Our little mini-series on Moses ends today with his death on Mt. Nebo. Between here and there, we’ve got a lot of ground to cover. Last Sunday we left Moses at the foot of Mt. Sinai, where he met with God and received the Ten Commandments. By now, the people of Israel were about halfway to Canaan. Unbeknownst to them, it’d be another thirty-nine years before they got there. All but a handful would be buried in the wilderness.
Yet, through it all, Moses led the way. And so, before we close the book and let him rest in peace, I’d like to share with you some of the highlights of the journey. What I hope you’ll get out of it is that, just as God called Moses to lead the people of Israel so long ago, God calls individuals like us to speak and act in his name today. And what I hope you’ll remember is this: When God calls your name, God will be with you to help you succeed.
The first story that comes to mind is the battle the people of Israel fought with the army of Amalek at Rephidim. This happened early on in the wilderness journey, and, though the details are sketchy, it appears that this tribal chieftan named Amalek didn’t want the people of Israel crossing his land. So, he sent his soldiers out to stop them.
When Moses saw them coming, he picked Joshua to mount a defense. As for himself, he took Aaron and a devoted servant named Hur to the top of a hill to watch. When they got there and saw the fighting down below, Moses lifted his hands high in the air, much as he’d done when he parted the waters of the Red Sea. When he did, lo and behold, Joshua and the people of Israel prevailed. But when he lowered his hands, Amalek’s army started to win.
It was a no-brainer: All Moses had to do was to keep his hands high in the air and the victory would be theirs. But then, how long can you hold your hands above your head? He held up his hands as long as could, but his arms soon got tired and he had to put them down. When he did, Amalek’s army rallied. So Aaron and Hur had Moses sit on a stone while they stood on each side and held his hands up high for him. In this way, scripture says, ” Joshua defeated Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword.” (Exodus 17:13)
Now, if you want to use this story for a Sunday School lesson, you can take your pick of several themes. For example, try “the foolishness of faith” – how, from the world’s point of view, acting in faith often looks silly. You can start with Paul, who told the Corinthians that he’d become a fool for Christ in order that he might experience the saving power of his resurrection. (1 Corinthians 4:10-14) And you can use the story of the Choctaw Indian who did a rain dance on the parking lot of the mall. He got out there in front of God and everybody and danced around, all by himself. That night it rained for the first time in months. He was nobody’s fool.
Here’s another idea: “the strength of community” – that, as gifted as Moses was, he couldn’t do it alone. Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name…” (Matthew 18:20) Our relationship to God is personal, but not individual. We experience the peace and power of his presence best in community with others.
What’s most important about this story, though, is that it’s not about Moses at all; it’s about the power of God. Just as God parted the waters of the Red Sea, so God gave his people victory over Amalek’s army. They won the battle because God was on their side, and that’s all that really matters. Paul said it best: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31)
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Let’s move on. Another great story is about the time Moses saved the people of Israel from the snakes. Do you know that story? The people of Israel were carping and complaining – again – about not having enough food and water. Never mind the fact that God gave them manna from heaven each morning, they were tired of eating manna cakes.
So, to punish them, God sent poisonous snakes slithering through the camp so that, whoever got bit quickly died. It didn’t take many deaths for the people to realize they were in a heap of trouble. Scripture says,
“The people came to Moses, and said, ‘We have sinned, because we have spoken against Yahweh, and against you. Pray to Yahweh, that he take away the serpents from us.’ Moses prayed for the people.” (Numbers 21:7)
God heard his prayer and told him to make a serpent out of bronze and put it on a pole, so that when someone got bit, all he had to do was to look up at the bronze serpent and he would live. Well, you get the point: Again, it’s not about Moses or a magical bronze serpent; it’s about looking to God to save you from the evils of the world around you.
Years later, this story became a symbol for the early Christians of Jesus’ death and resurrection. We find this recorded in the Gospel of John, where it says,
“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 3:15 that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15)
Another story of Moses comes at the point where they got to the Promised Land the first time and turned back. They were on the border of the Negev Desert. Moses sent spies into Canaan to see what they were up against, one man from each tribe. When they came back, all but Joshua and Caleb were full of gloom and doom. “The people who we saw in it are men of great stature,” they said. “We were in our own sight as grasshoppers.” (Numbers 13:33)
Joshua and Caleb wanted to press on. Caleb told Moses, “Let us go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it.” (Numbers 13:30)
At the end of the day, the naysayers won out. Moses turned around and led the people of Israel all the way back to the Red Sea. This is why it took them so long to get to the Promised Land – not because it was that far away, or they didn’t know where they were going – but because they were unwilling to trust God. So, God weaned out the unfaithful and raised up a whole new generation willing to take him at his word.
This may well be what God is up to in the life of our nation today. We’ve strayed so far from the fundamental principles and values and faith on which this nation was founded that we’re in a sad state of decline. Just this week, Wall Street suffered the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Morally, economically, socially we’re slipping, and slipping fast. What can we do about it? One friend said, “Vote for Obama.” Another said, “Vote for McCain.” Scripture says,
“If my people, who are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14)
If, “In God we trust,” what have we to fear? If not, what hope do we have?
