A sermon preached Sunday, April 17, 2016, based on Deuteronomy 34:1-8.
“His eye was not dimmed, and his vigor was not abated.” Now that’s just unfair. Here I am, about to turn thirty-five years old, barely able to make it from bed to bathroom without my glasses. It’s been this way for me since fourth grade, when I sat on the last row of Mrs. Tucker’s class during math. As she wrote an equation on the board I raised my hand and asked her to read it aloud, please, the glare on the board was giving me trouble. Then, as she wrote another problem, I again asked her to read it aloud. And this continued for two more problems, Mrs. Tucker growing obviously frustrated over repeating herself every time my hand went up, as if it was my fault that the school had given her a bright chalkboard and chalk made of fur. Every time she’d write with that fuzzy chalk, and I’d raise my hand, until my fourth question, when she stopped, put her hand on her hip and said: “Michael, I think you need glasses.”
The nerve. To blame me for the inadequacies of her board, chalk and handwriting. Obviously, her insult was too low to dignify with a response, so I shut my mouth and resolved that I’d show her. I sat on the front row from then on. Months later, summer came, and at some point I had my first routine eye exam where the doctor broke the bad news and showed me my “options,” such as they were. Nowadays, glasses are a fashion accessory, with ultrathin lenses in funky cool frames. I have a pair that I wear when I want to look sophisticated and wise. Then, however, fashion had not yet reached children’s eyes, and so I showed up for the first day of fifth grade with lenses thick enough to deflect bullets covering this portion of my face. I’ve come a long way since then. As I have traveled the exciting journey of myopia, I’ve learned to make it in the big wide world, I’ve gotten contacts and my aforementioned spectacles of wisdom but there are still moments like this last Friday morning , when I stumbled to the bathroom mirror, put in my contacts and blinked uncomfortably at my half-clear reflection until Jennifer yelled “Michael, your contacts are in the case on the right.”
So you’ll understand my fascination and envy as I read about Moses, all 12 decades of him, climbing 3000 feet to the peak of Mt. Nebo and seeing the details in a landscape that stretches for dozens of miles to the horizon. Were I to stand on Mt. Nebo, without prescription lenses, I would see only a vast expanse of beige. I want to see what he saw. Thankfully, I do have contacts and lenses. And thanks to google image search, I can download high resolution photos taken from Pisgah, the peak of Mt. Nebo. I could do even better; I could fly to the country of Jordan and pay for a tour to the top of Nebo to see for myself, and take my own high-res memories back home. But even that, I suspect would fail to satisfy the longing I find as I read this story. There’s a beauty in this passage that contains more than what Moses saw. The beauty rests much deeper even than the pathos of tragedy, deeper than Moses’ death and the promised land he could not reach. What captures me about Moses on Mt. Nebo is not what he saw, but how he looked at it.
Throughout his life, Moses tended to see things than most. When the people of Israel saw themselves trapped by the Red Sea, Moses saw a dry path through it. As the people wandered through the desert, they saw only a hopeless wasteland, but Moses would see a spring of water, even when it was hidden in a rock. When the Israelites came to Mt. Sinai, God invited every one of them to climb the clouded mountain and commune with God, but the Israelites were afraid. They saw the cloud, and the storm and begged to stay at the foot of the mountain. Only Moses took God’s offer and experienced God’s presence. And it was only Moses who begged of God “Let me see your glory” and so Moses caught a passing glimpse of God’s power and beauty rushing by in the desert. We are reminded of Moses special vision in verse 10 today, where we read that Moses alone knew God face to face. Moses had learned to see what God was up to and what God had in store. John Wesley commenting on how willingly Moses climbed Mt. Nebo wrote: “Those who are well acquainted with another world are not afraid to leave this.”
As Christians we believe that other world was brought into this world by Jesus Christ. It is called the kingdom of heaven, and because of Jesus all of us, like Moses, can see it firsthand. First, Jesus came and showed us what the kingdom looks like. He said, it is like a tiny little mustard seed that grows into a great bush. It is like a family reunion where the prodigal son and the son who is too proud of his goodness come together. Jesus said that the kingdom was like immense riches hidden in the middle of the most ordinary places – it is a treasure buried in a field, a priceless pearl being sold in a market. Jesus preached endlessly about the kingdom, and then, he became king.
