Saturday, July 20, 2013

Sermon: Moses at the Jordan River

Sermon Series
The Rev. Leah D. Schade
Part 3 - Moses at the Jordan River
First Reading -- Deuteronomy 30:11 - 31:3a

(Opening/closing line from A River Runs Through It, while spreading blue cloth across the front pews.)
“Eventually all things merge into one. And a river runs through it. The river was cut from the world’s great flood and flows over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words. And some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”

We began this sermon series last month with the story of Baby Moses in the Bulrushes, and we learned that rivers can sometimes bring out the worst in people, and sometimes bring out the best in people. Last time at the parting of the waters, we learned that sometimes the river can make you believe in God. And today, Moses is standing at a third river - the Jordan River. He is at the end of his life. He has brought his people through the wilderness during these last forty years. And today we will learn that sometimes the river can bring you back to God.

Let me fill you in on what’s been happening with the Israelites since they left the Egyptians at the waters’ edge and began their trek into the wilderness. Life has not been easy for them. In fact, sometimes it got so difficult that they grumbled that they wished they were back in Egypt living as slaves again.

Now you’d think they would have been grateful to God for being set free from bondage, and that they’d be eager to live in a way that would show their gratitude for everything God had done for them. But truthfully, these people had a bad attitude. They complained. They whined. They were impatient. Even Moses’ own siblings turned against him at one point. And the people committed the ultimate insult against God. Right after Moses received the Ten Commandments, they fashioned a golden calf to worship instead of God. And that’s just the beginning. If you read through the books of Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy you see over and over how the people revolt and sin and God has to punish them like rebellious children, and Moses has to intercede for them so that they don’t perish in the wilderness.

But God always came through for them. When they could find no water, God had Moses strike a rock and water came pouring out. When they had no food, God sent manna and doves to eat. And God gave them something even more essential for living together and surviving their journey. He gave them the Ten Commandments and a legal code by which they could order their interactions and dealings with each other.

So finally, after four decades of wandering, they finally arrive at the river, the Jordan River, the river that they will cross to enter into the promised land, the land flowing with milk and honey. But it is a bittersweet moment for Moses. Because the Lord has told him that he will not be able to cross into the new land. While he may be able to see this land from a distance, he will not be able to enter it himself. He will die on a mountaintop overlooking the promised land at the age of 120-years-old. His life began at the river’s edge. And it will end at the river’s edge.

But before he takes his leave, Moses gives them one heck of a long sermon. Almost the entire book of Deuteronomy is Moses’ last words to the Israelites, where he reiterates the commandments and the laws God has given them. We heard from Chapter 30 today where Moses passionately entreats them to follow these commands so that they might live and become numerous, and enjoy God’s blessings in the new land.

You see, sometimes the river can bring you back to God. And it is Moses’ fervent hope, that as they stand on the river’s edge, looking across into this new land of hope and promise, they will listen to him and renew their faith, reaffirm their commitment to God.

It’s a profound moment, and one that has relevance for our lives today. Because each of us comes to a point in life where we, too, stand at the water’s edge. Now depending on your stage of life, you may relate more to Moses, or you may relate more to the Israelites.

If you are a parent or grandparent, or anyone who has a relationship with young people, you may feel more of a connection to Moses. Because if you’re a conscientious person, you’ve probably asked yourself, “What kind of legacy am I leaving behind? What am I teaching my children by my words and by my example? What values am I passing on to them?” And I can imagine that you and Moses have the same worries and anxieties, “Are they going to listen to me? Is what I’m doing really going to make a difference? What’s going to happen to them when I’m gone?”

But, like Moses, like every teacher, every parent, every leader, there comes a time when you have to let go. You have say to the people, “Thus far have I brought you, but no further. You’ll have to go on from here without me.” It’s a bittersweet moment. And it takes a tremendous amount of faith in them and in God to finally release your hold and let them go.

That’s why these last words are so important for the Israelites. Because it’s a time of preparing for the future. A time of transition, moving from nomadic life to settled life. A time of change in leadership. A new generation going from wandering in the wilderness to coming home.

Today is the moment of decision, Moses tells them. If you follow the laws of God, God will bless you in this new land. But if your hearts turn away and you do not hear, you shall perish and you shall not live long in the new land. Choose life.

Pretty stark words. It sounds like he’s putting before them a life-or-death decision. It sounds so momentous, like there’s no turning back. Lutherans tend to shy away from this word, “decision.” Our evanglical cousins use it quite often in phrases like, “Make the decision for Christ.” That's not language Lutherans use because we know Christ has already made the decision for us.

And yet, every day is a day of decision. Every moment of crisis is an opportunity for decision. And even little moments of every day choices can have great impact on the future. Will you be ethical and act with moral integrity? Will you help those in need and work for justice? Or will you compromise the values you have been taught for personal gain, or because of self-centeredness, or simply out of laziness?

Maybe you’ve had a time in your life when you made a decision that went against one of the Ten Commandments, or had a period in your life when you were self-centered, or had a bad attitude, or were just plain old lazy. If that’s ever happened to you, then you can most likely relate to the Israelites. You can probably recall the consequences that happened as a result of your decisions. And you probably don’t feel too good about them.

We all have them. Those times in our lives when we rebelled for no good reason. Hurt a person we loved. Neglected our obligations. Fell away from the church. Or even committed a serious crime that affected a lot of people and exacted a terrible price.

Maybe you’re like the Israelites, standing at the river’s edge, realizing that you are not even worthy to cross the water into a new land of promise. You haven’t earned the right. You don’t deserve this privilege. You’re afraid to even look ahead to the future.

If you’re feeling more like one of those Israelites today, then I have some good news for you. It’s the same words that Moses had for his people. He said, “The Lord himself will cross over before you.” Do you know what that means? It means that the future is ultimately not determined by your mistakes or sins or bad decisions. The future is determined by God’s faithfulness, love, and power to forgive and restore.

Sometimes the river can bring you back to God. That’s what happened for the Israelites. After all they put God and Moses through, after all the rebellion and complaining and sinning, you know what God did for them? He parted the water for them one more time. They sent the ark of the covenant out in front of the people as a symbol of their renewed commitment to God, and as soon as the men carrying it stepped foot into the water, it parted. And they all crossed over on dry land. Sound familiar? What a moment of realization that must have been for them, seeing that God was still with them, reminding them of all God had done for them before and will do for them in the future.

You know, it is no coincidence that the very river where the Israelites crossed over will be the same river where Jesus is baptized. Baptism is like standing on the water’s edge, hearing those words of promise: “The Lord himself will cross over before you.”

Renewed dedication is required every day. Every morning you wake up, you’re standing at the river’s edge. Martin Luther said that as you wash your face in the morning, let that water remind you of your baptism, remind you of the person you were born to be, remind you that you are God’s child.

It is never too late to come to the water’s edge and let the river bring you back to God. Each day is a chance to begin again. Each Sunday is a chance to stand at the river’s edge and say, “I am baptized. I am God’s child. I choose life.” Amen.


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