The Sabbatical was an awesome adventure for Camilla and me. We did what the Lilly Endowment hoped we would do. We did what made our hearts sing, traveling to amazing places and spending time with family.
On Easter Sunday, following the second service, I had no time to greet anyone. I pronounced the benediction, dashed to my office and quickly changed clothes. Then, before some of you had even made your way out of the building, Camilla and I dove into a waiting car near the back door where Fred Carspecken - a.k.a. Dale Earnhardt Jr. - zoomed us to the airport. We hopped onto a flight to Orlando to catch up with daughter Grandison and her family to enjoy a few days in Disney World with three of our grandchildren.
Disney is the world of make believe; the place to wish upon a star, to hug Mickey Mouse, to wave to Cinderella, to imagine living in an enchanted kingdom and to jump onto rides that are designed to either scare the daylights out of you or make you dizzy and turn you green! It was wonderful to experience Disney through the eyes of little ones.
A few weeks later Camilla and I found ourselves in a part of the Holy Land we had never seen. We ventured into Jordan and traveled to the top of Mount Nebo. As you heard in this morning's Scripture, this is where Moses died. But before he died, standing atop Mount Nebo, Moses and his people could see the land that would be their journey's end. Looking southwest they could spot the Dead Sea. Looking northwest, they could see the ancient city of Jericho, the oldest continuous city on earth that way back in Moses' day - around 1250 BCE-had already been in existence for about 7,000 years! Today, Jericho falls in the occupied territory we know as the West Bank.
This is not the land of make believe. From the peak of Mount Nebo, I did not gaze out onto a lush land flowing with milk and honey. It's a harsh landscape of dirt and rock with only an occasional interruption of green. This rugged terrain could never be mistaken for an enchanted kingdom - neither in its physical landscape nor its tumultuous history.
Standing atop Mount Nebo, I imagined what must have been running through Moses' mind when he reached that summit. For him, it was the culmination of an arduous and contentious journey in which he had led the Hebrew people to their freedom.
For years, the people had been slaves in Egypt, and with the passing of time, their treatment grew more and more brutal. Moses felt God beckoning him to leave the safe confines of Midian, where he was tending the sheep of his father-in-law, and to go back to Egypt to set the people free. After numerous confrontations with Egypt's Pharaoh, Moses liberated the people from the hands of their captors. A tremendous accomplishment; but not as daunting a challenge as the road ahead. Now they faced a lengthy and grueling journey through the wilderness. The Bible says that their sojourn lasted 40 years.
If you are familiar with the Bible, you know that the various biblical writers love the number 40. Remember the story of the great flood that swept away all the inhabitants of the earth except for Noah's family and the creatures he crammed onto the ark. It rained for how many days and nights? Forty! How many years did David reign over Israel? Forty! (2 Samuel 5:4) How many years did Solomon reign over Israel? Forty! (1 Kings 11:23-43)
The number forty is the Bible's way of saying "a long time." Moses led the people through the desert for forty - for a long time. During the trek God gave the people the 10 Commandments to establish rules that would structure their lives as a community. When Moses climbed Mt Sinai and did not return in a timely fashion, the people sculpted a golden calf and began to worship idols. When they ran out of food, God provided manna. When times got tough in the desert, the people groaned that they had it better as slaves in Egypt. Finally, after many years of journey, the Hebrew people reached Mount Nebo. Moses led them to that point where they could see the land that was their final destination.
Can you imagine the tremendous relief Moses must have felt after dragging this band of complainers and doubters to this point and being able to say, "There it is."
During the recent Olympics in London, there were many telling moments. If you watched the women's track events, you may have seen the 4 x 100 meter relay. It consists of four sprinters, each of whom runs 100 meters in just over 10 seconds each. The first runner hands the baton to the second runner who is already beginning to run. The second runner hands it to the third and the third runner passes the baton to the fourth who sprints for the finish. At the last three Olympics, the U.S. women have been favorites in this event, but in each of those games, they found a way to disappoint. They have had clumsy hand-offs, they've dropped the baton, they've been disqualified for stepping out of their lane.
So, at this Olympics, the critics were out in full force, declaring that the American women may have the fastest team, but they are bound to blow it. The four women felt the pressure of the doubters, not to mention competing against a very fast team from Jamaica. When the gun sounded, the first runner exploded out of the blocks, built a lead and made a flawless handoff to the second runner. Each woman ran her heart out, passed the baton beautifully and the American women not only won gold, but set a new world record. Carmelita Jeter who ran the anchor leg could not contain herself. Immediately after the race as she was being interviewed, she said she had heard the sniping from all the doubters, but, she said, "We did it!"
I suspect it might have been a similar moment for Moses when they finally reached the peak of Mount Nebo. He may have done just a little gloating. After putting up with doubters and complainers for years, he was finally able to say, "There it is! I told you we'd get here."
As I stood there on the top of Mount Nebo, surveying the wide expanse of land before me, I imagined Moses whispering, "There it is."
Then, I pondered one of the greatest ironies in Scripture. Moses, the faithful leader, who liberated the people and led them out of Egypt to the place they were to settle, facing numerous difficulties along the journey and forced to put up with a legion of know-it-all critics, seeing the land, but dying before setting foot in it. He could glimpse the destination but he did not get there.
As I stood on that peak, I thought: What a great metaphor for the life of faith. Each of us is on his/her own spiritual journey that takes numerous twists and turns. In times of difficulty we walk through the valley of the shadow of death - some of you have been hit with a serious illness, some of you have buried your beloved spouse, some of you have lost your child to drugs, some of you have faced financial ruin. Other times, we have special moments of awareness of God -
some of you have survived a close brush with death, some of you have found the guidance you needed, some of you have seen the face of Christ when serving at Emmanuel Dining Room, some of you have felt God's peace during a mission trip or visiting sites in the Holy Land. All of us have experienced doubts and frustrations, conflict with family members and unfair treatment by someone who has power over us. All of us have seen people who are abused and people who never catch a break. And throughout our journey we squint to see the kingdom of God when all people experience the justice and mercy God desires.
Then my mind jumped to the final sermon preached by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He had flown to Memphis to support the striking sanitation workers who worked long hours providing an essential service for the community but were paid a wage that kept them in poverty. King was the recognized leader of the Civil Rights Movement and he lived and taught a gospel of non-violent resistance to injustice.
That night in Memphis, he preached to a large gathering of supporters and reflected on the dangers all of them were facing and the threats that had been made on his life, and he said, "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."
King was making reference to this story of Moses climbing to the top of Mount Nebo, on the verge of entering the land that had been the peoples' destination for so many years, but dying before he got there. King went on to say, "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 (God has) 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 that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!"
The next day, standing on the balcony of his hotel, an assassin's bullet struck him down. Some thought that with Dr. King gone, it would be the end of the cause for which he gave his life. But as a colleague has pointed out, "Those people failed to calculate the intensity of the vision which prompted it."1
When people of faith catch a glimpse of the destination - a world where no one is denied justice and all live together in peace - we gain the determination to make it happen. We commit ourselves to doing what is right and we are buoyed by hope because we have the faith that we are on the right side of history. Although God's kingdom will not be fully established in our lifetimes, we do not give in to despair. Instead, we strive to faithfully serve as Christ's hands and feet by doing everything in our power to nudge the world closer to what God intends for it to be.
1. Robert E. Dunham, "Unmarked Memories and the Road Ahead," in Journal for Preachers, Pentecost 1994, p.15.
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