So, no, I don't talk about the film "The Shining" in this sermon. Though there was an early draft that included a line about being chased through the hallways of the Overlook Motel by a madman... as an example of things that might make your face shine. Yeah. Sanity prevailed.
I want to talk to you this morning about joy. And terror. I want to talk to you about the kinds of things that make our faces shine, those moments when we think our hearts will burst, they are so full: We catch sight of someone we love across a crowded room. Someone we respect assesses our work and gives us a hearty “Well done.” Someone places our child in our arms for the first time. Of course, our faces can shine for other reasons as well. We can have shining faces as a result of terror. Things like: We are skiing down the grand slalom at speeds approaching 60 miles/ hour. We are confronted by someone who is very angry. Or even this: someone places our child in our arms for the first time. When we talk of shining faces, we are usually speaking of those moments when we experience the extremes of what it is to be human, which, also, sometimes, are the moments when we are closest to an experience of the divine. We call these mountaintop experiences.
“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” [Exodus 34:29]. Why exactly was Moses’ face shining? Was it joy or terror or some potent mixture of the two? My seminary professor of Old Testament talked about the way the Israelites understood the holiness of God. He called it radioactive—powerful and terrifying, something most sensible people wanted to stay far away from. Like the lion Aslan in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” God is good, but God is not safe. We can expect to come away from encounters with God altered. We can expect to be filled with fear, even as we’re filled with joy. (Kind of like falling in love.)
This is actually the second time Moses has come down from the mountain bearing the tablets of the covenant. Do you happen to remember what happened the first time he came down? The first time he found the people had formed a calf out of gold they had collected from one another and melted down, and they were worshipping that thing as a god. What could be safer and more controllable than a make-it-yourself god, handcrafted from grandma’s jewelry? After that fiasco, Moses returns to the mountaintop and finds that God is willing to give the law again, anew, and sends Moses back down… but this time, Moses’ face is changed. It is shining. Now, I ask again, why is it shining? Is it joy? Is it terror? Or is it some potent mixture of the two? Whatever the reason, we can know one thing: this God whom Moses encounters is not safe, not controllable. That’s why the people stay away from Moses for a while: they can see on his face evidence of the terrifying power of the God they worship. Ultimately, Moses decides to veil his face after these encounters, so that the people won’t be disturbed by his new look.
I imagine it might have been tempting for Moses to just leave the recalcitrant Israelites behind, and simply remain up on that mountain with God. Why not stay there, in deep communion with the Holy One, forever and ever? No more melted bracelets to deal with, no more god-as-craft-project. Well, I imagine he didn’t because that is not what God calls Moses to do, or calls us to do. God gives Moses the covenant and sends him back down the mountain, and in doing that, God claims the people as God’s own. God gives Moses the covenant and sends him back down the mountain, so that the people can have the guidance they need to live in harmony with one another and with God. God always sends us back down the mountain again, because the mountaintop serves the purposes of the valley and the plain. Moses’ shining face has a purpose, and that is to convey the holiness of God to the people in a usable form: the laws and promises and commitments that will bind them together as God’s people, forever.
There is joy and there is terror in the mountaintop experiences of our lives, those moments when, for better or for worse, we bind ourselves to other human beings so that, together, we might carry out God’s purposes. Sometimes we do these things very formally: we dress in special clothing, and there are officiants presiding over the events, and someone takes pictures. Sometimes we do these things quietly and without fanfare, with words unspoken but still clearly understood. And the challenge, always, is to walk the middle path between the joy and the terror of these commitments, knowing that these experiences are no more controllable or safe than God is. Thank God, that God promises to be there with us, to help us, to see us through.
In a few moments we will be inviting a young couple to bring their daughter to the baptismal font. This is one of those moments, for this couple. They have already bound their lives together with one another and their baby daughter, and now they take steps to ensure that her life is inextricably woven together with that of the church, the body of Christ. But the fearful and joyous mystery for them and for us is that Christ has already come down the mountain to claim this child for his own. In a sense, in presenting their daughter for baptism, this couple simply acknowledges the work God has already begun in her. Not to mention the work God has already begun in all of us, preparing us for this newest member of Christ’s body. We are already, every one of us, bound together for the work Christ calls us to do. God has already committed us into one another’s care. Today is the day we recognize and celebrate that commitment.
This is the kind of day that makes all our faces shine. Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. Let every shining face we meet remind us that God binds us together in community, God entrusts us into one another’s care, and God walks beside us as we walk with one another. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Icon: Moses and the Burning Bush, found at Christ in the Mountains.