Our reading from Deuteronomy, chapter 34:1-12, marks the end of the book and the end of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. These five books tell the story of the formation of the people of Israel: their call into being by God, their trials and tribulations, and their covenant with God, which involves following a way of life embodied in a set of moral and religious obligations and civil laws, given by God to the prophet Moses. The people promise God to follow his ways and God promises them a land flowing with milk and honey. God promises to make them a nation.
Since the beginning of the book of Exodus, we have been following Moses and the Israelite people. Freed from slavery in Egypt, wandering through the desert for 40 years, through hunger, thirst, boredom, snakes, and other trials and tribulations, as God prepared them to be a people chosen by God to show God’s ways to the world.
Throughout their wanderings it is Moses who has led the way. He has listened to their whining and complaining. He has provided for them through God’s grace with the water and food they needed to survive. He has withstood their faithlessness and idolatry and interceded with God on their behalf when God thought it would be better to destroy them. He taught them the law that will make them a people and give them true life. And he has brought them to the edge of the Promised Land. Surely all that is left is for Moses to lead them triumphantly into the land that God has been promising them since their ancestor Abraham walked the earth.
But this is Scripture, so this means the story does not go as we expect. There is a plot twist. Apparently, it is not God’s plan that Moses enters into the Promised Land. He is 120 years old, but apparently still strong, vibrant, and able to climb mountains. He could have entered the land with them, but his work is done, and he dies, not from illness, but because this is what God wishes. God lets him see the Promised Land but does not let him enter it.
In our passage from Deuteronomy for today there is no explanation given for why Moses does not get to enter the Promised Land. God simply says: “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.” Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. But in Numbers 20:9-13 we are told that God instructed Moses to speak to the rock to bring forth water and Moses struck it instead, so Moses is being punished for not following the letter of the law. His punishment is that he will not be permitted to lead his people into he Promised Land.
Personally I find this explanation difficult to accept or believe. I think it comes from a people trying to make sense of why the greatest prophet of all time, the only one allowed to come into the presence of God, who was faithful for more than 40 years, died before entering the land promised to hm and his people. I think it is a way of lessening the feeling of disappointment. If you can say that Moses deserved not to go into the Promised Land then you can push away the discomfort of not knowing why, the discomfort and pain that comes with disappointment. But the fact is that in a human life there are many disappointments, many unfulfilled longings and wishes, and many things that happen to us that we do not understand. All of us will end our lives with our work incomplete. That is the nature of being human. Human life in this world is by definition incomplete. So why would Moses’ life, a very human life, be any different?
But this incompleteness is frightening to us. We want to be in control, and we want to know why things happen. So, we invent reasons to lessen these difficult feelings and take away our unanswered questions. The hurricane devastated that area because those people are bad. If she hadn’t been out at that club, she wouldn’t have been killed by that gunman. She shouldn’t have been there. It was her fault. If he had just taken better care of himself, he wouldn’t have had that heart attack. Moses would have entered the Promised Land if he had just listened more closely to what God told him to do and done it. If I just do everything perfectly in my life, I won’t die unexpectedly, bad things won’t happen to me, my wishes and desires will all be fulfilled, I will be in control.
But that isn’t how it works is it? People with disturbed minds enter bowling alleys and restaurants and kill people. People with the ability to make laws that would lessen or prevent such killings don’t. Children die of cancer. Parents get into car accidents and die. Moses dies after a lifetime of hard work and struggle leading his people and is unable to experience the joy of leading them into the Promised Land. And we, the meaning makers that we are, want to know why. We want an answer. And when we don’t get one, we make up reasons that end up making God look like a monster. After all what kind of God would punish Moses for striking the rock instead of speaking to it? Not the God I believe in. Not the God Jesus shows us.
The only answer to the question of why is that a human life by nature is incomplete. Now this may feel uncomfortable or negative, but it is not. Our individual lives may be incomplete but that does not mean that God’s work is incomplete. We are part of a larger story. We are connected to all who went before us and all who will go after us. Completeness comes in the whole arc of history. No single person is sufficient to carry out God’s work in this world. It takes everyone from the beginning to the end of time to co-create God’s kingdom.
Our meaning comes from what we do with the time we have. Our meaning comes from how we live our life between the time we are born and the time we die. Moses did just that. He stood up to Pharoah and led his people out of Egypt. He led the Israelites through the desert, caring for them and teaching them what it means to be God’s people. He has equipped a new leader, Joshua, to lead them into the Land of Promise. He has lived faithfully during the time he was given and his work will be continued by people who come after him. There is great meaning and purpose in simply living our lives faithfully right here and right now and knowing that what we do is part of a bigger picture seen by God but not always understood by us.
And today, the day in which I am tasked with speaking to you about stewardship, I think this is the perfect stewardship message. We frequently see stewardship as being a fancy religious word for fundraising for our church, and certainly funding the work of this community is a part of stewardship. But stewardship is really so much more. Stewardship is really about what we do we everything that makes up our life from the day we are born until the day we die. It is how we make meaning of the life we have been given and it is how we use that life in service to the larger story of which we are a part.
Moses laid a foundation upon which the nation of Israel was built. A nation whose covenant still guides Jewish and Christian people today as we seek to faithfully follow God. Moses’ story ended but God’s story, God’s relationship with humanity did not end. It continues with us today and will continue with those who come after us. We are given the task of living our lives in such a way that those who come after us have something to stand on, something to build from as well. Many native people in this country say we should think of the seventh generation that comes after us whenever decisions are made. I think this is another way of saying that we are part of a bigger story, that our lives are linked with all who went before us and all who will go after us. It is a way of saying that the larger story of creation is never complete with one human life, but will always be picked up by those who follow us. And that it is our responsibility to be good stewards with the time and resources we have during our lifetimes.
Moses story came to an end, but he could die knowing that he faithfully did all he could to use his time and resources well and to leave behind a foundation upon which the following generations could build. Our time will also come to an end, and we won’t know when or how, that is only for God to know, and maybe even God doesn’t know. We cannot control that. What we can control is how we care for what we have been given right here and right now. We can find our meaning not in completion, but in the good stewarding of our lives and in understanding how our lives are connected and completed by those that follow us. If you are worried that you haven’t been caring for what you have been given in the way that you should, well start now. You are still in this lifetime. As long as you have breath in your body, you can join in God’s story. True greatness, true happiness, true meaning comes from knowing and understanding this.
I leave you with the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., who understood this well. These words come from the last speech gave on April 3, 1968, the day before he was assassinated:
Well, I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life—longevity has its place. 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. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”