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Faithful Despite Unfaithfulness
Fall Quarter: Responding to God’s Grace
Sunday school lesson for the week of September 22, 2019
By Dr. D. Craig Rikard
Lesson Scripture: Numbers 13:1-14:10a
Key Verse: Numbers 14:8
“If the Lord is pleased with us, he will lead us into that land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and will give it to us.”
This lesson helps us to understand the importance of vision. How we look theologically at life determines whether we shirk in fear and complain, or whether we move forward by faith.
The Israelites have now camped in Sinai, “before the mountain of the Lord” from where Moses will later deliver the Ten Commandments. The people will remain encamped here for a little less than a year. According to the narrative, approximately two to three weeks have passed since our last lesson of the manna and quail.
Historical and theological reflection introducing the narrative
How quickly Israel forgets the wonder of God’s grace at work among them. The Lord has provided water, bread, and meat, and has allowed them to witness the divine glory. Few moments altered their lives more than the reception of the Ten Commandments, a remarkable gift of divine grace. This narrative records another incident of the people grumbling and complaining. Even as Moses ascended Sinai to receive the Law, the Israelites were shaping the golden calf. On this particular occasion they fear God is leading them, through the leadership of Moses and Aaron, into the violent hands of a mighty enemy in Canaan. The life of the Israelites should be sated with hope and joy in relation to God’s providential care in giving water, manna and quail, in relation to the gift of the divine presence in the cloud, and in relation to the guidance and life given in the Ten Commandments. However, chaos brews in the tribe and rebellion against the leadership and ultimately against God.
Theological, historical and experiential reflection upon Numbers 13:1-14:10a
A great opportunity for physical rest and spiritual growth stands before Israel. After a tiring journey through the desert they can now rest for almost a year, and even more importantly, they can contemplate and reflect upon what God has done. It is not coincidental that these months of pause precede the opportunity to, at last, enter Canaan. Occupying Canaan will require faith, trust, and perseverance. Great opportunities require great preparation. Few textbooks can prepare the human soul for spiritual perseverance than personal and collective struggle. Adversity in life tests faith and character. Those who endure the difficulty leave the adversity stronger. One of my favorite quotes on perseverance is by an unknown author. It reads: “Pain makes you stronger. Tears makes you braver. Heartbreak makes you wiser. So thank the past for a better future.”
A better future awaits Israel. However, they must understand the lessons of their past struggles and pain. Here in the presence of Mt. Sinai they have such an opportunity. In order to fully prepare Israel, the Lord commands Moses to send spies into Canaan. One man from each of the 12 tribes was selected for the preparatory mission. These were well respected, trustworthy men of character.
In retrospect, have there been moments in our life we handled well because of prior struggle and the lessons we learned from that struggle? Do we believe past pain and struggle have been used by God to make us stronger in faith and character? How difficult is it to understand adversity as a time of preparation in contrast to complaining that it is an intrusion? If so, why?
The people of Israel could erupt in disagreement quite easily; thus, Moses was indeed wise to give the 12 spies specific direction for spying out the land. They would not enter the land in a haphazard, unorganized manner. Moses’ instructions ensure that the entire land will be reviewed. From the southern area of desert, upward to the Jordon plain, and northward into the hill country, the spies would have an opportunity to offer an accurate report. It is helpful in adversity to understand the struggle itself. What happened to place us in the midst of the difficulty? What is the best manner to handle it? What are all the dynamics (physical, emotional, spiritual, and social) involved? It is helpful to understand my weaknesses, and even more so my strengths. The spies were to look over the entire land. Thus, it is helpful for us to study adversity in order to overcome and learn from it.
When in times of difficulty, have we developed a means of understanding the struggle or do we simply attempt to survive as best we can? Is there a helpful manner in understanding and learning from adversity that we can share with others?
