A sermon by Margaret Hall
A recent newspaper article on the situation in eastern Congo described people as wandering vacantly from burnt-out village to burnt-out village. It brought to my mind the Biblical image of sheep without a shepherd. We could apply the same image to others – perhaps to teenagers out binge-drinking, or to any of us who feel confused – lost in the maze of opinions clamouring for our acceptance. Wandering through our days unsure where we’re going isn’t confined to the hills and valleys of the eastern Congo.
In Biblical times sheep needed a lot of shepherding – out to the best pastures and back to the safety of the sheep-pens. At night the shepherds would lie across the entrance to the pens, to protect the sheep from thieves and wild animals. Without shepherds the sheep were defenseless, at the mercy of forces beyond their comprehension.
When Jesus saw people as sheep without a shepherd, he was filled with compassion for them.
Long before Jesus appeared to show compassion for the lost, God’s people had an outstanding leader in Moses. Around the time he was born, the Israelites were crying out to God for a way out of their misery. The all-powerful Pharaoh had made them his slaves, and in the manner of tyrants everywhere, was using every means he could to protect his power. Concerned by their ever-increasing numbers, he ordered his soldiers to hunt out and kill their baby boys.
The story of Moses’ survival never loses its appeal – the canny mother weaving and tarring a basket for her three-month-old, the baby’s older sister Miriam keeping watch over it bobbing among the reeds, until it was seen by the women from Pharaoh’s household who were bathing in the river. One of them, who was Pharaoh’s daughter, decided to save the child. Moses’ sister dared to step forward to suggest he would need a wet-nurse, and then went off to fetch her own mother. Pharaoh’s daughter no doubt saw through the ruse, but allowed it out of womanly pity for the baby.
How ironic that the life of a child Pharaoh wanted dead was not only spared – he grew up at home in Pharaoh’s household. He would have received the best education available, but it didn’t extinguish the awareness of his origins, which his mother had the chance to implant in his earliest years.
That awareness asserted itself one day when he was saw an Egyptian beating up an Israelite. In a fit of rage Moses killed the Egyptian. There were witnesses, and Moses knew he had to get out of there. He fled to the desert, to Midian. There he married the daughter of the Midianite priest who took him in. In the years that followed he had plenty of time to reflect on the plight of his people back in Egypt.
They were still crying out to God. The writer of this history sets God’s response against the background of the promises he’d made centuries before. We read:
God heard their groaning and remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. So he looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.
One day Moses led his sheep to the far side of the desert – to Horeb, the mountain we know as Mount Sinai. There God spoke to him from a bush that appeared to be burning, yet wasn’t burning up. He told him to go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt. He was to lead them to the land God had promised Abraham, four centuries before.
Leading sheep through an area of wilderness was one thing. Leading a whole people from Egypt to Canaan was quite another. But God encouraged Moses, not least by telling him his personal name – ‘I AM’ – a great name for the Creator of the universe who simply is, existing by himself, without beginning and without end. It’s the very name Jesus dared to take for himself, when he was explaining his origins and said, “Before Abraham existed, I am.”
Moses did lead the Israelites from Egypt to the borders of Canaan, through a series of events only the Creator of all things could bring about. For that task he took on all the leadership roles that were later divided between three groups – the prophets who spoke the words they heard from God, the priests who intervened between God and his rebellious people, and the kings who were anointed to exercise authority under the authority of God himself.
Moses was certainly God’s prophet. He set out for everyone the words he’d heard from God in his time away up Mount Sinai – beginning with the Ten Commandments. The instructions he received from God included the layout of what later became the Temple – the focus of God’s presence with his people. They included a system of sacrifices, by which God impressed upon the Israelites the cost of rejecting his commandments.
Moses took on the role of priest when he pleaded with God to have mercy on his people, even offering his own life in exchange for their forgiveness. And in his role as the leader who’d shepherded them from slavery to freedom, he exercised his authority in such a humble way that he was called the meekest man on earth. Almost none of the kings who came later were that kind of leader.
