“Moses Shown the Promised Land” by Benjamin West, 1801. On view at the Met Fifth Avenue, Gallery 753. Public Domain.
Lesson from the Hebrew Bible Deuteronomy 18:15-20 “A New Prophet Like Moses”
15 The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. 16This is what you requested of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said: ‘If I hear the voice of the Lord my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.’ 17Then the Lord replied to me: ‘They are right in what they have said. 18I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command.19Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. 20But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die.’
Sunday Homily “Transitions”
The book of Deuteronomy is the fifth book in our Bible and the last book in the Jewish Torah. Its name comes to us from the Greek Deuteronominon, meaning “second law” because it retells the law code and stories found earlier in the books of Exodus, Numbers, and Leviticus.
Deuteronomy retells the law and these valued stories uniquely, though. It frames the ancient law code in the context of Moses’ farewell address. We can think of this book as the last few sermons Moses gives to the Hebrew people during a time of transition. Moses is old and about to die. The people stand on the border of the promised land, about to transition from a culture of tribal nomadic wanderers to a settled, agrarian culture. Interspersed between the many laws and ordinances in these sermons are Moses’ recollections of important events and an exhortation to follow new leaders when he is gone.
You might remember how this story begins. During the Life of the Patriarchs, a famine hits the ancient near east, and the descendants of Abraham and Sarah travel as refugees to Egypt when crops fail and pastureland dries up. They are greeted warmly, but over time, these people, called the Hebrews, are enslaved by Egypt. At some point, God commissions Moses and his brother Aaron to lead the Hebrew people out of Slavery. Several tense conversations with the Pharaoh ensue, and ten plagues later, the Hebrew people are released from their chains.
The company travels east, eventually making it to Mount Horeb. There Moses leaves the people and spends 40 days and nights on the mountain conversing with God. When he returns, Deuteronomy chapter 5 describes a vexing scene: God proclaims the ten commandments to the Hebrew people as a disembodied voice booming out of pillars of fire, storm clouds, and thick darkness. This experience, a direct encounter with God, is too much for this community of newly liberated people, so they ask Moses to serve as a mediator between them and God. Moses gains a handful of titles from the role, a man of God, a minister of God, and a prophet of God.
The Hebrews continue to live a nomadic life for 40 years or so after experiencing the unfiltered presence of Divinity. Moses serves as their leader in the wilderness, developing a law code, interceding with God when the people are in trouble, and preparing them for entry into the promised land. But he will not make the final journey, and the people will need to trust a new generation of leaders.
To mark this transition, Moses delivers a rather long and wide-ranging sermon about how to be God’s people in this new land, living in this new way. As such, this book has been described as the “preached law” or the Law of God applied to life – that is, the life of an ancient agrarian people. There’s some pretty weird stuff in this book - regulations for clean and unclean foods, tithing, the redeeming of firstborn livestock, restrictions about having too many measuring cups.
And there’s some gruesome stuff in the book that reminds us that this book was written a long time ago in a violent world. It’s worth a read, though, because, at its heart, the book proclaims a rather radical way of life that is concerned with social justice and obedience to God. Some of the most beautiful agrarian and ecological language of our Scriptures comes from this book, along with a recurring theme that the land will be plentiful if God’s people take care of it and do good to one another.
In chapter 18, Moses is concerned that once the people enter this new land, without him, they will forget their leaders and instead follow the loudest voice in town. Specifically, he is worried that the people will begin to practice a handful of local Canaanite religions that used child sacrifice to appease the gods.
Moses reassures the Hebrews that God will raise up another leader, a prophet from their ranks, once he is gone. This person will serve as their leader and continue to mediate between God and the people. Moses notes that there will be folks pretending to be prophets of God, but the people can tell if they are prophets of God only if they speak the truth.
Clearly, a lot is happening in this short passage. The people need a new leader that can mediate between them and God. Truth-telling is the primary attribute ascribed to prophets of God. And, the community faces a series of difficult transitions.
Transitions are difficult. According to the American Institute of Stress, some of the top stressful life events are transitional events that include the death of a loved one, divorce or the end of a valued relationship, injury, illness, and career change. Social or political stresses include some obvious ones like war, famine, corruption, poverty, and incidents of mass violence. And some that hit a little closer to home might be the transitions of leadership in a family, town, or company, down-sizing, the loss of benefits, and the continued uncertainty around the pandemic.
There’s a body of literature and self-help information that can guide us through these moments of uncertainty, change, and transition during stressful times. And some are very good. The Chopra Center talks about getting rest, surrendering control, and acknowledging that every end is also a beginning. An article by Paige Smith talks about managing political stress by identifying your triggers, being proactive, and prioritizing what you can do to change a situation.
In our story, the leader of the Hebrew people acknowledges that his time is over, and the people are worried. So, what’s next?
