The Long Way Around

Deuteronomy 8:1-10

As the Children of Israel stand on the border of the Promised Land, Moses delivers his final sermon to them. As Moses speaks, he knows he is about to die, for God has already told him that he will not enter the Promised Land because of his disobedience. He can look in, but not go in. (Numbers 27)

Perhaps you remember that incident? In the wilderness of Zin, when the people were dying of thirst, God commanded Moses to speak to the rock at Meribah and it would give water. Instead, Moses struck the rock with his staff, as he had done at Horeb (Exodus 17:6) the first time the people needed water. The rock at Meribah gave water; but God rebuked Moses for his disobedience, and told him that because of it, he would not enter Canaan Land, he could look in, but not go in.

I find it interesting that God rebuked Moses for doing in the 2nd instance exactly what he had done in the 1st instance, even though the two instances were so similar. The difference is that in the first instance Moses did what God commanded, and in the second instance, he did not. There are several sermons in this, but I can’t go there.

Let’s get back to the sermon of Moses. It fills the first 33 chapters of the book of Deuteronomy. Chapter 34 deals with the death and burial of Moses on Mt. Nebo. I don’t know how long it took for Moses to deliver this sermon; Bruce Bradley was not there to time it, but you can bet the people listened carefully, for it was the last time they would hear from the Lawgiver, the Man of God. In the sermon, Moses recaps all that has happened to the people since their departure from Egypt, and what it all means. In chapter 8 verse 2, he talks about how long their journey has been. He says:

“Remember the long way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years (Note 1) in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments.”

The distance between Egypt and Canaan land is only about 250 miles. That is about the same as the distance between Winston-Salem and Carolina Beach if one follows the Interstate 40 to Wilmington, and then takes highway 421 out to the beach. I am willing to bet that almost any soldier coming out of boot-camp could easily walk it in two weeks. Because of her disobedience and hardness of heart, Israel took 40 years to cover the same distance. Now that span “forty years” is significant. In the Bible, forty years could mean 40 years, but it could also mean 37 years or 43 years. Forty years stands for the lifespan of a single generation. In the context of this event, it certainly stands for a generation. According to Numbers 14:30, no one who belonged to the generation that followed Moses out Egypt and across the Red Sea were permitted to enter the Promised Land except for Joshua and Caleb. That entire generation died in the wilderness. It was a new generation, a generation born in the hardship of the wilderness that God allowed to follow Joshua into the land of Canaan.

This new generation had a very positive experience of God. In the passage before us this morning, Moses reminded them that while they were on the journey, God had cared for their physical needs. Their clothes did not wear out, and their feet did not swell, and God fed them with Manna from above. Likewise, Moses reminded them that God had cared for their spiritual needs. God fed them with manna from above! So, too, God disciplined them as a parent would discipline a child. What does that mean? It means that God did not punish Israel just for the sake of the punishment; God punished Israel that Israel might learn from it, and become the kind of people that God wanted them to be.

The reward that God promised Israel for being the kind of people he wanted them to be was the Promised Land, aka the land of Canaan. This land was a special place, a land flowing with milk and honey. In this passage, Moses says that the land is blessed with plenty of water, and it is fertile, rich in grains, and fruit, and olive trees, and honey. So, too, the hills of the land are filled with iron and copper that can easily be mined and put to use. It is a place where the people will lack nothing. Moses says that once the people are in the Promised Land, “they shall eat their fill and bless the LORD their God for the good land that he has given them.”

We Christians tend to think of the Promised Land as heaven; but for Israel the Promise Land was located in the here and now. It was a place where they could live in safety, raise their families, build their homes, eat regularly, worship God, and enjoy one another. Today, though they do not believe in an afterlife, many Reformed Jews regard the Sabbath as a slice of God’s heaven, separated from God’s eternity, and made manifest in the world of here and now, that they might enjoy the blessing of God.

And what about us? Is there a Promised Land for us in the here an now? Is there a place where we can be safe, and build our homes, and raise our families, and eat regularly, and worship God, and enjoy one another?

I believe that God intends their should be, for just as God laid down the Law for Israel and led the Children of Israel in the way, to make the Promised Land possible for them, so God has laid down the Law for us and leads us in the way, to make the Promised Life possible for us.

Of course, for us the Law has changed, and the law has not changed.

The outward nature or the “husk” of the Law has certainly changed for us. According to the ancient rabbis, the Law of Moses contains 613 commandments and ordinances. Moses laid down many of these commandments for the people of Israel just to set them apart from all the nations around them, that they might be kept untainted, and pure, so that God’s purpose for them might be fulfilled. In Ephesians 2:15, the apostle says that Jesus Christ “abolished in his flesh the laws of commandments and ordinances, that he might create within himself, one new man,” in place of the two, thus setting aside the old differences between Jews and Gentiles that were once so important. In the body of Christ, which is the church, there is no distinction.

Though the husk of the Law has changed, the heart of the Law is unchanged, and unchanging. Let me demonstrate that.

In Deuteronomy 6:4-5 Moses gave Israel a commandment that they were to write upon their hearts, and teach to their children, and speak of constantly, and wear as jewelry, and nail to their gates and the door post of their houses. He said;

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one LORD; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.

And then, in Leviticus 19:18, Moses said:

You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.

