(Deuteronomy 34: 1-12)
Last week Grace preached on the “facetime” between Moses and God, this unheard-of intimate connection between human and divine. Today we skip ahead in time a little bit, and skip ahead a few books in the Bible, to Deuteronomy. God’s people are on the cusp of entering the Promised Land that Moses and the Israelites had spent the better part of forty years trying to get to, and there is this wonderful little exchange between God and Moses, one that would turn out to be their last. Listen now to the Word of God:
(Deuteronomy 34: 1-12)
Would you pray with me – Holy God, you journey with us in the highs and lows of life. You give us vision to see what you are doing in our midst. Give us vision now to see you, give us ears to hear your Word, give us faith to live lives of promise and hope. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
I must admit to you, I’m a bit torn as I read today’s passage. I am torn with what God does to Moses here. Taking him high up on the peak of Mount Pisgah, east of the Jordan River and just north of the Dead Sea. Taking him up there and showing him all the land north of it: Naphtali, Ephraim and Manasseh, all Judah reaching to the Mediterranean, the Negev and the plains around Jericho.
Showing him all that land and saying, Do you see all this, Moses? Looks great, doesn’t it? The people you led out of Egypt forty years ago, my people, will live in this land. Prosper in this land. But not you, Moses. Not you.
Moses would die before he got to go there, you see. Which I guess is why God took him up there to show it to him. And that’s what I struggle with. I ask myself, was that fair for God to do that? Was it fair to show Moses the culmination of the vision God had given him all those years before – a vision he feuded with Pharaoh for, a vision he played “wilderness park ranger” for forty years for, a vision he endured bickering and complaining and insurrections for – all to not get to experience the vision himself?
That’s my question: was it fair, what God did to Moses?
On one hand it seems almost cruel. Here it is, everyone gets to go – except you. It’s like showing a kid an abundance of Christmas presents under the tree on that glorious morning and then saying, but none of them are for you. You could argue that it almost would’ve been better if God hadn’t shown it to Moses, just told him about it; told him they had arrived and just leave him at that. Maybe that would’ve made it a little easier to swallow.
But then on the other hand – what a gift! To see the revelation of all you searched for, all you believed in. In that moment as his eyes surveyed the glorious scene, that moment before death, he could have imagined how his people would take their first steps into that land, moving there and living there and bringing up new generations there. A gift.
So, which is it: fair or not fair?
We don’t get a sense of how Moses felt about it. We are simply told that God showed it to him, and then he died. And so we are left wondering. And that’s okay. It’s kind of indicative of vision, actually. By its very essence, vision is the ability to imagine possibilities and futures that have not yet come to pass. Which is a wonderful thing.
The rub of vision is knowing that the ability to see future possibilities does not necessarily guarantee that we will get to experience the fullness of it for ourselves. In other words, there’s a little bit of faith involved. More than a little bit of faith. Faith in God’s vision for the people – and, like Moses, faith that the good work we are now doing will lead to the fulfillment of that vision, with or without us.
Which bring us back to our question: is that fair?
Five hundred years ago, a German theology professor and priest was shown a vision. A vision of a God far different from the one he had known in his life; an extension, perhaps, of a troubled relationship with an abusive father. That God was a God to be appeased more than loved; that church was a church where grace came with a price attached. And what irked Martin Luther more than anything was the church’s practice of selling indulgences – literally pieces of rolled-up parchment that spelled out the various sins it would absolve you from, once bought. There was only one way to avoid the fires of hell, the church at the time proclaimed, and here it is, for a fee.
The practice of selling indulgences went against everything Luther stood for, everything he believed in. In his vision of the church, one did not need go through the Pope, and even the church itself, to get to God. One did not need to rely solely on the church to interpret scripture; scripture that for years had been read only in Latin, a language the common people did not know. For Luther, the church was not the gatekeeper standing between the people and God; the church was the gathering of the people journeying together to God.
It was that vision of a church vastly different from the one he knew that built up inside Martin Luther like a raging storm, and eventually led him to put quill to parchment and list dozens of zingers, indictments against the church and the pope. Ninety-five of them, in fact. Then he took hammer and nailed them to the door of the church in his town of Wittenberg.
Out of love and concern for the truth, Luther wrote in the preamble, and with the object of eliciting it, the following will be the subject of a public discussion at Wittenberg under the presidency of the reverend father, Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology, and duly appointed Lecturer on these subjects.
Some of those 95 that he penned:
“The pope himself cannot remit guilt, but only declare and confirm that it has been remitted by God.”
“There is no divine authority for preaching that the soul flies out of purgatory immediately the money clinks in the bottom of the chest.”
“Christians should be taught that the one who gives to the poor, or lends to the needy, does a better action than if he purchases indulgences.”
The “public discussion” Luther hoped to start with these 95 Theses morphed into something else entirely, something perhaps even he didn’t expect. They ignited a firestorm in the church and led to a seismic shift in not just the church itself, but the known world. It was perhaps providential that the printing press had arrived on the scene just a few years before, and in short order Luther’s words would be in the hands of common people all over the place. The church tried to squash the furor, but the fire had caught hold and there was no putting it out. Luther’s 95 Theses on the Wittenberg church door was the beginning of what we now call the Protestant Reformation – the full extent of which would change both the church and the world forever. The full extent of which Luther himself would not live to see.
So, once again – was that fair?
