“Are we there yet?”
January 15, 2012
“The LORD said to him, "This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, 'I will give it to your descendants'; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there."
The morning dawned cold and clear on that day in the valley of Moab.
The temperature had dipped into the low 30’s overnight, and we awoke to a layer of freshly fallen snow….covering the ground, and hanging on the thin walls of our woven cloth shelters.
A few of our people huddled together for warmth around the dying embers of last night’s campfire. Some of the boys had been roused from their sleep and were sent out to gather more wood, but they would come back hours later almost empty handed, as they did every morning in the preceding weeks, months, years.
They’d stagger back into our campsite with their spindly arms wrapped around a few broken twigs and some dry underbrush. Just enough to strike a flint to, to cook a meal and get us through the night.
One more night.
One more stomach rumbling, bone chilling, everlasting night,
in this God forsaken wilderness, that has been our home for 40 years.
We’d stopped complaining years ago.
When the older folks began to die off, and more and more children were born, we learned to accept that this was how life was going to be. This was the new status quo.
And after a few years it wasn’t so new anymore, and then it became all we’ve ever known.
Some us could still remember what it was like back in Egypt. A land that was then so far away I’d sometimes catch myself wondering if we hadn’t made the whole thing up.
The old men would sit around the fire at night with their graying beards and bent backs and tell tales of armored soldiers and speeding chariots.
The children would sit at their feet listening with wide eyes waiting for the part they knew was coming, the part where the raging waters came crashing down and the people, our people, were set free.
This is what our long and hard won past had become.
A bedtime story for children, and a way for old men to wile away the hours, waiting on a promise that more and more of us were beginning to believe would never be fulfilled.
Perhaps there was no land of milk and honey.
Perhaps it was all just a clever ruse designed to give us a reason to get out of bed every morning. If so, it was effective.
Every time we’d see a rise off the distance, we’d quicken our pace and push towards it for days on end, all in the hope that the Promised Land lay just on the other side. But time after time, our hopes were dashed.
We’d crest the hill and see miles and miles of more of the same.
The same scraggly trees, the same sparse underbrush, the same rolling expanse of barren soil, as far as the eye could see.
One by one our hearts would fall as we took in this vista and stepped into the void, with those filing up behind us still holding out hope until they too saw with their own eyes that the Promised Land had not yet been found.
With sagging shoulders and broken spirits we’d continue on, waiting for that next rise to appear on the horizon.
We were free, but we were still in captivity.
We had exchanged our shackles for stagnation, broken up only by an endless cycle of rising and falling hopes.
But throughout it all, there was Moses,
Walking before us and leading the way…..and giving us hope that one day, one day, the promise would be fulfilled.
All you had to do was look into that man’s eyes to believe that what we were doing was not futile, that there WAS some great land, some great future out there, just waiting for us to arrive.
Moses was the only human being among us who could say he’d seen the physical presence of God, and lived to tell about it.
Well, at least that’s what he said had happened.
But few of us had the nerve to question the visions and proclamations of this great man.
The truth is, he rescued us from the hands of Pharaoh, a man determined to beat us into the ground, every last one of us.
Moses led us out of Egypt, he found us food, water, and shelter.
Whatever concern we’d have, he’d listen to intently and run off to negotiate with God. Moses was our connection to divine intervention.
Without him, I wonder if God would have heard our pleas at all.
Without Moses, these children would not be running freely in the morning air, and these old men would have died long ago from the backbreaking work of hard labor.
Yes, Moses was a great leader.
But you may have noticed that I am speaking of him in the past tense.
For this great man is no longer with us.
It was on that fateful morning that we found him, with the frost still covering the ground and the campfire embers still sending up long thin streams of smoke into the cold morning air.
We found him in his shelter, huddled beneath the sheepskin blanket that some of our women had made for him many years ago.
He was usually an early riser, though in his later years, he wasn’t the first to greet the sun, but still, on that morning the time that we typically saw him stir from sleep had come and gone.
One of the men assigned to assist him in his daily tasks pushed through the shelter’s blanketed opening and emerged a few minutes later with a stricken look of grief etched upon his face.
We don’t know when the Lord took him.
Sometime in the night we suppose, or perhaps only moments before, as we all milled about the campfire preparing for another day of wandering, unaware of the presence of the angel of death in our midst.
Others who were close to Moses, rushed into the shelter to confirm what the aide could not bring himself to say, that Moses was indeed dead.
His skin was cold to the touch, although the same could be said of all of us on that frigid morning, but the color had not yet left Moses’ cheeks.
He was being held in the warm hand of God.
But he was with US, no more.
You don’t think it’s ever going to happen.
Or rather I should say, you know it’s going to happen, but you’re never prepared when it does….the moment when death takes someone you love. Moses was a very old man. Though he was still full of energy, we knew he would not live forever, and he knew it as well.
Which is why the day before he left us, he placed his hand on the shoulder of the young man named Joshua and steered him aside to speak to him privately.
You see, what we didn’t know at that time was that God had told Moses that he would not live to see the Promised Land.
His time to lead the people he knew and loved had come to an end.
The time of wandering was over, and a new leader was needed to guide us on the next leg of our journey. In the Promised Land, a land of abundance, we would face new challenges and new opportunities to be the people of God. The leader who held our hand and led us through the darkened and barren wilderness would not be the one we’d call upon in times of plenty.
