Sunday, December 18, 2016

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent - Rorate Coeli - Deut. 18:15-19

                                                                                                        Advent 4
                                                                                                        Deut 18:15-19

If I say the name “Moses,” what are the first few things that come to mind? If you have been around the Lutheran church for any period of time, several items are likely. You may think of “Law” or “Ten Commandments” or “Mt. Sinai.” If we gave you a little longer to think about it, you would probably think of something like “Exodus” or “Red Sea.” Depending on your vintage you may think of Charlton Heston.

However, it seems unlikely that if I say the name “Moses,” one of the first things that comes to mind is “prophet” or “intercessor.” Generally speaking, we just don’t think about Moses in these terms. Instead, he is the law giver. Or he is the one who led Israel out of Egypt in the Exodus.

Part of the reason we think about Moses in this way is because these are the things that have usually been emphasized. And it’s not as if there is anything wrong with this. Obviously, Moses is the central figure involved in the reception of the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are Law, and as Lutheran emphasize Law and Gospel, “Moses” sometimes is almost another way to say “Law.”

And likewise, Moses is right in the middle of all the awesome things that happen in the Exodus. He is the one who announces the ten plagues to Pharaoh. He is the one God uses to part the Red Sea so that the Israelites can escape.

However in our text today, we learn that Moses was a prophet. In fact he is the great prophet of the Old Testament – the one who set the standard for every prophet that followed. And he was a unique mediator and intercessor between God and the people of Israel. In these roles no one surpassed him … until Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem.

In the verses just before our text begins, Moses has said, “When you come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations.” In particular he warns them against “anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD.”

Israel was not to take up these practices of paganism in order to receive revelation. These would draw the people away from Yahweh into idolatry. And besides, they clearly had no need for this! Instead, Yahweh had already given them the prophet Moses, and would continue to give them prophets.

When we hear the word “prophet” we usually think of someone in the Bible who foretells future events. Certainly, there are examples of this such as when the prophet Isaiah writing in the eighth century B.C. says that God will use Cyrus, the Persian king, in the sixth century to return the people from exile. We tend to focus on these because they are miraculous and spectacular. But in truth, the real job of the prophet was to declare God’s word to the king and the people.

This is what Moses had done. And he had done it because the people didn’t want to hear from God directly. At Mt Horeb – which was also known as Mt Sinai – Yahweh had descended on the mountain in fire. There was thunder and lightning, and the sound of a very loud trumpet blast. The mountain trembled and it was wrapped in smoke because of the fire. It was a fearful scene, and eventually the people said, “Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.” They were scared to death, and so they told Moses, “You go and talk with God for us.” They asked Moses to be the intermediary, and to bring God’s word to them.

These events teach us something that we need to remember. God is holy. And he is terrifying to sinners – or at least, he should be. We live in a world that either denies God’s existence altogether, or creates the image of a non-judging, benevolent deity who just wants us to be happy. Now we may recognize the extreme versions of this, but we too are carried along by our culture in ways that we often don’t perceive.

Our sense of the holy God is muted, and so it becomes easier to let money, wealth and our definition being “comfortable” guide our lives. It becomes easier to act in selfish ways, instead of looking to help my wife or husband. It becomes easier to “go all the way” or to shack up with that guy or girl. It becomes easier to ignore the Ten Commandments.

But God has not changed. Israel got an up close and personal look at God, and they didn’t want any more of it. And writing in the New Testament era, the writer to Hebrews warns us that “our God is a consuming fire.”

Moses took on the role of intermediary. When he heard from God, he was present with Yahweh in a way that caused his face to shine. In fact he had to put a veil over his face until it returned to its normal appearance so that he wouldn’t freak out the Israelites. And he spoke God’s word to the people. He was God’s prophet.

In our text this morning we hear Moses say: “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—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. 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.’” 

Yahweh did in fact continue to give prophets. Some of them were certainly mighty figures, like Elijah. But the book of Deuteronomy ends with these words: “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.” And when you arrive at 2 Chronicles and Malachi – the last books written in the Old Testament – that statement is still true.

A prophet had not arisen to fulfill Moses’ words, until Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem and then began his ministry as an adult. The New Testament leaves no doubt that Jesus Christ is the One who fulfills Moses’ words. In Acts 3 Peter said to the crowd at the temple, “But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses.” And then he went on to add, “Moses said, ‘The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers. You shall listen to him in whatever he tells you. And it shall be that every soul who does not listen to that prophet shall be destroyed from the people.’ And all the prophets who have spoken, from Samuel and those who came after him, also proclaimed these days.”

Jesus Christ is the great prophet like Moses, who is in fact greater than Moses. He is greater because the baby born in Bethlehem is true God – the only Son begotten of the Father. Moses may have in a sense “seen God face to face,” but as the Son of God now incarnate as Jesus Christ, he had always been in communion with the Father and the Spirit. Where Moses face glowed in reflection of Yahweh’s glory, Jesus face shown bright like the sun out of his own divine nature at the Transfiguration.

In particular, Luke’s Gospel presents Jesus as a prophet. As Moses describes in our text, Jesus came to speak God’s word. He called sinners to repentance. And at the same time he declared that in his person, the saving reign of God had entered into the world. He spoke comforting words about the Father’s love and forgiveness for us that were revealed in Jesus.

Moses was the great prophet of the Old Testament. And the treatment he received from Israel set the pattern for all the prophets. He was repeatedly resisted and rejected. In fact, when Israel refused to enter the promised land because of the report brought back by the spies, they were getting ready to stone him to death when Yahweh’s glory showed up.

Jesus Christ was also rejected. The Jewish leaders rejected Jesus by killing him on a Roman cross. But this rejection and death was God’s plan all along. On Pentecost Peter declared, “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.”

Moses died and never entered the promised land. But Jesus Christ conquered death in his resurrection. As true God and true man, he is now the mediator between God and man. He is the One who gave himself as the sacrifice to take away our sins. Baptized into his saving death, we have been clothed with Christ. And so now, he is the One through whom we have access to God. God is still the holy God who terrifies sinners. But we approach as those who are in Christ – those who are holy in God’s eyes because of Jesus. 

When we fail – when we fall in sin – we repent. We confess our sin because we know it is an offense to the holy God. But through repentance and faith in Jesus we also know that we have forgiveness. We approach God knowing that we are covered by Jesus’ righteousness. And we know that Jesus Christ intercedes for us.

Moses interceded for the people when they worshipped the golden calf, and again when they refused to enter Canaan. In his intercession he held up before Yahweh his own promise of the covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He called upon God to be true to his character as the God who is slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and forgiving sin.

Now Jesus intercedes for you. Yet he does so as the One who is exalted to the right hand of God. And he intercedes on the basis of his own saving work – his death and resurrection. He says, “I paid for that sin with my own suffering and death. He is forgiven. She is forgiven.” And in this God the Father agrees and rejoices because the death and resurrection of the Son was his saving will. It is the word that he gave to the Son. It is the word that Jesus began to fulfill for us on Christmas Eve, when he was born to be the prophet like Moses – the prophet, who is in fact, greater than Moses.

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