The story of Moses is one of the most captivating in the entire Bible. From infancy, so it seems, God's hand was upon Moses. As a baby, he was discovered in the bulrushes by Pharaoh's daughter. During his youth he lived as an Egyptian, pampered and privileged in Pharaoh's palace. In mid-life, Moses was a stumble-tongued shepherd working hard tending sheep eking out a living on his father-in-law's land, consumed with the demands of a family, being part of a busy community and not looking for any more changes in his life.
Precisely at an age in life when most Americans are well into retirement, the Lord calls Moses into his most demanding service. Moses could have retired into sedentary oblivion; instead, he would become a servant of the Lord unlike any other ever known--Israel's greatest leader.
God seeks someone in this chapter of history to deliver a motley collection of ex-slaves out of bondage in Egypt through a long wilderness journey molding them into a nation, bringing them to the gates of a promised land.
In Exodus and Deuteronomy God speaks and Moses responds. In the dialogue, a friendship, a personal relationship, a dramatic new retirement plan is developing between Moses and God. The dialogue begins in the back side of the desert near Mount Horeb where Moses was shepherding the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro. There on this waste mountain, Moses comes upon a bush which is burning but not being consumed by the fire. While riveted on this amazing sight, God speaks, calling him by name, "Moses, Moses." What an awe-filled moment, hearing God call your name alone in the desert at the foot of a mountain with not another person nearby to hear and out of a burning bush, "Moses, Moses."
He responds, "Here I am." And then God says, "Pull off your shoes for the place where you are standing is holy ground." At this Moses hid his face, afraid to look at God, a frightful experience indeed.
As the dialogue continues, God reveals his purpose and issues his call to Moses. "Tell the people of Israel 'I am the Lord and I will bring you out from under the burdens of Egypt. I will take you for my people. I will be your God. I will bring you to the land and give it to you for your own.'" HERE is the covenant between God and his people.
We are told that Pharaoh, after a series of devastating plagues, did not stand in the way. The plagues had caused enough trouble to make him say, "Good riddance!" So he agrees to let the Israelites go.
Then we read, "God did not lead them by the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near. But God led the people through the way of the wilderness."
Living in a time like ours, priding ourselves upon speed as an end in itself, many find difficulty in appreciating this verse. Many things of which we are most proud are simply matters of getting from one place to another in a hurry. We're continually looking for speed and lightning access on the internet superhighway.
Hastily, as the angel of death passed over their blood-marked homes, they gather the few possessions, some with kneading troughs wrapped in clothing, others with yawning children, crying infants, old men and young men, all on their way.
They had no map, depending on God to guide their feet along the unknown way out of that land of bondage into the land of promise. How might God lead them?
There were two ways. One, the coastal route, the road the caravans would take which runs along the Sinai coast around the Great Sea to the Gaza strip, a place so much in the news in our own day. This was the direct route that any sane person would have taken. Did we not learn in geometry "That the shortest distance between two points is a straight line." But is the shortest way always the best way?
Moses did not lead the children of Israel by this direct route to the Promised Land. A route some suggests could have been traversed in forty days. Rather, Moses led them the long, circuitous, round-about, wilderness way that took forty years. Hear the shuffling of their moving feet across the delta of Egypt as they take those first steps from slavery to freedom.
"God led the people through the way of the wilderness." What's the point? Why not the more direct route?
Well, these people had not only been in slavery. Slavery had gotten into them. And the Lord knew he had to get something out of the Israelites before he could get them safely into the land of promise. They had developed the mentality of the slave--acceptance, resignation, submission. Before they could be politically free, they had to be spiritually liberated.
So here are the people of Israel, a poorly organized crowd of escaped slaves, out in the desert on an incredibly difficult and tiresome tramp, being led by a man named Moses who has some fanatical religious notions about a God selecting this crowd as a chosen people, a God who through Moses has pulled off their escape.
There was no other way to plant in the people of Israel what the Lord wanted of faith and courage so God led them by the way of the wilderness. They would learn lessons there they could not learn on the quick route by the sea. In the wilderness of Sinai, this burning desert upland, they would learn character, a measure of self-confidence, and a firm reliance upon a mighty God.
Starting out in eagerness and enthusiasm, the long road through the wilderness would exercise, strain, yet strengthen their faith. There were many crises for the tattered, rag-a-muffin Hebrew band crossing the Red Sea, problems of water supply, food shortage, to say nothing of open rebellion and religious excess. There was endless and violent struggle for power, but God had surprises waiting. For along the journey they experienced great wonders--the parting of the Red Sea, manna for food, water struck from a rock, and a quicker road might never have grown their faith.. They had to have time like that which lies between seed time and harvest in order to experience and sense the process of growth to maturity.
