Tuesday, October 31, 2017

All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go – Deuteronomy 34

This is a sermon that was preached on Sunday, October 29, 2017 at United Presbyterian Church in Sterling, KS.  Listen to the audio here.  

Read Deuteronomy 34 here.


A little girl named Jamie was trying out for a part in the school play.  Her mother knew that she'd set her heart on being in it, but was afraid she would not be chosen.

On the day the parts were awarded, her mom went to pick her up after school. Jamie rushed up to her, eyes shining with pride and excitement, “Guess what, Mom,” she shouted, “I've been chosen to clap and cheer!”[1]

Jamie got a part in the play alright….she’s officially part of the audience.  But instead of being disappointed, she’s excited, and she’s thankful.

Life is full of disappointments. 

What are the only things you can count on?  (Cliché - Death & taxes)  No, your fingers.

We can also count on disappointment.  Dealing with disappointment is part of life, and also part of growing in our faith, and growing in gratitude.  It’s easier to have faith when things are going well, and easier to be grateful, but when we manage to be thankful even when things aren’t going the way we wanted or expected, we grow.

Disappointment is the gap between what we expect from life or from our faith and what we experience.[2] Disappointment can be in people, situations, things or God.  We could all tell about our disappointments.  I’m looking forward to our discussion time this afternoon when we will have the opportunity to encourage one another as we share how we have dealt with our disappointments.

In our reading for today, Moses was surely disappointed.  He had spent 40 years leading Israel out of slavery in Egypt, through the desert, and to the Promised Land. The books of Exodus and Numbers are all about that journey and all the disappointments they faced along the way.  Now, in Deuteronomy, here they sit on the bank of the Jordan River, finally ready after all these years to cross over into the land they’ve been dreaming of and promised for generations . . . but Moses, their faithful leader, won’t be going with them.

Why not?  We find the answer in Numbers 20.  This is one of the times in the wilderness journey when there was no water.  The people complained, Moses went to God, and God told Moses to speak to the rock and water would come out.  Moses gathered the people in front of the rock, and then, instead of speaking to the rock, Moses spoke to the people and chastised them for their faithlessness.  Then, out of anger, Moses struck the rock with his staff.        Water did come out, enough for all the people and all the animals, but because Moses let his pride get in the way of his leadership, God told him:

“Because you did not trust me enough to demonstrate my holiness to the people of Israel, you will not lead them into the land I am giving them!” (Numbers 20:12)

Because Moses didn’t quite follow directions, and didn’t give God any of the credit for providing water, Moses would not enter the Promised Land.  But God did let Moses see it from up on top of Mount Pisgah.  The first two verses of Deuteronomy 34 remind me a bit of the scene in the movie The Lion King (1994)
when the father lion Mufasa takes his son Simba up on top of pride rock to show Simba what will one day be his kingdom when Mufasa dies, and Mufasa says, “Everything the light touches is our kingdom.”  God is saying to Moses, “Everything you can see is the land I promised to your ancestors.”

In Deuteronomy 34, we are reading the last chapter of Moses’ life – his death – and it ends with a wonderful statement to sum up his life:

Since then there has not arisen in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, 11 in all the signs and wonders which the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt, before Pharaoh, before all his servants, and in all his land, 12 and by all that mighty power and all the great terror which Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.

This is the end of the journey, the end of the book, the end of the Torah, and the end of Moses.  Deuteronomy is the book of Moses’ last words.  Its Hebrew name, debarim, means “these are the words.”   Deuteronomy is mainly composed of three speeches Moses gives to the people of Israel as they are camped beside the Jordan, getting ready to enter the Promised Land, preparing them to go on without him.

As part of their preparation, Moses reminds them how they got here.  Almost all of them were born after they left Egypt, so they may not know all that happened on their journey, and all the ways that God took care of them.  Moses also reminds them why he will not be going in with them.  In Duet. 1:37 he says,  Because of you the Lord became angry with me also and said, ‘You shall not enter it.’”  This isn’t quite accurate.  Moses is in trouble for his own behavior, not the behavior of the people, but it’s likely that Moses’ frustrations with the people contributed to his behavior and so he blames them.

Moses tried again to talk God into letting him lead the people into the Promised Land, and God again said no and don’t bring it up again (Dt 3:26).  Instead, God told him to work on preparing the people and encouraging Joshua, their new leader, who would take them across.

So Moses offers them encouragement.  He says in Deuteronomy 31:6 the words we heard the choir sing today:  "Be strong and courageous, do not be afraid or tremble at them, for the LORD your God is the one who goes with you. He will not fail you or forsake you."

Moses, the greatest prophet, the one who spoke with God face-to-face, was not immune to disappointment, and experienced it in the same ways we do.
Disappointment in ourselves.
When Moses finds God at the burning bush, he responds by listing all the ways he’s not good enough to go lead Israel out of Egypt.  Despite that, Moses does go and the people do indeed get freed from their slavery to Pharaoh. 
Disappointment in people.
Moses was frequently disappointed with the people of Israel.  Early in their journey across the wilderness, Moses went up on Mount Sinai to meet with God for 40 days, and when he came back, the people whom God had just rescued from Egypt had already made new gods for themselves.  Moses was so upset that he smashed the stone tablets on which were written the Ten Commandments.
Later, when they first got across the desert to the edge of the Promised Land, Moses sent a team of men to check it out and report back. Of those ten, all of them reported scary stories except Caleb and Joshua.  The people heard the scary stories and refused to go in, so God gave them their wish and they wandered for 40 years.

