Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 3, 2019
Exodus 34:29-35 Commentary
Fittingly, the season of Epiphany ends with Transfiguration Sunday. With the possible exception of his resurrection, Christ’s Transfiguration was the most spectacular exhibition of his glory in his life. Indeed, the Transfiguration was arguably even more glorious than the Resurrection, because Jesus resurrected body did not have about it the unmistakable glory of his transfigured body. Witnesses of Jesus resurrected body were amazed to be sure, but some were confused, some doubted, and some didn’t even recognize him at first. As world changing as his resurrection was, Jesus transfiguration was more visibly glorious. And it wasn’t just a sound and light show for the three who witnessed it, a kind of fireworks finale to his usually ordinary life (with a some sparks of miraculous glory scattered here and there). This glorious event had serious salvific import, as we shall see.
But we don’t get to preach on the Transfiguration of Christ today, because our assignment is Exodus 34:29-35. It is a marvelously complex little text, filled with serious import for Israel, but not anywhere near the magnificent Epiphany of Christ’s divine glory that we see in the Gospel reading in Luke 9:28-36. But before you go running off to that story, let me suggest how you can legitimately use this Old Testament story as a run-up to that New Testament narrative. Or, better, by seeing the account of Moses’ “transfiguration” as an adumbration, or preparation, or even prophecy of Christ’s transfiguration, you will be able to preach Christ with more power.
There are so many parallels between the two stories that some New Testament scholars see the transfiguration story as an re-enactment of the Moses’ story, even a fictional story deliberately invented by the writer/the church to show that Christ has taken the place of Moses. I don’t have that skeptical a view of the historicity of the New Testament story, but the parallels between this Moses story and the story of Christ’s transfiguration are stunning, and instructive.
Before exploring those parallels, let me set the stage for this story of Moses. It is part of a three chapter “interlude” in the story line of Exodus. God has been giving Israel instructions about building the Tabernacle where his glory will permanently dwell. Those instructions end at Exodus 31. They resume at chapter 35, with almost the same words about Sabbath regulations and materials for the Tabernacle and the selection of Bezalel and Oholiab to oversee the building of that sacred tent where Israel will always be able to meet their covenant Lord.
In between that tabernacle talk lies the terrible story of the Golden Calf in Exodus 32, an epic sin that nearly broke the covenant between Yahweh and Israel. Indeed, the rest of chapters 32 and 33 and 34 show Moses interceding for Israel, Yahweh coming back to Israel in a glorious Epiphany to Moses, and God re-issuing the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone to replace the ones Moses had shattered in his rage at Israel’s sin. Up the mountain Moses goes again, and again, to receive the commandments that spell out Israel’s covenant obligations and tell them how to build the tabernacle.
In other words, what we have in the three-chapter interlude in the Exodus account is a renewal of the covenant that Israel had nearly ended. And the story we have before us today is the exclamation point to the whole story/event, God’s way of saying, “Moses is my man, my servant, my Voice on earth. What he says is what I say, so listen to him, and obey the words he speaks to you on my behalf.” That’s what Moses’ “transfiguration” was designed to accomplish—to establish Moses’ authority as God’s representative once and for all.
Interestingly, that was the precise purpose of Christ’s transfiguration. Just before the Transfiguration in Luke 9, Peter has given that great confession about the true identity of Jesus (“the Christ of God”). Jesus follows that monumental moment in his story with the first prediction of his coming passion (“the Son of Man must suffer….”). The juxtaposition of those two ideas (Christ and suffering) was stunning; the latter would disprove the former.
So, to show the disciples once and for all that Jesus really was the Christ and that the suffering of the Christ was indeed what God had always planned, God displayed the glory of his Son. Many years later (II Peter 1:16ff), Peter would identify that event as the crucial Epiphany for the disciples. The Transfiguration finally convinced them that Jesus was God’s Man, God’s Son, God’s Voice on earth, the one who replaced Moses and Elijah and all the servants of God who had come before. Jesus is “The One.” His Transfiguration proved it.
