Sermon: Reflections on the Death of Moses—Deuteronomy 24 and Psalm 90

This Sunday (the Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost,  October 26, 2014) we be reading the story of the death of Moses. This is a reflection I wrote in preparation for that.

From Deuteronomy 34.1-12 (ESV):
Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho. And the LORD showed him all the land, Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the western sea, the Negeb, and the Plain, that is, the Valley of Jericho the city of palm trees, as far as Zoar. And the LORD said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, ‘I will give it to your offspring.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there.” So Moses the servant of the LORD died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the LORD, and he buried him in the valley in the land of Moab opposite Beth-peor; but no one knows the place of his burial to this day. Moses was 120 years old when he died. His eye was undimmed, and his vigor unabated. And the people of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days. Then the days of weeping and mourning for Moses were ended.

And Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands on him. So the people of Israel obeyed him and did as the LORD had commanded Moses. And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, none like him for all the signs and the wonders that the LORD sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, and for all the mighty power and all the great deeds of terror that Moses did in the sight of all Israel.

I am convinced this is what God will do, if we let him, to all of us when we die. Instead for us it’ll be something like: “I want you to look over there: you see all those kids? Those are your great-grandkids. You’ll never meet them. Alright, look over there: those are all the books you bought you’ll never read. Hopefully one of your kids will take good care of them and read them—or maybe they’ll just end up at Goodwill. Now over there: those are all the projects you’ll never finish; the gardening, the writing, the music, the exercise. I hope you’ve done a good enough job passing on what you know to the next generation, so they carry on what you gave them. Oooo…(God winces), look over there. Those are all the meals you’ll be missing out on. I think there’s even a new flavor of ice cream in there. Sorry. And finally over there: look at all those people. That’s everyone you ever poured your life into. They’re going to go do amazing things (with my help). I’m just sorry you won’t be here to see it. But well done. This is your life. These are all the things you set in motion that will live on after you are gone. This is what remains of you on the earth."

But pay attention to the text. Moses isn’t the only one who is missing out on all God has promised. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are also not there to see any of this happen (pre-echoing Hebrews chapter 11). What God started through them centuries ago was furthered on—more than anyone could imagine—through Moses, and now Moses himself has to pass of the work of God to someone else. He has to entrust God’s call to the next generation. His trust has to be in both the Lord who called him and then called Joshua, and then in Joshua himself. But it’s hard to let go. It’s hard to look back on all you’ve done and survey everything you never quite got to and let someone else take over. To believe that the vision has been passed down, that whoever is taking on the mantle, the call, has the same passion and wisdom and perseverance to carry through and see the job done—this requires much faith.

But what choice do we have? Who wants to die without peace, in an unsettled state? No, for the most part we want our deaths to be a letting go, a beautiful giving over. This is what Moses does, as sad as it must have been for him. God gives him the deeply bittersweet opportunity to look out over all that he allowed the children of Israel to have, which is also all that he will never partake of himself. It would have been nice to be allowed to live a few years longer, to set up a simple house to dwell in, to rest while Joshua took over, and just breathe in the Promised Land. But this is not Moses’ lot (for some significant reasons), and neither is it anyone’s lot. For we all must eventually let go and let others take over for us. The question is to what extant will we freely give our lives over, gifting our legacy to the next generation? Will we hold on tightly, making a bitter end for ourselves and our progeny, denying to all the sweetness that should accompany even the bitter moments of our passing?

Sometimes the people will even mourn for you—maybe for thirty days even. Oh to be so special. Moses must have left an impact. But eventually they had to move on. They hadf to set their heads to the task at hand, carry on the work and take up the task of their generation, doing what God is calling them to in their time and place. Even though there wasn’t a prophet like him before or since, still, he couldn’t live forever. He had to go when it was his time. God gave him a tremendous gift by allowing him to look over the land he had brought his people to, but still he had to let go. They were to receive another gift, one he couldn't partake of, although it was mainly because of him that they were to receive it.

From Psalm 90:1-6 (ESV):
Lord, you have been our dwelling place
in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
You return man to dust
and say, “Return, O children of man!”
For a thousand years in your sight
are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night.
You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning:
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.
For we are brought to an end by your anger;
by your wrath we are dismayed.
You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your presence.
For all our days pass away under your wrath;
we bring our years to an end like a sigh.
The years of our life are seventy,
or even by reason of strength eighty;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.
Who considers the power of your anger,
and your wrath according to the fear of you?
So teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom.
Return, O LORD! How long?
Have pity on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
and for as many years as we have seen evil.
Let your work be shown to your servants,
and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
and establish the work of our hands upon us;
yes, establish the work of our hands!

I want you to feel incredibly small. Insignificant, even. I want you to feel tiny and powerless. I want you to feel like a dot, a drop within a bucket. I want you to feel like a temporary fleeting moment that pops up and then "poof" is gone.

I want you to feel all those things but I also want you to feel incomparably cherished. I want you to know you are loved beyond what you could ever realize...

