For the Promised Land (w/audio)

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Deuteronomy 34:1-12


It is the end of an era. Moses climbs a mountain one last time like he has done before to listen to God, to talk with God, to sometimes plead with God on behalf of his people, to receive from God the torah (the law) that would guide Moses’ people in the way of life as God intends for it to be lived. Only this time Moses climbs a mountain to see into the future. He climbs a mountain called Nebo in the land of Moab so that he can look east across the River Jordan and see the promised land for which he has been yearning and struggling for 40 years in the wilderness and many more years before that in Egypt when his people were suffering under the bondage of Pharaoh’s regime.

Oh, the memories he must have taken up with him to that mountain’s peak! The struggles, the heartaches, the setbacks, the disappointments…yes. But also the triumphs, the joys, the times beyond words when his people cried out and God answered, when Moses himself cried out and God came to comfort and to challenge. For so many years, for so many, long, hard years it had been leading to this, this moment that the hymn writer calls “the verge of Jordan,” this moment when just across the Jordan River God’s promise to Moses and his people would be fulfilled.

And on that mountaintop Moses can see it, the fulfillment of the promise. I picture him an old man, but his back still erect, his body still strong, trying to catch his breath after the long climb, and looking out on the dream of a lifetime with tears welling up in his eyes. There it is: the land promised to his ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. There it is: the land of promise, the land of his longing, stretched out before him as far as the eye can see.

And then come those terrible words. “Take a good look,” the Lord tells him. “I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.” And with those words Moses dies, the curtain closes, and an era ends.

It hardly seems fair. Earlier in Deuteronomy and also in the book of Numbers there are brief attempts to explain why Moses would never make it to the promised land. There is the story about how God decided not to allow Moses into the promised land because of his lack of patience at Meribah when he struck a stone with his staff to get water instead of waiting for God to bring the water forth; and thus somehow, in some unexplained way, offending against the holiness of God (Numbers 20:1-13; Deuteronomy 32:48-52). There is also a mention earlier in the book of Deuteronomy that the reason that Moses was not allowed into the promised land is because of the Lord’s anger with the Israelites (cf. Deuteronomy 3:23-29).

But in our scripture for today, the last chapter of Deuteronomy, there is no reason given for Moses not being able to go to the Promised Land. And, truth be told, maybe there is no good reason. Maybe the earlier reasons given are just lame attempts to explain what simply cannot be explained.

So often people live their lives for hopes that are never fully realized. So often they give themselves for goals they never get to reach.

I think of my cousin, struggling with cancer, going through all the painful treatment regimens, just wanting to live long enough to see his son graduate from high school. He never made it. He died just a few weeks before graduation. I think of my beloved professor, mentor and friend Hubert Morrow working on his book with the hope that it would help a floundering church know itself and its calling more clearly. But he got sick and died before he could ever finish it. I think of people who give themselves for causes to which they feel called—finding a cure for a disease, working to end poverty, advocating for an oppressed minority, giving themselves to make a difference for good for some cause or institution—only they never make it, they never survive to see that for which they longed. They never survive to see the fulfillment of their work.


I think of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the night before he died (50 years ago, come next April), stepping up to the pulpit at Mason Temple in Memphis. He told that crowd that if the Almighty should grant him the opportunity to live in any period of history he would choose the momentous one where he found himself, in the last half of the twentieth century. He told them that it was good to be alive to see what had happened in recent years. His people and his nation—indeed, the world—were moving gradually and inexorably toward the Promised Land. Still they weren’t there yet. There were many obstacles, known and unknown, ahead.

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now,” he concluded. “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.

“And I don’t mind.

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!”

There is along the Natchez Trace highway, near the little town where we used to live, a national memorial to the great explorer Meriwether Lewis, who died on that ground while still a young man, presumably by his own hand. It is as stark and unattractive memorial as I have ever seen. But it gets the point across. The memorial is a large column that appears to be broken off at the top, signifying a life cut off in its prime. Signifying a life that was unfinished.

I suppose such a monument might do for Martin Luther King Jr. It might do for my cousin and my professor and maybe even for old Moses. It might just do for every person who has lived this life in faith, looking and working for a better world to come.

There is a lot about our faith that just seems totally unrealistic given the world in which we live. We run up against it all the time—almost every time we read the Bible, almost every time we come to worship, almost every time we talk with each other about what it means to be a disciple of Christ in this world. Paul once wrote that he wasn’t ashamed of the gospel. But I must admit that sometimes it is hard not to be a little ashamed. The gospel seems to imagine more and ask for more and believe in more than most of us are prepared to do much of the time.

