Proper 25A

October 20, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 22:34-46

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary

    Deuteronomy 34:1-12

    Author: Scott Hoezee

    Sample Sermons

    Sample Sermon: “Unfinished Lives?”

    I once heard presidential historian and biographer Robert Dallek give a lecture that was particularly focused on this then-latest book, a biography of John F. Kennedy titled An Unfinished Life. Not surprisingly, in the question-and-answer time following the lecture, a few people inquired about Dallek’s opinions related to the bevy of conspiracy theories that surround JFK’s assassination. Dallek stated his own opinion that the Warren Commission Report, though not perfect, largely got it right. John Kennedy was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald, who acted alone out of a deep pathology and rage.

    That appeared to be the simple and straightforward fact of the matter from almost the very beginning. So why is there to this day an ever-burgeoning cottage industry promoting any number of conspiracy theories that claim it was the Mafia, the military-industrial complex, Castro, the Soviets, or even Vice-President Lyndon Johnson that actually used Oswald as their fall guy?

    Dallek said he is convinced that it is because we simply will not accept that the most powerful man in the world, the president of the United States, could be cut down by no more than a sawed off little two-bit moron. John F. Kennedy had been so very full of life and vigor. The image of Camelot he and Jackie presented charmed people as did the Kennedy confidence.  So it was simply inconceivable that he could be killed by a nobody. The same phenomenon happened in Britain when Princess Diana was killed in a car accident. Diana was too lofty, too beautiful, to die in so ordinary a way. And so conspiracy theories abounded for a time.

    Leaders hold great sway over our imaginations. When they die, we seek to imbue their lives, and even their very deaths, with something more, something that will make the leader’s passing seem finally different than what happens to all those ordinary folks whose names you can see in the Obituary section of the newspaper every single day.

    Something like that happened surrounding the death of Moses, too. There had never been anyone like Moses. Nevermind that the Bible is honest about Moses’ faults, foibles, and weaknesses. Even despite the things that made him utterly human, Moses’ stature in Israel was unassailable. The story of his rescue from the Nile River by Pharaoh’s daughter has charmed children and adults alike for three millennia now.  His epic battles with Pharaoh, and those amazing ten plagues God worked through the hand of Moses, are the stuff of high drama.  When Moses held forth his hand, the Red Sea split open.  When Moses withdrew his hand, the waters rushed back overtop of the horse and rider of Egypt.  It was Moses’ voice that spoke to the people the very words of God.  It was Moses who did all the amazing things that happened in the wilderness for four whole decades.

    Of course, and upon reflection, the people knew that it was Yahweh their God who actually did everything (well, on good days they knew that!). Moses was just a conduit, just the pipeline that channeled God’s power, and Moses would have been the first to make that clear. Had Moses detected even a whiff of hero worship being directed his way, he would have fallen flat on his face and begged God to forgive the people for their foolishness even as he would have told the people in shrill tones to worship the Lord their God and serve him alone!

    Still, the human heart cannot but help esteem the leader through whom God works. Even when you were finished tossing out all the necessary caveats and theological nuances, the fact is that it was Moses’ face the people had grown accustomed to seeing. When Moses looked calm, they could be calm. When Moses looked troubled, they got nervous. When Moses looked angry, they shook in their sandals awaiting the judgment of God.  It was Moses’ voice that had been the voice of Yahweh. And what’s more, the people knew that Moses was that rarest of persons whom God himself loved so much as to speak to him directly.  And afterwards, when Moses’ face shined like the sun, it was the afterglow of God’s own glory they saw.  How could the people not reverence Moses the man?

    But then one day he was just gone. He went up into the mountains and never came back. It was obvious he was dead, but there could be no funeral, no burial rites. Apparently God himself had buried Moses, and Deuteronomy 34 makes clear that no one ever did find out where. Maybe it was a good thing because had the site of Moses’ grave been known, it would have been mighty tempting to establish a shrine there.