Then in the middle of the speeches Moses delivered towards the end of his life, we find this promise:
The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people. You must listen to him.
The Lord their God did raise up a prophet like Moses from among their own people. But Israel’s leaders saw Jesus as a threat to their position. When he was still a baby, King Herod tried to have him killed. The priests and teachers of the law, jealous of his popularity, plotted to kill him, in part because he exposed their self-interest. He said they were blind guides. They left the people they were supposed to be leading to be like sheep without a shepherd.
In one heated debate with those who rejected his authority, Jesus said he was the prophet Moses promised. He said: “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me.”
Israel, and indeed the whole world, desperately needed the leader Moses wrote about. For centuries there’d been no shortage of prophets, preaching their hearts out. But Israel had paid no attention, or worse, had mistreated and even killed them, as Jesus reminded them in a couple of the parables he told.
Another prophet was not what was needed. What was needed – what the world’s always needed – is someone who can rescue us from the ingrained self-focus we all have that ruins relationships. Without someone to pay for the damage we do and set us free from ourselves, even our best efforts to obey the rules laid out by the prophets are not enough. They never have been and they never will be.
Other events recorded in the Gospels confirm Jesus’ claim to be the prophet Moses said would be like him. Matthew tells in his Gospel how Jesus went up a mountainside to explain God’s law to his disciples, perhaps to evoke the memory of Moses climbing up Mount Sinai to receive that law.
Jesus’ understanding of the law went deeper. For example, he said, “You’ve heard it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgement.’ But I say to you that anyone who’s angry with his brother will be subject to judgement.”
All of us need that deeper truth – that God judges the inner thoughts that give rise to our actions, not just the actions themselves.
Another event that got people comparing Jesus with Moses was his feeding of thousands with a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. It reminded people of the time when their ancestors were starving in the desert and God provided food through Moses. When Jesus fed people, they were so sure he was the prophet they were expecting, they wanted to make him their king. They did hint that Jesus might like to give them some extra sign that God had sent him – some more bread, perhaps.
Jesus followed up his feeding of thousands of people by walking on the waves of the Sea of Galilee to reach his terrified disciples — another parallel with the same central story of Israel’s history — their rescue from slavery in Egypt. It was God’s power over the waters of the Red Sea that had finally put them out of Pharaoh’s reach. Jesus walking on water was more than a sign he could do anything because God was with him. For those with the eyes to see it, it was another way of saying he’s the God of Jewish history.
The letter to the Hebrews puts Jesus’ superiority to Moses like this:
Jesus was faithful to the one who appointed him, just as Moses was faithful in all God’s house. Jesus has been found worthy of greater honour than Moses, just as the builder of the house has greater honour than the house itself. …. Moses was faithful as a servant in God’s house. But Christ is faithful as a son over God’s house.
In the centuries after Moses, there were many prophets and priests and kings, but none were like him in being all three at once. Until Jesus. He was the prophet who spoke with an authority that amazed the crowds who heard him. He’s the great High Priest who stands between us and the God who’s just and holy. And from the time of his first sermon in Nazareth to his reply to the High Priest at his trial, he identified himself as the Saviour-King God had promised to send. He was indeed like Moses, and yet so much greater.
The apostle John summed up why Jesus is greater than Moses. He said:
The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
Australians know the importance of back-burning – creating a burnt-out space between their homes and an advancing bushfire, because fire won’t burn what’s already been burnt. God’s law is like the fire – a force I ignore at my peril. But the grace of Jesus in dying for me provides the burnt-out space that protects me from the force of the fire. Hardly believing I’m safe, I stand behind what he achieved. “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
God of all mercy, thank you for sending Jesus to be the prophet who spoke the truth, the high priest who sacrificed himself, and the king who overcame our last enemy, death. Help us to trust in who he is. Amen.