When we want a good moan
Numbers 14: 1-10 & 11-19.
Just out of interest...how many of you have read the book of Numbers in the last week? Month? Year?
There is a reason not many of us read Numbers...it is really tough.
First of all it is tough because to a great extent it is a census, and reading any census data cold is pretty tough.
Secondly it tries to make sense of one of the toughest questions.
If the aim of the Exodus from Egypt was get the people from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land of Canaan, then how come at the end of it all only two of the original slaves, Caleb and Joshua, actually got to enter the Promised Land?
Thousands of people left Egypt, but it was their children, and children's children that entered the Promised Land, not the slaves themselves.
And the answer is twofold.
The first answer is that they didn’t stay faithful. They complained, they struggled with God’s plan, they rebelled.
At one point they are at the very edges of the Promised Land, and they get scared and turn back into the desert.
So one answer is to say that it was their own fault that they didn't get to the Promised Land; God can lead people to the Promised Land, but he can't force them to enter.
The second answer is to look at it differently.
To say that the struggle the people made was worth it. They may not have made it to the Promised Land but their children and children’s children did. And that alone was worth the struggle, because if they hadn't struggled and carried on, then their children and children’s children would have grown up slaves in Egypt.
Either way that is a tough read.
And in the middle of all this is other wee lesson on leadership and the way God works and the way humans work.
Which we can see in this passage.
The people are threatening to revolt.
They have sent out spies to Canaan and they have come back with glowing reports about how wonderful it is, but it is inhabited by people they think are stronger than them. They believe that if they enter the land then they will be decimated by the armies of the people already living in the Promised Land.
They have travelled for years across the desert, made untold sacrifices, suffered and struggled, and now they find it is a waste of time. Better to pick a new leader and head back to Egypt.
Moses is fed up of this.
He goes to God and asks what he should do and God says, ‘I’m fed up too. I’ll send an epidemic and wipe them out. Then Moses, I’ll make you like Abraham; you will be the father of a nation. That’s what we will do.’
And then Moses tries to save the people from God’s wrath.
At first glance that’s how it looks.
You see another reason people feel uncomfortable with Numbers is the concept of a God who would quite easily wipe people, his own people, out for disagreeing with him.
Now some people are quite happy with that concept.
God will wipe out all their enemies, because God loves us, not them.
And if God loves us, and not them, then God will destroy all our enemies.
When the AIDS epidemic first appeared there were plenty of people that said it was God finally punishing the gay people. Because everyone knew God just hates gay people.
If they knew a church like ours would send out nurses and teachers to South Africa to help people with AIDS they would have been horrified. How could a church go against God's will?
But then things changed. Because it seemed by such a simple theology that God also hated babies and adults that had had blood transfusions, God also hated grannies that had needed blood for their heart operations. God hated children with haemophilia and had contaminated blood products.
God seemed to hate a lot of people.
There are other folk though who seemed to have a different theology.
Maybe God didn’t hate all these people and was punishing them.
Maybe God had no enemies, only those he was trying to save, and that list of people God was trying to save even included those who hated him. So if God was trying to save them then maybe we should try too.
That was definitely the concept of God that Jesus was revealing; a God that reached out to those who didn’t worship, to those who were far from God, to those who were seen as sinners.
But how could this God of the New Testament be the same God of the Old Testament?
I think God is subtle.
I think God helps us as we need help.
I think God is good.
But I think God is easily misunderstood.
Fore instance,there is a famous scene in the New Testament (Mark 7: 24-30) when this foreign woman comes to Jesus asking for help for her son who is ill. Jesus has been spending the day telling of God's love. And Jesus hopes the disciples have understood the concept. But he is worried that they haven’t. That as far as the disciples are concerned God loves them and the people they love, God loves their nation, their people, their religion, but others? Others aren’t important to God.
So Jesus tests them.
The woman asks for help and Jesus dismisses her, hoping that one of the disciples will try to stop him, or question him or challenge him. Jesus is hoping that just one of the disciples will say, ‘Hie, if God is love then God is love for this person as well and shouldn't we help her?’
