The Rev. Ryan Slifka
Today’s scripture passage is Moses’ second trip down the mountain, Mount Sinai. Here he comes, with the two stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments tucked under his arms. Even more though, it says, his face shines. Moses comes down the mountain glowing brightly with the light of the divine. He’s spent forty days and forty nights in God’s radioactive presence, “talking with God as one speaks to a friend” as the previous chapter puts it. And the result is this holy afterglow.
And when he makes it to the bottom of the mountain, people aren’t simply taken aback, or surprised. They’re afraid. They’re afraid for a good reason, actually.
The Israelites, Moses’ people, are afraid because it’s their fault that Moses had to travel up the mountain that second time. The tablets he’s carrying are backup copies, so to speak, because Moses smashed the first set when he came down the mountain the first time. He smashed them in rage because when he came down the mountain that first time, he saw the people worshipping the statue of a calf made out of gold. The first commandment says something like “you shall have no other gods before me,” and lo and behold the first thing he sees are his people in the midst of a drunken orgy, parading around this finely crafted idol. People bad, so, Moses MAD. Moses SMASH.
They’re terrified of Moses because they screwed up. After all, if these people can’t keep one commandment while Moses’ back is turned for six weeks, how can they be expected to keep another nine for the rest of their lives? So no doubt when they see Moses coming down the mountain this second time, his face all lit up, new tablets in hand, they assume that he’s been kindled with God’s own righteous fury. To bring the hammer down. I imagine that to them he looks something like the Marvel comics anti-hero Ghost Rider, all studded leather and flaming skull (slide).
The light from Moses’ face is basically exposing the truth. According to the text they’re guilty. According to the story they deserve punishment. So no wonder they’re terrified.
The people are guilty, and they react like any of us might when we’re confronted when we’re found out. Our reaction is always fear. That fear plays out in all sorts of ways. There’s fear that leads to angry defensiveness, maybe even outright denial of wrongdoing. Then there’s fear that leads to flight. Escape, running away as fast and as far away as we can to avoid the consequences. There’s equivocation, that’s to say, trying to explain, or downplay what we’ve done. “No dad, it’s actually okay” is a phrase my kids use—one that drives me crazy when it’s not “actually okay.” Or maybe even rushing to “I’m sorry” to try to make the problem, and our own guilt disappear in the rear view mirror as fast as we can. Which is another thing you’ve probably done if you’re married. And especially if you’re a man.
But no matter what it is, no matter how it presents itself, though, our reaction is always fear. Like the Pink Floyd song (Shine On, You Crazy Diamond) says, we’re “threatened by shadows at night, and exposed in the light.” Fearing the light of being found out. Fearing consequences. Fearing punishment, loss, pain. God or no God.
In the light of Moses’ face all the Israelites’ wrongdoing is brought to light. A light’s flicked on, exposing the broken places in their lives. So the people expect punishment. (slide).
But punishment isn’t what they get.
When Moses arrives back down the mountain, face lit up, the people are terrified. But instead of raining down fire on them, he simply and straightforwardly gathers the elders together. Even Aaron, the ringleader, the golden calf craftsman. He speaks with them, it says. I mean, it doesn’t say anything about the conversation they have. But you can imagine terror in their eyes turning to relief, maybe even joy. Because the next thing that happens is that the elders gather the people together. And instead of holding a public flogging, Moses holds a class on the commandments. Like, after this whole ordeal the outcome is that they all sit in a circle, sing koombaya, and learn the way of life that leads to life again, at Moses feet. How’d that happen?
I mean, one thing they don’t know is that, behind the scenes when Moses was up on the mountain, God was ready to smote them real good. Moses wasn’t the only one who was mad at them. God pretty much wrote them off as a “stiff-necked people.” Meaning that they were stubborn, like an ox that refused to turn its neck when directed. So God was all like “LET ME AT EM.” But Moses somehow talked God out of it. Which is maybe enough for another whole sermon! But Moses simply reminded God of his past mercies. His love to Abraham and Isaac, and Jacob, and the rest. And in response God reveals God’s own identity as “Yahweh, Yahweh, the compassionate One, the gracious One, the abundantly forgiving One, the One brimming with lovingkindness.”
Regardless of how the conversation between Moses and God went, though, they expect punishment, but get lovingkindness. They get forgiveness.
It’s not that God simply says “no biggie.” But God sees the truth. God sees them for who they are. God sees what they’ve done. They are guilty, deserving punishment. That doesn’t change. But the thing is that God forgives. God shows mercy. God’s love and kindness knows no bounds. That’s who God is. And we see it most clearly shining forth in the face of Jesus.
