A Baptismal Meditation delivered by The Rev. Timothy Ahrens at The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, November 17, 2002, The 26th Sunday after Pentecost, dedicated to Mun Onn "Rocky" Leong on his baptismal day and to Kathryn, Steve, Steve, Peter, Daniel, and Buddy on this day of reaffirming their baptismal faith and joining First Church and always to the glory of God!
Deuteronomy 31:1-8 and Matthew 25:14-30
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our rock & our salvation. Amen.
As I read the story of the Exodus and the book of Deuteronomy, it seems like story's protagonist, Moses, never has a chance to relax, to delight, to sit back, to celebrate. Call it the burden of leadership, or the challenge of choseness, but there's never a time for Moses to kick off his sandals and bask in leading the chosen people of God.
He is always on the way to somewhere. Whether floating down the Nile as a newborn baby on his way from death to life; or hiding among nomadic desert people following his murder of an Egyptian soldier; or returning to Egypt to lead his people from enslavement to liberation; from lawlessness to law code; from wilderness to promised homeland - Moses was always on the way to promise fulfillment.
Part of his challenge comes each time he loosens his sandals to do some real foot stomping. He comes running down from the mountaintop experience of Mt. Sinai with the ten commandments only to find his folks dancing and singing around the golden calf which they have formed as an idol from the melted down jewelry and ornaments carried out of Egypt. Apparently, Moses has been gone so long, they have turned to a god they could see and touch - a god they had fashioned with their own hands. If this isn't bad enough, the leader of the melting pot scandal is Moses' brother Aaron - and so his heart is broken twice - once for the family and once for the faithful fallen.
When times get hard and God seems nowhere to be found, the consolations of what we can listen to, see and touch, taste and smell are awfully appealing. The sound of a driving beat and a dance-able hip-hop, the sight of fleshy beauty and supposed perfection, the feel of gold, the taste of skin, the smell of soil, sea, and fragrance often beat out the invisible, impalpable, Almighty God whose call to us is about the heart and the soul, is about fidelity and faithful, fruitful living.
Moses gives his people is fiery moment to remember as he throws the tablets of the ten commandments to earth and crushes them into hundreds of pieces. He is almost finished with their bellyaching, stiff-necked, faithless, reviling and rapacious ways. No sooner had they crossed the Red Sea than the complaining began. "Why did you make us leave?" they ask. "Did you lead us out of Egypt so that we could die in the desert? ," They implore. Complaints about food and water. Even after manna from heaven and pillars of fire to guide them, they piled up his in-box with their bellyaching and whining. Nobel Peace Prize Winner suggests in Messengers of God, "Who knows, perhaps God's decision not to let Moses enter the Promised Land was meant as a reward rather than a punishment." (New York: Random House, 1976, p. 199).
And yet as troublesome and disappointing as they were, Moses did not forsake his people. Like a parent who shields the children from the wrath of the other parent while feeling equally upset with them, Moses even defends his people against God's anger. When God saw them dancing around the golden calf, God's choice was absolute destruction. Moses pleads for their safety. After all, God saved them from slavery, why should God wipe them out now? Moses reminds God of his promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob - to make them a great nation. Moses offers his final defense, "If you refuse to forgive them, and you destroy them, then go ahead and wipe my name out of your Book of Life, too!" Again, the voice of parent pleading with the other parent echoes through history, "When they are good, they are yours, but when they are bad they are mine?"
Moses pleads and prays and prays and pleads and finally, God, hearing the prayer of this one Jew, changes God's mind. We see the face of a great hero trying to pull God to his people and trying to pull his people to God. There is Moses trying to pull heaven and earth together with his bare hands. We react with equal amazement - that God would stay faithful to such a people and that God would forgive and such a people. But, before we turn and say - "Oh those Jews, those people of old," we need to look in the mirror of our own lives and spirituality and say, "There I am. Lord, forgive me for my unfaithfulness, for my failings, for my rapacious ways, for my judgments when it is I who stand silent in the face of the suffering of others." And all of this is prelude to today's story in Deuteronomy 31:1-8. In the face of all this, is it any wonder that God took so long - from the Exodus to the Christ-event - to send his son to suffer and die for humanity? A question to ponder.
In Moses' last days, at 120 years old, he tells the people that because of his advanced age, he can no longer lead them. Joshua will be his successor. To ensure that the Teaching will survive, Moses writes the Teaching down and entrusts them to the priest and the elders, ordering them to read the Teaching to the people every seventh year, so that all people, young and old may hear it and learn it (Dt. 31:12).
Moses knew that to learn and to gain wisdom, we must first empty ourselves of our multitudes of opinions and speculations. As he turned over the mantle of leadership to Joshua, Moses told his heir-apparent to be strong and bold. It is true that strength and boldness are needed to lead people - whether they are whining, wandering or wondering. Strength and boldness are needed. But, more significantly, Moses says, "It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you, he will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed." Before Joshua even sets foot in the flowing Jordan River, the Lord is on the other side calling him home. What a powerful and provocative image!
Before you and I enter our most difficult moments of life, remember - the Lord is out in front of us. In a world waiting to be born and in the birthing of new life and new ideas; on our life's pathways and in our school's hallways; in our classrooms and in our courtrooms; in gymnasiums and on fields of competition; in our boss' office and in our doctor's office; on hospital gurnys and surgical tables; in retirement villages, nursing homes and in the silence of our own homes - God goes before us. He is with us. He will not fail us. He will not forsake us. We need not fear or be dismayed."
When Moses heard the word from God about his death, he spent his last hours blessing the tribes of Israel: one by one. Reuben, Judah, Levi, Benjamin, Joseph, Zebulun, Issachar, Gad, Dan, Naphatali, Asher. Then he began his climb up Mount Nebo. Slowly he entered the cloud that covered its summit and waited for God. Looking back he could no longer see his people. Emotion filled his eyes.
Jewish tradition describes his death this way:
When he reached the top of the mountain, he halted. You have one more minute, God warned him so as not to deprive him of his right to death. And Moses lay down. And God said: Close your eyes. And Moses closed his eyes. And God said: Fold your arms across your chest. And Moses folded his arms across his chest. Then silently, God kissed his lips. And the soul of Moses found shelter in God's breath and was swept away into eternity. (Found in Elie Wiesel's Messengers of God, p. 204).
As Deuteronomy 34:5 says, "So Moses died . . . by the mouth of YHWH."
At the foot of the mountain, the people wept for 30 days partly out of guilt for the way they had treated Moses, partly out of grief for the leader whom God had sent them when they most needed help. They grieved the loss of this man - this lonely, passionate, powerful, prophet of God - Egyptian prince, murderer, shepherd, spokesman, liberator, law bringer, co-parent with God of a belligerent and rebellious people, God's hero.
On the way to promise fulfillment, hope was born. From that time forward and from deep within their hearts, God's chosen people began to be open to the coming of a new Moses. The New Moses would be greater than the first. The law he brought would written not on stone tablets but on hearts. The new Moses would bring truth not based on frail human will but on the Grace of God.
And come he did, the New Moses, with a new Covenant - not to abolish Moses or the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them. Amen.
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