Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

None of us is sufficient to complete the tasks that build the Kingdom

neon sign: With All Your Heart
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October 29, 2023

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Commentary on Deuteronomy 34:1-12

I grew up in a home where the mantra, “Finish what you started,” almost had the force of scripture. Incomplete school assignments, half-done household chores, or careless efforts of any sort were just not acceptable. Now, as an adult, that upbringing looms large in my unconscious being, and I am compelled to bring to completion the tasks I undertake.  

However, a careful reading of the Bible will find that this notion of finishing everything you start is overrated and under-realized. Yes, Paul reports he finishes the race, and Nehemiah completes the wall, but other Biblical persons are kept from completing their every task or tying it up with a nice neat bow. Joshua did not conquer all the land (Joshua 13:1), David was not allowed to construct the Temple (1 Chronicles 22:8-10), and John, as far as we know, never got off the island (Revelation 1:9). These are not stories of rousing success or well-completed action plans.  

Moses, then, falls in line with those who did not comply with my parents’ expectations. He will not complete the journey through the Exodus with a triumphant entry into the Promised Land. Even though he has accomplished much and served Israel well as prophet, priest, warrior, judge, and king, even though today’s reading describes him as a prophet without equal in all of Israel, he is still stopped short of finishing what he started. And there is something in the limitations put on Moses that might be life-saving for those who serve God and the church today.

Bible readers will know that God’s prohibition against Moses’ entry into the Promised Land is the penalty Moses pays for disobeying God in Numbers 20. In Numbers 20, God commands Moses to bring water to the people by speaking to a rock. Instead, Moses speaks to the people and strikes the rock with his staff, twice. Moses did not follow God’s command, and God reprimands Moses, informing him that he would be prohibited from entering the land. This punishment seems harsh, especially considering that the water shortage experience in Numbers 20 is a repeat scene. The absence of water, the grumbling of the people, and the salvific rock are all found bound together in the book of Exodus. In Exodus 17:1-7 Israel is also without water.  There the people also quarrel with Moses. And in this instance, God does tell Moses to strike the rock with his staff. Obeying God’s every word in Numbers 17, Moses strikes the rock, and just as God promised, water pours forth. Though the similarities between Numbers 17 and Exodus 20 are striking (every pun intended), Moses’ adherence to God’s instructions is the pivotal difference. Because of his inability to follow God’s instructions in Numbers 20, Moses is left to survey the landscape and left out of entering the land, left out of finishing what he started. On the other hand, having been blessed and prepared by Moses, Joshua arises, the people obey him, and the entry to the Promised Land draws near.

What are we to make of this disapproval of Moses and acceptance of Joshua over what seems like a minimally disobedient act? How do we reconcile that the one who is the prophet among the prophets is left back? Where is the grace or good news in this story?  

Focus with me for a moment, not on Moses’ rock-striking mishap, but on Moses’ mentorship of Joshua. Might this passage point us toward a lesson on the relationship between Moses and Joshua? Might it be that Moses learns and teaches us that none of us is sufficient to complete the tasks that build the Kingdom? Might we each need a Joshua who will take our excellence (or whatever we bring) and move it to the next level? Could it be that the success of Moses’ mentoring and preparing Joshua was one of his crowning achievements? In fact, what if we see Moses’ position on top of Mount Pisgah as an actual mountain-top experience, with the mentor achieving all he was meant to achieve and his lieutenant now ready to take the helm? What if Joshua’s readiness is the true triumph of Moses’ last chapter and the best possible ending to Moses’ storied career? 

How would the work of the church, indeed, the world’s work, shift on its axis if human beings strove not to succeed in their own name, for their own fame, or at all costs? What would happen if our ultimate goal as clergy and church leaders was something other than completing every task? What if our highest goal was to equip the next person to advance the cause, even though, like Moses, we are still full of the vim and vigor of our best days? What if we each spent more time looking for and encouraging our Joshuas and less time making sure we are the ones whose names are listed as the final hero of the story? What would be different about your life, my life, and our ministries if we were less focused on leading institutions to victory and more focused on ensuring sufficient bench strength within the institution?

This text tells us of our futures, ones we will not inhabit but will surely shape. Moses did not mean to give Joshua the lead in the last pages of his story, but because he did, Israel had a new generational leader who would do more than begin the journey into the Promised Land; he would take Israel far. However, please remember that Joshua did not tie up all his loose ends either. Pay attention, folks. 

Beloved, you and I were not put on this earth or called to work in the kingdom to complete every single task for which we are equipped or to which we are called. We are ministers and men and women who serve, not messiahs; we are cooperators and contributors who do our best, but we are not a Christ. We are not destined to complete it all.  The famed artist Claude Monet reportedly said, “I say that whoever claims to have finished a canvas is terribly arrogant.” May we be less arrogant about finishing the canvases God has blessed us to begin, and may we be more focused on finding the Joshuas whose talents we can bless and whose artistry, beyond ours, will bless the world. 

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Dear Working Preacher:
Ordinary 30A

Read past Dear Working Preacher columns from 2011-present on the texts for Ordinary 30A (Proper 25A). [Most DWP columns for this Sunday focused on texts for Reformation Sunday.]