Not everyone sees it that way, but Christians have had our eyes opened enough to see that Jesus is Lord, and he is reigning right now. Jesus conquered death and on the day that he rose from the grave, he guaranteed that God’s kingdom will never be defeated. One day everyone will see it that way. One day every knee shall bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. One day it will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Until that day, God has made us the church so that we can live in that kingdom now, and so that we can see it spread around us. This is why, throughout this time of Covenant Renewal, we are remembering that our mission is to "unite the diversity of our community to the grace of Jesus Christ, through discipleship, worship, and service.” Whoever you are, wherever you come from, we want you to know that you can belong to the kingdom of God.
One mark of God’s kingdom, one mark of God’s church is its generosity. The point is really beyond argument: God’s plan -- God’s kingdom -- is one in which God’s people give to for the benefit of each other and for the benefit of the world. Simply put, the world cannot see the kingdom of heaven in a church that does not give.
If it takes knowing that biblical imperative for you to give, then great. If you give to clear your conscience, or because “it’s the right thing to do,” I’m not gonna argue. God gives us that conscience for a reason. But I am gonna tell you that whatever reason we have for giving, God has promised us more than clean conscience. God has promised that when we give, we when we begin to be the kingdom of heaven, we begin to see. To see the world as God sees it. We see God’s kingdom alive and at work in this world. Moses didn’t start following God with perfect vision. If you’ll remember, Moses started out as a stumble-tongued, runaway murderer. But he heard a call from God, and he began training his eye to see what God saw. It was only 50 years later that he stood on Mt. Nebo and saw the vastness of God’s grace. But oh the things he saw along the way. And when we give in accordance to God’s will, just as any other time we are faithful to God’s kingdom, we begin to catch glimpses as Moses did. We begin to see gifts in ourselves we’ve never seen before and we see God working in bigger ways than we ever imagined.
Now that’s an easy statement for me to make. But it’s not just my word. Throughout this season of covenant renewal, we have heard from witnesses about what they have seen, and I am so glad that today as we talk about generosity, we get to hear from Art and Rosemary Luckie, just as we heard from Allen Bell about Prayer and from Kim Miller about the power of presence.
Remember, it was all of Israel that was invited up the mountain, God longs to train all our eyes to see God’s work. That’s what it means to be a witness – to see something. The church is growing people; it is people who find themselves stronger every time they chase after God; more alive and aware every time they strain their eyes for his face. Moses saw God after climbing the mountaintops. Jacob, you may remember, glimpsed God’s face after wrestling all night.
The signs of the kingdom are all around us, if only we can see them. Every week, I get the privilege of seeing this church care for people in dire straits, through our benevolence fund. Since this time last year, we have helped 171 people keep their lights on, and keep their water running when they had literally nowhere else to turn. I’ve seen one of our oldest members holding open a plastic bag for a 7 year old she just met as we came together to pack small gifts for people in our community who worked on Christmas Eve. I’ve seen us singing with one voice on Palm Sunday, and serving with our own hands in the soup kitchen. I’ve seen a strangers, entirely new in this town say that they found just what they were looking for when they found their way here, and I’ve seen you greet them, go out of your way to sit with them or walk them and their children to a generous welcome on Kids’ Street. In a world of violence, in a world of distrust, in a world of isolation, I see God’s kingdom – I see God giving us neighbors and trust and belonging - every time we come together and say the words that Jesus so often used to greet his disciples: “Peace be with you.” I see the kingdom, and the abundant gift of God, every time we come to the table and ask for more. This morning, I saw the kingdom of God when a mother and daughter both came forward to be baptized. If anyone is in Christ, there is the new creation! There, we see the kingdom breaking in! There is the pearl of great price, the treasure in a field – I’d give anything to see that.
Having seen all that, I want to see more. I want to see how abundantly God provides; I want to see the possibilities of the kingdom rather than the limits of my own worries, I want to see God in first place in every part of my life, so that I can see God’s reign in every part of the world around me. I want to see bigger things at work than others dream possible.
And so I give.