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 the whole 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. The Lord said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.”
Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day. Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated. The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended.
Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses. Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.
Pastor Marc's sermon on the Fifth Sunday in Lent (March 13, 2016) on Deuteronomy 34. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below.
Since January 1st, we’ve read and heard many different stories from the first five books of the bible. We’ve seen creation, met Abraham, watched Jacob wrestle an angel, and watched as Moses led the people out of slavery. All of this has led to today’s first reading - the final chapter of Deuteronomy. The Israelites are camped on the east bank of the Jordan, ready to enter the land promised to Abraham and to them. After 40 years in the wilderness, they’re finally ready to build a home. But before they can take that next, Moses, their fearless and devoted leader, must do something first. He needs to say goodbye.
Now, this moment can’t be easy for Moses. Even though Moses, way back in Exodus, begged God to send someone else in his place, he’s now just a hop-skip-and-a-jump from his goal, ever since he left Egypt those many years ago. For over a generation, he’s talked with God, shared God’s word, and negotiated with God and the people even when both sides seemed to turn their backs on each other. Moses has done all he can to prepare the people, to prepare the Israelites, for life after slavery. But even Moses isn’t perfect. Moses, whose face shined after he spoke to God - even he disobeys. His anger and frustration get the better of him. While in the wilderness, when the people complained that they had no water, Moses lashes out and fails to follow God’s word exactly. And so, Moses knows that he’s not going to enter the promised land. Instead, he’s going to take the people to the cusp - to the east bank of the Jordan River - and tell everyone all he can about God’s word and God’s story. But it’s time for Moses to move the nation along. It’s time for the Israelites to outlive Moses once he’s gone. So Moses, his mission complete, climbs up a mountain. He climbs to the top, looks out, and sees everything. He sees all that God promised - to the north and to the south, and he can see the blue tint of the Mediterranean Sea on the horizon. Moses sees everything - and then, “at the Lord’s command,” he dies.
Now, that phrase, “at the Lord’s command,” is a little different in the ancient Hebrew. The phrase is literally “by the mouth of God.” It’s not a word or phrase that God uses to kill Moses. It’s...God’s mouth. We don’t actually know how this death happens. But there’s an old legend that saw these words and imagines that the close, intimate relationship God had with Moses extends even into death. So God does use the mouth to take Moses. God takes Moses...with a kiss.
God taking Moses with a kiss seems a little silly...except we know that kisses are powerful things. Kisses are intimate. They’re personal. Kisses are more than little bits of chocolate in the form of a bell. They’re a sign of relationships. Think for a moment, about that first special kiss - and even if we haven’t had that kind of kiss yet, we still know it matters. We know it’s special. Even on a tv show like the Bachelor, where two dozen women will have their first-kiss with this season’s Bachelor broadcast on national tv while they compete for the Bachelor’s engagement ring - even in this assembly line of first-kisses, we know those kisses are still important. Their first kiss, even when it's surrounded by other first kisses, even when we roll our eyes at all the first kissing we see going on, we know, in our gut, that their first kiss symbolizes their relationship to each other. That kiss is a symbol of their possible future, their exciting present, and their hope that this commitment to each other is more than fleeting and for more than just tv ratings. We know that kisses matter because a kiss can be more than just a kiss. A kiss can show love.
Last week, I co-led a small conversation at the River Vale Public Library on the topic of holy living. My two co-presenters, Rabbi Geary Friedman and Rabbi Deborah Orenstein, and I each took a different area of life and hinted at what holy living looks like through our time, our places, our jobs, and even our bodies. Afterwards, as I reflected on the event, I was struck me how each of us started from a similar place. We all started our exploration of holy living by answering who, and whose, we are. Living a holy life, a godly life, starts with our capacity to be with God - our capacity to be holy. And this capacity, for Christians at least, doesn't depend on our goodness. It doesn't depend on how perfect we are, how often we pray, or how many times we actually make it to church. Our capacity for holiness depends entirely on this God who claims us as God’s own. God doesn’t wait for us to be perfect before God makes us holy. God comes to us first, in our baptism, to hold us. So, when I got to this part of my presentation last week, I shared one of my favorite images for baptism. It begins by imaging God far away, living up in heaven. God’s there, among the clouds, sitting on a throne, with angels and saints doing what it is that angels and saints do. But, in the business of overseeing the entire universe, God looks down. God squints. God sees us - sees you - and sees me - circling on this 3rd planet from the Sun. And then God steps off the throne. God rushes down to us as we are, a baby, a child, even an adult - and God baptizes us with a kiss saying “you are mine.” With a kiss we are claimed. With a kiss, we’re brought into God’s realm. And with a kiss of water, we’re baptized into a relationship we did nothing to earn. With a kiss and a cross, God is ours and we become God’s.
It’s a kiss that starts the relationship - and, in Moses’ case, a kiss that seems to end it. But we know it doesn’t. God picked Moses for a reason. And Moses kept his eye on God for a reason too. Even after Moses broke God’s word, God still told Moses to teach the people. God continued to use Moses to lead the people forward. And even though Moses knew he would never, ever, enter the promised land, Moses didn’t turn his back on God. He kept teaching, praying, and sharing God with everyone he met. God was committed to Moses and Moses was committed to God. Moses came to the edge of the promised land - and he died like he lived, in a full, personal, and committed relationship with the God who claimed him. Once God had Moses, not even death could separate them.
So how would our lives look if we dug deep into God’s kiss? What, if anything, would be different?
If I’m honest, I really don’t know the answer to those questions. Whatever answer I prayerfully come up with is going to fit my life, my relationships, and my responsibilities. And I also know that my answers today won’t necessarily match what I might say two or three years from now. Life moves quickly. Situations we never expected can show up on our doorsteps. And time is always moving forward - even if we sometimes feel we’re standing still or taking way too many steps back. As we journey through our own challenges, and through our own wilderness, we don’t always know where we’ll end up. All we know is that things do change - but God’s presence doesn’t. God’s relationship continues. God’s kiss is never ending. God’s kiss is always about starting a new beginning. We might not be Moses but we can be who God is calling us to be. Let’s live into God’s love. Let’s look out and see all that God has promised. Let’s move forward even if we don’t know if we’ll ever see a world of love and peace and hope that God desires for everyone. Let’s live into God’s kiss - right now - and discover just what kind of life we can give to the world.
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