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How long do you suppose it would take you to walk (from North Augusta, SC) to Athens, GA, or to Covington? How about Camden, South Carolina? Or Greenville? Or Charleston?
Why? Because each of those destinations is within the approximate range of distance from North Augusta as the Promised Land is from the starting point of the Exodus of the people of God. Their journey requires a little more time than yours since theirs forces them to cross a hot and dusty desert. Even so, it’s estimated to be only an eleven day journey. Yet, as you recall, it takes the people of God forty years to cover the course and accomplish their objective.
As the text opens, they are practically there. They are literally knocking on the door. They see the Promised Land. It has been a long time in coming, but by God’s goodness and mercy, they are on the threshold of victory! It’s virtually theirs now!
Suddenly, reality sets in, though. There are people already living in the land God has promised to them. In order to claim it as their own, they’ll have to fight for it. Frankly, most of them aren’t up to that! Instantly, their enthusiasm vanishes and once again, the people of God are plunged into the throes of another spiritual crisis. In fact, the better part of the next forty years is spent right there — on the brink of the Promised Land, bogged down in their fear and uncertainty.
Let me tell you how paralyzed they became. It would be like you stopping at Summerville or Walterboro on your way to Charleston. For some reason, you can go no farther. Instead, you back up and wander around Bamberg and Dorchester Counties for forty years before you ever move on toward Charleston. Sounds almost unbelievable, doesn’t it? But it’s what happened to the people of God.
It’s always a possibility when you realize that the future is uncertain and good things never come without a struggle. That’s why I think it’s helpful to look at this passage and learn from it. There are three truths I want you to see. First, anything can happen. Life is filled with uncertainty. Second, nothing can happen that God can’t use. And finally, because of God, there’s no reason to be afraid of tomorrow! Let’s look at each of these truths more closely.
First, anything can happen. Life is filled with uncertainty.(Numbers 13:27-33). Even though the people of God see the Promised Land with their own eyes, some feel strongly that a practical, rational approach must be adopted before any action is taken to seize control of it. They suggest that a small group of men — one from each of the twelve primary families — be sent to learn everything they can about the land, its people, its economy, and its defenses. They want to know everything it’s possible to know, in advance. They want as many answers as they can have, up front. They want as much certainty and reassurance as they can get, before they take another step. They want no surprises! They want guaranteed success! (Deuteronomy 1:22; Numbers 13:17-20)
Most of the time most of us don’t have what it takes to make decisions. We are far too rational. We weigh things too much. We measure the possible results of all the alternatives. And if we look for it, we’ll always find enough to scare us out of making any decision at all. Risks go with decision-making, but risks are usually too hard for people who think too much.
The really important decisions though, often have to be made without certainty. If we get married, we do it without a guarantee that we’re making the right decision, without any certainty that it’s going to last, not knowing at all how difficult will be the challenges we will face along the way. If we have children, we have them without knowing how they will turn out. When we decide to be Christians, we do it on faith, sometimes fighting recurring doubts about whether we’re really forgiven, or if there’s a heaven with a God in it Who truly loves us!
Typically, it’s only after we’ve made decisions that we have any sense as to whether we did the right thing. And even when we convince ourselves that our decisions were right, we may still have times of doubt, wondering what might have been if we had chosen differently.
We can’t refuse to decide either, or decide to do nothing at all. That provides no escape from the tension of having to make up our mind. The truth is: if we don’t decide, someone or something else decides for us. The people of God discovered that opportunities don’t wait forever!
When the spies return from their fact-finding mission, the majority only confirm the people’s worst fears. Ten of the twelve report numerous obstacles to overcome. The people who occupy the Promised Land are strong and their cities well-defended.(Numbers 13:28) In fact, the people of God have had run-ins before with some of the same folks and have gotten the worst of it on those occasions.(Numbers 13:29) As far as the spies can tell, the people of God are simply inferior to the opposition. In their own words, “we felt like grasshoppers in a land of giants.”(Numbers 13:33) Their conclusion is — it can’t be done! It couldn’t have been a more discouraging report.
What do you do when you face obstacles, or the uncertainty of tomorrow? Are you inclined to think only in terms of the worst-case scenario? Do you tend to exaggerate the obstacles, overstate the problems, and magnify the difficulties you expect to encounter? Are you like the ten spies who concluded that it couldn’t be done?
What do you do when you face giants? Do you look at the obstacles in your life in the same way the spies saw the occupants of the Promised Land? Do you think how hard it’s going to be? Do you convince Yourself that it can’t be done? Do you feel like a grasshopper in comparison, and all you think about is failing — perhaps getting stepped on? Learn this lesson before it’s too late: when you focus on the pitfalls instead of the prize, you often will fall right in. None of those who were afraid to go ever got into the Promised Land — not a one! (Numbers 14:20) Only their children and their children’s children lived to see the dream come true.
Have you ever traveled a mountain road where signs were posted which read, Falling Rock? What did you do? Did you pull over and frantically look at your map for another route? Did you refuse to budge another inch because you were afraid of what might happen? Did you slow your speed practically to a crawl and keep your eyes peeled overhead for plummeting debris? I doubt that you did any of those things.
Why not? Because you know that while there is the remote possibility of a rock falling on your car, it’s not likely. But you know that if you take your eyes off the road, you’re much more likely to have an accident than you are to be injured by boulders cascading down the mountain. You know too, that unless you keep going, you’ll never get to your destination. If you’re going to live successfully and productively, you must learn how to live with the uncertainties of life, overcome your fear, and move on in spite of the obstacles in your way.
The second truth revealed in this passage is that nothing can happen that God can’t use (Numbers 13:30). Isn’t it interesting that two of the spies — Joshua and Caleb — saw the same land as the other ten, and they said “Go!” while the others screamed “No!” Why do different people have different reactions to the same reality? It’s partly because we see things not as they are, but as we are!
