“The View From Mt. Nebo” (Exodus 3:7-8; Deuteronomy 34:1-4)


Today I finish up my sermon series called “Lessons from the Sinai for a Church in Transition.” In this series I’ve been taking us back to the time Israel was in the Sinai, a transitional place and time between their old life in Egypt and their new life in the Promised Land. Today I will talk about the interim time as a time for this church to envision its own Promised Land.

Let me begin today with a story. 50 years ago one of our great preachers was preaching his last sermon. He’d be dead the next day. He didn’t know with certainty that it was his last sermon, but the words he spoke that night made some wonder if he might have had a premonition of his death. Here’s a part of what he said in that sermon:

“Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”

The preacher was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Biblical image he was using was the one from Deuteronomy 34: Moses on Mt. Nebo looking down at the Promised Land just before his death. And the current event to which Dr. King was applying that Biblical image was the Civil Rights movement in America in 1968. Dr. King in that moment saw himself as a kind of modern-day Moses helping all of America see God’s Promised Land of transformed relationships between the races, marked by peace and justice and reconciliation, an end to poverty and an end to war. Dr. King reminds us that the Biblical notion of the Promised Land is still a potent symbol for God’s people, but whose meaning changes over time, depending on the human circumstances and needs we face in the present.

The way Dr. King says in his sermon, “I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you,” makes me think of my role as an interim pastor. My role these days is to help churches see their Promised Land, that is, the future God has in mind for them as a unique church. Then I work to ensure a process by which a church will get the kind of pastor who will help the church get to their Promised Land. And then I leave the church in that pastor’s hands. Just like Moses, and just like Martin Luther King, I get to see the Promised Land but I don’t get to go there. Such is the calling of the interim pastor. And as the great faith chapter, Hebrews 11 reminds us, such is the calling of all who live by faith. We work for a future we will never experience. We see it from a distance and greet it from afar. We know it will come to pass without us, and we’re OK with that because we trust God and trust what God is doing in our lives and in the lives of others.

During 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, God sustained the Israelites along the way with a vision of the future he was giving to them: the Promised Land, otherwise known as “the land of milk and honey.” When God took Moses before his death up Mount Nebo to see the Promised Land, he was reassuring Moses that his 40 years of leadership would not be in vain. God’s vision was real and it had all been worth it. God was reassuring Moses on Mt. Nebo that he was about to give the Israelites the land he had been promising for years, even though Moses himself would not be going with them.

Every church has been given by God a sustaining vision of its future, and my work as an interim is to help a church see that vision and that future.

And here I would say that Interim ministry is different from what happened to Moses and Israel. Whereas God took Moses alone up to Mt. Nebo to let him see the Promised Land, as an interim pastor I am always trying to get the whole church up Mt. Nebo to look down together at the Promised Land God has in mind for them. The church needs to see their Promised Land all together before they start moving toward it.

Perhaps you have seen programs on people climbing to the top of Mt. Everest. If you have, you may have noticed that every climbing party is assisted by Himalayan natives living on the border of Tibet called Sherpas. The Sherpas help carry the loads and set the ropes and ladders in a v