How To Pick a President

How To Pick a President

Deuteronomy 18:9-22

by Daniel Harrell

So I’ve taken these post Easter Sundays, nine so far, to share insights and experiences from the generous sabbatical you granted me and my family this past winter at Fuller Seminary in Southern California. I thought I’d be done preaching by Pentecost, two Sundays ago, but there has been so much to tell. I will definitely finish next Sunday as I am off to Rome and Geneva with ten of our high school students to travel in the footsteps of Galileo on a faith-and-science journey. Among the biggest challenges to a young Christian is freshman biology and the misuse of science by some to discredit belief. As churches, we’ve done a poor job helping people see science as showing the handiwork of the Lord. Galileo held that Nature followed a divine logic which revealed its hidden pattern to the persistent investigator, and he was right. Our trip will start at the Vatican Observatory in Rome and wind our way through Florence and Padua before ending at the particle accelerator at CERN, a marvel made possible by Galileo’s opening our eyes to the realities of physics. It will be my first time in Rome and Geneva since I went as a high school student myself and had my mind blown open to history and culture and how God permeates it all.

I studied science, or more specifically the cognitive science of religion, while at Fuller as a visiting scholar. I learned how our minds are wired for faith and our brains have a limited capacity for relationships. But I also studied the nature of time and eternity, why black faith matters for white people, Reformation piety and vocation, Mary the mother of Jesus, post-colonialism and mission, youth ministry and reasons for the decline of the institutional church. We experienced beauty, good food and flavor and good friends too, which I talked about during these Sunday’s. I’ll conclude all of this next week with a glimpse at Jonathan Edwards, analytic theology, the neurological conundrum of free will and determinism and the power of God to make all things new. Hold tight to your pews.

Had I had my way, however, I would have spent all eleven post-sabbatical Sundays immersed in Deuteronomy. A hinge book of the Old Testament, Deuteronomy, which means “second law,” reviews so much more than all the statutes and commandments given to Israel as they were birthed into a nation. It works more like a spiritual roadmap, a reality check, a bridge to eternity as it prepared God’s people to cross over the Jordan into their Promised Land. The central character is Moses, the pivotal figure of the entire Old Testament, the one on whom true leadership is modeled. Moses spoke Deuteronomy from his deathbed. He reviewed his life and his calling and pleas for the people to stay loyal to their calling, to not give in to the temptations of culture and self-indulgence and let their identity dilute.

Israel stands on the shore, having broken their own promises. Chosen solely by grace on the basis of love, Israel betrayed God’s affection and took his grace for granted, mistreated his love as permission to do as they pleased. The Lord let them have all they wanted, which ultimately meant wandering aimlessly through the desert, a prodigal nation soon hungry and thirsty for what the pigs ate. They incessantly whined and pined for their slave days, nursed a nostalgia for a time so much worse than remembered. In their despair, the Lord fed them manna from heaven and water from a rock, but as soon as their stomachs were once again full, they commenced their complaining again, annoyed by the challenges of faith and the long road of discipleship. In the book of Numbers, the Lord told Moses to speak to a rock and command water to pour forth so the people could drink, but Moses took his staff and whacked the rock instead as a sign of his own frustration. Why did these people deserve any more mercy? He was tired of coddling a congregation so resistant to change. For losing his temper, a comparatively minor infraction, the Lord wouldn’t let Moses cross the Jordan himself. He dies on the east bank and never sees the promise fulfilled.

I’d always been taught how Moses should have known better, that prophets and pastors are held to higher standards. This may be true, and Deuteronomy does have Moses die as a consequence of disobedience. But a deeper read reveals that Moses’ own death in the desert is not as punishment for his own disobedience but as sacrifice: he is the selfless, charismatic and courageous leader who gives himself for the sake of his people and makes possible God’s presence and Israel’s rebirth of freedom. By failing to cross, Moses foreshadows the cross of Jesus, that radical act of paradoxical failure that defies comprehension, pierces our heart and saves our souls.

Deuteronomy served as the blueprint for Israel’s religious reforms under King Josiah, one of only three kings the Old Testament lauds as a good leader. Deuteronomy guided the prophet Jeremiah through Jerusalem’s destruction and exile, and then reaffirmed their faith once God brought his people home. As Jesus wrestled to communicate the kingdom of God, his lessons often came straight from Deuteronomy. When post-Pentecost Peter sought to validate the risen Jesus as Lord and Christ, he did so with Deuteronomy as the template.

