J. Barry Vaughn. St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Birmingham, AL. Oct. 26, 2008. Text: Deut. 34.1-12.
One of the stock situations in the Peanuts comic strip was Lucy’s offer to hold the football for Charlie Brown to kick. He was always reluctant to accept the offer because she invariably pulled it away just as his foot was about to connect with the ball, and he always landed on his backside. However, somehow she always persuaded him that this time she really meant it, but he always ended up flat on his back.
We might almost think that God is a little like Lucy. God promised Abraham and Sarah a land to call their own and children as numerous as the stars in the night sky. They waited for years and finally one child was born to them. But just as soon as Isaac born, God demanded that he be offered as a sacrifice. Then when Abraham and Sarah died, the only land they owned was their burial place. “C’mon, Charlie Brown. Kick the ball. I’ll hold it for you.”
When Abraham’s descendants found themselves enslaved in Egypt, God brought them out with signs and wonders, but they wondered if God had just brought them out into the wilderness to let them starve there. So God let them wander and wander and wander… ten years… twenty years… thirty years… The generation that left Egypt died still wondering if God was going to keep his promise of bringing them into a land of milk and honey.. “I really mean it this time, Charlie Brown. Kick the ball.”
And in today’s reading God brings Moses to the top of Mt. Nebo overlooking the promised land. “….the Lord showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, 2all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea,3the Negeb, and the Plain—that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees—as far as Zoar. 4The 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…”’” At last, the promise was going to be fulfilled. Moses was as close to the Promised Land as Sarah Palin was to Russia; he could see it with his own eyes. Then – bang! – God pulled the football away and Moses ended up flat on his back just like Charlie Brown. “…you shall not cross over there.”
Everyone of us has a Promised Land, a goal, something we have sought and longed and worked for. Sometimes it’s marriage; sometimes it’s a job or a career; sometimes it’s something as basic as physical health. Sometimes we achieve it; sometimes all we can do is look longingly at it as Moses looked at Canaan from the top of Mt. Nebo.
The story from Deuteronomy tells me two things: First, it tells me that no matter how hard we work, the achievement of our goals is God’s gift. Now, make no mistake: we have to show up, do the work, and put in the hours. But we all know deserving people who have worked every day of their life to get to the Promised Land and haven’t made it. They are good people; they should have been successful but things just didn’t work out.
And that’s the second thing I take away from the text: sometimes no matter how hard we try, we just won’t get to the Promised Land. Sometimes all we can do is enjoy the view from Mt. Nebo.
Two distinguished, honorable, intelligent, and capable men are seeking to become President of the United States, and in a week one of them will be elected and the other will not. Someone once said that there are no second acts in American public life. That’s not quite true, but more than likely the loser will not get a second chance to try for the Oval Office. All he will be able to do is to watch as the other takes the oath office and becomes the most powerful man in the world. The view from Mt. Nebo is beautiful but it can also be tormenting.
There’s a further lesson that I take away from the Old Testament reading: There’s always a Promised Land further down the road, a goal we will not achieve. In every life there is incomplete and unfinished business. No one looks back over his or her life and says, “I achieved everything I set out to do. I have everything I wanted.”
So how do we live with the tension between promise and fulfillment? What can we do if we know that we can enjoy the view from Mt. Nebo but will never make to the Promised Land?
First, we can resolve every day of our life to enjoy the journey. We do not know exactly where the journey will take us, nor do we know how long the journey will take. But we will find if we are attentive that every step of the way can be meaningful. At every moment there are opportunities to serve. And if all we are doing is looking for the vista from Mt. Nebo, then we will miss the less spectacular but equally beautiful sights along the way.
We can also appreciate the people who are making the journey with us. We can remember that they, too, have goals that they will not realize, that they, too, may only get to enjoy the view from Mt. Nebo, that they need us and we need them.
We can also remember that our goals may not be God’s goals, that our purpose may not be to get to the Promised Land but to enable someone else to get there. Today’s Old Testament reading also tells us that Moses laid hands on Joshua, that is, he transferred his power and authority to Joshua who then leads the Israelites into the Promised Land.
Perhaps the most famous use of this story about Moses on Mt. Nebo was in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s very last sermon. “I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. 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. 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 I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” That was on April 3, 1968; the next day Dr. King was murdered.
King lived long enough to see the view from Mt. Nebo, to look over into the Promised Land. But perhaps God’s purpose for him was like God’s purpose for Moses and for many of us; God used King as he used Moses: to enable others to make it to the Promised Land. Perhaps even Dr. King did not know all the ways that God would use his work.
During the coup by hardline Communists in the waning days of the Soviet Union, Moscow’s mayor, Boris Yeltsin, literally faced down tanks in the street in front of the parliament building. Someone asked Yeltsin what gave him the courage to face the tanks, and he said he had been inspired by Lech Walesa and his Solidarity movement in Poland. When Walesa was asked what gave him the strength to organize Solidarity and defy the Soviets, he said that he had been inspired by Dr. King. And when Dr. King was asked what inspired his leadership of the civil rights’ movement, he said that he had been inspired by Rosa Parks’ defiance of segregation on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Could it be that the Soviet Union fell (at least in part) because a black seamstress refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery?
So, learn to appreciate the journey, cherish the people who are making the journey with you, accept the fact that you do not fully control your destiny, do not despair when you realize you will never achieve all that you seek to accomplish. And if you can do those things, then you may find that the Promised Land is not on the other side of Mt. Nebo but is right here and now. All we need to do is to open our eyes and look around.