The date that Luther changed the world, the date he nailed his 95 Theses to the church door, was October 31st, 1517. That means, of course, that today is not just any other Reformation Sunday. Today – this Tuesday, to be exact – marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. 500 years. That’s a big deal – it is any time we get to celebrate 500 years of something.
But it’s big – and deeply significant to us – for an entirely different reason. A reason, I think, Moses and Luther would understand.
If we are to believe some of the great religious thinkers of our era, this 500th anniversary is not just a noteworthy celebration of a reformation in our past, but a benchmark of an entirely new reformation happening now. Stick with me on this, okay? Phyllis Tickle, founding editor of the Religion department at Publisher’s Weekly, wrote about this in her 2008 book The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing And Why. Here is what she said:
Every 500 years since the church’s inception, the church has gone through what Tickle creatively calls a “rummage sale.” Think of it as an ecclesiological house cleaning; the church going through it’s old stuff and discarding things it no longer needs to fulfill its purpose. In this rummage sale, the predominant authority at that time has their authority questioned, the end result being the formation of a new understanding of where authority lies. This upheaval is felt throughout all aspects of the culture, but in particular, Tickle says, the church. And while the “old form” of Christianity remains, more notably a new form of Christianity emerges, one that looks and feels categorically different from its predecessor, one that orients itself around a new understanding of authority in the context of faith.
History bears out this 500-year cycle. Five hundred years after Pentecost, five hundred years after the Holy Spirit descended on those Jesus-less disciples and marked, for all practical purposes, the birth of the church, Rome fell. Rome, the center of power and authority in the world at the time, gone. At the same time, an important church council took place in Chalcedon which addressed, among other things, the understanding of Jesus’ divinity and humanity – a question of authority – and it led to a splintering of church doctrine outside one single church.
Fast forward another 500 years to 1054, and we come to what is known in church history circles as the Great Schism, where a succession of ecclesiastical differences and theological disputes led to the official breakoff of Eastern Orthodox Christianity from its Roman Catholic counterpart. Roman Catholicism continued, of course, but a new form of Christianity emerged, with its own structure and doctrine.
Fast forward another 500 years to 1517, and there we find young Martin Luther nailing 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Church, sparking the Protestant Reformation. The old way of church continued and is still with us today. But that new thing – Protestantism – came about and is, as you are testimony to, still very much here.
Fast forward another 500 years, and here we are. Literally, two days away from the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
So what does this mean? It means that we are literally living in the middle of the next great rummage sale. And my hunch is that we have felt it. Felt it for years, in fact. Felt it in the grand shifts taking place in our Western Christianity; shifts we experience as shrinking church attendance, smaller giving, the absence of the church at the center of culture and life in general, the fact that Sundays are no longer as sacrosanct as they used to be, the rise of the “spiritual-but-not-religious” among us, the questioning of not just religious authority but authority in general: mistrust and disdain for government, drain the swamp, blow it all up, “fake news” – all of it, signs of the next rummage sale, which we are right in the thick of.
We are right in the thick of the next reformation, my friends. And what I want to suggest to you this morning, what scholars and spiritual leaders like Phyllis Tickle and others want to suggest, is that this is the work of God. Growing pains for certain, but still the work of God. And I think God wants to take us up the mountain just like he did Moses – take us up there so we can open our eyes to see a glimpse of the vision before us, the new Promised Land God has promised us; a vision you and I probably won’t get to see come to full fruition but a vision we’re nevertheless called to play a part in creating.
A vision of a church that is relevant again, that speaks to and with and for the people it serves. A vision of a church that worries less about what it doesn’t have and more about living out the love and justice of Jesus Christ. A vision of a church bound less by brick and mortar and more by building the kingdom of God on earth.
Behold, the prophet Isaiah says, I am doing a new thing. Not “I’m thinking about doing it” or “I may eventually get around to it.” No – I. Am. Doing. It. Now. And not “I’m doing pretty much the same thing I was doing before” or “I’m doing this thing that’s sort of new but looks a lot like the old.” No – A New. Thing. And it feels different, because it’s supposed to. Because it’s new.
And the prophet’s question: Do you not perceive it? Not “Are you okay with it?” “Do you like it?” No – Do you not perceive it? Hello?? It’s happening, right now. Another rummage sale. Another reformation. It’s happening. Do you see it?
Folks, I’ve been your pastor for nearly five years. And during that time I’ve heard over and over again your excitement and your concerns. I’ve heard your excitement about building projects and new ministries and missions; about children and youth leading worship and a 2020 Vision guiding us forward. I’ve also heard your concerns – about empty pews on Sunday mornings, and deficit budgets, and things changing too fast, and not knowing what change is coming, and not being part of leading the change.
I want you to know as your pastor that both that excitement and that concern are perfectly normal in the church of the 21st century. It’s just the way we roll now. For we are smack dab in the middle of the next Reformation, our 500-year rummage sale. I am convinced of it. And it is both exciting and concerning, learning anew how to be the church, because God is already doing that new thing.
I am convinced that God is leading us up the mountain, and showing us our new Promised Land for the church, for the world. You and I, we are the Moseses of our time, we are the Martin Luthers of our day.
Tell me, people of God: is that fair?
Perhaps the better question is: do we not perceive it?
Well, do we?
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 Martin Luther: Selections From His Writings, ed. by John Dillenberger (New York: Anchor Books, 1962), 490ff.