Have you ever thought about what you want on your tombstone? On a windswept hill in an English country churchyard stands a drab, gray slate tombstone with an epitaph not easily seen unless you stoop over and look very closely. The faint etchings read: “Beneath this stone, a lump of clay, lies Arabella Young, Who on the 24th of May, began to hold her tongue.” In Deuteronomy 34:10-12 we have what Biblical scholars have called Moses’ epithat, “Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, who did all those miraculous signs and wonders the Lord sent him to do in Egypt to Pharaoh and to all his officials and to his whole land. For no one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel.”
Moses was born a Hebrew but raised as the adopted child of Pharaoh’s daughter. Though he grew as an Egyptian prince, Moses never forgot who he was. One day after seeing an Egyptian kill a Hebrew slave, he could not control his temper and killed the Egyptian. As a result, Moses fled to Midian where he married and rose up to be an overseer of shepherds. One day, while Moses was leading his flock to Mount Horeb, he came across a burning bush. Coming closer to it, God spoke to Moses and told him to return to Egypt and free the Hebrews from slavery. Though Pharaoh was considered to be a god, Moses demanded the Hebrews be released from slavery. Pharaoh refused and there ensued a prolonged battle between Moses and Pharaoh, including 10 plagues Moses called upon Egypt to persuade Pharoah. The 10th plague was the worst of all, causing the death of all first-born Egyptian males. After this, Pharaoh relented and told the Hebrews to leave Egypt. But then Pharaoh had a change of heart and ordered his army to get the Hebrews back. They chased them to the Red Sea where the Hebrews were allowed to cross but as Pharaoh’s army crossed, the parted waters collapsed drowning the Egyptians.
For the next 40 years, Moses led the Hebrews through the wilderness. He faced problems with both water and food and weathered complaints from the Hebrews about the conditions, dealt with demands they return to Egypt as well as their rebellion. God did many miracles on the wildernenss journey including "manna" or bread that fell from heaven. They were guided by a pillar of cloud during the day and a pillar of fire at night, both of which led them to Mount Sinai. It was there that Moses went up, met with God and received the 10 Commandments. While he was away, the Hebrews stayed back and started to make a golden calf to worship, which Moses destroyed. He oversaw the construction of the Tabernacle, where they would worship. He experienced Hebrews who disobeyed his commands. Through it all, their faith was tested as they experienced intense heat, hunger, thirst, and war but Moses led them safely through the wilderness to the Promised Land.
After all of that, you would expect that Moses not only have earned the right to lead the Hebrew people into the promised land but also to experience it himself. But that was not to be. Moses is told by God that his life will come to an end and he will not lead the Hebrews into the Promised Land.
As I thought about the last 7 years, my mind came to the story of Moses. We have been on a long journey together through many ups and downs, challenges and successes. We didn’t know what the journey would be like or exactly what the destination was. But through it all, God has been leading us. We have crossed the wilderness together, not knowing exactly where we were going or how we would get there. We have learned much along the way and Adrain and I have felt for quite some time that we are on the verge of something big here, that we’re about to bust wide open with growth. In other words, we are on the edge of the Promised Land but like Moses, a call came which informed me that it was not me who was to lead you into there.
In our Scripture today, Moses shares the news with the Hebrew people that He will not be leading the Hebrews into the promised land. With his words, he seeks to prepare the people for the next leg of the journey. Moses shares five keys for the journey which lies ahead. First, while the future is not certain, one thing is: God goes ahead of you. We don’t know what the future will bring. No one does. Consider these comments on the future: “Theoretically, television may be feasible, but I consider it impossibility--a development which we should waste little time dreaming about.” Lee de Forest, 1926, inventor of the cathode ray tube.” I think there is a world market for about five computers.” Thomas J. Watson, 1943, Chairman of the Board of IBM. “We don’t think the Beatles will do anything in their market. Guitar groups are on their way out.” Recording company expert, 1962. Needless to say each one of the comments prove the future does not turn out sometimes like we expect it too. The Scriptures put it this way “Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit”; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.” James 4:13-15
But amidst all of the uncertainty, there are two things we can be certain of: first, God goes ahead of you and second, the mission hasn’t changed. The Israelites had grown accustomed to God leading them by a pillar of cloud during the day and pillar of fire during the night. One of their greatest fears was that as they entered into a new land and begin a new journey, they will be left to their own devices. But no! Moses reminds the people that just as God has led them to this point, he will continue to lead them in the journey that lies ahead. And while they were set on this journey to be given the Holy Land, a land filled with milk and honey, they are also called to be God’s people and a light unto the nations. Moving into a new land doesn’t change the mission, it accentuates it. And for us, we need to be assured of two things: first, God goes ahead of us and second, the mission of “Connecting diverse communities to a lifestyle devoted to Jesus” will not change. Many have stated that they are concerned about what Bertrand’s vision is. Well, the vision for this church has already been set, the people here are on the bus and Bertrand is getting on the bus to join us in this journey. We’re following God vision, not a pastor’s vision and God goes ahead of us to lead us into that vision.
