When You Can’t Know What Comes Next…

November 25, 2018

When You Can’t Know What Comes Next…

Deuteronomy 26:1-11

When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.” 

When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.

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Deuteronomy 34:1-12

Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is across from Jericho. And the LORD showed him all the land of Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali and the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the Negev to the South, and the plain of the Valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees, as far as Zoar. Then the LORD said to him, "This is the land of which I swore to give Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, "I will give it to your descendants.’  I have caused you to see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there."

So Moses the servant of the LORD died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the LORD. And He buried him in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth Peor; but no one knows his grave to this day.

Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died. His eyes were not dim nor his natural vigor diminished. And the children of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days. So the days of weeping and mourning for Moses ended.

Now Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands on him; so the children of Israel heeded him, and did as the LORD had commanded Moses.

But since then there has not arisen in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, in all the signs and wonders which the LORD sent him to do in the land of Egypt, before Pharaoh, before all his servants, and in all his land, and by all that mighty power and all the great terror which Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.

*   *  *  *  *

It’s a little sad that it ends this way, I think. Moses up on the mountain, looking out at the future his people will live – without him there to see it. It’s poignant, really. After everything they had been through together. After he shed blood, sweat, and tears for these people.  After all the words from the Lord that he shared with them, as God led them through the wilderness to this place. There was a fiery pillar by night and a cloud by day – the sign God was with them, that they were on the right track. Sometimes that was the only comfort he had, I’m guessing – this sign from God that he was on the right track. Moses needed that. Otherwise how could he ever have the courage to lead them?

It wasn’t easy – not confronting Pharaoh, not the harrowing escape from Egypt. Fleeing in the middle of the night, Pharaoh’s army hard on their heels, closing in on them, the Red Sea in front of them and nowhere to run. The sea parting, so they could travel safely to the other side… Pharaoh’s horses and chariots stuck in the mud, drowning when the sea came closing back in on them. Then freedom. Freedom from Pharaoh’s yoke, once and for all. That liberation moment they could never forget. The story that formed them, defined them, forever.

Then the journey. That wasn’t easy, either, the long walk to the Promised Land. It shouldn’t have been that hard – so meandering, so tedious. They could have gotten there faster if they’d gone another way, directly as the crow flies. Instead they were wandering, literally wandering, for forty years! They weren’t exactly lost – they were following Moses, who was following God’s signs, the fire and cloud.

Somewhere along the line God decided that it would take that long for a new generation to form, one that didn’t keep wanting to go back to Egypt, back to the old life that was at least familiar and secure. A new generation, used to following God’s commands and not Pharaoh’s. A new identity, not slaves, but free.

The way Eugene Peterson describes it, it took forty years to be ‘prepared to enter the land… years of hard schooling in becoming a community capable of living freely obedient and loyal in love.’[i]

It took forty years.

Now they’ve arrived. Moses has given them one last speech, a sermon, really, to sum it all up, to help them remember what they’ve been through, to give it form and substance, a narrative of deliverance and formation. So they’ll remember who they are – God’s people, the ones God saved. They’ve come all that way, and it was time to celebrate.

And then Moses climbs Mt. Nebo to survey the land before him, on the far side of the Jordan. The Promised Land, the land flowing with milk and honey. The goal of all the trials and tribulations they had been through. The place the people of God could flourish, and be faithful.

One of the last things God tells Moses is the future he will not live to see. You might expect it to be satisfying, knowing the outcome; gratifying, seeing what might come to be. But nowhere along this journey has God minced words, and God’s not about to paint a rosy picture now.

This is the way Eugene Peterson paraphrases God’s words to Moses:

Moses, you are about to die and be buried with your ancestors. You’ll no sooner be in your grave than this people will be up and [lusting] after the foreign gods of this country that they are entering. They will abandon me and violate the covenant that I’ve made with them… Don’t think I don’t know what they are already scheming to do behind my back, behind your back. And they’re not even in the land yet, this land I promised them.[ii]

They were a stubborn, stiff-necked people. That’s the phrase God kept using to describe them.

