Rev. George Miller
Numbers 13:17-21, 25-14:4
August 17, 2014
Good morning to our Miriams and Moseses, our midwives and mothers, our princes and princesses and various servants of the Lord.
Today, in this oasis of space and time, after roving down the river and crossing the sea, we stand in the wilderness, as spies scout out the Promised Land, waiting to hear what the leaders will say.
Being a leader is an incredible honor and a difficult task. A leader will do everything for the sake of the people, trying their best to unite, to protect and to encourage others to reach their full potential, to try new things and to achieve what others consider to be the unachievable.
In essence, a leader guides people into an unexplored promised land where they can flourish and live to their full potential.
Leaders are only human. They learn through both their success and their failures. Anyone who leads knows that they run the risky reality that they may develop few fans, some enemies and many naysayers.
Like parents who set boundaries for their children: don’t cross the street, be home by 11, never take candy from a stranger. It may not make your children happy, but it keeps them safe and alive.
There are numerous kinds of leaders; today we’ll focus on the two kinds we encounter in our reading: leaders who use the currency of fear and those who embrace the promise of possibilities.
But first, let’s do 423 years of story in two minutes. God promised Abraham and Sarah a beautiful land and a large family. Despite trials and tribulations, the second of these promises came true. Trouble is their descendants have been enslaved in Egypt by the Pharaoh.
But not to worry: thanks to the bravery and cunning nature of women like Miriam, Moses’ mother and Pharaoh’s daughter, the people survive and thrive.
Moses grows into an adult, is called by God to free the people, and then there is the whole business of the plagues, the Passover and the parting of the sea, which Miriam celebrates with a song, a tambourine and some fancy footwork.
Moses, along with Miriam and their brother Aaron, leads the people through the wilderness towards the land promised so long ago to Abraham and Sarah.
On their way there they experience bread from heaven, water from a rock. At Mt. Sinai they receive the Law and the 10 Commandments.
They are given the gift of Sabbath rest and experience the glory of God which appears to them as a cloud by day and fire by night.
26 months into their newfound freedom, they are called to leave behind the magnificence Mt. Sinai to journey through the wilderness into the Promised Land.
God provides plenty of quails for food and in the midst of spring they arrive at the land of Canaan. God’s promise of land is on the verge of finally becoming real.
The Lord tells Moses to send his best leaders to take a look at the land they are about to be given. So the best of the best leave the wilderness behind and in the fertile season of spring they enter the southern part of the land and they travel far north.
40 days they spend there, amongst the hills, in the vineyards where giant grapes grow. There are pomegranates and figs and the land flows with milk and honey.
Let’s pause here for a moment. You’ve heard the term “milk and honey” used so much before. Do you know what it means?
Let’s think about it for a moment:
Where does milk come from?
What do cows eat to make milk?
What does grass need in order to grow?
What does good soil need?
Who or what makes honey?
What do the bees need in order to do so?
What do flowers need in order to grow?
What makes the soil so good?
So here we are, it’s spring. Moses and the people are waiting to hear a good report so they can enter the Promised Land.
The leaders come back: the land is lush and green, grapes galore, flowers blooming, milk and honey abound.
And yet…fear creeps in: the people there appear to be big and strong and their cities are large.
Caleb refuses to let this news sway his excitement. He knows what the Lord has promised; he’s ready to embrace the possibilities.
Filled with blessed assurance Caleb says “So let’s go, it’s time to step into our future!”
But the other leaders, the ones who had also seen the giant grapes and green grass, say “There is no way we’ll succeed: we’re too weak.”
So failing to believe God’s promise of possibilities, they return to the wilderness and tell the people an unfavorable report full of lies: the land is no good and they are inferior to its inhabitants.
That’s all it takes for the people to break into weeping and crying, to move from success to failure, from possibility to fear.
So they turn to Moses and Aaron and complain. “We should have died in Egypt. We should have died in the wilderness. We want to go back to the way things were; we want to go back to being slaves...”
This scene is so heartbreaking. It is so sad: they are literally on the cusp of entering the Promised Land during the height of its fertility, so filled with promised possibilities that it is flowing with milk and honey…
…and yet they are easily swayed by the currency of fear placed upon them by a few unfaithful leaders.
