the whole experience would be more than we could take.

God has already said something like this to Moses before. Up on the mountain, God says, “No human can look on my face and live.” So God puts Moses in the cleft of a rock and passes by. All Moses can see is the back side of the Lord, moving away (Exodus 33:18-23). That’s in chapter 33.

Yet here in chapter 34, Moses is still in God’s presence, even if he can’t see the face or experience the whole thing. And it changes him. When he comes down from the mountain, there’s something different about Moses. It’s worth reflecting on what that might be.

Here’s one aspect of what is true of such moments: Moses fears God, but he’s not afraid of God. He fears God in the sense of awe and wonder, but he is not fearful of anything else.

Last Monday night, I was in Memphis for a training event. At supper time, our group headed out to a barbecue place to get some ribs. It supposed to be the best rib joint in the whole city. Turns out, it was right across the street from the Lorraine Hotel. That’s the place where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed, the day after speaking at a Pentecostal church in the ‘hood.

It started the wheels of my memory. In light of the story of Moses coming down from the mountain as a changed man, I looked up the words of Dr. King’s last speech from the night before he died:

I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!

Did you hear that? Martin Luther King Jr. saw the glory of God, so he was not afraid. The glory changed him, just as it happened to Moses. The glory set him free. He was bound or constricted by old religious customs or pious ideas. No, like Dr. King, when Moses reported what God said, he talked to the people about how they were going to live. Moses reports how God invites us to live, honoring  our parents, keeping Sabbath, giving our hearts to only the one true Lord – and Dr. King echoed that by saying, “I just want to do God’s will.”

That’s the second aspect of having a holy moment, a moment when you catch a glimpse of God’s glory: it breaks down the wall between heaven and earth. Even though you know you’re living on earth, it feels like you’re in heaven. Whether the experience lifts you up, or heaven comes down, either way there is no separation.

This is how God wanted it to be from the beginning – no separation from the life-giving Presence and glory. That’s what the Garden of Eden was. That’s what Jesus comes to announce and reveal. Remember how he prays? “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” No separation!

When you affirm that God is present, even if you cannot see it all, even if you can’t see anything at all, it frees you from living in the muck and despair of earth alone. And every word that comes from God’s mouth is a Word that sets us free to live in joy and freedom.

But the third thing about these religious experiences, these mountain top moments, is that we have them, we want to have more of them. Faith can fade out if we don’t keep stepping back to the Source of our faith. Hope can evaporate if the nonsense of the world gets you down. Love can dwindle if you don’t love others, or it you don’t feel loved.

So here’s what Moses does after he has his glow-in-the-dark moment. He goes back for more. He continues to go back in the Tabernacle to be with God. He goes back to the place of awe, to the place of worship. His prayer is simply to be in the Holy Presence, to listen, to be there, and then to go outside and share what he has heard. There is a cycle of renewal. He wants the Holy Power to keep renewing him.

So when you feel completely alive? When have you felt like you are in the presence of something massive and loving and transcendent and true?

Maybe like Rob Bell, it was in the midst of great music.
Maybe like the new parent or grandparent, it comes in the gift of a new child.
Maybe it comes in fresh words so true that they bubble up like a fountain within you.
Maybe it comes when you go outdoors and see the awesome beauty of a steel grey mountain,
               or the elaborate dance of life around a small pond, and the majesty of creation astounds you.

Or maybe it’s something that happens in your life. Maybe you thought you were insulated, safe from every act of God, but then some moment takes your breath away, and it chips away at your elaborate defense system. Maybe you will even start trusting that the universe is safe, even the world still has plenty of trouble.

My advice is simple. When these moments come, and I believe they can come to everybody, be a good steward of those moments. Let them change you, if only as a small beginning as you emerge into something else.  Let them lift you into the awareness that joy is real and God is true. Should holy moments come, let them set you free without setting you adrift.

And then pursue them again and again, until the day comes when you shine with the fire of Love.   

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith (New York: HarperOne, 2005) p. 72

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