The death of Moses, it might seem like a strange place to start a sermon, especially for a guest preacher like myself. At the same time, knowing that Pastor Stephanie preached on Moses and looking at what this scripture talks about, it seems a perfect place to start. Before he dies, Moses is taken up onto a mountain so that he may look at the Promised Land, he gazes out from where he is to what could be. Standing there on the mountain peak, we are told he sees the full expanse below, from North to South and East to West, he sees from a distance where his people will one day be. Coming from Hope UMC, the place where The Land got its start, we are a bit like Moses upon the mountain, seeing the Land, believing in its promise and living into something so foreign to the present reality of the church and our world.
Much is made of the Promised Land in the early Hebrew scriptures, and it may even have come up in your talk of Moses before. A land of milk and honey, a place the people long for and dream about. It is often said God promised three things to the Israelite people: progeny, blessing, and land. When the Israelites arrive, standing just outside the land of promise, they hesitate. When the Israelite people were confronted with the reality of the place, they would call home, that reality became something terrifying. They refused to enter the land, and for forty years, the people were forced to wander the wilderness until a new generation was ready to enter.
The Israelite people got caught in the gap between what they knew and what they had never known. They knew what it was like to not have a home, to spend their years and the years of their children in bondage to build up someone else’s home, laboring for someone else’s living. God looked at them and said, this is where you are, but I want you to follow me. I will take you to the place where you should be. It is in the gap, in the time in the desert, the time spent knowing only one reality, never being able to really believe in God’s promise that these people got lost.
This promise was a long time in the making, God acknowledges that it goes all the way back to Abraham, and it was reaffirmed along the way for generations. Each generation heard the promise. They endured, they lived, and they worked in the hopes that one day their people would have this promise. That stands out to me as something so counterintuitive these days! We often want to see the fruits of our efforts, here and now.
It makes me think that this is part of why churches are having such building problems right now. As much as pastors and preachers promise the faithful that they are the church, building or no building, this promise is too insubstantial, too hard to grasp. A building is easy to grasp, easy to pin down, but a promise of community held together by the ties of Spirit and love is hard to hold and harder to see in our current world. God calls us into the unknown, to hold onto the divine promise rather than the fruit of our own works. God’s call speaks of the relationships between people, the ties between people and the land, between creation and God. The ties there can pull us through the gap between what is and what could be if only we hold onto them.
That might be sound a bit bleak, but I have hope though this morning. Moses, someone who would never see the fulfillment of God’s promise, may not have even fully understood what that future place would be, still worked to bring it to fruition. Look again to the scripture this morning, we are told that Moses dies with his sight unimpaired and his vigor unabated. He was not blind to what could be, even if he could only see a hint of it from a distance, only seeing the broad strokes. He was willing to brave that gap, the journey of the in-between. He believed when God said it would be. He held onto that. This kind of faith can be seen in those at Hope who helped start something here. This kind of faith can be seen in all the ways you invest your time and energy and resources into this promise.
You see when we talk about the Promised Land, we are talking about more than simply a place to live. Four Old Testament scholars, Birch, Brueggemann, Fretheim, and Petersen, explain that this land of promise “is understood as the full enactment and embodiment of God’s will for the earth.” It is not just a people of God living in one place, using and owning land, it reflects what God’s creation should look like. It is a place of milk and honey, a place where the lion lies down with the lamb. It is a place like Eden, where God may walk among God’s people in God’s good creation, and God’s people then steward and care for that promised land. In fact, you might say that is what creation is striving to be, to be God’s good creation. Perhaps our desire to tame and control keeps the land groaning, crying out to be as God made it to be. Perhaps the greatest harm we as a church do is when we try to pin creation down and say our reality of brick and mortar is now yours. Perhaps being good stewards means journeying alongside The Land, alongside God’s promise as it unfolds.
The ask upon all of us is whether we are willing to step out from what we know. Are we willing to step into the gap, step into the work and stewardship that will make what could be into what is? Are we willing to hold onto God’s promise? Can we look forward with eyes unclouded? Can we be vigorous in pursuing the fullness of God’s creation? I believe in that promise, I believe in the Land.