A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on May 29, 2011.
Eternal God and Everlasting Father, we thank you today for those who die after a good life, old and full of years. We pray also for those who die too young with promise unfulfilled and for those who are taken by tragedy and disaster. To our list, we add those who die burdened by regrets or resentments. We know not how eternity works, but we pray that in your infinite grace they would find healing for both guilt and for anger. Give strength to those for whom death is slow agony and peace to those who die suddenly and without warning. Comfort each one who watches friend or family member die and feels the keen helplessness of painful love. O God, you have made our hearts to love one another, and through your son, you have instructed us to love without reservation. We trust you, therefore, to understand the sorrow of parting love. We trust that you would know the grief that is ours and count it not against us as a lack of faith. Be ever near to us in our sorrow and fill us with hope in the life everlasting. May the light of resurrection push back the darkness of death. When we think of Christ’s tomb, grant that we would always remember it empty and trust that the same would be true for us as well. May each rising of the sun restore our conviction in your son who did rise on that Easter morning and who teaches us still to pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.”
Life is not a state, it is a movement. Nowhere in nature does it present the character of a fixed and stable maximum, but rather of…successive waves of life. Nor is the spiritual life a state. Faith is a movement toward God which one feels at the very moment one confesses one has turned away. If [the completeness of our lives] were the final stage of development, it would also be the halting of life. The rose that is in full bloom has already begun to fade.
—Paul Tournier in The Meaning of Persons
You do not have to know much about the Bible to know the name of Moses. Just about all of us know about him. I would say that King David and Moses are probably two of the most well-known characters in the Old Testament. It would not take much for any of us to begin to name a few events in the life of Moses. We remember how his mother hid him in the bulrushes and Pharaoh’s daughter found him. He was raised in Pharaoh’s court and had to flee the land of Egypt. While tending sheep in his father-in-law’s country, standing on the hillside, he encounters the burning bush and God. We know how he defeats Pharaoh and leads the children of Israel to Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments. We have seen the movies and read the stories. We know about Moses.
Sometimes it is easy to forget, though, that he never quite made it to where he had been aiming all of his life. From the time God first told him to go to Pharaoh and say, “Let me people go,” the goal was to take the children of Israel to the Promised Land, to take them to that place where God had promised them a land flowing with milk and honey, a place where they could serve and worship God.
If you are familiar with the smaller stories that are not told as much, you remember how the children of Israel were thirsty and God told Moses to speak to the rock and the rock would give water. In perhaps anger, Moses strikes the rock with his staff. He has disobeyed God in a way that God could not tolerate so he said, “Therefore, you will not enter the Promised Land. You will lead the children of Israel right up to the edge of it.” Moses is able to stand on Mount Nebo but he was forbidden to enter the Promised Land. He was not able to cross over, and he dies there on the far side of Jordan. It would seem almost as if his life ends incomplete, open-ended, and unfinished in some way.
You don’t have to be at the end of life or the point of death to have the experience that somehow our lives are not yet fulfilled. There is something we are working toward. There is unfinished business. There is a level of our life in some area that we thought we would make it to that we have not reached yet and we find ourselves thinking that we might not ever get there. Our lives feel unfinished.
It might be in relationships. We might think that by the time we got to this point in our lives, we would have worked out that relationship. We might be in a profession that we thought by the time we reached this age, we would be doing this in our professions and we are not there yet. We might think we would feel more confident or would have risen to a certain level. I think there is a sense that most people feel in some way they are always trying to attain something but they are never quite there, just like Moses trying to work toward the Promised Land, standing there on Mount Nebo, looking over to it, but not able to get there.
A lot of people I know who live this way suffer from the “when I’s.” When I get my doctorate, I will finally feel confident. When I achieve a partnership, I will finally feel like people respect me. When I retire, I feel like I will have enough time to serve God the way I have always wanted to. When I get married, I will figure out how to make this relationship work better. There is always some future point, some moment, when we think we will finally arrive, and we will be that full and finished person, but most of the time we feel like we are Moses, standing on Mount Nebo, looking over to something that we have hoped for most of our lives and we are not sure if we will ever make it.
