Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1- 6,13-17; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 2:34-46
Bigfork Community United Methodist Church
October 29, 2017 – 21st Sunday after Pentecost
We come to the death of Moses this week, and it is bittersweet. God meets him on a mountain again, and shows him the land he had promised to Abraham…to Israel.
As we read through the names of he places, we see names of Jacob’s sons still attaching to the land their father gave to them: Dan and Naphtali, Judah and Ephraim…these are the names of the sons Jacob led into Egypt to escape death in a great famine.
They stitch the distant past together with the present by seeing Dan’s name over there and Ephraim just beyond it.But, God tells him, Moses will not ever set foot in it.
This has to be a major disappointment for Moses…after all he has done…for Israel and for God.
It is like the last time Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke, the night before he died. There were death threats against him and he was sick, only coming to the Mason Temple in Memphis because Ralph Abernathy called and told him there were too many people and they were here for him and he had to come down whether he was sick or not.
He spoke off the cuff. “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”
We have a sad end to a difficult story, for Moses…for Lincoln… and for Martin Luther King, Jr… for America and Israel. Moses’ people …God’s people…have followed him through hardship in search of freedom. He has been their leader, their intercessor and their hope.
He secured their release, delivered them from Pharaoh’s army and provided food and water for them. He has been liberator, savior and guide for them for 40 years. But he will not share a day with them in the Promised Land.
They will have to make their own way without him. Joshua will be their leader now as they take possession of the land from those who have moved in behind Jacob and Jacob’s sons in the intervening centuries.
It is a whole new day as they turn from wanderers to settlers. It is a whole new day without Moses. What will they do? Where will they go? Who will they follow?
This is Reformation Sunday, and while we United Methodists might seeit as a Lutheran celebration, we should also be mindful that both Luther and Wesley were delivered to their greatness by way of crises.
Luther was supposed to be a lawyer and his decision to become a man of God was a disappointment to his family, who had much higher hopes for him. He was caught in the open in a tremendous lightning storm and promised God, if he were delivered from it, to serve him all his days. He had given his word and he had been saved.
Wesley was always expected to be a clergyman and the way opened before him until he had a disastrous experience as the chaplain of the Georgia colony, near Savannah.
When he returned to England he was not offered his chair at Oxford or a pulpit in a church.He was bewildered and he could find no rest. He sought God and God’s grace earnestly, but the harder he tried to attain it, the more distant it seemed to become.
He went through the motions, reading and praying and gathering with his friends, but peace evaded him. He visited a condemned prisoner and told him that he would be saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ…Christ alone…Grace Alone.
The prisoner immediately got it and the next day he walked to his execution full of peace and happiness. Wesley could not understand how he could have given this peace to this man when he did not experience it himself.
How could he get what I want from me, when I don’t have it myself. Then he was invited to a meeting on Aldersgate Street where Luther’s Preface to the Romans was read.
We are saved by grace through faith, not by any priest or other deliverer, but by Christ alone…and his heart was strangely warmed. He had found his peace through the word of a man he had never met…until that night.
Luther struggled mightily in his day, too, and found himself a professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg…just as Gutenberg was perfecting his movable type printing press. Luther translated the Bible into German and it was an all-time best seller throughout the land. It made God’s word accessible to all the people and brought them together.
In fact, Germany was a collection of fiefdoms and did not even enjoy a common language. Every day in the marketplace was like the Pentecost, with people speaking many different dialects, hard to understand each other.
But the Gutenberg Bible gave them a common language and the Word of God was now available to them in their own common language. They did not have to rely on the priest to tell them what the Latin meant.
Luther taught the scriptures to the students and as he went through the text semester after semester, he was troubled by the practices of the Roman church.
He was especially troubled by the practice of selling indulgences… pardons from the church to those who had sinned in exchange for money…and then they could go and sin again.
Five hundred year ago this Tuesday, on All Hallows Eve in 1517, he tacked 95 questions about the church’s practices on the door of the All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, asking how it was that the church could sell pardons…“as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs”… when grace was a gift from God through Jesus Christ.
