O Captain! My Captain!

14th Sunday after Pentecost

Deuteronomy 34

We come to the end of our of summer with Moses and the Exodus.  At this pivitol juncture of the biblical narrative, our attention is fixed on the death of Moses. His life has spanned the last four biblical books: Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and, now, Deuteronomy.  He has figured prominently in nearly every episode contained in those books.  He has led the Israelites for 40 years, from slavery in Egypt, to Mt. Sinai, through many dangers, toils, and snares.  Now, at long last, they stand at the threshold of the Promised Land.  Israel is about to enter the promise God made so many generations earlier to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

But…Moses is not permitted to enter the Promised Land.  The injustice of the situation has troubled readers and commentators for centuries.

Two chapters earlier, in Deuteronomy 32, God reminds Moses  that he will not be going over the Jordan, “because you broke faith with Me in the midst of the people of Israel at the waters of Meribah-kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin, and because you did not treat Me as holy in the midst of the people of Israel.”

That happened back in Numbers 20, when Israel was grumbling about a lack of water.  God intended to provide water for them from out of a rock, commanding Moses to speak to that rock.  Instead Moses struck the rock twice.  In his anger and frustration with Israel Moses had said, “Hear now, you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” implying also that he rather than God was the source of this miracle.

And yet, such an infraction seems so very insignificant in the face of all that Moses had done right.  He had performed “signs and wonders” in the land of Egypt.  He had lead his people out of slavery into freedom.  He had led the people faithfully throughout their wilderness wandering.  More so, on more than one occasion, he had interceded for them with God, putting himself on the line to avert God’s righteous anger.

So of all the Israelites, surely Moses, this faithful servant of the Lord, surely Moses deserves most of all to enter into the land of promise.  But he cannot.

Although it wasn’t for a lack of trying to change God’s mind!  In Deuteronomy 3 Moses recounts, “And I pleaded with the Lord at that time, saying, ‘O Lord God, You have only begun to show Your servant Your greatness and Your mighty hand.  For what god is there in heaven or on earth who can do such works and mighty acts as Yours?  Please let me go over and see the good land beyond the Jordan, that good hill country and Lebanon.’”

Reminiscent of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, Moses pleads with God to take this bitter cup from him.  But like our Lord, God’s answer to Moses is a blunt “No.”  “The Lord said to me, ‘Enough from you; do not speak to Me of this matter again.’”

To our ears that is so harsh…so devoid of any grace or mercy.  Can it really be that Moses alone must bear the blame for this hard punishment?  Some seek to place the blame on the people.  In the opening chapter of Deuteronomy Moses rehearses for the people the reason they have been in the wilderness these 40 years.  “The Lord heard your words and was angered, and He swore, ‘Not one of these men of this evil generation shall see the good land that I swore to give to your fathers’…”  And then Moses adds, “Even with me the Lord was angry on your account and said, ‘You shall not go in there.’”

But we miss the point of the end of Moses’ life in this saga if we only seek to find the guilty parties… Who sinned that Moses must stay outside?  Because like Jesus, who would not see the Promised Land of Easter unless He drank the bitter cup of the cross poured out for Him, and who in faith replied to His Father, “Not My will but Your be done”…so Moses is a kind of suffering servant for the sake of Israel.  In faith he drinks this bitter cup, barred from the Promised Land, because something greater is at work in God’s hands.  Much, much greater than a cruel punishment on an otherwise trivial act of disobedience on Moses’ part.

34:1, “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 all the 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.  And the Lord said to him, ‘This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, “I will give it to your offspring.” I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there.’”

Though Moses is not permitted to enter the land, he is given an extraordinary vision of it. Standing on the border of that land, Moses sees the beginning of the fulfillment of the promises God made so long ago to the patriarchs. Moses stands in a now-and-not-yet time. It’s like Holy Saturday…on Holy Saturday the wilderness of Good Friday is past but the Promised Land of Easter has not yet dawned.  Moses dies on this side of the Promised Land.  Yet he sees it in all of its fullness.

And for us, that speaks more directly to our experience than had this whole saga ended with a sudden change of heart from God and Moses’ triumphal entry into the Promised Land.  I daresay that most people who hear the story of Moses know something of disappointment and dreams unfulfilled.  Like Moses, we live our lives in the wilderness, outside the Promised Land. Like Moses, we die in the wilderness outside the Promised Land.  But like Moses, we too have been to the mountain.  In our case, Calvary’s holy mountain.  We have seen the Promised Land!  So we recognize in Moses the feeling of being in a now-but-not-yet point of time, trusting the promises of God though they have not yet been fully realized with us.  Seeing those promises from a distance…and yet going on, accepting the will of God which can sometimes be so very hard, and still living by faith, hope, and trust in Him.

That’s Jesus, as we heard in last week’s Epistle Reading: “Who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”  Jesus went to His cross in joy because of what was on the other side of His Jordan.  And just because He happens to be the Son of God, it was no less an act of faith for Him.  That bloody sweat in the Garden was real agony and stress.  That bloodied cry from the cross, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” was the hell of real abandonment.  But for joy He drank that cup to the full.  And by His death in the wilderness, His greater Israel—all those who would live and die by faith in Him—His Israel crosses over to a land whose glory no eye has seen nor has any human mind conceived.

And that’s where we find ourselves.  Outside that greater Promised Land, ready to enter it some day, but only seeing it by faith from afar for now.  This experience of being outside the Promised Land (although as good as there already in faith) is an experience that has helped shaped Christians’ lives in this world through the centuries.

Moses’ story speaks of this now-but-not-yet time, like Jesus on Holy Saturday. Because for all the sadness at the end of Moses’ story, Deuteronomy gives us a kind of not-yet hope.  V5, “So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the Word of the Lord, and He buried him in the valley in the land of Moab opposite Beth-peor; but no one knows the place of his burial to this day.  Moses was 120 years old when he died. His eye was undimmed, and his vigor unabated.”

That the man died in full vigor and that he was buried by God points ahead to Jesus’ own sacrificial death.  At death there is grief, and yet…there is joy soon to come.  We have seen the Promised Land!

At the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the poet, Walt Whitman, penned his grief: O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done; / The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won; / The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting, / While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring: / But O heart! heart! heart! / O the bleeding drops of red, / Where on the deck my Captain lies, / Fallen cold and dead.

Lincoln led these United States through a brutal wilderness to the shore of a promised land, of a new birth of liberty.  And who knows how Reconstruction would have gone had he lived.  But he did not.  Who knows what Israel would have experienced in Canaan had Moses lived and crossed over with them.  But he did not.  Jesus, however, does live.  He is the greater Joshua who goes with us from the wilderness, across Jordan, into the Promised Land!  So ours is a very different story.  Our Captain, though slain, lives and reigns.  And in Him, though we die, yet shall we cross over Jordan and live.

So we come to the end.  V10, “And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, none like him for all the signs and the wonders that the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, and for all the mighty power and all the great deeds of terror that Moses did in the sight of all Israel.”

This story of Israel’s first and greatest prophet speaks of hope and faith to people who find themselves in need of both.  And for us, who live in the midst of a wilderness of disappointment, pain, and loss, we live by faith in the same Lord God; the God who does indeed fulfill His promises.

The End.