The trek in the wilderness was a difficult one for both Moses and the Israelites. During this time of testing, Moses kept before them the vision of a future which they seemed to have so easily forgotten. They wanted to return to Egypt and to turn to other gods. Moses' greatness is seen in his ability to make them realize that God had made a covenant and prepared a promised land. Only a man of iron will could have endured the endless bickering, scheming, and backbiting. Moses was such a man.
It's this vision of a good purpose and confidence that God has something good in mind for us that makes life's journey a joy and rewarding adventure. God may not, however, lead us always by the shortest route. Going the long way around, we may discover his plan and that's good. To offset the disappointment and the heartbreak along the way, we discover the same good news as did the children of Israel. "And the Lord went before them."
Every mile. The Lord went before them. Around every curve, the Lord went before them. Up every hill and mountain, every rocky way, the Lord went before them. The Lord went before them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. All the way the Lord led them. The old beloved hymn captures the assurance. "He leadeth me, He leadeth me, by His own hand He leadeth me."
Often, I've experienced it takes the way of the wilderness to discover the goodness of God and how well He knows the way. Some of you listening this very moment may be passing through such a wilderness. There are mountains in your life too hard to climb. For some there are long postponements that seem almost too much to bear. Some have been waiting for a promotion, for friendship, for marriage, for too long a time. Let me offer you the promise which offsets some of that heartbreak and disappointment. On every path, at every turn, "The Lord goes before you." All the way the Savior leads us.
At the conclusion of Moses' life and his forty-year trek through the wilderness, what we find is both troubling and surprising. And to this day it continues to baffle many who love the story of Moses. Instead of the great mouthpiece of God and motivator of Israel triumphantly leading the people into their new life in the Promised Land, Moses is suddenly removed from the scene. The irony is severe. Moses, God's instrument of Israel's deliverance, dies without ever setting foot in the Promised Land. God offers Moses a panoramic view of the land which was to be their destination. There's no hint or explanation behind God's decision to allow Moses to see the Promised Land but not allow him entrance into it. Moses, the servant of the Lord, dies. But no one knows his burial place to this day.
Now what message is there in this story for today's church and for our world? Well, the purpose of the exodus was not merely to free a group of slaves, for their own sake, but for something far greater in scope and significance. It was the creation of a new nation, the uniting of a people, the direct relationship between God and His people was the new element created by the forces of history and circumstance.
This saga of exodus and wilderness wandering is well known to us. It shaped our lives, formed our attitudes, made a deep imprint on our feelings. We cannot talk about freedom in the Western world without remembering this event. Promise, hope, and expectancy grew out of that exodus movement and wilderness experience.
The parallel of this wilderness promise to our time is obvious. In a real sense, we must now move through a wilderness as real as the Sinai wastes and ever more threatening. Ours is a perilous journey through the uncharted and unexplored reaches of a new age, a newcoming millennium.
Consider for a moment the wilderness in which we have wandered the past forty years, rebellion against leadership, cold wars and hot wars, natural disasters, ethnic cleansings. Unbridled lawlessness and senseless violence in city, town, and country has produced a jungle where no life is safe and no home secure. In these desert times, the old visions have faded in too many lives and the new vision isn't clear. We build idols like the golden calf to enshrine some forgotten memory while we forget the God of our fathers and mothers and create new gods to our liking.
How do we state clearly what we believe? What quality will mark the 21st-century Christian life? Where does the church go now? We've traveled through the broad, howling desert of the late 20th century and strange to say, like the ancient Hebrews, we stand now on the edge of promise. There lies before us a choice of despair or hope, hypnotic fear or energizing courage.
The 20th century has produced a number of leaders in the likeness of Moses--Ghandi in India, Martin Luther King, Jr., in America, Nelson Mandela in South Africa, among others.
Dr. King's leadership in the non-violent movement for racial equality and human dignity is seen by many as a 20th-century expression which parallels in microcosm that of Moses. In King's final sermon, "I've Been to the Mountain Top," he said, "God has 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. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."
Dr. King, like Moses, was denied the chance to enter a hoped-for promised land of freedom and justice for all. The day following his last sermon on a balcony outside his hotel room the crack of a rifle and an assassin's bullet tragically ended King's life and stilled his eloquent voice. But the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr., is not dead. His life and witness will remain forever a testament as one of the greatest of the 20th century.
We have moved through generations of racial tension and conflict, a wilderness of disruption and discord. Yet we stand now at the edge of God's promise. At the end of the wilderness journey lies the promised land. I pray we shall not turn back into the desert lest we face another generation of terror or aimlessness, of fear and despair.
God invites us to enter a promised land where there is mutual acceptance, peace as a way of life, religion as encounter with a God who loves city and suburbs which move from jungle to neighborhood. Can we now begin to claim God's promise?
Let us pray.
Eternal God, grant us holy insight and rare faith, unshackled from narrowness and stupidity that we may at last discern your will and guiding hand upon life's way. Amen.