But none of the disciples say a word.
The woman herself tells Jesus that even the dogs get the scraps from the table, that they are not excluded from the food of the master. And Jesus tells the woman that she is the person of faith, not the disciples. She is the one who has understood the concept of God’s love and what it means.
I think something similar is happening here.
For twenty years Moses has been leading the people through the desert. For round about 19 years and 364 days the people have been complaining about it.
We don’t have enough water?
We don’t have enough food?
We are fed up of this food and we want other food?
For a long time my dad was only in charge of two children. We were only 6 and 4 and when we went on holidays we went by car because we didn't have a lot of money. We would travel for maybe 6-8 hours at a time.
I don't know how many times we would say, ‘Are we there yet?’
I don't know how many times my dad threatened to just stop the car and return home if we didn't shut up and stop complaining.
Now I will be the first one to admit that my father was no Moses when it came to leadership. Only two children under 7 and he was thinking of giving up after only three hours of complaining. But imagine any leader, with thousands upon thousands of people, and years upon years of complaining. And they have finally got to the edge of their destination and they want to return back to where they have come from.
If I was Moses I would want to just walk away.
If they came up to me at that point and said, ‘We want a new leader to take us away from here’. I would be saying, ‘Fine. I’ve done my bit. If you want to return to Egypt be my guests. I’ll even draw a map for you.’
But God knew that wouldn't be good for the people. And it wouldn't be good for Moses.
So God tells Moses what Moses wants to hear. In fact I think God deliberately exaggerates Moses’ hurt so that Moses can see how his hurt is blinding his actions.
‘You know Moses I feel your pain. When they reject you they reject me. You know we have put up with this for 20 years. All they have done is moan and moan and moan. Ok they were slaves and they don’t have a scoobie how to survive out here. Ok they were used to Pharaoh telling them everything they have to do so part of them wants that from you and part of them resents that you have to do it.
And look at all those miracles we did for them; the flock of birds to give meat, the manna, the water out of a stone. But all they do is complain and complain and complain. I could just wipe them all out. You know that’s what you want, just to be rid of them. I could do that and it would be just you and me. What do you think Moses?’
And exaggerated like that. Moses realises how far he has gone and tries to back track.
‘You know it wasn't that bad God. You are right we did have all those miracles. There were some real highlights in the desert when things looked impossible for us and you pulled us through. There were times when we were just lost and uncertain and you showed us the way.
Maybe you could do the same now? Why wouldn't you want to do the same now? We could rely on your help now as we did in the past.’
And so Moses’ heart is changed.
I know it sounds a bit complicated. But I think there is a help for us here today.
Sometimes we get so caught up in the problems right in our face that we forget the blessings that have been. And worse the significance of what those blessings mean.
We think the problems we face are only going to get worst, that they will last forever, that there is nothing we can do.
Like our wall.
Round about February/March I discovered a mushroom...right there where the wall touches the floor. The mushroom was less than six inches long.
Just ignore it.
Leave it alone.
Unfortunately that isn’t my style.
Before we knew it half this wall was coming down. Part of that wall was down, all this part of the floor was exposed and bits of the wood structure holding the stage up had to be replaced, the whole wall next door was down; parts of the ceiling came down because the rot was also in the beams of the roof.
All because I wouldn't leave a six inch mushroom alone.
Truth is, if I had left it alone in a few years time we really would have had a serious problem.
Now it is all decorated and fixed and fine.
But that is nothing compared to the rot we face in our heart when we get discouraged. When we think we can’t face problems, when we just want to give up.
And we deal with it the way God got Moses to deal with it; to remember the blessings of the past.
We need to remember how God got us through really tough times in the past; the support he put in our lives, the people he put in there to care for us, and the weird little things that meant so much at the time.
Because if we remember that God was there for us in the past, then we have a chance of remembering that God is there for us now.
And if we can also remember that God was there for our loved ones in the past, then we will remember that God is there for our loved ones now.
And if we have that, then no matter how bad things are...we have hope.
And if we have hope, then we can move forward.