Sunday, September 24, 2017

Sermon: "You'll Never Know" (Deuteronomy 34: 1-8)

Last week I told you about a run-in I had with a church elder at one of the congregations where I was pastor before I came to Bixby Knolls. It won’t surprise you that I soon felt God calling me to leave that congregation, to brush the dust off my sandals and carry out my ministry elsewhere. It was a difficult decision, but on the day of our departure, as I pulled the fully loaded u-haul out of the driveway, I heard Bon Jovi’s song “Lost Highway,” and I smiled.
In my rearview mirror, my life is getting clearer. I finally found my way, said goodbye to yesterday. Hit the gas there ain’t no brakes on that lost highway. I’m bustin’ loose, I’m lettin’ go, out on this open road. It’s independence day on that lost highway…
It all makes me think that Moses was smiling as he pulled out of Egypt, and headed to Midian. He, too, was bustin’ loose and letting go. He was leaving behind the turmoil of Egyptian palace life, and heading for the open freedom of Midian.
There, in Midian, he found love. He got married, and became a part of his wife’s extended family. It was a peaceful existence. Taking care of his father-in-law’s sheep: it wasn’t as exciting as living in Pharaoh’s palace...which was just fine.
But then, one day, things got interesting. While he was taking care of the sheep, he came upon a bush that was on fire, yet the fire was not consuming the bush. And out of that burning bush, God called Moses.
God called to Moses from the burning bush, and God told Moses to go back to Egypt, back to Pharaoh, and rescue God’s people who were trapped there in slavery.
So Moses went back. Whatever misgivings he may have had, he went. Back to Egypt. Back to the house of Pharaoh in which he had been raised, to confront Pharaoh, and to rescue God’s people.
It couldn’t have been easy. The family of Pharaoh was his family. They were, by adoption, his brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles. Parents.
When God sent plagues in response to Pharaoh’s stubbornness, Moses watched as the Egyptians suffered. As Pharaoh - and Pharaoh’s household - suffered. As the people who raised him suffered.
It couldn’t have been easy.
If only Moses could have remained in quiet, peaceful Midian, taking care of sheep. But that was not his calling. His calling was to rescue God’s people, to lead them in becoming a new nation, a new people, with a new, hopeful future.
Creating a new, hopeful future is never easy. You hear that? Creating a new, hopeful future is not easy! Giving birth to a new future involves hard labor.
And Moses worked hard. Moses, I’m sure, suffered many sleepless nights. Pharaoh would not be convinced, and his stubbornness tore his nation apart.
Finally, Pharaoh told the Hebrews to go, but then he immediately changed his mind. He went after them with his army, chasing them across the desert, until God miraculously led the Hebrews through the sea by parting the waters.
From that point on, it was one thing after another. Finding their way. Finding water to drink. Finding food to eat. Motivating the people to keep the faith and not give up.
Creating a new, hopeful future is not easy.
On at least one occasion, the people were so disillusioned, that they wanted to return to Egypt. They thought that creating their new, hopeful future would be easy. They didn’t realize they would have to work so hard to make that new, hopeful future a reality.
So they complained.. They whined... They said “we were better off in the old days...” They turned away from God and worshiped a golden calf.
And God thought: “They’re not ready. They want me to do everything for them, and not do any work themselves. But that’s not how the new, hopeful future is going to become a reality. They need some time to figure this out.”
And so God led them on a 40-year journey through the wilderness. It shouldn’t have taken them nearly that long to get where they were going, but they weren’t ready. They needed to learn that giving birth to a new, hopeful future requires hard work and dedication. A woman is pregnant for forty weeks before she gives birth, and it took the Hebrews 40 years to give birth to a new nation.
In fact, they wouldn’t be ready until a new generation came along. A new generation that was ready to take over. Ready to build a new nation. The old generation needed to pass away before the new nation could be born.
Not even Moses would get to enter the Promised Land.
After everything Moses went through---giving up his peaceful, quiet life in Midian, confronting Pharaoh, dealing with Pharaoh’s stubbornness, leading God’s people out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, through the wilderness, listening to their complaints, resolving their many conflicts, confronting their faithlessness and lack of loyalty…
After all that, God takes Moses up on a high mountain, and shows Moses the Promised Land. “Here it is,” God says. “Look at it all: Gilead and Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, the land of Judah, the Negeb… all this is the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And now I have let you see it with your own eyes… It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
“BUT you shall not cross over there. You yourself will not enter the Promised Land.”
I hate this part of the story!
Moses himself does not get to enter the Promised Land!
