Exodus 33: 7-20
2 Corinthians 3: 4-end
The Salisbury Festival, which concludes today, has afforded some of us a host of opportunities to enjoy a fine and well-curated programme of the creative arts. It’s very fitting that at this closing Evensong the Choir will sing a motet written by the Festival’s Artistic Director, Jonathan Dove (who we congratulate on being honoured by the Queen this very week), and new settings of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis written by our Director of Music, David Halls, in memory of Dordie Daniels, a much loved member of our congregation.
Creative life flourishes in Salisbury: for the last two weeks, on the stage of the Playhouse, within the walls of the Arts Centre, in the Market Square, and under the glowing sphere of Gaia, the offering has been rich and diverse. We have gone to the various venues to listen to live music, to hear the spoken word, to watch theatre or film, and to look at painting and sculpture. We have seen artists and performers immersed in their work, and we have gone away with hearts on fire and minds racing, perhaps full of joy and passion, perhaps full of sorrow, and perhaps full of inspiration.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to claim that echoes of our Festival-going practice can be detected in the tent-going practice described in this evening’s first reading. Moses too goes to a designated venue; he too goes anticipating an encounter; and a wider audience - the people - look on. A spectacle then unfolds - and Moses departs, and returns to the camp.
That is a caricature, of course. The author of Exodus is at pains to point out that this is no celestial thunderbolt-and-earthquake event. What transpires in the Tent of Meeting is a conversation, a conversation between friends. Moses is on intimate terms with his God. Nevertheless the Exodus account is an account of religious experience as external encounter. The believer goes to a particular place; the believer meets God; God is other than the believer; the believer comes away changed by the meeting.
This is distinct from the rather different account of religious experience offered by Saint Paul offers in his second letter to the Corinthians. The image he uses involves the act of looking, just as the account given by the author of Exodus does, but Saint Paul does not describe looking on another person or looking on another person’s performance. The image he uses is that of looking in a mirror, and of there seeing God’s glory. There is no journey to a place that is other than our homes, to meet a God who is other than us. There is instead a glimpse of our own faces in the mirror, and in our own faces a glimpse of God reflected back at us.
Isn’t that extraordinary?
Maybe, but it is possible, writes Paul, because God is not out there in the tent or on the stage or under the lights, waiting to meet us and waiting to make an impression upon us. God makes his home in us. God is within us. God makes his impression (as it were) from the inside. He transforms us from one degree of glory to another. The Greek verb translated as ‘transformed’ appears at only one other place in the New Testament. It appears when Saint Matthew describes Jesus being transfigured before his disciples, his face shining like the sun and his clothes becoming dazzling white. Perhaps that’s what Saint Paul believes is happening to us. We are being transfigured from within. Moses gazes upon God and talks to him as though to a friend; but if we gaze in upon ourselves there we will discern God’s presence within us and God’s action upon us.
“Show me your glory, I pray”. Moses pleads with the God to whom he speaks as to a friend. But God will show only his goodness. He will show only the compassion and mercy and forgiveness that men and women need. He will show only the things that are “good” for them. But the glory of his face he will not show, for that glory already dwells within those whom he loves.
It’s the last night of the Festival and we have come to the city’s largest venue. We have come expecting an encounter and expecting to go away changed by it. Judging by the screens glimmering behind me, hundreds will come to Thy Kingdom Come later this evening with similar expectations. But the one whom we seek has met us already, if only we will look inside ourselves and allow him there to do his work.