Throughout Great Lent we read the narrative of God’s people in Genesis and Exodus, and through the Prophet Isaiah. Holy Saturday’s 15 Old Testament readings give us more of the sense of the spiritual life as a sojourn. Israel’s journey is a type of the spiritual journey of each believer and also of the believers collectively – both of ancient Israel and of the Church in its history. All of these stories find their fulfillment in Christ, and all of them help us make sense of our own spiritual experiences.
At Pascha, we celebrate the Resurrection of Christ and experience the sojourn from death to life and from earth to heaven on which Christ our God has led us. Great Lent from beginning to end is designed to be a spiritual journey: we are the sojourners not just through Great Lent but in life itself. Repentance can only occur if there is movement and change.
And our Christian experience of Holy Week and Pascha is based in and prefigured by the Passover and Exodus story – God calling Moses to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt through 40 years of wandering in the desert until they finally reach the Promised Land. And it is today that I want us to remember Moses and think about the sojourn which he undertook at God’s bequest.
Remember Moses was not happy when God called him to lead the Israelites. Most of us think we would want God to speak directly to us and call us to do something for Him. But Moses, who the scriptures say was the meekest man alive (Numbers 12:3), did not want to be such a leader and he begged God to send someone else. But God had not made a mistake in His choice of the man to lead His people, and God persisted and Moses acquiesced.
And the man who did not want to be the leader of the Israelites found the Israelites were not very interested in having him be their leader and they resisted Moses and rebelled against him and made his life miserable. Moses the humble man remained faithful to God and carried out his mission, but the people exasperated him and provoked him to anger. Yet, when God wanted to destroy the miserable Israelites for their endless complaining and rebellion, it was “meek” Moses who stepped forward to intercede for them and stopped God from destroying them. (see my other blogs about Moses: Why Do You Cry to Me? And Reflections from the Holy Saturday Scripture Readings)
But because of his experiences with these rebellious people, Moses ultimately disobeys God and God tells Moses he will pay a price for his lack of faithfulness.
So we read in Deuteronomy 31:22-30 :
When Moses had finished writing the words of this law in a book, to the very end, Moses commanded the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD, “Take this book of the law, and put it by the side of the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God, that it may be there for a witness against you. For I know how rebellious and stubborn you are; behold, while I am yet alive with you, today you have been rebellious against the LORD; how much more after my death! Assemble to me all the elders of your tribes, and your officers, that I may speak these words in their ears and call heaven and earth to witness against them. For I know that after my death you will surely act corruptly, and turn aside from the way which I have commanded you; and in the days to come evil will befall you, because you will do what is evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger through the work of your hands.”
Moses had worked with and the led these people for 40 years and knew them well, and he saw them as rebellious and stubborn, and could foresee that if the people wouldn’t listen to him when he was alive, then surely they wouldn’t obey what he taught after he died. Moses the meek man, offers no wonderful ‘eulogy’ of this people as he comes close to his own death. The people knew God spoke to Moses face to face as a man speaks to his friend. Still they rebelled against Moses and God. And Moses sadly realizes that despite their being the chosen people of God, their salvation and their ability to attain the Promised Land was deeply at risk because of their sinful stubbornness.
The Deuteronomy narrative continues (Deuteronomy 32:45-52) :
And when Moses had finished speaking all these words to all Israel, he said to them, “Lay to heart all the words which I enjoin upon you this day, that you may command them to your children, that they may be careful to do all the words of this law. For it is no trifle for you, but it is your life, and thereby you shall live long in the land which you are going over the Jordan to possess.” And the LORD said to Moses that very day, “Ascend this mountain of the Abarim, Mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab, opposite Jericho; and view the land of Canaan, which I give to the people of Israel for a possession; and die on the mountain which you ascend, and be gathered to your people, as Aaron your brother died in Mount Hor and was gathered to his people; because you broke faith with me in the midst of the people of Israel at the waters of Meribathkadesh, in the wilderness of Zin; because you did not revere me as holy in the midst of the people of Israel. For you shall see the land before you; but you shall not go there, into the land which I give to the people of Israel.”