    But even as the human heart resists believing that a strong and dashing figure like JFK could be mowed down by a scrawny thug, so Israel eventually could not resist the urge to imbue Moses’ death with something more epic. And so in the apocryphal books of the Old Testament, we read the story of what is called “The Assumption of Moses.” This is one of the very few apocryphal stories to which a reference is made in the canonical Scripture.  If you look in the New Testament at Jude 9-10, you will read a cryptic reference to the story.  After Moses died on Mount Nebo, the archangel Michael was given the task of spiriting away Moses’ body and then burying it. But the devil made some kind of challenge to Michael and attempted to steal Moses away. According to the story, Michael rebuked the devil in the name of Yahweh and that was the end of that.

    Well, that’s quite a story, and I think we can guess why someone came up with it. Someone as grand, glorious, holy, and famous as Moses could not simply disappear into the mountain mists one day, never to be seen or heard from again. If the people could not hold a proper funeral for Moses, if they could not have a sacred gravesite to venerate in future generations, then at the very least they would imbue his death with even more drama than what you can find in Deuteronomy 34.

    After all, this is a pretty short chapter. It is the end of the Pentateuch, which is hands-down the most seminal set of Scriptures for Jews past and present (and which has gone on to be held in the highest regard by Christians as well). Yet from what we get in chapter 34, the whole thing just kind of fizzles out. It ends with a whimper, not a bang.

    And so at some point in history, some well-meaning author rounded the tale out with a bit more angelic and demonic razzle-dazzle–some taut drama worthy of Moses. But if we are not going to believe that particular story, then we are indeed left with this rather short story in which Moses does not speak a single word. He was just gone. He died like any other. He died like we all must die one day. Yet there may well be something very instructive about that fact, too.

    As Frederick Buechner has written, whenever Hollywood wants to make a movie involving Moses, they inevitably cast someone like Charlton Heston for the part (and now in late 2014 we have Christian Bale—the Batman!!—coming in the role of Moses in a new movie). They glue some fake whiskers on the strapping actor’s face and then have him deliver all his lines in a big, booming voice that sounds like the living inner sanctum itself. But, Buechner mused, probably the real Moses looked less like a bronzed southern California type with sculpted muscles and rugged good looks and more like Tevye, the corner grocer who looked like he had gone fifteen rounds with Mike Tyson. From the start Moses had been weak of voice, a stutterer. There is no indication he was very good looking.

    But no matter how he looked when he went nose-to-nose with Pharaoh way back when, after forty years of wilderness wanderings, Moses surely looked beat up a bit. Deuteronomy 34 tells us his eyes remained clear and his strength was still good, but if that was so at the age of 120, you wonder why he died at all!  Maybe Moses was still comparatively strong even at the end, but then again, maybe that comment in verse 7 is right up there with those folks who look into a casket and say, “She looks so good.” Perhaps she does, but I warrant if you had seen that person ever look like that on any day when she was still alive, you would have said, “What’s wrong? You look like death!”

    After all, for four decades Moses had been running himself ragged. The Israelite complaint box was always stuffed with notes. Mrs. Klein wants new recipes for how to prepare manna. They are sick to death of the same old, same old every day. Mr. Reubens wonders if even Moses occasionally finds himself wishing for a little onion and green pepper to spice up their diet the way they had done back in good old Egypt, and so what was Moses going to do about it.

    On and on it went, and as if that all were not bad enough, every once in a while something so bad happened, that Moses had to engage in some serious spiritual brinkmanship to keep God from wiping out the whole lot of the Israelites and just starting from scratch with Moses. It’s not that Moses couldn’t sympathize with God’s rage, but frankly he was too tired even to consider the notion that he would have to become the father of an entire new nation of folks. So if he wasn’t holding and patting the hands of his perpetually whiny people, he was staying the hand of no less than the Almighty himself.

    And he got tired. Yet in the end, for reasons we’re never completely clear about, the man who was more tired than anyone was told he would not enter the very land of rest toward which he had been leading the people from the get-go. Oh sure, there was that incident when Moses hit the rock instead of speaking to it, but there is nothing in that incident that really explains why a singular lapse was enough to wipe out a lifetime of spiritual merit and holy obedience.  But sometimes that’s just the way it goes: the leader cannot arrive at the destination to which he had led the people. Abraham didn’t either.

