Maybe you remember the story of Moses. It all started with his ancestors…Jacob, who was renamed Israel and his twelve sons, one of whom was named Joseph. Joseph became a trusted counselor to Pharaoh in Egypt. And when drought forced his eleven older brothers out of the land of Canaan, Joseph welcomed each of them and their families and their tribes safely into Egypt.
Everything went well for Joseph and his brothers and the Hebrew people in the land of Egypt. They built families and grew in strength and number. Until generations later when a new ruler arose in Egypt who didn’t remember Joseph. And did not know any of Joseph’s descendants.
That new Pharaoh in Egypt grew suspicious of the Hebrews. Not long thereafter he became afraid of the Hebrews. Finally, Pharaoh decided the only way he could control the Hebrew population in Egypt was to enslave them.
Keeping the Hebrew people oppressed and under control seemed like a good idea. But it didn’t stop the Hebrew people from continuing to grow and thrive, even in their captivity. So Pharaoh steadily grew even more terrified. Until his fear got the better of him, and he made a rash and brutal decision. Pharaoh ordered the death of every newborn Hebrew male by throwing them in the Nile River.
This is the part of the Moses story where perhaps things start to sound more familiar. In a desperate attempt to spare his life, Moses’s mother put her newborn baby into a reed basket and his older sister watched over him as they floated Moses down the river. And lo and behold, fate and irony intervened and Pharaoh’s daughter found Moses in the basket a fair distance downstream. Whereupon Pharaoh’s daughter rescued Moses and adopted him and raised him as her own son.
You remember Moses as a grown man. He was a Hebrew who had grown up in a world of privilege in Pharaoh’s palace. Yet Moses never forgot where he came from. And one day Moses rose up and killed an Egyptian overseer as the overseer was beating one of Moses’s fellow Hebrews. Knowing he was now a man marked by murder, Moses fled to Midian where he came face to face with a talking, burning bush. A bush which not only told him the actual name of the Hebrew God. It also told him to return to the land of Egypt.
Still, God did not leave Moses purely to his own devices. Once Moses was back in Egypt, God remained the driving force behind the scenes. You remember those deadly plagues God loosed on Pharaoh and the Egyptian people. The locusts and the boils and the frogs and the water turned into blood and the instant death of all the Egyptian firstborn sons. You remember Moses leading the Hebrew people across the Sea of Reeds, popularly known as the Red Sea. You remember those same waters rising up and swallowing all of Pharaoh’s army.
No longer enslaved in Egypt, the Hebrew people were finally free. But their struggle was far from over. Over the course of forty years, Moses and the Hebrew people wandered in the wilderness where they saw pillars of cloud and fire. They watched God’s promised manna fall from the heavens every day so they would have something to eat. They waited while Moses went up to the top of Mount Sinai to retrieve the Ten Commandments. And the Hebrew people grew restless and impatient and made an ill-fated choice to build a golden calf as an idol to worship while Moses was away.
It’s all part of the story of Moses, one of the towering figures in the Judeo-Christian faith tradition. But today, as we arrive at this morning’s Scripture lesson, we reach the end of a long saga. After all Moses had dealt with. After the grand triumph of freeing his people from Pharaoh’s clutches and surviving forty long years in the desert wilderness. After all the whining he had to listen to from the Hebrew people who figured they would never make it to the Promised Land…and who claimed regularly they actually would have preferred being back in Egypt living as slaves.
After all that, Moses arrived at the precipice of the Promised Land, looking out over the land flowing with milk and honey. But Moses never had a chance to enter the land he longed for and argued for and journeyed for. So close he could see it stretched out for miles below his feet. Yet not close enough.
Life can be cruel that way sometimes. There are some things we yearn for and struggle for and work hard for over the course of a lifetime. But somehow they never actually pan out. A dream home that never gets built. A relationship that never comes to fruition. A sudden accident or a death that diverts us away from the happy ending we were once so sure about. You work hard, you follow all the rules, and you wind up stuck in the wilderness a day late and a dollar short…
If falling just shy of the Promised Land was the final word in the story of Moses, we could turn to what’s called “conditional” theology for an explanation. Well, Moses didn’t try hard enough. He didn’t work hard enough. He wasn’t faithful enough. Conditional theology is all about utilizing a system of reward and punishment as a way to explain life’s difficulties.
But conditional theology is not good theology. Bad things do happen to really good people. Suffering is a part of life. Your loved one didn’t die because you failed to pray hard enough. You weren’t laid off from your job because you’ve been a thoughtless spouse or a less than perfect parent. Moses didn’t die on the threshold of the Promised Land due to his own shortcomings…
On the other hand, some of the best theology I know is encompassed in one great, central command. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind. As Moses prepared to leave his Hebrew brothers and sisters for the final time, he invoked God’s greatest commandment.
“Choose life!” Moses told the people. “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God…” As he lay on his deathbed, Moses implored the Hebrew people to choose the way of God’s love.
It’s noteworthy for Moses to talk about choosing life and holding onto hope when he himself had worked so hard for half a century to not quite reach his goal. It’s also noteworthy in light of the fact there were still plenty of obstacles for the Hebrew people to overcome when they crossed into the Promised Land of Canaan.
How many times are you and I are convinced we’ve actually made it? Until we step back and reflect. We finally get the promotion we’ve been waiting for, but now we need to learn how to do a brand new job. We finally have a first child on the way, but the parenthood learning curve is steeper than we can imagine. Retirement is right around the corner, but who am I now that I don’t have a title anymore?
Arriving at the Promised Land can be nerve wracking. But the boost that comes with the accomplishment can carry us through the learning and the growing. To the point where we can and do embrace the wisdom of Moses…choose life.
“Choose life” serve as words for us to live by. But Moses uttered those words not only to the Hebrews who journeyed alongside him in the wilderness. He also uttered those words on behalf of Hebrews yet to be born. “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”
In his dying words, Moses told the people to live so that others would also know life, know hope, know God. Moses instructed them to leave behind a legacy. Pass on to your descendants a commitment to love God with all your heart and soul and mind…love in action as well as word…
What do you and I want to do in our own lives? And what do we want our legacy to be? Moses reminds us to live now. And to choose every moment.
If you find yourself in your own version of the Promised Land right now, then I trust life is good for you. Faith is strong and joy is easy. On the other hand, I know there are some among us in this sanctuary who are deep in the wilderness with no Promised Land in sight.
Moses speaks to all of us. Choose life when you’re in the Promised Land. Choose life when you’re in the wilderness. Choose life for yourself and for those around you and beside you and behind you.
Choose life because you remember the ebb and flow of Moses’s story. A story which began with certain death floating in a basket on the Nile River. And then life as Pharaoh’s adopted grandson. A story where Moses again faced death for the murder he committed. And then he found life as God’s chosen instrument to lead his people to freedom.
Life and death and death and life again. As you and I look over our lives, the story of Moses is our story as well. We journey. We struggle. We stand on the precipice. We arrive. Sometimes we are close. And sometimes we’re not close enough. Yet through it all we carry the final words of Moses close to heart. Choose life. Choose love so that we and others may live. Amen.