Sermon

Deuteronomy 34:5-12

It Wasn’t Supposed to Be This Way

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Deuteronomy 34:5-12

It Wasn’t Supposed to Be This Way

Dr. Mickey Anders

In today’s Scripture we come to the end of the life of Moses, and we find the obituary for a great hero.

You can learn a lot from obituaries and epitaphs written on tombstones. Listen to these real messages found on tombstones:

Side by side are found these “his and hers” messages.

HIS was dated Sept 15, 1854:

Stop here my friend and cast an eye.
As you are now, so once was I.
As I am now, so shall you be.
Prepare for death, and follow me.

HERS, dated April 12 1859:

To follow you I’m not content
Until I know Which way you went.[Source unknown]

In a Ribbesford, England, cemetery is found this tribute to Anna Wallace:

The children of Israel wanted bread
And the Lord sent them manna,
Old clerk Wallace wanted a wife,
And the Devil sent him Anna.

One creative man decided to play a game with his name in a Ruidoso, NewMexico, cemetery:

Here lies
Johnny Yeast
Pardon me
For not rising.

A Uniontown, Pennsylvania cemetery contains a memory of the manner of death:

Here lies the body
of Jonathan Blake
Stepped on the gas
Instead of the brake.

Lester Moore was a Wells, Fargo Co. station agent for Naco, Arizona in
the cowboy days of the 1880’s. He’s buried in the Boot Hill Cemetery in
Tombstone, Arizona:

Here lies Lester Moore
Four slugs from a .44
No Less, No More.

On Margaret Daniels grave at Hollywood Cemetery Richmond, Virginia:

She always said her feet were killing her
but nobody believed her.

In a Georgia cemetery is a simple message:

“I told you I was sick!”

Well, we can learn as much about Moses from his obituary too. It is recorded in verses 10-12, “There has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom Yahweh knew face to face, in all the signs and the wonders, which Yahweh sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh, and to all his servants, and to all his land, and in all the mighty hand, and in all the great terror, which Moses worked in the sight of all Israel.” What a fitting tribute to one of the greatest leaders in the Bible!

But this chapter also contains the great irony of Moses life. In our text for today we find Moses standing on a mountain once again, this time looking over into that Promised Land. Instead of Moses triumphantly leading the people into their new life in the Promised Land, he is suddenly taken from the scene. The irony is severe: Moses dies without ever setting foot in the Promised Land.

How Moses must have longed for the Promised Land during those awful years of wandering in the wilderness! All his life, all his work had pointed toward the eventual settlement of the people of Israel in the land that had been promised to them so long ago. He had taken this rag-tag bunch of slaves and made of them a warrior nation, ready for a land of their own. But he will never set foot in that land.

This scene is to me one of the most poignant in the entire Bible. I can’t imagine the pain that Moses must have surely felt as he is granted only a glimpse of his life’s goal, but not its fulfillment. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

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While I am moved to pity and compassion for him, there is no description of Moses’ psychological state at this moment. There seems to be no attempt by Moses to deal with the injustice of the scene.

We find ourselves asking, “Why? Why didn’t Moses get to cross the Jordan River?” As with most of the “Why?” questions of life, there is no adequate answer given. But there are two traditions recorded in the Bible giving vague explanations.

One tradition suggests that Moses was prevented from entering the land because of his presumptuousness in striking a rock to obtain water from it, after God had instructed him merely to speak to it.

Numbers 20:9-12 records the story. These verses suggest that Moses broke faith with God when he struck the rock twice to bring forth the promised water, instead of trusting in God’s promise that he need merely speak.

I might have understood if God had said the act of murder had resulted in this punishment, but I have never understood how striking the rock instead of speaking to it deserved such a harsh punishment. Somehow God concluded that Moses action demonstrated that he did not trust God.

In Deuteronomy we find a second suggestion that Moses wasn’t allowed to cross the river because of the sins of the Israelites.

In Deuteronomy 4:21 Moses says, “Yahweh was angry with me for your sakes (meaning “because of the Israelites”), and swore that I should not go over the Jordan, and that I should not go in to that good land, which Yahweh your God gives you for an inheritance.”

Again it is hard to understand why God would punish Moses for the hardness of the hearts of the Israelites, who had so often shown themselves as a stubborn people in spite of Moses capable leadership.

In the end, I don’t think anything really explains the tragedy of this last scene of Moses’ life. Either way, the fact remains: the main goal of Moses’ life was denied him.

I think this scene is so frustrating because we like stories with happy endings. We want the end of the story to wrap everything up nicely.

