A sermon for Proper 25
Deuteronomy 34:1-12, Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17, 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8, Matthew 22:34-46
Last week, we left Moses in a crack in the mountain side, as God passes by. Today we are at the very end of Deuteronomy. Wait a minute, what happened to the rest of Exodus, and all of Leviticus and Numbers and the first 33 chapters of Deuteronomy? We seem to have gone from a semi continuous reading quick shallow dips. In previous weeks, I’ve tried to at least fill in the gaps by at least naming the stories not included. Most of 3 books, I don’t think so. As much as I dislike skipping verse, chapter and book to be honest, it’s very hard to cover the entire Old Testament in 78 sessions, that’s three years of the season after Pentecost. There are some 187 chapters in the Pentateuch alone. But I’m side tracked before we even get started.
The verses of Deuteronomy we heard this morning are often sub titled, the Death of Moses. At the ripe age of 120, with clear vision and a vigorous pace, Moses ascends to the top of Mnt. Nebo, also known as Pisgah. (Harrelson) The God shows him all the lands he promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We are not told what Moses thought, in fact Moses is silent. We are told, God tells Moses, he will not enter the Promised Land. We are told that Moses dies there; ~ at God’s command. Young’s Literal Translation and King James goes on to say God buries Moses opposite Beth-peor and no one knows where that is to this day. The passage ends with a glorious epitaph:
Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face. (Deut. 34:6)
To some extent, it doesn’t seem fair that Moses isn’t allowed to go with Israel into the Promised Land. Other books hint at reasons; but Deuteronomy is silent as to why, and I believe that it is important to take the passage as written because Deuteronomy is written from the prophetic perspective, while others are written from priestly perspective. Remember these books are written about the 7th century BCE and there was some tension between the Prophets and Temple Priests. Taking what is written here, for undisclosed divine reasons it’s time for Moses to die. That God buries Moses reveals a divine honor that is also attested to in the epitaph. From my perspective Moses is buried with high divine honors.
There is another bit here that is important to pay attention to. Moses lays hands on Joshua, who is full of the spirit of wisdom. Joshua is to essentially be the prime minister for Israel as they enter the Promised Land. Patrick Miller writes that the Hebrew text is emphatically clear “it is the Lord who goes over before Israel and will be with Israel” (Deut. 31:3, 7-8) (Miller 5545) God is leading, not Joshua.
This is a transition point. Israel is at the edge of the Promised Land, the Divine promise is ready to be fulfilled. Perhaps as important, they are prepared. They have the experiences of God freeing them from slavery in Egypt, God’s presence with them in the wilderness. They have the Tabernacle, the nomadic home of God in their midst; and more importantly they have Torah, the Law, given through Moses to Israel, to guide them. Miller notes it is important that the Torah is complete, without the land. Torah reveals God’s promises, reveals God’s intentions, reveals the way, and what Israel must do to realize the promise. Torah offers the land, shows the way into the land, but ~ it does not guarantee it. (5546) For me, the implication is Israel has her part to faithfully do before they fully live in the Promised Land.
The rest of the Old Testament is the story of how they do. You know enough to know, they have a hard time of it. You might say they were unable to fully live into the promise. As Christians we believe God’s response to this is to become the incarnate presence among us as Jesus, and secure the fullness of the divine promise, for all of us, for all creation.
In a very real way we, as has every God fearing community since Israel left Nebo, stand in exactly the same place. God, through Moses and Torah, through Jesus, through the Spirit has revealed the divine promise, the divine intent, the way, and what we must do to live fully into the promise Gods make to all creation through Jesus. We are also prepared; we have the history of vast experiences and the knowledge of God in our midst to call upon as we seek our way forward. We have similar resources to face a similar challenge. Israel needed to leave their past behind. They needed to leave Moses buried, in order to follow God in their midst, into the fullness of a promised future. That Moses is cited by name in the New Testament, and that Jesus is often over against Moses reveals how difficult it is to leave the beloved and revered, be it persons, stuff or traditions, buried.
We are on plains of Moab. The Promised Land, in whatever fashion that may be, lays before us. We cannot see it, but neither could Israel, remember its only Moses who is at Pisgah, atop Nebo, with the vast vista stretching out before him. As fuzzy as it may be, we know the promise is here. What’s hard ~ is to bury the past, so we can move into the promised future.
We know God is in our midst. We pray the graciousness of the LORD our God may be upon us; prosper the work of our hands; prosper our handiwork.
Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.
Miller, Patrick. Interpretation, Deuteronomy. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990.