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Saturday, January 26, 2008

Sunday's Sermon: The Promised Land

The Promised Land
John Shuck
January 27, 2008

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee


Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the Negeb, and the Plain—that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees—as far as Zoar. The 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, 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. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day. Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated. The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab for thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended.

Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses.

Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He was unequalled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.
Deuteronomy
34:1-12


We come to the end of the Torah. We find Moses on the top of Mount Nebo. He is 120 years old and the text says his “vigor was unabated.” But YHWH tells him that he will not enter The Promised Land. He will see it, but his days will end. His successor, Joshua, will lead the people across the Jordan.

It doesn’t seem fair that Moses doesn’t get to cross the river. YHWH seems a bit petty. The answer is given in the book of Numbers 20:2-12. According to the story, the people are thirsty. There is no water. They complain to Moses. According to the text:

The people quarrelled with Moses and said, ‘Would that we had died when our kindred died before the Lord! Why have you brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness for us and our livestock to die here? Why have you brought us up out of Egypt, to bring us to this wretched place? It is no place for grain, or figs, or vines, or pomegranates; and there is no water to drink.’

Moses and Aaron ask YHWH what to do. YHWH tells Moses to take his staff and go to a rock. In front of the people Moses is to command the rock to yield water. So Moses and Aaron gather the people before the rock. Instead of commanding the rock Moses says to the people:

‘Listen, you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock?’ Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff; water came out abundantly, and the congregation and their livestock drank. But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.’

YHWH wants credit where credit is due. He sees Moses getting the glory when Moses said: “Shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” This seems like a minor point. After all Moses has been through, you would think YHWH would give the guy a break.

Yet this is an important theme throughout the Torah. The storytellers want us to know that it is not by human power but the power of YHWH that things get done. Not even Moses can presume to have this divine power. Moses, in this instance, lost his cool and in so doing showed a lack of humility.

There is probably no bigger sin in the eyes of these storytellers than the sin of arrogance or presumption on the part of human beings. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures we find YHWH choosing the second son, the weakest person, the smallest army in order to show that it is not human power, but divine power that gains us freedom, victory, or blessing.

This point is hammered home throughout the Bible. Jesus is an example. The messiah is crucified. In our weakness the power of the Divine Presence reveals itself. In our February readings, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, we will see this theme repeated.

Joshua wins the battle of Jericho not with weapons but by having his army march around the city seven times. They blow their trumpets and the walls come a tumbalin’ down. In the book of Judges, YHWH tells Gideon to reduce his army to a few hundred to fight a huge army of thousands. This is to show that it is YHWH’s victory, not Gideon’s.

In the books of Samuel, we read about the adventures of the first Israelite king, Saul. Saul is not a bad king. Nor is he a bad guy. But he has a tragic flaw. He has an arrogant streak. He lacks humility. He starts to believe that it is all about him.

Moses doesn’t go into the land because he showed a lack of trust in one instance. But the story is bigger than Moses’ disobedience. His story is over. He can’t do it all. It is appropriate for the Torah to end with Moses on the mountain. They made it to the edge. He can see it. But it will be the next generation that takes them across the River Jordan. Crossing that river will require the skills, gifts, and faith of more than one hero.

Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said:

“Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.”

Moses’ story ends. Joshua’s begins.

The Torah is the story of a people outside of the Promised Land hoping to get there. It was completed in its final form when the people were exiled in Babylon. They had suffered bitter defeat and humiliation. They longed to return home. The Torah is the Instruction on what it will take for them to return. It will take a great deal of courage. Even more than that, it will take trust. Then again, trust is courage.

The Promised Land. What is it? Some believe it is a narrow piece of real estate between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. The battle is fierce over this little, and yet strategic, piece of land today.

Others believe it is heaven. It is the place we go after we die. Here are the words of Samuel Stennett’s 1787 hymn, Promised Land:

On Jordan's stormy banks I stand,
and cast a wishful eye
to Canaan's fair and happy land
where my possessions lie.