Moses hears the bad news: he is not going to be permitted to enter into the promised land. The very thing he had been called to do some 40 years earlier and despite incredible perseverance in the face of unimaginable opposition and rebellion, he would not attain the goal. Moses was not going to be the one to lead Israel into the promised land. God would allow Moses to see the chosen land, from a distance, but Moses would die short of his goal and never set foot there.
As it says in Hebrews 11:39-40:
“And all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”
That spiritual sojourn which Israel was on figuratively, spiritually and really was not completed or fulfilled by the greatest heroes of the Old Testament. And in fact in the narrative of Moses’ sojourn one realizes it really is because of these stubborn people whom Moses was leading that Moses lost both his temper and his chance to enter into the Promised Land. This people Moses had served for 40 years were to become the very reason he was not allowed to enter the Promised Land.
The Moses narrative continues (Deuteronomy 34:1-6) :
And Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho. And the LORD showed him all the land, Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the Negeb, and the Plain, that is, the valley of Jericho the city of palm trees, as far as Zoar. And the LORD said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there.” So Moses the servant of the LORD died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the LORD, and he buried him in the valley in the land of Moab opposite Bethpeor; but no man knows the place of his burial to this day.
Moses dies never having reached the promised land. He perhaps was comforted in being allowed to see the land at a distance. For at least he knew it was real, attainable, even if still some distance off. Many of us would be comforted if God would allow us to catch such a glimpse of the future Kingdom of heaven, so we might know it is real.
But the spiritual and physical sojourn of ancient Israel, like that of Moses, fell short of the goal.
But my long commentary now also has this caveat – that though Moses’ life ends short of the goal, short of the promised land, even that is not the end of the story. It is during the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that the Moses story and sojourn continues. It is now during our own sojourn through Holy Week and Pascha that we join Christ and Moses in this continued spiritual journey. For Christ comes into the world and descends into Sheol, into that place of the dead, and calls Moses with all those dead residing in Hades to come forth with himself to new life.
Deuteronomy tells us that Moses was buried in some foreign land, a stranger on earth, and worse nobody knows where he was buried. Completely forgotten, or so it is according to Deuteronomy. God had not forgotten Moses among the dead, nor was Moses left a stranger to God. For Jesus finds Moses in Sheol and takes Moses and all the rest on the journey from death to life and earth to Heaven. And that is what we celebrate at Pascha. We have joined that spiritual odyssey and that holy procession from earth to heaven. We have joined the great Moses, the friend of God, in the continued migration toward’s God’s resting place.
But Moses’ story doesn’t end there. His earthly sojourn ended, but his life continued. His story is taken up again in the death and resurrection of Christ our Lord. Moses is alive in Sheol. God is the Lord of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, He is the God of the living (Matthew 22:32), and Moses is numbered among them.
And in the end Christ’s saving of all the dead in Hades shows that for Moses God’s love is victorious. For Moses may have been denied access to the Promised Land, Moses may have been buried in some spot that nobody even remembers anymore, but God’s anger against Him was not permanent, as we hear in the Psalms (Psalms 103:7-14):
The Lord made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel. The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger for ever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor requite us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. As a father pities his children, so the LORD pities those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.
God forgives Moses who disappointed the Lord, and now at Pascha allows Moses to finish that sojourn, and takes Moses not just to a promised land on earth where sickness, sorrow and sighing continue, but to the Kingdom of Heaven where sickness, suffering and sorrow have fled away.
In our great icon of the resurrection Christ is raising not just Adam and Eve but Moses and all those folk as well. Pascha is the celebration of the victory of God over every human error and sin, over evil and death itself. God forgives sinners and complete failures and Himself lifts us from hell and leads us to His eternal kingdom. God’s anger does not last forever – He forgives and leads His children to the Kingdom and allows them to enter, forgiven of their failures and misdeeds.