Edgar Guest, a renowned American poet at the turn of the century, tells of a neighbor by the name of Jim Potter. Mr. Potter ran the drug store in the small town where Edgar Guest lived. Guest recalled that daily he would pass his neighbor and how they would smile and exchange greetings. But it was a mere casual relationship.
Then came that tragic night in the life of Edgar Guest when his first born child died. He felt lonely and defeated. These were grim days for him and he was overcome with grief. Several days later Guest had a reason to go to the drug store run by his neighbor, and when he entered Jim Potter motioned for him to come behind the counter. “Eddie,” he said, “I really can’t express to you the great sympathy that I have for you at this time. All I can say is that I am terribly sorry, and if you need for me to do anything, you can count on me.”
Many years later Edgar Guest wrote of that encounter in one of his books. This is how he worded it: “Just a person across the way – a passing acquaintance. Jim Potter may have long since forgotten that moment when he extended his hand to me in sympathy, but I shall never forget it – never in all my life. To me it stands out like the silhouette of a lonely tree against a crimson sunset.”
I have wondered how it is that I want people to remember me when I come to the end of my life’s journey. The people of Israel mourned for thirty days after Moses’ death. I am no Moses, but I would hope that I mattered enough for someone to mourn. Grieving does not have a time limit. Though the people of Israel mourned thirty days, there were likely some that grieved Moses’ death for a long time and there were likely some who didn’t care one way or the other. I suspect that is true for most us after we die.
This is the end of the Moses’ story. We last left Moses praying that God will be with the Israelites on their journey to the Promised Land. Because of the Israelite’s fear, a whole generation wanders in the wilderness never to see the Promised Land. They didn’t want to go to a land where God wants them to be, because the land was already occupied.
They feared that the current residents wouldn’t just let them settle in their land. This is a really good assumption. But their fear kept them from trusting God. This is true of all relationships. Fear causes people to act, at times, against their own self-interest. The prehistoric fight or flight impulse is triggered by fear. What we can do is allow the higher functions of our brains control our prehistoric reactions.
Jealousy is a form of fear. If one partner in a relationship is jealous, then there is a lack of trust. Trust is the foundation of all relationships. The Israelites failed to trust in God. We might say that God punished the people for not trusting God. But God is really giving them what they want. They don’t want to go into the Promised Land. God is granting them their wish. It will be the next generation who will be the beneficiaries of God’s promise. The recalcitrant generation has passed away.
Moses belongs to the generation who refused to go to the Promised Land. He will be the last to die of that generation before the Israelites enter the Holy Land. But Moses will be able see the Promised Land before he dies.
Moses has gone through more trials than almost any human being. Yet he fulfills his God-given mission by bringing God’s people to their home. His job being done, he may now let go of this life. From the top of Mount Nebo, Moses is able to see all the land promised by God. (Technically, that is not possible, but this is a theological statement not a geographic statement. Moses can see all the Promised Land. He can die knowing he reached his goal. He is seeing God’s special land.)
God reminds Moses that God has fulfilled through Moses the promise given to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Moses dies, apparently at God’s command. Then what is stated is curious. Since no one knows where Moses is buried, presumably, it was God who buried him. This is curious because it strikes me as odd that God would personally bury someone. I believe this indicates the deep, personal relationship God has with Moses.
Now Moses was really old when he died. Even then, Moses is described as being quite vigorous. Israel morns Moses’ death, even though they have no knowledge of Moses’ grave and there is no indication of an announcement of Moses’ death. It could be that they saw Moses’ body and then it disappeared.
Before Moses died, Moses appointed Joshua to be his successor. God was with Joshua. And in yet another odd comment, the hard-headed, recalcitrant, fearful, faithless Israelites pay attention to Joshua and follow all the commandments God gave Moses. What changed? Maybe this says something about how charismatic Joshua was.
The Israelites follow all God’s commands including, the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might”, and another command from Leviticus to love our neighbors as ourselves.
We are next given a eulogy for Moses. No one has ever existed who was as great as Moses. Moses’ greatness is unsurpassed in history. Moses has a remarkable birth story and Moses has a remarkable death story. These emphasize Moses’ greatness. The hope of this story is that the people of Israel will honor Moses’ memory by following Joshua into the Promised Land.
As Patrick Miller suggests, “Israel henceforth will not be led by a great authority figure but by the living word of the torah that Moses taught and that goes always with the people in the ark, God’s word in the midst of the people.” It is appropriate that the torah closes with this story at the end of Deuteronomy, the end of the torah. The people will now follow the torah, the law (except they don’t).
We, too, have God’s law. God’s word shapes us in our journey. We are lead by God’s word. We are reminded by Jesus of the two greatest commands: love God and love our neighbor, with our neighbor being everyone. Everything in the Bible is summed up by these two commandments from Deuteronomy and Leviticus. Jesus gives us these two commandments to follow in how we live our lives. God loves us as God loved Moses. We are to reflect that love. As the successors of Israel, we are to be more faithful than Israel.
Jim Potter was someone who with just a few words of sympathy made a huge difference in Edgar Guest’s life. Potter truly reflected on that one day God’s love and extended that to a neighbor.
I hope that my ministry is remembered for simple acts of kindness. For if that is the case, then my life would have been worth it and I might have come close to fulfilling the greatest commandment in life: Love God and love your neighbor.
Text: Deuteronomy 34:1–12 (NRSV)
34 Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, 2 all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, 3 the Negeb, and the Plain—that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees—as far as Zoar. 4 The Lord said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.” 5 Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. 6 He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day. 7 Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated. 8 The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended.
9 Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses.
10 Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. 11 He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, 12 and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel. 
 The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Dt 34:1–12). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
Pingback: Refugees No More 102711 « Mennonite Preacher