August 3, 2003

Mt. Nebo: The Place of Unfulfilled Desires
Deuteronomy 32:48-52; 34:1-8

I remember well going through my sister’s belongings after she died three years ago. I read through portions of her journal, and on countless pages I found her commenting about something that I knew had caused her great anguish throughout most of her life. Carol desperately wanted to be married. She’d often ask God why it was that there were so many terrible marriages in the world, and yet she had remained single. Her singleness was a source of nearly overwhelming pain for my sister—an ever-present, unfulfilled desire.

There is in the Bible a mountain, mentioned less than a handful of times by name, called Mt. Nebo. Mt. Nebo is a modest mountain, rising only 2,700 feet above sea level. It is situated in the modern country of Jordan, just east of the point where the Jordan River enters the Dead Sea. Mt. Nebo doesn’t conjure up images of earthquakes and burning bushes, as does Mt. Horeb, nor does it overwhelm us with its sheer size and beauty, as does Mt. Hermon. Mt. Nebo, by way of contrast, is rather humble and quiet. It’s a place of disappointments, a place to reflect on our unfulfilled desires.

Come with me to Mt. Nebo, the setting for Deuteronomy 32 and 34. In chapter 32, Moses is instructed by God to climb Mt. Nebo and look across the Dead Sea and the Jordan into the promised land. He is reminded however, that he may “look but not touch.” That is, he himself is not allowed to actually cross over into the land because of a breech of faith that he had committed earlier on. In chapter 34, Moses complies with these instructions, climbs Mt. Nebo, and gazes into Canaan. Having seen the land, Moses dies there.

At least two things, it seems to me, must be kept in mind as we read these passages. First, Moses has been through a great deal as leader of the Israelites. You will recall that he never sought the position in the first place, and it had hardly been a joy ride from Egypt to Mt. Nebo. Moses was given the unenviable task of confronting the Pharaoh and persuading him to free the Israelites from their oppressive situation. He then organized this rather large and discombobulated group of people and led them on a journey across a notoriously difficult section of real estate. Along the way, the people moaned and groaned about their accommodations, and they even rebelled against Moses and sought to replace him. Having led several groups myself through the Holy Land, I can scarcely imagine a more difficult assignment than the one given to this man. Through it all, one thing must have given him inspiration and a sense of resolve. Moses, after hearing endless stories about God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and after years and years of waiting, would, at the end of the journey, finally get to see the land—the land sworn to his ancestors. “Moses,” God now reminds him. “You can’t go in.” Imagine the disappointment. The sense of loss.

But beyond this, what perhaps makes Moses’ sense of disappointment even more difficult is the feeling that he might have had—I certainly did when I first encountered these passages years ago—that his punishment appears to be disproportionately severe. Moses is denied entrance into the land of Canaan because of something that he did way back in Numbers 20. On that occasion, the Israelites were once again complaining, grumbling about the lack of water. “Why have you brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness for us and our livestock to die here?” they ask. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt, to bring us to this wretched place?” In response, God instructs Moses to speak to a nearby rock, and water will come out.

As Moses puts the plan into action, he does, admittedly, make a few seemingly slight modifications. Rather than merely speaking to the rock, he strikes it. At the same time, he castigates the Israelites, as you and I probably would have, and calls them a band of rebels. Immediately, water flows from the rock, but as it does, God unexpectedly breaks in and announces that the game is over. Because of Moses’ deviations from the plan, he will stay behind when the other Israelites arrive at Canaan’s border. Talk about sudden and harsh punishments. In an instant, Moses’ deep desire to see the promised land goes up in smoke, and he is left to live out the rest of his days with what must have been a lingering sense of disappointment.

All of us live to some extent with disappointment, and learning to cope with disappointment is a fundamental part of growing up. We’re disappointed when we arrive at a restaurant we enjoyed years before, and they are out of our favorite food. We’re disappointed when our team of choice loses a big game, we receive a lower grade on a test than we had anticipated, or rain interferes with our plans. Many events and occurrences in life disappoint us, sometimes with considerable regularity.

Disappointments of this variety, however, clearly differ from that of Moses and others among us. Rather than simply learning to cope with the unavoidable disappointments of life, many people find themselves living with unfulfilled, long-term desires, desires that seem to be a part of their very souls. A single person like my sister longing to be married, but finding no spouse. A couple yearning for children, but unable to have any of their own. A man or woman drawn to a particular vocation, but seemingly stuck in an unfulfilling job. People who, like Moses, fear going to their graves with unfilled dreams and desires. How are we to live with such unfulfilled desires? What are we to do? What did Moses do?

In looking over Moses’ journey after the incident with the rock, one first senses that he recognized that the situation was out of his hands, so to speak. In other words, Moses realized that there wasn’t much that he could do to change his fate. Making such a distinction, it seems to me, is crucial when it comes to living with unfulfilled desires. Which of these desires can I rightly do something about, and which are outside of my control? For example, a person’s inability to find an appropriate mate might have more to do with that person’s own lifestyle and choices than it does with God’s will. Perhaps losing some weight, carrying oneself differently, and putting oneself in healthy places where meeting other people becomes more reasonable would help in satisfying such a desire. Or maybe someone longing for a new vocation could enhance her chances by furthering her education or taking more risks. I’ve long wanted to learn to play the piano—it is an unfilled desire that I have. But I also realize that I could do something about it. In fact, I have taken lessons before for a short period of time. I just have had to learn to live with that desire because I am unwilling to do what I would need to do to have that desire met. If our unfulfilled desires are desires that we can address in godly ways, then we are free to do so.