This is what we call grace. It’s the definition of that word grace we throw around so often around here.
Grace is something that people have a hard time understanding. Even Christians, sometimes especially Christians. Liberals tend to see grace as downplaying wrongdoing, being nice, lowering the bar on human behavior. I’m okay, you’re okay. While conservatives tend to see grace as God being nice to us until we have a conversion experience, but then WATCH OUT, don’t slip up, don’t start to backslidin’. But grace is neither of these things. Grace is something else.
Grace is what the Israelites ultimately get when they come down the mountain. God’s glory, God’s presence is what shines through the glowing face of Moses. What we see here is that the light that shines forth from Moses’ face, yes, reveals their own brokenness, their own sin, causing them to fear. But this light isn’t just the light of condemnation, or of judgment. This light that shines brightly is the light of God’s love and forgiveness. It’s like cauterizing a wound, using a hot iron to stop the bleeding. That initial fear, that initial discomfort, that terror in the truth coming out, is ultimately sealed, healed, in forgiveness. And in that light, they set out together to learn God’s way again. That’s Moses holding brand new copies of the commandments.
Grace is falling short. It’s screwing up. It’s to be completely guilty, deserving every punishment coming our way. But in the end, through no merit, or action of our own, being infinitely forgiven, and set right with the source of all things, and with our fellow creatures. Grace is the face that sees us in our fullness, all that we’ve done, all the darkness that resides in us, and in spite of it all, shines forth with unconditional love and forgiveness.
That’s what grace is. And it’s the only thing that can really change us. And other people.
Rod Rosenbladt, a Lutheran theologian, tells the true story of wrecking his father’s Buick 8 when he was sixteen years old. He was drunk, and his car was full of friends who were drunk, too. Calling his father from the police station, his father asked him if he was alright. Then he told him what happened, and that he was drunk. When he got home that night, he we wept and wept in his father’s study, fearing and expecting his father’s wrath. But when it was over, his dad said one thing: “How about tomorrow, we go and get you a new car.”
Rod says that it was that moment that he began to believe in God. He finally understood the meaning of grace. It became real. And every time he tells the story, it always upsets a few people in the audience. “Your Dad let you get away with that? He didn’t punish you at all?” they always say. And Rod says, “No,” and adds the following: “Do you think I didn’t know what I’d done? Do you think it was not the most painful moment of my whole life up to that point? Do you think the law wasn’t cutting me down to nothing?”[i] Because more often we’re punished by our sins, rather than for them.
Like the Israelites crashing and burning at the base of Mount Sinai, quaking in fear at a pile of crushed commandments, Rosenbladt, recoiled in painful fear at the crushed Buick and the prospect of his Father’s judgment. Like the Israelites he assumed retribution, punishment. But like Moses, God’s glory shone forth from his father’s face. And together, they started over. Everything changed for Rosenbladt that day. He became a new person.
Grace is the glory of God’s mercy shining forth in the face of Moses bleaching out the past misdeeds of his people. And grace is most fully revealed in light shining forth in the face of Jesus Christ. His love for the unloveable, his mercy for the wretched, hung up on the cross for the sake of sinners… forgiving the very people who’ve done it. Grace is this same forgiveness reflecting through the face of a father’s love to a broken and defeated son.
It's the face that sees us, knows us in our entirety. The face that catches us in the act, and yet shines forth in love and mercy even in our deepest shame. And yet, in spite of it all. In spite of all our golden idols, in spite of all our little shortcomings, and our great betrayals, we know we’re loved, and forgiven exactly as we are. Again and again and again. And set shining forward on a new path. Because, according to the Bible, this is the only thing that will change us. Not the grimace of guilt. Not the scowl of condemnation. Not more punishment. But the beautiful, shining, face of grace.
So, friends, let’s all stand tall together in the light of God’s glory, though it may hurt our eyes at first because we’re used to the dull grey of judgment. Let’s all stand tall together, in the full knowledge of our guilt, our fallibility, and our shame. Let’s stand tall together without fear, because we know the we’ve seen the human face of grace. And because of that, we can hope and pray for the light of Christ, for that grace that shines in the face of the risen Lord to shine in and through our own faces. So we can see others for who they are, and extend the same mercy that’s been extended to us. Trusting through it God will do the same.
Because that’s what grace is. And that’s what grace does.
[i] Quoted in Paul F.M. Zahl, Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 86.