The Greeks had in their mythology the myth of Sisyphus who was constantly rolling the stone up the mountain. Just about the time he was up to the top, the stone would slip away from him and roll to the bottom, and he would have to do it all over again. Sometimes, we feel like we do things over and over to get to the place that we think God would want us to be—full, finished, complete, and mature—but we don’t get there.
If you have ever had that sense we think Moses might have had on that day when he looks over and he sees what he feels like he should achieve but does not, I have a few words of hope for each of us.
First of all, life is life. It is not a point. It is a path. It is a path that we journey. If we think there is ever going to be a particular point where we can stop and rest, then we miss the point. That point would be death. Life is life. We keep moving, and it is in the movement all the way along that we pass different places where we grow and learn. When Moses passed the burning bush, he did not say, “This has no meaning because I have not become the person I think God wants me to be.” When he confronts Pharaoh and says, “Let my people go,” leads them out of Egypt, parts the sea, and the sea comes crashing back down on the chariots, he doesn’t say, “This would be a whole lot better if I felt complete in my life.” At Sinai, Moses goes up on the mountain and people could not look upon the face of Moses because he glowed so from being in the presence of God. The fact that he did not make it to the Promised Land and did not come to that place of complete fulfillment in his life in no way takes something away from all these other markers along the journey. Life is life. God walks with us each step, and God is not waiting for us to achieve perfection or to achieve what we think we should have. God walks with us each step along the way.
A point underneath this would be that God uses unfinished people. There are no other people to use. God uses us at that place in our lives. Even if we have not obtained, learned, or lived up to the love or have not served God in the way that we think that we should, God still uses us.
If you only look at the outside of stories about great people, we think that they totally had it together, were perfect, and complete in every way. But if we read their biographies, just about every single one of them has something left unfinished.
There were times during the Civil War when Abraham Lincoln despaired of victory, times when he thought he was not up to the challenge. Yet, what president has been a greater political and spiritual leader in the life of our country than Abraham Lincoln?
God used Moses, even though at the end of his life he does not come to that place where his life had always pointed. God uses unfinished people because those are the only people that God has to use.
Phillips Brooks was a great New England preacher in the 19th Century. You probably think you don’t know anything about Phillips Brooks, but he wrote the Christmas carol, O Little Town of Bethlehem. Phillips Brooks has a famous sermon called, The Withheld Completions of Life. That sounds like 19th Century New England, doesn’t it? In this sermon, he says that this is the way God has made us. God has made us this way because if we ever came to the place where we thought we had made it, the place where we thought we had it all together, and the place where there was nothing left to learn, how would we ever grow? How would we ever strive? How would we ever trust?
Can you imagine going to a physician who felt he knew all about medicine that he felt there was to know? I would not want to go to that physician. I would want someone who was confident in their knowledge, but I would not want to go to someone who thinks they have known it all.
How would you like to learn prayer from a person who feels that they have all knowledge of prayer and nothing left to learn? How would you like to learn of God from somebody who feels that they know everything there is about God to know and that there is nothing else for that person to know? I would not like that, would you? Surely, there is more to the infinite, all-wise, eternal God than we could every understand.
The moment I begin to think that I know all there is about God is the moment I begin to trust in myself and not God. The moment I think I know all there is to know about prayer, I begin to trust in my prayer instead of really trying to pray to, and talk with, God.
If I think I have all righteousness and that there is nothing left for me to grow in goodness in growing to be like Jesus Christ, how would I ever know that I need to confess my sin, particularly my sin of pride? I think God has indeed made us in such a way that if we are to truly trust and truly grow in our relationship to God, we have to always know that there is more love from God’s heart to break in our lives, that there is more blessing that God wants to give us than we have experienced before, that there is a closeness that is greater than any closeness that we might have known. If we ever come to the place where we feel like we are finished, we pretty much give up on God, and God wants us to continue to trust.
I like what it says about Moses. “Moses was 120 years old when he died and his sight was not impaired and his vigor had not abated.” Moses never stopped. Perhaps he did not achieve the goal that he was looking for but he is a great instrument of God and a great inspiration to us.
On this Memorial Day weekend when we think about others who have gone on before us and we pause and think for a moment about our own mortality and the shape of our lives in the things that are yet to be done and the shape of our character that is yet to be formed, we realize how much we trust in God and how much we need his sustenance every single day.
We are not complete. We simply trust and walk with Jesus every step of the way.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.