My sermon last Sunday 7th Feb 2015 (using the lectionary readings Exodus 34:29-end, 2 Cor 3:12-4:2 and Luke 9:28-36 [37-43a]) was the only ‘ordinary time’ sermon of this spring, since the distance between Candlemas and Ash Wednesday was a matter of 7 days.
In only a third of the weddings I’ve had the privilege of taking, has the bride worn a veil that was down as she entered the church on her wedding day. Since my survey currently only covers three weddings, to extrapolate the assumption that veils aren’t very popular with brides today, is possibly a distortion of statistics, but I think it might be safe to say that there have been times in the history of western culture when the wedding veil has been more popular.
In the Roman era they were red to ward off evil spirits! At times they have been used to cover the ‘goods’, lest a bridegroom renege on the deal at the last minute!! Thankfully, arranged marriages are now illegal. At times veils have emphasized on the chastity the bride, and they weren’t lifted until the end of the ceremony, as a symbol we might suggest, of things to come. Today, a veil retains a little secrecy, keeping the beauty and hopefully happiness of the bride hidden from the gauping throng as long as possible. As the veil is now raised BEFORE the service starts, the symbolism is more about the bride freely giving of the inner beauty of her personality and reflecting the love she is receiving from the groom. All suitably romantic. It is nearly Valentine’s Day after all!
In our Old Testament story today, Moses is no blushing bride, but rather is forced into wearing a veil, almost permanently. He has been away from the people of Israel, talking, on their behalf, with God. Actually IN the presence of God, something that no human alive had experienced. He comes away radiant, shining with the joy and glory of the encounter. And, the people of Israel? They can’t bear to look.
Moses has with him a SECOND set of tablets on which are engraved The Commandments. They are, as it were a replacement set, for Moses had broken the first two in frustration when he had returned from a previous mountaintop consultation with God to find the people of Israel had made a Golden Calf. Frustrated by their endless wandering in the wilderness they had thought it might offer better guidance and protection for their journey, than the distant seeming Lord with whom Moses kept conferring. But they had been firmly shown that the only thing keeping them from understanding God’s constant care over their travels, was their lack of trust in the one who had brought them to freedom.
Now, seeing the reflection of God’s presence on Moses’ face was more than their guilt-burdened hearts could bear. Gradually their leaders, and then the rest of the community come close enough to hear the words of guidance and protection that will really protect them: commandments to love God, respect each other, avoid idolatry and return as gift the best of everything God gives to them. Moses’ radiance confirms that what he is saying is authentically from God, but whilst they’re willing to accept the rules, they can’t live with such constant proof of God’s presence. So it is ironic perhaps, that it is not the people who take up veils to shield themselves from the glory of God, but poor Moses who is forced to hide from them the impact of his encounters with God.
St. Paul wants nothing veiled. In our second reading today, he has no truck with the idea of hiding the impact of God’s presence on people’s lives. Of course, he too had seen God’s glory – and in his case a veil, as of scales, had fallen over his eyes after his vision of the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. For three days they had reminded him of his dependence on God as he grappled with belief in who Jesus really was. With his baptism into that faith, the glory of God which was the boldness of Paul’s ministry was given its freedom, transforming one degree of glory to another, changing the lives of those who heard him and saw for themselves a radically changed man. For him, there could be no cloak of secrecy about the Good News of Jesus that had revealed the forgiveness of God.
It is a brief revelation of the grace-filled glory that would be brought about by the cross and resurrection of Christ, that forms the start of this morning’s Gospel. Peter, John and James are witness to Jesus being gloriously soaked in the presence of his Father God. At the very moment when he is consciously turning his face toward Jerusalem, and another, more ugly hill, Jesus talks with Moses, who had carried the Law of the Lord to his people, and Elijah, the prophet who had challenged them to be faithful to that law. Jesus was of course to be the fulfilment of all that these two men had strived for: a new covenant relationship between God and his people that enables each of us to lift the veils we place between ourselves and the love of God.
So much of Jesus’ ministry was about healing wounds, injustice and prejudice caused by human idolatry, not perhaps of a Golden Calf, but of money, wealth and a craving for power and control. They are the reason His death, resurrection and, glorious ascension are the permanent lifting of the veil of slavery to things which harden people’s hearts, to reveal for each of us that we can be made a new, radiant creation through faith in him. As Christ died on the cross, the curtain or veil of the Temple in Jerusalem was torn in two, because with his death went the last barriers to the freedom of which, and with which, St. Paul later spoke.
Moses removed his veil when he went into the presence of the Lord God to take counsel. The cloud that veils Jesus’ glorious encounter that the three disciples fail to fully comprehend, is lifted by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, when they are equipped with the boldness to speak about Jesus as the Son of God. Likewise Paul writes to the Corinthians, that when anyone turns to belief in Jesus and receives baptism, their veil is also removed because their faith places them in the presence of God. If we believe in Christ, there is nothing of which to be ashamed.
This Sunday, we turn from our consideration of the birth and early life of Jesus, to a greater awareness of the purpose of his death, resurrection and ascension. As we prepare for Ash Wednesday we are asked to look into our own lives, picturing ourselves perhaps as penitent Israelites or confused disciples, and consider where we may have placed a veil between us and God. Perhaps we have made an idol of something that has become a greater priority than giving time to loving God’s people and his creation. Perhaps we can’t quite bear to look closely at who he reveals himself to be in Christ, so we ignore the need to search for a better understanding of what he asks of us. Perhaps we are confused, unsure of what all this means and frightened of where it might be leading us.
We are called to lift those veils by setting aside our idols,… by study,… and by simply trusting God, even when he might seem absent. God sent Jesus into the world, so that through faith in him we could be transformed into his image, changed from one degree of glory to another, to become more like him, day by day. We need to be willing to keep our focus on the law, the love and the glory of God, and allow it to change our lives so much that we can look at ourselves and see the character of Jesus starting to be reflected in what we think and how we act. That will be our assurance that we are soaked in God’s presence as we journey on through life.