    Something similar would happen to David. To his mind, the piece-de-resistance, the coup-de-grace, the crowning achievement of all he had accomplished as king over Israel would have been building God a grand and glorious Temple. And God said no, leave that to your boy Solomon. Abraham, Moses, David, and so many others never quite made it to the place toward which they had been trekking their whole lives long. As Hebrews 11 so eloquently put it, they could only at best see from a distance that city, that undiscovered country, that God had prepared for them. In the end, they died in faith the same as they had lived by faith, on a wing and a prayer and a promise, all their live-long days.

    But that’s frustrating. Maybe it was frustrating for those people themselves but it is also now frustrating to us as readers of their stories. So, perhaps like the Israelite who invented the story about the archangel and the devil disputing over Moses’ body, we also try to fill in the gaps, round out the narratives, create more of a Hollywood-esque happy ending. But mostly those attempts end up with fiction, not fact.

    In the long run, it took something more for anyone to make it to what had been all along the end destination. It took something more, or better said, it took Someone more. It took the One whose own life seemed to come to a dead end. If ever someone appeared to die as a failure, it was Jesus. To this day there are scholars who claim that after all his glowing talk about a kingdom, Jesus himself must have died with an overwhelming sense of disappointment. Talk about missing the mark and not fulfilling your career goals! In the end Jesus was literally crossed-out by the Romans. A giant black X got scrawled over top of his name. “Jesus of Nazareth.” Swish-swish, and with that double-stroke of the quill, he was eliminated from the census rolls. Like so many before him–like Moses himself–Jesus had had a good run of it for a while there but in the end he simply fell short. Too bad. Such a shame. It’s always heartbreaking to see dreams shattered and hopes deferred.

    Yet we don’t look at the cross and say that Jesus had an unfinished life, that the cross spells the end of anything worthwhile he might have done. If your favorite team loses the Super Bowl or if the stock into which you invested a lot of capital tanks, you angrily snap your fingers, hang your head, and in disappointment blurt out “Shoot! Nuts!” But that is not what Good Friday is about?

    Instead we look at Jesus and see the only one who ever really did make it. Paradoxically and against all odds and expectations, Jesus is the One who made it to that far country, and Easter morning is not only the proof that this is so, it also demonstrates that the way for us to follow him is now wide open. Of course, critics and cynics say that the tale of the resurrection is right up there with conspiracy theories about JFK or the apocryphal story about Moses and Michael: we just can’t deal with the death of our messianic leader and so we invented a story to round things out in a happier way.

    Without the gift of faith, you can understand why people say that. But by faith we see something very different in the entire run of Jesus’ life, and not merely at the end. We see in Christ Jesus our Lord the fitting ending for all our stories, including all those lives that seemed so unfinished, that seemed to fall short of the goal and just shy of the visions of glory that so many people had harbored in their heart of hearts all along. Truth is, without Jesus we would all lead unfinished lives. But with Jesus, things are very different.

    Moses never shows up again in the Bible after Deuteronomy 34 until that luminous and yet profoundly mysterious day of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountaintop. Suddenly there was Moses again standing right next to Jesus and apparently having a nice chat. Peter was so happy about it all that he blurted out, “This must be the living end! Can we just stop everything and stay here forever?!” Jesus understood what Peter was getting at, but his unwillingness to let Peter hit history’s “Pause” button at just that point was a way for Jesus to as much as say, “No, Peter, this is not the end. Not yet. Keep following a bit more.”

    And so they did until, a little while later, Jesus was on a cross. It looked very unhopeful but then Jesus himself rasped out, “It is finished!” He didn’t say, “I am finished.” Because what he meant is that the whole story of all creation, from first to last, was accomplished, completed, wrapped up in fine fashion. And so when Jesus said, “It is finished,” what the rest of us can now hear is that we are finished, too. Our very lives are no longer unfinished but finished off in the sense of crossing the finish line. In Christ, Abraham, Moses, David, and every one of us no longer falls short of the goal but is whisked along by grace to that heavenly city whose light is the Lamb. We ourselves don’t need to round out Moses’ story or Jesus’ story or anyone’s story.

    It is already finished.

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle +

    1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

    Author: Stan Mast