Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 25, 2020
Deuteronomy 34:1-12 Commentary
How fitting it is that the life of Moses should end as it does! The man who spent all those days up on Mt. Sinai speaking to God face to face comes to the end of his days on Mt. Nebo speaking face to face with God. And the God who miraculously saved Moses at his birth will miraculously save Moses in his death. What a peak moment this is for Moses and for Israel!
I have stood on Mt. Nebo and I can tell you that Moses could not have seen the entire Promised Land from there. It’s physically impossible. God must have given Moses some supernatural vision, so that “on a clear day [he] could see forever,” as the old song put it. With that in mind, it strikes me that we can preach on this text in two very different ways. As Moses stood on Mt. Nebo, he could look backward and forward. God instructs him to look forward to the Promised Land, but he might have glanced back to the Exodus and those 40 years in the wilderness. Thus, your sermon could be a retrospective look at God’s actions for Israel through Moses or a prospective look at God’s actions after Moses. Or you could do both.
If we look backward with Moses, we will see God’s mysterious leading, God’s mighty deliverance, God’s miraculous provision, Israel’s monstrous rebellion, Israel’s many battles, Israel’s meek faith, and Moses’ marvelous encounters with God. I know, a little alliteration is a good thing, but that much can be nauseating. Give me a break. I had fun coming up with all that and it just might help your people remember the complex history of God and Israel (and us).
Looking back, we can see God’s mysterious leading. When God first brought Israel out of Egypt, the Promised Land lay straight ahead about a hundred miles to the north and east along the coast of the Mediterranean. Instead God led them to make a sharp right turn and travel by the desert road that ran along the western edge of the Sinai Peninsula to the Red Sea and the wilderness beyond.
Why did God lead them on the hard route? Why does God lead us in such difficult ways? Well, God explained that hard right turn in Exodus 13:17-18. Ahead of them by the more direct route lay the warlike Philistines. And God said, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” Which is a specific way of saying a general truth—that God’s mysterious leading always has a very good and loving reason, even if we don’t have a clue what it is.
Looking back, we can also see God’s mighty deliverance. Just down the road from the that mysterious turn into the desert, Moses saw Israel trapped like rats on the shores of the Red Sea with Pharaoh’s army pounding down on them. The people cried, “It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert.” What’s the point of being saved if it leads to trouble like this?
Moses cried to the Lord in Exodus 14 and God answered. “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today….” The sea parted and Israel passed through on dry ground, then the sea crashed back and Pharaoh’s hosts were drowned. If we look back at life through the eyes of Moses, we will see God’s hand delivering us in ways we could never have imagined, and have often forgotten.
Again, looking at life through the eyes of Moses, we can see God’s miraculous provision. On the other side of the Red Sea was the terrible wilderness of Sinai where there was no water, no food, no possible way for God’s people to stay alive on their journey to the Promised Land. Once again, Israel hankered for slavery in Egypt where they at least had plenty of food and drink.
But in the wilderness, they had a God who could provide in miraculous ways—turning bitter water sweet, raining bread from heaven and blowing quails all over the camp, and providing water from a rock. We might not see that kind of miracle if we do a retrospective on our lives, but if we look through the eyes of Moses, we will see God’s provision everywhere.
Sadly, when we look back, we might see the kind of monstrous rebellion Israel staged at the foot of Sinai. While Moses was up on that mountain receiving the life-giving Law of Yahweh, the Israelites demanded that Aaron make them a god they could see and touch. Aaron complied and pointing to the Golden Calf he said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.
As Moses stood on Nebo, he could vividly recall God’s terrible anger at such monstrous rebellion. With shuddering wonder at his own temerity, Moses remembered how he placed himself between his holy God and these unholy people. “Please forgive their sin,” he cried. Then, in words that anticipated Christ’s work on the cross, he said, “If not, then blot me out of the book you have written.” Which reminds us of how often God has forgiven our monstrous rebellion, when we turned away from the God who has delivered us with his mighty hand and put our faith in the products of our own hands and minds.
Further, as he looked back, Moses could see many battles—with the Amalekites, the Midianites, the Edomites, the Moabites, and the Canaanites. The first battle was the model for the rest. As long as Moses held up his arms in blessing over the battle with the Amalekites, Israel won. As long as God’s blessing was upon them, they defeated their enemies.
So it is with us, whose main battle is not with flesh and blood, but with the spiritual hosts of wickedness. Yes, we weary of the constant struggle of the Christian life. Why can’t we have peace always and everywhere? Well, as Moses looked back, he remembered that assurance from God that there is always a reason. In Exodus 23:29-30, God explained why the conquest of Canaan would take so long. Immediate victory would leave much of the land unoccupied and it would become desolate wasteland filled with prowling beasts.
