Dear fellow children of God:
This is the old Bible history book that we used for family devotions for a number of years. Did you know that of the usual heroes of faith we think of in the pages of Scripture: Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David and the apostle Paul: none of them come close to the number of chapters covering the life and times of Moses? Noah built an ark and escaped the flood, Samson killed lions and Philistines, David slew Goliath, Elijah and Elisha and Paul each raised people from the dead, Jonah survived 3 days and nights in a huge fish, but this is the man at the end of his life of whom God says: “Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, who did all those signs and wonders the LORD sent him to do in Egypt…12 For no one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel.”
What can we learn from the awesome deeds of a man who lived 3400 years ago? We tend to focus on the spectacular: the 10 plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, and water from a rock. But the spectacular had a purpose, and it wasn’t to provide the plot line for numerous movies, but rather to preserve God’s people and the line of the promised Savior. While it’s not likely that we’ll be asked to lead hundreds of thousands of people out of a foreign country, across a body of water and survive in the wilderness for 40 years, we have more in common with Moses than what we might first imagine. Before Moses was born, God knew he would be the man to lead God’s people on a journey to the promised land of Canaan, yet we know that Moses’ journey ended before he could cross the Jordan River. But we also know that Moses reached a promised land that made that land flowing with milk and honey pale in comparison. We are on our own journey… a journey fraught with its own obstacles and challenges. Our text this morning comes from the end of Moses’ journey, but it offers us a snapshot of Moses’ life and reminds us that there is so much we can learn from Moses’ success as well as his failures:
Focus on the finish line
1. In spite of your sinful failures
2. Strengthened by God’s promises
As children of God, knowing that the finish line is heaven is a scriptural truth that is ours through faith. You’ve probably heard the saying, “Life isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon.” As Christians, we might add that it’s a marathon complete with storms, hills, mountains, sinkholes and hurdles along the way. Moses’ marathon ran 120 years. He faced a death threat at birth, he fled for his life when he was 40, had a 3rd major career change at the age of 80, went face to face with a world power and led a reluctant and obstinate nation through a barren land. Yet I wonder if Moses wouldn’t say that his greatest challenge was his own sin. Think of his murder of an Egyptian that led to his flight to Midian. Remember the multiple excuses he offered God when he stood at the burning bush. And in our text, we have a reminder of the sin that had perhaps the greatest earthly consequence.
In our text God tells Moses to head to the top of Mount Nebo, to see the land I have given to the Israelites. Mount Nebo rises 3900 feet above the Dead Sea and Jordan River valley and offered Moses a breath taking view of the long-promised land of Canaan. The finish line was in sight for God’s people. But God tells Moses: After you have seen it, you too will be gathered to your people, as your brother Aaron was. Moses was going to die without ever setting foot in Canaan. And God reminds him why: “For when the community rebelled at the waters in the Desert of Zin, both of you disobeyed my command to honor me as holy before their eyes.”
You might remember the incident in the Desert of Zin. There was no water for the Israelites, and God told Moses and Aaron to speak to rock. Instead, in anger Moses rebukes the people: “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” and then strikes the rock two times. The result? “The LORD said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.’”
So think about this: the event that prevents Moses from crossing the Jordan into the promised land wasn’t the fact the he murdered someone in cold blood. It wasn’t when he argued with God at the burning bush. It was after he struck a rock instead of speaking to it.
Just for a moment put yourself in Moses’ place at that rock in the desert of Zin. If you’re at all like me and lack of patience is one of your struggles, then you can understand Moses’ frustration. You never applied for this job of being Israel’s leader. You’ve led them out of Egypt, put up with their whining and complaining about food and water, listened to them repeatedly question God’s wisdom and your leadership, brought them close to Canaan only to have them question God’s ability to conquer their enemies and then endured 40 years of wandering through a desolate wilderness. And now what happens when you once again are so close to the finish? We’re told in Numbers 20 that “They quarreled with Moses and said, “If only we had died when our brothers fell dead before the LORD!4 Why did you bring the LORD’s community into this wilderness, that we and our livestock should die here?5 Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to this terrible place?”
On the surface, saying, “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” and striking it two times doesn’t seem like too grievous an error. It’s worth noting that there’s a common thread that runs through all 3 sins of Moses that we’ve mentioned, whether it’s the act of murder, the flimsy excuses at the burning bush or the failure to follow God’s explicit directions in the desert of Zin. In all 3 cases, Moses failed to trust God. He believed that the murder of an Egyptian was the best solution, he failed to believe that God could use him to deliver the Israelites, and he failed to believe that honoring God and God’s commands was the best way to handle Israelites’ lack of trust. In all 3 cases, Moses’ lack of trust resulted in a failure to focus on God’s promises.
