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The situation described in our Old Testament text may sound familiar to you: a religious leader dies before completing the ministry to which he had been called. Deuteronomy 34 recounts the death of Moses, but I could not read this passage without thinking of this congregation, without thinking of the pain you have experienced through the death of your pastor, Lyman Reed.
This account of Moses’ death should help us to reflect. Moses had been called by God to lead the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, into the promised land. But the people rebelled. God condemned them to wander for forty years in the wilderness, until the rebellious generations died off, before entering the promised land. Just before his death, Moses went up to a high mountain, east of the Jordan River. He could look over into the promised land, from the Negev Desert in the south, to the Mediterranean Sea to the west, and on to the far north. He could look into the promised land, the goal he had sought for forty years. He could look into the promised land, but he could not enter it. He died before reaching his goal.
After his death, “The people of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days.” This, I think, is the first thing we should learn from this text: Mourning takes time. Grief is not over in an instant. An opinion poll was taken a few years ago. They asked a group of people how long grief lasted. The average response in that poll was forty-eight hours. Two days.
That is totally unrealistic. The people of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days. That was all they did. They mourned for thirty days. Maybe if we did nothing else for thirty days, we could end our grief in thirty days, but I’m not even sure about that. Psychologists tell us that grief in our society usually lasts about two years, more or less.
Doug Manning tells of a friend whose child died suddenly. The child was brought to the hospital with what seemed a relatively minor ailment, but half an hour later the child was dead. The mother reacted hysterically. Everyone was trying to get her to calm down and “get a hold of herself.” Suddenly she stopped and said, “Don’t take my grief away from me. I deserve it, and I’m going to have it.” (Doug Manning, Comforting Those Who Grieve, p. 12).
Even now, months after your pastor’s death, you deserve your grief. It is perfectly natural. Don’t let anyone take it away from you.
One reason you deserve your grief is that Lyman was not simply a friend like other friends or an acquaintance like other acquaintances. He was your pastor. He held a special place in your life and in the life of this congregation about which you care. Just as the death of Moses marked the end of an era in the history of Israel, the death of Lyman Reed may well mark the end of an era in this congregation. Because Lyman has died, things are not the same here anymore. They will not be the same again.
A new era will soon begin. Just as it is normal to mourn the loss of Lyman, it is also normal to be anxious about an unknown future.
At this point, our New Testament reading has a word to say: Paul writes, “Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
I do not claim to understand prayer, but I believe in praying nonetheless. William Temple, one-time archbishop of Canterbury, said this about prayer: “When I pray, ‘coincidences’ happen. When I don’t, they don’t.”
Like Israel on the plains of Moab, this congregation stands poised on the brink of a new era. Moses looked ahead into the promised land, but he was not to lead his people there. Someone else would have to do that.
I expect the people were anxious. They knew what Moses had done. They knew what Moses could do. He had been a great leader, and was sorely missed. The Bible says that “since then, there has not arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses” — none who knew God so intimately; none who worked so many wonders. There had never been another prophet like Moses.
There will never be another pastor just like Lyman Reed. Israel never found another Moses. They did, however, find a Joshua. Joshua, says our text, “was full of the spirit of wisdom,” and Joshua also became a great leader for Israel. Joshua never became another Moses. Israel did not need another Moses. Moses had been a great leader for one era of Israel’s history. Joshua became a great leader in the next era.
God’s people did not need another Moses. What they needed was a Joshua, a different leader, with different skills, for a different era. What they needed was a Joshua, and God provided a Joshua. Moses died, but the future of God’s people did not die with him. Moses died, but a new leader led God’s people forward into the promised land.
You stand at the threshold of a new era in the life of this church. Unlike Moses, I have not been to the mountaintop to see what the future may hold. I am sure there will be challenges there, just as there were challenges for Israel, even in the promised land. But as we look ahead, I am confident that you will find a pastor to help you meet those challenges. “Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.”
Feel free to mourn the death of Lyman Reed. Remember and celebrate his unique gifts for ministry. But do not be anxious. Your future is in God’s hands.
There will never be another Moses. But somewhere out there is a Joshua or a Deborah, a Ruth or a David, prepared by God to lead this congregation into the future.