Toorak Uniting Church

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Looking God in the face

Exodus 34: 29 – 35     2 Corinthians 3: 12 – 4: 6
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
18 February 2007

I grew up in a village not far from Rotterdam on the fringes of where a forever-expanding urban sprawl had, in a fairly short span of time, gobbled up vast expanses of land, which until then had been largely agricultural in character. There were still farms, here and there, squeezed in between middle class suburbia, mostly occupied by retired farmers living of the money the selling of their land had provided them with. I remember how they would come to Church on Sundays, with their weather beaten faces sitting in the pews opposite from where I sat with my mother. They were a remnant of another time, stubbornly sticking to their own, age old, customs and traditions in a world that was changing around them at a breath taking pace. They looked like old trees, these men, with deep furrows in their faces, their eyes forever glinting against the sun. Their hands were gnarled, rough and in most cases huge. Their nails now clean but still discolored from years and years of dirt gathering underneath. Calloused hands that had wrestled a living from the earth and battled with the elements.

They would stoop into Church with downcast eyes, cap in hand. There was a hesitancy about them as they entered the building and they seemed intimidated by the sacred nature of the space. Eyes on the pew in front of them, they would sit down, and hide their faces behind their caps before they went into preparatory prayer. It was an ancient custom, and some of them, as I noticed when I grew up, would gently nod off behind that cap to eventually keel over and go to sleep with their heads resting on their arms in front of them. They were people who had been used to getting up early all their lives, and at ten o’clock in the morning they would be ready for a nap.
Not all of them nodded off however. Some of them would enter into a period of what I now know to be a period of profound prayer and a deep connecting with the presence of God. As a child I found it fascinating to see the creases in their faces disappear (or what I could see of it), their bodies relax and their eyes take on a glow that showed when they looked up as the procession of minister and elders entered the Church. Expectant, joyful and open to whatever the Lord might have to offer them in worship on that Sunday morning.

Me they offered a glimpse of the radiant glory of God’s presence, what it can be and how it can transform, even in outward appearance, the outside of a person who will open themselves up to it. Those farmers were, in my life, a very important witness to what it meant to live life seeking the closeness of God, and how turning in to experience his presence would show on the outside in a glowing radiance and serene peace that was enviable.

It was them I remembered when reading about Moses and his veil, hiding the radiance of the Lord reflecting too powerfully off his human face. Those farmers hid their faces when seeking the presence of God, because they knew themselves vulnerable in their openness to be touched and transformed by another beyond them.

Moses, in the story, reveals his shining face when he has a message from God to convey to his people. And he takes away the veil when he is before God, laying himself bare and opening himself up to however God may chose to touch him. For the rest of the time Moses hid behind a veil, protecting himself and others from the unsettling light of God’s glory. There was a time for Moses to share of the glory he had received in God’s presence, but there were also times when that glory needed to be veiled and somewhat hidden in the course of daily life.

Paul takes the experience of awe and reverence, of the glowing radiance of God showing in the face of Moses in his second letter to the Corinthians and weaves a somewhat forced and awkward argument from it. The point Paul seeks to make however is interesting.

In Christ he says, the veil is taken away, in Christ it has become possible to look God in the face and reflect his glory directly into the world without limit or protective barrier in between. In Christ God reveals his glory in such a way we can bear it and wear it. And where in Moses day God’s glory would gradually fade, in Christ that glory does no longer lose strength as in Moses’ case but is there, steadily shining before us. The veil Moses was wearing Paul interprets as the veil of the law, limiting in his perspective a face to face relationship with God, but he says, through Christ that veil is taken away and expanded, with God and his people entering into a new covenant, a new relationship with humanity where people can enter into a much closer and more direct relationship with God through Christ.

In Jesus, Paul says, what happened to Moses is taken further: Instead of inspiring awe and fearful reverence, in Christ the presence of God transforms into a healing and wholeness bringing presence, where the terrifying aspects of God get translated into boundless love and compassion, transforming those who encounter it through the spirit into another way of being, in his image. A way of being that doesn’t need shielding but keeps streaming into the world, reflecting off the faces of those who encounter Christ in their lives.

When we celebrate communion this becomes very poignant. As we enter into the presence of God, we become part of Christ’s body and seek his unveiled presence while we receive the elements, opening our hands and our hearts for God to enter in and transform us. We eat and drink longing to be filled with the loving, healing power of God.
As we become the body of Christ, gathered together like grains ready to be transformed into bread, the glory of God seeks to unveil itself in us and through us to the world. Asks us to show it wherever we go as a witness to the love and mercy of God we ourselves have received.

For some of us that may mean open, joyful witnessing to the world, for others it may be the occasional glimpse hesitantly offered from behind hands or cap like those farmers in the church of my youth. What is important is that we open ourselves up for the glory of God to fill us, as it did Moses and Jesus, each in their own way, because only then will it be possible for it to find its way into the world to bring healing and wholeness to all God’s people.


© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2007

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