Though Moses was not permitted to enter the Promised Land, he was given an extraordinary vision of it. Starting in the north, then sweeping west and south, Moses saw the land that God had given the Israelites. Standing on the border of that land, Moses saw the beginning of the fulfillment of the promises God made so long ago to the patriarchs. As a later writer said of the patriarchs, Moses "died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance [he] saw and greeted them" (Hebrews 11:13).Moses was in a now-but-not-yet time. He stood on the border of the Promised Land, but would not enter there. Whatever the reasons for Moses' situation, perhaps it speaks more directly to people's experiences than had he been permitted to enter the land.
This story has spoken to people of faith through the centuries. One of the most striking uses of this text, of course, is in the speech given by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 3, 1968, the night before he was assassinated. He addressed the crowd in Memphis:
“Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop - And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will, and He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”
That great modern-day prophet used the story of Israel's first great prophet to speak of hope and faith to a people who needed both. That story can continue to speak to people today who, even in the midst of disappointment, live by faith in the God of Moses, the God who does indeed fulfill promises.
We all have visions in our lives, some more grandiose than others. Perhaps it is to affect some kind of social change; perhaps it is to nurture a particular kind of family or to achieve a certain rank in our field of work. Perhaps it is to attain a level of wisdom and self-awareness. In some cases, the vision didn’t begin with us; it originated with our parents, teachers and mentors who helped shape us, inspire us and move us on our way. But to be mortal means that that we each have a Mt. Nebo, a place we stand and finally realize that, like Moses, that goal we have worked towards our entire life will actually not be met in our lifetime. But we can catch glimpses of it. We can occasionally see the goal clearly before us, in both scope and time, even though we know we will never actually be able to go there. It is a blessing to remember that we are part of something bigger than us, that we can contribute, but that others will take it on — and change and develop it, and to continue the legacy of serving and worshipping God.