Third, God will give you a leader for this journey. “Joshua will also cross over ahead of you, as the Lord said.” Moses is at the end of his life and is about to die but God’s does not leave His people without a leader. He raised up Joshua to continue the journey. And likewise, God has appointed Bertrand Griffin II to lead you in the next leg of this journey. Many of you have questioned who he is, what he will be like and whether or not he will be able to lead this congregation. First, let me say that those questions and concerns are natural when one faces the unknown. I have had some of those same thoughts as well because I have so much invested in you, our mission and this church. I want to share with you the words of some of my closest colleagues, “You have to trust God that He is in the appointive process and that He will send just the right person.” It’s a matter of faith and it’s a matter of trust. I believe Bertrand Griffin is God’s man for the job and I’m asking you to receive Him and follow Him as such.
Fourth, follow God’s command for your life together. “You must do all that I have commanded you.” All of this is contingent on one thing: obedience to God’s will. The last three weeks, we have re-visited our Vision, Our Values and Our Strategy. It was a time to remind us of God’s call upon our life and ministry together but also a time to re-commit ourselves to God’s purpose and God’s will. All of this is God’s will for Gretna UMC. And if you stay the course, live out the values and fulfill the strategy, God will be right in the middle of it and you will be on God’s path which He has blazed ahead of you.
Fifth, “be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid.” Moses put it this way: “And the LORD, He is the one who goes before you. He will be with you, He will not leave you nor forsake you; do not fear nor be dismayed.” There is another nuance to the Hebrew in this verse: God will not forsake (give up/abandon) you v. 6c In other words, God will not desert or leave you hanging. Those words, “Fear not” are a familiar refrain throughout the Scriptures. Abraham was told, “Fear not” when he worried about an heir. Jacob was told, “Fear not” when he was told to go down to Egypt. The Hebrews were told, “Fear not” as they ventured into the wilderness and faced many enemies. Joshua was told, “Fear not” when he led them into the Promised Land. Elijah was told, “Fear not” regarding King Ahab and his wife, Jezebel. Mary was told, “Fear not” as she was chosen to give birth to the Messiah. And Joseph was told, “Fear not” regarding taking Mary as his wife. Why should we be not afraid? Because God is with us and He goes before us. God has never walked out on us or turn his back on us and He’s not going to start now! The Psalmist says, “The LORD is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me?” Psalm 118:6 Fear not because you will not fail because God is with you. God did not dessert Abraham. He did not desert Moses and the Hebrews in the wilderness. God did not dessert his own Son upon the cross and God will not desert you as you continue the journey ahead. So do not be afraid!
Lastly, face the future with hope. As the Israelites stand on the shores of the Jordan River, they can see that which was promised more than a generation before. Their hearts must have been teeming with possibility and excitement and hope of a new future and a new phase of their journey. You see, their journey wasn’t really geographical through the wilderness, it was spiritual. God used that time and journey not just to take them to a Promised Land filled with milk and honey but to prepare them to become the people God called them to become, His chosen people, a light unto the nations, a holy people. And God has prepared you to be a light unto this city, the New Orleans District and the Louisiana UM Conference. God has great things in store for you. The journey has not ended. It has just begun. And just as Moses stood on that shoreline cheering God’s people on as they crossed over, know I will be doing the same for you. Amen.