Never mind that this is what God had promised them. Never mind that God had parted the Sea. Never mind they were well fed in the wilderness with water from a rock, manna from heaven and quails in abundance.
Never mind that on Mt. Sinai God had given them the Law, the 10 Commandments and the gift of Sabbath rest.
Never mind that God was always present to them in a cloud of glory and a burning blaze.
They act out of fear and refuse to enter into the land filled with pomegranates and promises, figs and a future.
Fear wins out. They fail to honor their part of the covenant they made with God. As a consequence, they’re told to turn around and head back into the dessert by way of the Red Sea.
Sadly, because of the lies of their leaders and their willingness to act out of fear, none of them, except for Caleb and Joshua, will ever enter into the Promised Land.
Sadly, they are now left to wander the wilderness for 40 years and it won’t be until they die out and their children are grown that God’s promise will be fulfilled.
It’s a sad, sad story about how fear can fly in the face of faith.
And one has to wonder, why were the leaders so quick to lie? Why were they so quick to give a bad report about a land so, so good?
Why would they prefer to hold the people back from reaching their full potential?
Perhaps some mistrusted God; perhaps others were afraid of the extra work.
Perhaps some were worried that once they were there no one would have need for their leadership.
Why were the people so willing to be led astray?
Perhaps they were so used to being slaves they couldn’t imagine anything else.
…Why do people do what they do?
Why do some leaders use the currency of fear when others use the promise of possibilities?
We can make some educated guesses. There are those who like to keep people in their place, so they use real or fantasized fear or the threat of harm to keep others in line or dependent upon them.
There are those who are afraid of success and the added responsibility that comes with it, so they feel fine with failure and keeping everyone else around them down.
There are those who are uncomfortable with change, no matter how filled with promise it is. So they believe it’s better to stick with what they know then to journey into the unknown.
Then there are those who like to be the savior, the one to care for and rescue others. Trouble is, you can’t be a savior without making or keeping someone a victim.
All these leaders got to see with their own eyes just how good the land is. And all except Caleb choose to act out of fear.
This won’t be the last time in the Bible that hope is extinguished, promises are parlayed and fear rules.
Look at Jesus: he certainly offered the promises of possibilities. Jesus also talked about another kind of Promised Land- the Kingdom of God.
Jesus lived out that promise in his actions: the way he sat with everyone at table, when he defended the helpless.
Jesus was a man of hope who spoke about wholeness to the broken, community to the lonely and healing to the sick.
He dared to dismantle the ways of death and offered possibility after possibility.
But look how much that scared the leaders of his day. Look at how Jesus suffered on the cross for his promise of possibilities.
Sadly, the Israelites would wander the wilderness for 40 more years, never getting to see, feel, taste, smell or hear what a land flowing with milk and honey was like.
So, which biblical character are you today?
Do you relate to Moses, discerning the call of God, inviting other to be bold?
Do you relate to the leaders entering the land, seeing with your own eyes just how good things can be, but also aware of the things to be wary of?
Do you relate to Caleb, leader of hope, embracing the possibility of promises, fully trusting in God and ready to go, go, go!
Do you relate to the leaders of fear, thinking its best to give unfavorable reports and to portray yourself as grasshoppers amongst giants?
Do you relate to the people, living between what came before and what’s up ahead, unsure, unsteady and more willing to go back than to move ahead?
Is it possible to be any or all of these, depending on the circumstances?
What more does God need to do in order for us to trust and believe, to seek and to enter, to move forward and to taste just how good milk and honey, pomegranates and figs can be?
The currency of fear; the promise of possibilities: when is it best to trade in one? When is it best to give up on the other?
What kind of life is it that Christ is offering?
Are we being guided by the Holy Spirit? Is God still speaking?
Are we still listening? Are we willing to follow? What do we gain for moving forward; what do we gain by going back?
There are still many rivers to cross, many mountains to climb, many deserts to survive, and many crosses to bear.
But today, in this holy space, in this holy time, can we trust and proclaim that God is here, God is victorious?
That God is the Lord of the wilderness. God is the Promiser of Possibilities yet to be realized?
If we are just willing to see, to hear, to trust and to act: God is there.
Amen and amen.