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the promised land

Exodus 33:12-23
Deuteronomy 34:1-12

October 19, 2014

Year A

Two readings this morning, the Exodus reading is the lectionary reading for today, and the Deuteronomy reading is next Sunday’s reading.

We have followed this story since the beginning of July, and this is my last Sunday before I go on holidays, and I want to see the story to its end.

In the Exodus reading there is the conversation about seeing God, face to face, but in this story we know that is not a possibility, there is only a shadow in the cleft of the mountain. We constantly search for a sign of the Spirit; it is, perhaps, what gives our spiritual lives meaning. As we live out our lives, the search for meaning, brings us to the end. We find Moses at this end in the Deuteronomy reading.

Moses spent forty years getting the people to the Promised Land, and then God said to Moses, I’ll allow you to gaze over at the land that you have spent forty years getting to, but you can’t cross over to the Promised Land.

Apparently, this idea of God not allowing Moses to enter the Promised Land has to do with some sin that Moses committed. Just what sin that might be is not entirely clear. It seems it has to do with Moses’ inability to trust God. This inability to trust has to do with Moses’ striking the rock at
Riphidim to find water for his people rather than speaking directly to God. In other words, Moses should have made a direct request rather than trusting his own intuition. Remember, Yahweh is a relatively new God for the time and the storytellers needed to assure the people that Yahweh’s power was in place. What interests me is that it doesn’t seem to be problematic that Moses killed the Egyptian master who was beating the Hebrew slave. It was that incident that prompted Moses to leave the country and take his people with him. And at Yahweh’s request.

Indeed, Moses had some problems along the journey, but he certainly found ways to take his people forward and they weren’t an easy bunch to get along with – they were constantly murmuring about something, they were frightened because this was the unknown. It’s sort of where we are at in the church today. Venturiing into the unknown and not knowing what that will look like. Of course, we don’t have to go; neither did Moses, but what happens if we don’t go? Moses went where he was called to go, and the end is not an easy end, or so it appears.

I think Moses deserved a whole stack of medals, but at the end of the journey God didn’t think so - in the midst of all his struggles, in the midst of barriers that sometimes appeared insurmountable, Moses’ only reached the border of the Promised Land.

What else could God have asked? What else could Moses have done? Why didn’t God allow Moses to cross into the Promised Land?

If you read Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, you will read a story in each book regarding Moses’ sin. It is a story that tells of his unfaithfulness to God and explains why God wouldn’t allow him to enter the Promised Land. It’s the same story told three different ways. This is an important story, told three times to make sure we get it.

What are we supposed to get? What is so important that it has to be told three times, with some of the details being changed each time? What are we supposed to understand?

At this point we know that Moses is known as the greatest prophet in all of the Old Testament. Now he is dead and buried in an unmarked grave which has never been discovered. Some scholars say that this story of Moses’ death was added by a different writer at a later time. If Moses wrote it then he had to have done that just before his death.

Again, what does the writer, no matter who it is, want us to learn from the story? Are we being asked to think about death and then understand that no matter what, or when the end comes, there will be a distant future that we won’t get to?

Maybe no matter what, we will leave a trail of our sins/misgivings behind. Are we to understand that we might toil endlessly at getting it all done, but when the end arrives what we have accomplished isn’t really very important? Moses spent forty years taking his people to the Promised Land and then God said, “Sorry you’re not going to enter there and Moses said okay, and died. I doubt it was that simple.

I am reminded of my father’s death. He only lived for thirteen days from the time he was diagnosed with lung cancer till he died. One afternoon, when I came to visit, I asked him, “Are you ready to die, and have you accomplished in your 78 years here on earth what you wanted?” I was a theology student at the time so that seemed to me an important question.

He replied, “I will never be ready to die. I will never be finished with living.” He wasn’t angry, he just seemed to know that his time to die had come; he was quite resigned to dying, actually. He was also just as convinced that there was no right time to die. No time to be ready for such a thing. He longed to live on and do whatever he felt wasn’t complete. But maybe, I’m not sure; perhaps he had made peace with himself. Perhaps he felt forgiven for whatever he needed to be forgiven for and that allowed him to die peacefully and with dignity.

Perhaps, Moses also died, knowing that he was content with his life. He didn’t plead and beg God to let him go to the Promised Land. He just gazed over at it and then died. They say our lived lives pass before us when we die but maybe that’s not true. Maybe we get to look towards what might have been the future and then die.

