For the last two months our Old Testament readings have been following the story of Moses and the people of Israel as they journey through the wilderness to the land that God first promised to Abraham and Sarah long, long ago.
When the story begins, the Israelites are slaves in Egypt, a land that Abraham’s great-grandson Joseph rescued from famine many generations earlier. By the time Moses is born the Hebrew people are not only slaves, they are so despised by the Egyptian pharaoh that he orders all Hebrew baby boys killed.
But the infant Moses is rescued by Pharoah’s own daughter, and grows up in the Egyptian leader’s household. Even that privileged status does not protect him when he murders a man, and Moses is forced to flee from Egypt to save his own life.
Moses is an 80-year-old shepherd, hardly an exalted position, when God speaks to him from a burning bush, ordering him to go back to Egypt and demand the freedom of the Hebrew people.
Moses is skeptical and hesitant, rightly pointing out that he is hardly qualified for the job, but he reluctantly does what God has commanded. After a series of increasingly severe plagues, Pharoah lets the Hebrew people go, but Moses’ task is just beginning.
For 40 years he leads his people through the wilderness, journeying toward the Promised Land. He contends with their complaining, he is there when God provides manna for them to eat and water to drink. He negotiates their disputes.
He ascends the mountain and confers with God, then comes back down and shares with the people the Ten Commandments, the covenant by which they agree to live as God’s people.
When the people almost immediately break that covenant, Moses intercedes on their behalf with God, successfully convincing God not to destroy or abandon the people.
It has been a long and arduous journey, and now that long-promised land is within reach.
One more time Moses ascends a mountain to meet with God. This time God shows him the whole land that will belong to the people of Israel, land of abundance for as far as the eye can see.
“This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying. ‘I will give it to your descendants,’” God says to Moses.
God gives Moses a panoramic view of the land that has inspired his dreams and work for 40 long years.
But then God has some jarring news.
“I have let you see it with your eyes,” God says to Moses, “but you shall not cross over there.”
And with that Moses dies and is buried in the wilderness, never setting foot in the land to which he has journeyed for so long, never tasting the milk and honey which God has promised in that land of abundance.
It seems horribly unfair, doesn’t it? To work so hard for so long, to come so close, and yet fail to reach the goal, to die with unfinished business.
But Moses dies knowing that he has done what God has asked him to do, and assured that God would raise up new leaders to continue the work.
The story of Moses inspired the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. On the last night of his life, speaking to striking garbage workers in Memphis, King referenced the story we heard today.
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now,” he said. “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will.
“And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land.
“ I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!”
The next day King was murdered.
King, like Moses, died with unfinished business.
But like Moses, King was faithful to the work God had given him to do.
Ultimately, Moses and King were working toward the same vision – not to achieve ownership of a piece of land, but to create a nation of people who would love God, obey God’s commands, and love their neighbors as themselves.
To create a land where God’s justice and peace prevailed for all people.
Few of us are called to lead a people toward a vision like Moses or King.
But we are all called to work toward a vision of the future that we may not see realized.
It may be something as simple as planting a tree.
“Even if I knew the world would end tomorrow, I would plant a tree today,” Martin Luther said.
No matter how dire the current situation seems, we are called to act with faith and hope for the future.
Moses, King, and Luther were able to look beyond their own well being to the well being of future generations.
We may not make it to our own promised lands, but we are called to plant trees of justice and beauty anyway, to plant seeds for fruit we may never harvest.
Remembering that is helpful to me. We live in a time when evil seems to flourish, when the needs are so great, when the very earth seems to be crying out in pain and grief.
The vision of God’s kingdom of justice and peace, a kingdom where that command to love God and our neighbor is actually lived out seems so far away.
It is easy to turn on the news in the morning and be instantly discouraged, to feel like there is nothing we can do that will really make any difference.
But now is exactly the time when we are called to plant those seeds for the future.
A quote from the Talmud , a commentary on Jewish scripure and law, helps me remember that.
I’d actually like to have this written in calligraphy to hang above my desk. Maybe it will help you, too.
“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.
Do justly, now.
Love mercy, now.
Walk humbly, now.
You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”