25 Oct Overcoming Giants, Living the Promise
Overcoming Giants, Living the Promise
Numbers 13:1-3, 17-33
October 21, 2018
Calvary Presbyterian Church
Every once in a while, it is good to take stock of one’s life—to think about where we are, how we got here, where we’ve come from and where we’re going. Some people do this around New Year’s, or during a period of life transition, like a job change or a move or a marriage or divorce. What is true for us individually is also true for us as a church. Over the next few weeks, leading up to Stewardship Sunday, we’ll be doing some of this reflection. If Israel had taken time to do this, the story we read today in Numbers might have turned out very differently.
First, a little context. The book of Numbers is set in the aftermath of Israel’s Exodus from Egypt. In their rearview mirror is 400 years of backbreaking slavery to Egypt’s Pharaohs; the calling of Moses at the burning bush; the ten plagues, including their deliverance as the angel of death passed over; the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea with Pharaoh’s army hot on their heels; the supernatural appearance of water and manna in the desert; the providential leading of God by cloud of smoke and pillar of fire; the giving of the law, particularly the Ten Commandments, and the establishment of the covenant. Over and over again, God has provided for the peoples’ every need, defending and protecting them, and leading them towards the land of the covenant, the land God had promised to Abraham.
About a year has elapsed since the people left Egypt and after all their journeying, they are now on the doorstep of the Promised Land. It has been a long time coming, but here they are at the threshold, the land within sight. It is telling that they don’t just rush right in announcing, “hey, we’re here! God told us this land is ours, so everybody please head for the door, remembering that the nearest exit might be behind you. No need to push and shove; let’s do this decently and in good order.” Oh, if only.
What actually happens is that God instructs Moses to send a reconnaissance team into the land. Apparently, there are preparations and plans that need to be made in order to take control of this land, and those plans will go better if Moses has an accurate, realistic assessment of what the Hebrews are facing. The reconnaissance team is made up of twelve men, one from each tribe of Israel. Moses gives the men specific things to look for, and when their scouting mission is complete, they are to report back to him.
The twelve make their way stealthily into the land and spend 40 days traversing the countryside and spying out the cities. They observe the people, the land, the defense systems, and the agriculture. They gather some of the produce, which will become a sort of “show and tell,” as they make their report to Moses and the people. And what a report it is. It is indeed a fertile land producing an abundance of crops for food. But, the towns are large, with strong fortifications, and the people are also large and strong. Worst of all, the Amalekites live there, along with the Hittites, Jebusites, Amorites and those awful Canaanites.
Ten of the spies are so intimidated by the size of the people and the fortified cities, that they conclude their report by saying, “we are not able to go up against these people, because they are stronger than we are.” This negative report incites an uprising among the Hebrew masses who raise their collective voice in complaint that Moses has led them all this way only to bring them to a land that they don’t have the wherewithal to conquer. “We’re going to die here and it’s all God’s fault,” they wail. You can feel the hand wringing as they cry, “Let us choose a captain and go back to Egypt.”
There are, however, two spies who deliver a different report. Joshua and Caleb see the same land as the other men, but they report, “Let’s go!” while the others scream, “no.” The ten see barriers, while Caleb and Joshua see blessing. The ten see giants, but the two see God. Ten see fortified cities and their faith crumbles. Two have faith and see the fortified cities crumble. Ten say, “the best is behind us. Let’s go back because we’re better off in the past.” Two say, “the best is yet to come. Let’s move confidently and faithfully into the future God has prepared for us.”
Like most churches, Calvary has had times of great flourishing and times of struggle. One particularly difficult period occurred from about 2001-2012. Some folks have described this decade to me as Calvary’s own “wilderness wandering.” Over the past five years we have slowly, by the grace and mercy of God, made our way out of the wilderness, and like the Israelites, my sense is that we are at the edge of the Promised Land. Perhaps we’ve even edged into the Promised Land, which is a thrilling adventure, but we are confronting some challenges, our own version of “giants in the land.”
One of the challenges comes from the simple truth that church is different in 2018 than it was 70 years ago when Calvary was started. Simply put, there is no map for the Promised Land we have entered. There is no report or book or guide that says, “If you do A, B and C, your church will be successful.” “If you do what worked in the past, people will flock to your church.” That is just no longer true. In many ways, this offers us virtually unlimited opportunity. We can imagine and reimagine ourselves in any number of ways. We can try new forms of ministry and engage in missions in ways we’ve never done before. We’ve already been doing this. Be the Kingdom was born out the opportunity to imagine new ways of serving our community. The same was true last year as our kitchen played host to the “Cooking Around the World” program. Developing a relationship with Good Shepherd housing, where some of Calvary’s members have served as mentors in the money management course, “Change Purse,” has also been a new endeavor in the past year. And then there’s Eagles’ Wings which has been a cornerstone of our outreach to our neighbors, but we don’t know what the future holds for this 30-year program of providing tutoring to our next-door neighbors, as we look for new leadership for the year ahead. We don’t know how any of these will evolve, but part of walking into the life of promise is to take risks and try new things.
