Coming Down the Mountain
In 1515, Michelangelo completed a marble sculpture of an old but muscular Moses with the Ten Commandments under his arm. Tourists are often shocked to see what appear to be devilish horns protruding from Moses' head.
The horns are traced to a mistranslation of Exodus 34. After Moses met with the Lord on Sinai, the people were afraid because "the skin of his face shone." The Hebrew word for beam of light was mistranslated into Latin as "horns." So when Michelangelo read his Bible, he believed the people were frightened because Moses had grown horns while with God.
Today we no longer depict Moses with horns, but a misunderstanding of his mountaintop experience remains. According to 2 Corinthians 3, Moses did not hide his face because the people were frightened, but to hide the fact that the glory of God was fading. Whatever transformation he experienced in God's presence was temporary, and the veil hid its transient nature. Moses' mountaintop experience was genuine, glorious, and full of God's presence—but it did not bring lasting transformation.
In our consumer culture, we've come to believe that transformation comes through external experiences. We regard our church buildings, with their multimedia equipment, as mountaintops where God's glory is encountered. And many of us leave on Sunday with a degree of genuine transformation. We have indeed encountered God.
The problem with mountaintop experiences, as Moses discovered, is that the transformation does not last. In a few days, or maybe as early as lunchtime, the glory begins to fade. The event we were certain would change our lives forever, turns out to be another fleeting spiritual high. And to hide the lack of lasting transformation, we mask our lives behind a veil, a façade of piety or busyness, until we can ascend the mountain again and be recharged.
This pursuit of transformation by consuming external experiences creates worship junkies who leap from one mountaintop to another, one spiritual high to another, in search of a glory that will not fade. In response, churches are driven to create ever-grander experiences and more elaborate productions to satisfy expectations. But if lasting transformation is our goal, mountaintops—even God-ordained ones—will never suffice.
The New Testament emphasizes a different model of transformation. Instead of external experiences, Jesus and his apostles speak of communion with God through the presence of the Holy Spirit. Contrasting the fading glory Moses experienced on Sinai, the apostle Paul says that we are being transformed "from one degree of glory to another," and that this comes from the Spirit. This transformation is not from the outside working in, but from the inside working out. To encounter the glory of God no longer requires ascending a mountain, but learning to embrace a divine mystery, "Christ in you, the hope of glory."
Why then are we so tempted to abandon the New Covenant, inside-out model of transformation for the inferior Old Covenant, outside-in strategy? The reason is simple: communion with God through the Spirit cannot be packaged and marketed to religious consumers. It is far easier for us to create mountains than shepherd people toward the inner life of divine communion.