Palm Sunday/The Sunday of the Passion • Deuteronomy 32:36–39 • March 28, 2010

by Leo Sanchez

The Song of Moses (Dt 32) tells a tragic story. The basic theme of the song is repeated in various ways throughout the Old Testament. Yahweh’s undying faithfulness to his son Israel is met continuously by Israel’s idolatry, by the son’s rebellion against the Father who gave him birth, led him out of Egypt, and took care of him in the desert. The song makes particular reference to Israel’s upcoming fall into idolatry after Moses’s death and upon their entering the land of Canaan. This is then, quite literally, Moses’s last song to God’s people before Joshua leads them into the land flowing with milk and honey—a land that, unfortunately, is also flowing with plenty of competing deities who promise prosperity and happiness.

A section of the song retells the tragedy: “They sacrificed to demons that were no gods, to gods they had never known, to new gods that had come recently, whom your father had never dreaded. You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you, and you forgot the God who gave you birth” (vv. 17–18).

However, the song does a lot more than merely calling us to remember Israel’s past idolatry. It also reminds us of God’s judgment against a sinful people. God will not have fellowship with an idolatrous, unfaithful bunch: “I will hide my face from them; I will see what their end will be, for they are a perverse generation, children in whom is no faithfulness” (v. 20). To add to the tragedy, separation from God will bring with it all sorts of temporal punishments and sufferings. The song has plenty of calamity and doom to sing about and make grown men cry.

Deuteronomy 21:19–22 provides the context and main purpose for Moses’s song. When the Lord first commissioned Moses to write the song, the Israelites had not yet crossed to the land of Canaan under the leadership of Joshua or worshipped the Canaanite deities. Yet Yahweh knew his people Israel well enough from their wanderings in the desert under the leadership of Moses to know that they would once again break the covenant he had made with them in Sinai. In light of what Yahweh had predicted, the Song of Moses will become “a witness for me against the people of Israel,” a song of divine judgment to convict people of their sins.

The song is meant to be passed on—to be sung!—to future generations of God’s people. Its tragic theme of Yahweh’s suffering love and Israel’s continuous rebellion recalls the painful past in order to convict us in the here and now. Like the children of God in the Old Testament, we too break God’s Law and fail to trust in him above other things. We, too, follow after other idols, after other things or people, in what we put our ultimate trust when push comes to shove. Recall Luther in his explanation to the First Commandment in the Large Catechism: “A ‘god’ is the term for that to which we are to look for all good and in which we are to find refuge in all need.” Preachers will know best what or who those contemporary, regional, or national idols are that compete for attention with the only true God and Provider.

The tragic theme of the Song of Moses fits rather well in Holy Week as we recall the passion of our Lord. Indeed, the cross stands as the greatest tragedy in the history of God’s dealings with his people. It is the tragedy brought to its climax: the Father sends his faithful Son to take upon himself the sins of his unfaithful people, but sinners like us ultimately reject and kill him on the cross. The cross itself stands as a reminder of what sinners are capable of and as a call to repentance for our sins against God.

However, in the midst of all the tragedy, the Song of Moses also has a message of hope, which comes out in the appointed lesson for today (22:36–39). There we hear Moses teach God’s children then and now that “the Lord will vindicate his people and have compassion on his servants when he sees that their power is gone and there is none remaining . . .” (v. 36). We see that the Lord will let his people suffer in their rebellion and under their idols. But the Lord will also show his people, in the midst of their suffering, the worthlessness of these idols in order to lead them once again to trust in him as the one and only God who alone is their protection and Rock (vv. 37–39). By doing so, Yahweh will reveal himself as the God who kills and makes alive, who wounds and heals, who calls sinners to repentance when they are in the hole in order to bring them out of their misery and forgive them (v. 39).

Through the Song of Moses, preachers will not only be able to unmask their congregation’s idols and sins against Yahweh, but also offer Christ on the cross and his forgiveness as Yahweh’s solution to our unfaithfulness, rebellion, idolatry, and sin. Simply put, by bringing contemporary hearers into the tragic story told in Moses’s song, within the liturgical context of our Lord’s passion, preachers are given the task and responsibility to both kill sinners and make them alive—or better yet, to kill sinners in order to make them alive.

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