They made it. Just over the Jordan River lay the Promised Land, Canaan. But Moses wouldn’t go with them. God had commissioned Joshua to lead them into the land God had promised them. Moses climbed up Mount Nebo – from there he could see the whole land – and then he died.
A friend of mine took her 6 year old daughter to see Hairspray the Musical this week at the Kroc Center. As the action unfolded on stage, she was whispering explanations of the storyline. And as she explained segregation, her little girl turned to her, “Mama, is Martin Luther King’s dream complete?” “No,” said my friend. “Is it almost complete?” “No,” came the reply, “it is a lot better, but there is still a lot to do. That’s our work.” She was quiet a minute and then, “Mama, when Martin Luther King’s dream is complete, will I be alive?” “I hope so, sweet girl.” And a minute later, “Mama when his dream is complete, can we have a party?” “Yes, darling. Yes, we can.”
Remember how Moses started this journey? He was tending his father-in-law, Jethro’s, sheep in Midian. God appears in a burning bush and sends him back to Egypt, to deliver his people. Uproots his life, goes and leads these grumbling, wa-ya-lin people for 40 years through the desert. They are finally close enough that he can see the goal. And he doesn’t even get to finish the journey.
This is the end. Not just of his journey. Not just of the book of Deuteronomy, but of the first 5 books of the Bible, called the Pentateuch or Torah, the Law. The Torah is the central set of sacred texts in Judaism. It begins with Creation and ends with Israel poised to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land, and Moses dying. It is not a happy ending. Dr. Thomas Mann writes, “The result of this strange ending is that the outcome of the story depends ultimately on the readers, both ancient and modern….Will Israel (and will we) really be the faithful covenant community?…It calls for more sober reflection than celebration, for self-examination rather than self-congratulation, for spiritual soul-searching rather than contentment….It places us, along with ancient Israel, ‘beyond the Jordan.’ Thus it calls us both to remember and to hope, recognizing that hope is rooted in memory, faith is grounded in thankfulness, and justice is the fruit of love.”
But even as we hope and look over with Israel into the promised land, Moses doesn’t get to go. The reader knows he won’t. In Numbers and then several times in Deuteronomy, we are told that he won’t lead God’s people in and a couple of different reasons why God won’t let him enter are given. Interpreters have spent a lot of time trying to make sense of it; preachers have tried to justify God’s actions; scholars have tried to explain that the ancients interpreted all of life through a lens of divine meaning and purpose.
Methodist pastor Brian Erickson suggests that there is a deeper lesson for us than wondering why God would take Moses right to the border and let him see, but not let him enter. The moment he left his home, his father-in-law’s sheep, the peace of the pasture in Midian for; the moment he confronted Pharoah for; the moment he trudged through the desert in the scorching sun and whipping wind with these whiny, ungrateful people for 40 years for – that moment will not be. The party won’t happen in his lifetime.
The words ‘disappointment’ and ‘discouragement’ mean what they sound like, Dis-appointment is to miss an appointment; to have a scheduled expectation broken, a previously calendared promise erased. Dis-couragement is loss of courage, loss of enthusiasm. As God told Moses he would not cross over into the promised land, he told him to encourage Joshua. Disappointment that leads to discouragement is an obstacle to a life of grace and gratitude.
Moses, even when he knows that the place of promise will not be reached, does not grumble. His eyes are bright; he is still strong; and he blesses the 12 tribes of Israel, concluding, “Happy are you, O Israel! Who is like you, a people saved by the Lord – the shield of your help and the sword of your triumph!”
Moses knows his story ends here, but that his is part of a bigger story. Moses wasn’t going to the promised land for himself. So, at the mountaintop, he was able to look over and be grateful.
At Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee on April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was grateful, “Well, 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. 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. 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.”
Like Moses, each of our lives is part of God’s larger purposes, and God’s dream is not complete. Divisions between “us” and “them” continue, whether along lines of race or nationality or allegiances. As we come to this Table on World Communion Sunday, we without a doubt have some difficult days ahead. We are still wandering in a desert wilderness, yet we are not disappointed or discouraged, for we are not people without hope, we are not people without faith, we are not people without love. We just want to do God’s Will. So, we live in grace and gratitude, for we have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. And when we reach that Promised Land, yes, dear child, we will have a party.