To understand the end of Exodus 34, you need to catch up on two things: the immediate context of this chapter in Exodus and also what happened in the first 9 verses of this 34th chapter, the final effect of which you can read in the Lectionary selection of verses 29-35.
First of all, then, let’s recall that the setting for Exodus 34 is the immediate aftermath of one of Israel’s most glaring failures: worshiping the Golden Calf. There are multiple layers of both absurdity and tragedy in that incident. Granted, Moses had been up on Mount Sinai for nearly six weeks. But for goodness sake, the smoke of God’s presence and the flashes of divine lightning were still visible when the people told Aaron, “Moses must not be coming back so let’s make a new god!”
Aaron complied with sickening swiftness. But the problem with a god you make with your own hands is that it will not challenge you. Have you ever noticed that? When people worship something other than the God of the Bible, this God is always so tolerant. When we make our own gods, they tend to turn out to be very friendly to how we think already anyway.
Thus, not long after Aaron sculpted a golden calf, we are told that a kind of drunken orgy broke out. And that’s another funny thing about false gods: the first commandment of most false gods seems to be, “Thou shalt party!” And party is just what the people did until the sound of their whooping and drunken laughter wafted clear up to Moses’ ears and Yahweh’s ears. Yahweh got so mad at what he termed “this stiff-necked people” that he threatened to wipe out every last one of them and just start over with Moses. Moses convinced God not to do that but he then got so mad he took the tablets containing the Ten Commandments and smashed them into a thousand pieces. It was all very ugly and angry.
But now in Exodus 34 the smoke has cleared, the dust has settled, and so Yahweh and Moses start all over with, literally, a clean slate. New tablets are chiseled, and God gives his law all over again. But not before the incredible lines we read in verses 6-7. God passes in front of Moses and says his holier than holy name, not once but twice, adding emphasis and letting us know that whatever God says next, it is going to be a decisive revelation of who God fundamentally is. “Yahweh, Yahweh, the compassionate One, the gracious One, the abundantly forgiving One, the One brimming with lovingkindness.”
That last word, translated as “abounding love” is my all-time favorite Hebrew word chesed, which is the Old Testament equivalent of “grace” in the New Testament. It is also the central trait that the Israelites celebrated in God over and over and over. And in Exodus 34, because the name of Yahweh is thundered twice in a row, we see here the definitive declaration of God’s most basic nature. Despite all the bluster and divine fury and punishment that had just happened in the wake of Israel’s wanton idolatry, even still the very first thing God wants to make clear to Moses is that despite what had just happened, it is grace that will always set the tone of the divine heart.
But what makes that grace, that lovingkindness of God, truly luminous is precisely the fact that grace is not the same thing as moral laxity or softness. God does not and cannot merely shrug off the sin that marred his creation. If redemption and forgiveness come, then they come the hard way via a God who has done the cosmically difficult thing of looking everything that wounds him square in the face and still finding the ability to blot it out.
If God says he forgives you, it is never because to God it was no big deal anyway. No, grace is strong precisely because it co-exists with justice. Grace is lyrically beautiful exactly insofar as grace comes into play in just those places where something so serious has happened that a holy God recoils in horror. But if, despite your sin, you see on God’s face a look of love and not horror, it’s because God has done something miraculous: he has forgiven that which is at complete odds with his nature as a perfect divine Being.
That’s what Moses saw. That’s why in verse 9 he dares to speak the exact same phrase that two chapters earlier Yahweh had uttered: “a stiff-necked people.” In chapter 32, Yahweh used that line as the reason why he was going to kill of the whole lot of Israel. But now in Exodus 34 Moses is able to call the people stiff-necked but he doesn’t worry it will inflame Yahweh all over again. He’s seen the lovingkindness of God up close and personal now and so he knows the truth of what we saw Paul write last Sunday morning in Romans 5: where sin abounds, grace hyper-abounds all the more!