This was not altogether different from Moses delivering the law to Israel. It was the Word itself that delivered the people from bondage to freedom, from chaos to order, and they were beholden to no one but God for their salvation.
Luther was ordered to recant his apostasy, but he refused, saying firmly, that the truth was to be found solely in the scriptures… Sola Scriptura. With this insight and the increasing literacy of the people, the rift in the church led to a break and the Protestant Reformation was underway.
It would lead to tremendous suffering and much killing in the 30 Years War, but when the dust settled there were two churches offering one faith.
In her book The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle writes that this was not an isolated incident. Five hundred years before Luther, the church had split into the Eastern and Western Churches over the questions of whose language was to be used in the Mass and whether it was proper to use bread with yeast in it for communion.
The new language of that day was Latin in place of the Greek, just as the Reformation brought the scriptures to German from Latin. The questions could not be reconciled and Constantinople became the seat of the Eastern Church and Rome became the capital of the Western Church.
I note here that the King James Bible was commissioned about 100 years after the Reformation, making the scriptures accessible to people who only spoke English, and 400 years after that it became popular to translate the Shakespearian language into today’s common English, the Revised Standard Version.
Five hundred years before The Great Schism, the fall of the Roman Empire cast the world into the Dark Ages, and the faith had to be translated in a new social, political and economic context.
I add this to the list of 500 year events. 500 years before the fall of Rome, what happened? A rabbi began to itinerate in the villages around Galilee preaching that the Pharisees and Priests had become corrupted by Rome and that he had come, not to do away with the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them, even in the midst of a Roman occupation of the Promised Land.
500 years before that, the Babylonians conquered the Southern Kingdom of Israel and sacked the holy city of Jerusalem.
500 years before that, David had unified the northern and southern kingdoms and established the capital of Israel in Jerusalem.
So, Tickle notes, about every 500 years the church has a huge garage sale and the forms that were the be-all and end-all of the church come crashing down. New forms, new understandings and new traditions arise from the ashes of the old order …The Word is reconstituted in the new reality…and the church becomes vibrant once again, stronger than ever, ready for the next 500 years.
But some things never change. Jesus is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow and as he tells us today, the Great Commandment is still to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength…and to love your neighbor as yourself.
In Luther’s day, it was the printing press that blew everything apart. Today, it is the internet, and we are in one of those gigantic garage-sale eras where the old forms are falling away and new forms are emerging.
We feel the strain today as we know less and less about our neighbor next door and more and more about the Middle East and China and Saturn…the anatomy of our brains and gravitational waves.
Still, I think the Bible has as much to say today as the Ten Commandments did in Moses’ day, and the Law and the Prophets did in Jesus’ day. But we have become a lonely people.
We are bunkering up on our couches in our man-caves, finding friends on the internet instead of the town square…from an unknown source rather than the person who sits across from us at work.
Tension is in the air and we look for easy answers to complicated situations. We believe what we read on the internet and we do not trust our neighbors.
We used to think that an idea was suspect if it was not an old belief, tested by centuries of tradition and living.Now we think that an idea is suspect if it is not new.
If history is bound to be repeated by those who don’t learn from it, then history can be transcended by those who can learn from it.
Wesley would expand Luther’s rule – Sola Scriptura – into his quadrilateral. We should be guided by Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience…and in that order.
If Scripture does not give us clear instruction, we go to Tradition and so on. Bibles as we know them… books you can hold in your hand… may not follow us into the future.
But the Word will. No one lives forever and even Moses had to settle for a vision of a perfect place …without ever setting foot in it.
But God and God’s truth went with them. No golden calf. No Moses.
But God was in their midst and they were mindful of God’s presence and the power of God’s Law. We still break it today, but we have been shone the better way. We have been to the mountaintop, too, and we know the spirit of freedom, the grace of God is what leads us anywhere God calls us to be.
That is sola scriptura in our own day. May we walk happily into the future with the Word as our constant guide. Amen.