Envisioning the Land of Promise - A sermon (Deuteronomy 34)

View from Mount Nebo

Deuteronomy 34:1-12

When we lived in Santa Barbara, we would occasionally hike to Inspiration Point. It wasn’t the highest spot in the area, but it was high enough so that on a clear day you could see the entire coast. We could see the Channel Islands poking through the fog to the West. We could look south toward Ventura and then up the coast to where the state takes a sharp turn to the north. Of course, we also could look down on the city below. We would look for our house and the church. We would find the schools where Brett attended. We would situate the Mission, the Arlington Theater, the Court House, and Stearns Wharf. Climbing a hill or a mountain gives you a different perspective from what you can see from the valley floor.  

Our climb to Inspiration Point might not compare with Moses’ visit to Mount Nebo, but it gives me a sense of what he might have experienced that day when God took him up the mountain to see the Promised Land. Moses had led the people of Israel out of bondage in Egypt, through the Wilderness, and to the very edge of the Promised Land. So, you can understand why Moses wanted to cross the Jordan and into Canaan. Despite Moses’ requests, the best he could do was look out across the land of Promise from the top of Mount Nebo.

Moses pleaded with God to let him cross over and see the “good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country, and the Lebanon” (Deut. 3:25). But this was not to be, because that was not what God desired for Moses or for Israel. The reasons given in Scripture are problematic. Nevertheless, Moses agreed to them. He also agreed to pass on the mantle of leadership to Joshua (Deut. 3:23-28). 

One of the preachers at the General Assembly spoke of the rise of a Joshua Generation. He reminded us that every generation needs to think about how it will pass on the mantle of leadership to the next generations. Then, not long after I returned from the Assembly, I read an article by a seminary professor who chided Baby Boomers, like me, for our reluctance to let go of power so that a new generation of leaders could rise up. I understand why Moses was reluctant to give up his prerogatives. According to Deuteronomy, his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not yet abated. In other words, he was still feeling good. Despite his good health, God didn’t let him lead the people through the river. Instead, that responsibility went to Joshua, whom Moses had been mentoring. Yes, it’s hard to give up power, but the future requires it. But passing the mantle not only involves turning power over to another, it also involves mentoring the next generations.

More than anything, Moses’ experience reminds us that human life has its limitations. Moses was a great leader. Deuteronomy hails him as a prophet like no other in the history of Israel. It hails Moses as the one who saw God face to face. Yes, Moses did great works of wonder, but he still didn’t get to cross over to the other side. Instead, God honored him by personally burying him in Moab in a spot known only to God. Yes, God did take good care of Moses.

Although Moses was the greatest of Israel’s prophets and leaders, his successor, Joshua, was “full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him.” When Moses gave way to Joshua, the people obeyed their new leader, but that’s a story for a different day.

Getting back to Moses’ trip up the mountain, we find Moses looking out on the land that lay across the river. He could see the Western Sea on the far horizon. Looking north he could see the land of Dan and to the south, he could see Zoar. And immediately in front of him was the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees. God said to Moses: “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” and to their descendants. What a sight to behold! Moses might not have crossed over, but the descendants of Abraham and Sarah did cross over to the other side.

There was a more recent prophet who had a similar experience. Martin Luther King had this story in mind as he preached his final sermon in Memphis the night before his assassination. In that sermon, Dr. King declared:
I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now—because I’ve been to the mountaintop. I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would love to live a long life, but I’m not worried now. I just want to do God’s will. And 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. So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord [Quoted in Thompson, Deuteronomy, p. 245]. 
Dr. King may have had a premonition that his life would be cut short, but he also understood that movements of transformation take time and aren’t limited to one person’s life or ministry. He did his part, just like Moses. His death, like the death of Moses, didn’t put a stop to God’s work of redemption and blessing. That work continues on to this day. In fact, there’s a lot of work left to be done before the world truly experiences the full blessings promised to Abraham and his descendants.

Last Sunday I brought up the sabbatical, which is on the near horizon. As you may know, the theme for this sabbatical is “River Crossings.” One of those rivers is the Jordan, which Moses didn’t get to cross. While I make no claim to be Moses or Martin Luther King, I have found a sense of purpose for my own ministry in this part of Moses’ story. 

I think it was Shirley Martinson who once said to me that “We are all interims.” This congregation has had a number of pastors, including interims. Some of you can trace your life in this congregation back to the time of Edgar DeWitt Jones. Much has happened in the nearly one-hundred-years since Dr. Jones came to town. Each generation since this church was planted in Detroit in the 1840s, has laid down a layer of witness to the good news of Jesus Christ. Each pastor has contributed to the story, but none of us has been or will be the final contributor to this story, at least for as long as this congregation continues its life. I believe that there is much to do in the days to come. I get to participate in some of this work, but there will come a time when we will draw near the river. You will cross over, but I won’t be with you. We’re not there yet, but I’m not as young as I was when I arrived eleven years ago. So the time is coming when I will go up the mountain and look out on the land of Promise to see what the future holds for this congregation. I believe that a member of the Joshua Generation will take the lead. Again, we’re not there yet, but we’re moving toward that river.

Ron Allen and Clark Williamson put it this way: “Leaders are sometimes called, like Moses, to lead congregations toward promises the leaders will never themselves realize” [Allen/Williamson, Preaching the Old Testament, p. 106]. I believe this sabbatical season will help prepare us for the next phase of our life together as we move toward that river of promise.

Here’s the good news. Moses might not have crossed over to the other side, but God remained present with the people. The story continues beyond Deuteronomy, reminding us that we’re not taking this journey alone. So, as we ponder the way forward, perhaps these words from Franz Kafka might have value:
Moses’ inability to cross over reflects an incompleteness that is endemic to all of our lives. We can see in the life of Moses the reality that entry into the Promised Land for all of us is always ahead, just out of reach. [Quoted in Thompson, Deuteronomy, p. 243].
The Promised Land in its fullness might lay beyond our reach, but God is always out there ahead of us, leading the way toward the Promised Land and to a future yet to be revealed.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor 
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
August 11, 2019
Pentecost 10C

Picture Attribution: RoHase


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