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On the Face of It
EXODUS 34:29-35, LUKE 9:28-36
We're talking about faces today, faces of people who have had a transforming encounter with God. What might be the characteristics of faces of people who have met God? Do you visualize a shiny, glowing radiance? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
Two lessons were read this morning about transformed faces. In the Gospel lesson, Jesus took his top three disciples--Peter, James and John--up a mountain for a time of prayer. Today is Transfiguration Sunday in celebration of this event when Jesus was literally transfigured while he prayed. The disciples reported later that his face was changed. Luke 9:29, "And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed." According to Matthew's account, 17:2, "And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun." The intimate encounter with God was reflected in Jesus' face which became shiny, radiant, glowing like the sun.
The other lesson read this morning described Moses' face when he came down from Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments. After Moses led the slaves in their miraculous escape or exodus from Egypt, he then had the problem of what to do with them. There they were, in the foreboding Sinai wilderness with scant provisions for living, little food and water, and no sense of direction or organization as they prepared to journey to and enter the Promised Land. So Moses led them back to the mountain where he had encountered the Lord in the burning bush, back to the familiar, back to the beautiful memories where he met his wife and worked as a shepherd for his father-in-law, back to where the Lord had called him and instructed him to return to Egypt and free God's people.
There at the base of the mountain, Moses left his people while he went up the mountain to talk with God. The people, without a leader, got in all kinds of trouble, like building a golden calf, and engaging in outrageous behavior. When Moses came down from the mountain, they were not only surprised to see him whom they had supposed dead, but they were amazed, even frightened by his appearance. Exodus 34:30, "When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him."
Moses then spoke to the people, and after speaking, put a veil over his face. Whenever Moses would talk to God, he would take the veil off and leave it off while telling the people what God had said. Then, he would put the veil back on until he had another meeting with the Lord.
This passage has troubled biblical scholars for years. Why were the people frightened by Moses' face? Why would a radiant, shining face frighten them? And, why did Moses then wear a veil? Why would he cover up his face except when speaking to God and about God to the people?
The problem is the Hebrew word translated "shining" in this verse. The Hebrew verb "qaran" is extremely rare and this is the only time in the entire Old Testament the word is used. The word is a derivative of "horn." Those who translated the Hebrew scriptures into Greek had difficulty understanding what was meant by "horn" so they translated "qaran" as "glory". Paul used this translation and said Moses' face took on its own radiance after seeing the glory of God. English translations use "shining."
But, if you want to be literal in your biblical translation, you will agree with Jerome who translated the scriptures into Latin and said Moses' face was not shiny but horned! Exodus 34:30 would then read, "When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was horn-like, and they were afraid to come near him." Michelangelo, in his imposing work, portrays Moses with actual horns growing out of his head. Anti-Semitic legend claims that since the time of Moses, Jews grow horns!
William H. Propp, in an article, "Did Moses Have Horns?", gives us a provocative interpretation. Rather than seeing Moses as beatifically glorified or radiant (why would Moses cover his face, and why were the people frightened), Propp suggests that under the influence of God's powerful radiance for so long on Mt. Sinai, as well as the natural elements, Moses' skin grew hardened, toughened, like an animal's horn. Just as a sailor's skin grows calloused and leathery from the sun, salt, and wind, Moses' face was transformed into horn-like hardness. In the movie, City Slickers, Billy Crystal looks in awe at the tough, gnarled trail boss (who is Jack Palance) and exclaims, "His face looks like an old saddle!" Rodney Dangerfield said that as a teenager, he had so many pimples on his face that one day he fell asleep in the library, and woke up to find a blind man reading his face!
If Moses' face, rather than shining, had changed into something hideous and tough like a horn, it would explain why the people were frightened and why Moses wore a veil. This translation also gives courage to those who think they have ugly faces. You don't have to have what other people think is a beautiful, clean, shiny, radiant Hollywood face to serve God. If any contemporary saint has personally encountered God, it would certainly be Mother Teresa. And Mother Teresa's face, although it might be considered radiant, is certainly old, wrinkled, hard and tough! Mother Teresa's face reflects suffering, the suffering of the people to whom she ministers, the suffering she takes on herself. Her compassion is reflected in her tough, wrinkled, Moses-like face.
Isn't it also intriguing to realize that when some of the biblical people met God, they were physically transformed, sometimes even disfigured and handicapped. Moses' face was disfigured by the power of God. When Jacob wrestled with God, his hip was put permanently out of joint, and he thereafter limped. When Uzzah stumbled against the Ark of the Covenant, the box in which the Ten Commandments were carried, he was struck dead!
Encountering God is no trifling matter! Do you dare risk a meeting with God? It might change your face, it will most certainly change your life! You might be transfigured, you will most certainly be transformed. As you are exposed to the grace, power, and love of God, there will be an effect on your face, on your personality, disposition, attitudes, and goals. Leo Buscaglia said, "If you're happy, tell your face." When you meet God, and are transformed by the grace of God, you don't have to tell your face. Your face will reflect it. Your face might shine like Jesus' did, or it might toughen with the power of God like Moses', and the wrinkles, pimples, and warts discover their own glory.
Will you risk exposing your face to the presence and power of God? One transforming place where Christ might be met is Holy Communion. There is nothing magical in the sacrament. Certainly there is nothing guaranteed. God blesses whom God will. God meets whom he will meet. Our task is to put ourselves where God can meet us if God chooses. Our task is to open our hearts, open our minds, open our future, open our dreams and hopes, and say, "Come in, Lord. Here I am."
One possibility for encounter with Christ is Holy Communion. As we sing in the hymn, "Here, O my Lord, I see thee face to face; here would I touch and handle things unseen." The unseen becomes seen, the invisible becomes visible in the tangible bread and wine. As you break the bread, dip it in the juice, and eat; you are inviting the very life of Christ, his body and blood, to enter your physical body, to enter your life. You may see Christ on the faces of one another here, but the invitation, the privilege is the possibility of your very own, personal communion with and transformation by Jesus Christ. Spirit to spirit, life to life, heart to heart, face to face.
When I go back to Minnesota, I am told, "You are looking more and more like your father." Wouldn't it be something if you and I were told, "You are looking more and more like Jesus and Moses."
© 1992 Douglas I. Norris