This fall we have spent a number of weeks following the story of Moses and the Exodus. I have really enjoyed focusing on these stories and I hope you have benefitted from exploring the large, still-relevant life themes which have been identified in the stories. There comes a time, though, when all things must come to an end and today is that time for Moses and the Exodus.
It had all started more than 40 years before when God spoke to Moses out of that burning bush in the middle of nowhere, calling Moses to go back to Egypt to liberate the Hebrew slaves and bring them out to a promised land flowing with milk and honey to which God would lead them. None of it was easy. God led them out with mighty signs and wonders, making a way for them through the sea on dry land. There was manna in the desert, water from rocks, a law to bring order to the newly constituted people. There was grumbling and rebellion from the people, and a refusal to go into the promised land when the spies came back with a fearful report about the enemies who would have to be conquered. As a result, the Lord determined that the generation which left Egypt would not enter the promised land, so they wandered for 40 years in the wilderness. Moses also was not to be allowed to enter the promised land.
Today’s story is perched on the edge between two epochs and is a very poignant, bittersweet moment. The Exodus journey is ending, and the time for moving in and conquering the promised land is at hand. The time has come for Moses to go the way of all the earth. But first Yahweh leads him up onto another mountain, MountNebo. It is an amazing site, with an amazing view. You can look across the JordanValley and see the expanse of the promised land. The Lord said to Moses, “This is it. This is the destination towards which you have brought these people, the land I have promised to your descendants. You will not be going into it, but I wanted you to see it.”
Then Moses died at the age of 120, and the implication is that Yahweh himself buried him in a nearby valley. No one knew or knows exactly where he was buried. The people wept and mourned for Moses for 30 days before moving forward into the promised land.
The tendency is for people to think it was unfair for Moses not to get to enter the promised land after all he had done to get them there. I personally think it was one of God’s tender mercies for Moses and a necessary provision for the Hebrew people as they prepared to enter this new epoch. I can’t imagine Moses at the age of 120 making a good adjustment to becoming a military commander, which was going to be the primary role of leadership as they entered the promised land and did battle with the inhabitants of the land. The view from MountNebo was peaceful and beautiful; the reality on the ground after they crossed the Jordan was quite different.
Moses got to see the destination and was able to imagine what it would be like for his descendants to have a place of their own to live and work in freedom and to worship their God in spirit and in truth. I’ve told you before what Jim Fowler said to me shortly after I moved here. He loved traveling, but he told me that the best part of a trip is the anticipation, planning it and imagining what it will be like. Moses got to do that part, then he took an even better trip. After he guided all those people all those years in the wilderness to their new home, his friend Yahweh took him by the hand and guided him to his eternal home. I don’t find anything to regret in this story, and a great deal to learn.
The first reminder from this story is about our own mortality. At some point life is going to end, and we are not going to have accomplished everything we would like to accomplish. We will be on some sort of mountain or in some sort of valley, and the goal will seem to still be off in the distance somewhere, but it won’t matter. God will take us by the hand and guide us to a better destination. And in addition, the workplace that we think will fall apart when we leave or retire will in reality keep perking along and perhaps be guided into a new chapter of its existence that we could never have taken it to. The children we think will never be able to manage without us will not only become independent but will amaze us with their accomplishments and their wisdom. There is an old saying that the journey is the destination, and that is a good basis for a life philosophy. When you are hiking and you see the tallest peak before you, that seems like the destination. But when you arrive on the top of that peak the trail goes on and there are other peaks and valleys before you that remain to be travelled. So the characteristics we need to develop are patience, endurance, perseverance, and finding contentment and joy along the way.
Obviously the second reminder from this story is that the people we look to in our lives for stability, guidance and leadership will not always be there. The time will come, sooner or later, for them to step aside from leadership or to go the way of all the earth as Moses did. This is a major crisis to deal with in life, whether it is a parent or spouse or employer or president or whatever.
This has some important implications for us. First, we must learn to live with the knowledge that this will happen in our lives, not just once but numerous times. We have to prepare ourselves for that. The next leader will not be the same as the last one and there is no point sitting around and grumbling about that all the time. And we have to prepare for the fact that we might be called to lead. You might be the next patriarch or matriarch of your family. You might be asked to play an important leadership role in your workplace. You might feel led to run for local or national office. We have a great dearth of people who are willing to be leaders, who are willing to put themselves in the position of being looked at as a role model, who are developing their gifts and talents to do something beyond being a cog in a machine.
An interesting note in this passage is about a specific period of mourning for Moses. A number of societies seem to have had something along this order. 30 days was set aside as a time of grief and mourning. I wonder if there might be a lot of wisdom to that. We tend to say that grief is different for everyone and is processed on different time frames for each one. I think that is true, and the intensity and length of grief is directly related to the daily importance of the deceased in your life. But lots of us work better on a schedule and with a deadline, so what if we set for ourselves this expectation that after 30 days it is time to jump back into life and resume normal activities? That does not mean grief is gone, it may never be gone, but it gets us on a schedule for getting back into a routine, which some people never do. They are paralyzed about going back to church; back to a favorite restaurant; to a movie; you name it, and days turn into weeks and weeks turn into months and months can turn into years. Maybe the 30 day guideline could help avoid some of that.
All of this leads to the need for humility in how we think about our own place in the universe as well as the place of those we admire as leaders in our lives. I want to close with three examples from the New Testament which help us think in this manner.
In I Corinthians, Paul gives two analogies of leadership that we looked at back in the spring. He was writing to people who were arguing about following different leaders, but I think it is applicable to today’s conversation. In the first he wrote, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.”
The second is a building analogy. He writes, “According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it.”
The last one is the wonderful section on faith in Hebrews 11 and 12. The writer talks about the heroic figures of the Old Testament, from Abel to Noah to Abraham and the patriarchs, the judges, and of course Moses. The writer says, echoing the experience of Moses on MountNebo: “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. All of these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.” We have our role to play in this story, too, and their role will not be completed without our doing our part.
“Therefore,” he concludes, “since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
October 26, 2014
Central Presbyterian Church