I have read
Wayne Johnston’s book, “The Colony of Unrequited Dreams,” the story of Joey Smallwood. This is a tale of historical fiction and a bit like the Moses story and as in the Moses story, we are required to pay attention and learn from someone else’s experience. Early on, when Newfoundland was still a country, with its own government, before confederation, Joey Smallwood and Sheilagh Fielding were newspaper reporters in St. John’s. They were about sixteen years old. Neither of them was ever very honest with the other - and the book is in many ways, a tale of their unspoken love for each other.

Towards the end of the book, at page 500 and some, they are now both close to sixty years old. Smallwood knows that he has to find a way to come to terms with their relationship. He has to understand his life. He is in Fielding’s room and he wonders to himself if it maybe could have been different. He thinks,
A nudge here, a nudge there. Had any one of a thousand things been different, the two of us? - But I had no sooner thought it than I knew that I was wrong, that I had freely chosen to remain apart. Though the past was not lost to us, though it was there with us in that room while we held each other, I would not have changed it if I could. Forty years of love were consummated with one hug. With my face pressed against her cheek, I smelled her skin, a smell whose distinctiveness made me realise I had never held anyone this close, this fervently, before. Not even my wife. He realises, she loved me then, as absurd, vain, pompous, strutting and ambitious as I was, - and perhaps she loved me now. I had that. And I had loved her, I had at least once in my life been capable of that, able to escape myself long enough to love. Suddenly, the unacknowledged sorrows and blunders of my life surged up in me all at once.
At this point Smallwood would not have been ready to die. But he was preparing for that inevitable time and he knew that if he was to be at all prepared to die, he had to find a way to work through the many emotional intimate crises he had lived through and he did that as best as he could. Does that searching for answers guarantee us a peaceful death? Does that prepare us for death either way?

Maybe it does. I don’t know.

I sense, though, that no matter what - Moses, my father and Smallwood would not have been ready to die at any time because they had personalities that wouldn’t allow them to die easily. I believe they all did what they had to do to make way for a death that might be peaceful, but ultimately, they were not finished living. Not even Smallwood who lived almost as long as Moses. Smallwood who brought about confederation in Newfoundland and was there first premier and held that position for almost thirty years. When he felt forced to retire in 1972 he said on the night of his retirement: (
Read p553ff.)

Smallwood’s life really did parallel that of Moses. He led his people for most of his life - probably fifty, sixty, seventy years. The equivalent to forty years in the desert. When it was over he didn’t want to quit. He wanted to stay and be a part of the Promised Land which he only really got to see from a distance. Or at least, that’s how he saw it. I don’t think he ever had the ability to get up close to it. He was always at a distance. Smallwood leaves us with the same questions that are raised in Deuteronomy.

  • What are we to understand about our lives, lives lived that lead to death?
  • What does God/Spirit want from us?
  • What does the story say to us?
  • If we are being asked to be prepared for death - if we are being asked to live in ways that will leave us satisfied and ready for death, then death is twofold.
  • On the one hand we have to search out right relationship and we also need to find ways to have closure with those we love. Closure that is positive and offers answers we can all live with.

But at the same time it seems to me we have to keep on seeking out life – We have to live on the edge, we have to be prepared to take risks, so what if what we didn’t accomplish looms in front of us at death, so what if we only glimpse a small piece of the promised land - better to have lived doing what our hearts demanded, than to be left longing for what we never knew or understood to be possible.

I suspect that Moses, my father, and Smallwood all followed their heart’s desire. It just happened to be pretty complicated. They wanted everything and that wasn’t possible. I think it was close - maybe that is what we want - close. We want to be close to having everything that is possible and then at the end there will be in the distance, fragments of what we didn’t realise.

When we don’t look outside of ourselves at our own suffering and the suffering world, then perhaps that is the sin/misgiving that we could be accountable for at death. Of course that looking outside of ourselves is an inner process.

The relationship that Moses’, my father, and Joey Smallwood entered into, perhaps at times unwillingly, but nonetheless entered with hopes for a brighter world and, I believe, always at some cost to the inner self.

I leave you with this thought: the thought of what is in the distance - if you were to die and your future, your heart’s desire was out there in front of you - what would you see?

Sharon Ferguson-Hood