Sermon: Obituary for a Hero

Obituary for a Hero
Deuteronomy 34:1-12
RUMC November 5, 2017
Pastor Paul R. O’Neil

One of the things I like to do in my spare time is to read biographies of famous people such as presidents, kings and queens, politicians, entertainers, sports heroes, and military commanders. What really piques my interest is how these people lived their lives at the end. What they had done in the twilight of their careers or what they said on their death bed speaks volumes of what they felt was important.

My scripture text for this morning is Deuteronomy 34:1-12; it is about the death of Moses. This fascinating account of how Moses approached the end of his days can inspire us to be faithful to the end.

Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, 2 all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, 3 the Negeb, and the Plain—that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees—as far as Zoar. 4 The Lord said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.” 5 Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. 6 He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-Peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day. 7 Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated. 8 The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended.
9 Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses.
10 Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. 11 He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, 12 and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel. This is the Word of God.

By the time he died, Moses had lived a very long and productive life. If we carefully look at his life, we can see the important phases were neatly divided into 40 year increments. The first 40 years he lived as the Prince of Egypt. The second 40, he was the shepherd of sheep. And the final 40, he was the leader of God’s people.

Now as Moses’ life drew to a close I’m sure he felt as if he could have continued, but God had a different timetable, just as he has for all of us. On that unforgettable day, Moses said his final goodbyes and made his final climb to the top of the 2600 foot Mt. Nebo. At the summit, Moses was shown the Promised Land, and Jewish tradition tells us he went into an unknown cave and died.

On my first visit to Israel, our tour group took a very long bus ride through the Jordanian desert and made its way up the long and windy Mt. Nebo. At the summit we were greeted by a very old, dark skinned, toothless Arab who was the caretaker of a Franciscan Church.   He showed us around and told us nobody knew where Moses was buried. Over the centuries people have looked, but to no avail. However all of us who were on the tour came away with the realization that Moses was a special human being who walked with the Lord to the very end of his life. He is a good example for us as well.

I think most people are uncomfortable when the subject of death comes up in conversation. When I served for a time as a hospital chaplain, there were occasions when a patient wanted to talk about the end, but didn’t for fear it might upset the family, and the family was afraid to talk about the inevitable for fear it might upset the patient. My job was to help bring everyone together, where they could discuss these things. When families make that special connection, it can be some of the most memorable times ever in the relationship, and those special conversations will carry you through the grieving phase.

Since I asked Christ into my heart and have made peace with my maker, I do not have fear or anxiety when it comes to the afterlife, but I do identify with the chorus of that hymn: “Because he lives, I can face tomorrow; because he lives, all fear is gone; because I know he holds the future and life is worth the living just because he lives.”

In 1914, the Canadian steamship, The Empress of Ireland, collided with another ship on the St. Lawrence River and eventually sank. Back in those days, they did not have the safety concerns as we do today, and there were not enough life jackets to go around. One hundred-nine of the one hundred-thirty Salvation Army workers on board gave their lifejackets to other passengers; each one of them said, “I know Jesus, so I can die better than you can.” I hope all of us can have the same confidence when it comes to eternal life.

Death for someone who does not know the Lord can be dismal, but for the believer, it is bright with all kinds of wonderful possibilities.   Someone once asked John Wesley what was the secret of the success of the Methodist movement and he said, “Our people die well.”

I have conducted lots of funerals for faithful church members, and it is a comfort for families to know that their loved one is with the Lord. I have also conducted other funerals of those whose faith was not a priority, and there was an underlying feeling of uncertainty.

Many years ago a missionary told an Indian Chief that Jesus was the way to heaven. The aged chief agreed. He said “The Jesus road is a good road, but I have followed the Indian road all of my life and I cannot change now.” One year later, as he lay on his death bed, the chief asked the missionary, “Can I turn to Jesus now? My own road stops here. It has no way through the valley.”

The Jesus road to heaven is the hope we have as found in these scriptures:

  • John 14:6 “Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life. No man comes to the father except through me’.”
  • John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”


Another way that we can look at eternal life is to observe what often takes place at airport terminals. Family members are let off at the airport curb side, and they quickly say their good byes. Yet inevitably someone in the car will say, “Well, he or she is gone.” But the truth is that they are only gone from their sight, but not gone forever. Later on in some distant airport, the plane will land, that same family member will depart the aircraft and go to the baggage claim area. While there, someone else will spot them and say “he or she is here”, and there will be handshakes, hugs and kisses of welcome. Death’s pattern is very much like a one way airline ticket. It takes a person from our sight to the other side of eternity where we will literally pass from one existence to another.

Our story of Moses did not end with his death. There was one more incident that took place about 1500 years later. It comes from Luke 9:29-30: Jesus took Peter, John and James with him and went up on a mountain to pray. As he was praying the appearance of his face changed and his clothes became bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. The event was called the Transfiguration, and it is a confirmation that there is life beyond the grave for the believer. If we know the Lord, we have nothing to fear.

When I was pastor in NH, we invited a Baptist Minister named Don Piper to come to our church. Reverend Piper related the story about a car accident in which he was injured; he was clinically dead for 90 minutes, but later revived. Reverend Piper said that he was able to see the other side of eternity, and he spoke to the Lord and his deceased relatives. After recovering from all of his injuries, which were many, Reverend Piper made it his life’s mission to tell everyone that there was life beyond the grave and not to miss it.

Let me close. Moses’ legacy was that he was an instrument of God and faithful to the very end. May we be active in our faith to the very end like Moses was.