During two out of the three years that I was a doctoral student in New Testament studies, I attended the national Society of Biblical Literature meeting. The SBL as it is known is the most important professional organization for those involved in scholarship related to biblical studies. Each year they have their national meeting at the beginning of the week in which Thanksgiving falls.
This meeting is a huge event that takes place in a large convention center complex. There are interesting papers that are delivered. You get to see and hear from scholars whose books and articles you have read. And in the exhibit hall they also have the most amazing venue for buying books – all the publishers are present with their latest offerings, and the prices are at reduced SBL conference rates.
At the SBL conference you have a chance not just to see and hear world class scholars, but also to meet them and actually talk with them. I had a chance to ask some questions of one of the leading scholars in the world on Jewish apocalyptic literature, and it proved helpful in writing a paper that has since gone on to provide the foundation for an article that was published.
Of course when you are a nobody, and you are dealing with someone who is that smart and accomplished, you want to put your best foot forward and make a good impression. And so before I approached a scholar, I would always have my question or comment carefully thought through. I was mentally prepared to engage this famous scholar in conversation.
That’s the way it normally worked. But then there was the day when I walked into a room at the Toronto convention center and took a seat as I was waiting for a presentation to start. I looked over, and there was man next to me in his sixties. In a perfunctory kind of way I greeted him and he responded, “Hello, I am James Dunn.” And at that point, my mouth almost hit the floor. You see, if you asked anyone who knows anything about scholarship directed towards Paul’s letter to a make a list of the top five scholars in the world – James Dunn would be on every one of them. And he would probably be in the upper portion of all those lists. He has written major commentaries, book and articles that have had a large impact on scholarship.
I was completely surprised. I had no idea what Dunn looked like – to me he was just a name on a page. I was so shocked to find myself sitting next to James Dunn, that I only I managed to stammer out my name and the fact I was a doctoral student in Pauline studies at Southern Methodist University, where I was working with Dr. Jouette Bassler. And that was it. I was sitting next to one of the top scholars on Paul in the world, and I was so surprised that my mind went completely blank. I couldn’t think of a single good question or observation with which to engage Dunn in conversation because I was so shocked that he was sitting there speaking to me.
In our Old Testament lesson, we hear about Israel’s experience when they found themselves in the presence of Yahweh at Mt. Sinai. It turned out to be an unexpected experience, and far more than they could handle. They declared that it was so shocking that they didn’t want the experience anymore. Instead, they wanted God to speak to Moses.
The book of Deuteronomy recounts the sermons that Moses gave to Israel as they were about to enter into the promised land. The forty years of wandering were completed, and only those who were children and youths at the time of the Exodus had been alive to see what God had done. The adults had all died during the wandering as punishment for their refusal to enter the land. And so in Deuteronomy Moses reviews what God had done for them, and how the Israelites were to live in the covenant God had made with them as they now moved forward.
As he looks towards the future, Moses tells Israel in our text, “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen.” Moses says that God is going to raise up a prophet just like him, and then he recounts how he had come operate in his present role. He says, “just as you desired of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.’ And the LORD said to me, ‘They are right in what they have spoken.”
The scene at Horeb – also called Mt. Sinai – was unlike anything that anyone had seen before or since. There was thunder and lightning. The mountain was wrapped in smoke because Yahweh descended upon it in fire, and the whole mountain trembled. There was the sound of a trumpet that got louder and louder, and finally, when God spoke it sounded like thunder.
This was all too much for Israel. They said, “Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.” And so Moses became the intermediary between Yahweh and Israel. He went into God’s presence, and then delivered Yahweh’s word to the people.
The events at Mt. Sinai remind us about how we have domesticated God. And really, we are just reflecting the culture in which we live. An awesome, holy, righteous and fear inducing God is not what people want. And honestly, it’s really not what we want. We want God to be our friend. We want him to the buddy who just overlooks all of our faults. Because if that is the way things work, then I really don’t have to worry about sin – I certainly don’t have to struggle against it. I can just do what I want. I can do whatever is most convenient for me and I don’t have to mess around with taking a stand against sin. After all you know what happens if you try doing that? Take a look at that Phil Robertson guy this past week. He’s going to have a lot more time to work on his duck calls.
However, God has not changed. And the New Testament writers knew it. The writer to the Hebrews warns, “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”
When the people of Israel were overwhelmed and asked, “Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die,” Yahweh didn’t get upset. Instead he said to Moses, “They are right in what they have spoken. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him.”
The last chapter of Deuteronomy describes Moses’ death and how God buried Moses in an unknown site. And it concludes by saying, “And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, none like him for all the signs and the wonders that the LORD sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, and for all the mighty power and all the great deeds of terror that Moses did in the sight of all Israel.”
The book of Deuteronomy and the Old Testament as a whole end with the knowledge that God had not yet sent the prophet like Moses. Indeed, even after the last books of the Old Testament were inspired and written, some four hundred years passed and this prophet like Moses did not arrive.
On Christmas we will celebrate the arrival of this long promised figure. We will rejoice in the knowledge that God has kept his word and raised up a prophet like Moses to speak God’s word to us. We will give thanks that in order to allow us to interact with the God who is a consuming fire, God gives us … a baby. A baby? Yes, a baby.
This One is the mediator between God and man. And when we meet him for the first time, he could hardly seem less threatening. He is lying as a baby in a manger. Now make no mistake, as true God and true man he is the creator of the cosmos. But he has not come to terrify. Instead he invites us. He will say later, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
Jesus grew up to fulfill the role of the prophet like Moses. He came to deliver God’s words to us. And he did more than that. He came to reconcile us to God. He came to make a great exchange with you. By his death on the cross in your place he takes your sin to himself, and he gives you his righteousness. Because of this you are justified – you are declared “not guilty” now – the same verdict that will happen on the last day when you appear before the judgment seat of Christ who rose from the dead. And so Paul tells us: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Because of the prophet like Moses born at Christmas you stand forgiven; you have peace. And so now, as the baptized child of God you forgive others. You seek to live in peace with those around you. As Jesus has served as mediator between God and man in order to bring you peace, so you seek to mediate between others so that there can be forgiveness and reconciliation.
In our text today, God promises to send a prophet like Moses. At Christmas we will rejoice in the fact that he did just that this. We listen to him as he speaks God’s word to us. And we praise him for the peace he has provided to us.
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