Midweek 3 – On the edge of the Promised Land
March 2, 2016
Numbers 13:17-27 (NRSV)
“Moses sent them to spy out the land of Canaan, and said to them, ‘Go up there into the Negeb, and go up into the hill country, and see what the land is like, and whether the people who live in it are strong or weak, whether they are few or many, and whether the land they live in is good or bad, and whether the towns that they live in are unwalled or fortified,and whether the land is rich or poor, and whether there are trees in it or not. Be bold, and bring some of the fruit of the land.’ Now it was the season of the first ripe grapes.
“So they went up and spied out the land from the wilderness of Zin to Rehob, near Lebo-hamath. They went up into the Negeb, and came to Hebron; and Ahiman, Sheshai, and Talmai, the Anakites, were there. (Hebron was built seven years before Zoan in Egypt.) And they came to the Wadi Eshcol, and cut down from there a branch with a single cluster of grapes, and they carried it on a pole between two of them. They also brought some pomegranates and figs. That place was called the Wadi Eshcol, because of the cluster that the Israelites cut down from there.
“At the end of forty days they returned from spying out the land. And they came to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation of the Israelites in the wilderness of Paran, at Kadesh; they brought back word to them and to all the congregation, and showed them the fruit of the land. And they told him, ‘We came to the land to which you sent us; it flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit.”
There they were: on the edge of the Promised Land. After making what was a fairly direct journey from Egypt, through the Red Sea, across the desert: here they stood. How did that feel, I wonder? To be right on the edge of God’s promise? To be so close they could practically taste the milk and honey on their tongue?
Yet the Israelites proceeded with caution. Since Jacob’s sons left the land first given to Abraham, the land of Canaan had become occupied by others, and the Israelites needed to get a sense of what they were getting into, rather than march right in. Following God’s command, they sent in spies to check things out and get a lay of the land. After 40 days of spying, the leaders from each tribe discover that this land is really, very good land. And they come back to tell everyone so, and everyone lived happily ever after.
Well at least that’s what today’s lectionary reading would have us believe! The reading appointed for today leaves us with such hope – “We came to the land to which you sent us; it flows with milk and honey! It is fruitful!”
Ah, but that is not where their report ends; the lectionary cuts it off prematurely. “YET,” they go on. “YET, we saw the people there, and they are big and scary. There’s no way we can overtake them.” Isn’t there always a “yet”? Isn’t there always some fear that would keep us from (in their case, literally) living in God’s promises?
We are halfway through our Lenten pilgrimage. If your journey has been anything like mine, you started out pretty strong, then you got too busy, or too distracted, or too bored to continue with quite the same enthusiasm. Or, if your journey is really like mine, you might have caught a glimpse of the Promised Land, that place where, at the beginning of this journey you said, “I would like for my relationship with God to look like that,” but now, as you stand on the edge of the Land, you see nothing but obstacles.
- “I know I could have a more meaningful prayer life, YET it takes a lot of time and changing my daily routine is hard and oh, just forget it. I’m fine here in the wilderness.”
- “I know I could work for reconciliation with that person, YET it requires me to face some difficult truths about myself and admit to things I don’t want to admit to. I’ve survived this long with this burden, and I’m not really interested in doing the soul searching this next step would require, so… I’m fine here in the wilderness.”
- “I know I could start making some difficult decisions about the next step my life is going to take, YET it would require disappointing some people and I don’t know if I will find as much satisfaction in the new life, so… I’ll just continue on as I always have. I know it can’t last forever, but I can put it off a little longer, and stay in the wilderness.”
The Israelites decide that the YET and the fears and the uncertainty are stronger than God’s promise to take care of them. Caleb and Joshua want to trust God, but no one else does. They are too afraid of those big obstacles. They do not trust God.
In her book, Walk in a Relaxed Manner, Joyce Rupp describes several lessons she learned while walking the Camino de Santiago. One of them was to “trust in the divine companion.” She relates the long list of fears she had, walking this long journey: everything from not being able to find lodging, to feeling lonely, to someone at home dying while she was away, to her body not holding up for the journey. Her traveling companion had his own set of fears and anxieties as well. Then one day they remember the Spanish phrase, “Primero Dios.” God first. They begin offering this phrase to each other whenever one of them becomes apprehensive about anything. Primero Dios. God first.
One night in particular, they really started to doubt they would find a place to stay and food to eat. By the end of the night, they ended up having the most fun, most incredible meal they had on the entire journey. After the fact, she has this to say: “The experience of that evening meal taught me a lot about believing in God’s care especially when external conditions point to the opposite. I became aware of how quickly my trust falters when things do not go as I hope. I too easily become discouraged when things do not go my way. To trust means relinquishing some of my strong need to have control when I face uncertainty and insecurity. My own strong efforts do not completely guarantee I will have inner serenity and peace.” But, she goes on, “The Camino reinforced a major lesson of life: the heart of the pilgrim journey is not about being anxious and fretful. It is about putting God first and trusting in this abiding presence and providence.”
As they stood on the edge of the Promised Land, the Israelites were not able to do this. They saw the possibilities God was offering, then let their “YET” make the final decision. As a result, God sent them back into the wilderness for 40 more years, wandering about long enough for that unbelieving generation to pass away.
What about us? At this point, halfway through our journey, will we see the Promised Land – with all its fruitfulness along with the fear and uncertainty of entering it – and doubt the providence and protection of God? Or will we say with confidence, “Primero Dios!” and face those fears, trusting in the God who brings newness out of endings, and goodness out of evil, and life out death?
Let us pray… God of promise, even though we know your promises are good, we are sometimes afraid to move into them. Show us the Promised Land, but show us also that you will be with us as we enter into it, granting us safety and new life. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.