And this story of Moses’ “transfiguration” helps us to see the surpassing greatness of Christ. If I were going to make a sermon on this text in Exodus in relation to its “fulfillment” in Luke, I would entitle the sermon, “A Tale of Two Mountains.” Moses went up on Mount Sinai; Jesus went up on the Mount of Transfiguration.
Moses received from God the Two Tablets of the Testimony, the summary of the old covenant, the old way of knowing God and his will. Jesus received from God the two representatives of that old way, the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah), whose authority he would supercede. Jesus would be the new way of knowing God and his will, not in contradiction to the Law and the Prophets, but in fulfilment of them.
Moses’ face shone with the reflected glory of the God he met on the mountain. He spoke with the Lord face to face, without a veil. Jesus’ face shone with the very glory of God, because he was the Son of God. In his face, the disciples saw the very face of God, unveiled for the first time.
Israel was appropriately terrified of seeing even the reflected glory of God. Both the leaders and the common people pulled away from the glory. Moses had to call them back so they could hear the commands God had given him. While Peter, James, and John were also terrified (according to Mark 9), they didn’t want to leave; indeed, Peter wanted to preserve the experience by building booths so they could stay. And they didn’t have to come closer to hear the Word of God. As Peter would later write in II Peter 1, they heard “the voice… of the Majestic Glory.” That Voice identified Jesus as the Son whose words should become the center of life for his followers.
In Exodus 34, God was re-establishing the old covenant with his “stiff necked people.” In Luke 9, Jesus is on the way to establish the new covenant in his blood that would be poured out for the forgiveness of sins. Moses was the mediator of that covenant renewal between Yahweh and Israel (see Exodus 32-34). Jesus was Mediator of the covenant between God and all people (I Timothy 2:5). God’s reflected glory on Moses’ face proved that he was the most important mediator in Israel’s history. God’s actual glory in the face of Christ Jesus proved the he is the Only Mediator in the history of the world.
The point of both stories is glory. In the Moses story, the glory of God had been leading Israel through the wilderness in the form of a shining cloud and a pillar fire. When the Golden Calf so incensed God that he threatened to withdraw his Presence from them, Moses interceded and begged God to show him his glory. Reminding Moses that no one can see his full glory and live (recall Isaiah’s reaction when he saw just the hem of Yahweh’s glorious robe in Isaiah 6), God shows Moses “the back” of his glory and proclaims the glory of his name. Now here, Moses’ radiant face gives Israel just a hint of God’s glory as God gives them his Law again. At the end of Exodus, the Tabernacle has been built and the glory of the Lord has descended upon and now dwells in that Tent. The glory of the Lord is now present with his people.
But that wouldn’t last, couldn’t last, because Israel (and all of us) would always fall short of the glory of God. So, God came among us, “tabernacled” among us (says John 1), as one of us. Permanently! “We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14). Moses’ glory was fading, and that, says Paul in our Epistolary reading (II Cor. 3), was a symbol of the fading of the glory of the old covenant. Christ’s glory was permanent and ultimate, because it pointed to his most glorious act where he would seal the new covenant with his blood. And if we gaze and gaze on his glory, we will be transformed from one degree of glory to another. (II Cor. 3:18). We can look directly into the glory of God in the face of Christ (II Cor. 4:6), and not die, but live. “Veiled in flesh the God head see, hail the incarnate Deity.”
The Medieval mystics had one goal in their lives of contemplation and discipline—to attain the Beatific Vision, to see God in all God’s glory. Few people have that goal these days. But we still love glory– substitute glory like the glory of sports, reflected glory in spectacular sunsets, attributed glory where there seems to be none. In that last phrase, I’m thinking of the glory some people see in, say, warfare. Most Americans don’t think about the historical context that gave birth to that great patriotic hymn, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” As the slaughter that was the Civil War broke out, Julia Ward Howe took a popular tune and gave it new words that came to her in a rush. So, the victory of the North over the South became an occasion of glory, an Epiphany. “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord….” The song even ends connecting the Civil War with the work of Christ. It is human, I suppose, to claim the Lord as our ally and see his glory in our cause. But we must be careful. We see the glory of God in the face of Christ most powerfully in his crucifixion for “poor ornery sinners like you and like I.”
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