"SHALOM" - Deuteronomy 34:1-12

A Sermon by Alex Evans, Pastor

Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA

From Sunday, July 16, 2017

John 14:25-27; Deuteronomy 34:1-12


The story of God and God’s people begins with the story of Abraham and Sarah, which begins in Genesis 12. Across the recent weeks and months, several of my sermons have engaged us with the early stories: God calling Abraham and Sarah and telling them to go, go to the land that he would show them. God would be their God and they would be God’s people. He would bless them and make them a blessing in the world.

            As you may know, Abraham and Sarah left the familiar and set out on this journey with God to a new land. They trusted God – that God would lead them, and watch over them, and even deliver them.

I am not sure we grasp fully the significance of this call story to Abraham and Sarah. Recently my daughter, Ginny and her husband Greg, left the familiar surroundings of Atlanta, where they have lived for the last 5 years, and moved to Cleveland. This is a big new venture for them. They are going to new jobs and unfamiliar territory. And many of us have done this at various stages of our lives. We venture off, we have to adjust, make new friends, find our way.

But the story of Abraham and Sarah intends to be much more than that. The story of Abraham and Sarah is about God getting involved in the lives of people and initiating something totally new, not only for Abraham and Sarah, but for all people everywhere for all time. God says, “I will bless you – and I will make you a blessing to the whole world.” In essence, what God is doing in the story of Abraham and Sarah is re-booting life in the world. The Abraham and Sarah story comes right after the story of Noah and the flood – when God was so disgusted that violence had covered the earth.

 Abraham and Sarah intend to be God’s key people to usher a new way in the world. And what does that new way look like? Not conquering people – which was the old way – but blessing people. Not violence and power, but faith, love, and life together in community. Not anxiety and fretting about death, but life with God, life in wholeness – SHALOM.

            Do you remember that song from your youth – or Bible School, or Sunday School? “Father Abraham, . . . had many sons, . . . and many sons had father Abraham, . . . and I am one of them, . . . and so are you, . .  so let’s all praise the Lord.”

            You know what that is about? It is not just about Abraham – an ancient man who lived long ago. It is about reminding US that we are part of the story – God blesses and calls to be a blessing – just as God did with Abraham and Sarah – God does this with you and me. We are part of the new way in the world – God’s way. And what does it supposedly look like? Not conquering people, which is the old way, but blessing people. Not violence and power – the way that God decided could not work. But faith, love, and life together. Not anxiety and fretting – but trusting and serving God – like Abraham and Sarah.

            Among the descendants of Abraham is another giant in the biblical story – Moses. The story of Moses is found, not in Genesis but beginning in Exodus, and also Numbers and Deuteronomy. We first meet Moses as a little baby floating down the river in Egypt. Little baby Moses was in a basket in the river and Pharaoh’s daughter pulled him out and named him. “Moses” means “I drew him out of the water.”

            After Moses grew up, God encountered Moses in the powerful and memorable story of “the burning bush” when Moses was tending his flock (found in Exodus 3). God promised God would be with Moses, and gave him a task – set God’s people free from the bonds of slavery in Egypt. So the book of Exodus, and also Numbers and Deuteronomy,  share the stories of Moses – his life with God, his encounters with Pharaoh, trying to get God’s people free from slavery in Egypt, and then Moses leading the people through ups and down toward the Promised Land, helping them learn and grow and become the people of God after they had been slaves in Egypt.

These stories of Abraham and Sarah,  and then Moses – from slavery to freedom – are all part of the narrative of God wanting to do something new, bless the people and make them a blessing. Not violence and power, community and courage! Not selfishness and greed, but faith and service as God’s people!

Can the world head in a new direction, or are we trapped, doomed to despair, repeating the same old, tired cycle of conflict? This is what God is working on in the Abraham and Moses stories. If we were slaves in Egypt, does that mean we will always be slaves? Or put another way, will Pharaoh always be in power, or is there another power that rules in the world? Or put another way: whose side are the gods on – ours or Pharaoh’s? Or put another way: are the deepest forces of life FOR US or against us? Or put another way, are we here to suffer, or do something, something bigger and better? (see R. Bell, What is the Bible? p. 13) Or put another way, who gets the last word? Oppression or liberation? Pharaoh or God? And what should we do?

The Moses story picks up the Abraham and Sarah story – the people belong to God and God blesses; and God calls to be a blessing.

Then we get to the end of the story of Moses – and our text today comes from Deuteronomy 34. Listen:

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, 2all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, 3the Negeb, and the Plain—that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees—as far as Zoar. 4The 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.”

5Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. 6He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day. 7Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated. 8The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended.

9Joshua 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. 10Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. 11He 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,12and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

There is a line in there that truly warrants our attention. It says “Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died, and his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated.” . . . Wait, what?

Another translation says this: “Moses was 120 years old when he died yet his eyes were not weak nor his strength gone.”

