29 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. 30When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. 31But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. 32Afterwards all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the Lord had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. 33When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; 34but 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, 35the 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.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
This would be a 3-hour sermon if I shared with you everything I thought was weird about this text. Nobody wants that! So I’ll stick with one weird thing that sticks out to me, something commentator Beth L. Tanner pointed out: Moses has engaged with God a number of times leading up to this moment in Exodus, but none of those previous encounters led to any visible changes in Moses, especially nothing like his face shining. So, why now? What is it about this moment that leads to the skin of his face shining for all the people to see?
To understand why, it will help to review the roller coaster of a relationship between God and her people that has led to this point:
-God frees the people from their enslavement in Egypt.
-The people end up on a wilderness journey in search of the Promised Land.
-The people complain to God about how hard it is.
-God provides for all their needs in the wilderness.
-The people complain some more.
-God decides it’s time for the people to meet God, so from Mount Sinai, God speaks to them and the people are terrified.
-Moses goes up the mountain to talk to God because of the people’s fear, then comes back down with the first set of commandments on stone tablets only to find the people worshiping a golden calf the people made and claimed to be the God who led them out of enslavement in Egypt. Moses is so angry that he throws the tablets to the ground and shatters them.
-God is furious and wants to wipe the people out entirely, but Moses talks God out of it.
-God tries the whole thing again, giving Moses a new set of commandment tablets to carry down the mountain, because God decides to try again to heal what’s broken between God and the people, to bring them back to Herself, to repair the relationship.
I called this a roller coaster of a relationship and even that might be an understatement. If you’re anything like me, you might find yourself wishing that the story between God and God’s people was simpler, cleaner, and less of a complete and total mess. But I’ll pause here to say that if I’m honest, this sounds like the mess that is trying to follow God into freedom and liberation. We’d like it to be straightforward, but leaving the systems that harm us and the planet and our beloveds means going somewhere we have never been before: the wilderness. And getting to know whoever this God is in that space is confusing. We find ourselves missing the trappings of what we knew before because it was easier to be asleep to the suffering caused by white supremacy and racism. We want to have back the familiar feeling of a potluck in the sanctuary and instead we are trying to figure out how many feet we need to be apart the next time we gather in that physical space. The family dysfunction we may have lived with before COVID may have escalated to the point where we can no longer abide with it, and it’s terrifying to think about how our relationships need to change to take steps forward. And like these wilderness-wandering people, maybe we are terrified of the God we are trying to keep engaging with now, unsure of where this God is really taking us.
In this context, I wonder if Moses’ shining face is a gift from God to the people, a new way that God is trying to show the people that God is present with them, an attempt to reach out across the wildness of everything they’ve been through together. As commentator Beth L. Tanner puts it, “It is possible… that when God made the new covenant and gave the new tablets, God also set before the people a tangible sign of God’s presence, right there on Moses’ face! The people had doubted God’s presence again and again… and when God’s presence was offered they were just too afraid to continue the connection…” so, Tanner says, “God changed the plan to suit the frightened, disobedient people. God changed God’s own creation through Moses, as a visible sign of God’s presence.” (Beth L. Tanner, “Commentary on Exodus 34:29-35”, Working Preacher.)
God could have rolled the new commandment tablets down the hill in a huff and said, “I’ve done what I can. Read these and get back to me if you are serious about getting free.” But as Moses wrestles with God in what I imagine must have been a heated conversation about how to proceed with these “stiff-necked people,” we meet again the God who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6b), the God who decides in the midst of the roller coaster to come closer through the face of one who has been walking alongside the people every day in the wilderness. God chooses that familiar face as a vehicle for God’s assurance to the people, a sign of the promise that God is still there, still present, still walking next to them after all.
I’ve lost count of the times I’ve said “we are living through unprecedented times together” in this pulpit over the past 2 years. I’m sure you’re tired of hearing me say it. And yet here we are, in waters that continue to shift and change, rage and roil around us. And this morning, I’m wondering if God is reminding us that when we get overwhelmed by this roller coaster of a life, God’s presence will shine most clearly if we look into the faces of our fellow journeyers – each other. Like the Hebrew people who had seen Moses’ face every day since their release from enslavement, many of us have seen each other at least a couple times per week on those little Brady Bunch boxes on our screen, in a way that almost feels like all we’ve ever known. And we’ll see those faces again as COVID numbers go down, albeit veiled by N-95 masks. And this text comforts me, knowing that just as I have on Tuesday nights when we gather to share our stories and pray together, just as we have in this strange Zoom sanctuary on Sundays and for special services and classes, just as we have masked up to serve at the food bank or to show up at a protest together, I will catch glimpses of God’s presence in the familiarity of your faces as we continue to show up for each other and for our community. The road will not get any less uncertain, but God has given us to each other and chosen our very countenances as the vehicles for reminding us of the promise that God will never leave nor forsake us. And the mystery is that, just like Moses, who “did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God,” we probably won’t even be aware of half the ways we’ve embodied God’s presence to each other by the simple act of showing up as ourselves. But I believe this text is telling us that that is exactly where God will be through it all.
As I wrote this sermon, I was sitting in our home office looking directly at a beautiful piece of artwork we’ve had on our wall for years that features a sung refrain from one of my favorite musicals, Les Miserables. The line reads: “To love another person is to see the face of God.” I don’t know much, folx. But I know God has stubbornly continued to show up in the ways I have seen you care for each other in grief, laugh with each other til you cry, celebrate with each other when someone gets a job or finds housing or finds a way to love a family member who is driving you bonkers. I’ve seen God in your faces. And I pray that as we keep walking this wilderness journey, we won’t forget to check there first for the God who will never let us go. Amen.