‘This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.’ Deuteronomy 34:4
I was back in the village in England where I grew up on Monday. I walked up to the village green and thought about those who had been familiar faces forty years ago. Miss Rabbage, the head teacher of our two teacher village primary school, would have been a face everyone recognized.
I remember us reading the story of Moses with Miss Rabbage, Miss Rabbage was always very thorough in what she taught—nothing got left out, stories were not softened to make the easier on young people’s ears.
The story of Moses seemed, for me, to be most unfair. Moses had led the people all through those difficult years; he had made mistakes and had been told that he would not reach the promised land. An old man, he climbs to the top of Mount Nebo and he looks out across the land; and there his story ends. God had said this would be so. God, for me, seemed like a vindictive parent who shows a child what they might have enjoyed, had they not misbehaved and the sends the child to bed without allowing the child even a chance to enjoy what everyone else was going to share in.
I did not like this story when I was a child. I am not sure I particularly like it now. But I do think I better understand what the story has to say to us.
Back in the early days of Christian history, almost seventeen hundred years ago, a strange thing happened in the Church. The emperor at the time, Constantine, perhaps for reasons that were not entirely spiritual, became a Christian. The Church became part of the established order of things.
Over the centuries, the Church became so much a part of the established order of things that by the 11th century—a thousand years ago, there appeared in Europe what became called “Christendom”. Church and society went together so closely that if you were a member of society you were a member of the Church. No-one was allowed to have views, no-one was allowed to say things, no-one was allowed to do things that were not approved by the Church. The Church commanded great power, prestige and wealth. Church leaders were concerned with success and influence; they openly engaged in politics and in wars. Whatever the Church said was right, so no-one dare criticize or suggest that the Church was not telling the whole truth.
For century after century, the strongest Churches in each country commanded power and respect and influence. In France, things began to change after the revolution two hundred years ago, in other countries it took much longer. Here in Ireland, right into our own time, the Church has been something to be feared; the Church was a power in this land, it was a place where one could find ambition and prestige and worldly authority.
The Church surely lost its way somewhere. Jesus says according to Matthew, Mark and Luke, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me”. Where was the self-denial, where was the way of the Cross in bishops living as princes; in the Church owning vast lands; in fantastic, ornate buildings in places where people lived in hovels; in sumptuous vestments and grand houses? Is this what Jesus called his followers to?
Jesus called his followers not to success, but to faithfulness. The story of Moses is a reminder to us that even the greatest servants of the Lord can end their days without success. Moses does so much and yet he never reaches the Promised Land; he never gets what he so longed for. Faithfulness is the mark of his life and faithfulness should be the mark of ours.
What is happening in the life of the Church throughout this island is sad; it is sad that vocations have collapsed; it is sad that congregations have plummeted; it is sad that the things of God no longer figure large in the lives of most people. It is sad that the familiar landscape of our Christian past is disappearing.
But the times in which we are living are nothing new—in the first centuries of the Church being a Christian meant being out on the edge of things. We are being pushed back out to the edge. Some Church people don’t like it; some think that we can somehow recover the past; some prefer not to think about what is happening, hoping something will turn up.
It is hard to imagine what the Church will be like in ten years time, even harder to imagine the Church in twenty years.
When the last things of the past are gone, when we lose our last shreds of influence and prestige, when the Church is a group on the edge of society and our only confidence is in a man from Nazareth who was crucified and rose from the dead, one wonders who will be left.
If we are to serve the Lord in the way that Moses did we don’t focus on whether we are successful, we don’t focus on the things of this world, we focus on being faithful; even when things make no sense and we feel like giving up, we carry on being faithful.
I never liked the story of the death of Moses. It seems a story of failure, but it’s a story of ultimate success. We can have no greater success than to be counted faithful.