Deuteronomy confronts both the burden of obedience and the heaviness of conflict, both realities on the long road of discipleship. Moses demanded a covenant decision on the part of his people —whom will you serve?— but as all Christians know, a decision for Jesus is but the first, wobbly step in a long walk. Grace cannot be earned, but it must be proven. You can pour ingredients into a pot and stir, but flavor happens only with time, and even then you still have to taste and show that its good. Jesus said you can only tell a tree by its fruit. Properly understood, Deuteronomy provides a recipe for true spiritual flavor, a pleasing aroma to God, and abundant joy and satisfaction for his people.

Still, Deuteronomy’s a tough book to read, tougher to preach and hard to listen to, which may be why God cancelled my class at Fuller. Not enough students enrolled—even seminarians don’t want to study Deuteronomy, it seems. However, it may have had something to do with the professor. Dr. Kyong-Jin Lee, Korean-born, Bolivia-raised with a Harvard-Duke education, her PhD in Old Testament from Yale and another Masters in Science from the London School of Economics, with the rumored reputation, I soon heard, of being harsh taskmaster-tiger mom-of a teacher, compelling her pupils, like Hebrew slaves of old, to make bricks without straw.

Undeterred, I made an appointment to inquire about some independent Deuteronomic study. I entered her tome-laden sanctum and sat opposite her imposing desk. A young scholar she was, focused and uncompromisingly fierce. “Why do you want to know Deuteronomy?” she demanded. “Tell me your purpose.”

Uh, well, I haven’t ever studied Deuteronomy in depth.

“You are a preacher of God’s Word and not deeply acquainted with his law? How can you speak of New Testament grace without firm grasp of covenant and sacrifice and obedience and discipline? How is your Hebrew?”

Uh, my Hebrew?

“Yes, the Hebrew language you learn in seminary and continue to use weekly so to preach with integrity and fidelity?”

Oh, that Hebrew, well…

“How many years you preach?”

Oh, about… thirty so far…

[Silence]

Big disappointed head shake on her part. Long sigh. (This explains the decline of the church.) Deep breath followed by a lengthy, overflowing, impassioned and pointed summary of the second law. I feverishly tried to keep up and take notes.

Dr. Lee outlined Deuteronomy as ultimately a political document, tied to an ancient near eastern anchor code of honor and shame, a culture where land had personality and power, a symbol of divine goodwill. Power had to be centralized for political reasons, but it is easily exploited, and thus God gave both kings and prophets to provide check and balance. Deuteronomy shows what true leadership looks like, what charisma as bestowed by God entails: vision with virtue; humility, service and self-abdication; relentless faith and trust in a power greater than you—traits hard to find in current political climates where disparity fuels resentment, arrogance trumps, ends justify means, and distrust and disloyalty are prices to pay to get power.

Deuteronomy is God’s steadfast indictment against human rebellion, his intention to do justice and make right. Abuse of power and infidelity to God, pride and prejudice all polluted the land and its persona, a contamination eradicated only by humility, repentance and sacrifice: reconciliation with God and restoration of covenant. Deuteronomy warned against the perils of reckless promises, and signaled the ultimate shift from Temple to Torah, from God housed in a singular place to his taking up residence in human hearts and behavior, with the caveat that people honor his presence with their own fruitful lives of love, stewardship and compassion.

Any questions?

I said no, not a one, because frankly I was a little frightened—not unlike the Israelite people atop Mt. Horeb, when they heard the law in all its fiery ferocity and forthrightness and cried out for mercy. The word of God was too hot to handle or hear directly—too clear and too strong and too terrifying.

“I see we get along well,” Dr. Lee replied. “I believe you might provide premarital counseling for me and my fiancé as we are about to be married.”

Yes ma’am. I agreed. Whatever you say.

And so I paid for my independent study in Deuteronomy by agreeing to provide pastoral counseling. I’ll admit I couldn’t wait to meet the guy Dr. Lee was going to marry.