The mission of the 12 took 40 days. The number 40 is often used biblically to denote “a completed purpose.” The mission of the 12 was finished and complete. They were engaged in a spiritual mission more than engaging in helpful military preparation. The faithful response of God’s people depended upon the report of the spies. They had been asked to return with fruit from the land that Israel might know Canaan is as fruitful as God promised. The fruit was to be a tangible expression of the hope God birthed in their heart through covenant promise. The people would be able to exclaim, “It is a land flowing with milk and honey!” Jesus said, “Blessed are those who believe without seeing.” (Jn.20:29) However, God’s grace at times allows us to see manifestations of God’s promise. We witness loving, caring acts daily. Are these not tangible expressions of the Kingdom of Heaven? When we see a changed life is this not a tangible expression of God’s forgiving grace? It is more superior to believe without seeing. Yet, in our humanity, it is helpful on occasion to see “the fruit of the land.”
What are some of the expressions of God’s promises that we have witnessed on our life? What are some of the obstacles that make believing without seeing difficult? What are some of the spiritual disciplines we can employ to teach us to develop a more superior vision of faith?
Numbers 13: 28
Moses displayed the fruit before the people to increase their trust and bolster their courage. However, he adds what I call the “dreaded conjunction.” He says, “But
the people living there are powerful, and the cities fortified and very large.” If that wasn’t enough to strike fear in their hearts he adds the terrifying statement, “We even saw the descendants of Anak there.” The Anakites were renowned for being tall, strong, fierce warriors. We can assume the visions of luscious fruit and thriving crops immediately gave way to unbeatable warriors, big and strong. The fruit had not disappeared. Spiritually they had become blind to it. Faith was giving way to fear. Courage quickly gave way to complaining. Of the 12, only two believed God’s promise in spite of what they saw. Caleb and Joshua were lone voices of hope, faith, and courage. The remaining 10 were filled with doubt and were now instruments of discouragement. The fear-provoking report of the 10 would lead the Israelites to wander for years before finally entering the land of promise. There is always a consequence when doubting what God has proclaimed true. Even after witnessing the resurrection of Jesus the disciples hid themselves behind a locked door that very night “for fear of the Jews.” How could they forget the power of the resurrection in a few hours? Thankfully Jesus entered their room of hiding and sent them forth. Without that appearance the church would never have made its way into the upper room for Pentecost. God’s grace can overpower doubt and fear. In our narrative, the consequence of opting for fear over faith is that of wandering in the wilderness for 39+ years.
Can we recall moments in our journey of faith when we listened to the voice of fear? Can we recall when our enthusiasm and courage dissipated simply because we listened to a message that stood in contrast to God’s message of promise? Can we name the consequences we experience as a result of our doubt, fear and at times our hesitation?
Grumbling and complaining had returned. Once again, we learn that fear and discouragement can lead to a reframing of yesterday. Egypt now looks better through the lens of doubt and fear than Canaan as promised by God. In last week’s lesson the people exclaimed, “At least we had food in Egypt!” Now we discover their expression of despair is darker and resounds with hopelessness. “Only if we had died in Egypt! Or in this wilderness!” The doubt and fear of the Israelites not only led them to assume a certain defeat in Canaan, they were envisioning horrific deaths. The illogical cries reek of raw emotion. They are crying, “It is better to die as a slave, or from hunger and thirst than in battle against such a savage enemy!” A word of discouragement from the 10 spies had completely altered the vision of God’s people and doused courageous faith with terrified defeatism. We need to note that a single word of discouragement has tremendous destructive power. Read James 3:4-8. One week in August a single word was spoken regarding America’s economy. That word was “recession.” The Dow fell 800 points in a matter of hours. Never doubt the power of a negative word. The Israelites initially heard “fruit” and “promise;” then they heard “powerful enemies” and their spirits spiraled downward.
Can we share an experience in which a single negative word or message altered our entire perception and course of action? Can we recall a moment when it happened in the ministry of our church? What are the certain consequences of allowing grumbling and complaining to become the status quo for a church or person?
