The Great Leader and the Gravedigger

Listen here.

Here we are, at the end of Moses’ epic journey. He has led the people out of Egypt, through the desert, across the Red Sea; he has brought them out of slavery, and turned them away from idol worship and towards God; no one has ever shown such mighty power or performed such awesome deeds; he is the greatest prophet the world has ever known; and the promised land is in sight. If this were an ordinary story, we all know what would happen next: a red carpet unfurling, trumpets ringing out, and Moses riding a white stallion as he leads the people in triumph into the land. Except, this is no ordinary story.  Instead, Moses encounters a gravedigger. 

For there on the top of Mount Nebo, God shows him the land which has been promised. Then, in an extraordinary passage, Moses dies there at the Lord’s word, and ‘he buries him’. God speaks, Moses dies; God digs a grave, and buries his faithful servant. Moses’ time is finished.

I look around this congregation, and I see leaders. Many of us catch and cast visions, and exhort and encourage, teach and train, guide and even discipline, people of all ages. And while none of us are Moses, this text contains a great deal of wisdom for us, for it describes a style of leadership which is rare in this world. Rare, but honoured in the eyes of God. So let’s take a look at what it reveals.

First up, notice that Moses is a servant. Throughout Deuteronomy, Moses is described as a servant of God, not as a leader. At God’s insistence, Moses teaches, guides, reproves, blesses, and encourages the people. He describes their goal and directs them towards it; he intercedes on their behalf. Mediating and carrying out God’s instructions and demands are what make Moses a leader; but he is, first and foremost, God’s servant. That is the fundamental and defining aspect of his identity; and it is this stance which makes it possible for God to use him so powerfully.

Second, the work is bigger than him. Moses leads and blesses the people right up until his death. His work has distinct phases, and it changes over time: but he never stops serving God until he dies. Even so, at his death, the work is incomplete, and God highlights this. For, up on the mountain, God does not review what Moses has already done. Instead, God shows him where the people are heading without him. Then, when Moses dies, the people mourn and move on. In other words, Moses is not the important thing. The work God does through him is the important thing; Moses is never more than a participant in this work.

The work continues because Moses cultivated the next generation. Joshua was filled with the spirit of wisdom because Moses laid hands on him and, in his capacity as Moses’ aide, Joshua had been trained up. Knowledge, wisdom, vision, helpful practices and healthy disciplines are for passing on—for nobody is irreplaceable. Moses is often described as the greatest leader that the world has ever seen, but even he could be replaced. After his death, the people kept wrestling with God: obeying, rebelling, and coming back into line; they kept heading towards the Promised Land and grappling with all that that entails: and Joshua was their leader. Moses did great work—but then his time was over and it was time for others to take up the reins.

This future focus was made easier because there was no shrine to his memory. God buried Moses, and to this day, nobody knows where his grave is. This is in stark contrast to the pharaohs of Egypt, who had great tombs erected in their memory; and also to contemporary politicians and public figures, who have libraries, policy centres, skyscrapers, airports, endowments and bequests to perpetuate their memory. But we don’t honour Moses by visiting a monument. Instead, we honour him when we follow his teaching; and that teaching has power not because of him, but because it comes from God.

Through Moses, then, God reveals a style of leadership which is rooted in obedience. It’s a style in which the focus is never on the leader, but always on God, and on what God is doing in the world. For those of us in positions of leadership, it raises questions. Do we think of ourselves as leaders, or do we think of ourselves as God’s servants? Do we think of the work we do as ‘ours’, or do we consider it a contribution to a project that spans decades, centuries, even millennia? Do we take pride in our achievements, or do we look only for the work of God? Do we take seriously our responsibility to equip and enable others? Are we planning for the time when we are no longer needed or available? And, when that time comes, will we let go gracefully?

Questions such as these are challenging, for much in our culture encourages us to work on our own status, to hold onto power and knowledge, and to generate a private legacy. Much in our culture insists that success is due to our own abilities and hard work, that failure is entirely our fault, and that we are indispensable. But the style of leadership revealed through Moses is different. It is not about us and what we can achieve, but about God, and what God can do through us. We participate in God’s vision to the best of our abilities, but any successes or failures are only tiny moments in a much bigger picture, a picture which is known only to God.

To work in this style is deeply humbling, for it highlights our insignificance, even our mortality, even as it demands that we act with confidence and authority when that authority is given by God. But when we learn to rely on God, when we become truly humble, we will experience a deep and abiding intimacy with our creator—and that intimacy will guide those of us called to leadership to lead well, and to lead especially on behalf of those close to God’s heart: children, single parents, asylum seekers, and other vulnerable people.

Best of all, living and leading like this has long-term payoffs—and not only for our people. God knew Moses face-to-face; and, through the spirit, God knows each of us. We can be as rich as Croesus; as smart as Einstein; as prophetic as Martin Luther King Jr; but, in the long run, none of that really matters. Whatever our gifts, abilities or achievements, whatever our successes or failures, ultimately, we are all mortal; as the Psalmist reminds us, we people of dust are soon returned to earth. Yet not even death can get in the way of God’s love. And so, whether or not we are called to leadership, we may as well practice intimacy with God now. And let us hope that we too might die like Moses: in the company of love, gazing at the future of our people, with God in attendance as the gravedigger. Ω

A reflection on Deuteronomy 34:1-12 and Psalm 90 by Alison Sampson, Sanctuary, 29 October 2017 (AP25). I am indebted to ‘The Politics of Being Replaced’ by Timothy Simpson. Read it here. Image shows a detail from here.


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