Our passage from Deuteronomy 18 is central to the Torah and critical to the Christian gospel too. It warns against any attempt to domesticate the charismatic for personal power. Moses prohibits ancient alignment with diviners, soothsayers, fortunetellers, witches, occultists, palm readers, false prophets and some might add politicians and false promises. Deuteronomy declares such alignment abhorrent to God, a greedy betrayal of grace and presumption of authority. “You must remain completely loyal to the LORD your God,” we read, a Hebrew adjective also rendered as blameless, perfect, wholehearted and integrated, focused and ferociously faithful.

Kyong-Jin Lee was raised in Korea, but at a young age left with her family to go to Bolivia where her father had taken on work. A devoted follower of Jesus himself, her father underwent a charismatic call to serve the poor of Bolivia’s altiplano, the high plains of Bolivia and Peru where the air is thin, the weather cold,  poverty rampant and where I had taken a group of high school students on a mission trip years ago. Forsaking his construction job, Kyong-Jin’s father moved his family among the Spanish-Indian poor where he lives and serves still. As a bright young teenager with exceptional intellect looking toward college, Kyong-Jin inherited her father’s intensity and passion for the gospel. She moved to the States to study: Duke-Harvard-Yale-London and then to Spring Arbor College to teach and finally her appointment at Fuller where her research explores the social, political, and theological contexts in which the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament developed and ascertained its authoritative status during the Persian and Hellenistic periods. An expert in covenant law, Kyong-Jin takes commitments very seriously, no touchy-feely squishy Christianity for her. And no reckless promises. Her word is her bond. Her husband will have his arms full. He’ll need to read Deuteronomy.

Character is critical throughout Deuteronomy, exemplified most vividly and charismatically in Moses, the prophet in whose image all prophets would be judged. As the creative spokespersons of God’s word, prophets injected the Lord’s power and spirit into Israel’s collective life. Knowing the crucial role prophets play, God promises through Moses as he dies, “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. I will put my words in his mouth, who shall speak everything that I command.” Vestiges of Moses reemerge potently in Samuel and Elijah and even King David, in Jeremiah and John the Baptist, but ultimately in Jesus, whom Moses himself affirms at the Transfiguration and whom Peter identifies post-Pentecost as the last and final prophet sent, the one-like-Moses who redeems the whole world by sacrificing himself to it. Like Moses, Jesus mediates God’s fire, stands in the breach between righteousness and its repercussions, gently screens like ritual smoke rising from the altar of sacrifice, redeems by resurrection and licks us with Pentecostal fire we can handle to refine us and finally render us perfect and blameless, full of flavor and beauty.

Deuteronomy pushes me as a preacher to act more prophetically, speaking and doing the word of the Lord that presses against what I normally want to do or to say. We’re suckers for wanting to hear what we already believe. We church shop for preachers who parrot what we already think. But as the poet WH Auden so arrestingly put it, “I believe [in Jesus] because He fulfills none of my dreams, because He is in every respect the opposite of what He would be if I could have made Him in my own image.” It’s so tempting for preachers, and safe, to treat congregations as customers and strive to keep everybody happy; to figure out what people want and give them that, to market grace as a fast food commodity of comfort and for spiritual affirmation rather than as a cross to carry on the long roads of love and obedience. The gospel’s goal has never been customer satisfaction but true discipleship revealed in the flavorful fruit we prove by its taste, the heavenly delights of real love, faithful relationship and sacrifice. In a day when our politics intentionally tap and incite anger and violence, promote prejudice and hatred, purposely manipulate and deceive, obfuscate and behave downright obscenely, true discipleship can be like trying to beat water out of a rock.

In 1 Corinthians, in an intriguing twist of Old Testament interpretation, the apostle Paul names the rock Moses struck in the desert as Christ himself. “They drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.” Moses struck the rock in Numbers at the end of the desert trip, but he had done so earlier in Exodus at the start (this is where Paul gets the idea of a traveling rock). There’s a whole lot to this story (another reason to read Deuteronomy), but what’s particularly striking (pardon the pun), is how God’s command to strike the rock in Exodus is a command to strike God. The Lord says to Moses, “I will be standing on the rock.” Moses acts as executioner, in effect condemning God, and water mercifully gushes forth. Paul sees another foreshadow of the cross—remembering how a soldier’s sword pierced Jesus’ side as he died and water gushed—a radical act of paradoxical failure that defies comprehension, pierces our heart, saves our souls and slakes our thirst for righteousness. “I will raise up for you a prophet like Moses and put my words in his mouth,” says the Lord. Blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it.