I once read a poster at my eye doctor’s office. It said “You know what percentage of people eventually need glasses? 100%.”

Yet – Moses, his eyes were not weak.

And dying,  . . .well,  . . as a general rule, means that your strength HAS GONE. So why does the writer want us to know that Moses died but his strength had NOT gone? The word can be translated in several ways – even though he died, he still had his vigor.

 Or, even though he died, he had not become wrinkled. He was still fresh, full of fortitude.

Another translation says, Moses was 120 when he died. His eye sight was sharp and he still walked with a spring in his step.

What is the message here?

The Scriptures are trying to say something very important. Even though another great leader of God has lived and now died, God’s purposes will carry on. Even though they have not reached the promised land, and Moses will not lead them into it – he work is done – what Moses embodied, the way Moses lived and served – faith, hope, love, life in community – that SPIRIT – will carry on.  God will make sure the people carry that Spirit on. 

Think about what Moses had been through. He gave his life to impossible tasks –

-       a sheep-herder taking on Pharaoh in the name of God,

-       the reluctant but incredibly effective leader of a complaining bunch of former slaves trying to figure out what it means to be free, . . .and God’s people in the world,  . . as a blessing!

How could he have done ALL that and still have his eyesight and a spring in his step?

It is always ALL because of God and God’s care, God plans and God’s intentions to bless the world and shape the people in the way of blessing others. God is going to keep building on this legacy. It is never about violence and power, but about community and courage! It is never about selfishness and greed, but faith and service as God’s people! This is God’s way. This is Abraham and Sarah’s way. This is Moses’ way. And it intends to be the way of all God’s people. And it is summed up in the word, SHALOM.

In the Bible, the word SHALOM is most commonly used to refer to a state of affairs, one of well‑being, tranquility, prosperity, and security, circumstances unblemished by any sort of defect. Shalom is a blessing, a manifestation of divine grace. It is a sense of wholeness and peace that encompasses all things.

The story about Moses, who led the people with such faithfulness and effectiveness, is a warning to anyone who has ever bullied another person, a warning to anyone who has ever held their boot to the neck of someone they were dominating, anyone who has ever used power and strength to de-humanize and exploit someone. God’s plans, God’s intentions – the deepest forces of the universe are all moving toward SHALOM. I need to be reminded of this today. I need to be reminded of this everyday.  Moses died at 120 years old – with sharp eyesight and no wrinkles. It is to say that God’s ways of SHALOM are going to prevail. God will keep using leaders to bring it about. God will keep reminding us – this is the way of God.  Faith, hope, love, life in community! That is the way to the Kingdom of God. (see R. Bell, What is the Bible?, p. 14)

These days of summer remind me of when I was much younger. My grandmother’s family had a cabin deep in the woods in western North Carolina. We only went there a few times. The cabin was located about a mile off a country road. So way up the winding roads of the mountains, you turned onto this long, gravel drive. The road into the house was very rough. As we rattled and rocked our way on that rough road, my brothers and I would complain. It was bumpy. It seemed to go on forever. You could hear the gravel and stones rattling around pelting the under-carriage of the car. Every now and then, we would slide a bit around a hair-pin turn. “Granny, why don’t you get this road fixed? Why can’t you smooth it out?” And she said, “we have to leave the stones in place in this driveway. Without them, the dirt would turn to mud, and eventually the road would wash away.  We need a HARD road, not a smooth one.” She even added, “actually, about every year we have to ADD stones to the road.” (this memory is inspired by a story by Philip Simmons in H. Kushner’s Overcoming Life’s Disappointments, p. 57)

So often we long for the smooth road. So often we expect things to be perfect and easy for us. Sickness, . . . hardship, . . . cancer, . . .challenge, . . .grief – that happens to others but we deserve something different. We are smart. We are good people, honest and Presbyterian, . . . and American. Other people have challenge and heartache. We are supposed to be spared from that. That is often what we try to make for our kids – have everything perfect. That is what we strive for in our lives – keep it calm and good. Smooth.

But a hard road, not a smooth one, often leads to a full life. A hard road is often how we get to SHALOM- when we get glimpses of the kingdom of God. Moses had NO smooth road – yet his eyes were sharp and he had a spring in his step. God’s purposes and plans are going to carry us to SHALOM – especially as we seek, like Moses, to trust God and live lives of faith, love, care, compassion, and community. We find SHALOM as we participate with God in the in-breaking of God’s promised reign. Not selfishness but service; not holding and hoarding, but living generously; not competing and complaining, but spreading compassion and seeking to be a blessing in the world. It is hard – but it leads to SHALOM.

Jesus says, “My peace – my SHALOM – I leave with you; my peace – SHALOM – I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

May our way be the way of SHALOM. AMEN

Prayer of Commitment: Holy God, to turn from you is to fall; to turn to you is to rise; to trust you, to serve you, to work for your Shalom, that is to abide forever. Amen

Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship on July 16, 2017. This is a rough manuscript.

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