The story of Moses’ death on Mt. Nebo is one of the most poignant stories in the Bible. We have heard stories of Moses all our lives, but I’d like to present Moses in a slightly different light.
Moses was an enigmatic and many faceted man. Exodus tells us that he was born an Israelite in a time when the Israelite people, who later became the Jewish people, were threatened with genocide for the first, but certainly not the last, time.
At the time of Moses’ birth the Israelites were living in Egypt. The story of how they came to be living in Egypt may or may not be familiar to you, but that will have to wait for another time.
The Israelites were strangers in a strange land. They had become slaves of the Egyptians, but Egypt’s ruler was deeply troubled by this strange and foreign people in the midst of his land. So he took measures to make sure that they would die out. He not only gave them hard and cruel tasks calculated to weaken and kill them from exhaustion; he also directed the midwives, the women who assisted in childbirth, to kill all male Israelite children.
This story already has a modern ring to it: A wealthy and powerful nation fears the presence of aliens in their midst and takes measures to exclude them. Remind you of anything? I will leave you to draw your own conclusions.
But when Moses was born, the midwives spared his life. Moses’ mother placed her baby in a basket and set him adrift on the River Nile, hoping that an Egyptian family would find him and raise him as their own. The desperate mother’s plan succeeded beyond her wildest expectations, because the daughter of Egypt’s Pharaoh found Moses and took him as her own child.
But here there is a mystery in Moses’ story: Exodus gives the name “Moses” an explanation that makes it a Hebrew name: It says that Pharaoh’s daughter gave the child the name “Moses” because it resembles the Hebrew word meaning “to draw out” because she drew him out of the water. But actually, Moses is not a Hebrew name at all; it is an Egyptian name meaning “son of”. It is similar to the names gives Egyptian rulers, such as Ramses or even closer Thutmosis. Ramses means “son of Ra” (the sun god), and Thutmosis means “son of Thut”. It is most likely that the name “Moses” was originally attached to the name of one of the Egyptian deities. But when Moses asserted his identity as an Israelite, he rejected the association of his name with Egyptian religion.
Moses was an Israelite, a Hebrew, but grew up at the summit of Egyptian power and affluence. Then something happened to make him reject his Egyptian-ness and assert his identity as an Israelite. Seeing an Egyptian supervisor cruelly beat a Hebrew slave, Moses grew so enraged that he murdered the Egyptian.
Now a fugitive from justice, Moses fled into the desert where he had a profound mystical experience. The voice of God spoke to Moses from a bush that burned but was not consumed. God commanded Moses to return to Egypt and demand that Pharaoh release the Israelites. Moses did so, and aided by divine power, the Israelites fled into the wilderness where they wandered for forty years before coming to the Promised Land of Canaan.
But in the wilderness there was another strange turn in Moses’ life. Moses the Egyptian had become Moses the Israelite. Moses the Israelite became Moses the liberator, the revolutionary. But in the wilderness, Moses the revolutionary became Moses the lawgiver.
Revolutions are tricky business. It is one thing to free a people from tyranny; it is quite another thing to impose order on a revolution. The American revolution managed that transition fairly well, but most other revolutions have not managed it.
The French revolution descended into the Reign of Terror. The Russian revolution gave rise to the gulag, the chain of forced labor camps, plus a host of other terrors. The Chinese revolution gave us the Cultural Revolution which resulted in perhaps as many as 20 million deaths.
Moses was almost unique in both freeing his people and also creating institutions and laws that enabled them not only to survive but to thrive.
There is so much more to the story but that is enough to take us to today’s Old Testament story. After forty years in the wilderness, Moses and his people finally arrived at the Promised Land.
Imagine the feeling with which Moses anticipated taking his people across the Jordan River into Canaan, the land we know today as Israel or Palestine. But God directed Moses to climb to the top of Mt. Nebo overlooking the land, and there God told Moses that although he had given his entire life to bringing his people out of slavery in Egypt and across the vast wilderness, he would not enter the land with him. And so Moses died after getting one brief glimpse of the culmination of his life’s work.