There are some beautiful ideas in our passage, too, about navigating stressful times. First, Moses reassures God’s people that God will continue to provide new leaders for generations to come. Our scriptures give the command “do not be afraid” about 70 times, and the idea of combating fear is an integral part of this story. Here, Moses provides people with hope that they will have good leaders and prophets in the future, prophets like him, leaders who speak the words of God and lead the people to new ways of faithfulness.
It’s important to notice, though, that these words of consolation are about as far as Moses is willing to go when it comes to providing comfort during a transitional time. God calls prophets, after all, and prophetic leaders have a difficult challenge. They are called to speak the uncomfortable word. In progressive and mainline Christian traditions, the term “prophetic” is used a lot, but it isn’t often explained. Essentially, the term is applied to people who speak a difficult truth, one that is often resisted by the wealthy, or the powerful, or those of us that wish to live our lives in peace and quiet. Often prophetic leaders speak about the oppressed, the disenfranchised, or the marginalized. They advocate for the environment, children and women, undocumented people, and those who have lost their healthcare or jobs. Today, these folks are pastors or religious leaders, but not always; in fact, most are not.
We can think back to that part in the story when the Hebrew people encounter God's raw presence at Mount Horeb. God was too much for the people. But it probably wasn’t because of the booming voice and fire and storm and darkness. The people were overwhelmed because the word of God, what God calls humanity to do and be, is really hard and challenging. How can we be loving, and just, and humble, and truthful, and inclusive, and kind, and encouraging, and real, and merciful, and forgiving, and courageous, and hard-working, and faithful, and creative, and honest, and accountable, and supportive, and persistent, and all of those other virtues that we hold as being vital for healthy human flourishing? We experience what the Hebrew people experienced when the presence of God and the overflowing of God’s goodness and its demand on our lives is too much; we can’t take it all in and wouldn’t even know where to start.
Perhaps that’s why God continues to call prophets, people that experience some part of God's great goodness and help us, even call us to be faithful in tangible ways. These prophets are often not terribly popular or well-known because they tell the truth, even when that truth is vexing, inconvenient, and heavy. What’s more, they call on us to make changes, to transition from one way of thinking and being to another, better way of thinking and being.
Who are our modern-day prophets? Who speaks the truth, especially the uncomfortable truths that challenge us and stretch us? Perhaps we can call Rev. William Barber of North Carolina a real prophet. For the last twenty years, Rev. Barber has worked in tangible, grassroots ways for a moral revival to end the injustices of systemic poverty, mass incarceration, and other inequalities based on race, sex, ability, orientation, and class. Recently he challenged President Biden’s focus on unity, saying:
It cannot be just kumbaya. It has to be fundamental change. We cannot be the wealthiest nation in the world, where billionaires in this country made a trillion dollars between May and November during COVID, while poor and low-wealth people of every race, creed, color, sexuality have suffered and continue to suffer.
There are other prophets as well. Perhaps Bill McKibben and Wendell Berry are prophets – two people who call on us to live more closely to the land and take less.
Perhaps Naomi Klein is a modern-day prophet, one that calls us to push back on unchecked materialism and its corrosive role in our democracy.
Perhaps Gabe Brown and Mark Shepard are God’s prophets because they point out the destructive realities of our modern agricultural practices and provide realistic alternatives to factory farming, monoculture planting, and the overuse of harmful chemicals.
God continues to call prophets, people that we may never be entirely comfortable around because they call us to be better, to live closer to God’s will in direct, tangible ways. We all have these folks in our lives, people whose words stretch us because their words are true, but truth hurts, especially those truths that hit our prejudices, our rhythms of life, our pocketbooks.
Our faith can provide comfort. Our faith can provide a community of support that helps us through life’s many transitions, losses, and changes. I am thankful for this community that continues to find ways to support one another during this pandemic when every day is both Groundhog Day and something new and horrific. But our faith (our faith) is supposed to be challenging too, even in challenging times like these.
This week, I pray that we challenge ourselves a bit. What issue are we avoiding, what relationship are we ducking, what New Year’s resolution have we already given up? How might we heed the call of our prophets to live better lives and make life better for those around us?
May God bless us in our exploration. For the sake of the whole world. Amen.
Notes Paige Smith’s article about managing political stress can be found at: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/political-stress-how-to- help_n_59495dcce4b08709c82fd85e?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&gu ce_referrer_sig=AQAAADCBIX2wsM39SUTEFfDpsSebYqkJR-Z0UWoHR6KWIckcmRPXEwulbk43PvVR- BxqaZaMPr5DcEgN54PBSxVM3u422FbqvaLGy10fX4JSsHZkJEcf-j4rK1POLA0d8utrPB8qhpMpz5sN1Q6Od0P4Of- G2Aho7YW3McrI0E9AkzjA. Rev. William Barber’s quote about unity and change can be found at: https://www.democracynow.org/2021/1/25/rev_william_barber_covid_inequality.