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When We Don’t Enter the Promised Land
The Rev. Dr. Baron Mullis
October 26, 2014 - Deuteronomy 34:1-12; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8


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When We Don’t Enter the Promised Land                                                                       
Deuteronomy 34:1-12; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8               

 

Rev. Dr. Baron Mullis
Morningside Presbyterian Church
October 26, 2014

 

Can I tell you about John Knox?  Maybe you’ve heard of him.  We don’t know much a out his early life… his father was a farmer in Scotland, his mother died when he was a little boy, we’re not even sure about his birthday – it’s sometime between 1505 and 1515.  His father wanted more for him than farming, so he studied at the University of Saint Andrews, where he became a priest and a notary. 

Sometime around then, he became persuaded of the rightness of the protestant reformation that was beginning to emerge in Scotland and since we’re just covering highlights, I’ll come straight to the point: he got caught up in the events that lead to the murder of Cardinal David Beaton and when the French Queen Regent of Scotland brought in her friends to help, he was taken prisoner by the French.

He spent two years as a galley slave, rowing in the depths of a boat. 

After he was released from slavery, he was exiled to England.

In England, he was charged to the parish of Berwick-upon-Tweed, where he ministered until Mary Tudor became queen of England.  Once more he was exiled, this time to Geneva, where he encountered John Calvin, from whom he learned the principles of reformed theology.

He returned to Scotland.

He was exiled back to Geneva.

He returned to Scotland – you should see a trend emerging here – on his last return to Scotland, he was delayed a bit because he couldn’t get a visa to pass through England.  He’d written a pamphlet entitled, “The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women,” and Queen Elizabeth was not amused by it. 

He served his last call at St. Giles in Edinburgh, and he died one day after preaching the induction of his successor to that pulpit.  The throne of Scotland was still occupied by a woman with whom he vehemently disagreed.  The future of the Presbyterian Church in Scotland was by no means yet clear.  By no means could it be said that his life’s work had been achieved.  There is no monument to him other than a stone in the pavement behind the church where it notes that he lies buried somewhere in that parking lot.

John Knox was a man who knew what it was to be disappointed.  He was a man who knew what it was to struggle toward an end and yet not to see it achieved.

I love the sense of satisfaction that comes from a goal achieved. 

I love the closure that comes with knowing that a task has been completed.

Perhaps you do too… there is something deeply satisfying in meaningful work.

The bigger the task, the more lofty the goal generally, the more satisfying the conclusion of it. 

That is why, for me, there are few verses of scripture as poignant as those when Moses is carried by God up to Mount Nebo and shown the Promised Land, because he will not be permitted to enter it. 

God was clear early on that Moses would not be allowed to go into the promised land – there are numerous occasions when the reason is given  - frankly, the reason ultimately is a moving target.  There is something unfair about it – almost unkind even – so much so that Old Testament scholar Patrick Miller equates the denial of Moses’s desire to go into the promised land to the disappointment that permeates the book of Job.  He writes, “Whether or not Moses is viewed as a tragic figure, certainly the tradition seems to see in his death the unfulfillment of the highest order, in that a life is cut short of the goal toward which it as always been directed.  Such failure is often what seems to make death a tragic part of human existence.”[1]

There is something so sad about the story of Moses! 

I mean, he didn’t want the job in the first place – God coerced him at the burning bush way back in Exodus.  God made him lead the frequently fickle Israelites – you remember the story a couple of weeks back when God utterly despaired of the Israelites – in an almost comic interlude, God refers to them as Moses’s people, to which Moses rather tartly reminds God that they are, in fact, God’s people. 

It was Moses who listened to the complaints of the Israelites in the wilderness first that they would starve, then that they would die of thirst, then that they didn’t have meat, then that their diet was too bland – to the point that God ultimately tells Moses that if they don’t shut up, God is going to send so much meat that the Israelites are going to have quail coming out their noses. 

This is a tempestuous, roller-coaster of a relationship between God and Moses – and repeatedly, Moses begs to be allowed to go into the land.  But, God has decided on a different course.  Things will go a different way.  Moses will not enter the Promised Land. 

It seems resoundingly unfair.  It seems resoundingly disappointing. 

It’s not too much of an overreach to say that the story of Moses has something to say to everyone who ever experienced disappointment. 

There’s something in this story for everyone who ever worked arduously and long toward an outcome that they will not see realized.

It seems almost cruel on a beautiful Sunday morning to call attention to the fact that we will all face disappointment in our lives.  Happy Commitment Season.

But it’s true.  We do.

Things don’t always work out the way we want them to. 

Sometimes we work diligently and hard, and still, despite our best efforts, things don’t work out.

