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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 10/23/2011

I’m a sucker for a happy ending; books, movies, TV, fiction, non-fiction, it doesn’t matter.  I like it when the good guys win and everyone lives happily ever after.  There are lots of examples of this, but I like to read history, especially of the American Revolution and the founding fathers.  When you read biographies it can be hard to have a happy ending because I’ve noticed that the person always seems to die at the end.  But another example that ends more happily is a history of the Revolutionary War I read  called Almost a Miracle, by John Ferling.  You know the basic story of course, so you know that from our perspective as Americans anyway, the good guys do win.  

Ferling ends the book though, with George Washington having resigned his position as Commander in chief of the Continental Army, bidding his troops farewell, and then Ferling describes what I think is just a beautiful scene of Washington riding his faithful horse alone through the gray and barren December countryside of Maryland and Virginia, finally riding over a hill as night is falling, up to the lights of his beloved home at Mt. Vernon, arriving on Christmas Eve.  That’s perfect; the majestic and heroic general, his work done, having stepped aside from power, going home; it’s a great ending.  There was more to come; we know that; probably Washington himself knew that; but it was a happy ending to that chapter of his life and a great ending to the book. 

We would hope for the same kind of ending for Moses after all he’d been through, but alas, it wasn’t to be.  Since the middle of August, we’ve been following him through the book of Exodus as he was called by the Lord out of the burning bush to lead the people of Israel out of slavery, and then as he dealt with Pharaoh, with the complaints of the people, the disobedience of the people and the resulting anger of the Lord, Moses always stuck in the middle, trying to hold things together. 

By the time you get to Deuteronomy, they’re almost there, ready to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land.  Moses was an old man, and you just want for him to have this moment of triumph, to lead the people into the land, so he can live out his days and die in peace, but it doesn’t happen.  Moses went up to the top of Mt. Nebo where he could see a panoramic vision of the land that had been his focus for forty years, but the Lord says to him, “There it is, but you can’t go.”

It doesn’t seem fair and in this text no reason is given.  Earlier in Deuteronomy it says that Moses is not allowed to enter the land because he “failed to show the Lord’s holiness” at the waters of Meribah.  That’s the water from the rock story, one which is told twice, once in Exodus, another time in Numbers.  In Numbers though, instead of speaking to the rock as the Lord had said, Moses strikes it twice with his staff and he says to the people, “Listen you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of the rock?”  Does striking the rock rather than speaking to it constitute a grievous offense?  In Exodus Moses strikes the rock and it’s OK.  With his statement to the people, does Moses claim to take the credit himself instead of giving it to the Lord?  I don’t know.  What do you think?

However you look at it, neither of those offenses seem all that bad so it doesn’t seem fair, not after all Moses had been through, not after everything he’s done right on behalf of the Lord.  But…that’s the ending we’re given, and it’s an ending that has bothered commentators forever because again, it just doesn’t feel right to leave Moses outside the Promised Land.  Instead though, Moses dies in the land of Moab and we’re not given that satisfying final image of him like the image of George Washington that I described.  The story goes on, but Moses is no longer a player; Joshua will be the one who gets the final glory.

Every year Jewish congregations read through the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament that end with these verses.  Then they immediately start again with Genesis 1 and creation.  Liturgically though, ending here, they are always outside the Promised Land, almost there, but not quite, and maybe as Christians there’s something for us to think about in that.

The general consensus is that these stories about Moses were given their final form during the time of the exile, about 500 years before Jesus when the kingdom of Israel had been conquered by Babylon and the leading citizens had been deported to live there, strangers in a strange land.  The thinking then is that while these stories tell of long remembered, legendary events of the past, the way that they are told reflects the situation at the time they were written which was a situation of being displaced and waiting for return.  So what the writers want to do is to have their readers identify with the reality of being outside of their homeland, but also to have faith that there is more to this; there is still the promise and hope of return.  In exile though, in the present, they were like Moses, short of the promise.

Moses being left outside the Promised Land represents a theological openness that acknowledges that all the promises have not yet been kept by the Lord, but it also represents faith that they will be kept.  Things remain unresolved, but regardless of current circumstances, there is faith that the promise will prevail.  So the first five books of the Old Testament end on a note that very much resonates with Christian tradition.  Moses is shown the Promised Land, but he can’t go in.  Similarly, in the resurrection of Jesus, we have been shown the future, the eternal life that awaits all of us, but we’re not there yet, not fully anyway.  There is faith though, there is hope that we’ll get there.

Being left outside the land then doesn’t have to represent an unhappy ending for Moses.  It leaves the promise open and reminds us of a God whose work is not yet finished.  There’s more to come; there’s hope and that’s something we don’t ever want to lose sight of.  It’s so easy to be discouraged and cynical about the trajectory the world seems to be on, but remember, God isn’t finished.  In Bible Study on Thursday nights we’ve talked about how God created the world good, but not perfect.  We’re still on the way and in the meantime things sometimes get messy.  But we believe in the God who raised Jesus from the dead, a God who is at work bringing new life out of brokenness.  God’s promises will prevail against the circumstances of this or any day; we never lose hope.

There’s another reason I don’t think this ending to the book of Deuteronomy represents an unhappy ending for Moses.  We want for him to have that moment of glory, leading the people into the land and then riding off into the sunset, but I get the idea that we want it more than he does.  Moses hadn’t been afraid to challenge the Lord in the past, but on finding that he won’t enter the land, there’s no challenge, there’s no trying to talk the Lord out of it. 

What we see here is a spiritual maturity on the part of Moses.  It’s a maturity that I think some of you know, others of us can only hope to get there.  We spend a significant chunk of our life focused on achievement, the next goal, the next project, moving up the ladder, making more money so we can have more things, always on the make as it were.  It can be a bad thing, but not necessarily; part of it is being good stewards of the gifts and talents we’ve been given.  Part of it though is about wanting to be in control, in control of our destiny. 

Eventually though, for a number of reasons, age being a big one, what we find is that we’re not as much in control as we once were, or thought we were.  That can be a cause for despair and depression as we realize that some of those things we thought we were going to accomplish aren’t going to happen, we’re up as high on the ladder as we’re ever going to get.  It can lead to despair, but it can also draw you closer to the God who is in control and in doing that it can give you a sense of contentment about who you are and what you are.  You can accept yourself as you are, just as God accepts you as you are.

That doesn’t mean that you sit in your chair and get ready to die.  You keep living as fully as you can, but your perspective is different; there’s a spiritual maturity that provides a sense of peace.  I get the sense that that is where Moses was.  He was at peace, comfortable in handing authority over to Joshua, not needing one more accomplishment for himself.  He had done a lot, he was unequaled for all the signs and wonders the Lord had sent him to perform, and…he had seen the future and that was enough.  The promise was enough, and so it is for us.  In Christ we have seen the future, our future, and it is enough.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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