Last week, we were looking at Thanksgiving expectations: the traditional food (depending on your ethnic background!), a lot of the traditional people, etc. Everybody has their own kind of “normal,” but I think that for most part, we find a lot of comfort in having these moments that give us a kind of an anchor when so much of life seems to be changing. There are these times when we remember mostly good things, right? And Thanksgiving is a trigger for some of those memories.
Did you have a good Thanksgiving holiday? Do any Black Friday shopping? Did anybody travel? Do you go to family or do they come to you? For a lot of people, travel is part of the Thanksgiving experience. Kathy and I have almost always traveled somewhere for Thanksgiving.
Travel is part of the tradition. Why did the first European settlers celebrate Thanksgiving in the first place? Because they were thankful, obviously. They were thankful for having survived a difficult sea voyage in the fall and a hard winter after they got to New England. Not the best time to travel by boat, especially to New England.
I know that there was a sequence of events that made them travel when they did, but it wasn’t a good idea. Half died and it was a miracle that anybody lived through that experience. Native Americans had a lot to do with them having anything to be thankful about.
Thanksgiving is probably the most traveled holiday in our culture. And it’s Biblical! In the ancient Hebrew scriptures, people spent a lot of their lives traveling. In fact, in some ways you could say that they got into trouble when they stayed in one place too long. Could it be that while traveling, moving from one place to another, that you need to rely on God more? The seasons of Advent and Lent are about traveling (to Bethlehem and Jerusalem). Let’s think about traveling.
The theme for this series is, “The Right Heart.” We find that right place with God when we recognize that we are spiritually helpless without Jesus, and allow God to give him to us. Spiritually, we stop wandering and begin to come home. He is the destination.
But the story of salvation began many years before his time. The reading for today comes at the very end of the book of Deuteronomy. You could say that for the Hebrew people, this is the end of the beginning. They have come to the Promised Land.
This story is about the death of Moses. It happens just as the Hebrew people are at the end of 40 years of wandering in the wilderness (or desert), and they are just about to enter the Promised Land. After 40 years, it’s mostly a new generation of people who have arrived with Moses. The new people are about to enter a new life. They are being given the gift of a future.
Deuteronomy 34. 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, 2all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, 3the Negeb, and the Plain—that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees—as far as Zoar. 4The 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.’ 5Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. 6He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day.7Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigour had not abated. 8The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab for 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. 11He was unequalled 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, 12and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.
Just a quick recap: Moses was adopted by the family of the Pharaoh – the king of Egypt – and lived the good life. He grew up as an upper class Egyptian until he found out who he was – the son of Hebrew slaves. Then he killed a man who was abusing those Hebrew slaves and was exiled from Egypt. He was about forty when that happened.
So, in his prime years, Moses had a career change. Instead of being a prince, he was exiled and began tending sheep and raising a family. We don’t hear much detail about Moses during this middle part of his life. It wasn’t until he was around 80 years old that God called Moses to rescue the Hebrew people back in Egypt. Good thing he didn’t retire, because the most important events of the life of Moses happened in the last third of his life.
Moses takes the Hebrew people on a 40-year hike, and at the end of the journey, with victory literally in sight, God takes Moses to a mountain for a view of the Promised Land, and tells Moses… he isn’t going to be going there with everybody else.
Is this fair? After 40 years of thinking about it, 40 years of walking toward it, he isn’t going. Why didn’t God let Moses go into the Promised Land just for a few days, or hours, or minutes? just so that he could say he’d been there? Doesn’t that seem unfair? After all that Moses had done, it seems like he got right to the goal line and was taken out of the game. But what’s happening here is “consequences:” Moses “broke faith” with God at one point when they were wandering in the wilderness (see Deuteronomy 32:48ff), and this is the consequence for him. And I believe God had a bigger plan.
There’s a traditional spot where Moses stood to see the Promised Land. It’s called Mt. Nebo and that’s the view. Moses might have been standing on that spot and he may have been looking at those rocky hills.
But this wasn’t the only thing God was showing Moses. God was giving Moses a vision. God showed Moses all the Promised Land, “all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea.” And there’s no way you can see all that from Mt. Nebo.
God was showing Moses the future. I’ve been to that place and I can tell you that the Promised Land looks pretty bleak and disappointing from up there, but God was showing Moses something way beyond these rocky hills. God’s gift to Moses was the knowledge that the people he had been leading would have a future. He had done what God asked him to do. He had been the hero God used to save Israel, but in their new world, the people would have to re-learn how to rely on God instead of him. The people of God are always re-learning that they need to put their complete trust in God – and nobody else.
Moses stood on the mountain and saw all this land that God was giving to the people. I also think it’s possible that God did not want the people to think that Moses was the only person that could lead them. And by taking Moses out of the picture the way God did, the people also remembered that Moses was human. They were reminded of a time when Moses lacked faith, a time when he should (and could) have been faithful, but wasn’t. Moses was a great man, a hero. But human. Like so many Bible heroes, Moses was a normal guy who said yes.
And now, people, it’s time to move on, to move on into that vision of the Promised Land. Move on into the future. People, trust in the God who brought you this far. Without God, you have no future. The people of God are always moving into the Promised Land, always into something new, always into a future that requires them to change and start a new chapter. It’s a little scary. Maybe very scary.
I’m talking about this because all churches are facing a future that requires believers to go into new places that we haven’t been to before.
We are turning a page in our life together as a church. No, we are turning a chapter. We might even be writing a whole new book as God’s people. We are not the same as we were 50 years ago or 25 years ago or even 5 years ago, and we will be different in times to come.
The pastors and the leaders change. The one constant in our lives is the faithfulness of God, without whom we are just a nice group of people meeting in a nice brick building. God is asking us to take a step toward the Promised Land, toward a future. It’s time for new year’s resolutions early!
What new tradition do you want to have for yourself in the new future? What new things could we do to fulfill the purpose God has for us? Let’s pray for more vision. Do you have a sense that God is taking you personally to a new place spiritually? In what way?
Moses was 120 years old when God gave him his vision. His age could be a legendary part of the story, something that may not be literally true, but the point is that he was very old when God showed him the Promised Land. In our culture, at that age, he would have been retired for about half his life.
What’s the church’s retirement age? I guess we don’t have one, and that’s a good thing. We need people with vision and visions, young and old, and people who will have enough faith in God to go to new places. Our church has had a wonderful history. If we continue to give ourselves to God, if we continue to make our worship of God the center of our life together, we will have the kind of future only God can create. And it’s exciting.
Help us see, God, and give us a vision. Lead us to new places in our relationship with you. Help us get over the obstacles that keep us from being what we could be. Bring us through the rivers that stand between us and our Promised Land. Help us change. Teach us the patience we need as we grow. Forgive our impatience with you and each other. We praise you for the future you give us through Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.