Lenten Sermon Series 5 of 6 ~ “Letting Go…Letting God: Braving Out of the Wilderness”
Numbers 13:25-33 ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ Northwood United ~ March 21, 2020
Are you brave? I mean it…really…are you brave? I think you are! Some of the bravest people I have ever met are found on the other side of this screen. And as a person of faith, I believe that you are one of them. Some of the bravest people are those in church pews, church study and prayer and outreach groups…people actively growing in their faith. Because true faith growth takes true bravery. Bravery takes faith; bravery takes work; bravery takes commitment and execution. And when I think of the brave, I think of you: the faithful braving out of the wilderness.
From Sinai to the Promised Land As you notice, Terry’s reading has now moved us past the book of Exodus, from which we have been reading over the past four weeks. We now move to the book of Numbers. Numbers is kind of like part two of the exodus story. The book of Exodus gave us the details of the Israelites journey up out of Egypt, out into the wilderness, and down to depths of Mount Sinai. Exodus essentially concludes with the low point of the Israelites as God transforms it into their turning point. God is there…fully present…Moses and the Israelites receive the laws at Sinai’s mountain peak. As we move to Numbers, we move out of Sinai. We move out of Sinai as they begin ascending up toward the promised land. Making their ascent geographically, ascending spiritually, ascending up and out from their low point towards the land of Promise
How long does it take to get to the Promised Land? Approximately 1 year has elapsed as we come to the pages of this new book. What is interesting is that Numbers now moves on to cover a journey that occurs over the next 39 years. And what makes that so interesting for us, is that this journey of 39 years, from Mount Sinai to the Promised Land should have been completed in…care to guess? It could have reasonably been completed in under one year! Not 39!!! In many ways, what we are about to explore this morning is the phenomenon of ‘getting stuck in the wilderness’; the challenge of being’ immobilized by fear’; the hazards of ‘analysis by paralysis’; and the faithful call to bravely move up and out of the wilderness.
Wilderness as a ‘safe place’ As we start to unpack the text, we find that the wilderness had become almost a safe place for them. The wilderness can serve as a place of transformation. We might think of the transformational wilderness in initially leaving home… the transformational wilderness in moving into that uncertain future…the faith shown to believe that the waters would part…that food would come…the water would be found. For the Israelites, the wilderness had served some very significant purposes over that year. It had been a teacher, a tempter, a shaper and preparer. But there was a down-side to the wilderness. Eventually, the wilderness can become comfortable; eventually the wilderness ceases from shaping us into the new reality that we are called to be; it can take us further away from our goal of finding the promise that we had once set out for! Eventually, we must brave out of the wilderness and leave
Living in fear That is what we are just starting to see happening to Israel in this text. The Israelites needed that year or so of wilderness time where God shaped and prepared them. However, as we examine the turn of events in this text, we are also touched how the unfolding 39 years will be lived in fear, not faithful bravery. Here is what was happening: Moses and Aaron, the key leaders of the Israelite tribes had sent spies out ahead to scout out what was ahead. They were doing their research, their due diligence to ensure the direction ahead was wise to pursue. And the spies had returned. We have some good news and bad news, the spies report back. The good news is that the land is every bit as wonderful as we had been promised. They pulled out from their cloaks samples of the produce from the Promised Land ahead. Here look: “the land flows with milk and honey and this is its fruit”. And then their faces turn, their brave faces begin to change to that of fear. But here is the bad news: “the people who live in the land are strong, and the towns are fortified and very large; we saw descendants of Anak there. The Amalekites live in the land of the Negeb. The Hittites, the Jebusites and the Amorites are in the hills. And the Canaanites live by the sea…to them, we seemed like little grasshoppers”. Jenny did a wonderful job as our reader this morning with all these odd sounding foreigners. So, a quick bit of biblical translation. If you lived in this time, it would have struck fear into your heart as you heard this report. When you hear “Anakites”, think of the massive warrior named Goliath whom little David battled. These were cities with huge fornications. Places that were occupied by a legendary race of giants. For the Israelites, the bad news brought back from the spies served to immobilize them in fear, not mobilize them in faithful bravery.
