A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on October 23, 2011
Deuteronomy 34:1-12; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Have you ever thought about what you’ve had to settle for in life? Perhaps you have always had in mind a lovely and large dream house, but you’re stuck in your little bungalow. Or, it could be your job. You know you’re destined for better things, and perhaps your education and training underline that belief. Yet, you find yourself with too little challenge, too little pay, and too few hopes of ever doing any better. Could it be that on the ladder of success, you’ve either run out of rungs or you find it leaning against the wrong wall?
And I won’t ask you about your marriage or relationship with a significant other. You may just have to figure that one out on your own!
Are there areas of your life where, given the opportunity, you know you could do better, you could be more, do more, accomplish more… if you could just be given the chance?
We read the story from the final chapter in Deuteronomy, we know the plot line. Moses, for all his forty years of struggle and trouble, leading these ungrateful recalcitrant Israelites through the dust and the heat and the agony of the Mediterranean wilderness, is now prepared to embark on the journey he’s heard about and longed for lo all these many years.
When Moses first saw the burning bush, he was fairly content with the life he had come to know. It may not have had the glamour of Egypt, but he knew he couldn’t go back there. Tending sheep for his father-in-law might be beneath him, considering his upbringing in the palace of the Pharaoh, but he lived each day with the knowledge that it could be worse. It’s not a bad consolation prize. After all, his face still adorned many a wanted poster back in his native land on the other side of the Red Sea.
Then, God intervened and the next forty years saw him leading his people to the land God was preparing for them. It was not easy, to say the least. But Moses persevered. He sweated and toiled and led his people faithfully during their forty years of wandering. Finally, they approach that fateful day when they will cross the Jordan River into what they have come to call their Promised Land, the land they just know is flowing with milk and honey. And Moses will be left behind. He will not be crossing over with them. Once again, Moses finds himself having to settle for less than what he deserved.
True, he was 120 years old. Last year, we buried Gladys Brown, God bless her soul, at the age of 109. We thought that was pretty significant, didn’t we? Imagine… 109, old enough to have corresponded with Buffalo Bill Cody, from whom she was descended. Can you imagine Gladys climbing Mount Nebo and resting on the top of Pisgah? Yet, we are told that when Moses died “his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated.” In other words, he was physically able to take on the next challenge, to lead his people across that river divide. And Moses could have done it. He was certainly strong enough. Imagine… at 120.
But according to the way the story is told, that’s not what the Lord wanted for Moses. “This is the land,” God says to Moses, “of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob… I have let you see it with your eyes (and remember, because his sight was unimpaired he could take in the wonderful vista with 20/20 vision), but you shall not cross over there.”
God wrenches the leadership of Israel from Moses’ hands and gives it to another. Moses will be dead and buried as his people cross the river and begin their new life as the children of God. It is the view from Mount Nebo… having a dream and getting so close that the very taste of it is on your lips. You can almost feel it with your fingers, seize it with every ounce of your ambition, only to see the dream go by in a cloud of smoke. It is the view from Mount Nebo.
Why does it have to be so? Perhaps it is because our dreams are found in having attained what we had hoped for – the house, the job, the perfect relationship – when we all know that real life is found not in having all these things but in the journey we experience along the way. If that journey is the consolation prize for not getting what we want, perhaps one of the greatest gifts God can give us is the understanding that the consolation is better than anything else could possibly be.
Think of a young man who came out of Nazareth with the amazing gift of prophecy, of being able to heal people of their infirmities. He drew multitudes of people to him, not only for what he could do for them, but also for the masterful stories he told of how things are in God’s mind and eye, of how there is available to them an unseen kingdom to which they can aspire. And in that kingdom they find eternal rest and peace. Think of what a future this young man has. Why, if he plays his cards right, he can become king of the whole world!
But in three short years he is strung up on a Roman cross like a common criminal, and all the hopes and dreams that are tied up in him go away like a wisp of smoke. Think of it. This young Nazarene makes Moses look like a lottery winner. At least Moses died peacefully up on Mount Nebo… I will remind you, at the age of 120… not 33.
Jesus had his Mount Nebo too. He looks over the lights of the city and cries out, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” And in the garden the night before his death, he says quietly to the same God who buried Moses so many years before on the mountain, “Not my will… not my will… not my will, but thine be done.”
If you’ve ever been disappointed and feel that you’ve had to settle for less than you thought you could achieve… if you feel like you’re the one who’s always had to accept the consolation prize… look to Moses on Mount Nebo, look to Jesus on Mount Calvary. Then, maybe then, you will know it is the journey along the way, no matter where it takes you, that is the greatest gift of all.
So come to this table that has been prepared for you. And come saying like the Arkansas poet Maya Angelou, “I wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now!”1 After all, the journey itself is not a bad consolation prize, don’t you think?
Lord, as we come to your table, may we bring with us all the experiences of our collective lives, and may we lay them at your altar, expressing gratitude for where we are in life and where we are going. In the name of the One who gave himself for us that we might live your consolation, Amen.
1Maya Angelou, I Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now (New York: Random House, 1993).