Stories have come down through the ages about the deaths of heroes and champions. It is the stuff of legends and sagas. Tales would be told, and songs would be sung, of their courageous exploits, their daring deeds. Everyone in the land would be in a state of mourning. As the time of burial approached, a detachment of servants or soldiers would be selected. They would be instructed to travel a great distance into the wilderness and bury their departed leader.
Upon their return, they would immediately be slain! No one was to know the place of burial!
Nothing could be allowed to desecrate the grave, and even more, the memory of the Great One. It would be solemnly intoned that his like (or on occasion, her like) would never be seen again.
In Deuteronomy 34, Moses climbs the mountain, where he sees the Promised Land. The Lord tells him, “I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there” (v. 4). There is a reason why Moses is forbidden to enter the land; we’ll look at that in a moment.
Continuing the idea of the great leader, we’re told in verses 5 and 6: “Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day.” There’s no word on who actually dug the grave. Maybe it was arranged by an earthquake!
No one is allowed to turn his final resting place into a shrine; it is not to be a place of worship. After all, that would be out of character for Moses. In another place, the scripture says, “the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Nu 12:3). You can’t claim to be humble; that has to be said about you.
All of this speaks as to why Moses isn’t allowed to enter the land. Soon after leaving Egypt, the people complain of thirst in the wilderness (Ex 17:1-7). The Lord tells Moses to strike the rock with a stick, and water will flow out. Later on, the same thing happens; there’s no water, but there is grumbling (Nu 20:2-13). This time he’s supposed to speak to the rock, but he again whacks it with a club, releasing the water.
This act of disobedience might not seem like a big deal to us, but it does point to a greater concern. One writer says, “Nobody is irreplaceable… The message to the community…is that there will be no freelancing in positions of authority. Leaders are to work within their prescribed roles and not beyond.” That’s some sage advice for all of us.
To be clear, it’s not like God is smacking Moses down. God isn’t saying, “You blew it! Hit the road, Jack!” After all, verse 10 says, “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.” That’s some very high praise indeed!
I want to focus on Moses and his role when it comes to transition. Timothy Simpson says, “Before the end, God takes Moses up for a panoramic view, not of where he had been and of what he had accomplished, but where the people were going and where he would not follow.”
As intentional interim pastors, the Presbyterian Church requires at least two weeks of specialized training. Our first week was in Montreat, North Carolina. Our second week was in Pittsburgh. One of the themes at the training was the BFP—beloved former pastor. This would be someone who had a long tenure. His or her pastorate would often be considered one of the highlights in the history of the congregation.
Before I go any farther, I should say, as you know, memories of the past are not always good ones! Sometimes they go the other way.
At the training, a story was told of a pastor who, after leaving a church, moved to the other side of the country. However, there was a husband and wife determined to track him down. To put it bluntly, they decided to stalk him. Upon discovering his new address, they came up with a plan. They took a frozen fish, allowed it to thaw, put it in a package, and mailed it to him.
What in the world could have been their motivation? Maybe they felt like he didn’t pass the smell test? Or perhaps there’s another explanation. Could it be the couple had a reputation for always carping about something?
Whatever the case, having a rotten fish delivered to someone’s doorstep is hardly a fresh approach to a dispute!
Moses could be thought of as a BFP, a beloved former pastor. Just as we see in today’s scripture, it is important to do three things: to eulogize, to mourn, and to move on.
A quick word about eulogizing: the word “eulogy” comes from two Greek words which mean “good words.” To eulogize someone is to “speak well” of them, to praise them. It is possible to eulogize someone who is still alive; we just don’t often use the word that way.
When remembering a beloved leader, it is entirely appropriate and necessary to eulogize, to celebrate the wonderful things he or she has done.
Look at the way Moses is eulogized. “Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated” (v. 7). Now that’s what I call aging well! At the time of death, Moses apparently has the sight and stamina of a young man. He was ripped.
But that’s not all. “He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt…” And if that’s not enough, “for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel” (vv. 11-12). The memory of Moses inspires more praise, even legendary praise.
If it is important to eulogize, it is also important to mourn. Mourning is not simply a feeling or an emotion associated with loss. It is an action; it’s something we actually do. As you see in the scripture, the people mourned for Moses for thirty days. That doesn’t mean they were crying 24/7, but that they had certain rituals.
We also have rituals of mourning. Something we do at the national or state level is fly the flag at half-mast. And of course, a very familiar ritual is the funeral service.
Rituals of mourning can be very personal: going to a certain place with special meaning, listening to a particular piece of music, preparing a certain dish—the possibilities are endless!
Jesuit writer Stefan Kiechle speaks about mourning in the context of making decisions. That is, mourn the possibilities and opportunities you did not choose. They’re gone; you can’t turn back the clock. It’s what Robert Frost says in his poem, “The Road not Taken.” While walking in the forest, he comes upon a fork in the road. He makes his choice, but wonders where the other road would have taken him. Still, he says, “Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.”
