The Blessings We Leave Behind
Scriptures: Deuteronomy 34:1-8, Hebrews 11:8-16
By the end of Deuteronomy Moses has been leading the people of Israel for 40 years. That's a long pastorate, longer than Ben Lindstrom, longer than I was in Spokane. It has not been an easy journey. When Moses went to Pharaoh and said, "Let me people go," Pharaoh laughed, then doubled their work load. Immediately, the Israelites gave Moses a vote of no confidence, the first of many. After Moses parted the water of the Red Sea so the Israelites could escape, his approval rating went up a bit, but not for long. Having escaped from Egypt the Israelites found themselves in the wilderness without food or water. And whom did they blame? Moses. And when Moses found them bread to eat, they complained about not having meat. And when Moses gave them meat in the form of quail, they ate so much they got sick. And they blamed Moses. Finally after making this long journey through the wilderness to the border of the Promised Land, they got cold feet. They said to Moses, "Take us back to Egypt."
For 40 years Moses put up with that. On that forty year journey through the wilderness Moses faced three wars, two major rebellions, a famine, two droughts, a plague, and a capital campaign to build a sanctuary. Talk about a tumultuous pastorate. And after all that, when the Israelites finally arrived at the Jordan River, ready to cross into the Promised Land, God said to Moses, "Sorry, you can't go in. You are going to die here in the wilderness." I cannot imagine how disappointing that must have been.
The reason Moses is not allowed to enter the Promised Land is unclear. It was not because Moses had grown weak and feeble. If you noticed in our scripture reading from Deuteronomy it said, "Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated." That last phrase is an English translation of a Hebrew euphemism. It means . well . let's just say that Moses did not need Viagra.
Moses is not too feeble to enter the Promised Land, God won't let him. Why? It is totally unclear. If you are interested, I will take you through this issue during the question and answer time in the library after the service. It makes for theologically rich Bible study in its own right. But for now the bottom line is we don't really understand why Moses died before entering the Promised Land. It's a mystery.
But here is the real lesson in this story. Sometimes people end up like Moses. They make sacrifices for many years to serve God but don't get to see the outcome-the results of that service.
When I was in first grade, I lived for about a year in San Bernadino, CA. My father was stationed at Norton Air Force Base. That summer I went to Vacation Bible School at a small church not far from where we lived. My teacher was an older lady whom I grew to adore. She was so clever. I remember that in one lesson we learned about Jesus calming the storm on the sea. We cut-out figures of Jesus and the boat that we were supposed to paste into in our Vacation Bible School book. I pasted the boat down on the page, and then I realized that Jesus was supposed to be in the boat, which means you had to paste Jesus down first, then paste the boat down over his legs so that it looked like he was standing in the boat. I have never been very good at crafts.
I took my page over to the teacher and said, "I did it wrong." She looked at it and said, "Don't worry. It can be fixed." She told me, "Paste Jesus on the outside of the boat in the spot where he is supposed to be standing." So I did. Then she cut out a boat from the sample material in her teacher packet and gave it to me. She said, "Now, paste this directly on top of the other boat, and it will look like Jesus is inside. In fact it will look better, because it will look three-dimensional."
She was brilliant. And it was my first experience of grace: God covering our mistakes and in the process causing us to turn out better than we were before.
At the end of the week during the last class, the teacher asked us if we had ever committed our lives to Jesus. I didn't know what that meant, so I said I didn't know, and some other kids said the same thing. So she asked us if we would like to do that, if we would like to commit our lives to Jesus. I said yes, and so did a couple other kids. So after class I and a couple of the other children knelt down with our teacher in front of the little worship center in our classroom and prayed. The teacher said some words, and we prayed them after her. I don't remember the words she said. At that point I was probably too young even to have that conversation. But what sticks in my memory is how much that teacher cared about me and dearly she wanted me to know Jesus.
The irony is I never saw her again. By the end of the summer my father was transferred to another Air Force base, and we moved. I don't even remember her name. That teacher never saw what happened to her prayer. She never saw what became of that little first grader whom she helped to get Jesus into the boat. She was like Moses, like countless other Sunday School teachers, Vacation Bible School teachers, youth leaders, pastors, and people in churches. She never got to see the results of her efforts. She never got to see the difference she made in the lives of the people she touched.
Like Moses we live for a promise that may not be fulfilled in our lifetime. We serve a mission whose fruits may not be seen for generations.
I think of a woman in our church named Dot Newell. Dot joined Southminster in 1965 and died in 2005. But when she died she left over $59,000 to the church to be used for mission: reaching out to our community, nurturing youth, and supporting mission work by people in our congregation. In the years since she died her gift has been used to send our youth on at least three mission trips and adults on at least five, including three mission trips to Mississippi for hurricane relief and two to the Dominican Republic to work with Children of the Nations. Next month my wife and I are going with seven other people on the third mission trip to the Dominican Republic, thanks in part of Dot Newell, a woman I have never even met.
Dot Newell is kind of like Moses, like my Vacation Bible School teacher. She did not live to see how her gift would impact future generations. She served a mission that was not finished in her lifetime. In our first scripture lesson from Hebrews 11, verse 13 says, "All these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them." That was the story of Moses on Mt. Nebo. The last two verses of Hebrews 11 are quoted at the beginning of the bulletin this morning: "Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not received what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect." Moses and my Vacation Bible School teacher and Dot Newell and many others did not get to see the results of God's promises in their own lifetime. Why? So that we who came along generations later could be included in those promises.
By far the most famous sermon about Moses on Mt. Nebo wasdelivered on April 3, 1968. At a rally of 2000 people in Memphis, TN, Martin Luther King Jr. preached a sermon, and here is how it ended: [Show video]Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter. because I've been to the mountaintop. . 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. And 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.
The next day, April 4, King was assassinated on a motel balcony in Memphis. That is the story of Moses on Mt. Nebo.