- Part I: The Land Between
- Deuteronomy 4:5, 9
- Bill Couch April 10, 2016
This will be my last series of four messages as your pastor. As I began to think and pray about what should be my theme, I was directed to the book of Deuteronomy. When was the last time you read Deuteronomy? It is a compilation of the last messages of Moses to the Israelites at the end of their forty year period of roaming in the wilderness just before they cross over the Jordan River into the Promised Land. A confirmation that this should be the guiding scriptures for my messages came from Dr. Sandy Richter, the Old Testament Professor who led our Bible Conference last January. Margaret and I were taking her to the airport and I told her I was thinking about using Deuteronomy and she said, “That would be perfect”. Off the top of her head she listed about six bullet points of how Moses prepared the Israelites for the next chapter in their history knowing that he would no longer be their leader. He would be passing the mantel to Joshua who would lead them into the Promised Land. Her bullet points provided the structure for my last four sermons in this series with you. My last message will be on May 22, but it will be more of a conversation with you than a sermon.
As I began my research on Deuteronomy, I read Eugene Petersen’s introduction in The Message translation of the Bible. I want to share his words with you.
“Deuteronomy is a sermon—actually a series of sermons. It is the longest sermon in the Bible and maybe the longest sermon ever. Deuteronomy presents Moses, standing on the Plains of Moab with all Israel assembled before him, preaching. It is his last sermon. When he completes it, he will leave his pulpit on the plains, climb a mountain, and die.”
Let me say two things about that. First of all my intent is not for these to be the longest sermons I’ve ever preached, although it may seem that way to you. Secondly, after this series I do not plan to leave the pulpit, climb a mountain and die! Now it could happen, but that is not my plan. Dr. Richter pointed out that although Deuteronomy says that Moses died and was buried by God, it also says: “but to this day no one knows where his grave is.” (Deuteronomy 34:6) She added with her usual sense of humor. “Some scholars speculate that Moses didn’t die—he walked away to live somewhere else. Who knows? Maybe he and Elvis are living it up in Costa Rica!”
Back to Eugene Petersen who points out the significant geographical and chronological location of these sermons:
“The Plains of Moab are the last stop on the forty-year journey from Egyptian slavery to Promised Land freedom. The People of Israel have experienced a lot as a congregation: deliverance, wandering, rebellions, wars, providence, worship, guidance.” We have experienced all those things together in the last 37 years!
“And now, poised at the River of Jordan, ready to cross over and possess the new land, Moses, preaching his great Plains of Moab sermon, makes sure that they don’t leave any of it behind, not so much as one detail of their experience or God’s revelation….”
That is my desire for these series of messages. As you prepare to enter into the next chapter of LakeRidge’s history there are some things that I hope you won’t leave behind. God has revealed himself to us through all of our experiences. I hope I can capture some of those in a way that will not just look in the rearview mirror, but will allow us to use them to build momentum for the future. I want you to boldly venture into the future.
Moses delivered this series of messages over a period of several months. The Israelites were parked in the plains of Moab at the end of their forty year wilderness journey. The Book of Numbers states their location at the end of the book.
50 On the plains of Moab by the Jordan across from Jericho.” Numbers 33:50
(The next book in the Bible is Deuteronomy and it begins at the same location)
5 East of the Jordan in the territory of Moab, Moses began to expound this law” Deuteronomy 1:5
(The book of Deuteronomy ends in the same location)
1 Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo from the plains of Moab to the top of Pisgah, across from Jericho. Deuteronomy 34:1
As I looked at the themes in Deuteronomy, I could not help but see some similarities between the journey of the Israelites and our journey as a church. Their journey under Moses leadership lasted forty years from the time they left Egypt until they reached the plains of Moab. Our journey under my leadership started 37 years ago in the Winfrey Private School.
While the Israelites roamed in the wilderness for forty years they took a portable tent with them known as the Tabernacle as their worship center. Every time they moved they had to take down the tent, fold it up, carry it to the next location and then set it up again. God gave them very specific instructions on how to do this. The Levites were designed as the group that would handle the move. The private school was our wilderness experience! We worshipped in an un-air conditioned gym that was also home during the week to twirling classes and dog obedience school! Every Sunday we had to roll out everything and set up for worship. The pulpit was on wheels, the altar table was on wheels. We set up hundreds of folding chairs each Sunday. We set up partitions (like the walls of the Tabernacle tent) to separate the worship space from the Sunday school classes that met around tables in the rest of the gym. When worship was over, we took everything down and rolled it into a storage room. If you joined the church one Sunday, the following week you received a letter informing you that you had been selected to serve on either the set up team or the take down team for the next Sunday! The Israelites and LRUMC shared a similar history of portable worship centers.
Moses was much younger when the journey from Egypt began. He was a young man of 80! When they arrived at the Plains of Moab he was 120. When LakeRidge UMC began, I was 29. I had more hair; it was not gray; and I had side burns called “lamb chops”! By the date of my retirement I will be 67. Maybe when I’m 80 I’ll start another church!
We did not cross the Red Sea, but we did cross the street to leave our rented facilities and settle into our first unit composed of a couple of offices, a few classrooms and a multi-purpose room used for worship which is now our fellowship hall.