Our look backward is nearly over, but we must remember our meek faith. Israel showed theirs when they stood at the border of the Promised Land after 2 years in the wilderness. Twelve spies had been sent into the Land to see what was there. Two said that it was good and ripe for conquest, while ten said it was filled with unconquerable enemies. Despite all the mighty things God had already done for them, Israel let their fear kill their faith and they wanted to return to slavery in Egypt.
Although God forgave that weak faith because of the intercession of Moses, Israel suffered the earthly consequences of their faithlessness. Israel wandered for the next 38 years until every last one of the fearful ones had died in the wilderness. As he stood on Nebo, Moses saw how confused and desperate life becomes when we refuse to move ahead because we don’t trust God.
Finally, Moses must have remembered all of his marvelous encounters with God. His meeting with God right after the Golden Calf debacle summarized all the others. Moses pleaded with God, “Let me see your face. Show me your glory.” God said, “No, because then you would die. But I will hide you in the cleft of a rock and cover you with my hand. And I will pass by you… and you will see my back.” That’s the way it is with our marvelous encounters with God. We rarely see him coming, but as we review the past, we see the back of God who has passed by in his grace. The only way we see the glory of God is in the face of Christ. As John 1 puts it, “We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
So now Moses is looking ahead into the Land, having been reminded that he will not be allowed to go in. Instead he will die alone on Mt Nebo. It’s a sad end to a wonderful story. As we stand here, peering into our unknown future, this story of Moses lonely death reminds us of some sobering but salutary truths
First, this story reminds us of the unbreakable connection between evil done and evil suffered, the ultimate expression of which is, “the wages of sin is death.” Moses was not allowed to enter the Land because of his sin at Kadesh out in the wilderness. As Israel faced yet another waterless moment, God told Moses to speak to a rock. Instead, Moses angrily did it his way and struck the rock as he had before. For that lack of trust and obedience, God said, “you will not bring them into the land….”
That sounds harsh to us. After all, Moses had served God faithfully for years. Then he commits one little sin and God rejects him. No, not reject. God does not reject his children, no matter how they sin. God continues to walk with Moses all the way to Nebo. And though he was not allowed to enter the Promised Land over the Jordan, Moses did make it to the ultimate Promised Land that is heaven. We know that, because in the Gospels we see him and Elijah talking with Jesus on another mountain. Sin cannot break the bonds of God’s covenant love for us, but it does bring earthly consequences, even to those whose sins are forgiven. Which should make us more careful how we trust and obey.
Second, this story shows us that we might not finish what we begin. But that’s OK if we give our lives to something worthwhile. While Moses got Israel out of Egypt, he didn’t get to see them in the Promised Land. The same is true for us. We may not see the fruit of our labor until eternity.
But there is an eternity. And in eternity we will receive the reward for what we are building in life’s little day. Even if we don’t see the completion of our life work, a half-finished temple is better than a completed pigsty. As I Cor. 3:10ff puts it, “Each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any person builds on this foundation, using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay…, he will receive his reward.”
Third, Moses’ story shows us that we will not die alone, even if no one else is there. No one sees Moses die; no one buries him; no one knows where his grave is to this day. But God was there with Moses, speaking, closing his eyes, digging his grave, laying him to rest. In his last moment, Moses experienced the ultimate truth of the words he had spoken in the previous chapter. “Underneath are the everlasting arms.”
Finally, this story points us to Jesus Christ. It ends with the claim that “no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses whom the Lord knew face to face, who did all those miraculous signs and wonders….” But that changed with the coming of Jesus, who fulfilled the promise of Deut. 18:15-18 about a prophet like Moses who would come one day. According to Hebrews 3:1-6, Moses was just a servant in the house of God while Jesus was the Son who rules over the house of God.
If Moses experienced the wages of sin in his life, Jesus paid the debt for all our sin in his death. If Moses’ death was lonely because no human was there, Jesus’ death was the loneliest because even God had forsaken him. If Moses’ grave is occupied and unknown to this day, Jesus’ grave stands open and empty forever. If Moses is dead and gone, Jesus is the same, yesterday, today, and forever.
We do not know what the future holds, but of this we can be sure—God is with us. Earlier I referred to those words of John 1 about Jesus and God’s glory. In that same text we read this: “The law came through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” God spoke the law to Moses. “I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.” God speaks grace to us. “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal lie through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 6:23).”
In Deut. 32, we hear the bitter Song of Moses. But as we have pondered Moses’ life, I wonder if his life isn’t summed up better in a more recent song. “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me; I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see. Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come. ‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”
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