It is finally no wonder that when Moses came down from the mountain this second time, his own face was glowing. It was the reflection of grace that the people saw. It actually frightened them at first. Grace can be a bit scary. We don’t always realize that, but before grace is so beautiful as to make you weep, grace confronts you with your need for some serious forgiveness. Grace is fierce and it is strong and it penetrates right to the heart of each one of us. So if you end up finding that you want that grace, it is only because you know that right behind the grace is a galactic justice that would wipe you out were it not for the compassion of God that always rises to the top of the divine heart. If you receive God’s forgiveness as it finally comes through Jesus, you are not only eternally grateful and joyful, you are mighty relieved, too. Because when you look into God’s eyes, you see flickers of both his grand mercy but also of his uncompromising justice.
For obvious reasons, this Old Testament lection is paired on Transfiguration Sunday (Year C) with the Luke 9 account of Jesus’ transfiguration and the appearance of Moses and Elijah with him in that glory-filled spectacle on a mountaintop. But there are other similarities between this portion of Exodus and that incident in Luke 9. One thing that is common to both—but perhaps not as obvious to see—is the fact that in the midst of all the glory and holiness and glowing faces there is a serious engagement with sin and evil going on. Moses and Elijah did not show up in Luke 9 to shoot the breeze with Jesus or have a casual chat about the weather. No, Luke tells us (and Luke is along among the gospel writers to tell us this) that they were there very specifically to talk to Jesus about his impending death and all that this sacrifice would bring to final fulfillment. In other words, in the middle of the glory there was darkness. In the middle of all that seemed so highly unusual and other-worldly there was an engagement with something that is actually altogether too common and utterly mundane: human sin and our need for a Deliverer.
Later in the Bible—in a highly curious passage in II Corinthians 3—the Apostle Paul will revisit this Exodus 34 incident and the radiance of Moses’ face, his need to cover it with a veil for the sake of the people, etc. In essence Paul will claim that the radiance is the awful beauty of holiness in whose light the terrible truth of our sinfulness gets revealed. But we don’t want to acknowledge that and so a veil separates us from the truth. But in Christ that veil is removed. We are able to see the glory of holiness and the way that bright light reveals our every wart and wrinkle and sin but we can do so with hope in our hearts knowing that in Christ and because of his sacrifice, we are forgiven even so.
In the Year C Lectionary, this passage serves as a pivot point as we get ready to turn back toward the Season of Lent. As such, this passage—and its Luke 9 counterpart—do indeed focus us on the sin that will be the subject matter for Lent and for all that drove God’s only Son to a cross at the Place of the Skull. We should not get distracted by the light and the glory of it all as though those spectacles exist for their own sake. No, those are in service of the larger goal of getting us saved. And salvation begins with a frank acknowledgment that we need saving precisely because of what the light of divine holiness reveals about each one of us.
In her book Speaking of Sin, Barbara Brown Taylor has a chapter that bears the rather startling title, “Sin Is Our Only Hope.” It seems an oddly perverse title and yet Brown Taylor makes a good point. After all, if we look around us in life, we see so much that is painful. We see children abused and spouses cheated on. We see corporate greed and wanton pollution of God’s beautiful earth. We see people who have fried their brains with cocaine and drunk drivers who run down children playing hopscotch on a sidewalk. We see suicide bombings that reduce precious human bodies, the very temple of God’s Spirit, to so many severed limbs and organs.
If there is no such thing as sin–and what’s more, if there is no God who can declare a definitive judgment on what is sinful–then there is no hope that anything can be salvaged. Sin is our only hope because if sin exists, then so does sin’s opposite: namely, a moral goodness to which God can restore us. But if there is no sin, then there is nothing to hope for because there never was any better world from which we fell away in the first place. If there was once what John Milton called a “paradise lost,” then there is the possibility that a gracious God can make possible a “paradise regained.” But if there is no sin, there is no paradise to restore because life turns out to be just a booming, buzzing confusion with no right, no wrong, and no God to tell the difference.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 7, 2016
Exodus 34:29-35 Commentary