Sermon Preached at Grace Community Church (EPC)

Sun City Grand, Surprise, AZ

Sunday, October 15, 2017

by the Reverend Cooper McWhirter

Transitioning: “Changing of the Guard”

Deuteronomy 31:1-8

The word “transition” is a noun meaning “movement,” “passage,” or “change” with respect to one’s position, title, authority, or one’s station in life.  This word brings back fond memories, and tearful ones as well, of times past when we lived in Northern Virginia in the 1990’s.  On several occasions we visited Arlington National Cemetery where on one occasion we observed the “Changing of the Guard” at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  An Unknown soldier; known but to God.

For those of you who have not had the opportunity to watch this solemn ceremony, allow me to share a few brief observations.  The spectators are seated in an outdoor, partially-enclosed dome on a mezzanine.  From the east side of this aperture, an impeccably uniformed relief commander, attached to the 3rd U. S. Infantry Regiment, known as the “Old Guard”, steps forward.

As the ceremony begins, the relief sentinel leaves his billeted quarters at Fort Meyer, and makes his entrance.  He unlocks the bolt of his glistening M-14 rifle to signify he stands at the ready to assume his post.

At that point, the relief commander steps forward to the Tomb, and briskly salutes.  He then does an “about face” towards the spectators; requesting that they stand and remain silent during the entire proceedings.

The relief commander then conducts a thorough “white glove” inspection of the new sentinel’s rifle.  Then the relief commander, and the relieving sentinel stands beside the retiring sentinel at the center of a black tarmac placed in front of the Tomb.  All three soldiers then salute the Unknown.  A fallen warrior who has been awarded our Nation’s highest honor; the prized Metal of Honor.

Once the relief commander issues his standing orders, and the relief sentinel having acknowledged said orders, begins his tour of duty.  He marches back and forth, taking twenty-one steps.  Before he pivots, the sentinel pauses for ninety seconds before continuing his vigil.

The Tomb of the Unknown is guarded 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, regardless of the weather conditions.  This lone sentinel marches back and forth along the black tarmac for one hour, or until he is relieved by the Watch Commander.

I was reminded of this ceremonial “Changing of the Guard,” because of the precision and orderliness.  Carried out without a hitch.  It has come to symbolize how a smooth transition should occur.

In some respects, the “Changing of the Guard” was not unlike what took place some 3,500 years ago, in the year 1405 B. C., when Moses addressed the nation of Israel whereupon: MOSES SPOKE OF HIS AGE AND CONDITION (repeat).

Earlier, Moses had reminded his people of what God had done during those forty years when they wandered aimlessly in the desert.  During that entire time, God had protected them from their enemies.  He provided food and water for their sustenance.  Why, even their garments had not worn out during this treacherous journey.  God established laws by which to live by; so as to live in peace.  God’s only demand was for them to obey Him [Deuteronomy chapter 8].

Our passage begins: So Moses went and spoke these words to all Israel.  And he said to them, ‘I am a hundred and twenty years old today; I am no longer able to come and go…”  Moses took the words right out of my mouth, when he said: “I’m no longer able to come and go…”  Most of us can “go” alright.  It’s the getting up that can be problematic!  What’s the old expression?  “My get-up-and-go; got-up-and-went!”  Yet, surprisingly, despite Moses’ advanced age, he was still physically fit and mentally alert.  In chapter 34, verse 7, it says: “…his eyes were neither dim, nor was his vigor gone.”

Although Moses was still full of “vim and vigor,” he was no longer able to handle the ‘day-to-day’ rigors of leadership.  For him to have remained as their leader would have proven to be a disservice both to his nation and his people.

But, this idiom was more significant than one might have imagined.  In the NKJV version, it reads: “I can no longer go out and come in…”  These same words are echoed by what God Himself said in Deuteronomy 6, verse 23: “And He (God) brought us out from there (i.e., bondage in Egypt) in order to bring us in, to give us the land which He had sworn to our fathers (i.e., the“Promised Land”).”

