Exodus 34:29-35

“Moses came down from Mount Sinai” (Exod 34:29).

This sentence sounds like an everyday thing… at least where I live.  Here in far-western North Carolina we talk about how someone went “down the mountain” from Nantahala into Andrews, just like we say we went “up to Happy Top” when we go to the neighborhood on the upper end of town, or that we went “through the gorge” when we travel through the Ocoee to Chattanooga.  These opening words look much the same:  Moses is simply going “down the mountain” from Mount Sinai to the Israelite camp.

But this isn’t simple.  This is far from everyday.

Moses wasn’t just coming down from a mountain – he was coming down from an experience with God.  When Moses was up on Mount Sinai, God spoke to him “face to face,” “like a friend” (Exod 33:11).  Moses even got a rare glimpse of God’s glory (Exod 33:22-23).  Sure, it was just a glimpse; but that’s more than my two eyes have ever seen.

Moses’ descent isn’t so much topographical as it is spiritual.  Moses is returning after a close encounter with our Creator God.

And it shows.

“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” (Exod 34:29).

Moses has a very important delivery for the Israelites:  the “two tablets of the covenant,” i.e., the Ten Commandments.  This would be special, anyway, but this is actually the second time Moses has brought them down the mountain.  The first time ended up in a tablet-crushing disaster when Moses discovered the Israelites had made and worshiped a god-substitute in his absence (Exod 33).  Now, after a second trip to Mount Sinai, the Israelites are getting a second chance.  I can only imagine that this made the Israelites doubly-appreciative for the law.

But their eyes aren’t drawn to the stone tablets.  Their eyes are drawn to the shining.

The Hebrew word used here – qaran – is easy enough to translate, except that this is the only place it’s found in the Old Testament.  Without other instances to inform its use, it can be translated in various ways.  Like “horn”– because qaran derives from the word for “horn.”  It appears that artists like Michelangelo went that route…


Moses, Michelangelo (1513-15)

It’s kind of laughable – Why would Moses grow horns after being close with God?  But then again, why would he shine after being close with God?  Why would he have to use a veil to cover the shining?  What does it mean?

One thing is clear:  after Moses spends time with God, it shows.  He’s different.  It’s so dramatic that other people can tell a difference, even from a distance:

“When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him” (Exod 34:30).

 Moses encounters God, and people can tell the difference.

The same should be true of us – and of us who have encountered God.  People should be able to tell a difference.

 My first dramatic encounters with God were in youth group.  I went on retreats to Warren Willis and Lake Junaluska and Wilderness Trail.  These things may not have been Mount Sinai, but they felt like it to me.  For a few days or a week God was as close and as real as a best friend.  My head would spin as I came “down the mountain” (often, literally) from these experiences.  I can remember hours spent on a church bus, watching the interstate scenery flash by my window and thinking about how to connect my God experience with my everyday life.

I knew I was supposed to be different because of these experiences.  I knew it, because the counselors at these retreats had an undeniably distinct “glow” about them, something light and Christ-like.  I knew I was supposed to be different, too – but I couldn’t put a finger on exactly what made that difference.

So I turned to the most obvious way to set myself apart:  stuff I wouldn’t do.

I didn’t drink.  I didn’t smoke.  I didn’t do drugs.  I didn’t have sex.  I didn’t wear two-piece bathing suits or itty-bitty shorts.  I didn’t skip school.  I didn’t listen to CDs with that “Parental Guidance” label on them.  I didn’t go to R-rated movies.  I didn’t cuss (if I could help it).  I didn’t disobey my parents (except in emergency situations).

This big list of things I didn’t do wasn’t always easy, but it sure made me feel safe and secure in my status as a Christian.  If we’re supposed to be different than the world, then all that stuff I wasn’t doing definitely made me different than other teenagers.

But did they “shine”?

I think, all along, I had a sneaking suspicion that they did not.  But I kept rigidly avoiding a long list of things because I was afraid that if I did wear short shorts and listen to secular music just like everyone else… then what would set me apart as a Christian?  I didn’t know.

As my Christian friends and I grew older, some among us started to wonder whether we were getting things right.  Well, specifically, they wondered whether I was getting things right, since I was the one who had most embraced this Pharisaic, black-and-white lifestyle.  They started to gently suggest that, as Mike Myers would say, “You’re putting the wrong emPHAsis on the wrong sylLAble.”  They weren’t saying I should do all the things on my “no-go” list; some of them were good to avoid, especially when I was young.  What they were saying was, “You’re defining your faith by what you don’t do.  Shouldn’t it be defined by what you do?”

And I thought I knew the answer.  I had gotten to know Jesus well enough that I was familiar with his teachings.  One in particular came to mind:

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).

And this terrified me.  Because, as we’ve been discussing so far this month, love is hard.  And loving people in such an extreme way that it sets you apart… that’s really hard.  It’s no coincidence that Jesus gave this “new command” to the disciples right after he got down on his knees and washed their grimy feet.  That’s the kind of love he’s talking about:  a radical kind of love that shines. 

 When I thought back on those Christ-like people from the retreats I went on, I realized that they had done similar things.  They had taken time out of their busy days to listen to me; they had taken the outcasts under their wings and made them the champions of our group; they had helped us roll up sleeping bags and cheered us on until we made it to the top of the mountain.  Those things shined so brightly that the glow of their love stayed with me for months afterward.

Then I compared that kind of “shining” with all those things I didn’t do.  If that’s all I was doing differently as a follower of Christ, they hadn’t “shined” anything to anyone.  I could take Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13 and change them just slightly to apply to myself:  “If I always dress modestly and only listen to Christian music and never drink or smoke or cuss… but do not have love, I gain nothing.”

I don’t want to gain nothing.  I want to gain everything for Christ.  I want to shine God’s love for all to see.  I want it to show that I’ve experienced God… and I’m so different, so much better for it.

“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” (Exod 34:29).

In order to shine like this, at first, we have to work at it.  We have to remind ourselves, motivate ourselves, keep ourselves focused.  We have to intentionally seek out ways to put our love into action.  But before long – with the help of the Holy Spirit – it becomes second nature.  Like Moses, we start to shine without even realizing it.  We start welcoming in the outcasts by giving them coffee and including them in the work of our church.  We start not just volunteering our time to tutor, but looking forward to it and being transformed by it.  We start offering to help prepare meals for those who are hungry or lonely – not begrudgingly, but with joy.

And when people see the love of Christ shine in us, they’ll notice.

This is no simple thing, no everyday thing.  That’s a life-changing, world-changing thing.

Let’s shine, people.  Let’s shine big.

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