But this also applies when someone beloved has left. “People frequently overlook this need for mourning. In the absence of mourning, there will be a tendency to cling for too long” to the departed one. Failing that, one will likely feel “dissatisfied, indeed restless, without any kind of inner peace.”
We must be able to say goodbye.
Mourning, even if it’s for someone still alive, implies we ourselves have suffered a kind of death. We have to acknowledge we have suffered a death in order for life to go on—and for a life that, in some mysterious way, can lead to joy. And perhaps, it can be a joy we have never known.
In John 12, Jesus says “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (v. 24). It is necessary, so to speak, for the grain to suffer a kind of death in order to keep living. And it is a life that is fruitful, “it bears much fruit.”
Giving the gift of a good goodbye is a key part of moving on. That’s the third part of my sermon title: eulogize, mourn, and move on.
It may seem heartless to say to someone who’s been mourning, “Okay, it’s time to move on. Life goes on.” And it’s possible that somebody who offers that advice might not want to deal with a person in mourning. Everyone mourns in their own way and at their own pace.
Having said that, we do indeed move on. Again, think of Moses as a transitional figure. Look at what verse 9 says. After the time of mourning for Moses ended, we read “Joshua…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.” The Israelites know it is time to move on.
Moving on doesn’t only apply to the people, to the community. I mentioned a few moments ago about “giving the gift of a good goodbye.” This involves the leader, especially a beloved leader. Failing to give the gift of a good goodbye indicates a refusal to let go. This can apply to anyone in a position of leadership: pastors, politicians, even parents.
In our scripture, it is time for Moses to move on. (Please understand, moving on doesn’t always mean somebody has to die!) But Moses moves on, and now it’s time for Joshua. The people have new challenges; a new chapter is being written. This transition means Joshua steps onto the stage.
This play has a divine director, and in Joshua 3, we again hear the instructions regarding Moses’ understudy. The Lord said to Joshua, “This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so that they may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses” (v. 7).
What is Joshua’s first message after he takes the oath of office, so to speak? (I want to get this out of the way!) He tells the people their God “is the living God who without fail will drive out from before you” all the nations (v. 10). If you read the rest of the book, you’ll see what that means is genocide, or at least, attempted genocide. If you’re wondering how a loving God—no, a God who is love—could require such a thing, you’re not alone.
The truth is, that was not an uncommon form of warfare then, and sadly, it’s still with us. A call of the Hebrew prophets was to no longer mimic the other nations, indeed, to be a light to them (Is 42:6, 49:6, 51:14). It’s hard to be a light to someone you’re slaughtering. We are capable of even the most heinous activity, and the most trivial activity, if we believe we’re serving God.
Moving on! The Israelites face a bit of a hindrance in their journey: the Jordan River, which we’re told is at its yearly flood stage. What are they to do? Simple. Now there are twelve priests bearing the ark of the covenant, which was built to hold the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. As soon as they set foot in the river, the water will stop, and there will be dry land for everyone to cross over. Easy-peasy.
We have echoes of Moses leading the people through the Red Sea, and here is Joshua following in his footsteps. The nation faces a seemingly insurmountable obstacle.
Put yourself in their shoes. What are you thinking? What are you feeling? Are you overjoyed? Are you supremely confident? Or is there something else? Are you anxious? Are you terrified? Do you feel abandoned? Do you feel betrayed? Do you feel rage? Can we see ourselves as facing our own Jordan River, and with the river overflowing its banks? This time of pandemic can seem uncrossable.
Banu and I have had those thoughts, those emotions. It can feel like suffocation, or more appropriately, it can feel like drowning. Seriously, what sane person can believe the river is going to make way for us, just so we can stroll to the other side?
I wonder, when will we be able to have people over for dinner? What about Thanksgiving and Christmas? What about Super Bowl parties? (We like to have those; we even invite people who couldn’t care less about the game! It’s just fun!)
We might find ourselves eulogizing. We praise the way things were before. Sure, they weren’t great, but they were better than this! We mourn. As I said earlier, it is important to mourn and to acknowledge that we are mourning, otherwise, it will be impossible to move on. And so, are we ready to move on?
It would be easy to just to settle down next to the river. I think we could get used to life there. Despite everything that’s happened, it could be worse. As just noted, we all have our Jordan River; we have it as a congregation. We have it as a nation, just like those ancient Israelites. However, if we don’t plunge ahead, if we don’t take that first step into the racing river, if we don’t trust where God is leading, we become complacent. We lose our joy. The colors are not so vivid. They become a gray wash.
There is the promise of God given by the prophet, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you” (Is 43:2). We eulogize. We mourn. And by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, we move on.
 Stefan Kiechle, The Art of Discernment (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2005), 76.
 Kiechle, 77.