Seeing the Promise
Text: Deuteronomy 34:1-12
Were you saddened when you heard the Lords words to Moses: "This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, 'I will give it to your descendants.' I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it." I used to feel sad for Moses, because he did not get to go into Canaan with Joshua and the Israelites. One moment of sinful weakness was the cause of Moses not being allowed to enter the land promised to his fathers. In Numbers 20 we read that the LORD had commanded Moses, give the people water by speaking to a rock, yet Moses in His anger struck the rock with his staff. A gift of God's grace to His people was turned into a rebuke. One little slip up and the promise of entering the land of milk and honey slipped away.
I used to think it sad that Moses had brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, across the vast wilderness for 40 years and then just when they reached the border of Canaan he was not allowed to go in. Oh sure God is gracious enough to allow him one last face-to-face meeting. God gives him a vision of things not visible to the naked eye. He even takes care of the funeral honours and details personally, but I used to get stuck picturing Moses sitting there on top of the mountain, gazing down at the promised land in his last hours before death. Very sad. Why? Because if it could happen to someone as great as Moses, what chance do I have?
Even if I could fool you into thinking that I have been virtuous and decent my whole life, I would be fooling only myself if I were to say that I hadn’t had my moments of weakness and anger and shame. I have sinned a great many sins that could deny me the promised land I long for. Just as every single one of you have too. And if all it takes is one particular sin, then maybe it is too late for me?
I used to think that, but not anymore. This account in Deuteronomy is not primarily about the death and burial of Moses in Moab. Nor do I need to be sad and wondering about the mistakes I have made in life and where that might leave me cold and lonely. The true importance of this event is in the promise that God reiterated, the promise that Moses died believing. You see, this is not the end of his story, as we have seen from our Gospel. The promised land was not to be his before he tasted death, but he did set foot there all the same.
Moses makes a surprise appearance about 1,500 years after his death, right there on the Mount of Transfiguration, right in the heart of the Promised land. The Apostles of the Lord see Moses and Elijah appear in glory with Jesus when He is transfigured in blazing light. Moses has been summoned there by God to discuss our Lord's own exodus through cross and death, resurrection and ascension. What Moses could not attain as a leader of God's people, Jesus is about to fulfill. Where Moses failed in a moment of weakness, Jesus Christ the Son of God would bring to perfect completion. The rebuke of sin and death would be forever swallowed up in the wide-open arms of God's everlasting love and mercy. What a blessing for Moses to first see the promise of the land for his people, and now also the promise of their salvation about to come true. Yet this still isn't all that gloriously awaited poor old Moses.
Flash forward with me again a few years after our Lords Ascension into heaven when the writer to the Hebrews speaks of all the faithful believers of OT times: Hebrews 11:1 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2 For by faith the people of old received their commendation.” In the list of the heroes of the faith is given the summary of Moses’ life and works, as seen through the lens of faith. And then incredibly, the chapter ends with these words about all of the OT saints (poor old Moses included): 39 And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not reach their goal.
Did you catch that dear friends? None of these heroes of faith have yet received all that was promised to them. Not even Moses. They (and he) are still waiting in faith. Waiting to receive what was promised along with us. The saints in heaven are waiting, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses and Elijah and all the rest ... waiting to enter into the Promised Land. But not some scrap of arid land in Palestine, mind you – the blessed realm of heaven and all that has been promised with it. But lest we begin to be saddened by this thought again, consider this, Moses is waiting not so much for himself as for us that the whole people of Israel together will come into the Promise in its fullness. All the saints in heaven are waiting for the full remnant of the People of God to come into the Eternal Promise from God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
13 These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. They will receive the Promise only with us on the day of Resurrection in the new heaven and earth, the world without end. This is the communion to which every Christian belongs and the promise for which we await. you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant.
And so we come back to where we began. But this time it is you and me that stand on the mountain top in the presence of the Lord God. Behind us lays the long years of scraping out a life in the wilderness of this world. Moments of joy and beauty we found along the way to be sure. But long years of toil and hardship and grief and loss lay behind us. And there are more to come. Yet for us here in the heavenly courts there is no vision of the promised land before us to grant us a contented death. No. We have something far better. A vision of Jesus Christ the Son of the Living God, to grant us life beyond all measure.
In the Mount of Transfiguration the Apostles saw a glimpse of the glory to come. In the same we see the glory that He brings even now into our midst. For forgiveness and life in this world the glorious promise of heaven that awaits. It is not Canaan for which we wait. Earthly kingdoms and treasures have never been our aim. Our hope, like Moses before us, is to die in the faith, forgiven and free in the welcoming presence of God. We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come through Jesus Christ, our Savior, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end.