It seems wildly unfair. If anyone had ever served God well it was Moses who gave his whole life to help the people of Israel get to the Promised Land. Moses sacrificed so much. The hours were long and hard. The opposition from without the community, and far too often, within the community was intense. Here is the guy who stood toe to toe with Pharaoh, and toe to toe with those who spent most of that forty years in the wilderness blaming him that they hadn’t gotten there yet.
But now they were there, or about there. And Moses wasn’t going to go with them. God told Moses to go to the top of the mountain, and look out and see the future that wouldn’t be his, the promise that would be fulfilled for others, not him.
It goes back to the story where the children of Israel were complaining, once again, about their travails in the wilderness. “There was no water there for the community, so they ganged up on Moses and Aaron: ‘We wish we’d died when the rest of our brothers died before God. Why did you haul this congregation of God out here into this wilderness to die, people and cattle alike? And why did you take us out of Egypt in the first place, dragging us into this miserable country? No grain, no figs, no grapevines, no pomegranates—and now not even any water!’” (Numbers 20:2-5)
So Moses and Aaron, after asking God for help, are told by God that Moses should strike a rock in front of the people of Israel and water would gush from it, which happened. But God was displeased by the whole incident, including feeling like Moses and Aaron hadn’t trusted God during that crisis. So God said that neither of them would get to go with the People of Israel into the Promised Land.
Aaron died along the way. And now Moses was looking across the expanse of the Promised Land which the others would enter, but not himself. And it seems like he was okay with that. Whatever that was with the rock and the water was something long past. On top of that mountain, looking out across the land, he saw a future that he had helped create, but a future that was not his.
This story of Moses and dreaming a future that he will not see, may be a pretty good metaphor for what it means to follow Jesus. We live in a time and place in the history of the world where instant gratification has become and inalienable right and the next quarterly financial report, or maybe who will be playing in the next Super Bowl, is about as much future as we can imagine. And the worst part about it is that we are content with that.
Jesus came along though, and with the help of people like Moses, pointed us to something else. Following Jesus is about creating a future for others so they can create a future for others, as well.
I think Moses realized if all he had gone through was just about getting into the Promised Land himself then he had wasted the last forty years or so of his life. As he stood on that mountain top and looked at the land, he realized the land wasn’t the promise, setting foot in it wouldn’t mean much. But the possibilities of what could happen in that land in the years and decades and centuries to come was the real promise. It was a promise, though, a dream that would never be fulfilled if the people were simply trying to create a future for themselves.
In one of his famous war time speeches when it appeared England had survived the beginning onslaught of World War II, Winston Churchill told the people, that this was not the end, nor even the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning. I think that is what Moses realized on that mountain top. The forty years in the desert and the four centuries the people of Israel spent in Egypt were just the forward, now the story was about to start. And countless others would write it. Moses had done his part so others could see the future he dreamed.
In the gospels Jesus lays out a wonderful vision of the future. “Love God with all your heart and all your mind and all your soul, and your neighbor as yourself.” Welcome the stranger. Take care of those in need. Live in peace, make enemies into friends. Open yourselves to God’s grace, and be graceful to each other. Appreciate gentleness and mercy, not power and revenge. Get rid of the borders and boundaries that separate us from each other.
Jesus was able to dream a future not simply for himself but for this world, for all of us. He set us on the path. And as his followers our call is to help others see that future that Jesus dreamed. Like Moses in the wilderness, Jesus calls us to live toward the dream, to start creating now the possibilities for the future that Jesus has laid out for us. We may not get there, but Jesus has surely shown us the Promised Land. But we are the church, the Body of Christ, the guides to the future, showing people the way by the way we live, by letting that future shape our present.
Moses, as he stood on the mountain top, may also well have realized that the future doesn’t come easily, and may have been ready for others to do their part. Rather than Moses not getting to go into the Promised Land, the real tragedy would have been nobody going into the Promised Land, the dream having died somewhere in the desert. But Moses kept it alive, and now the dream for the future was for others to see.
The challenge for the church is keeping the dream alive in the desert of its structures, its surrounding culture, its fear of a journey that takes us, sometimes, through harsh places. I remember reading a story about a man who lived in the horrors that overwhelmed so many in Central America in the 1980’s. In all the death and destruction, which had impacted his own family, he was asked how he could have any hope for the future, since things were getting worse rather than better. His response was that he trusted God’s promise and that maybe what God wanted for his country would not happen in his lifetime, or in his children’s lifetime, but maybe in his grandchildren’s lifetime. And that was enough vision for him to keep going, to keep working for peace amidst all the war and violence. He could see a future that would not be his, but he still wanted to keep moving toward it.
They buried Moses in an unmarked grave, just this side of the Promised Land. What a shame it would have been if they had erected a monument there. If they had, people would have been too easily tempted to live toward the past, keep visiting that grave, rather than live toward the future. And we are still too far from a future where people don’t fight and kill over the grounds they hallow, where they bury their heroes, including in the Promised Land.
And it never occurred to the gospel writers to place a historical marker on the tomb that Jesus exited, because that would have been about a dream of the past instead of a vision for the future.
Jesus wants people to know that God has a future for us not because they can make a pilgrimage to an empty tomb, but they can see people who have come alive in Jesus, who are rooted in his resurrection, and are dreaming of and working toward a future that is always ahead of them.
Maybe Moses did have some regrets that he never got to go into the Promised Land. But look what happened in his life along the way. He got to see the power of God at work. He got to see, as flawed as it was, a community come together for the purpose of making God’s ways known in this world. He may have dreamed of a future he never got to see, but there were glimpses along the way, signs of hope that kept him going. And at the end of his life he knew there was a future still to dream. And I call that a happy ending.