One of the most anxious experiences I had was going for basic training as a chaplain in the army reserves. I was excited about the final result of becoming a chaplain had some concerns about the process. Fortunately I had a friend who was a chaplain and he assured me it was mostly chaplain training with just a bit of army stuff. Unfortunately they had since changed it to being mostly army stuff with just a bit of chaplain training. I wasn’t in great shape, didn’t know how to wear my uniform and had zero rhythm, which was a problem for doing drill on the parade square. My focus for much of that month was about how weak I felt and how big my obstacles were. I would love to say that I never considered quitting but that would be a lie. I often considered it and had a clear view of my car from the barracks window. It would have been so easy to give up. I keep my certificate of accomplishment displayed, not because I’m proud that I’m a trained army officer but because I didn’t give up even though I really wanted to at times.
That was one experience but it really was just an intense example of what life is like. We are continually faced with our own weakness and with the obstacles in front of us. It will always be easier and more attractive to remain safe and not take the risk.
This is true for the church as well. We have limited resources and the needs in our community are great. There would be something attractive about trying to keep church life pretty safe and avoid the risks. The passage we are going to look at addresses that very temptation but we might not like the lesson it teaches.
The Twelve Spies
We have been looking at the experience of Moses from his call at the burning bush to the receiving of the Law on Mount Sinai. So much had already been accomplished. Moses had led the people out of slavery in Egypt. But that was never meant to be the endgame. Leaving was only half of their mission, they were intended to also arrive somewhere. That place was the Promised Land, the land of Canaan, known to us today as Israel. It should have been a simple plan: leave Egypt, receive the Law and enter Canaan. No problem. Until faced with reality.
Before actually occupying Canaan, they wisely started with a reconnaissance mission. Twelve spies were chosen, one from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. They were sent into the land to gather information before Israel could invade.
They came back with some encouraging information. It was a prosperous land, a place they described as “a land flowing with milk and honey.” So far so good. The problem was that there were people already in the land. Not only were they already there, they were big. So big that the spies felt like grasshoppers next to them. While some of the people were probably taller than the Israelites, that was quite the exaggeration about the actual situation. The point was they were focused on the obstacles. The job was going to be difficult and they were afraid.
Remember the context. Not long ago they escaped Egyptian slavery and were even able to get away from the pursuing Egyptian army. None of that was because of the Israelite’s strength. It was all by the power of God.
Of the twelve spies, only Joshua and Caleb could see things clearly. They saw the same challenges as everyone else but they were also confident in God’s power. If God led them out of slavery, he would lead them into Canaan. They trusted in God’s faithfulness.
Not only did the ten other spies disagree, the people wanted to kill Joshua and Caleb for insisting that they follow through and take Canaan. Ultimately those who were afraid carried the day and they didn’t invade at that time. What were the consequences? The people were forced to wander in the wilderness for forty years until that entire generation had died. They wanted to kill Joshua and Caleb and yet of all those people, only Joshua and Caleb survived to actually enter the Promised Land.
Our Own Adventure
Most of us do not face the challenge of invading another nation guarded by huge warriors and yet what we see in this passage is a picture of what life looks like.
We have limited resources and we have obstacles in front of us and we have to decide if we are going to remain safe or take the risk. This is replayed every day.
Some might wonder if we shouldn’t examine what we face too closely. Perhaps ignorance is bliss. Maybe we should just blindly move forward. I don’t think that is wise. It is good to know what we are facing. Jesus in the Gospels told the disciples to know what they are facing and to count the cost. Whether as individuals or as a church, we need to know where we are going and what we will face when we try to get there.
The point is: do we focus on how difficult the circumstances or how powerful God is? But even doing this presupposes that God is leading us somewhere. We shouldn’t just decide we are going over Niagara Falls in a barrel just because God is more powerful than the rocks at the bottom. This is not an excuse to do something foolish. Rather it means that if God leads us, the obstacles do not have the final say.
Where are you going as an individual? Do you feel God leading you in a certain direction but are uncertain how things will work out? It can be very scary. You may feel like a grasshopper. As a young Christian, I felt compelled to go on a short-term mission trip. I didn’t know where the money was going to come from but I was convinced this is what God wanted me to do. At the last minute, all of the money came through and it was a life-changing experience.
What about us as a church? It is a continual temptation for churches to seek safety and avoid the risks. We actually see this in the New Testament where many of the early Christians wanted to stay in Jerusalem where they were comfortable and God had to force them out.
What about us? We have a tradition of stepping out in faith. Not that there was a lack of concern about how it would turn out. That is natural. But we have taken the steps. Life as a congregation requires to continually revisit this. Where is God leading us? What do our resources look like? What are the obstacles and how much do we trust God to provide where he is guiding?
We are going to be having our annual meeting where we will wrestle with what it means to enter the Promised Land as a church. But I want you to think about this for yourself. Do you feel God calling you something? Is it scaring you? Do you hear both messages of the spies, some that it is too difficult and some that God will bring the victory?
If God is not in it, no pep talk is going to make it happen. But if God is in it, then we will give the victory. Let us not make the same mistake, as individuals or a church, of the Israelites. We can’t afford forty years in the wilderness.