Take off the mask

Good morning, Friends!

This month we’ve talked several times about Moses and the Exodus. It’s an important story, and we all need to know it.

What’s interesting, is that there are so many cool details. Because it wasn’t just Moses and the burning bush. It wasn’t just the baby in the basket, floating by the river bank.

Exodus isn’t just the plagues of Egypt, and the Ten Commandments. It’s the lives of all the people, and what they did, and what they learned.

We already know the early part of the story. A long time ago, there had been a famine, and all the family of Israel went to Egypt, where there was plenty of food, in order to survive.

But after a few generations, the people of Israel found themselves in slavery. They sold their freedom, and their children’s freedom, and their grandchildren’s freedom, in exchange for something to eat. They gave up their entire future, because their present was so bad.

In a few more generations, the people of Israel had forgotten what it was even like to be free. Their leaders were all gone. Their traditions were dead. They had a vague memory that once upon a time, in the distant past, their ancestors had a God who helped them. But by now, they had forgotten even God’s name.

And they did what people who are trapped and miserable usually do: they cried. They cried to the God who they didn’t even really know any more. It was beyond their power to escape. They couldn’t get free on their own. They didn’t have any hope, or anything to look forward to, beyond the next day’s misery.

And God heard them. It doesn’t say how long they suffered. It doesn’t say how long they prayed. And it doesn’t say how long it lasted, before God did anything. Maybe it was a long time. Maybe God answered right away. We don’t know. The story doesn’t say.

But God picked out a leader for Israel. God picked Moses, who was born a Hebrew slave and who was raised as an adopted grandson of Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt.

Now, Moses was not your prototypical, steely-eyed, strong-jawed leader. He wasn’t a very good speaker. He didn’t have a lot of self-confidence. What Moses did have – what he learned to have – was confidence in God.

That’s an important point. What we learn, by trial and experience, is that we can trust God.

In this morning’s story, God has brought the people of Israel out of slavery, out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and into the desert. And God called Moses up on top of a mountain, and God gave Moses the Ten Commandments.

A lot of people say that they don’t like the Ten Commandments because many of them seem so negative – a long list of “thou shalt not’s”.

Last week, I said that the Ten Commandments are basically all about freedom.

God starts out by saying, “I brought you out of slavery. I set you free. There isn’t any other God who does that sort of thing. Any other so-called gods are idols. They don’t really exist. They can’t help you. Don’t worship them. Don’t call on them, when you need Me. And don’t call on Me, unless you want Me to answer.”

And then God started to re-create the fabric of daily life for the people of Israel. God said, in effect, “You’ve been enslaved for so long that you’ve forgotten how to live. I have set you free. This is how to live, as free people.”

“Once every week, without fail, take a full day off, and rest. No one can make you work on that day, because you’re not slaves any more – not to your jobs, not to your wages, not to any kind of master. Rest, and remember that.

Remember that God made the world, and everything in it. And don’t try to be a master, either – you and your spouse, your children, your servants, your livestock, even people from other countries who live among you – everyone gets that day to rest and remember, every week. You’re free!”

And God said that we are free in our family relationships – not to be dominated be each other, but to honor each other. “Honor your family,” said God, “and you will live long and happily in the land I am giving you.”

And then we get to the “thou shalt not’s”, to all the negative stuff. Actually, what it adds up to, is God saying that human beings let ourselves be enslaved by all sorts of things – by giving in to the spirit which says that murder, adultery, theft, lying, and wanting what other people have is OK.

“That’s how a broken society tries to live,” says God. “They’re slaves to the first and worst feelings and thoughts that come along. You don’t have to live that way. I have set you free.” The Ten Commandments aren’t really about “thou shalt not.” They’re about “we don’t have to.” We’re not slaves. The Ten Commandments are about freedom.

Anyway, that brings us up to this morning’s story. Moses comes down from the top of Mount Sinai, with the stone tablets of the commandments in his hands. And here’s where there’s something new in the story. Something you probably didn’t know before, or something which you’ve probably forgotten.

When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands, he didn’t know that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord.

When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him.

But Moses called to them; so Aaron and all the leaders of the community came back to him, and he spoke to them. Afterward all the Israelites came near him, and he gave them all the commands the Lord had given him on Mount Sinai.

When Moses finished speaking to them, he put a veil over his face. But whenever Moses entered the Lord’s presence to speak with him, he removed the veil until he came out.

And when he came out and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, they saw that his face was radiant. Then Moses would put the veil back over his face until he went in to speak with the Lord.

And Moses didn’t know that his face was shining, because he had been talking with God.

Exodus 34:29-35

I’m not sure if this story is supposed to be fact, or legend. I don’t require that anybody take this story literally. But it’s still worth looking at it together.

Moses’ brother Aaron, and all of the leaders of Israel, were scared to come close to Moses, until he called to them, and then they came. And Moses talked with them about the freedom of God, and how they could live as free people, and his face was shining, the whole time.