During our 37 year history we have had church wanderings, rebellions and church wars—we’ve gotten though some difficult times. Through it all we have prayed together, worshipped together and experienced God’s presence and guidance.
Like the Israelites we have arrived at an unfamiliar place. Moses, the only leader this generation had known, was leaving and Joshua was coming. I am leaving, but not gone yet. Lyndol is coming.
Dr. Richter described what it was like for the Israelites in this unfamiliar place: “The people of God are geographically and temporally located in ‘liminal’ space, that awkward spot between who we’ve been and who we are about to be.” The word “liminal” means “at the threshold.” It is a time of waiting, uncertainty, facing the unknown. Moses preaches his sermons in that space. As they boldly venture into the future in the Promised Land, he wants these words ringing in their ears:
5 See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the LORD my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Deuteronomy 4:5 9 Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them. Deuteronomy 4:9
Liminal space. Pastor Jeff Manion, in an address to the Willow Creek Leadership Summit, called this space “The Land Between”. What was will no longer be. What is to come is unknown. For now—we wait. We all know what it is like to live in the land between—waiting. High school seniors may be in the land between. Leaving high school; going off to college next fall; for now waiting on an acceptance letter from the college they want to attend. College seniors may be in the land between. Wrapping up course work; sending out resumes, interviewing for jobs; for now waiting for someone to say “you’re hired!” People with health issues who know something is wrong but the doctors don’t know what it is are living in the land between. They are going through tests; they come back negative; the pain continues and so does the worry. If we only knew what it was we could deal with it. It is the not knowing—we wait with uncertainty in the land between. A spouse says, “I want a divorce.” How do you get through the next few months? Can you work it out? How long do you wait? What will happen financially? To the kids? To the future? Will my heart ever quit hurting? You are waiting in the land between. People who are retiring are living in the land between. We are still working for now. But there is a lot of uncertainty about the future. Who will I be? What financial adjustments will need to be made? Will my retirement accounts last until I die? I’m waiting in the land between!
We do not like to wait in the land between. It is painful, scary. It is one of those places where we realize that we are not in control. For now, we wait.
Our church has been in the land between since I announced my retirement last September. We immediately launched a search process graciously initiated and blessed by our bishop! We knew that as of July 1 I would no longer be the pastor of LRUMC. Who would the next pastor be? Would we find one that was a fit? Would we have an interim? What will happen to our church when the leader we have known for 37 years is no longer here? We have never been through a change of senior pastors in our whole history as a church. Lots of uncertainty. In February two candidates came to interview with our church leadership and with the Bishop and the district superintendents. We had two good candidates which made the decision more difficult. Which one? Our leaders prayed and listened to God. When the decision was made it was unanimous to recommend Lyndol Loyd to Bishop Bledsoe for appointment to LRUMC. The Bishop and the District Superintendents reached the same conclusion. Lyndol’s appointment was announced on March 13. But he is not here yet. I’m still here. What was will no longer be. What is to come is unknown. For now—we wait.
As much as we don’t like liminal space—it is fertile ground in which God does some of his best work in us. When we face uncertainty; when we realize we are no longer in control, that liminal space gives God room to work in our lives. When we operate under the illusion that we are in control and we think we are prepared for what the future holds, we leave very little room for God. In the land between we experience the transforming power of God. We let go and let God. We learn to trust in his provision. We see him provide. There were several hundred thousand Israelites making the trek across the dessert. They had no supply line brining truckloads of food and water. What were they going to eat? They complained to Moses: “We’re hungry. We’re thirsty. Did you bring us out in this wilderness to die? We were better off as slaves in Egypt. At least we had enough to eat.” While they complain, God provides. He makes water flow from a rock—to quench their thirst. He delivers fresh manna—bread from heaven—every morning so that everyone can gather what they need for the day’s provisions. When they complained about the lack of variety in their diet, God sent thousands of quail every day for them to eat meat. For forty years he provided them with food and water.
God will provide for us in the land between and when you cross over to the next chapter in the history of LRUMC. There will be times when perhaps financial challenges come to the church—there may be another recession. Things can happen in the world and national economy that are beyond our control. We can spend time worrying about it or we can trust God. There have been some lean times in our past, but God has always provided for the needs of LRUMC for 37 years. He will continue to provide.
When we face uncertainty about the future, we have a choice; we can either worry or trust. When we choose to trust, we grow closer to God. We know he is with us and his resources are adequate to take care of us. In the land between the Israelites had a constant reminder that God was with them and guiding them along the way: a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. We have a constant reminder that God is with us no matter what the future holds. We have the promises of God’s Word upon which we can stand. Jesus promised, “I am with your always.” And we have the presence of the Holy Spirit within us who reminds us we are children of God.
16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Romans 8:16
If we are his children, he will take care of us. We will pass through difficult times but he will see us through. His grace is sufficient.
As a church we are in the land between. Personally you may be in the land between in your life right now. God is with you. And he is with our church. He is worthy of your trust. You are his child. Trust him.
Prepare to boldly venture into the future with him. He is in control. He is Lord of lords and King of kings. He alone is God and He alone is in control!