Today’s Scripture: Deuteronomy 34:1-12.
“There’ll never be anyone like Moses.”
That’s pretty much what the Scripture for today is saying. On one level, I get it: Moses was an incredible leader, an amazing man of God. But on another level: this kind of talk drives me crazy, even when it’s about someone as great as Moses.
You know that old saying about the log and the speck – the one first used by Jesus, the one that tells us we ought to take a look at ourselves before we start examining others? Well, as I’ve written this sermon, I’ve looked in my own eye, so to speak, and realized that there’s something there. Perhaps this kind of talk annoys me so much because I know I’m guilty of it, too.
“There’ll never be anyone like so-and-so.” We say this about political leaders sometimes. PBS just had this great documentary on about the Roosevelts. As my husband and I watched it, it was all I could do not to say, “There’ll never be anyone like them.”
My hometown high school, St. Pete. High, was founded in 1898. It’s got a long history with some excellent teachers and principals – including a particularly beloved Mr. Davis. At times, when the current leadership is lacking, you might us alumni make the comment, “There’ll never be anyone like him.”
We sometimes make comments like this in churches – and this is where I know it bothers me the most, and where I’m most guilty. When I was a youth growing up in a Methodist church, there was one youth director I particularly liked. After he left, I know I thought it; I may even have said it: “There’ll never be anyone like him.”
There’s nothing wrong with celebrating the accomplishments of those who came before us. Remembering great men and women allows us to be inspired by their stories. Take our former principal, Mr. Davis; he was literally the first African-American area superintendent in the United States. That’s a story worth re-telling.
But when story telling turns into idealization we buy into a hopeless world-view. “There’ll never be anyone like so-and-so,” we say. When I hear those kind of comments – out of my mouth or someone else’s – the meaning I get is, “The future will never be as good as the past.”
One of the first side-effects of this kind of talk is that we set the next leader up to fail.
Think of a great leader you knew: a mayor, a boss, a pastor. Someone about whom it was said, “There’ll never be anyone like so-and-so.” Now think about what happened to their successor… if you can remember their successor at all. Those who follow idealized leaders don’t tend to last very long.
Man, poor Joshua! Having to follow Moses.
I bet that’s why we get the details in Deuteronomy 34 about a firm transition of leadership. It’s described like a strong baton-pass in a relay race: Moses is running hard, right up until the end. Through a laying on of hands and a passing of the spirit, it’s clear the transfer is to Joshua, and Joshua alone. Joshua then takes it, and runs with it, leading the Israelites across the Jordan right after Moses’ death.
Joshua was the one. There was no doubt. The people listened to him and did what he said.
But still, the final paragraph for today tells us: “Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses…” Man, poor Joshua.
“There’ll never be anyone like so-and-so.” That kind of talk just gets under my skin.
Especially when it’s not true.
It wasn’t true of Moses. It seemed true, at the time Deuteronomy was written down – probably around the time of the Exile, in the 700s to 500s BC. But after that came someone who was, in fact, better than Moses.
The gospel of Matthew includes some details that make this clear:
- In an attempt to thwart Jesus, King Herod had all the newborn babies killed (Matthew 2). Remember how floating in a basket saved baby Moses from a similar situation in Exodus 2?
- Jesus begins his ministry by fasting in the wilderness for 40 days (Matthew 4). Not only does this remind us of the 40 years in the wilderness, but Moses did his own 40-day fast in Deuteronomy 9.
- When Jesus preaches the best sermon ever, he includes some reinterpretation of the law: “You have heard it said… but I say…” Because it was Moses who first received the law, this is Jesus improving upon Moses’ good work.
- When Jesus’ full glory is revealed during the transfiguration in Matthew 17, he is joined in the sky by two great Old Testament figures: Elijah and… Moses.
“There’ll never be anyone like Moses.” That was true… but then came Jesus.
From time to time, we are blessed with leaders who are exceptional. Leaders who teach us and inspire us and guide us to a whole new level. Leaders who tempt us to say after they’re gone, “There’ll never be anyone like so-and-so.” If we say that, we act like the best has already come. And with God, there is always hope in our future.
“There’ll never be anyone like Moses.” Do you remember this Moses that Deuteronomy is talking about? He started out as a reluctant leader. He thought his poor speech and criminal record would prevent anyone from following him. By the end of his life, people thought Moses was great not because Moses was great – but because Moses’ God is great. God enabled all those plagues and the parting of the waters. Not Moses – God.
If it’s more about what God can do than about what a human can do, then that changes things. In that case, it’s never true to say, “There’ll never be anyone like so-and-so.”
The true statement is: “There’ll never be anyone like our God.”
And with our God, anything can happen. With our God, any one of us average Joes could be used to do great things. With God, there is always a future filled with hope ahead.