We can easily conclude that it wasn’t supposed to be this way. It could have ended this way, “And Moses entered the Promised Land and passed the remainder of his days in the land flowing with milk and honey.” That would have been a satisfying closing scene. It would have offered the conclusiveness that we long for.

A short time later the people cross the Jordan River and enter the Promised Land under Joshua’s leadership. Can you imagine that scene? After longing for 40 years, they finally achieve their dream. People would have been jumping up and down, crying their eyes out, and saying, “This is the greatest day of my life!” This was their dreams fulfilled.

When I read this passage from Deuteronomy, I cannot help but think of Martin Luther King who used images from this scene in his last sermon. It is quite remarkable that, shortly before he was killed, he turned to this passage to describe his life. He said, “I’ve been to the mountain. I’ve seen the Promised Land. Even if I don’t get there with you. I’ve been to the mountaintop.” Martin Luther King died outside the Promised Land of racial justice. He could see that promised land, but he never got there himself.

Just imagine how Martin Luther King would have celebrated this week’s election of Barrack Obama as the new President of the United States of America! It was the fulfillment of his dream – a nation where a man is judged by the content of his character rather than the color of his skin. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech saw much of its fulfillment this week.

Whether we voted for Barrack Obama or John McCain, whether we agree with his political policies or disagree with them, we all have to admit that we have witnessed a sea change in the area of race relations. Thousands of African-American parents have said, “Now when I tell my children that they can grow up to be anything they want to be, I can really believe it!”

If Martin Luther King was like Moses during the Civil Rights Movement, Barrack Obama was Joshua. And just like the Joshua of the Bible, stepping into the Promised Land did not mean the battles were over and the victory complete. In many ways, it was only the beginning, but it was an historic moment.

Like Moses, Martin Luther King never got to see his dream fulfilled. But I think this scene is often repeated in our lives as well. Many of us have unfulfilled dreams. Things haven’t always turned out the way they were supposed to.

I often hear people sum up their life situation by saying, “It wasn’t supposed to be this way.” Parents grieving over their adult children who are getting a painful divorce say, “It wasn’t supposed to be this way.” Individuals who face the coming holiday season with great pain because their family is not the model one with a father, a mother and 2.3 children say, “It wasn’t supposed to be this way.”

We may have spent a great deal of our lives on the verge of success, but never quite achieving it. We have made it to the door but not over the threshold. We wait for our ship to come in, but it always lingers just outside the harbor. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

We, like Moses, have to deal with incompleteness of life. So much of the business of life is unfinished. For many of us, life is an accumulation of decisions that could have been made differently. We carry a heavy baggage, called regret. We are condemned to recall faces that we will not see again, words that came out wrong, things that didn’t work out as planned. Sometimes this accumulation of regret leads to a paralyzing sadness in our lives. We dwell so much on “what might have been” that we have difficulty coping with “what is.” It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

It is not uncommon to stand with Moses on the edge of promise, to linger looking over into the Promised Land, but unable to enter. Many of our dreams are never fulfilled.

We can learn from Moses that life is about the journey, not the destination. God may have been doing Moses a favor by not letting him cross over the Jordan River. I suspect that Moses may have become the most miserable man in the Promised Land. His mission was the quest, not the conquest. The meaning of his life was in the journey, not in achieving the destination. And that’s the way it is with many of us.

Most of us think if we could just achieve our goals, then we would sit back and relax. The struggle will be over and life will be good. But I wonder. How many times have you seen an active person, a person who has worked and struggled all their life, finally retire and then quickly waste away? I think it’s true for all of us – it’s the journey, the struggle that gives life its meaning.

One of the interesting footnotes about Moses is found in verse 7 which says of Moses, “his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated.” Moses had the strength to climb up the mountain at the age of 120 years.

I can’t help but wonder why that was. It may well be that God miraculously gave Moses the strength to do the job before him. Then, when the right time came, Moses went on to heaven.

But it might not have been miraculous at all. It might be that Moses retained his health because he had a worthy purpose all his life. He never retired. He was always on a journey, a quest. His life had a mission and a purpose. I believe that is the secret of a long and healthy life – having a mission.

In the end, Moses was satisfied with his life because he knew without doubt that God had been with him every step of the way. We need to remember that God is with us on the journey.

Remember what our text says about Moses – there was never another one like him. Consider all that God had done through him. Nobody ever knew the Lord face-to-face as had Moses.

It is a good thing for us to have dreams and to set worthy goals for our lives. But Moses could tell us that sometimes, the trip itself is more interesting than its destination.

Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.

Copyright 2008, Mickey Anders. Used by permission.