Sermon on Deuteronomy 34.1-12
A note from Jamie Howison: This sermon includes something of a landmark quote from the final speech delivered by Martin Luther King, Jr. Audio of that speech is included in this post, and I’d highly recommend you give it a listen… please do scroll down.
ince the middle of August, the lectionary has had us chipping our way through the story of Moses and the Israelites, as told in the Book of Exodus. In case you were counting, we’ve been ten Sundays in these texts, which might seem like a fairly long run until you realize how much we actually left out. It is a forty year story of life in the Sinai wilderness, and that doesn’t even include all the years from Moses’ birth to the point where he leads the Hebrew slaves out of captivity in Egypt and into their long desert sojourn. And we did it in ten weeks?
So last Sunday we had a story in which Moses asks God, “Show me your glory, I pray,” (Ex 33:18), and quite stubbornly presses God to be openly and obviously present to the people… and particularly to Moses himself. And now this week we read of his death and burial. There’s a lot of material in between these two episodes… the books of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Such a leap leaves my friend, the Old Testament scholar Walter Deller, shaking his head at the amount we don’t read. Sure, if you’ve ever tried to read the bible through from beginning to end, you’ll be well aware that these three books have what feel like endless lists of laws, and that Numbers includes chapter after chapter of census data. It is in these books that people often bog down and throw in the towel on their lofty bible reading goals. But these books also include a good deal of rich narrative, and in fact even the list of laws and standards—which can sometimes seem arbitrary, sometimes harsh, and often just plain weird—remind us that for this people what they did with their time, money, bodies, neighbours, and even pots and pans were all caught up in their identity as the people of God.
- To listen to the sermon, simply click the arrow
We heard a reading tonight from the Gospel according to Matthew, in which Jesus tells a lawyer that the most important law is the call to, “[L]ove the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” “This is the greatest and first commandment,” Jesus says, “And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40) We shouldn’t, however, imagine that Jesus is the first or only teacher in Israel to have offered such a perspective, and in fact in the century before the birth of Christ the great Rabbi Hillel famously made the exact same move. I suppose that most of you are grateful that rather than reading aloud the entire torah with its 600+ laws, long lists and detailed census counts, we proclaimed this great summary of the law; fair enough. Just be aware of how much we’ve skipped past!
And so we are given this picture of Moses, standing in the presence of God on Mount Nebo, looking across the River Jordan toward the land of promise that will be home to God’s people.
The Lord said to Moses, ‘This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, “I will give it to your descendants”; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.’ Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. (Deut 34:4-5)
Hold on a minute here; he died, then and there, at the Lord’s command? The leader whom the text will go on to describe as a prophet unlike any other in the story of Israel, “whom the Lord knew face to face,” doesn’t get to lead the people into their new home? Forty years in the wilderness, and it ends here? And you know, the writer is quite clear that Moses still had a good deal of life left in him; that while he was “one hundred and twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigour had not abated.”
Earlier in the book of Deuteronomy (32:48-52), Moses was told by God that he would not be allowed to enter the promised land because years prior he had failed to respect and uphold the holiness of God before the people at the waters of Meribah (Numbers 20:1-13). That’s the incident where, when the people are in desperate need of water, God gives it to them through a spring flowing out of the rocks of Meribah. Moses is told by God to take his staff and stand before the rock, calling water to come forth, but for whatever reason Moses also struck the rock twice. A bit of dramatic flair, perhaps? Given what a pain in the neck the people often were, who can blame Moses for flexing his leadership muscle a bit, and putting on a show? And for this he is told he will not be allowed to lead the people out of the desert and into the promised land? Seems a bit heavy handed on the part of God, doesn’t it?
Century after century, both the Jewish and Christian interpretive traditions have tried to make sense of this piece of the story; have tried to make it seem somehow more fair or more just. In the end, though, all we have is the story. And in the story I hear this unspoken subtext that reads, “Moses, you can’t do everything.” Similar to when the great King David is told that the Jerusalem temple is not going to be his to build, here Moses finds that he will not lead the people across the river, he will not plant his feet in the new land, he cannot do it all. Time to let go, to pass along his mantle, and to lie down in peace and die.
It is a hard thing to contemplate, this business of not being able to do it all; of having to release our hold on our own lives, work, vocations and dreams, and to admit that it might be time for someone or something else. We’d like to keep steering things, of course, for who better than me? What if someone else changes it all, or worse, screws it all up? And I wonder if in the back of his mind Moses might have been thinking that while Joshua was pretty solid material, he might not be up to the task?
But maybe not. Maybe Moses was grateful that it was time to die, and that he didn’t have to do it all. Maybe for all that he was a gifted and transformational leader, in the end he knew it was not about him, but rather about a people together under God.
The image of Moses on Mount Nebo looking across into the land of promise was evoked in a speech delivered by Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 3, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee.
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people will get to the promised land.
- To hear the audio of King’s speech, click the arrow
The speech seems almost eerily prescient, in that less than twenty-four hours later King was shot dead by an assassin. Yet maybe it was less a case of foreknowledge, and more one of being both deeply aware of the violence of the times, and at the same time of being schooled in the wisdom and insight of this text from Deuteronomy. No less than Moses, King could not do it all. And no less than Moses, King was part of something much bigger than his own self, his own personal vision and abilities.
And so with us. We are not called to do it all. We are called, each of us, to be faithful in the context of a people together, whose identity is forged in God. And if we get to climb Mount Nebo and to look across the river toward that place to which God is leading this people—to catch a glimpse of God’s vision for humanity or to hear the strains of what Bruce Cockburn calls “rumours of glory”—that will be enough. For now, and forever; we can’t do it all. But in God, it can be done.