A Sermon for The Last Sunday after the Epiphany; Exodus 34: 29-35, Psalm 99,
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2, Luke 9:28-36, [37-43a]
If you ever go to Rome, to the church of San Pietro in Vincoli to visit Pope Julius II tomb and take in Michelangelo’s statue of Moses, be ready. Michelangelo uses today’s reading from Exodus as a model for Moses. No, you will not be blinded by the light, but ~ you will see two horns protruding from either side of Moses’ head. No, Michelangelo did not make an error. In fact, there are several paintings of Moses from the Renaissance that show Moses with horns (Wikipedia). The Hebrew word actually means both horn and shine. Translations of the Old Testament made around 200 BCE use ‘horns’, which may imply some touch of divinity. In ancient languages of surrounding cultures, the kindred word is used to combine horn and light, so we get a phrase like horns of light. Imagine Moses’ head back-lit creating a halo-like effect, and the artist uses lines to represent the vision (Keener and Walton). It is also interesting to note the word also implies power (Epperly).
Chasing the point much further will just distract us from the lesson of the reading. Moses goes up the mountain to talk with God. Moses comes down the mountain changed, whether its horns, or a shining, or some other expression of divine power doesn’t matter, Moses is now different than he was before. God changed Moses, and that is what has the Israelites frightened (Epperly). Frightened enough to ask him to cover his face, who knows, this divine presence thing could be contagious. They whisper to each other “Do you to be changed by God like that?”
The Gospel story for today also involves a shining, Jesus’ transfiguration. His face is changed (notice we are not told how) and his clothes become dazzling white. We have another word note here. Jesus is with Moses and Elijah and they are speaking of his departure (Luke 9:31). A commentary points out they are literally speaking about his exodus (Lewis). ‘Exodus’ sounds so different in our ears. It just may remind us of Israel’s Exodus, a transformative event, the divine revelation that forges the Hebrew tribes into the nation of Israel (Carey). Moses and Elijah (the personification of the continuing divine revelation in the Law and the Prophets) know something of exodus journeys. We are not privy to their conversation; one commentator postulates Jesus may be just a bit apprehensive and they are providing him a little encouragement to continue down the path that leads to salvation for all creation (Hoezee). Broadly speaking we can see that: like Moses, Jesus is changed in the presence of God, like Moses, Jesus comes down the mountain, and like Moses Jesus immediately faces a challenge.
At the bottom of the mountain, there is a crowd, in the midst of whom is a father who begs him to look at his son. Immediately a demonic spirit takes hold of the boy and causes him to convulse. Quickly Jesus rebukes the spirit, heals the boy and returns him to his father. Everyone is astounded. This not the first time in Luke Jesus has faced a demon, nor the first time he has healed. However, when reading such a story with Jesus’ transfiguration, along with horned/shinning face Moses coming down the mountain fresh in our memories it is easier to notice how everything is being changed by the presence of God, just as Moses and Jesus were. Not only are Moses, Jesus, the boy physically changed, the way they interact with others changes; and, the way others interact with them changes. Everything changes.
The vastness of the change is seen when we notice that it is not just the boy’s father who is amazed, but everyone is amazed. In all the stories about Jesus, some are amazed, some are angered, some find hope, but one way or another everyone is forever changed (Woods).
There is one more phrase to look at. After rebuking the spirit, and healing the boy, Jesus gave him back to his father. (Luke 9:42). It is easy to overlook because it is such a natural next thing to do. However, it is not the next thing. Giving the boy back to his father is continuing the act of healing begun in rebuking the demon. The boy is not the only one harmed by the demon-spirit; the father is harmed, the family is harmed, their home village is harmed, everyone in that family’s social circle is harmed. Returning the boy to his father continues the healing, by extending healing to the father, and through the father the family, and through the family the village and through the village on until everyone is healed; until shalom is restored for all creation.
Here at the end of Epiphany, a season of Light, with the horned shinning face of Moses, the brilliant transfiguration of Jesus, all this light reminds me of John 1
All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it (John 1:3-4).
The brilliant light of Jesus is the fullest expression of the life-light God has given each and every one of you. That initial creation light immediately is in darkness, and it shines, and most significantly ~ the darkness does not overcome the light. Moses comes down the mountain to face darkness, Jesus comes down the mountains to face the darkness and the darkness did not overcome the light.
We live in troublesome times, in a time of darkness. Last Sunday the preacher said our society is tearing itself apart. He is correct enough I would not be surprised if more than one person does not attempt to cover that bit of enlightened divine truth with a vale. There are many stresses all around us. Some are international like Pakistan and India, both of whom have nuclear weapons, escalating towards direct armed conflict. The escalating war of intolerant words over abortion, Trump, Brexit, Palestine and Israel, race relations, gun control, medical care, drug prices, climate change, school lunches and so on creates such a well of darkness I wish all social media would fail in the hope that if we slowed down maybe we would calm down, and being a bit calmer, we might just hear the truth the other is sharing. In the fear-driven vitriol, the hate, in all these varied disagreements we are losing our ability to talk about those things we disagree about; even with our loved ones. Information that is crystal clear to one side is fake to the other; find another issue and it is the other way around. Take for example climate change and the southern border emergency. It is a dangerous time; a dark time, a time one might wonder if creation light may flicker from time to time. I am sure there were similar disagreements among the Hebrews in Exodus, for example, will God find water, and meat for us in the wilderness. I am sure there were similar disagreements among Jesus’ earlier followers, I don’t know, maybe the question of what is the right thing to do with an alabaster jar of perfumed ointment. I am sure there were similar disagreements in the early church, we would not have any letters from Paul if there had not been such disagreements. That we are here at all is a testament to the eternal power of creation light.
We stand at the edge of Epiphany, and though this season is closing the time of light is not over. Yes, beginning next Wednesday we will follow Jesus on his exodus to Jerusalem, and those tragic events. It was a dark journey. No one took time to slow down or time to listen; it was them or us. Following the journey will be dark. It is a part of season’s function to be a time to raise the hiding-vale and take a look at our darkness, said, or unsaid, done, or undone. But it gives me some courage to begin that exodus remembrance journey to know there is light. There is the life-light of creation in each of us. There is the horned light of Moses in each of us. There is the transfigured light of Jesus in each of us. There is light in you. There is light in me. There is light in the other. And that light will go with you and with me as you and I, together and on our own, work the work God has given each to work (John 9:4), each lighting way for the other. That that light has not yet been overcome is a testament that it never will be overcome. By that light we are being healed and so and bring healing to the family, to the village, to the tribe, to the nation, to the world God made us to be a part of until everyone is healed; until shalom is restored for all creation.
Carey, Greg. Commentary on Luke 9:28-36, (37-43). 3 3 2019.
Epperly, Bruce. Transfiguration Sunday, March 3, 2019, Exodus 34:29-35. 3 3 2019. <patheos.com/blogs/theperipateticpreacher/2019/02/transfiguration-sunday-march-3-2019-exodus->.
Hoezee, Scott. The Lectionary Gospel – Luke 9:28-36. 3 3 2019. <cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/last-epiphany-c-2>.
Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.
Lewis, Karoline. Liberating Glory. 3 3 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.
Wikipedia. Moses (Michelangelo). n.d. 3 3 2019. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moses_(Michelangelo)>.
Woods, Joshua. “Forever Changed, Last Sunday in Epiphany (C).” 3 3 2019. Sermons that Work. <episcopalchurch.org/library/sermon/forever-changed-last-sunday-epiphany-c-march-3-2019>.