This makes me shudder, because I think of the number of times in my life where I’ve responded not much differently than Moses. God says each day has enough trouble of its own, but I spend time worrying about tomorrow. God says there are nine fruits of the spirit, but I like to pick and choose those I like and decide that patience doesn’t have to apply to me. God says his thoughts are not my thoughts neither are his ways my ways, yet I get upset when I can’t figure out what God is doing. And in all of these examples, I fail to trust God.
God says be ready to give everyone an answer for the hope that you have, but do this with gentleness and respect. So when someone has an incorrect view of God’s Word, do we point out the truth with gentleness and respect, or is it with self-righteous social media sarcasm? God says spiritual priorities are more important than grades, athletic success, musical accomplishments and social status. Do our lives reflect that, or is it consumed by an obsessive never-ending pursuit of better grades, bigger scholarships, more playing time and a better resume for our children or for you as students?
Moses’ lack of trust in God’s solution kept him from entering the promised land. Satan can use a lack of trust in God to rob us of our focus and to prevent us from living a life of contentment, keep us from raising humble and happy children, get in the way of forgiving each other and in general, rob us of the peace God wants us to have as we journey toward heaven. So we see in Moses’ struggles our own struggles separated by 3 ½ millennia and 6000 miles. But we also see in the life of Moses the solution to these struggles.
2. Focus on the finish line—in spite of your sins and strengthened by God’s promises. After God had told Moses and Aaron the consequence for their sin. we know that Moses had filed at least one appeal with God: “Sovereign LORD, you have begun to show to your servant your greatness and your strong hand. For what god is there in heaven or on earth who can do the deeds and mighty works you do?25 Let me go over and see the good land beyond the Jordan—that fine hill country and Lebanon.” God’s response? “That is enough,” the LORD said. “Do not speak to me anymore about this matter.” God let Moses know that he was not going to change the consequence. So in our text when God tells Moses to take a look at the promised land of Canaan and reminds him that he will not enter it, there is no complaining or bitterness. Instead, Moses’ focus is not on himself, but rather on making sure that the children of Israel will not just cross the Jordan, but thrive once they get there. We’re told in our text: Moses said to the LORD, “May the LORD, the God who gives breath to all living things, appoint someone over this community to go out and come in before them, one who will lead them out and bring them in, so the LORD’s people will not be like sheep without a shepherd.”
This is not just the prayer of a selfless man, it’s also the prayer of a confident man…a man confident of God’s love for his people. And his confidence wasn’t misplaced, for what was God’s response? He appoints Joshua as Moses’ successor, and Moses knows that God will continue to care for his people.
During the 40 years that Moses led the Israelites, the overriding theme of Moses’ life was one of selfless love for God’s people motivated by a strong confidence in God’s promises. Time after time when the Israelites faced challenges, when they struggled with their doubts and fears, Moses didn’t just rebuke them for their weak faith but always pointed them to God’s unfailing love and his fulfilled promises. When the Israelites left Egypt and were backed up against the shore of the Red Sea, they were positive they were about to die and they blamed Moses for bringing them out of Egypt. Moses’ response: “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today. The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.” When they turned their backs on God built their golden calf, God threatened to destroy them and make from Moses a new nation for himself, Moses intervened and held God to the promises he had made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob: “Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Overlook the stubbornness of this people, their wickedness and their sin.” When they reached Canaan Moses reminded the Israelites: The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples.8 But it was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. (Dt 7:7-8)
As you and I travel toward a finish line that lies somewhere beyond our immediate vision we face our own Pharaohs and Red Seas, our own wildernesses of doubt and temptation. When I was younger I used to think of the 40 years of the Israelites wandering and think: “40 years. That’s a long, long time.” 40 has been in my rearview mirror for quite some time, and yet in all of my years of sinful wandering God has yet to break a single promise. The same is true of each of you. Not the promise that he made before creation when he chose you to be his own, not the promise he made to you at a baptismal font, not the promise he makes to me every time I open his Word or kneel at his table.
The difficulty is using that knowledge to guide, motivate and balance our daily lives. That is one of the characteristics of the people that God holds up as heroes of faith in Hebrews 11: All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own.
Like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses never saw the fulfillment of the promised Savior. But by faith he stood on Mount Nebo and gazed on that land across the Jordan. What a bittersweet sight that must have been: Bitter, because he knew he would never reach that land; but sweet, because he knew his people—God’s people, would. And so sweet, because he knew that there was a land waiting for him far richer, far more beautiful, far more rewarding than that land across the river. By faith, that was Moses’ focus and that was Moses’ joy. By faith, may God focus our eyes on that finish line. And may that joy be ours. Amen.