It would take a different skill set, a fresher perspective, a less weary and more nimble spirit to guide us onward, and Joshua was the one God had called to do just that.
But still, I have to wonder what Moses must have felt when he was told that he would not be entering the land we had traveled so many miles, and so many years to see - to have this treasure dangled in front of him, and then be told it would not be his to hold, that the future he had imagined for himself was not to be.
But you know, after we had removed Moses body from his shelter and buried him in a simple grave in the valley of Moab, his friend, the aide who had found him, had a story to share.
The previous afternoon, after having his conversation with Joshua, Moses walked up the mountain that lay just ahead of us, and for the longest time he stood at the top of the ridge alone and motionless, just staring out at the horizon.
When he returned in the early evening the aide swore that Moses looked as if 40 years had been taken off his weathered face. He had a youthful glow about him, and his eyes radiated pure joy and contentment.
What we discovered ourselves as we crested that same ridge the very next day was that God had shown Moses the Promised Land, and despite the fact that Moses knew he would never live in that land himself, he was overjoyed for those of us who would.
He had done what he was called to do to get us there, and the knowledge that the people he so loved would eat the fruit, bathe in the waters, and bask in the sunshine of this land was reward enough for him.
God speed, our beloved leader, God speed.
May you fall gently into your Creator’s arms.
You’ve reached the true Promised Land that we all will one day see, when God calls each one of us home.
In the book of Deuteronomy, God instructs the generations of Israelites who have come to be born after the Exodus to celebrate Passover as if each one of them has personally come out of Egypt. God’s lesson here is clear: only by entering the story ourselves can we truly understand its meaning.
Now in listening to this story this morning most of us don’t have to imagine what Moses must have felt when God told him he would not enter into the Promised Land. We’ve lived it ourselves - whenever we’ve had our heart set on something that never comes to fruition, or put years of sweat equity into a job or relationship that seemingly never rewards our efforts, or lose something or someone that we thought would be with us for many years to come.
In many ways we know what it’s like to be brought to that precipice and be shown what we could have, only to be told we never will.
But as writer Joseph Campbell so poetically said, “We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”
We’re human beings, and it is in our nature as linear thinking creatures to envision a future for ourselves and to make plans accordingly.
I’m sure what got Moses through many a cold night as he settled down to sleep was imagining what his life would be like once he reached the Promised Land:
The clean, running waters, the rich, fertile soil, the abundance of milk and honey that God had promised him would be flowing from the land.
He could smell it, he could taste it…..and the trust that he had in God to deliver on this promise IS what got him out of bed every morning.
Moreover, he urged his people to live their lives as if they had already reached the Promised Land – to trust that food and water would be plentiful, to not gather more than what they needed for themselves, to share amongst everyone without fear that there would not be enough to go around.
Moses lived most of his life with faith in a promise that was both now-and-not-yet. The fulfillment of the promise was yet to come, but until then he could imagine how his life would change, and subsequently he changed his life in the here-and-now in preparation for what was to come.
We are living in that now-and-not-yet time as well.
We live it every time we make sacrifices now with our time, our money, and our resources to ensure that we’ll have something even more valuable in the future. Whether it’s a secure retirement for ourselves, an education for our children, a clean and healthy planet, or a music program for our church.
As Christians, the time of now-and-not-yet that we’re living in and the Promised Land that we’re walking towards is the Kingdom of God.
The time that God promised us would come, when a new world will be created right here in place of the current world – a world in which love, compassion, and forgiveness will rule our lives rather than hate, fear, and mistrust.
As the people of God we are called to be co-creators of that world.
We are called to follow Jesus’ example and to work in partnership with God to create a world that is free of injustice, violence, oppression, poverty, prejudice, and marginalization of any kind.
As Jesus was fond of saying, the Kingdom of God is here, and it is yet to come. Which means until the new world comes into being, until we reach the Promised Land, like Moses and the people of Israel we are to live as if we are already there.
We are to treat each other, and love each other as if we’re living in a land that flows with milk and honey, and give to each other out of a feeling of abundance rather than hold onto what we have out of a feeling of scarcity.
Like Moses, we are living in a time of now-and-not-yet.
We’re standing on that mountaintop, looking out over the Promised Land, knowing that we might not be permitted to enter it in our lifetime, but because of all the work we’ve done to get here, all the wandering we’ve done in the wilderness, our people, our children’s children, will one day step into that land.
Moses never made it to the Promised Land, and we might assume that he was deeply disappointed when God told him he would not live to see the fruits of his years of wandering. But in the end, his personal tragedy is offset by his ability to see what no one else could see.
Moses knew the land alone was not the destination; because the destination lies within ourselves, it’s in our hearts, where human beings live in communion with God.
We may think that it was cruel of God to show Moses the land he would never enter, but perhaps in the end when Moses stood atop that mountain he wasn’t even looking at the land. He wasn’t looking at the reward. He was looking where we all should be looking. He was looking at God.
As we leave this mountaintop, and return to our work-filled wandering in the desert below, let us remember the words of another great leader who led his people through wilderness, and did not live to see the Promised Land.
These are the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
“Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it 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.”