And here again, the story of Moses is reminiscent of the story of so many other great leaders. There are very few leaders who have managed both to free their people and create a stable society.
Think of Abraham Lincoln. He led the United States successfully through the Civil War, but a month after the South's surrender, John Wilkes Booth assassinated Lincoln before he could complete the task of reuniting the divided states.
Or think of Gandhi, the Indian leader who freed his people from British rule and gave them independence. There are many echoes of Moses’ story in Gandhi’s story. Gandhi’s devotion to independence for India began when he personally experienced the cruelty with which his people were treated by the white regime in South Africa. He then worked for more than forty years to create an independent India. He did live to see India become independent but as soon as India became free, civil war broke out between Hindus and Muslims. And Gandhi died by the hand of an assassin, his heart broken by the violence between his countrymen.
But perhaps the story with the most echoes of Moses’ story is that of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King invoked the very words of Moses in his last sermon in Memphis, Tennessee on the night before his death.
In his sermon, Dr. King said, “I have been to the mountaintop. God’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 am happy tonight…Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
That was on April 3, 1968. On April 4, King died by the hand of an assassin.
I think there is a great lesson for all of us in the stories of Gandhi, Lincoln, King and especially Moses.
How often do any of us live to see the culmination of our life’s dream?
Dreams are the building blocks of our lives. We have the dream of going to college, of being successful in our careers, of buying a home, of starting a family, of seeing our children successfully launched in their lives, of a comfortable and healthy retirement. None of us will live to see all of our dreams come true. All of us will see one or more of our dreams wreck upon the rocks of reality.
Someone said that life is completely fair because it breaks everyone’s heart.
Life is difficult and often sad. The failure of our dreams can lead to bitterness, but we must not let that happen.
But think about this: The larger our dream, the more likely it is that we will not live to see it come true.
Lincoln dreamed of preserving the Union and reuniting the divided states
Gandhi had an enormous dream, the dream that India would throw off the yoke of the mighty British Empire.
Dr. King dreamed of a world in which people would be evaluated not by the color of their skins but by the content of their character.
Moses dreamed of freedom for his people and a land in which they could live in freedom.
I want to urge you to dream great dreams, enormous dreams. I want you to have a dream that will take more than your lifetime to dream. I dare you to have a dream so large that you will not live to see it come to pass. I want you to have a dream to which you can devote your life, a dream so vast and noble that you will invite others to participate in it.
The story of Moses is not a story of failure; it is a story of success. Moses’ dream was too big for one lifetime. It was too big for one individual. It was a dream that went beyond his own lifetime out into the future. Moses’ dream has influenced all parts of the world and all times.
That is the kind of dream that is worth living for and even worth dying for.
Today’s reading from the gospels echoes Moses in an indirect way. They asked Jesus this question: "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" He said to him, "`You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."
More than a thousand years after Moses, Jesus and the Pharisees debated his words. The words of the Law, the Torah, that Moses gave to the people of Israel, echo down the halls of time and space. We still debate them.
At the end of his life God gave Moses a glimpse of the land that his people would occupy, but I wonder – did God also give Moses a glimpse of the way that his words would influence human history?
The words of Moses continue to influence our lives. The words that he gave to a small band of escaped Israelite slaves are written on the very fabric of time. As long as the human race endures, the words of Moses will endure.
Here at Christ Church we are called upon to dream great dreams. God calls us to dream of being a place of light for those in darkness, a place of hope for those who live in despair, a place of nourishment for those who are hungry, a place of shelter for those who are homeless.
I would like you to think of your pledge to this church in those terms. Do not think only of what we can accomplish today; do not think only of what we can accomplish this year. Think of what we can accomplish over the next century. A great dream requires great resources. When you make your pledge to Christ Church, I want you to dream big and then give a pledge big enough to make that dream come true.
This church is an indirect result of the dream that Moses dreamed. And it is a direct result of the dream that Jesus dreamed, a dream of a world set free from sin and death, a world in which all men and women will live as brothers and sisters.
Like Moses and the Israelites, we are a people on pilgrimage who travel from a world of bondage, a world of slavery, toward a world of freedom, justice, and peace.
Come and dream with us.