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: 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 would lead in Moses’ place. Joshua 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 Lord knew face to face. 11 He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord 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.
In the last speech he ever gave, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood before a church packed with people preparing for a march in support of equal pay for black garbage workers in Memphis. There were threats against his life. The police were gathering cans of pepper spray and giant water hoses so they could disperse the protesters with force. The tension was thick. Standing in front of that expectant crowd, Dr. Kings spoke with absolute confidence: “Well, I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter to me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life…. 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. And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man.” The next day, at the age of thirty-nine, this prophet of God was murdered.
When Dr. King gave that speech, he had Moses on his mind. Moses spent forty long years leading God’s people from their slavery in Egypt through the wilderness toward the land God promised. In God’s power, Moses delivered them from the oppressive powers of the Empire, and was bringing them to a place of their own, where they could live, beyond the reach of any Empire, as citizens of the kingdom of God. As their leader, Moses suffered, a lot. The people were anxious, upset, impatient. Understandably. Their lives were out of control and there was no end date when things might get back to something like normal.
We have been moving through the COVID wilderness with all of its economic, social, and political fallout for eight months, and we are anxious, upset, impatient. We are worn down by it and we know that the journey to full recovery will be long. We don’t know how long it will be, nor exactly how we will get to that promised place where we find a “new normal.”
In the wilderness, for forty years, Moses was barraged with complaints, criticism, and accusations. He fought with the people. He fought with God. He lost patient. He even asked to die rather than lead these people any further. Moses did see God face to face. He did sometimes shine with the glory of God. His relationship with God was intimate, though not easy. God’s presence did sustain Moses. But on the whole, this long, long trek, this time of having little power to change the circumstance, this time of total dependence on God, was often unbearable. And you’ve gotta think that part of what keeps Moses going is the promise that they will all finally get to that land flowing with milk and honey. It is the carrot at the end of the stick. The much deserved reward, relief, and rest.
But Moses’ feet never touch that place. He does climb to the mountaintop where God shows him that vast land, but Moses already knows that he will not finally pitch his tent there. He dies just short of the destination. And as tender and touching as it is to imagine God weeping for Moses, and digging his grave, and gently lifting his body and laying him down in the earth, it feels unfair that Moses labored so long, so hard, and suffered so much, only to die before receiving what was promised. And it feels unfair that Dr. King, after working so hard and suffering so much dies so young just as the fruits his labors are beginning to ripen. But finally, neither of these prophets was concerned about whether or not they themselves would reach the place God promised.
They both glimpsed it with their own eyes. And they were both confident that the people would get there. [repeat] This confidence rests in two things. First, it rests in trust that God is the one who is getting us there. God is the one who wills that all human beings will finally arrive at that place where peace and unity, love and justice, joy and delight will be all in all. God wills that God’s kingdom fully come on this spinning orb, this earth home where we live. God is the one who makes and keeps promises. Second, the confidence that we will get to the place God wills us to be, rests in the trust that there will always be dedicated leaders and people who surrender themselves, who surrender their own wills to the Spirit, to the power, to the purposes, to the will of God. Here lies our confidence: God is getting us to the place God intends us to be AND God will get us there through our participation.
Could God get us there without our participation? God is God. God is free. God can do as God chooses. And, the clear witness of Scripture is that God chooses to fulfill God’s purposes, in, with, and through human beings. Martins, Moseses, Marys, Monicas, Anna Maries, Matthews…. God has chosen not to be God without us. God has limited God’s own free agency and God’s infinite power by choosing to include us in the labor of making of this world the commonwealth of God. I suppose God, being God, could unchoose this arrangement and just get it done. But, so far, God hasn’t unchosen this arrangement. Which means, among other things, that it is taking a quite long time, to get us all to the place, the promised land, God intends and longs and prays for us to inhabit.
In the story of Moses and the people freed from the Empire of Egypt, the promised land is an actual physical place, with dirt and trees, rivers and plants, and lots of milk and honey. But, here is key to the whole story. Unless the people who inhabit the places God gives them unlearn the ways of the Empires that enslave them; unless we unlearn and resist patterns of sanctioned greed and authorized arrogance, and practices that sustain social and economic inequities, and policies that dishonor the truth that every person bears the image of God, and systems that multiply injustices—unless we unlearn and resist these ways, then we will simply be inhabiting an expansive parcel of land that has not realized the promise of God. For Moses and the people he leads, the forty-year journey through the wilderness is a kind of long education and formation in learning to trust God, learning to surrender and pledge allegiance to God alone, learning how to live in God’s ways, from God’s faithful love.
Scholars estimate that it has been more than 2700 years God and Moses led a people out of their enslavement in the Egyptian Empire into the wilderness, to the land of promise. It has been fifty-two year since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on a balcony in Memphis and said, “I have been to the mountaintop, and I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land.” What he glimpsed was not first of all a physical place, another land than the one we call the United States of America. What he saw was the kingdom of God becoming manifest in this country. What he saw was people—courageous, clear-eyed people—who were choosing to participate in God’s liberating work. He saw people who were willing to risk their comfort and safety, even risk their own lives in order to realize the promise of God that someday all people will live together as one beloved community, beyond inequities, beyond injustices, beyond hatred, beyond suspicion, beyond fear.
Clearly, we have not yet arrived in God’s promised land. We are still on the journey. We are still living and learning in that proverbial wilderness. Betwixt and between. We are still being formed to live as citizens of God’s kingdom, within this nation. With Dr. King we can say “we don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead.” And we can claim with him the confidence that we, the world’s peoples, will get to the promised land, because God is getting us there, and God is prompting our participation. The Spirit is prompting our daily surrender to live from and to do the will of God.
We are not the beginning, and we are not the end of this story. We will not finish what God has started and continues to do. We will not see all the fruits of our own labors. But here and now we bless God for all who have lived and died trusting in God and laboring to see God’s promises fulfilled. And we give thanks to God who gives us the courage and the grace, the patience and the passion to persevere in living and loving as God lives and loves. For the love of God, may we not squander our responsibilities as citizens of God’s kingdom, here and now, in this land, in these days, and until that day when we see God face to face.