Our lives pass by like a sigh. (Hah….) And those days are full of toil and trouble. There is something within us that makes us think we are exempt, that we deserving of a trouble-free life, that things should come easy for us. We are surprised when life is hard, when things don’t pan out as we’d hoped. But the Psalm makes it clear: your life will be short (even if you live for a 1,000 years!) and your life will be hard.

And so we are reminded to “number our days.” To understand that from the beginning we are winding down, as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow has said:
…Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.

And so why are we even here? If our days are short and our labors long why have we been put here at all? Again the Psalm is clear on why, but this time it is carried in a cry to the Lord:
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love
That we may rejoice and be glad all our days.

This is the first reason we are here: to know the love of God, our savior, who lives in eternity, who made us, temporal as we are. And living in that love that we may live rejoicing and being glad—for all our days.

The second reason we are here, according to the Psalm, is this:
Let the favor of the Lord God be upon us,
And establish the work of our hands upon us;
Yes, establish the work of our hands.

And so living and rejoicing in God’s love, the highest aim we can ever hope to achieve is that God would bless the work of our hands. We know we have work to do and we know when we leave this place there will be work left to do. And through it all may our hope be that God blesses that work and establishes it; that he works in and through us; that our work be his work; that we know the goodness of being alive of knowing the good God who gave us this life to live.

In the midst of all this do you hear the Scripture calling us to prayer in the moments after the Psalm ends, as well as in the moments just after Moses passes? We’ve already asked the Lord to establish the work of our hands. 

“So,” we now say, “what is that work oh Lord? What are we to do now?" We must pray. We must seek his wisdom. We must receive his strength. Oh Lord, though Moses has gone away, surely you’ll still be with us. Surely your blessing will continue. 

And so we go on, praying, working, believing, rejoicing, living in God’s love…

And so here is what I gather the purpose of prayer is, at least according to these passages from Deuteronomy and the Psalms. There are two: 
1. We pray to know God in this life, to experience his presence, to let his love cover us and fill us, to allow him to be our dwelling place. That the entirety of our lives is a dwelling with God. 
2. We pray in order to let God be present through every moment of our lives and to work through us as we do our own work. To invite him in to everything we do and have his blessing on it.

Perhaps we don’t necessarily see it this way, but this is prayer, this dwelling in God’s presence. So, when we talk about “having a quiet time” we often see it as a kind of law we need to keep, as in “I have to go PRAY to God now. This is something I HAVE to do. I am OBLIGATED. I have to have my QUIET TIME.” (the caps are said as obnoxiously as possible) But I think these verses turn all that on its head. Here we see our prayer lives as a kind of divine love affair. Not to be crass, but who among us that are married ever says, “Alright, we HAVE to have sex now. We’re OBLIGATED.” And I’m sure people have had sex before under those kinds of pre-conditions, but we all know they’d be missing the point. Or what about somebody approaching every meal of their lives begrudgingly: “Alright, OK, I guess I’ll eat. IF I HAVE TO! What are we having? Pizza? Oh well, that's FINE."

You see, we don’t approach the things in life that bring us the most joy and satisfaction and meaning out of some kind of obedience to the law. Sure there are some legal things being fulfilled there, as in, you have to have nutrients in order to live or you have to have sex in order to make kids or experience physical intimacy in a relationship, but the “law” in these instances are bound up in the utter joy of these things. We only begrudgingly eat vegetables to get nutrients, but as adults we often find ways to truly enjoy the vegetables we ate as a child. That is to say, as we mature, even the stuff we HAVE to do that we find tedious or a kind of rule following end up being a joy in the end.

And so we don’t go to God because we HAVE to. We don’t go to God because we begrudgingly NEED him. We go to God because he is everything—the source of all life and truth and love and peace and forgiveness and justice. God is the perfect meal, he is the ultimate intimacy, he is every breath. God is the joy of working a long day and he is also the restful sleep we get at night to recuperate. God is our shelter in the storm and he is also the armor giving us strength in battle.

This is why we go to God. This is why we “spend time” with God. It is a daily call not out of legalistic duty to some law devoid of meaning. Instead, it is a law that brings us joy. We are drawn to God like we are drawn to our next breath. We need it. We want it. 

I almost want to kind of live within Psalm 90, being forever aware of its principles, until my dying day:

  1. Of the greatness of God who is eternal and made the world
  2. Of my own sinfulness and smallness and utter need of God
  3. Of how much exactly God has saved me
  4. Of just how short and temporary my life is
  5. Of how hard life is
  6. And how God is to satisfy every part of my life and how I am to rejoice in him through everything.
  7. And that if God does satisfy every part of my life, life becomes a joy, even if it is still hard
  8. And how desperately I want God to bless and establish, as the Psalm says, the work of my hands. I want God to be a part of my life and help me do what he has created me to do.

I want to live in Psalm 90 so I can forever have these things in front of me.
My prayer for you today is you would be in the same state. That you wouldn’t forget either, as we so often easily do.
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1 comment:

thom blair said...

And then, who is there in the Promised Land at the Transfiguration because of Jesus? Really great treatment here, Chris. Thanks!