Challenges are also arising as we grow. When I first got to Calvary, one desire that was articulated repeatedly was the hope that young families would be drawn to this congregation. That led us to ask a number of questions: what kind of children’s ministry did we need? Who was God calling to lead it? How could it be structured to meet the needs of children and their parents or grandparents? I have earnestly prayed and prayed over these questions and at times, it has felt like they were giants that I couldn’t tame. And then, lo and behold, over the summer, we discovered that the future has arrived. We no longer have the luxury of figuring out how to serve children who might be here “someday.” They’re here. We need nursery care for new babies and toddlers and church school teaching for those in elementary school, and we need it now. Next year we’ll have a teenager, and I’m already thinking about how to design her confirmation process. These are exciting opportunities; part of taking the Promised Land.
Then there is the building. I have served churches that have huge expenses every month just paying the mortgage, and I’ve been grateful that we don’t carry that kind of financial burden. This building is a gift, a significant part of the legacy of faith we have received from those who have come before us. But this year, with every new leak in the roof and in the boiler; with every toilet that had to be replaced; every time the elevator had another issue, which seemed nearly constant; every repair bill that ran in the thousands rather than the hundreds, I wondered. Is the building becoming a liability, or does God still have a purpose for us occupying this space on this corner? Are our best days ahead of us, as I’ve been saying for the past six years—are they, really? I desperately want the answer to be “yes.” I’m investing my life’s work and a good bit of blood, sweat and tears for the answer to be “yes,” but what is God saying to us in those times when giants seem to be running amok in our leaky pipes and aging building?
Here’s the thing: God never promised that taking the land was going to cost the Israelites nothing, that it wasn’t going to be hard and dangerous, require some risk-taking, and take time and sustained effort and even sustained sacrifice. What God promised was this: this is your land; I’ve given it to you; you can take it. The realistic assessment of the spies was relevant and important information. But it wasn’t supposed to be the only information that would inform the Israelite’s decisions about whether and how to move forward. They were to hear the spies’ report with ears that took into account four things: God’s promise, God’s faithfulness, God’s generosity, and God’s power. I want to suggest to you that these same four truths can and should form the grid through which we view the obstacles and challenges we face in our own lives, both individually and as a congregation.
What God promises is that “upon this rock I will build my church, and even the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” (Matt. 16:18) The truth is that this is not my church; it’s God’s, and so thankfully, Calvary is not limited by what any one person can know or do or understand. We, as Calvary, are assured that no matter what obstacle is in front of us, what defines our response is not the problem but the promise of God. The ten spies forgot that, and their failure to take God into account had terrible consequences. We don’t want to make the same mistake of giving in to fear rather than following in faith.
So, we are invited to act on God’s promises, then acknowledge God’s faithfulness. When the spies ventured into the new land, there is a detail recorded that is easy to overlook. The text tells us one of the areas they saw was the hill country of Hebron. Now, what is significant about Hebron? That was the location of the graves of Abraham and Sarah to whom 400+ years prior, God had originally given the promise of descendants that would become a great nation and would live in the very land on which they were standing. Their presence in that spot was proof of God’s faithfulness to the promise that had been made, and we experience God’s faithfulness no less profoundly. I can say without hesitation that the fact that I am standing in this place this morning is proof of God’s faithfulness in my life over many, many years, even decades. For each of us, there are people, events, circumstances in which we have known God’s presence, protection or leading. They have been markers for us of God’s faithfulness, and God will continue to be faithful to us, his people. God’s character allows for no other option.
God had told the Israelites that the land to be given to them was a land flowing with milk and honey, that is to say, a rich, fertile land that would produce fruit in abundance. And, when the spies return, what is the report they give? “It’s a land flowing with milk and honey.” Well, duh! God’s generosity abounds, not just to the ancient Hebrews but also to us. We sing it every week in the words of the Doxology: “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.” In response for God’s blessing, we bless God through our worship, our generosity with others and through lives of obedience and service.
Finally, Moses points to God’s power. Ten of the spies magnified the problems and minimized the power of God. What they should have done is not minimize the problems but embrace the impossibility of the problems in terms of their own power, while at the same time magnifying the power of God to act and overcome all the obstacles they faced.
Because the Hebrews gave in to their fear, God decreed that the generation that stood at the threshold of the Promised Land would not be allowed to enter it. Instead, they were sent to wander forty years in the wilderness until the death of the very last one of them. Only when a new generation had arisen to take their place did Israel finally cross over and begin to inhabit the land that had been promised to Abraham.
I believe passionately that God has a purpose and a promise for us, and we are continually being invited to step out in faith to pursue it. There are really only two ways we can fail: one is by not trying and the other is by quitting. Oh my friends, let us not give in to fear, no matter what giants or obstacles we face. Instead, let us trust in God’s promises, rely on God’s faithfulness, celebrate God’s generosity and live by God’s power, believing that God will continue to do in us the good work he has begun. Thanks be to God. Amen.