Sermons from San Diego

Not Quite: Moses Saw But Didn't Enter the Promised Land in Deuteronomy 34

October 29, 2023 Mission Hills UCC - United Church of Christ Season 1 Episode 12
Not Quite: Moses Saw But Didn't Enter the Promised Land in Deuteronomy 34
Sermons from San Diego
More Info
Sermons from San Diego
Not Quite: Moses Saw But Didn't Enter the Promised Land in Deuteronomy 34
Oct 29, 2023 Season 1 Episode 12
Mission Hills UCC - United Church of Christ

What explanation can be given after 40 years of faithful leadership?  Read Deuteronomy 34: 1-12

If this sermon was meaningful to you, learn more about the rest of our church at You are invited to support the ministry of Mission Hills United Church of Christ with a one time or recurring contribution -

Show Notes Transcript

What explanation can be given after 40 years of faithful leadership?  Read Deuteronomy 34: 1-12

If this sermon was meaningful to you, learn more about the rest of our church at You are invited to support the ministry of Mission Hills United Church of Christ with a one time or recurring contribution -

Sermons from Mission Hills UCC

San Diego, California

Rev. Dr. David Bahr


October 29, 2023


“Not Quite”


Deuteronomy 34: 1-12Common English Bible

Then Moses hiked up from the Moabite plains to Mount Nebo, the peak of the Pisgah slope, which faces Jericho. The Lord showed him the whole land: the Gilead region as far as Dan’s territory; 2 all the parts belonging to Naphtali along with the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, as well as the entirety of Judah as far as the Mediterranean Sea; 3 also the arid southern plain, and the plain—including the Jericho Valley, Palm City—as far as Zoar.

4 Then the Lord said to Moses: “This is the land that I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob when I promised: ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have shown it to you with your own eyes; however, you will not cross over into it.”

5 Then Moses, the Lord’s servant, died—right there in the land of Moab, according to the Lord’s command. 6 The Lord buried him in a valley in Moabite country across from Beth-peor. Even now, no one knows where Moses’ grave is.

7 Moses was 120 years old when he died. His eyesight wasn’t impaired, and his vigor hadn’t diminished a bit.

8 Back down in the Moabite plains, the Israelites mourned Moses’ death for thirty days. At that point, the time for weeping and for mourning Moses was over.

9 Joshua, Nun’s son, was filled with wisdom because Moses had placed his hands on him. So the Israelites listened to Joshua, and they did exactly what the Lord commanded Moses.

10 No prophet like Moses has yet emerged in Israel; Moses knew the Lord face-to-face! 11 That’s not even to mention all those signs and wonders that the Lord sent Moses to do in Egypt—to Pharaoh, to all his servants, and to his entire land— 12 as well as all the extraordinary power that Moses displayed before Israel’s own eyes!

After 40 years of “Are we there yet?”, Moses can finally report – “not quite, but I can see it.”  Kind of like driving on the flat plains west across Kansas and finally catching a glimpse of the snow-capped Rockies gleaming in the sun.  I can see it, though it could still take weeks to walk there.  But I guess, really, to match the scripture text, it’s like standing on top of a 14,000-foot mountain on the Front Range and on a clear day looking out as far as Kansas and Nebraska and Wyoming and New Mexico and even Oklahoma.  


Anyway, the land Moses was now looking at from the peak was the same land that Abram and Sarai had once lived in but felt called by God to move away.  Here we are back full circle.  It was in that other land that they, now Abraham and Sarah, gave birth to (let’s see if you know the names) Abraham and Sarah had a son named Isaac, who married Rebekah, whose offspring were the feuding twins named Jacob and Esau.  Jacob, whose name later changed to Israel, and had a bunch of children by four women, but overtly favored one wife named Rachel, whose child was Joseph, and was sold into slavery in Egypt by his jealous brothers.  Joseph whose ability to interpret dreams saved Egypt from starvation.  Whose descendants were later enslaved by a different Pharaoh, to whose suffering God personally responded by sending Moses to free them – along with his brother Aaron and their tambourine-playing sister Miriam.  People who escaped but then spent the next 40 years wishing they were still back in Egypt, enslaved, complaining and asking, “Are we there yet?”   


And here we are, from the top of Mount Nebo looking across the horizon all the way to the Mediterranean Sea, Moses can finally report – “not quite, but I can see it.”  And with that, he died and was buried in a place no one knows so that no temple or shine could be built to idolize him.  That makes sense, the “don’t worship him” part.  But why wasn’t he allowed to enter?  That doesn’t make sense and feels like the great snub of history.  And so, we try to make sense of it.  Why would Moses be denied entry into the land he had been leading the people toward for 40 years?


Some say it was a punishment and stretch for any explanation to justify it.  We have been following the Book of Exodus for weeks now – the plagues and escape and wandering and terrifying blaring of horns and pounding of lightning on Mount Sinai.  The people hearing God’s own voice give the Ten Commandments, the golden calf debacle, and chapters and chapters of detailed instructions – like one of my favorites.  If the donkey of someone who hates you falls under the weight of its load, even though you don’t want to help someone who doesn’t like you, still, you must free the donkey.  A very practical instruction to treat others better than they treat you.  


Then chapter after chapter of laws and instructions, like how to build a chest to contain the second set of stone tablets after Moses broke the first ones because he threw them on the ground in disgust over the golden calf fiasco.  And more detailed instructions about how to build a Tent of Meeting to contain the chest holding those stone tablets inside which would now move along with the people as they continued their journey.  


We skipped over all that.  And then we skipped over the entire Book of Leviticus.  And we skipped over the entire Book of Numbers.  And since we may have been getting a little ancy about how long we have spent on this part of the Bible, we skipped over all but the last 12 verses of the last chapter of Deuteronomy because like the Israelites, we may have grown tired of this journey.  Aren’t we there yet?  Well, congratulations, we’ve stuck with it until Moses can finally report – “not quite, but I can see it.”  And then he died.  Why?


Well, there’s one verse, not here in Deuteronomy, but buried in the Book of Numbers that people have cited as justification.  Moses has faithfully followed God’s every command for 14,600 days, but one day he struck a rock to get water for the people who complained of thirst instead of speaking to it.  He was supposed to speak to it even through previously he had been told to strike a rock.  But, supposedly, because of this one thing, one day out of 14,600 days, as punishment Moses would be denied entry into the Promised Land.  That’s ridiculous.  But here’s just one theologian:  “His death comes as a punishment for his sin, his impatience, and leading in his own way, rather than according to God’s instruction.”  Punishment for sin.  Instead of – he was 120 years old!  Or anything else.


What is this obsession religious people have with punishment as explanation for things that happen?  What did they say?  Prominent pastors said, “God caused Hurricane Katrina to wipe out New Orleans because it had a gay pride parade the week before.”  Who also say, “marriage equality could lead to floods, fires, and tornadoes.”  But not, let’s say, global warming caused by human activity?!  My, what power.  Pat Robertson was serious when he said an earthquake in Virginia in 2011 was caused by individuals who “act kind of gay."  But when he tried to pre-emptively blame revelers at Disney World's Gay Days Weekend as the cause of a pending storm, he had nothing to say when it completely skipped over Disney World and slammed into his Hampton Roads, Virginia, 700Club headquarters instead.[1]  But God would never do such a thing.


The disciples asked Jesus, why is this man blind?  Was it something he did to be born blind?  When exactly would he have had time to do something wrong?  Or was it because his parents sinned?  And Jesus replied, or as I would have Jesus reply in my words, “That ridiculous.  Why do you insist on punishment as an explanation for things that happen?”  


So then, why didn’t Moses enter the Promised Land?  We wrestled with this question at our Thursday Lunch and Lectionary group and talked about our faith lives as a journey, not a destination.  And that, like Moses, we aren’t necessarily called to complete the work but to be faithful to the call.  I shared what I thought could offer an explanation why Moses reached the Promised Land but didn’t enter.  It’s a piece call Prophets of a Future Not Our Own often attributed to Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, but he didn’t write it.


  • It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
  • The kingdom of God is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. 
  • We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work. 
  • Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom of God always lies beyond us.
  • No statement says all that could be said.
  • No prayer fully expresses our faith.
  • No confession brings perfection.
  • No pastoral visit brings wholeness.  
  • No program accomplishes the Church's mission. 
  • No set of goals and objectives includes everything.


This is what we are about:

  • We plant the seeds that one day will grow.  
  • We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. 
  • We lay foundations that will need further development.  
  • We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.  
  • We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
  • This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
  • It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest.  
  • We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
  • We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
  • We are prophets of a future that is not our own.[2]


Moses was not being punished.  He fulfilled his call and died at the age of 120.  He led them to the Promised Land.  He did his part.  Just like what we’re all called to do.  To participate in something greater than ourselves.  To do our part.  To see our role to completion even if that means we don’t see everything completed.  The life of faith is faithfulness to the journey, not arrival at a destination – whether the Promised Land or as soon people see it, heaven.  From my perspective, this text is not about punishment but a teaching on how God’s mission is bigger than any one person, no matter how significant that person may be.  Even Moses.


The Israelites mourned Moses’ death for 30 days and then at that point, the time for weeping and for mourning Moses was over.  Because it wasn’t Moses’ mission, it was God’s.  It was now Caleb and Joshua’s to fulfill.  


Brian Russell wrote, Moses didn’t have a mission.  God had a mission.  And the mission had Moses.[3]


And in the same way, the church doesn’t have a mission.  That may sound wrong because clearly the church has a mission. Right?  But he makes the point:  God has a mission.  The mission has a church.  The mission has us.  


When a church acts like it’s doing its own ministry, watch out.  But when a church is aligned with God’s mission, watch out.  What a powerful church that will be.  It just takes all of us doing our part – risking and stretching and believing that what we need to participate in God’s mission will be provided.  That’s why, right now, because of you, our church is changing lives.  I marvel at watching it happen.  And with the changes we have made to how we organize our church, we will spend more of our efforts finding ways for people to connect with ministry and grow deeper in their faith than finding enough people to serve on a committee – which we still need, and for which some people have remarkable gifts – while others will claim their unique part.  A part that is rarely observer.  Every one of us has a role to play and if you don’t know what yours is yet, we will help you find it.  Just remember that Jesus said, “to whom much is given, much is required.”


Martin Buber tells the story of the great rabbi named Zusya.  On his deathbed he began to cry uncontrollably and his students and disciples tried hard to comfort him.  They asked him, “Rabbi, why do you weep?  You are almost as wise as Moses, you are almost as hospitable as Abraham, and surely heaven will judge you favorably.”


Zusya answered them: “It’s true that when I get to heaven, I won’t worry so much if God asks me, ‘Zusya, why were you not more like Abraham?’ or ‘Zusya, why were you not more like Moses?’  I know I would be able to answer those questions, after all, I was not given the righteousness of Abraham or the faith of Moses but I tried to be both hospitable and thoughtful.  But what will I say when God asks me, ‘Zusya, why were you not more like Zusya?’


Martin Luther King, Jr., told a group of junior high students to be the best of whatever you are and that when you discover what you will be in your life, set out to do it as if God Almighty uniquely called you at this particular moment in history to do it. 


If you’re a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Leontine Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say:  Here lived a great street sweeper who swept their job well.[4]


We are undeniably privileged and extraordinarily fortunate and deeply blessed to be entrusted with God’s mission in the world, gratefully following in the faithful footsteps of those who came before and responsible to provide a foundational path for the next generation.  For as many years as each of us are given.  That’s how our church changes lives.  Including mine. How about yours?


[3] Adapted from Brian Russell in Connections, Year A, Volume 3, page 411
[4] “What is Your Life’s Blueprint” speech, Barratt Junior High School in Philadelphia on October 26, 1967.