The Bible is full of stories of disappointment
  • ·      King David wanted to build a temple to honor God but God said no.
  • ·      Paul asked God to remove a thorn that had bothered him all his life, but God said no.
  • ·      Judas wanted Jesus to rise up and rescue the people from their Roman oppressors, but that wasn’t God’s plan.

Why, if God is faithful, do we have disappointments?  Disappointment happens when our expectations aren’t met.  The problem is that our expectations aren’t always so good.

Sometimes we have wrong expectations because our expectations are based on what we’ve heard, not what we actually read in the Bible.   Or maybe we read it a long time ago and we’re mis-remembering.  Reading the Bible we may see how God works differently than we’d expected. Having Bibles of our own to read is one of the major outcomes of the Reformation!

We get the expectation from our culture that if we do the right things and work hard enough, that life will go well for us, and then when it doesn’t we are disappointed. 

I am so thankful that in my young adulthood when I was frustrated with the way life was going that our pastor at that time didn’t say, “You just need to have more faith.”  My faith was young, for sure, but the bigger issue was my faulty expectations.  Instead that pastor said, “God didn’t promise it would be easy.”  He’s right, and that’s why I frequently go back to Jesus words to the disciples in his final speeches to them.  He said, “In this world you will have trouble, but take heart for I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

God doesn’t promise us that everything will work out the way we want it to, but God does promise that we won’t have to face any of it alone.  “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).

I will never fail you.  Knowing that God is with us doesn’t make us immune to disappointment, but it is how God helps us through it.

Disappointment can get in the way of gratitude.  I’ve said almost every week since we started this series that gratitude can sometimes be really hard.  Can we be thankful even in the midst of disappointment?  Yes. Maybe not right away, but we can get there.
Not too long ago I was dealing with some disappointment and anger at God for not healing my stepmom Lydia’s cancer.  I had a friend who started chemo for cancer on the very same day as Lydia.  I prayed diligently for both of them.  My friend continues to struggle with her cancer. I think she even just started a new treatment. But Lydia died . . . almost a year ago.  For awhile I was even resentful of my friend for surviving when Lydia didn’t.  Really, though, I was mad at God for not doing what I wanted him to do.

It’s important that we acknowledge our disappointments.  Otherwise they fester and make us bitter. Acknowledge that doubt and anger are normal outcomes of disappointment.  Moses of all people had a close relationship with God, meeting with God face-to-face – the best of anyone except Jesus! – but still Moses had disappointment, and we see at several points in Moses’ journey with the people through the wilderness that his disappointment led to anger.

We need to acknowledge our disappointments, and we need to talk to God about our disappointment, and keep working on gratitude.  The Psalms are a great example of this.  They express deep feelings of discouragement and frustration, but often in the same Psalm, gratitude to God.  The gratitude we find the most often is for God’s faithfulness.

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.  His faithful love endures forever. (Psalm 106:1, et al)

God is faithful, and his promises never fail.

Disappointment with God may be the hardest kind of disappointment.

A young woman woke up one morning feeling desperate – desperate to find God, to know God’s love, to feel God’s presence.  She wasn’t a churchgoer, but she dragged herself out of bed, put on nicer-than-usual clothes, and with fear and hope found a seat in a pew in a church.  She was nervous, but her desperation also made her brave.  So she sat and waited and listened….and was let down.  The preacher’s sermon was lifeless.  The people were standoffish. She stumbled back out onto the street feeling worse than she had when she’d started….but getting used to the disappointment.[3]

First, let me say that I pray that we will not be that church.  What that woman learned was that in seeking God she had put too much trust in the institution, too much trust in the people.  Thankfully she learned to find God on her own through the Bible and other books, online discussions, private prayer time, volunteering…all of which are good and important parts of building our lives with God. 

People will fail us.  Institutions will fail us.  Situations will fail us, and our own thoughts and emotions and expectations will fail us, but God will never fail us.
The church can be a great place to find God, and worship and grow and encourage one another, but we will all at times be disappointed with our church because the church is made up of people, and we aren’t perfect people.[4]

Today we commemorate the Protestant Reformation and the lessons we learned from Martin Luther and so many others that our faith is not in church or in its people or even it its work, but in the one who created us, our faithful God who sent his son to die for us. 

By grace we have been saved through faith, and this is not our own doing;
it is the gift of God. (Eph. 2:8).

We will struggle with disappointment at times, but God is right here with us in the midst of it.  For some of us, turning to God in the midst of our disappointments is easy.  For others, it’s really hard.  Let’s encourage one another, and maybe most importantly, keep on praying for one another, and for all those who don’t yet know God’s love and grace.
God is so faithful. Thanks be to God!

[2] Phillip Yancey, Disappointment with God: Three Questions No One Asks Aloud, Zondervan 2015, Kindle Edition.
[4] Read an essay about what  Dietrich Bonhoeffer says on this topic here: http://www.parkingspace23.com/bonhoeffer-disappointment-church/#.WfOromhSw2w

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