Jesus wants us to make disciples of all nations. He wants us to forgive our enemies. He wants us to return good for evil. He wants us to stop trying to manipulate other people into seeing and doing things our way and love them as they are. He wants us to stop worrying about not having enough of what we need and put our trust fully and completely in God. He wants us to live for a world where the hungry are fed and those who are excluded from the good things of life are embraced. He wants us to heal the sick and cast out the demons that are plaguing the lives of people. He wants us to accept his peace, live in his peace, and share his peace with a broken world. He wants us to take up our own crosses of self-sacrifice and follow him in the way of self-giving love.

And we are thinking, ENOUGH! It is just too much. What if we just agree that we will try to be as nice and as caring as we can be given the limitations of our lives, and let the rest of it go? Because the truth of it is that what Jesus wants of us is too much for a lifetime—even a hundred lifetimes. We’ll never get it all done. We’ll die and there will still be people who haven’t been reached with the gospel and there will still be hunger in the world and there will still be wars and rumors of wars and horrors like that in Las Vegas last Sunday, and there will still be hurting and broken people in the world. We’ll die and the best anyone can say about us is that in our lifetimes God took us to the mountaintop and we were able to see the Promised Land, but that we never got there. We got close. We got to the edge of it. There were even times in our lives when the joy and the love were so real that it seemed we had arrived. But we never did—not completely, not fully.

But, then again, the words of 20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr continue to ring true today: “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.”

The greatest temptation that most of us face is not that we will commit some terrible evil. Our greatest temptation is that we will just give into the way things are, that we will find ourselves succumbing to the cynicism and the pessimism that surrounds us everyday, and that we will end up living for little more than just to scratch out some happiness for ourselves and those we love. Our greatest temptation is that we will resist those opportunities when God offers to take us by the hand and lead us up to the mountaintop where we see the Promised Land of what could be and what will be.

Every time we pray, every time we worship, every time we gather with our sisters and brothers in faith to study the scripture and discuss what it means to be a Christian in this time; in one way or another, God is reaching out to us and wanting to take us to the mountaintop to see what could be and what will be. God is reaching out to us and wanting to take us to the mountaintop where we can see what could be and what will be—nations beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks and learning war no more, the earth full of the knowledge of God as waters cover the sea, people doing justice and loving kindness and walking humbly with their God. God is reaching out to us and wanting to take us to the mountaintop where we can see what could be and what will be—our lives and our relationships renewed by the power of the Spirit, the church afire with new life, tears wiped away from the eyes of those who grieve, addicted people set free, broken people healed, everyone knowing themselves forgiven and loved by God.

Maybe none of us will ever get there in this life. Maybe we will die without having received the complete fulfillment of the promise. It doesn’t matter. As T.S. Eliot once wrote, “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”

My sister and brother-in-law have been in the process of moving this past summer. And, as my sister was going through some old boxes, she had a tub of momentos from our parents that she gave to me. Since our father worked with our denomination for many years and my mother was active as well in denominational concerns, I decided that I would take that tub of momentos over to the Historical Foundation at our denominational headquarters in Cordova. As it turned out, its contents contained a lot of interest to the archivist.

As I walked into the Historical Foundation, I paused to see some of the old photographs on the wall. They were of various church gatherings from many decades ago. With some satisfaction, I recognized a few of the people in a couple of the photographs—church leaders of long ago that I knew in my youth and in my young adult years who have gone to be with that great cloud of witnesses who have now reached the Promised Land with God beyond this life.

As I was looking at these old photographs, I found myself wondering if maybe one day I might end up in some such photograph of church folks hung on a wall for people decades from now to look at with curiosity, perhaps my own children and grandchildren or children who have grown up in this church. I wondered what they might think about us, if they thought anything at all. I hoped that those who might still remember us would remember with fondness the hope with which we lived. I hoped that they would remember that we didn’t give up in the midst of adversity or give in to the inevitability of the evils we confronted. I hoped that they would remember that we lived for a better world, that we sought to make a difference for good even when it didn’t seem to be making a difference, that we kept the Promised Land always in our hearts and kept struggling to get there even if there was no assurance that we ever would. I hoped that in some old dusty photograph they might still see some hint of hope in our faces—the hope of those who have been to the mountaintop and seen the Promised Land.

—William E. Warren, Cumberland Presbyterian Church of Germantown, October 8, 2017

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