Thursday, August 05, 2010

The promise seen from afar

Moses on Mt. Nebo, stained glass at the Mt. Nebo Presbyterian Church, Sewickley, PA

I am not accustomed to seeing stained glass depictions of Moses. This past Sunday I preached at the Mt. Nebo Presbyterian Church, and the window shown above was in the center of the chancel. (I think this is the first time in my life that I have seen a stained glass of Moses in a Presbyterian Church.) I find that I am still reflecting on it days later.

The story it depicts, of Moses on Mt. Nebo (Deuteronomy 34:1-5), is a story about denial and promise. Moses is allowed to see the promised land, but is reminded that he will not enter it with the people. It's not really news to him. In Deuteronomy 32:48-52, God commanded Moses to go up Mt. Nebo, described what he would see, and reminded Moses that he was not going to enter the land because he had broken faith with God earlier in his life.

How had Moses broken faith? Moses was denied entrance to the promised land because in Numbers 20:1-13, in the story of the miracle of bringing forth water from the rock, Moses and Aaron had not trusted God. It hardly seems fair to me. Moses and Aaron were in a bad spot, they turned to God, they sort of followed God's directions (although not in the bold way they were commanded), and the miracle happened anyhow. No harm, no foul? Not according to this story. And because of it God decided that neither Moses nor Aaron would lead the people into the promised land.

Even after Moses was obedient to God the rest of his life in leading the people of Israel in the wilderness, God held to the decision that Moses would not lead the people into the promised land.

So on Mt Nebo, God allows Moses to see the vast expanse of the promised land, and reminds him that he is not going there. But the focus in this part of the story is on the promise, and Moses is not just someone being denied entry, but he is the witness of the promise given.

One of the striking features of this story is that Moses has no lines. Moses has spoken through most of the previous 33 chapters. But here his role is merely to witness God's promise and then die. His personal feelings about the whole thing are not revealed, which seems unusual to me given the many times when a reader of Moses' story is shown how Moses felt about his experiences. His angers, his fears, his love for the people have been described in so many other events in the story; but here there is no clue what Moses is feeling. Is he disappointed that he won't actually enter the land? Is he content with knowing that the people will enter? It is not reasonable to conclude that a man whose vigor is not abated would have no feelings about the situation. He must have feelings, but they are not revealed.

The concealment of Moses' feelings is an invitation for readers like me to project onto Moses the feelings that we imagine we would have in his place.

I suspect Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. may have made some reasonable guesses in his final address/sermon in which he alluded to the story of Moses on Mt. Nebo:

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. 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! So I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!

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