Afraid of What?
In American Christianity, when we hear of Moses, we undoubtedly imagine Charlton Heston. A big, brawn, visionary leader dripping with masculinity. We can hear that powerful, defiant voice, “Let my people go.” With the power of the Lord, he turns water into blood, he causes hail to rain down from the sky, and most of all, he leads the Israelites out of their slavery and across the Red Sea. Pharaoh and all his armies are powerless in the face of Moses, because he appears to be invincible.
It appears that nothing can slow Moses down – not the Red Sea, not a vast wilderness, not even the highest mountains. Moses first encounters God on Mount Horeb at the burning bush. Moses then ascends Mount Sinai to receive the tablets of the law from the Lord. And here, in our passage, Moses climbs the peak of Mount Nebo to see the whole land that God promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It seems that nothing, no tyrant, army, or mountain can stop Moses. He’s strong, he’s invincible. Because, come on, he’s Charlton Heston.
This image of strength and vitality has invaded our culture; the ideal image of an American is also our image of Moses as played by Charlton Heston. Just take a walk down the magazine aisle. You see pictures of men, bulging with muscles on top of muscles. And the headlines always read something like: “Get Ripped Now!” or, “Perfect Abs in Just 2 Weeks.” And the women’s magazines aren’t any better. Impossibly slim women in impossibly tight spandex pose under headlines like: “Lose 5 Pounds a Week,” and “Look Young at 50.” We are assaulted from every direction with images of perfection, youth, and invincibility. Americans are supposed to be powerful, mighty, and above all, independent.
So what happens when you get sick? What happens when, try as you might, you just can’t lose those fifteen pounds? What happens when something tragic occurs, and you are no longer powerful, but frail, weak, and worst of all, dependent?
The sad reality is that many of us refuse to own up to our frailties. You see, when we are told that perfection is youth, beauty, and super-ripped abs, then we are automatically set up for failure. Because none of those things, if even attainable, can be sustained. We all succumb to age, sickness, and yes, even death.
And most of all, we are paralyzed by our fears. Fear of being dependent, fear of being a failure, fear of weakness, fear of death. We would rather try out that brand new diet that is proven to lose weight, we would rather try yet another drug that promises miracles, we would rather shut our eyes and pretend that death does not exist, than to face the inevitable. In this we sin. We sin in that we are afraid.
Now turn back to Moses for a moment. Throughout the wanderings in the wilderness, the Israelites were prone to stumble and sin against the Lord. They made a golden calf, they were afraid that they wouldn’t inherit the promise, they were scared of their enemies. Time and again, God got fed up with the Israelites, and his wrath would burn hot against the people. At every stumble, the Lord wanted to call it quits and desert the Israelites. But every time that would happen, Moses would intercede with the Lord. He would say something like, “Time out God. These people are trying really hard. Sure, they messed up, but they’ll do better next time. Please don’t kill them.” And you know what? God’s anger would abate. The Lord would hold back his wrath and once again care for the stumbling, mumbling, fumbling Israelites.
But on Mount Nebo, on the doorstep of his own demise, Moses doesn’t utter a word. He doesn’t plead or intercede or bargain with God, he doesn’t rage against the dying of the light. Here he is, a strong, mighty character; healthy and hale, unabated in his vigor. And there, on Mount Nebo, where his eyes can behold the promise, he dies. He dies at the Lord’s command, and buried by the Lord in an unmarked grave. An ignominious end for a captivating leader.
For us, and for our invincibility complex, this is unsettling. Why would anybody who could bargain with God not strike a deal for a little bit more time? Why would anybody, who was strong and healthy give up so easily? For us, and for our cultural exaltation of youth and our fear of death, it’s a little unsettling that Moses should just close his eyes.
Now we could blame God for all of this. We could say that God was a jerk to let Moses die right there on the frontier of the promised land. We could point a finger at God, accusing him of not loving us. We could rail against the Lord for all of our minor imperfections and aberrations.
Yet Moses does not of that. He just dies.
Of course, this is not the last we hear of Moses. As our Lord Jesus is walking the earth, he calls Peter, James, and John to follow him up a high mountain. While at prayer, Jesus is transfigured into all his dazzling, heavenly appearance. With our Lord appear one of the greatest prophets of Israel, Elijah, and, lo and behold, Moses.
Now Moses never entered the promised land. He never set foot in Jericho or saw Zion. But he inherited the promise that exceeds all others, “Behold, death will be no more.” The abyss of death has been swallowed up, in Christ death has suffered a bitter defeat. No longer need we approach death with fear and trembling, but rather with humility and trust.
As peculiar as it sounds, this means that Christians must practice dying. Rather than living in the shadow of death, we need to cast the light of Christ on it. Instead of trying to get young, we need to prepare our burial plans. Rather than spending our money on yet another anti-aging cream, we need to get our finances in order for those who come after us. Most importantly, perhaps you need to have a long talk with God and say some things that haven’t been said in awhile.
These Christian practices of preparing for death are very, very old. Ancient theologians said that going to sleep was like dying, and that waking up was arising at the resurrection. Christians of old worshiped in catacombs and tombs, among the bones of their ancestors. And right here, today, in the midst of our community, we will witness the death of little Jackson Yandle. In baptism, we pray that Jackson will be “buried with Christ in his death.” Because we do not know how to live with Christ until we are ready to die with him. Because we never know when we will find ourselves on Mount Nebo, facing the inevitable.
Yet our prayer for baptism doesn’t end with death. The prayer continues as we hope that Jackson and all of us will share in Christ’s resurrection. Mount Nebo is not the end – there is another mountain, the true promised land, one not of death but of glory. For the promise still holds true – “Behold, death will be no more.”