Moses was not without his share of faults.  He had an anger problem.  On one occasion, he blatantly disobeyed God.  When the Israelites came to the waters of Meribah, their mouths were parched with thirst.  God instructed Moses to speak to the rock.  Instead, Moses struck the rock twice with his staff.  As if to suggest it was Moses, and not God, who had performed this miracle [Numbers 20:8-12].  Consequently, God’s anger burned against His servant and forbid him from entering the “Land of Promise.”

Moses, along with that entire first generation of Israelites, died without having reached the land of “milk and honey”.  But there were two notable exceptions: Caleb and Joshua.

As to this younger, and second generation: GOD PROMISED TO GO BEFORE THEM AND WITH THEM (repeat).

This is precisely what God has always done for His children!  Our God is the One living and true God.  The God who is here!  Unlike false idols and pagan gods, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, promises never to leave us; nor to forsake us!

One of my favorite passages in all of Scripture is found in the Book of Exodus, where it says: “The Lord was going before them in a pillar of cloud by day to lead them on the way, and in a pillar of fire by night to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night” [Exodus 13:21].  In the Book of Numbers, we read that whenever the cloud moved, God’s people broke camp and followed wherever the cloud would lead them.  When the cloud settled in one place, the people would pitch their tents and remain until the cloud moved once again [Numbers 9:17].

God promised to go before them as they crossed the Jordan River.  Once the people had crossed over, God then promised to be with them and He vowed to vanquish all their foes.  Time and again, God went before them.  Time and again, God was with them.  Despite keeping His end of the bargain, the Israelites continued to be a “stiff-necked” people by refusing to obey His holy ordinances.

And might the same be said of us?  We’re not so very different from these ancient Hebrews.  We presume to know what is best for us.  We act as though we are morally superior to our ancestors!  Even so, the people of God saw with their own eyes, and heard with their own ears, the wondrous works of God.  Both day and night He was in their midst.  What more could one ask for?  What more could one hope?  God’s mighty feats didn’t just happen once in a “blue moon.”  No!  He continually made His presence known!

But then, we have several distinct advantages they did not have.  We live on this side of the cross of Christ!  We have read.  We have witnessed what Christ, our Lord and Savior, has done for us.  His salvation has been signed, sealed, and delivered!  Then, too, we are endowed with the Holy Spirit.  The awesome power of Almighty God resides within us.  And not just for a day, but forever and ever!

But, for us, life is in the here and NOW!  For them, life was then.  It marked a time of transition.  A “changing of the guard” whereupon: JOSHUA WAS TAKING OVER THE REINS OF LEADERSHIP (repeat).

Yes, change is inevitable.  A movement was afoot.  Things would never be the same, again.  And this was as it should be.  Change can be a good thing.  Change can be a healthy thing.  Change need not be threatening.  And this is especially true, when change is orchestrated by God!

Oh, I suspect there were rumblings and murmurs.  Malcontents who were the first “doubting Thomas’!”  But this would prove not to be the case!  Life goes on.  As well it should.  As the old saying goes, “There’s a new sheriff in town!”

Joshua had already proven himself as an able-bodied leader.  He was no novice!  He was far beyond the ‘learning curve.’  Although young and vibrant, Joshua was a seasoned veteran.  He had proven himself in battle.  Caleb and Joshua were the only spies who came back with a favorable report about the “Land of Promise.”

The baton was being passed.  The torch had been lit.  As he stood before the entire nation, Moses blessed Joshua.  He then paraded Israel’s new leader and went before him.  Moses assured the people that God Himself had ordained his successor.  No other titles, or credentials, were necessary.

God then led Moses away from the plains of Moab to atop Mount Nebo.  And God allowed Moses to gaze upon this vast land where this younger generation would soon tread upon.  It was then when Moses breathed his last.  Scripture tells us that God buried His servant Moses in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor.  And to this day, no man knows where the Lord laid him to rest [Deuteronomy 34:6].

Yes, change is inevitable.  Someone once said, “Accept what is, let go of what was, and have faith in what will be!”  Faith, not as a “blind” faith as some perceive it.  But a stalwart faith in God!

But allow me to issue a word of caution.  You must never, ever look back!  You must look to the future!  C. S. Lewis made this analogy: “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are, and change the ending.”  Transition: The moving of God.  For this is as it should be.  This is as it must be!

Let us pray…

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