If anyone deserves to enter the Promised Land, to see the birth of that new nation, it’s Moses. Right?
It’s not fair!
Scripture isn’t completely clear as to why Moses is not allowed in. In Deuteronomy, it says that Moses was punished vicariously, on account of the people, who had grumbled and rebelled against God and sought their own way instead of God’s way; but in the book of Numbers, it says that Moses was not allowed in because of his own doubts and sin.
Either way, it still doesn’t seem fair that Moses answered God’s call, gave up his easy, peaceful life in Midian, confronted Pharaoh, and then labored for 40 long years in the wilderness, only to be denied entry into the Promised Land.
It’s just not fair.
Yet I can’t find anywhere where Moses complains about this. I can’t find any scripture where Moses complains that it’s not fair. His only response that I can find is in the book of Numbers; there, after God tells Moses he won’t be allowed to enter the Promised Land, Moses doesn’t complain or argue; he simply asks God to give the people a new leader, so that God’s people won’t become like sheep without a shepherd.
So God tells Moses to appoint Joshua as his successor, which Moses does.
But Moses doesn’t complain. He doesn’t argue. As far as I can tell, he doesn’t even mope or feel sorry for himself.
This would be so hard for me!
After all that work, after all that struggle, I’d want to share at least a little in the reward.
After cooking a meal, I want to be able to sit down and eat it.
After hiking to the top of a mountain, I want to sit and enjoy the view.
After working hard for a paycheck, I want to be able to go out to a nice restaurant.
But it doesn’t always work out that way.
What often happens is that we plant trees, but it is those who come after us who get to sit and enjoy the shade. What often happens is that we work hard, but it is our children who enjoy the benefits of our labor.
Martin Luther King, Jr. knew that this is how it often works. The night before he was killed, he gave a speech, and he said: “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.”
Moses himself may have said something very similar to the Hebrew people. “I’ve been to the mountaintop. I’ve seen the promised land. I’m not going to be with you when you arrive there, but I want you to know that we, as a people, will get there. We will get there together.”
Martin and Moses knew that the movement they were a part of was bigger than just them. That’s something we’ve got to remember. As we work together to build this church, to build a future, a new future, we’ve got to remember that it’s not all about us. We’re a part of something much bigger, a movement that we probably won’t get to see all of.
The reach of this ministry is already far beyond what many of us can imagine. We come here on a Sunday morning and see a small group of people and think, “that’s it.” But it’s not. There is so much more, so much we can’t see.
There are, when I last checked, 1,400 people who follow our church on facebook. 1,400 people who want to stay connected to Bixby Knolls Christian Church, people who feel that they are, in some way, a part of our movement and ministry. People from all across the United States and from 43 different countries are connected to us online.
And what about those who benefit from the work we do for Christian Outreach in Action, cooking meals each month? And what about those who benefit from the donations we give to Habitat for Humanity, or to Love in the Mirror, or to Week of Compassion?
We have no way of knowing. We do the work, but we don’t get to see all that results from it.
This movement is so much bigger than just us. We can’t possibly see all the ways that our ministry touches people’s lives. The full extent of that reward is not for us.
But like Moses, and like Martin, we can give glory to God for allowing us to share in the work that makes it happen. Who will sit in the shade of the trees we plant? We have no way of knowing. But God has blessed us by allowing us to take part in the work of planting and watering.
The commitments we make for the future of this church: the pledges of tithes and offerings for the coming year… I’m going to tell you now: you’ll never know all that your contribution accomplishes. You won’t see it. You won’t be a part of it. You’ll see some of it, but you won’t see all of it. Other people will benefit, and you’ll never know who they are. You’ll never know their names. You’ll never know the look on their faces as they receive the blessings of God that come through the ministry of Bixby Knolls Christian Church.
All that is not a part of God’s promise to you. You’ll never know all that your pledge to the church will accomplish.
But still, God does call you to be part of the movement. God does call you to be part of the struggle. God does call upon you to use your life to make others whole, whether you personally witness their path to wholeness or not.

The challenge, then, is to praise God for the blessing of being called to share in the work of the church. To praise God and give God glory, for calling us and using us for this important work. We may not get to go all the way into the glorious future of what God has in store for Bixby Knolls Christian Church, but like Moses and Martin, we will praise God, simply because God has allowed us to share in the mission and ministry of God’s church.

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