Preacher: The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Deuteronomy 34: 1 – 12

Psalm 90: 1 – 6, 13 – 17

 1 Thessalonians 2: 1 – 13

Matthew 22: 34 – 46

About a decade ago I had the privilege of spending a whole month with my father. Aged 86 he had suffered a massive heart attack the previous year and, although he had been pulled through that, he never really recovered. For nearly twenty years he and my mother had lived in a retirement village on the coast, a place that they both loved and that we, family members scattered across the globe, came to love and enjoy too – a sort of promised land of family, relaxation, long walks on the beach and swimming in the surf. During that month I spent much time with my father simply sitting in the car – either driving slowly around the village, him pointing out new houses and work that needed to be done on the streets, or water and sewerage system (it’s hard to take a civil engineer out of a man); or simply parked looking out down the lagoon towards the sea. Conversation came and went, often slowly and painstakingly, as he told me stories of his early years – as a scout, sailor during the war, and then some of the family history. It stands out in my memory as a special time of reflection and retrospection, with few regrets, and ready and open about the future and crossing from this life into the next. To the end he never lost his subtle, underplayed and somewhat wicked sense of humour, and took great delight in the fact that I smuggled a tot of whiskey into his sickroom, apparently without the matron knowing!

As I read Deuteronomy 34: 1 – 12, the story of the last days and death of Moses, I am reminded off those weeks with my dad. He didn’t quite make the hundred and twenty years Moses did, and I doubt that his “vigour was unabated”, but there was a great sense of peace about him.

It’s a lovely picture painted for us of God taking Moses up to Mount Nebo, there to look out across the Promised Land – to see those portions of land allocated to the Twelve tribes of Israel – to Dan, Napthali, Ephraim, Manasseh and the others. It is true that Moses himself did not get to go into the Promised Land – but the Covenant sworn to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – without which we cannot understand the Old Testament – the Covenant is renewed by God, and Moses is able to rest content that he has done his bit for his people. Grand statesman and leader that he was, he died peacefully and at rest in God. It is possible that he was the first to hear the voice of God, repeated much later by God’s Son Jesus, saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant … enter into the joy of your master.” (Matthew 25: 23)

Moses had served God and his people all his life. Only once is there a record of him having done wrong in the eyes of the Lord – and that was the incident at Meribah, mentioned in Numbers (20: 1 – 13), where the people quarreled and Moses lost his patience, striking the rock in anger. Because of that one incident he was not allowed to enter the Promised Land. But, while the incident is mentioned, it seems in the distance and without animosity. Rather, Moses accepts God’s will for him and dies peacefully.

That is not the end of Moses of course, for his legacy lives on – in Joshua who takes up the mantle of leadership, and in the people who remember Moses’s teaching and take it with them into their new life. The Law of Moses, known as the Torah, becomes the foundation and bedrock of the Jewish faith; and Moses, along with Elijah (representing the prophets), appears with Jesus at the Transfiguration. The Torah is based on the first and great commandment – to love God with all your heart, soul and mind. But it is not complete without the second commandment – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

There is something of this gentleness we see in Moses’s death in the writing of St Paul to the Thessalonians. Paul is often portrayed as a somewhat angry man, laying down the law and telling people, especially women, what they can and can’t do and wear. Not so in today’s extract from 1 Thessalonians 2. Paul uses a most beautiful image of his ministry among the Thessalonians. He was, he says, ‘gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children’. Hard-working himself, Paul was determined not to be a burden on this congregation – giving of himself in all manner of ways for the good of the people.

I wonder who comes to mind when we think about this image Paul offers – the nurse tenderly caring, moving gently among the needy people? Generations of parents down the ages have cared for their children in this way; countless people in the caring professions, many members of this congregation, offer their love, care and energy to the sick and vulnerable. That caring spills out into practical involvement in Anglicare projects, foodbanks and opshops, groceries coming in Sunday by Sunday, squares for blankets being knitted, beanies sent to the Never-neverland Creche in South Africa – reaching out to the vulnerable in our society. Thankfully, most of the time, those in politics and who make decisions about community life, remember that their calling includes the responsibility to care for the have-nots among us, the unemployed, the people who struggle with the black dog of depression and mental illness. Organisations such as World Vision do quite extraordinary work among the Rohingya people caught in the no-man’s land between Myanmar and Bangladesh. But it behoves each of us, each of us who are called to follow Christ, baptized into his name, to be like St Paul, being gentle with each other, caring as the nurse for her children and so bringing in the Kingdom of Heaven step by step, caring act by caring act.

For some months now the words of a hymn (677) have stood on the altar under the flags, next to the sand bowl where people are invited to light candles and pray for peace. It’s a simple hymn with a simple flowing melody line. It invites us, in a world where people live in darkness, to turn to the light and light a candle in the darkness. Written by Robert Willis, Dean of Canterbury Cathedral, I find the 2nd verse particularly poignant

In a world where suff’ring of the helpless 
Casts a shadow all along the way, 
Let us bear the Cross of Christ with gladness 
And proclaim the dawning of the day. 
For the light is stronger than the darkness 
And the day will overcome the night. 
Though the shadows linger all around us, 
Let us turn our faces to the light. 

There is a particularly fine rendering of this hymn sung by the Choir of Canterbury cathedral.

As we seek to live out the two great commandments of which Jesus reminded the Pharisees, and us, to love God and our neighbour, may we do so with the gentleness for each other that St Paul had for the Thessalonians, and the commitment and dedication seen in that great Old Testament leader Moses. Let us not only light a candle in the darkness, but live our lives daily as light in the darkness, in the world around us, and wherever, and with whoever, we find dark places. So shall we too enter into the joy of the Master, and hear the words, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’