— A Sermon by Robert W. Prim —
~~~ 21st Sunday after Pentecost ~~~
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.
If home is where the heart is, Moses was a man who died at home. Though there was the faint remembrance of a judgement from God that would keep Moses from entering the promised land, Moses, nevertheless, died at home. These final verses about the servant Moses reveal a man who was dwelling safely in the arms of the Eternal One, securely within the embrace of a loving God. Peace and mercy were the gentle clouds that hovered over the homecoming of the prophet Moses, whom, according to the Scripture, the LORD knew face to face. This is the way Moses’ death seems in this text in Deuteronomy – like a peaceful and gentle homecoming.
Yet, at least some of the legends that are told about Moses – the rabbis and teachers of Hebrew Scripture call it “Midrash” – are that Moses resisted dying – that he argued with God to spare his life. As Elie Wiesel recounts one such legend in his book, Messengers of God, Moses upon hearing that his hour had come, put on sackcloth, covered himself with ashes and composed fifteen hundred prayers; then he drew a circle around himself and declared: I shall not move from here until the decree is revoked. Heaven and earth and angels and even God could not persuade Moses to die in a gracious and dignified manner. Moses continued to plead for another day, another hour of life on earth. Moses, according to the legend, even bargained with God for a few more days on earth as an animal. God said “No. Man must live and die as a man, like all men.” God told Moses he must die.
Moses’ death in the legend is a lot like Dylan Thomas’ cry upon the death of his father –
Do not go gentle into the good night,
Old age should burn and rage at the close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Maybe the legend of Moses clinging to his life has something to teach us about life and death and finding our home. The rabbis thought it did and, who knows, maybe they were right about Moses – that he raged, raged at the dying of the light.
They may be right because Moses was a man in love with life. Moses knew the goodness of God’s creation even among a people who were stiff-necked, constantly complaining, and constantly questioning his leadership. Moses knew the glory of life lived in God even among a people who could chase after golden calfs and horde the manna God provided day by day. Moses may have indeed raged against the dying of the light because he had eyes to see the grandeur of God’s creation.
In most funerals at which I preside I try to make the point that death can teach us a lesson about the goodness of our lives and of our relationships. We grieve at the grave-side because we have loved. Those who are dying may rage or grieve or be un-accepting of death because of the separation from the earth and from family and friends. Death is a difficult moment in the unfolding of life because God’s creation is good and to be embraced with love and passion each and every day. The inevitability of death invites us to live and love more passionately to find the fullness of life on this side of the grave.
Maybe Moses raged because he was so in love with life on this side of death… But the legend may also remind us that Moses was a human being – like all of us – with fears and sorrows and with blind spots. Maybe Moses could not believe where he had not seen; so, like his fellow Hebrews who longed at times for their old home in slavery over against their unknown future, Moses could not see with eyes of faith into his unknown future with God after death. Maybe Moses, the fallible human being, could not say with the poet Rainer Maria Rilke:
Death is the side of life which is turned away from us.
Maybe the legend of Moses’ raging against death teaches us that we do not have to be perfect and without fears to be a friend of God as Moses was a friend of God.
Maybe the legend, the Midrash, has something to teach us, but so, too, does the Biblical narrative as we have it. Moses spends his last days and hours blessing his people and securing for them a new leader. Moses spends his last moments relinquishing his role as prophet and teacher of the people. It was what the people needed to not be thrown into confusion after Moses’ death. Moses was concerned and worked to provide the people he loved with a peaceful transfer of power.
Moses was at home when he died because Moses was doing what was best for his people – just as he always had done. And the LORD, just before Moses dies, gives Moses a vision of the promised land, a vision of the future of the Hebrew people.
It seems that Moses was at peace and at home when he died, even if he had raged for a while, because he had made his home in the well-being of the people God called him to lead. Moses gave his heart to the people of Israel – he pleaded for them, he prayed for them, he chastised them, he fought for them, he gave away his peaceful life in Midian for them, and he found his own life in being with them. Moses did not step foot on the land of milk and honey, but his heart had a rich and sweet home in loving God with his whole self and in loving God’s people.
The night is beautiful,
So the faces of my people.
The stars are beautiful,
So the eyes of my people.
Beautiful, also, is the sun.
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.
(That is Langston Hughes, but it could have been Moses.)
Moses had eyes for the beauty of his people and he found his home with them. Let us give our hearts to God and to loving and serving our neighbor. We may not see the fullness of our worldly hopes and dreams, but we can find our peace in loving our people and letting our hearts abide in the One who holds the future.
Moses’ death and burial are shrouded in mystery, but one thing seems clear – God surrounded this beloved servant with love in the end. Listen to the final moments of Moses’ life on earth as recounted by Elie Wiesel in the legend told of Moses.
My hope, my prayer, my faith is that our deaths, our final moments on earth, will be like Moses’ final hours and minutes as Elie Wiesel describes them. My hope and faith is that no matter the outward conditions that surround us at the time of our deaths, God will be leaning over us whispering into our ears a peace that passes all understanding. I trust that deep in the heart of each one of us we will have, as all those who have gone before us have had, such a homecoming.
The final moments of Moses’ life …
Moses began to climb Mount Nebo.
Slowly he entered the cloud waiting for him.
He took one step forward and turned around
to look at the people following him with their gaze.
He took another step forward and turned around
to look at the men, the women, and the children
who were staying behind.
Tears welled up into his eyes, he no longer could see anyone.
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
(Messengers of God by Elie Wiesel, pages 203-204).
Thanks be to God. Amen.