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Sermons

Moses on the Mountain

August 29, 2004

Bible Reading

Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, across from Jericho. And the Lord showed him the whole land. . . . The Lord said to him, "This is the land I swore to give Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, 'I will give it to your descendants.' I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over there." So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, as the Lord had said. . . . Since then no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, who did all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt.

(Deuteronomy 34:1, 4-5, 10-11)

Reading from Swedenborg

The activity of divine providence for our salvation begins at our birth and continues to the end of our life. To understand this, we need to realize that the Lord knows the kind of person we are and the kind of person we want to be, and therefore the kind of person we will be. Further, he cannot deprive us of our free will if we are to be human and therefore immortal. So he foresees what our state will be after death, and provides for it from our birth all the way to the end of our life. . . .

To illustrate this by a comparison, if a javelin thrower or musketeer were to aim at a target, and a straight line a thousand feet long were drawn behind the target, then if the aim were off just a hair, at the end of that thousand feet the javelin or ball would have strayed far from the line behind the mark. That is what it would be like if the Lord did not have his eye on eternity at every moment, even the least fraction of a second, in his foresight and provision for everyone's place after death. The Lord does this, though, because to him the whole future is present, and to him everything present is eternal.

(Divine Providence #333)

Sermon

Right at the very end of the book of Deuteronomy, the Lord tells Moses--his own faithful servant and the leader of the children of Israel on their long journey from Egypt to Canaan--to go up a mountain called Nebo and look across the river Jordan into the land of Canaan. He tells him to view the whole of the land from the far north to the deep south, from the immediate land across the Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea. There it all is.

Imagine how Moses must have felt seeing for himself the very culmination of his lifetime's purpose of leading and serving. And then the Lord says to Moses, "I have caused you to see it with your own eyes, but you shall not cross over there." That seems a rather cruel prohibition, doesn't it? You can see it, but you yourself won't be part of it.

To understand exactly why the Lord said this to Moses we need to go back to Numbers 20. There, at Kadesh, for the second time, the children of Israel complained to Moses about their thirst, and how they would rather have died before setting out on their journey. The first time they did this was at Rephidim, and Moses had asked the Lord what to do. The had Lord told Moses to strike the rock. When he did, water gushed out to revive the people (see Exodus 17). Now, at Kadesh, the Lord told Moses to speak to the rock and it would yield its water. Instead, Moses struck the rock twice, and received a severe rebuke from the Lord: "Because you did not believe me, to honor me as holy in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this congregation into the land that I have given them."

Moses had to carry this realization with him for the rest of the journey through the wilderness--and if my memory is accurate, this was thirty-eight of the forty years. Finally, the prohibition was fulfilled: Moses stood viewing the land on Nebo, and was told that he would never enter the land. It was a pivotal moment, with Israel poised on the threshold of entry, looking ahead to a very different future, and looking back at the mistakes of the past.

Any moment in our life can be seen as a moment of opportunity and a time for reflection. We take stock at various milestone moments, such as the turn of the year or our birthday or anniversary, but these are simply artificial divisions of measured time. Real time, spiritual time, is much more unbroken. It consists of living in the present with many things from the past still affecting us, and looking ahead to the future from where we see life now.

Real time isn't chopped up or demarcated; it flows and lasts for as long as it needs to, or until a new state takes over. Time in the spiritual world is a sense of changing states as one outcome naturally leads into some new beginning almost without break or interruption. While it is virtually impossible for any of us here to escape the tyranny of deadlines and datebooks, even so, all of us carry a sense that deeper time is personal and continuous. I can look back to a number of things in the last year that seemed to happen only yesterday, and to very recent things that now seem years back. Time is like that.

Here is a little tip: If you want to make real time much longer--just suppose you are on holiday or doing something very enjoyable--then slowly and deliberately savor every moment, luxuriating in it, and it will stretch out the seconds, the minutes and hours, and slow them down. I am working to find a technique for speeding up the tedious parts of life, but apart from knowing that it is just a matter of attitude, I am still at the drawing board!

To return to Moses on the mountain, seeing the land of the future but forbidden to enter it himself, herein is a huge and moving truth, if not several. I would like to look at two closely related ones. First, we are not the creators of what comes to pass, but participators in an unfolding sequence of developments. The future shape and size of the church is not ours to engineer; the spirituality of the human race is not for us to determine. These are things that the Lord is already foreseeing and providing for. Like Moses, we are involved in our part of the process; we should take responsibility for that, and leave the world in a better condition than we first found it. Anything more is a kind of arrogance. There is a nice joke: How do you make God laugh? Tell him your plans!