It was almost too much for them to handle. His face was too bright for them to look at. And it was all just too strange. So, when Moses finished talking about the commandments, it says that he put a veil over his face. I like to think he put on a face mask.

But it says that every time Moses went and talked with God, that he took off the mask, and people could see that his face was shining.

This probably isn’t a very important story to most people today. It’s ancient history, or maybe it’s just an old folk tale. Except that, like all these Bible stories, there’s a very real sense in which it’s still true.

When we worship – when we pray – when we study, and dream, and come close to God – do our faces shine, or not? I’m not talking about some kind of a literal, glow-in-the-dark make-up job here. But is there any kind of radiance or reflection from what we’ve been doing?

Sometimes it feels as if we spend a lot of our lives wearing face masks. I still forget to wear mine a lot of the time.

But even before COVID, people were already wearing masks. We put on whatever kind of a mask we needed, instead of our real face.

Maybe some days we wore a happy mask. Maybe sometimes it was a sad mask. Busy masks are also very popular – we all like to look busy, no matter what’s going on inside. Masks come in all different shapes and sizes.

But our masks, our public faces – those aren’t who we really are. Even being a Christian faith, or a Quaker, can be a mask.

The face masks we wear now are physical. We wear them to protect ourselves from illness. But the other kind of masks we wear every day, hide our real feelings. We wear them to hide who we really are.

“How are you doing today?”
“Fine!”

Except maybe we’re not fine, not really at all.

“How’s it going?”
“All right. I’m good!”

We wear those other kind of social masks because we’re shy, or embarrassed, or because we’re too busy to stop and talk, or because we don’t want anyone to see that we’re hurting in some way. But inside, behind the mask, we’re really something else.

Moses’ face was shining, it says, because he had talked with God. That time of prayer completely transformed Moses. It lit him up completely. And the only reason Moses covered up his face, was that it scared other people, to look at him.

I don’t think that Moses wanted to scare people. It says in the Bible that Moses was the most humble person, the most gentle person, ever to come down the pike. Moses was the absolute opposite of pride and arrogance.

I think what scared people then, what still scares people now, is the light of God, reflected in the face of someone like Moses, who truly believed in God, and who believed that God came to set people free.

A long time later, the apostle Paul wrote a commentary on this morning’s reading in a letter he wrote to some friends.

Paul wrote, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” (2 Corinthians 3:17-18)

“It’s not just Moses who had the shining face,” Paul is saying. “Now, it’s all of us. When we meet face to face with the Spirit of God, when we experience the freedom God gives, our faces reflect God’s glory. And we don’t just reflect it. We are being changed. We are being transformed, we’re being lifted up, from one level of glory to another.”

That’s what Paul said. He said that prayer and worship completely changed the way people looked. They didn’t look the same. They weren’t sad any more. They weren’t burdened.

You could spot a Christian from clear across the street. It wasn’t that they were perfect, or beautiful, or rich.

They were free. You could see that they loved people. They had faith. Christians were people who didn’t know a stranger. They trusted God. They knew that God was close to them.

When we enter into worship, and when we leave here, our faces, our whole personalities, ought to be luminous. Jesus said that being a Christian means like being a light in a dark place.

We’re lighthouses that people turn to for hope. We’re bonfires that people want to warm up by.

But that isn’t the way we really are most of the time. Most people who see us, would never even know that we’re Christians.

I don’t know if it’s fear, or self-consciousness, or doubt, or just unwilling to look foolish. But we tend to be world-class cover-uppers.

We don’t wear the long, black head-to-toe robe that women wear in fundamentalist countries. But we have a different kind of veil or spiritual mask, that covers us up just as thoroughly.
What would it be like to be free?

What would it be like not to worry about how we look, or the way we dress, or whether what we say sounds impressive, or even whether what we say sounds silly, or not?

What if the only thing that really mattered, was whether we’re really connected to God? What if instead of being so self-conscious, if all we really worried about was whether we’re loving God, with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength, and whether we’re loving our neighbors, throughout the world, as much as we love ourselves?

What if we figured out that the whole idea of living behind a spiritual or social mask, was a mistake? Or what if we took seriously the idea that hiding our light under a basket, is going against what Jesus said?

I think that the best way for us to live, is to be free. The best way to reach out, is to be ourselves. The best way to tell the truth, is to tell things the way they really are for us, and not try and tell everybody some prettied-up version.

And who we are, includes God. Doesn’t it? It may not be much to share sometimes. Maybe all we can say is that we caught a glimpse of God, in the sunrise today. Maybe we say that we messed up, and we need forgiveness.

Maybe we say that a particular verse of Scripture, meant something special to us, and we’ve been thinking about it all week. Or maybe we had a dream, or a minute in prayer, that was so special that we can’t get over it.

When Moses came down the mountain, he didn’t say, “Oh, it was nothing!” He had seen God face-to-face, and his face was shining. His face shone whenever he talked with God.

Let’s throw away the fake masks we wear.
Let’s live like free people.
And let’s listen to God.

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