“The View From Mt. Nebo”
Deuteronomy 33:48 – 50; 34:1-10
June 25, 2017
Chilmark Community Church
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
Quite a few years ago now, on one of our trips to Israel, we landed first in Jordan, on the eastern side of the Jordan River. One of the stops early in our trip was a visit to Mt. Nebo. It was late in the afternoon and we were facing into the setting sun at the northern end of the Dead Sea – looking out over the view that Moses must have seen as he reached the end of his journeys with the Israelites. We looked out over rugged hills and valleys toward the land that Israel was about to enter. The sunlight was reflecting off the water in the distance. The air was chilly and quiet. It was a profound moment that stays in my memory – – standing in the spot where tradition says Moses looked over into the land that had been promised – coming to terms with knowing that he would not accompany his people as they crossed over.
There are lots of reasons buried in the scriptures for why Moses didn’t ever get to the Promised Land. The predominant one is that he had displeased God by striking a rock to get water for the thirsty tribes in the wilderness when God had instructed him merely to speak to the rock. Other stories speak of Moses’ advanced age – he was 120 years old – that he was tired after 40 years sojourning with the people and didn’t have the energy required to guide them through their conquest of Canaan. Still other stories suggest that it took the entire 40 years for the first generation of slaves to die off so that the next generation would no longer think and feel like slaves, but would take responsibility for themselves as free agents under God. For this they needed the leadership of someone younger who had transcended the slave mentality.
The story is a poignant one. It comes at the end of Deuteronomy which is attributed to Moses as his farewell address to Israel. Deuteronomy rehearses the entire saga of the 40 years of wandering. No wonder it sounds familiar and repetitious in so many places. It was calculated to remind the people of where they had been – where they were going – – and who it was that would always lead them – regardless of who the person was at the head of the line.
I think it is a great story for guiding us as we contemplate a change of leadership, both for us and for all of you. We get into murky waters if we take every word and story of the Bible literally. But if we can let the wisdom in the stories inform us we may be on more solid ground. And the wisdom here is that the people of God are always in the process of becoming – – because we follow a God who is always in the process of becoming. We are not a static people and God is not a static God. This always takes some getting used to because for many of us, we grew up thinking that either God was immutable and unchanging – and therefore somewhat dependable and predictable, on the one hand, or we were taught that God was malleable and that our prayers could change God in some way – – sort of like with my childhood prayers that God would make the sun shine on the day of my class trip. But it turns out that God is none of that.
Rather God is a God of relationship and becoming – and we are invited along for the ride.
So – -here we are, on our own Mt Nebo of sorts. As your pastors we can stand on the peak and kind of look over Jordan with you to envision something of the future as
you move forward under new leadership. But envisioning and predicting with accuracy are two very different things. So we all are living with a measure of uncertainty. We will descend the mountain on our side to see what future awaits us there while you will move on into the future that awaits on your side of the mountain.
Because, as science tells us, we cannot predict the future any more than about a few fractions of a second ahead of us, we are now drawn, or maybe pushed or pulled, to a moment of absolute trust and faith in this God who prefers relationship with us – who prefers the process of becoming something new with us rather than some static and predictable outcome.
This is challenging. And it is apt to be uncomfortable. With our ancestors, about to come under the leadership of Joshua, Moses’ successor, we may be asking “What will we do without the person we have trusted to guide us?” “How can we be sure this is the right leader?” “What will be expected of us?” “Moses loved us and stayed with us through thick and thin – what if Joshua loses patience? What if Joshua doesn’t love us?”
I think we can intuit from the text that these are the murmurings of the people as they realized that Moses would be stepping down. In Deuteronomy 31, the people are fearful of what they will encounter in the way of enemies as they cross over the Jordan. Moses reassures them with these words: the Lord himself will cross over before you. The Lord will give [your enemies] over to you and you shall deal with them in full accord with the command I have given you…Be strong and bold, have no fear or dread of them, because it is the Lord your God
who goes with you; God will not fail you or forsake you.
Moses doesn’t only reassure the people, he also reassures Joshua: Then Moses summoned Joshua before the people and said to them in the sight of all Israel: “Be strong and bold, for you are the one who will go with this people into the land…It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not fail nor forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.
If we fast forward several generations to the days immediately following the resurrection of Jesus, we hear the same affirmation of the God Who Goes Before.
Near the end of Matthew’s Gospel we hear a messenger telling the women at the tomb: Jesus has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him. This is my message for you.” (Matthew 28:7)
They begin running to deliver the message and they encounter Jesus in his Risen Nature who tells them: Do not be afraid. Tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me. Matthew 28:10).
Galilee is where it all began – the business of preaching God’s love, feeding the hungry, tending to the needs of the poor, healing the sick, learning the skills of forgiveness and reconciliation, seeking justice for the poor and downtrodden.
In a sense, the crucifixion is a Mt. Nebo for Jesus and his followers. It is in crucifixion and resurrection that the relationship between Jesus and the disciples changes. Jesus is gone from their physical presence – no longer to be depended upon for doing the feeding, the healing, the forgiving, the teaching that he had always done with them.
A new relationship is now there to be explored – learning how to trust that what has been begun on one side of the cross will continue in another form on the other side of the cross.
So – here we are – all of us facing an ending together – wondering what will happen on the other side of tomorrow. We are also together hearing the assurances -whether we think in terms of crossing Jordan into a strange land under new leadership or in terms of life on the other side of the cross – we can affirm with faith that we belong to a God who goes ahead of us – a dynamic God who seems to become evermore trustworthy the more we are able to offer our trust. In the process, we become the people God chooses every day to be the people who will make the crossing and buy into the adventure.
So – as we come to a time of ending a way of being together, may we know without a doubt that even as we say farewell today to this particular way of being together that we have enjoyed, God is bringing something new into being.
God has never been satisfied with a static and comfortable people. God seems to enjoy life with us – always unfolding -always changing – always in process. Indeed even Jesus made his most significant encounters and teachings while he was on the move – – on the road . So we are invited once again to move on, to sojourn, to live always in a state of being temporary. One of the first books I read in seminary was a book titled “The Journey is Home” by Nelle Morton. The title says it all . We live and move and have our being in a God on the move. God is the Journey. And the Journey is, indeed our home. May God bless us all on the way. AMEN