Poor Moses! He and his mob have been drifting in the Sinai in the manner of Bedouin for forty years, give or take. During this period of nomadic drifting our Moses, who had no ambition to be a leader, was thrust into the limelight as God’s right-hand man, all the time trying to work out what the trip was all about. Forty years on a promise and a prayer! Forty years on a journey that should have taken a year, or less! Forty years of three steps forward and two steps back! Forty doubt-ridden years! Forty years of betrayal! Forty years of love! Forty years of backsliding! Not to forget the moments of blinding clarity, of course – and the conviction, and the belief that there was a point to it all; that it was not just a matter of running from, but even more a matter of running to. Running to a future. Running to a destiny. Running to fateful encounters in a new land.
But Moses is getting on, and from the top of Mt Nebo he sees the destination, though he knows he won’t make it. In the near distance he gazes across the northern end of the Dead Sea. In the far distance he sees the hills where Jerusalem will one day be. Perhaps he wonders where the milk and honey are. Perhaps he imagines welcoming parties. Perhaps he wonders if the crossing of the Jordan will be accompanied with singing and dancing. What Moses can’t imagine is what is really to come; the displacement of the Canaanites, the slaughter of the priests of Baal, the tumbling of the walls of Jericho. Moses cannot see the ebb and flow of intifadas. Moses cannot see the violation of his precious laws – thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not covet, thou shalt not steal, thou shall love thy neighbour as thyself. Moses cannot see what horrendous acts will be done in the name of his (nameless) god.
But that’s the thing about leadership: you make plans, and mark out routes, and camping spots, and you boost morale, and give hope. You think you know what it’s all about. You think about it a lot. It haunts you. You may even pray about it, but the chances are that it won’t work out as you hoped. At the best you get an approximation. Moses dies a disappointed man. But Moses is not alone in that. Lots of people have died on this trek across Sinai, and lots of people were to die in Canaan. Mortality is the ultimate disrupter of schemes and plans. Nothing ever works out the way want it to. We lull ourselves into our dreamworld of comfortable illusions, and we convince ourselves that God, in partnership, will make it all come true. But it’s not like that, is it? Disappointment is the inevitable counterpoint to ambition.
It is common these days for us to complain about the quality of our leaders. We delight in cataloguing their failures. Dopey, or even sinister Don. Dictator Dan. Mysterious Synod. Prevaricating Presbytery. Disappointment all round! Our leaders seem, to many of us, to lack “the right stuff”; they either can’t, or won’t, deliver the goods. It seems that no matter who is in control they will, in very short time, be exposed as idols with clay feet. And so we seem to live in an age of disappointment and despair. In the past weeks some of us have tip-toed around the unspeakable sentiment that justice just might be done if the President of the USA got really sick, or maybe died. What has happened to us, that we are tempted to go down that path? And then there’s the disappointment with the leaders whom we elevate to a form of secular sainthood. How easy it is for us, at a distance, to put the likes of Jacinda Ahearn on a pedestal, while wondering why that admiration is not shared by all across the ditch. The cloak of sainthood seems ever more threadbare as you get closer to it.
But disappointment is not an aberration – it is part of the deal. Moses was not perfect. Moses did what he believed God wanted him to do. Sometimes he got it right, and sometimes he got it wrong. Moses was as much a product of Pharaoh as he was of the great I AM. Moses was a product of his time. There is a saying that we get the leaders we deserve. That is sometimes true, but it’s not always true. Fortunately, we live in systems where we have some say. The result is not always perfect, but we have the option to correct mistakes – a bit, at least.
Mistakes are made, of course. We might wish that Moses did a bit more “succession planning”. Moses might have counselled Joshua just a bit more in the ways of his god. “When you enter the land of the Canaanites”, he might have said, “remember the commandments we now live by because we don’t just want to live there, we want to live out our belief in hospitality and justice to all.” As the heirs to Moses, and as the heirs to Jesus, who the Evangelist Matthew understood as the new Moses, we could make a point of being clear about what our expectations are.
Each day each one of us stands at the summit of our own Mt Nebo, and we look out out at a landscape not yet flowing with milk and honey. It is not yet a hospitable land, but it is where we have been led and where, if not we, then those who travel with us and after us must go. Good leadership demands that we pass on our vision, so that those who follow us will be true to the goodness that flows from our faith.