Sunday, November 6, 2011

Never Since . . .

Deuteronomy 34:1-12
November 6, 2011

Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. (34:10)

All good things must come to an end . . . including the story of Moses. That’s what we have here in Deuteronomy 34. This is the end of a book, the conclusion of a great soul. It offers up the how and when of Moses’ death, and then give an appraisal of his importance. This is his obituary, his final listing in the Jewish scriptures. It is not the last time Israel would summarize what he did

            “Never since has there arisen a prophet like Moses…” Never since.

            The book of Deuteronomy is written hundreds of years after the life and death of this man. The writers of this book are looking back to assess their own history. They realize Moses has been founding father to them, a man of critical importance. If it hadn’t been for Moses, they wouldn’t have ended up where they are. They would still be slaves under Pharoah’s thumb. God would have had to use different people for more modified success. Never since.

            Never since has there been a family like the Gibbons family. The Gibbons family moved to this little railroad town and decided they needed a church. They had ties to the missionary work of the Gospel. They wanted a church that spoke to them and for them, a church that would make a difference in the world. They couldn’t find such a church, so they started one. This one. Never since has there been a family like the Gibbons family, in starting First Presbyterian Church. They hoped, of course, there would be a Second Presbyterian Church, a Third Presbyterian Church, and so on. But they were the ones who got it started.

            Never since has there been a mother like Lois. I don’t think any of you knew her, but I did. She waited in her hospital bed for her 85th birthday. When it arrived last Wednesday, she decided she had enough and she fell into the arms of her Savior. She was the mother of five children. Arguably I was the sixth one, based on the number of times that I ate at her table. Her oldest son Mark was my good buddy.

“Ma” (as I called her) was always telling me to stay for supper. When we laid her to rest yesterday morning, her five children testified to her goodness and hospitality. “My mother’s life was a life of service,” said one of her grown kids. “She put everybody else in front of her.” They acknowledged her as their caretaker. Now, in silence, they hear her commissioning them to be caretakers of one another, and caretakers of the world. Listen to how their testimony began: “Never since . . .”

We have our long parade of saints whom we honor and remember. We think of those people today who have gone before us. Our lives are now different because of who they were. Perhaps they gave us birth. Or they entered our lives at a critical moment, said what needed to be said, did what needed to be done. We cannot pretend that they were not here before us, blazing the trail and clearing the path. Can you think of a name? Can you remember a name?

Never since have I had a teacher like Mabel Bensley. She asked me to stay after class while the rest of the kids were released to the playground. “Billy,” she said, “I wanted to talk to you when the other children weren’t around. Sometimes it seems like you are a little bored when the rest of us are working through a lesson. I wanted to give you something to extra to work on, something that I think you might enjoy.” It was a copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Up until then, I thought teachers were supposed to teach you what you already knew, wipe your nose, and make sure your shoes were tied. It never occurred to me that a teacher could challenge you to grow.

And the day I was ordained as a minister, she sent me a little note. It said, “I knew this day would come, because I had praying for it to happen for years. Mrs. B.” My professors at Princeton never wrote a note like that, but she did. She pushed me, challenged me, believed in me. Never since have I had a teacher like Mrs. B.

Never since has there been a pastor like Edgar Frank. I was raised before his voice, and I don’t remember ever fidgeting. My parents remember, but I don’t. When Rev. Frank preached, everybody leaned forward, mostly because his voice was as soft as golden silence. You could hear a pin drop because he talked so quietly. That was his way of securing your attention. We had to lean forward as an act of faith, trusting that he was going to say something essential, offering up some word we could not live without.

But his work was never locked up after Sunday. In his quiet way he taught me that all of life is aimed in two directions. We respond to God who made us, who loves us. That is the first and greatest direction. Everything we do is because God comes first. And second, we relate to one another. That’s what he taught me. You make yourself available to others. You listen to them, you take them seriously. Every birthday, he used the new technology of the telephone. He whispered, “I just wanted to wish you a Happy Birthday. May God grant you another good year.” That was it. That’s all he said. Of course, I don’t think he had a lot else on his plate, just spent the entire day making birthday calls. But I’ll tell you: never since have I known a man who spoke the voice of love to one person after another after another. Never since.  

So what are they going to say about you? What kind of impact will you make? Maybe it’s obvious. Or maybe it is something that you do not even know you are radiating. It could be your calming influence or your peaceful spirit. Or it could be the way you steer the ship through choppy waters. Maybe it’s the way you walk into the room and take charge. Or perhaps it is the way that you encourage somebody to be better than everybody thinks they are. Maybe you are the one who teaches that it is possible to forgive. Or perhaps it’s the quiet center of your life that affects everyone within reach.

What will they say of you when you are gone?

One morning in 1888, a Norwegian businessman reached for his morning newspaper. Flipping idly through the pages, he received the shock of his life: he saw his own obituary! It was a terrible mistake, of course. His brother had recently died, and a careless reporter had mixed the two of them up. He had gone to the newspaper's files and pulled the biographical information on the wrong man.

Well, here’s the thing. As the man read his own obituary, he didn’t like what he saw. Oh, the details were accurate enough. He was an inventor, world-renowned, and had gained one of the largest fortunes in world. Yet the newspaper called him “The Merchant of Death.” The headline read, “The Merchant of Death is Dead.”

His name was Alfred Nobel. While working as a chemist, he had accidentally discovered a way to convert the explosive nitroglycerin into a powdered form. He called the product “dynamite” and it made him richer than his wildest dreams. But his obituary said, “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.”

He decided to change the purpose of his life. Rather than sue the newspaper, Nobel began giving his money away. He made provision in his will for the famous Nobel Prizes, rewarding each year those who had made the greatest contributions to humanity. Eight years later, when Alfred Nobel passed away from a stroke, he accomplished what no other person in human history has managed to do: he had rewritten his own obituary.

God’s blessing is always hidden in the second chance. Sometimes that is when life begins. Remember Moses? Say whatever you want, but he was a murderer. He killed an Egyptian who was beating up on one of his fellow Hebrews, and hid the man’s body in the sand. Pharoah got word of this and Moses began to run. If that was all there was to the story, we would not be here this morning. But God got through to Moses, found him, spoke to him, and gave him the work of freeing a huge tribe of oppressed slaves. For a good long while, Moses was God’s point man to a disorganized gaggle of people who weren’t always sure they wanted to be free.

But now, looking back, from the vantage point of many years, they realized how significant he was.

When All Saints Day rolls by each year, it is a reminder that every life matters. Every single person has the possibility of positively affecting somebody else. The power of God is worked out in the kind of lives that we live, in the hands we hold, in the words we speak, in the truths we defend.

Never since, I tell you… You and I can talk about these people who have affected us. They taught by example. They showed us the good Word of God in flesh. The power of remembering people is not merely to remind us of their legacies, but to remember the legacies that we will leave behind. When it comes to the memories of other people, we take responsibility for the memories that we are making.

“Never since has there been a prophet like Moses…” There are plenty more prophets, lots and lots of them. There are always plenty of prophets among the people of God. These people speak face to face with the Lord our God, even if they do not readily see that face. Yet they keep chasing after the face of God until God finally blesses them. And they do this so they can extend that blessing to everybody who can receive it.  

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

No comments:

Post a Comment