A Sermon for Covenant
“When You Glow”
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
February 10, 2013
Kyndall Rae Renfro
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
I’ve always been fascinated by this story where Moses glows. I’ve never been troubled by the seeming unbelievable quality of it—you know, the fact that while toys might glow in the dark, people do not. I’ve just never felt alarmed or even skeptical that Moses came down from the mountain so shiny the people backed away. Somehow it seems right to me no matter how fictional it sounds that of course Moses would glow after meeting God on a mountaintop.
I guess it just makes perfect sense to me because I think of all the quietly stunning people I have known, people like my late grandmother, people who will never be famous, but are infinitely good. In an endearingly human way they have shone.
Or maybe I’m not skeptical about Moses because we’ve seen shimmering people too. We’ve all seen a glowing bride for instance. Or we’ve recognized a woman is expectant before the soon-to-be mother mentions a word, because the light in her eyes gives her away. Or we’ve witnessed passion light up an artist as she creates or a singer as sings, or we’ve seen the look of uninhibited joy on a child’s face.
What is curious about this story is not that Moses glowed, but that the people wanted him to cover it up. Why weren’t they mesmerized, entranced, curious? Why did they make him hide the shine with that silly old veil, when as soon as Moses met with God again, the first thing he would do is rip that shroud right off to stand bare before God once more? Moses didn’t even know he was radiant, until he saw the wide-eyed reactions of the Israelites, but it terrified the people to see their leader looking like lava, fresh and smoldering, racing down the mountainside to meet them.
Last time Moses came down a mountainside bearing the Words of God, the people been a little distracted, doing a dance before a golden calf. Moses may have been on fire that first time for all we know, but nobody looked to notice. This time down, the only golden thing is Moses’ face, and their dancing feet are stilled and they won’t come near him. They prefer to produce their own shiny objects, thank you very much. A glowing Moses is a little more than they can take. Blow that light out or hide it under a bushel, please, but for goodness sake, keep your distance!
Moses complies with their wishes, sort of. When he’s around the people, he hides his face. But after experiencing an incomparable intensity with God on that mountain nothing could keep him from going back for more. In the presence of the people, he wore a veil, but he was only biding his time behind that thing, waiting for the next chance to get close to God and remove all obstacles. Exodus chapter 33 describes how Moses pitched a tent outside the camp, at a distance from the people, and that is where he would go to meet with God. It was called the tent of meeting, and it was there that the Lord would “speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” (Exodus 33:11) Once Moses’ face is luminous, the tent of meeting becomes the only place he gets to leave his veil behind.
I’ve always thought veils in the Bible were about God’s glory and our protection—God is just too much for us sinners to take. In Exodus chapters 35 and following we read instructions for building a much bigger tent, the tabernacle. Moses will tell the people, “The Lord has commanded the tabernacle with its tent and its covering, clasps, frames, crossbars, posts, and bases; the ark with its poles and the atonement cover and the curtain that shields it.” (Exodus 35:11-12) The tabernacle with all its fancy folds of fabric was designed for shielding us from God’s presence, especially that untouchable curtain which covered the Holy of Holies. If people needed to be shielded from Moses’ face, surely they needed shielding from the direct presence of God.
You may remember that Jesus went dazzling white on a mountaintop too, but only Peter, James, and John were allowed the privileged view. It was back to dull, pasty skin by the time their legs hit the valley and Jesus began the trek to Jerusalem where Calvary awaited. Ordinary people just couldn’t have handled it, had they seen him in his glory.
But then, at Jesus’ death, the veil in the temple would rip in two, as if our access to the glory of God irrevocably opened. The wall separating God’s people from God’s glory was removed. My understanding was that the veil had been a necessary precaution, first in the tabernacle, later in the temple, separating the regular people from the Holiest Place where God dwelled. After all, the laws stipulated the only person that could go behind the veil to the Holy of Holies was the high priest, and even he only went once a year. Later in history a legend formed that they would tie a rope to the ankle of the high priest, in case he died so close to God, they could yank his body out.
When I read the detailed instructions near the end of Exodus, I think about all the time it took for people to closely follow all Moses said about the tabernacle, building curtain after curtain to keep themselves out.
But I find myself wondering, why a veil inside the tabernacle at all when the tent of meeting was the one place Moses went where the veil came down? Why build a bigger tent with folds and folds of fabric, seemingly designed to shield people from God rather than expose them to God?
Which got me thinking (and this may be a very sacrilegious thought indeed), what if that veil was supposed to be ripped off? What if, instead of being afraid of Moses, what if the people had ran right up to him and stared? What if God’s people had stormed the tabernacle out of desire to share in the encounter and meet God face to face themselves, like Moses? What if they had rushed in, purity codes unchecked? It might be terribly irreverent to even think it, but what if the veil was there in order to be torn down and what if the rules were set in order to be broken?
It’s scary to even consider. What would have happened if, instead of heeding the laws they just walked right up to God? Would God have smote them all in one clean sweep, the way Uzzah died for touching the Ark of the Covenant? Or was Uzzah’s sin in trying to protect a God who didn’t need protecting, while anyone who dared to expose themselves to the danger of meeting God to face-to-face would have been welcome?
Or, what if all the people had hung back, hung back timidly for centuries, except, except for one tiny girl with an unquenchable curiosity and a burning passion to know and experience God. Imagine Isabel or Anna, or maybe Miriam, wandering through the temple, gingerly but boldly peeling back the curtain and stepping right into the Holy of Holies, that sacred place where only the High Priest dare enter. Would it have been a travesty, a terrible breach, a shameful act, a horrific breaking of decorum, a poisoning of sacred rite, a violation of all things holy?
Or might God have glared fiercely down into those inquisitive little eyes, all the while holding a grin in a check? I mean, could it be this is what God wanted all along? Communion with someone cheeky enough to risk a full-on encounter? And when the veil seemingly ripped of its own accord at Jesus’ death, could it be God got fed up of waiting on our dense brains and wobbly, ‘fraidy-cat legs? God ripped that thing on our behalf as it seemed like we were never going to grow the audacity to do it on our own.
I mean that’s what God wanted with Moses—this unembarrassed, unashamed exposure—and maybe that’s God wanted with all people but they were too scared, so they built big tents and hung big curtains—all at God’s command of course, but they were too shy to ask why. I always assumed the tabernacle was in God’s plan all along, but then, what if that only became necessary after the people reacted so poorly to the soft shine on Moses’ face, proof they weren’t prepared for anything more intense? The Israelites may have given up their idols, but they weren’t anywhere close to ready for God. Up went the veils, meant to be removed if you dare.
God is fierce, holy, untamable, but what if God is also willing for you to pull back the curtain at any time and enter the fierceness? You just might get burned. It certainly isn’t a bit safe. There’s no guarantee you’ll come back out unscathed.
But you’ll never know and you’ll certainly never glow if you don’t at least take a peek. Amen.