So, the people of Israel got to the Promised Land and turned back. In time, that led to mutiny. A man name Korah, along with three other men, assembled a force of two-hundred and fifty men bent on ousting Moses: “You have gone too far, you sons of Levi!” they said. (Numbers 16:3)
Moses answered their challenge. He accused Korah and his cohorts of idolatry and, as proof of his accusation, he had them stand in front of their tents, along with their wives and children, and he told the people,
“If these men die the common death of all men then Yahweh hasn’t sent me. But if…the ground open its mouth, and swallow them up, with all that appertain to them…then you shall understand that these men have despised Yahweh.” (Numbers 16:29-30)
No sooner than he spoke, there came a great earthquake. The ground beneath their feet opened up and swallowed them whole – men, women and children, along with their tents and all of their earthly belongings. (Numbers 16:32)
But that’s not all. Fire came from out of nowhere and destroyed the two-hundred and fifty men who had pledged their allegiance to Korah. (Numbers 16:35)
Now, you would’ve thought that would’ve convinced the people of Israel to listen to Moses. But, no. The very next morning, they railed against him saying, “You have killed Yahweh’s people!” (Numbers 16:41)
God was so put out that he vowed to destroy them all, then and there. He sent a plague, and the people began dropping like flies. But Moses came to their defense. He had Aaron take a lighted censer and rush into the middle of the camp. Aaron held the smoking censer between the living and the dead, and the plague stopped in its tracks. Not another person died. When they gathered up all the bodies to be buried, they counted fourteen thousand seven hundred people, not including Korah and the others. (Numbers 16:49)
Now, there’s a Sunday school lesson for you. It goes right along with what Paul told the Galatians when he said, “Don’t be deceived. God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap.” (Galatians 6:7)
One of the great stories of Moses is when he first came down from Mt. Sinai after meeting with God. Scripture says,
“It happened, when Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the testimony in Moses’ hand, when he came down from the mountain, that Moses didn’t know that the skin of his face shone by reason of his speaking with him.” (Exodus 34:29)
It goes on to say that Moses wore a veil over his face so that the people wouldn’t be afraid. No doubt, Moses was a man of God, as righteous as anyone could ever hope to be. He proved his faithfulness over and over – going to Egypt in the first place, confronting the mighty Pharaoh, leading the people through thick and thin and never giving in to their complaints.
So, you’d think that when the people of Israel got to the threshold of the Promised Land, God would’ve given him the honor of leading the way. As a matter of fact, Moses didn’t get to go into the Promised Land at all. Here’s why.
The people of Israel had come to the wilderness of Zin, and, once again, they ran out of water. It looked like they were goners, for sure. So, they complained to Moses, and Moses prayed to God, and God said, “Speak to the rock before their eyes, that it give forth its water.” (Numbers 20:8) But, instead of speaking to the rock, as God commanded, he struck it, not once, but twice. (Numbers 20:11)
Now, you might ask, “So what? What does it matter if Moses spoke to the rock or whacked it with a stick?” Well, it has to do with faith and taking God at his word and doing what God tells you to do. Scripture puts it this way:
“Yahweh said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you didn’t believe in me, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.'” (Numbers 20:12)
Sure enough, when the people of Israel finally reached the borders of the Promised Land and were now ready to claim it as their own, Moses died. He never set foot on the other side of the Jordan. He never got to taste the fruits of this land flowing with milk and honey. His journey was over. Joshua would lead the people the rest of the way.
At first, it seems unfair that, having come this far over, Moses wouldn’t get to lead the parade. Yet, it makes sense in a number of ways. First, God is a sovereign God, whose word we can trust, even when it’s not what we want to hear. Only a capricious God would say one thing and do another. Isaiah said it best: “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God stands forever.” (Isaiah 40:8)
Second, God chooses different types of individuals for different purposes. Moses had the tenacity to lead the people out of slavery and through the wilderness. Joshua had the courage for battle. So, Moses died, and Joshua took his place.
And so, the cycle goes on to this day: God chooses people like us to speak and act in his name. When we’re gone, he’ll choose others. What’s important is that we keep the faith and do our part to build up the kingdom in our day.
Finally, I think it was a gift of grace that Moses died on Mt. Nebo. I suspected it must have come as a relief for him not to have to go on any farther. It was also a gift of grace that, before he died, God allowed him to see it for himself. He looked to the south and to the north and to the west, and there it lay in all its glory, The Promised Land. And, with that, he died in peace.
And so, the story of Moses ends. But the saga of faith continues, and that’s where we come in. For, just as God led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, so God breaks the bonds of sin and death and sets us free through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
And, just as God led the people on their journey, so God is with us to lead the way. All that God asks is that we trust him and follow him in faithful obedience.
And this is the Good News: The Promised Land – the Kingdom of God – is here and now. It’s ours to claim in the name of Jesus Christ.
To God be the glory, now and always, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2008, Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.