That certainly explains the spies’ reactions. Ten saw the barriers. Two saw the blessings. Ten saw giants.
Two saw God. Ten saw fortified cities and their faith crumbled. Two had faith and saw the fortified cities crumble. Two said, “The best is yet to be.” Ten said, “The best is behind us. Let’s go back to Egypt! We were better off in the past than we’ll be in the future.”
What a terrible outlook on life! It’s no wonder that the Lord placed the mantle of leadership upon Joshua and Caleb instead of the gloom-and-doomers. They were men of faith. Leaders excel in adversity. So don’t resent the hard times. Don’t mark off the days until all your problems are over. It’s in hardship and difficulty that you learn endurance. It’s in trials and testing that you become strong. It’s when the pressure’s on that you have your greatest opportunities to trust God and to discover His power!
It’s all well and good to talk about how much faith in God you have, but tell me this: what are you doing that demonstrates your faith in God? The Christian faith is more than merely being and believing. It is also doing and serving. In fact, the Christian faith is supremely about doing and serving — even in hard times! I know that we are living in unstable and uncertain times. I know how difficult it is in times like these not to worry and not to be overcome by gloom-and-doom forecasts. I’m keenly aware that as many as 4,000 jobs may be eliminated at Savannah River Station. I sense the burden and stress which that places upon the community-at-large, as well as this community of faith.
I know that some of you are involved in making decisions about which jobs are eliminated. Others are worried, wondering if you and your job will be numbered among them. But let me remind you: nothing can happen that God cannot use. We are God’s people. We belong to Him, not to Westinghouse. Besides that, this is God’s church! And nothing will sink His church, or destroy it: not layoffs, not hard times, not even the gates of hell!
Count on this if you can’t count on anything else: God controls the future! God controls your future! When the future is left in God’s control, there’s only hope and promise!
In these times and under these pressures, God’s people are expected to keep moving. We have been called to live out dreams following God’s vision. Like Noah and Abraham, Moses and Gideon, we are to make some leaps of faith, to step out daringly and attempt the great, and sometimes even seemingly impossible, things we believe God has called us to do.
We can’t wait for certainty or the assurance that everything will work out like we would like it to. We must take risks if we are truly people of faith! We must be ready to bet our lives on God’s vision, because we believe that with God all things are possible. Three hundred years before Jesus, Eratosthenes determined, at high noon in the city of Syene, that a stick of wood, perfectly vertical, cast no shadow. Later, he also dis-covered that 500 miles away, at exactly the same moment, a stick perfectly vertical cast a shadow of 7 degrees. The obvious reason: the earth was round.
Since 7 degrees is approximately 1/50 of 360 degrees, and if every 7 degrees is about 500 miles, then the full circle of the earth would be 25,000 miles. When the calculations were finished, Eratosthenes had determined the earth’s circumference to within a few miles.
Eighteen hundred years later, Christopher Columbus sailed beyond the horizon to cross an uncharted ocean to the Orient. But Columbus had read the wrong maps. He thought the world was only 18,000 miles around He was off by 7,000 miles. In October, 1492, after almost a year at sea, rather than the few weeks he thought it would take, Columbus landed on what he believed were islands off the coast of India. Three times he returned in an effort to find the mainland of India and the Orient, but never got there.
Leaders — visionaries — sometimes make mistakes. Sometimes, they fail. But they fail because they are willing to lead, to stick out their neck and take a few risks when no one else will. Today, we don’t celebrate the accomplishments of Eratosthenes, who measured the earth accurately. We acknowledge Columbus who made four trips to the New World and died in 1506, with no idea where he had been.1 Eratosthenes was right in his calculations, but he did nothing with what he knew.
People and churches talk a lot about potential. But when will we realize that there is absolutely no correlation between potential and performance? Lots of people and churches have unbelievable potential, but they never do anything with it. What counts is performance. People who become great leaders, and churches which make significant impact are those who do something with the opportunities they have!
Have you noticed how this church has come alive in these last few weeks as we’ve talked about the vision, dreamed the dream again, and dared to renew our confidence that God knows what He’s doing with our church? We’ve seen the truth of the old proverb before our eyes: if we fail to live out of dreams and visions, we will die (Proverbs 29:18) We must be determined to pursue God’s dream for us, no matter what obstacles are in the way! There are only two ways we can fail: one is by not trying and the other is by quitting.
Finally, the text reminds us that because of God, there’s no reason to be afraid of tomorrow. (Numbers 13:30) Max Lucado tells a wonderful story about his four year old daughter, Sara. Her favorite game is to jump into her father’s arms. When she gets him at just the right distance — not too close, mind you, but not too far away either — she crouches, springs, and then throws her whole self at him.
Superman without a cape. Skydiver without a parachute. Her only hope is her father. If he proves weak, she’ll fall. If he proves cruel, she’ll crash. If he forgets, she’ll tumble to the hard floor.
But she doesn’t worry about any of that because she trusts her father. Four years under the same roof with him has convinced her that he is reliable. So she flies and soars, and he catches her always.
One day Sara’s older sister was watching. Max asked Sara if she would jump to Andrea. Sara refused. Her father tried to coax her, but she wouldn’t budge. “Why not?” he asked.
“I only jump to big arms,” she said2
Don’t we all? If we think the arms are weak we won’t jump either. Will we? Don’t worry. Jump. God controls the future. He will catch you. He will not let you fall. God can be trusted There’s no need to be afraid!
1Art Mortell, The Courage To Fail. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1993, pp. 37-38.
2Max Lucado, When God Whispers Your Name. Dallas: Word Publishing, 1994, pp. 97-102.