My brothers and sisters in Christ,
God’s word that I would like to take time to study with you today comes from the book of Exodus in chapter 34. And before we begin, allow me a moment to read through it with you:
29 When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the Testimony in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the LORD. 30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him. 31 But Moses called to them; so Aaron and all the leaders of the community came back to him, and he spoke to them. 32 Afterward all the Israelites came near him, and he gave them all the commands the LORD had given him on Mount Sinai. 33 When Moses finished speaking to them, he put a veil over his face. 34 But whenever he entered the LORD’s presence to speak with him, he removed the veil until he came out. And when he came out and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, 35 they saw that his face was radiant. Then Moses would put the veil back over his face until he went in to speak with the LORD.
Now, I would love to take the time to pull back and give you the long version of our context here, of how we came to the point of this reading, but I think most of you want to be home before dinner time. Exodus is a great read, I suggest picking it up when you get home if you’re unfamiliar with it, but there’s really no way I can do the previous 33 chapters justice right now.
Suffice to say at this point, Moses is returning from the mountaintop to bring the laws to God’s people. This is his second trip. The last time he tried this, the people gave him up for dead after he was gone a few weeks, they abandoned God and turned to worshipping a golden calf. But not this time. And this time, Moses, unaware, had a face that shone with the glory of the Lord he had seen. The shining glory was not his own, it was a reflection, an after-effect of what he had seen. He had been in the presence of God Almighty and that showed to the Israelites when he returned. We have no frame of reference to even imagine what it was like, but we can certainly say it was a divine glory that these people were not used to seeing. So, what did they think of this? Were there lines outside Moses’ tent to go in and see it? Did the people come up to congratulate him, “Wow Moses, that’s so cool to see something like that!” No. They were afraid to even come near him.
Should that surprise us? No, it shouldn’t. Find one instance in the Bible, one time in recorded history where God’s glory shone to human beings, even in a limited capacity, and the person or people in question did not cower in fear. From God walking in the garden after the fall to find Adam and Eve, to the angel visitors who announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds, to the disciples we read about at the mount of transfiguration, being confronted with the shining glory of God himself makes us afraid. Why? You may say, well it’s supernatural, we’re not used to it, naturally we’re afraid of the unknown. But there’s more to it than that. That doesn’t account for the kind of terror we read about when people see the glory of God. Why such fear?
I’m going to answer that question, but first let me turn this around. Because once you understand it, it’s actually not so amazing that people confronted with God are so afraid. What’s amazing is that people aren’t that terrified all the time. What do I mean? Let me explain to you a little bit about how our God has wired us. You see, God has stamped our hearts with his law, by nature he has placed in all of us a (somewhat) reliable standard of what is right and what is wrong. And when we do wrong, that voice inside us lets us know. That voice speaks up and stings us with the guilt of what we did and more to the point, fear of the consequences. The conscience is a terrifying thing.
Because we can’t live up to it. It is always there accusing us of something new we did wrong today or something we should have done that we ignored because it was convenient. Lost my temper on the freeway again. That same sinful indulgence I swore I’d never do again, did it again today. The perfectly reasonable excuse I made to get out of helping someone in need. It’s always there, every time, telling us we don’t measure up. We can’t keep it quiet because we can’t be good enough. If you don’t believe me, really listen to it for a day. Just a day. You can’t keep it quiet by what you do.
So, why aren’t we terrified all the time? How do people live with this terrifying voice inside them? We ignore it, we distract it, we turn away from listening to it just so we can have a moment’s peace where we’re not afraid of it. We’ve gotten really good at doing this over the centuries. We hum little rhymes of needless distractions, we focus on petty and inane things and pretend it’s not there, or worst of all we take up the morality of our culture and use that to sand the edges off it so it until it’s just a dull prod instead of a sharp sting.
Does that help? Yes, but no. The pain of the conscience exists for a reason and ignoring it is very dangerous. Like physical pain exists to warn us that something is wrong with our body, the conscience is there to warn us that something is wrong with our soul. Drowning out the conscience, ignoring it, that’s like taking painkillers to deal with a gunshot. It might make you comfy, but it’s not going to end well. Ignoring the conscience doesn’t change what it’s trying to tell us. It doesn’t change the fact that we are not good enough and we deserve punishment from God for it. The conscience is not there to be ignored, it’s there to convince you of that truth. You are not good enough. I hate to be a downer, but that is a fact. Ignoring or refusing it doesn’t change it. In fact, the sooner we accept that truth, the sooner there is hope for us. Because when we give up on ourselves, that’s when we go to find a solution elsewhere, outside ourselves. The conscience exists to convince you that you need God to save you.
But because we’re so good at ignoring our conscience, God sometimes has to stir it back up so we listen. Nothing does that quite like the literal glory of God in your sight. There’s a truth you can’t deny. Here’s holiness and perfection and wisdom and power and compared to what I am – well that’s an eye opener that can only leave you terrified. But we need that before there can be hope.
Do you see why, out of love for us, God might have to put the literal “fear of God” in us? If we don’t think we need him, if we think we can make it on our own, that’s dangerous. And so because he loves you, God will take steps to reignite that fear of him, he will make you afraid of him – not because he likes seeing you cower before his might! – he will make you afraid so that he can come at take that fear away.