Ministers and lay people who are leaders in the church play a significant part in continuity. You might, for example, inherit a church community and find that for a whole decade it doesn't grow, or even declines for many reasons that may or may not have anything to do with you. And then you move on, and someone else takes over the leadership and builds the group into a vibrant community. The point to realize is that you were there holding it together between the past and the future. That itself was a good thing. The future would not be possible without your part in providing for it. I recall an elderly minister's comment to me soon after I was ordained: We have served the Lord as best we could for the times in which we were, but now we pass it on and entrust it to people like yourself. I could have hugged him for his vision.

And it is a vision. Moses was shown the vision of the length and breadth of the land into which his people would come, but not with him. If we really do believe that the Lord's providence is over everything, with purpose and meaning, we will be confident that the future is already being set in motion, no matter how new and different and even worrying it may look to us who tend to look at things from the nostalgia of the present, never mind of the past . . . and then we're only a hair's breadth from controlling it.

We have been thinking quite organizationally. The other truth from this Moses moment is much more personal. There is hardly a thing about our life of which we can be absolutely certain, except for the facts of things that we know have happened. I know that I have four children, and that we came to Australia over twelve years ago. I know how old I am and that as I preach this it is the last day of June. But more than that is not mine to know.

The deeper stuff lies mercifully hidden from me. I don't know whether I have made much improvement as a person; I certainly don't know whether I am good or bad, selfless or selfish; I do know from experience that I can be self-centered and led by my ego very often. I don't know for sure if I will go to heaven or to hell, but I think I trust the Lord to lead me to the environment in eternity where I will be the happiest. I do not know what is going to happen tomorrow, when events may overtake normality and my whole life might change. I also cannot be certain that the faith that I presently have in the Lord will be there next Sunday, although I do know that I can choose to believe in God and respond to events and situations from that viewpoint even if I can't feel a thing at the time.

Much, even most of life is kept from our interference or gaze. That is according to good order, because were we able to know these things, we would surely abuse them just as easily as we would abuse knowing the first three winners in the next race. The Lord alone knows our states. This is a truth given to us, not to stop us from thinking about life anymore, but to help develop our trust that behind the arbitrary happenings that puzzle us, there is a constant purpose being unfolded. As the reading about the javelin thrower described it, if the hand of providence were to stop or err for the least fraction of a moment over our salvation, the result would be for it all to be way off target. It is that precise, that unceasing.

Divine Providence is infinitely wise. It is totally aware of everything, outside of all time and space considerations. That sounds a bit impersonal, as if God were simply a universal unfolding life-force. But God is also very personal, and I think that the idea of God having a loving purpose for each one of us keeps us mindful that God is love, and that God, as the carol says, "feeleth for our sadness and shareth in our gladness." And providence is incessantly at work to lead us, if at all possible, from ignorance to understanding, from fear to trust and love, from self-centeredness and ego-dependency to freedom, and from hell to heaven. "The activity of divine providence for our salvation begins at our birth and continues to the end of our life."

The chapter gives Moses the greatest eulogy possible: "Since then no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face"; the greatest of leaders, the best of servants. And with Moses, the children of Israel were to be continually on the move, led from slavery as a rabble in Egypt to the conquering of a land and the beginning of a nation and a people of the Lord.

Amid this constant motion that the church experiences and should trust, and that we, too, experience and need to trust, the chapter tells us that while they buried Moses when he died, no one knows his grave to this day. We do not know our exact place or use or role in the broad sweep of divine planning. Thank goodness for that prohibition! It is enough for us to take part in what we can see, but can never claim to own.

Prayer

Lord, you wouldn't have made me if there weren't a good reason for my existence. Give me the grace to walk with you with a wonderful sense of your purpose for each of us. Help me to use what you have given me. Stop me from overstepping the mark. Hold me back from usurping your plans. Forgive me my mistakes. And if you will, give me a glimpse of the destiny that I may be instrumental in bringing about, and the courage to hand on and hand over--most of all, to you. Amen.

Rev. Julian Duckworth