I don’t really want to belabor the point, but if you’ve ever lived through that time of deep disappointment, you what it is.  I don’t have to list off things like divorce, downsizing, death and disease for you immediately to know the disappointments of which I’m speaking. 

I almost feel bad for bringing it up, except it is almost a universal part of what it means to live this life.  We face disappointments.

We don’t enter the Promised Land.

I imagine the Promised Land might look a little different for each of us – we are, after all, individuals with various hopes and dreams – and various values.  What might seem like a silly disappointment to me might seem monumental to you.  Or what seems insignificant to you might been insurmountable to another.  What peeves you might pain me.

We are endlessly complex creatures as varied and different as snowflakes and yet the common experience of living this life is that into each of our lives, a little rain will fall.

Or a lot.

Or a devastating flood of hurt. 

Interestingly, the author of Deuteronomy never tells us how Moses felt about the Promised Land.  God takes Moses up to Mount Nebo and shows him that the promise will be fulfilled and then Moses dies. 

It’s really not the most hopeful passage of scripture.  In fact, I could almost feel bad about preaching on it on a Sunday when we are baptizing beautiful children into the family of God. 

Almost.

But there’s this little technicality that in turn offers this story a bit of hope: No, Moses will not go to the Promised land, but God does carry Moses to the top of the mountain to see the land. 

With that, we know that it’s not that God didn’t care, but rather that the course of action will be different.  Indeed, within the relationship between God and Moses, there is a deep care implied on the part of God.  Moses is not just a tool that God decided to use, but rather a mortal with whom God enjoyed a deep and personal relationship.  When Moses comes to the end, God does not step back and just let Moses go, but rather carries him to the top of the Mountain and shows him the Promised Land.

And that puts a little different spin this story. 

It is to the point of a platitude to say that being God’s people doesn’t mean that we don’t encounter any unpleasantness.  We all know that.  If we didn’t, then every minor head cold would be a constant threat to faith.  A hangnail would upend our spiritual lives.  It’s no secret that Christian faith guarantees us virtually nothing when it comes to living this life.

No, God guarantees us almost nothing, almost nothing.

God guarantees us nothing but God. 

That is the promise of baptism – that God is in this thing with us.

And God gave us each other to live that promise out.

Last Wednesday, I came up to the sanctuary with two of the children we will baptize in a few minutes, Eva and Harper, and I wanted them to understand what exactly we would be doing today, and so I tried to explain baptism to them.  I explained that they will stand by the font and tell me their names, and that I would touch my wet hand to their heads three times and then I tried to explain what baptism means.

Now, we know theologically, what it means.  Baptism is a visible sign of God’s invisible grace.  We know that it is the sacrament of inclusion – that in baptism, God grafts us onto the body of Christ.  But I couldn’t quite come up with the right words that could explain that to these children, because, you know being grafted onto the body of Christ is really rather esoteric. 

So I just said that you all would make them a promise to always be there for them. 

That really is the point of Christian faith – that whatever the challenges, whatever mess we find ourselves in – and we do find ourselves in messes from time to time – that we are all in this mess together, and that God is in this mess with us.

God is always with us.  Sometimes in the Promised Land, and sometimes on the mountaintop looking off into an uncertain future.  God is always with us. 

Since I started with one reformer, I’ll end with another.  You know it really was a terrifying thing to be a reformer of the church – to take all of the authority of the church – and to say, “No, I just don’t really think so.”

It takes a special kind of conviction to be excommunicated.

It takes a special kind of commitment to row in the galley of a slave ship for two years like Knox.

It takes a special kind of conviction to nail ninety-five complains to a door and go into hiding like Martin Luther.

It’s hard to wander through the wilderness and not know whether you will ever reach the Promised Land.

A story is told of Luther – he suffered terribly from melancholy.  Today we’d have treatment for the kind of anxiety and fear with which he lived.  Peter Hobbie reminded us last weekend that once, when Luther’s friends saw him in a period of terrible despondency, they noticed he was writing something, over and over again.  When he got up and walked away, they went and looked at what he had written.

Over and over, he had written one word, baptismo.

Time and, again, Luther comforted himself with the assurance, “You are baptized.”

That was his comfort.  That was his assurance: that he rested always, as you do, and as I do, in God’s care. 

When the pope’s emissary threatened him with excommunication, he challenged Luther, “And when you have been abandoned by the princes, and when you have been deserted by the people, where, brother Martin, where will you be then?" "Then as now," answered Luther, "in the hands of Almighty God."

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.
 


1 Miller, Patrick.  Deuteronomy, in Interpretation.  (JKP: Louisville, 1990)  p243

Last Published: November 21, 2014 11:42 PM