491) The View from the Mountaintop

     On April 3, 1968 the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech in Memphis, Tennessee.  In that speech he reviewed the previous several years of the long struggle for equal rights for his people in this country.  He talked about his place in that struggle, and how his life had been threatened many times.  He described how several years before, when he was in New York City, a lady came out of the crowd and stabbed him in the chest.  He was rushed to the hospital where doctors carefully removed the knife.  The newspapers reported that the doctors said the tip of the knife was just a fraction of an inch from his aorta, and if he would have so much as sneezed the knife would have punctured his aorta and he would have very quickly bled to death.  King said in the speech that while he was in the hospital he received many letters and calls from many famous people wishing him well, but his favorite letter of all was from a little girl who wrote just one line.  She wrote, “Dr. King, I am sure glad you didn’t sneeze.”  King went on to say that he was glad too, and that since then he had been able to be a part of many good things, and much had been accomplished.  But he said, the dangers remain, and the threats keep coming.  Even his flight to Memphis that day had been delayed because of a bomb threat.  But, King said, “it doesn’t matter to me anymore.”  And then he concluded his speech with these sentences.  He said, “It really doesn’t matter now what happens (to me)… (because)…  I’ve been to the mountaintop.  And I don’t mind.  Like anybody, I would like to live a long life.  Longevity has its place.  But I’m not concerned about that now.  I just want to do God’s will.  He has allowed me to go up to the mountain, and I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land.  I may not get there with you.  But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.  And I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything.  I’m not fearing any man.  Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”  And those were the last words of Martin Luther King’s last speech.  The next evening, April 4, 1968, King was shot and killed as he stood on the balcony of his motel room in Memphis.  He was dead at the age of 39.  He had brought his people so very far along on their journey, and he told them he could see the promised land ahead.  But he did not get there with them.
     The courageous civil rights leader Dr. King was first and foremost a powerful preacher, the Rev. King.  And he never tried keep the two separate, but was always doing both.  So in his sermons he was always talking about civil rights and non-violent resistance, and in his speeches to the public he was always mixing in the Bible and faith in the Lord Jesus who taught us to love our enemies.  King had come to Memphis to help negotiate a settlement between the city and some black garbage haulers who were being treated unfairly, but he began by talking about a 3,400 year old Bible story.  When King was talking about being to the mountain-top and seeing the promised land from there, he was referring to a story of Moses from Deuteronomy chapter 34.  Moses had also led his people a good part of the way on their journey; in fact, almost all of the way.  But because of an act of angry disobedience by Moses many years before, God had told him that he would not enter the promised land with his people.  Therefore, just before his death, God led Moses up Mt. Nebo, high enough to get a view of that promised land.  And there, after taking a brief look, Moses died.
     There are at least two things we can learn from these views from the mountaintopFirst of all, knowing the promised land is out ahead gives us something to live for and work toward, if not for ourselves, then for the next generation.  I think of the old immigrants (in my case, ancestors from Germany), leaving homes and families, to come here to Minnesota and work hard, every day, for the rest of their lives, so that future generations, so that I, could have a better life.
    Everyone of us has a ‘promised land,’ a goal, something we have sought and longed and worked for.  Sometimes we achieve our temporary promised land in this little life; sometimes all we can do is look longingly at it, as Moses looked at Canaan from the top of Mt. Nebo; and sometimes we are just here to clear the way for others to follow.
     Martin Luther King was inspired by Moses to take the long view, knowing that even though he may not get to the promised land, he was far enough along to see it, and close enough that he knew others would get there.  He took comfort in knowing that, like Moses, even though he himself would not get there, he had been used by God to see to it that others, in future generations, would arrive.  And he had no way of knowing how else God would make use of his work and his sacrifice to inspire others in the future.
     During the coup by hard-line Communists in the waning days of the Soviet Union, Russian leader Boris Yeltsin literally faced down tanks in the street in front of the parliament building.  Later, someone asked Yeltsin what gave him the courage to face the tanks.  He said he had been inspired by Lech Walesa and his Solidarity movement in Poland.  When Lech Walesa was asked what gave him the strength to organize Solidarity and defy the Soviets, he said that he had been inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King.  And when Dr. King was asked what inspired his leadership of the civil rights’ movement, he said that he had been inspired by Rosa Parks’ defiance of segregation on a bus ride home from work in Montgomery, Alabama.   Therefore, it can be said that the Soviet Union fell (at least in part) because a middle-aged black seamstress with tired feet refused to give up her seat to a white man.  And I have read Rosa Parks story, and I know what inspired her.  It was her strong faith in Jesus Christ, who she describes as the source of her strength and the center of her life (see Quiet Strength: The Faith, the Hope, and the Heart of the Woman Who Changed A Nation).
     There is a second lesson that we can learn from this, and that is that there is always a promised land farther down the road.  No matter who we are, or how close we are to the end of the road in this life, there is the real, the ultimate, promised land of God still out ahead of us.  Jesus told us he is going on ahead of us, and he is preparing a place for us, and he has shown us the way; and that way is to believe in Him, as the Way and the Truth and the Life.  Therefore, the Bible, and the good news of Jesus Christ that we read about there, is our mountaintop from which we can see our ultimate promised land, God’s heavenly home prepared ahead of time, by Jesus, for all who believe in Him.
Deuteronomy 34:1, 4-6  —  Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo…  There the Lord showed him the whole land...  Then the Lord said to him, “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 crossover into it.”  And Moses the servant of the Lord died there in Moab, as the Lord had said.
John 14:1-3  —  (Jesus said),  “Do not let your hearts be troubled.  You believe in God, believe also in me.  My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.
Jesse Jackson was standing next to Martin Luther King, Jr. when he was killed.  Jackson reported that just before the fatal shot was fired, King turned to the musician scheduled to perform that evening at an event King was attending, and said, “Ben, make sure you play Precious Lord, Take My Hand in the meeting tonight.  And play it real pretty.”  It is a song that looks out ahead to that promised land of peace and rest which King entered just a few moments later.  (For more on this song see Emailmeditation #2)
Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, let me stand
I’m tired, I’m weak, I’m worn
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home.
 When my way grows drear precious Lord linger near
When my light is almost gone
Hear my cry, hear my call
Hold my hand lest I fall
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home
When the darkness appears and the night draws near
And the day is past and gone
At the river I stand
Guide my feet, hold my hand
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home.
The last three minutes of Martin Luther King’s last speech: