Preached at a Community Thanksgiving Service of 4 churches representing Baptist, United Methodist, and Pentecostal Holiness.
Deuteronomy records the last words of Moses to the people of Israel before his death. The people are sitting at the Jordan River. The leadership has been passed to Joshua. Preparations are already being made for the people to go and do what they had failed to do forty years earlier at this same spot: to go into the land of Canaan – the Promised Land – and to take it and make it their own. And Deuteronomy – this second giving of the Law – recounts Moses’ reminders to the people of who they are, how they got here, what they are about to do, and what they need to do once they have done it.
“When you come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance and have taken possession of it and live in it…” Moses is talking about the future here. The future that he will not see because of his sinful confusion of speaking versus striking. It is the future, but it is a certain future. You are going to do this – a reference to time, and you are going to do this – a reference to accomplishment. The people of Israel will arrive. They will achieve. They will accomplish. They will possess. They will inherit the Promised Land that they and their parents and their grandparents for generations had dreamed about since Joseph’s brothers brought their people to Egypt during the famine centuries earlier.
This is Moses’ promise to them. You will arrive.
American historians speak of a concept that came to fore in the middle of the Nineteenth Century, while America was expanding its territories ever westward until finally reaching the Pacific Ocean. The concept was called “Manifest Destiny.” It was the belief that it was necessary and inevitable for the United States to bring its cultural and political will across the breadth of the continent. While the talk of it fell out of favor as the issue of slavery took center stage, the idea of Manifest Destiny never let go of the people and the leaders of our country.
It’s as if someone was saying, “America, listen, one day you will control this large territory. Your influence will expand and grow. Your power will be immense. Now go and claim it.” And we did. America had its own arrival even as Israel arrived in and took possession of Canaan, however imperfectly.
Of course back in Deuteronomy, Moses wasn’t particularly interested in the mechanics of the people’s arrival in the Promised Land. Joshua would lead the people in successive battles and they would tame the land. But how they did it was almost irrelevant. For their taking of the land was assured. What was significant was what they did after their arrival, after their claiming of the land.
I think most if not all of us long for that day when we can finally look around and say, with a huge smile on our faces, “Well, I have arrived.” For Israel, arrival was taking possession of the land. For the prophets of America’s future in the Nineteenth Century it was exploring and incorporating the Louisiana Purchase, pushing across the Rocky Mountains, and seeing the American flag waving proudly in every post between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
What would it look like for you to arrive? Financial independence? A foreign landscape with warm beaches and clear blue waters? All of your children and grandchildren at home and running around your feet, happy and content? The pinnacle of your career’s ladder of achievement? A happy marriage, 2.2 kids, 2.3 cars, 4 bedrooms, and a nice white picket fence? Those are at least some of the things that I have imagined would mark my arrival to the world at one point or another over the course of me life.
America achieved the destiny those 19th Century dreamers imagined, and more. Israel arrived in and claimed the Promised Land. The 20th Century has already been labeled by some as the American Century, in much the way that the one before was the British Century and the one before that was the Spanish Century. Our political, cultural, and military power have been the envy of the world, even as they have shaped and challenged the world. Icons of America from Coca Cola to Microsoft can be found on every continent. America arrived. But then, as Israel would after their arrival to the Promised Land, America forgot the rest of what Moses instructed.
Moses told the people, once you have done these things, then stop and remember where you came from. Remember who brought you to this point. Stop and give thanks. Remember the roots of your story, “My father was a wandering Aramean.” Our fathers were religious and political exiles, cast offs from their homes seeking different lives elsewhere. Not so different these two stories. The Israelites were to take from the produce of their land, from where they arrived, and return the thanks to God. They were to worship. Not intermarry with those in the land and turn to the Ashereh poles and the Baals, like they would eventually do. Worship God, who brought them there. They lost sight of their goal after their arrival.
With a little imagination, you might be able to think of similarities in America’s story after our arrival on the world stage. You might consider how we are doing with bringing the produce of our arrival back to worshipping God.
But I don’t want to so much focus on America tonight as on ourselves and our own arrivals.
What is your arrival story? Have you gotten there? Have you achieved what it is that God wants you to achieve in your life, something that you can do with His help and His aid – like Israel and even America required His help and aid. If you have arrived – whatever that looks like, what are you doing with your arrival? For the arrival is only part of the goal. The remainder is taking the fruits of our arrival and returning them in worship of God. As Christians, our arrival is to the grace and provision of salvation through the cleansing blood of our Lord and Savior. And we have arrived, we who follow and trust Him for that promise and that hope. We have arrived. Now, we are to bring to God the fruits of our arrival and through those fruits, we are to worship Him.
As we gather together, our four congregations this evening, let us think and imagine what fruits we are enjoying because of our arrival into God’s salvation. And let us bring these fruits to Him and worship. Worship tonight, worship tomorrow, and worship every day.