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The Reverend Paul T. Roberts, Sr.
October 30, 2017
A reading from Deuteronomy:
Then 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 the whole 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. The Lord said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.”
Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day. Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated. The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended.
Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses. Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.
Friends, you know this, but it’s worth repeating. The Book of Deuteronomy is an account of the history of the Israelites up to that point in their lives together. It consists of speeches made by Moses to the Israelites in which he reminds them of all that they had been through and in which he reinforces their belief system. One commentator says the book provides ample fodder for the holy wonderings of you and me, the reader.
For me, that commentator has given permission, that’s a very important permission giving statement, for I have long wondered what it must have been like for Moses to have led for four decades an alternately grateful and grumpy people to a place that under the best of circumstances was vaguely defined, and whose boundaries were somewhat unclear. And I’ve often wondered what it must have been like for Moses to stand there, at this moment that we’ve just read about, at that high place and look beyond his past, and look beyond the collective past of his people. To look beyond all of that, the sum total of their victories and failures together. To look beyond all of that, and to catch a glimpse of the promise, the yet unrealized promise that was to come.
All of us from time to time should afford ourselves such a season of reflection, a journey to some high place or to some quiet place with the intention that we will look beyond that which we currently in an effort to see what thus saith the Lord.
My friend, Keith, Grogg, pastor of the Montreat Presbyterian Church in Montreat, North Carolina, preached a sermon this summer that I just adore, and I told him I was gonna borrow from it. I’m borrowing from it today (I do have his permission).
In the beginning of that sermon, he tells this story. He says, in the mid-1970s, NASA took advantage of a rare planetary alignment that would afford them the opportunity to send exploratory spacecraft from Jupiter, to Saturn, to Uranus, to Neptune, and then out into emptiness beyond. They launched in 1977, slipping the surly bonds of earth, just eighteen months before the last solar eclipse preceding. And over the course of the next several years, they fulfilled their mission by sending back stunning pictures from the outermost planets. After they had given us our closest ever look at Neptune, they crossed Pluto’s orbit, and just a few years ago, they passed the outer edge of the solar system and crossed into that terrible empty immensity of interstellar space.
From that inconceivable distance, we still get faint signals from those tiny craft. Many of the instruments that made their discoveries possible were expected to shut down just last year, and NASA believes that all power in both units will have burned out by around the year 2025. From then on, probably beyond the end of human history, possibly beyond the existence of this planet, Voyagers I and II will be left to sail and sail. If they don’t suffer any collisions, which they’re not likely to because it really is a vast emptiness out there, they could keep going for two billion years or more. Lonely, timeless vessels, carrying a longing message from a cosmically small planet populated by tiny organisms yearning to reach beyond all knowledge, to the infinity of the unknown.
That’s just the thing. In our country, we have these debates about exploration, and space exploration, and those are reasonable conversations to have. But, at the essence of exploration of any sort, is this notion that it satisfies the need of the human spirit, which is an expansive spirit. That expansiveness is often misunderstood, is often translated more by a need to prove our value by acquiring stuff, by getting more stuff, by encircling more stuff, and sometimes trampling on the needs of other people in order for us to claim more stuff and prove our value. But, actually, the human spirit is looking to be coordinated with the infinite nature of God’s Spirit.
God’s Spirit is an expansive spirit. It’s infinite. And the love of that Spirit is abiding and abundant and it also is infinite. It is without measure, without bounds.
Motivational speaker Dennis Waitley writes, “You must look withing for value, but you must look beyond for perspective.” So in this text, Moses has gone to that high place, and he is looking beyond. He has led the Israelites for forty years, he has led them out of Egypt, out of slavery. He has led them to Mount Sinai. He has led them through trials and hardship and confusion and doubt and now they stand at the threshold of the Promise, about to enter the land that was promised to their forebears. They stand at the cusp of a season of radical reinvention, the dawning of a new era, and even the throes of an ongoing reformation.
And so do we. Yes, and so do we. This commemoration that’s happening all around the world, in which we are recollecting and celebrating the gifts of the Reformation, well, actually, so many scholars are saying that what’s happening now is the arrival of another Reformation. And I don’t quite know how I feel about that because we are people who are reformed and always being reformed. It’s an ongoing process, and perhaps it evolves in starts and fits, but it never ceases.
And we are embracers and inheritors of a belief system, not unlike the Israelites, that is rooted in an understanding of how God dwells in creation. And so, there is absolutely nothing, as we think about this belief system, we adhere to the notion that there is absolutely nothing that happens in the universe that is outside of God’s influence and authority. As King of Kings, and Lord of Lords, God has no limitations. That is the essence of who we are as children of the Reformation.
And if you have any doubts, we, we have this book and I’m gonna cite from it.
God is above all things, and before all things. God is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end. He is immortal, he is present everywhere so that everyone can know him. You can read that in the book of Revelation.
God created all things and holds all things together, both in heaven and on earth, both visible and invisible. You can read that in Paul’s letter to the Collisions.
God knows all things, past, present, and future, there is no limit to his knowledge, for God knows everything completely before it even happens. You can read that in Romans.
God is in control of all things, and rules over all things. He has a power and authority over nature, earthly kings, history, angels, and even demons, even Satan himself has to ask God’s permission before he can act. Psalm 103.
And the clincher: God rules in love. So even as God is ultimately in charge, God still has blessed each of us with a measure of freedom and will, so that we can be full participants in the ongoing renewal and reformation of this amazing work of art called creation.
On this occasion of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, friends, may it be so that we not lust after that which used to be, but may we, in the words of a Renaissance woman whom I have long admired, poet extraordinaire Maya Angelou. May we, in her words, do as follows:
*[May we] lift up [our] faces, for [we] have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for [us].
History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage,
Need not be lived again.
[May we lift up our eyes] upon
The day breaking for [us],
Give birth again
To the dream.
Women, children, men,
[Let us] take it into the palms of [our] hands.
[let us] mold it into the shape of [our] most
Private need. [Let us] sculpt it into
The image of [our] most public self.
[May we] lift up our hearts, [may we lift them up to the Lord, for]
Each new hour holds new chances
For new beginnings.
[Let us] not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
[For] the horizon leans forward, offering [us] space to place new steps of change.
. . .
Here on the pulse of this new day,
[May we] have the grace to look up and out [and beyond]
And into [our] sister’s eyes,
Into [our] brother’s face, [our] country, [our world,]
And say simply, [embracingly, but simply, and]
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.
*THE ROCK CRIES OUT TO US TODAY
(1993 Clinton Inaugural Poem)