Not much comfort, was it?

I don’t know. Maybe it was just as well that Moses didn’t live to see all that. He brought them as far as he could. Joshua would lead them now. They weren’t his problem any more. Still, I think how poignant that would be, seeing the promised land stretched out before him, and knowing he would never step foot on that land. After that long, long journey. So close and yet so far. It doesn’t quite seem fair, after everything they’d been through. 

In some ways it’s fitting, though. The story of Moses’ life began with another river, the river Nile, when his mother placed him in a basket to float among the reeds in hope of saving his life. Which is how he ended up being raised in Pharaoh’s house.

And now Moses looked out on another river, the one that marked the end of his life. Maybe it was fitting. Maybe this was where his story had to end. I wonder if he looked back at his own life that day, with amazement at all he had done.

There will come a time when we look back with wonder at all the twists and turns that brought us to the end of our own days. We’ll look at what we have accomplished, and wonder whether the choices we made were the best we could have done. Did we change anything? Is the world a better place because we were in it? Not that we’re like Moses – there was never another prophet like him - but did we use our gifts faithfully and well? Does it seem like it’s ending too soon, that our work is left undone?

And maybe we’ll look back at the ones who went before us, who shaped our own lives and circumstances. I hope so. I hope we do. Because we all start out mid-stream in somebody else’s story. Like Moses, our lives were shaped by powers at work long before we entered the world. Our identities were formed in the waters of a fast-moving river beyond our own choosing or creating. And when we leave this world, the river still moves on.

Maybe, like Moses, we’ll look toward the future and realize it’s out of our hands; and we’ll hope and pray that the ones we leave behind will be ok. There will come a time for letting go. Letting go. The next chapter won’t be ours to write. It belongs to someone else.

And we can’t know how it will turn out.

An addendum to this story – though maybe it’s not an addendum at all, maybe it’s the whole point. I can’t ever hear this passage from scripture without thinking about Craig Sell. Many of you never knew him – most of you, maybe. Craig came to serve as the associate pastor here in the summer of 2002. He was a second career graduate of Princeton Seminary, and brought his wife, Peggy, and two teenage kids, Kristin and Nate. Nate grew up to go to Princeton Seminary himself, and was ordained in this church. I saw him yesterday because he and his wife Caroline were here for the grand opening of Trek Brewery – owned and operated by his sister Kristin and her husband John Ream, who moved back to Granville to open this business. They live next door to me now, with their two young sons Charlie and Ben. You may know Peggy, too, now, since she moved back here with her husband Verne Qualls, and they’ve become active in the church.

Craig was sick when he came, and doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong. The church called him anyway – it was clearly a call, as Spirit-led as you could imagine. In August they figured out what was going on. It was cancer, fast-moving, metastasized already wide-spread. There were no treatments. It was devastating.

He was ordained and installed in September that year. By November he was in Hospice care. He died November 30, the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

Craig preached here three times during his illness. The last sermon he preached was on this passage. Moses on Mt. Nebo, at the end of his life. Looking back. Looking forward. Looking for the hand of God.

He closed his sermon with these words:

Based upon what we know about God from the revelation of Jesus,
I have come to believe that a different translation of the Hebrew phrase word of the Lord
is more appropriate
for someone like Moses who knew God face to face.

The word of the Lord
So the rabbi’s say
Can also mean
From the mouth of Yahweh.
As in a farewell kiss.

A farewell kiss. A kiss from God.

Let me leave this story with a prayer… It’s one I learned long ago, from the Book of Common Worship - we’ll pray it together at the end of our service today. Some know it as the prayer of courage. I thought of this as I read this story of Moses once more. And I thought of it as I thought of Craig. And I think of it still, as I look at my own life, and all the twists and turns it’s taken:

Eternal God, you call us to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

[i] Eugene H. Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: a conversation in spiritual theology (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2005), 251.

[ii] Peterson, 265.