Moses, however, apparently realized that his desire to see the land was not of that variety. No amount of further training or self-improvement strategies would alter his circumstances. In making this distinction, Moses learned to accept his situation and integrate it into his life in healthy ways. While I am quite certain that it caused him pain and regret from time to time, we don’t find him constantly fussing about this deprivation as though as he was some poor and mistreated person.

Nor do we find him struggling against the boundaries and trying to address his desires through illegitimate means. Addressing legitimate needs through illegitimate means is always a pressing temptation for people living with unmet desires. A person longing to be married might very well become involved in an unhealthy and even sinful relationship as a way of solving his or her loneliness. A person longing for a child might go so far as to kidnap a baby from a nearby hospital, as has actually happened before. A person desiring a particular job may adjust his resume and lie about his level of education and competence. Coping with unfulfilled desires can often lead people to consider illegitimate means of addressing their deepest needs. Moses doesn’t act this way. He doesn’t try to sneak out of the Israelite camp late at night and enter the Promised Land undetected. He doesn’t shave his head and have a facelift so that he can move about unrecognized. He doesn’t seem to panic in the face of his unmet desires. Whatever level of frustration and disappointment he may or may not feel, Moses refuses to take matters into his own hands.

What he does do, however, is continue obeying God and serving other people. Moses doesn’t abandon God as a result of his unfulfilled desires. Perhaps Moses realizes that God is in fact not trite, nor does he derive pleasure from withholding good things from his people. My own suspicion, by the way, is that God prohibited Moses from entering the Promised Land, not simply because he struck the rock or castigated the people, but because of the way the Israelites would interpret the event. In the ancient world, people repeatedly demonstrate a tendency to eventually deify and worship their leaders much as people do here at the Grantham Church with members of the pastoral staff! We see it with kings in the surrounding countries all of the time.

Just imagine interrogating the Israelites for a moment or two. “Who led you out of Egypt?” we might ask. “Moses,” they would reply. “Who raised his arms and parted the Red Sea?” we continue. “Moses,” they all shout. “And who brought you the law at Mt. Horeb?” we inquire. “Moses,” they repeat again. And again. And again. “And who brought the water out of the rock?” “Moses.” And God responds, “You didn’t elevate my name, Moses. You made it appear as though you brought the water out of the rock rather than me. What will the people think if I let you lead them into the land? They will give you the glory and worship you. I can’t let that happen. You need to stay behind—for their sake.” Perhaps Moses realized the wisdom of God’s decision, because he continues to entrust himself to God’s care.

If anything, the level of interaction and intimacy between God and Moses actually deepens after the events at the rock. Just skim through the final 15 chapters of the book of Numbers. God and Moses are constantly in conversation. It seems as though unmet desires and unfulfilled dreams like this can, if we let them, serve as channels through which we can experience God in new and more profound ways. Those nagging desires themselves often change, leading us to recognize that everything else in life is but a distraction compared to knowing God himself. Or perhaps those same desires will eventually be met, after our dependency on God is strengthened. In either case, our unfulfilled desires do have the capacity to draw us closer to God, if we let them.

In living with his unfulfilled desires, Moses also increasingly cares for the needs of the people around him. Rather than becoming self-absorbed, Moses gives his life away. He continually teaches the people of Israel the instructions of the Lord. He prays for them after they rebel and incur God’s anger (21:7). He mediates between the tribes when conflicts arise (32:6ff.). Moses even encourages God to appoint a successor for himself when God reminds him on one occasion that he cannot enter the land. “Lord, please don’t leave these people like sheep without a shepherd,” he cries (27:17). One might easily understand it if Moses had become disinterested in these grumbling people, particularly insofar as he had lost the privilege of entering the land himself. But no, he continues to lead and give and serve. It was Mark Twain who once said, “The best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer somebody else up.” To that we might add, “The best way to overcome the lingering pain of unfulfilled desires is to throw yourself recklessly into meeting the needs of others.”

My sister, Carol, struggled with her desire to be married throughout her life. It caused her great pain, really, and I am quite certain that I never fully understood how she felt. I often told her that I thought there were certain things that she could do to increase her chances of finding a good husband—she was kind of shy and not much for taking risks. As I continue to think about her, however, I remain profoundly impressed that she trusted the Lord through all of it – she never grew bitter at God – and that she gave her life away to the extent that she did. Carol not only worked for over 20 years with handicapped children in the Allentown School District, ministered during the summer months among little children in the ghettos of northeast Philly, and served tirelessly in her own church, but she gave virtually everything she had to her family and friends, including me. She simply refused to let her unfulfilled desires totally paralyze her.

As Mt. Nebo rises above the Jordanian desert to this day, it assures us that unfulfilled desires need not cripple or destroy us. Mt. Nebo instructs us to prayerfully distinguish between unfulfilled desires that we can address and those that are out of our control. It encourages us to allow our unfulfilled desires to draw us into a deeper dependency upon God. And Mt. Nebo invites us to drown our unfulfilled desires in a lavish outpouring of grace and service to others. After gazing across the valley into the Promised Land, Moses died—he never did go in. But in a rather stirring phrase, the text of Deuteronomy 34:6 literally tells us that God himself buried Moses—the NRSV misses it here. Moses perhaps lived for several years with an unfulfilled desire, but even in death he remained in God’s care.