I have no doubt that these two commandments form the basis of answer that Jesus made to the Pharisee who asked him to name the greatest commandment. In Matthew 22:37-40 Jesus responds:

37 “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.”

And in Rom. 13:9, St. Paul says:

The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this sentence, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Note: 1)

There are 613 commandments and ordinances in the law, 365 of then negative, “thou shalt not,” and 248 of them positive, “thou shalt.” Some people seem to believe that God arbitrarily decided what was right and what was wrong and laid down the law for the sole purpose of testing us. I don’t believe that for a moment. I believe that God looked out over the world, saw those things by which we could hurt ourselves or others, and called those things “sin.” And God saw those things by which we could help ourselves or others, and called those things right, and good and “righteous.”

Jesus believed that. In Mark chapter 2:23-28 we read that one Sabbath Jesus and his disciples were walking in grain-fields and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. And the Pharisees saw them, and said to Jesus, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” And Jesus said to them:

“Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him, how he entered the house of God…and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?”

And then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” In other words, we human beings were not made to keep the law, the law was made to keep us human beings.

The Story Moses and the Story of the Exodus is the story of how God set about instructing his people in the goodness of righteousness, and in hurtfulness of sin. We can learn from it. Today, God continues to discipline us, and lead us “the long way around” until we learn the lessons about sin and righteousness that God wants us to learn, and then, and only then, do we enter the Promised Life, which is life lived as well as it can be lived given the uncertain nature of this world.

And what does it look like when we enter the Promised Life? Well, I can think of numerous examples. I think of my Mother and Father, and hope that you can think of yours. I think of the Bishop and Mrs. Iobsts, and Joe and Lahoma Gray. I think of Helen Idol, and of Jerry and Ruby Simmons. I think of many of you, and, just to keep things as universal as possible I think of my heroes, people like Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, or Stan “the Man” Musial, all of whom were devout Christians.

Let’s use the example of Stan Musial. Musial was one of the truly great baseball players in the history of the game. In the course of his career, Stan the Man accumulated 3,630 hits, 475 home runs, 1951 RBI’s, and a lifetime batting average of .331. He was the National League Batting Champion seven times, and the MVP three times. With Willie Mays and Hank Aaron he holds the record of appearing on the most All-Star teams, 24. Musial died on January 19th, 2013, and his funeral was held at the Catholic Cathedral in St. Louis. Just this week, I discovered on YouTube the remarkable Eulogy that Bob Costas delivered at his funeral service in his home parish of St. Louis. In his remarks, Costas said that Stan “the Man” Musical was perhaps the least celebrated of our most celebrated players. He said that Stan “the Man” Musial leaves behind him, and I quote, “…more than two decades of sustained excellence as ball player and more than nine decades as a thoroughly decent human being.” I would say, “…a thoroughly Christian human being.”

Then Costas gave a series of powerful examples that illustrated Musial’s life. I would mention, two.

First, Costas repeated a story that Willie Mays and Hank Aaron have both told about an instance that took place during an All-Star Game in the 1950’s. All the great black players, Mays, Aaron, Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson and others, had congregated in one small corner of the locker room, and all the white players were on the other side. The black all-stars were playing cards, keeping to themselves. Then Stan Musical crossed the room, pulled up a chair, sat down, and said, “Deal me in!” Costas said, “When Musical sat down at that table and said ‘Deal me in,’ he was letting those great black players know that they belonged.” The week before the funeral Hank Aaron, called Costas to say, “I did not just like Stan Musial, I wanted to be like Stan Musial.”

Then Costas told the story of Mickey Mantle, who unlike Musial lived a brilliant, yet flawed and star-crossed life, at the same time heroic and heartbreaking. Costas said that, some years before Mickey went to the Betty Ford Clinic and dried out, when Mickey was strung out on alcohol, he invited Mickey to stay with him in his St. Louis home. To put Mickey more at ease, he invited Musial and his wife, to join them for supper. When Mickey heard the Musial’s were coming to dinner, he said, “I don’t know how I will do it. But I am not going to have a drink today, or tonight. I want to be my best self. I don’t want to embarrass myself before Stan.” Later that night, after the meal, after midnight, when everyone else had gone home, Mickey said:

You know, I had as much ability as Stan, maybe more. Nobody had more power than me, nobody could run any faster than me; but Stan was a better player than me because he was a better man than me. Stan got everything out of his life and out of his ability that he could, and he will never have to live with all the regret that I have lived with.

I think that is the kind of life that God wants for all of us, and all of his people. God wants us to use all the gifts and abilities that he has given us, and God wants us to live this life with as little pain and as little regret as we can, and when we reach the end of it, God wants us to climb the Mountain, and look into the Promised Land, and then go in, having no regrets, believing that we have somehow left this world a better place.

Finis

Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.

Notes:

Note 1: Paul may or may not have been quoting Jesus. Some will say that he has left out the love of God. We can’t know, but perhaps Paul thought as John did. In 1st John 4:20 the apostle writes:

If any one says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.

Picture “The Children of Israel Cross the Jordan” from the Dore Collection. Public Domain.

About the author:

The Rev. Dr. Worth Green is the Senior Pastor of New Philadelphia Moravian Church.. Follow him on Twitter / Facebook.