Assured of certain death, or rather “imagined death,” the people rebelled against Moses and Aaron for leading them into the approaching danger. Blame is a total waste of time and energy. It never alters anything for the better. It can be very destructive however, creating innocent scapegoats and hurting the feelings of others. Overwhelmed with emotion, Joshua and Caleb fell facedown before the people. One cannot help but think of Jesus lying on the ground in prayer, overwhelmed by the approaching abandonment, betrayal, and death. Joshua and Caleb are deeply moved and troubled at this tragic, sad sight. They tore their clothes, a symbolic act of sorrowful repentance and shame. It is moving to note how deeply these men were touched over the unnecessary pain experienced by the community, and the negative course of action they knew was going to be taken by their faith family. The response of God’s people created an air of mistrust and shame. Everyone experienced the consequences associated with collective doubt and fear. Though Joshua and Caleb were not guilty of disbelief and dispersing fear, still they suffered. Churches are promised that God is with us, “even to the end of the age.” (Mat.28:18-20}. However, we have witnessed churches that shrink from their mission for reasons of doubt and fear. There are serious consequences when God’s people neglect the promise of God and adhere to messages of doubt and fear. Those consequences affect everyone.
When is the last time you witnessed another weeping or experiencing sorrow over the needless suffering experienced by their church and the people they loved? Have you witnessed the suffering of even the innocent when destructive courses of action were taken?
Joshua and Caleb reminded the people they had witnessed the fruit of land and its beauty personally. More importantly, they reminded the people of God’s promise. They attempted to address the fear running rampant among the community with faith in God, who had fulfilled the promise of covenant time and again. They were asking the people to, “Trust God.” “Remember the Lord’s goodness and power in the past, and move forward into today and tomorrow for God is unchangeable.” However, the people cannot enter the land in fear or mistrust. God will give them the land as promised if only they will do as promised in covenant: “Trust in the Lord and be not afraid.” God was not asking for works, only for faith. Fearing the enemy is interpreted by Joshua and Caleb as “rebelling against the Lord.”
How is the fear of Israel an act of rebellion against God? How does our fear in the imagined and projected vision we create hinder the work of God’s spirit in our midst? Can we list our “yesterday moments,” or our church list them in order to move into the future in trust?
Our lesson ends with the sad words, “But the whole assembly talked about stoning them.” This closing word reveals the depth of fear and mistrust among the people. They are not only afraid and doubtful, they are angry! Projecting our fear into the future and imagining a tomorrow created by our fear can lead to pain. The conclusion of their projection of fear is that the people are “going to suffer and die.” The anger emerging from such projection leads to blame. We can strike our head on the corner of a table and illogically curse the table. We are hurt, we want to hurt someone or something in response, and our action is usually senseless. Joshua and Caleb have done nothing other than encourage the people with truth. They are two shining lights of faith and hope, yet the imagination of the Israelites has made them the enemy. The future is now terrifying, and, if the people move forward in fear they will do so without leadership. Leadership can often be sacrificed in frightening and uncertain times for no constructive reason. Thus, fear will increase, suffering will intensify, and chaos will reign.
Sadly, can you remember when leaders were criticized in a time of uncertainty in church, at work, or anywhere in life? What were the consequences?
The Teacher’s Guide for our Sunday school lesson provided a great saying from Dale Carnegie. He wrote, “Two men looked out from prison bars. One saw the mud, the other saw the stars.” Our journey of faith has everything to do with perception. How we perceive yesterday matters. God has blessed us continually, yet how easily we forget or neglect these memories when faced with a time of testing. God uses life to not only test our faith in the Lord’s promise, but also to increase our faith as divine goodness is revealed once again. Like Joshua and Caleb, we are called to move forward trusting in God’s grace and promise. It doesn’t mean we are not fearful; it rather means that we allow our faith to overpower fear. As with Joshua and Caleb, our stand and decisions will not always be initially popular, but they will prove beneficial and blessed.
Almighty God, shield me from the frailty of my spirit, protect me from own powerless will, free me from all anxieties and doubts, give me the vigor to push on and continue with the mission you have chosen me to task. Help me remember, Lord, that you are there beside me, and if I fall at times, be there to carry me. In Jesus name, Amen. (Prayers for Courage and Strength; www.lords-prayer-words.com)
Dr. D. Craig Rikard is a South Georgia pastor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.