Refrain

I'm bound for the promised land,
I'm bound for the promised land.
Oh, who will come and go with me?
I'm bound for the promised land.

There gen'rous fruits that never fail,
on trees immortal grow.
There rocks and hills and brooks and vales
with milk and honey flow.

All o'er those wide-extended plains
shines one eternal day;
there God the Son forever reigns
and scatters night away.

No chilling wind nor pois'nous breath
can reach that healthful shore;
sickness and sorrow pain and death
are felt and feared no more.

When shall I reach that happy place
and be forever blest?
When shall I see my Father's face
and in his bosom rest?

I'm bound for the promised land,
I'm bound for the promised land.
Oh, who will come and go with me?
I'm bound for the promised land.

I do love those hymns.

Still others believe that the Promised Land is something for which to dream and strive on this side of the grave. It is the realm of justice and peace for all people. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached on the Promised Land just before he was assassinated in Memphis. He went to Memphis on behalf of the sanitation workers. This was his last speech. He closed his sermon with these chillingly prophetic words:

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it 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 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.

Like Moses, he died before crossing the Jordan. For King, the Promised Land had to do with the here and now. In that same speech, he said:

It's alright to talk about "long white robes over yonder," in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It's alright to talk about "streets flowing with milk and honey," but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can't eat three square meals a day. It's alright to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God's preacher must talk about the New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.

What is the Promised Land? Perhaps the Promised Land will be realized when human beings arise to a heightened level of consciousness. Perhaps it will happen when we realize that we are all in this together. Perhaps it will be when we internalize trust in a power greater than our own egos.

There is a deep wisdom in these scriptures. That wisdom and our experience tell us that we will not reach the Promised Land through arrogance. The powerful and the wealthy will not give us the Promised Land. We cannot force it through means of violence. Superpowers and their armies cannot get us there.

The wisdom of these scriptures and our experience should also tell us that we will not reach the Promised Land by waiting for a charismatic hero to lead us. Charismatic leaders generally end up dead. The rest of us are left to flounder.

There is a new consciousness arising. We can only reach the Promised Land together. Everyone must participate. No one can reach it unless we all reach it. This means we need to foster this new consciousness of belonging to Earth as one global family. We need to meet together to do small things.

The Promised Land, in my view, is at least living within our means and in balance with Earth. I had a conversation this past week with a minister by the name of Jim Deming. Jim is part of a program called Interfaith Power and Light. The goal is help congregations become “cool congregations.” This is an effort to connect interested people in local congregations to become more conscious about Earth.

It is a simple plan. We find people interested in reducing our waste and we meet with them. We share ideas and we make a commitment to do small things. And we meet again, a few times a year, to encourage each other. We invite others to join us. The key is a growing number of people doing small things together.

I am hopeful regarding our Creating a Culture of Peace workshop in March. Again, it is about people getting together to learn the difficult--yet I believe, life saving and planet saving—principles of non-violence.

We will not reach the Promised Land by waiting for the powerful to get their acts together or for a charismatic leader to whack his staff on a rock and make it all better. It will involve us, in humility, in trust, and in action, to envision this Promised Land and to live it, little by little. That is the Divine Spirit at work.

So let us sing those great hymns of the Promised Land.

River Jordan's deep and wide,
Milk and honey on the other side,

River Jordan's chilly and cold,
Chills the body, but warms the soul,

Let the Divine Spirit in those hymns stir us, all of us, each of us, to vision and action. Let us cross that river so all of Earth’s children will enjoy and share her milk and honey for many, many generations to come.




2 comments:

SocietyVs said...

I rather liked that sermon - made a lot of great points about the scriptures from Deuteronomy and the passing of the torch - so to speak. I also liked the aspects of the 'promised land' you mentioned - and sometimes this is a certain idea (which I think we also see in the 'kingdom of heaven' parables).

John Shuck said...

Thanks, Society! And thanks for commenting over at Bible and Jive!