Caleb’s call to brave the wilderness There was a moment of bravery…just heard briefly…a few heard the brave voice of Caleb: “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.” Yet, in the end, the crowds chose fear, and the comfort that we can be found in living in the wilderness. A wilderness that they continued to occupy for the next 39 years: “we are not able to go up against these people, for they are stronger than we are.” Yet, these were the same Israelites who had witnessed the miracles of God’s provision…weren’t they? Time after time, after time, after time: God’s provision…of a leader; God’s provision of an escape from Egypt; God’s provision of an escape route through the Red Sea; God’s provision of food and water…and the list goes on. Yet, as we know…fear is a very strong jailor. We might escape it for a while, yet fear is always seeking us out! The overriding narrative of fear and their own inadequacies to overcome the challenges won out. Fear caught back up to them and fear gave them an amnesia over their identity as God’s people.
Fear is very real and very hard I want to stop right here and pause for a moment. I want to acknowledge how truly challenging and scary this was for the Israelites. This morning’s topic is a deeply challenging one for all of us. However, it is also one that calls us into the depths of our faith as well. Faithfully braving out of the wilderness would have been a tremendous challenge for the Israelites. And any parallels in our lives will be for us as well. The wilderness serves a purpose; however, we are never meant to get ‘stuck’ in the wilderness for an eternity. At some point the wilderness outlives its usefulness and becomes a jailor. At some point, the wilderness provides a ‘cover’ where we lose ourselves; a place where we ‘hide out’ and fail to confront our lack of faith to brave the wilderness and move towards God’s promise ahead. At some point the wilderness provides a convenient reason not to face those moments of decision that will lead to taking the risks that lead towards God’s promise. This is truly hard…but, at some point, it must not be avoided. God does not want anyone to live in the wilderness for eternity! God’s promise was one of creating us to be free!
Not a license to be reckless Before we go too far, there is…of course, an important caveat that goes with this theme: trusting God does not mean that we should not do our due diligence when we are considering change. When the Israelites arrived in the wilderness, the journey was not going to be magically over as they were somehow teleported to the Promised Land. Wilderness time would bring obstacles; it would be filled with challenges, and eventually…in due time…opportunities to be taken. We must plan; we must prepare; we must size up the choices in front of us. We must discern the time when it truly faithful and wise to move ahead. And after all of our discerning, we must, at some point, move faithfully and bravely ahead out of the wilderness. We must not make it our permanent residence! We must not fall prey to ‘paralysis by analysis.’ There is a danger found in only and always working on a plan for change and never, actually, taking it out on the road for a test drive. There is a safety found in always planning, pondering, and projecting without ever actually moving ahead. We sometimes think that as long as we are still planning the change, we do not have to be responsible for making the change itself. That is true in business, it is true in our relationships, it is true emotionally, and it is true spiritually!
What Promised Land do you walk towards? I wonder about the wilderness we each are walking these days? I wonder what the hope of the new promised land on the other side of our wilderness might look like? As a pastor, I have the honour of people sharing some of their stories with me. And I have a sense of some of the wildernesses being walked. Now that we have begun living this pandemic time into a second year, there is much wilderness we live with ~ financial, spiritual, emotional…so much wilderness. What does the Promised Land look like for you on the other side of this pandemic? I truly wonder what life will look like? What will people value? What will they return to? And what will they let go? For us at the church, I wonder about our Promised Land. As many know, we have been going through the slow process of considering building redevelopment. The consultation forecasted back in 2016 has now come to fruition. In the coming months, we will see the city’s new density report and will have options about how we can move ahead and continue to faithfully serve the larger community around us.
Yet…as we look ahead, there will be giants! Obstacles and uncertainties in the wilderness in which we walk. And aside from giants, we also have giant faith in a God who provides liberation…freedom….hope….light in the midst of all that would entrap us in the wilderness. Let us continue on in the wilderness; let it shape us; let it transform is; let it change us. And, when the time is right…let us leave and brave out of the wilderness towards Gods promise.