‘A Relationship with God.’ It is a vernacular of much of the Christian community and finds its roots in the fairly recent history. Abbie and Billy just sang of it in the Sandra McCracken song,
I cannot see him, But oh how I love him. I cannot see him, but I believe, I know he walks with me. I believe, that he walks with me.
Merle Haggard sang of it as well,
And the voice i hear falling on my ear, The son of god discloses. And he walks with me and he talks with me. And he tells me i am his own. And the joy we share, As we tarry there, none other has ever known.
A relationship with God is a tough thing to quantify. He is unseen, seldom heard, He seems absent in our difficult days and no where to be found in the midst of our loneliness. Moses expressed the same frustrations. It is in the life of Moses, that we see a most intriguing relationship with God. In fact, our passage tells us, there has never been a prophet with a similar relationship since.
Our Deuteronomy passage this week brings us the the death of Moses. The story of Moses is significant from the moment of Moses’ birth all the way until his death. It is the tale of learning to trust and follow God. A tale of a human who was willing to take off his shoes.
His life begins with the bold and risky moves of three woman who deliver the deliverer of a people. Incidentally, this is also the tale of the first female primary protagonists in scripture.
Moses’ life plays a major role in the three main religions on the planet earth – Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. In addition, most of the other Middle Eastern religions pay some sort of homage to Moses.
Moses spends the first decades of his life living as entitled royalty only to then be rejected by everyone. He, a man who was craving anonymity, was called to be a voice advocating for the oppressed. He is a key character in the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham and a core element in God’s promise of a people and a land. He is central to the establishment of the religion of Judaism. And, Moses removes his shoes.
The final encounter between God and Moses takes place on Mount Nebo with a view of the promised land. God kept a promise to Moses – a promise to show him the promise land. Moses stood there with God looking out over the land of the land of the Canaanites promised to the Israelites. It was a front row to seat to a land he would never enter. This was also an affirmation of the character of God. Moses, near the end of the journey, tired and exhausted by the complaints of the people, had acted in a disobedient way. A maverick, disobedient, exhausted leader would have been a disaster in leading the people into the promised land. It was time for Moses to rest, it was time for a new leader. ‘I am the Lord, I will be gracious and I will show mercy’ God had promised Moses. As Moses looked out over the promised land, God was acting out of that grace and mercy. Moses was done, he had done all that his calling required, it was time to pass the torch. God in his grace and mercy permitted Moses rest.
To grasp the calling of Moses we must see it through the filter of Christ.
As believers in Jesus Christ we cannot dismiss the significance of the role played by Moses in our own faith. God gifts the law to the Israelites through Moses. You may have noticed that in our readings this morning we had two that sounded almost identical – that is because the words of our Matthew passage were actually the words from God given to Moses from our Leviticus passage.
Word that we know as the greatest commandments, words that are the summation of the law, words that Jesus said to silence the antagonists.
‘You SHALL love your neighbor as yourself.’
A message that humanity still struggles to grasp even today
At Moses’ death, a brief and concise obituary is given,
Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.
The relationship between God and Moses is described as being unmatched and face to face. Their’s was truly a discourse, the two would discuss, God would instruct, they would talk each other back in moments of greatest frustration with the people, Moses even confronted God with the promises God had made – it was a back and forth that we can only imagine was God’s intention for the garden.
Possibly, more than ever, the ‘face to face’ description holds our interest even more in this time of pandemic, political fear and unrest. We may be living in a time that has more in common with the days of Moses than ever before. The question lies in the hebrew words
panim el panim – literally means face to face
These Hebrew words describe people talking and interacting literally ‘face to face’. They are words that mean exactly what they say…face to face. These two spent as much as a month and a half, just the two of them, sitting arguing, debating, listening, encouraging, confronting, comforting. It was intimate, they were both fully present and fully invested. But, how could Moses be panim el panim with God? A human is incapable of handling a face to face with God. For 6 months we have struggled with the how of panim el panim – an previously ordinary action that threatens life. God and Moses had to figure it out just as we have had to figure it all out. It was a burden but they did it, we don’t really know how, but they did, and it worked, – theirs’ was a very unique relationship for a very unique time and situation, as is ours. Working together to figure out the mechanics of a panim el panim when the very act of panim el panim was is always a challenge but God uses it to strengthen our relationships.
Moses was called to unify a divided people so that they could be a functioning people ready for the difficult transition to freedom. God’s plan called for a unified people – a unity that God would use to break the hardened Pharaoh. God’s calling of Moses was in the midst of Moses ordinary daily routine, a moment just like all other moments, however, this moment would become a holy and defining. It was a moment that could only begin when Moses removed his shoes.
Moses said, “I must go over and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that Moses was approaching the bush, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” Moses said, “Here I am.” God said, “Come no closer! Remove the shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Then God introduced himself to Moses, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
In those few words of introduction the limitations and restrictions to be overcome are given, the recognition of God as the ‘I Am’, the holy nature, and most importantly the invitation to enter into the relationship.
‘Remove the shoes Moses, for you are standing on holy ground.’
Moses was not a religiously educated human, nor were the people religiously savvy. There was little known about God other than the story of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. They were a people holding onto a centuries old promise. Taking off shoes was huge. Being on holy ground was mysterious. A bush was burning that did not burn up, an angel and now he was being spoken to by God. Moses remained, shoeless, vulnerable, not invisible, hands over his face, on holy ground.
This was the origin of the genuine relationship between God and Moses. Moses accepted this relationship as he removed his shoes. “Take off your shoes Moses. You are standing on Holy Ground.”
Thousands of years after Moses took off his shoes, another man named Martin Luther King stood on the holy ground of the Bishop Charles Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee. It was the the evening of April 3, 1968 and King unknowingly was about to preach the final sermon of his life, for the next day he would be assassinated by a gunman. As he spoke he harkened to that moment of Moses on Mount Nebo as God showed him the Promised Land. King preached
‘We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery. Now let us maintain unity. It’s alright to talk about “streets flowing with milk and honey,” but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter. I’ve been to the mountaintop. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. 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. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.’
God’s call to deliver the oppressed did not end with Moses, nor did it end with Martin Luther King. It was the call Jesus gave to his apostles, it remains God’s call on us today. It is verbal call to us from God, it is the post ascension work of the apostles and all those who have come before us. It is the call to us to follow God and imitate his work of grace and mercy in a world that has forgotten to love others, a world that has failed to bring justice to the oppressed, to reveal hope to a hopeless world.
The command remains the same for us that was given to Moses.
‘Remove your shoes, you are on holy ground.”
Our holy ground is our homes, our work, our front yards, it is at the grocery store and the restaurant, it is on the road and it is in the voting booth, it is in our churches, it is across town, across the nation, across the oceans, all over the world – wherever and however we are panim el panim in the midst of life.
We are on holy ground.
Take off your shoes.