Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 29, 2023
Deuteronomy 34:1-12 Commentary
Preamble: Although this text comes to us through the ordinary three-year lectionary cycle, it also lands with particularly distressing and uncomfortable timing. As war rages over the lands once promised to Moses, I urge pastors to tread lightly, as I have attempted to do here. First, we acknowledge that the modern nation-state of Israel is not synonymous with the People of God in Hebrew Scripture. Second, God as revealed throughout the Pentateuch is God on the side of the landless, the dispossessed and oppressed. Today, on these ancient lands, no one people group has exclusive claim to those attributes. Third, may the Holy Spirit grant us wisdom as we love both the ancient texts and the present-day people who hear them.
Comments, Observations and Questions:
Grieving Well: Several liturgical holidays pile up around these Sundays at the end of October and the beginning of November. All Saints Day, November 1, is typically celebrated the Sunday after rather than before. Additionally, some Christian churches may choose to acknowledge Reformation Day on one of these two Sundays. This text gives a wonderful platform to celebrate the lives of the Protestant Reformers, who shared much in common with Moses, especially in being used by God despite human weakness. Similarly, the people taking time — 30 days — to mourn and grieve before moving into the Promised Land offers those who might be hesitant or ashamed of their grief to also take time, to remember and honor the lives of those lost in the previous year … or much longer ago than that.
What Gets Edited Out of the Eulogy: These 12 verses, short by the standard of the rest of the book, are a eulogy to Moses. However, just as often habits when we praise the dead, the whole story doesn’t show up here. In fact, whereas Moses life is heralded a triumph, his death comes as punishment for sin, impatience and leading in his own way, rather than according to God’s instruction. This tension is subtle in the text but theologically important. While Moses is a type of Christ (as we see below), he was not perfect or sinless. Rather, Moses demonstrates a theological anthropology that allows for great success and great failure to coexist in God’s people, even in the leaders of God’s people. And Moses’ example — throughout the whole Pentateuch — serves as a poignant example that God is creative in using flawed people to accomplish God’s purposes.
A Greater Moses: Whereas, we can review the whole text of the book of Deuteronomy (and, indeed, the whole Penteteuch) to discern that Moses was a leader who persevered in prayer, who held onto faith and held it out to a faithless people and, in both these ways, mediated between God and humanity. However, as is often the case with eulogies, this one reframes our focus on Moses as a prophet, who worked miracles at God’s command, liberating God’s people, and acted with great power. All that Moses has done evidences this most marvelous claim: Moses was a leader “who knew God face to face.”
In each of these ways, Moses serves as a type of Christ, who persevered in prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, who remained faithful and offered faith to those who followed him and who was the ultimate mediator between God and humankind, especially in his sacrificial death on the cross. Jesus was also a prophet, working miracles, liberating God’s people from sin and death who showed the world great signs and wonders. Most notably, Jesus modeled and taught us a new way of relating to God — as Father, an intimate knowledge not unlike that of Moses “who knew God face to face.”
On the Threshold of a Kingdom: Following the same train of thought that uses Moses as a type of Christ, we name one last similarity: in their death — and in the case of Christ, his resurrection — the path lay open to a new and promised land. A sermon on this text might do well to lean into the image of God’s people on the threshold of a promise. In ancient times, the promise was for a literal land whereas Christ’s followers today await a promise of the whole earth being renewed, re-created.
Scholars of Christianity and popular culture have made numerous links between the story of Simba in The Lion King with the life of Moses. Growing up with privilege but run out of town after a shameful accusation, Simba sees his people oppressed by the evil Scar and has to grow up and step up into leadership in order to save his people. If you choose to “eulogize” Moses in your sermon on the text eulogizing Moses, this overlay may prove helpful. Or you could always turn to the more obvious choice: The Prince of Egypt.
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