This is the last sermon in our series on the life of Moses. You can find the audio and text of the others here. I hope God blesses you today!
SCRIPTURE – Deuteronomy 34:1-12 – Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, 2 all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, 3 the Negeb, and the Plain—that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees—as far as Zoar. 4 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.” 5 Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. 6 He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day. 7 Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated. 8 The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended.
9 Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses.
10 Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lordknew face to face. 11 He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that theLord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, 12 and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.
Delivery Man Sermon Series
#10 – Unfinished Business
August 30, 2015
In our Sermon Talkback group that meets each Wednesday, I referred to last week’s sermon as the penultimate sermon in this series, which sounds really remarkable, but actually only means that it’s the next to last. That means the last of something is the ultimate, like the ultimate point in a journey. So I’m pleased to announce that today I will preach the ultimate sermon on Moses, a fact which either greatly impresses you, or makes you happy because it means it’s finally the last one.
We’ve come a long way with Moses in these 10 sermons, haven’t we? We started in the bulrushes of the Nile, where his mother put baby Moses to save him from Pharaoh’s death sentence, Then we stepped aside to witness his Burning Bush encounter with God. We marched with him to Egypt and heard him proclaim, “Let me people go!” to the Pharaoh. We saw him part the Red Sea so the Israelites could walk through from slavery to freedom. We smacked our foreheads in solidarity with him when the Israelites grumbled against God. We heard the 10 commandments proclaimed to the Israelites and grieved when not a week later they broke those commandments by fashioning a Golden Calf to worship instead of God. And last week, we stood with Moses as he caught a glimpse of God’s glory, reminding us once again that no matter how little we know about God, what truly matters is that we are known by God.
For this ultimate sermon, we skip over almost three whole books, moving from the end of Exodus to the last chapter of Deuteronomy. But we’re not missing much of the story. Most of Leviticus and Numbers are detailed accounts of the law God gives to the Israelites so that they can live as God’s people in this world. There are a few stories woven in here and there, but mostly its laws, decrees, and statutes, which don’t exactly make for compelling sermon material. The book of Deuteronomy is Moses’ final sermon to the Israelites before he dies, his ultimate words of wisdom to these people he’s led for the last 40 years. He basically tells them they have a good thing going and not to screw it up, which of course they will do anyway.
That brings us to today’s reading, not only the last chapter in Deuteronomy, but the last chapter in the first five books of the Bible, known as the Torah. For the longest time, the Torah was essentially the Bible for the Israelites, because it contained the law, which for them was the ultimate revelation of God. For Christians, that revelation is Jesus Christ, who said he came not to abolish this law, but to fulfill it. But for the Israelites, the Torah was God’s word to them, and it ends here on Mt. Nebo, overlooking the Promised Land, but not in the Promised Land itself. Curiously, the Torah ends with some unfinished business.
In college I worked at the Courier-Journal newspaper in Louisville as a clerk, and one of my jobs on weekends was taking obituaries. I would sit at a computer for eight hours and do nothing but take information from funeral homes about dead people. Yes, it was as much fun as it sounds. It was a pretty sobering job, not just because of the subject matter, but because I was reminded over and over again how a lifetime of experience could be boiled down into a paragraph.
I guess that’s why today’s passage sounds so familiar to me. It’s essentially Moses’ obituary. If I were typing it for the newspaper, it would read like this: Moses, age 120, died today in the land of Moab. Cause of death is unknown, but when you’re 120, do you really need a reason? Moses was a former prince in Egypt, shepherd, and delivery man for the nation of Israel. He was a member of the Brothers of the Burning Bush and the Sea-Parters Club. He is survived by his wife, Zipporah; and adopted son, Joshua; and several hundred thousand followers. There will be no visitation and a private funeral, with burial to follow in an undisclosed location. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that you observe a 30-day mourning period.
Does anything bother you about the way Moses’ life ends? It seems like ever since God came to him at the Burning Bush, Moses’ singular purpose has been to get this cantankerous, argumentative bunch of Israelites to the Promised Land. And yet, now that they have finally arrived, just a stone’s throw away, Moses is allowed to see the land but won’t be allowed to cross the finish line. Something about this seems grossly unfair.
To understand why Moses isn’t allowed into the Promised Land, we have to go back to a story in the book of Numbers. You won’t be surprised to know our story starts with the Israelites grumbling that they are thirsty, so God says to Moses, “Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, and command the rock before their eyes to yield its water. Thus you shall bring water out of the rock for them; thus you shall provide drink for the congregation and their livestock.”
So Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and Moses said to Israelites, “Listen, you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff; water came out abundantly, and the congregation and their livestock drank. But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.”
Ok, fair enough. God asked Moses to speak to the rock, and instead Moses struck the rock…twice. We’ve all been there, right? We’ve all been the parent in the grocery store who raises her voice to her child after the 475th “Can I have this?”, or the driver who snaps at the person who cut them off in traffic. It seems like a harsh punishment for Moses to bear, but as God’s appointed leader, Moses was held a higher standard, and he violated that in front of the people. We may not agree with it, but like Moses, that is God’s decision.
So that brings us back to the top of Mt. Nebo, where Moses gets an unprecedented view of the Promised Land. The geographical names don’t mean much to us now, but back then, it meant that Moses could see from horizon to horizon, from Paducah to Ashland, from Bowling Green to Covington. He gets to see the land that had been promised to his ancestors, but he doesn’t get to sink his toes into its fertile soil.
The year after Hurricane Katrina, I took a youth group down to the area to help with recovery efforts. Our assignment was to gut a house that hadn’t been touched since the hurricane. It was filled with water-soaked possessions, rotten food, and crumbling drywall, and we had to clean it out right down to the wooden studs. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a group work as hard as those kids did. We spent five days knee-deep in trash and debris, throwing away water-logged stuffed animals and ruined wedding albums, getting this house ready to be rebuilt for the family. On our last day, we were about an hour away from finishing when one of the adults said, “Kory, we have to go. Our flight leaves soon.” And I said, “No! We can’t leave! We’re this close to finishing. We only have half a room left.” But I knew she was right. So we packed up our tools and drove away, this close to the Promised Land of completely cleaning out the house.
I was so upset because I wanted to finish the job, I wanted to say that we completed what we started out to do, and because we didn’t I felt like we had failed. Well, if I apply that criteria to my daily life, then I fail every day, because every day there are things on my to-do list that don’t get done. Every night when I go to bed, I’ve left some unfinished business that I’ll have to carry over to the next day. Anyone else have that, too? If we define success and value our self-worth based on whether or not we finished the things we started, then we will never be successful or worthy.
But what if we change those definitions? After hearing all about Moses’ life, would you say he wasn’t successful? Of course he was! He accomplished amazing things in his life. He was faithful to God and served God’s people in such a way that he gets this glowing eulogy. So maybe success shouldn’t be the goal toward which we are striving. I wonder if we put so much stock in reaching a destination – getting the kids to college, landing the perfect job, making it to retirement, seeing a certain dollar amount in our savings – that we miss the joy of the journey. I wonder if we place our Promised Land as some destination out there to be reached, and miss the fact that our Promised Land is right here, right now, with all its challenges and frustrations and blessings. Maybe this is our Promised Land, because God is here with us.
I believe Moses was content to die overlooking the Promised Land because he knew it wasn’t his job to complete the journey. Moses fulfilled his mission, to lead the people, and now Joshua will take over and lead them into the land flowing with milk and honey. I’m sure the week after we left New Orleans, another group came in and finished the work we started. Does it matter who does the work? No, it only matters that it gets done. We will never do everything we want to do. We will never make it to the Promised Land we have constructed in our own minds. There will always be unfinished business in our lives. Was Moses successful? I don’t know. But I know he was faithful, and somehow that seems more important. So when we lay our heads down to sleep each night, we can trust that what we did was enough. Were we successful? Did we reach the Promised Land? Probably not. But may be a better question would be, “Did we see God with us on our journey today?” Did we see God in the kind act of a stranger? Did we hear God in the words of grace spoken to us in a difficult moment? Did we sense God comforting us through the words of a friend? If we did, then I think we were successful.
As I said at the beginning, the Torah ends with unfinished business. There’s more story to tell. But that story doesn’t end in the Promised Land, and it doesn’t end in Jerusalem, and it certainly doesn’t end on the cross, and it definitely doesn’t end at the tomb. The story continues. One of my seminary professors told me that the Bible is the first four acts of a five-act play. We are the fifth act. We are responsible for keeping the story alive, for witnessing to the grace and welcome of Christ in our lives, for showing others what it means to be loved with God-like love. Ultimately, we may or may not be successful. I’m sure we’ll leave some things undone. But I hope, like Moses, we will be faithful.