Talk about your wheel within a wheel (and perhaps within yet another wheel at that!) As Robert Jenson has pointed out, Deuteronomy is the one part of the Bible that is itself presented as a sermon. So when a pastor preaches on Deuteronomy, she is already doing a sermon based on another sermon. But now inside this somewhat odd chunk carved out of Deuteronomy by the Revised Common Lectionary we get Moses talking inside his own sermon about other future sermons that might be delivered by whatever prophets God might raise up in Israel through whom to speak his truth. So if preaching a sermon based on another sermon is a wheel within a wheel, then preaching on this part of Deuteronomy 18 adds one more layer to all that!
The premise of this text is easy enough to state and summarize. Since direct communication with Almighty God had proven to be a knee-buckling, white-knuckle experience for the Israelites, God had for a very long time spoken through Moses. But since Deuteronomy represents Moses’ swan-song sermon to Israel there on the Plains of Moab just before the people would finally enter the Promised Land, Moses takes care to assure the people that future prophets like himself would be raised up so that the communication pipeline between Yahweh and his covenant people would continue to be utilized. The message would still flow in the post-Moses era.
Before he finishes delivering this piece of news, however, Moses takes care to remind the people—in case they did need a reminder, and their history across the last forty years would indicate that they did need the reminder!—that the job he had been doing in their midst all along had not been very easy. It was a high stakes enterprise. One false move, one mangled reportage of the divine message, and the prophet would be in serious trouble. (And let’s not even talk about the prophet who spoke on behalf of another god or religion altogether!)
Maybe Moses was remembering—even as he spoke these words—his own failure at the rock some years ago. God told him to speak to the rock, he whacked it with his staff instead, and even that little switch-up of the divine message was enough to get Moses banished from the Promised Land for good. Did Moses wince as he spoke the words contained in verse 19? We’re not told but if an involuntary shudder went up and down his spine, you could hardly blame him. But this may have been also Moses’ way of telling the people, “Don’t think that any Tom, Dick, or Harry can take my place. Before presuming to take over being the mouthpiece for God, you’d better be more than a little certain you have been so called by God and even then be more than a little aware that one false syllable could land you in serious difficulty!”
But that’s about the sum total of this passage. As a Lectionary selection, it might be difficult for many of us preachers to get a whole sermon out of this. Still, it is a reminder of how vital and precious God’s Word is as well as what is at stake in getting that Word across to God’s people. It is a wonder that any preacher even today yet dares to undertake this task. I confess that although there are still times I get very nervous before preaching, the reasons underlying the nervousness are seldom what they should be (namely, a fear of messing up God’s message). And across the many years when I occupied the same pulpit month after month and week after week, there were many Sundays when I did not experience a flutter of nerves at all.
In some ways that seems to be OK. After all, God has made each of us now a Temple of God’s Holy Spirit. What’s more, unlike in Moses’ day, we now have the great gift of having an inspired written record of God’s revelation to us and so although it remains fully possible to get things wrong in sermons, the guardrails are more firmly in place now (even as the community itself can call the preacher back to his senses in case a sermon seems clearly at variance with the written Word of God as found in the text).
Even so, preaching is a vital activity and if much has changed in the millennia since Moses spoke these words to Israel about how God would get his Word across in their day, much has remained the same, too. God’s people need God’s Word and even if it is true that today they can read that Word for devotions all on their own, the task of preaching has not contracted in importance just because people all own their own copies of the Bible. It remains a central task of the church and, in many places, remains also a vital component of the worship service as well.
And yet . . . it is finally a spoken word. Very near the heart of the Christian experience is a person talking. That’s how God got his Word across to Israel, too. It did not necessarily make Israel the most attractive religion in the region! Eugene Peterson commented somewhere that had he been alive around the time of ancient Israel and had been faced with a choice among the then-viable religious options in the Ancient Near East, he is not at all sure he would have been lured particularly toward the faith of Israel. There were any number of spiritualties and religions around that were far more colorful, far more exciting, far more physically (if not sexually) engaging than the comparatively staid and stricture-laden religion of Yahweh. Other religions had gods you could see and hold and touch. Other religions located the divine in the cycles of nature that everyone could observe and participate in. But Israel’s God could not even be depicted and was clearly completely separate from the physical forms of nature and the earth and the sky.
The situation is not that different today. There are other faiths that are easier to follow—and sometimes more colorful and engaging to follow—than the Christian faith. What’s more, some of those religions don’t carry a few millennia’ worth of historical baggage with them. No one ever accuses New Age-like crystal gazers or Scientology devotees of fostering past pogroms and crusades. Some of these other faiths also don’t call for sacrifice the way Christianity does and do not force one to the foot of a bloody cross that looks suspiciously to some like a sordid form of child abuse.
People today do have spiritual options and do encounter spiritual crosscurrents! And if in ancient Israel the idea of God’s truth coming across through the simple use of an ordinary human voice looked a little less exciting than other religious options, really the same thing is true today. Some years ago a denomination in Canada was facing the prospect of being bankrupted by some lawsuits. It looked like the church would lose much or all of its property and assets in the process. One day a reporter asked one of the pastors of that denomination what they were going to do in the face of such potentially huge losses. But this pastor was thoughtful and deeply insightful when he replied, “In the end all we need is a little water, a little bread, a little wine, and someone to explain God’s truth. If we have that, we will be fine and the church will go on.”
A little water, a little bread, a little wine, and a human voice. As Deuteronomy 18 foreshadows for us, that’s all we need to live in and to receive God’s truth. Such simple things face powerful spiritual competition, and we dare not give in to the current zeitgeist that tempts one to say that one form of spirituality is as good as the next, the main thing being that someone have some kind of spirituality going for him or her. Instead we go on proclaiming God’s truth and reveling in the wonder of the simple ways by which, for 2,000 years, God has brought his Word to his people.
In the final Harry Potter movie and book (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), there is a scene in which Harry meets up with the deceased former headmaster of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizadry, Albus Dumbledore. At one point during their visionary conversation, Dumbledore quotes back to Harry a clever phrase he had once uttered. He then says something to the effect, “I’ve always prided myself on being able to turn a phrase. Words are, Harry, in my not-too-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic.”
Dumbledore was reminding Harry of something we all know intuitively and that we all experience on nearly a daily basis: words are powerful. They have the power to soothe as well as the power to wound. Words create scars that remain far longer than even most physical scars last. Even the disembodied words that come across in an email, in a text message, or on the phone can lift our hearts up into the sunlight of joy or plunge us into the darkness of despair.
God knows the power of words. The Bible tells us he created the world through his Word. And before that Bible is finished it is clear that we are also saved through a Word made flesh. Preachers who traffic in words in order to communicate the one saving Word likewise know: words are our most inexhaustible source of, not magic, but of life-giving power!
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 1, 2015
Deuteronomy 18:15-20 Commentary