So God comes to us and reminds us of who he is, and who we are. God, who only ever gives of himself to us. Who only has ever given to us what is best for us. God who has always shown you perfect love, always modeled to you perfect love. Nothing in your life has happened without God saying, “This exists because it is best for you, because I love you.” This God is the one we have torn at in our selfishness. This God is the one we’ve shouted at in anger because he didn’t do what we want. This God is the one we’ve ignored because it suited our interest and comfort that particular day. This God is the one we’ve had the ridiculous audacity to defiantly yell at him that he is doing it wrong and that we know better than him.
Back up a second and look at that shining glory again – who is it again you’re acting like this towards? God almighty who called the universe into being with mere words. God who brought you to life, gave you a soul and made you who you are. God who directs the events of this world every day. God who has the power to stop armies with a word and bring down nations with a thought. Who can open the earth to swallow whole those who defy him or choose to bring the dead to life. This God, with infinite power, with no authority over him, this God is the one you’ve defied and angered. It’s terrifying to look at this truth, but necessary. This fear of God is the beginning of hope. It seems counter-intuitive, I know, but the more fully we see our God’s true glory and holiness, the more fully we understand just how utterly we fail – the better off we are. Because once we’ve given up on ourselves, then we’re ready to be saved.
Aaron and the other leaders were afraid at Sinai… but that’s not all we get from God’s shining glory. What about the other mountain we read about today? Is that the reaction the disciples had on the mount of Transfiguration? Well, yes – but what did Jesus say right after? “Do not be afraid.” Fear was not the purpose of this trip. Jesus went up on the mountain with his closest disciples and gave them a glimpse behind the curtain of his humanity so they would have a truth to hold onto in the dark days ahead. This event was given to them by Jesus to be a comfort. They saw who he really was. They saw his glory and power. Soon it wouldn’t look like that anymore. Soon he would be arrested. He would be brutally beaten. He would be executed. It would look bad. But guys, put two and two together! The sheer power and glory radiating from this mountaintop – these things that happened – surely the God who revealed himself on the mountain could stop them any time. If these things happened, then it had to be because this is what Jesus wanted. He chose this dark end because of what it would do for you.
I want you to understand this – it was about you. He had you in mind as he endured and as he died. He didn’t save you just because you came with the package. He didn’t say to himself, “Well, I might as well do this, it’ll take care of everyone at once and be done with it.” If it was just you, only you, if you were the only sinner in all of history who needed him, he still would have done it. Because it was the only way to rescue you from yourself. Your crimes deserve death. His death for you frees you. The holiness and power of God should terrify you by nature, but we know that power and perfection stood up for us. And that very holiness that covers you now, that ensures you don’t ever need to be afraid of God again. His holiness does not stand against you, it is given to you by faith, and it is yours to wear freely. You are forgiven. The conscience exists to remind us of this fatal wound in our soul. Jesus has healed it, by his death. Completely in him, the conscience does not hold any fear for us again.
The shining glory of the Lord does this all for us. It needs to terrify us so we give up on ourselves and turn to him. And that same God with the same shining perfection and power freely gives us this truth, “I’ve got it covered,” he says. “What you did wrong, I fixed. I forgive you, and I grant you eternal life with me.” That voice is almighty and perfect. It does not lie. It does not make mistakes. There’s peace in that glory that we could never have on our own.
Of course, you and I don’t see the Lord’s glory face to face much these days, do we? But does that really change anything? Perhaps the Lord doesn’t physically appear in his glory so much anymore as he did to Moses or the disciples. But he still shines. He shines through his Word. Our Bibles, the scriptures are still our connection to him. What an amazing blessing we have, to have that glory on hand wherever we go. To be able to look into the face of that glory and remember just how badly we need him and how he in turn has filled that need perfectly. Make no mistake, in a very real way we still see our God face to face when we study his Word. And what’s more, we still reflect his glory into the world just as Moses did. The longer and more often we are exposed to him in the Scriptures regularly, the brighter that glory will shine by the Holy Spirit’s power. And that reflected glory will have an effect on the people around us.
You shine the reflected glory of God no differently than Moses when you reflect God’s Word in your life. Whenever choose his way over your way. When we don’t follow the crowd at work or home just because it’s easier. When we respond with love and forgiveness to those who try to hurt us, even when they don’t want it. When we try to help those who hate us. When we say “yes” for our God, even when the whole world is telling us that “no” is the right answer. Powered by our God, our godly words and actions shine the glory of the Lord at the world to remind them to be afraid. The glory we reflect stirs up in them the reminder that they don’t measure up and they need help. By shining the love of God at them, we want them to know the truth. They need a savior. And once they understand the need, we have that same Savior to offer them.
Brothers and Sisters, I want you to understand the importance of the task God asks of you in your life here. A life lived for Christ isn’t only a nice thing to do for God as a thank you to his love. It’s not only something you do to make your life better, knowing his ways are best. A life lived for Christ is the most pivotal way that we can shine with the reflected glory of our Lord into the world. Through those words and actions we reach out to try to save everyone around us. Start at the source of his glory. Soak it in through his Word. Take every opportunity to connect with the God you are not good enough for but the God who has made you good by his mercy and power. Look to the glory he reveals to you, and reflect that glory into your lives. Amen.