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Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Best is Yet to Come (Numbers 13:1-2, 13:21-14:8)

The Lord spoke to Moses: Send out men to explore the land of Canaan, which I’m giving to the Israelites. Send one man from each ancestral tribe, each a chief among them.

21 They went up and explored the land from the Zin desert to Rehob, near Lebo-hamath. 22 They went up into the arid southern plain and entered Hebron, where Ahiman, Sheshai, and Talmai, the descendants of the Anakites, lived. (Hebron was built seven years before Tanis in Egypt.) 23 Then they entered the Cluster ravine, cut down from there a branch with one cluster of grapes, and carried it on a pole between them. They also took pomegranates and figs. 24 That place was called the Cluster ravine because of the cluster of grapes that the Israelites cut down from there.

25 They returned from exploring the land after forty days. 26 They went directly to Moses, Aaron, and the entire Israelite community in the Paran desert at Kadesh. They brought back a report to them and to the entire community and showed them the land’s fruit. 27 Then they gave their report: “We entered the land to which you sent us. It’s actually full of milk and honey, and this is its fruit. 28 There are, however, powerful people who live in the land. The cities have huge fortifications. And we even saw the descendants of the Anakites there. 29 The Amalekites live in the land of the arid southern plain; the Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites live in the mountains; and the Canaanites live by the sea and along the Jordan.”

30 Now Caleb calmed the people before Moses and said, “We must go up and take possession of it, because we are more than able to do it.”

31 But the men who went up with him said, “We can’t go up against the people because they are stronger than we.” 32 They started a rumor about the land that they had explored, telling the Israelites, “The land that we crossed over to explore is a land that devours its residents. All the people we saw in it are huge men. 33 We saw there the Nephilim (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim). We saw ourselves as grasshoppers, and that’s how we appeared to them.”

14 The entire community raised their voice and the people wept that night. All the Israelites criticized Moses and Aaron. The entire community said to them, “If only we had died in the land of Egypt or if only we had died in this desert! Why is the Lord bringing us to this land to fall by the sword? Our wives & our children will be taken by force. Wouldn’t it be better for us to return to Egypt?” So they said to each other, “Let’s pick a leader & let’s go back to Egypt.”

Then Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before the assembled Israelite community. But Joshua, Nun’s son, and Caleb, Jephunneh’s son, from those who had explored the land, tore their clothes and said to the entire Israelite community, “The land we crossed through to explore is an exceptionally good land. If the Lord is pleased with us, he’ll bring us into this land and give it to us. It’s a land that’s full of milk and honey.

 

If I were to put half a glass of water here on the table today, how many of you would say the glass is half-full?  How many would say it’s half-empty?

 

That test supposedly divides the world into one of two personality types – optimists and pessimists.  Optimists are always anticipating the best, pessimists are always anticipating the worst.  Sometimes a pessimist is easy to spot, like Eeyore or Debbie Downer.  No one wants to be labeled a pessimist, which is why I’ve noticed that most call themselves “realists.”  Isn’t that better?

 

Here’s what I’d like you to consider today: Everyone is an optimist.  And a pessimist.  Feelings of optimism and pessimism swirl around within each of us, and depending on a whole host of factors, one or the other can express itself.  A half-glass is subject to interpretation – the same glass, but it can be seen as half-full or half-empty.  Seeing is believing.  Perception is reality.  We will respond and take certain action based on what we perceive.

 

So it was for the Hebrew people as they journeyed from bondage in Egypt through the wilderness toward the promised land.  Over the last several weeks we’ve joined with them on that journey, and hopefully you’ve realized that God is always on the move, always calling us toward something better, always leading us toward a preferred future.  In the paraphrased words of Jackie Wilson, God’s love keeps lifting us higher and higher than we’ve ever been lifted before.

 

On their journey, the Hebrew people failed to remember the ways God had been at work already, which made it impossible to trust God into their future.  God was at work, always had been, promised to continue to be, they just didn’t perceive it.

 

Now, they have travelled right up to the edge of the promised land, so close they can taste the milk and honey.  They send twelve spies into the land to check things out.  What is it like?  Who lives there?  What are the challenges?  What are the opportunities?  They find it is, as promised, a land flowing with milk and honey.  It yields pomegranates, dates, figs, and grapes in bunches so large that one was strung to a pole and carried by two men to bring it back.  The spies all agree in their report to the people, except a small group expresses their faith in God to move ahead, and the rest express their fear that would cause them to turn back.

 

Sometimes we’ve got a clear go-ahead, and we still hesitate about moving forward.  On my first date with Ashley, I spent the entire evening trying to figure out if she was interested in me or not, and if it was safe for me to make a move – I’m not talking about a major move, either – I’m talking putting my arm around her or holding her hand!  In hindsight, she was giving me every possible verbal and non-verbal cue that we were all systems go – but, because I’m a guy and we’re idiots sometimes, spent the entire evening trying to figure out if she was interested or just being polite.  Despite the fact that she was giving me nothing but green lights, and now knowing all the ways my life is infinitely better because of her, I was still second-guessing about moving forward.

 

We often do the same thing with God.  As God calls us forward into a preferred future, it is still an unknown future.  There is something daunting about making that initial step across the threshold into the unknown.  Our fear can get the best of us, the fear of the unknown is downright crippling for so many people – what if we read the signals wrong and put ourselves out there, and now we’re stuck?  All sorts of fears can come together – fear of rejection, fear of loss, fear of looking foolish, fear of failure, fear of change.

 

That’s where the Hebrew people were, even as they stood within arm’s length of their promised future, their fears got the best of them.  Even after living for the last several hundred years as slaves, even after crossing the desert and literally standing on the threshold of what’s been promised to them with the accompanying promise that God will be with them, even with the overwhelming evidence that God was with them the entire way, hadn’t abandoned them yet, wasn’t about to now – they still balked.

 

In their report, 10 of the spies respond with fear, thinking the challenges are too great for them to overcome.  2 of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, have the faith to believe that if God brought them to it, God will see them through it.

 

The evidence is all there.  God has called them, led them, provided for them faithfully – 100% of the time.   But, fear is powerful, and before you know it, they’re quarrelling again, offering every reason why they can’t and won’t move into the future God has prepared for them.  Some of the spies even take liberty with the report, making up rumors about the people who already inhabit the land, saying that they are giants, and in their eyes, the Hebrew people appeared as grasshoppers.

 

Remember, perception is reality.  Even a rumor, if believed, becomes reality.  So it was that the rumor became a self-fulfilling prophecy, and fear of the unknown future won out over faith in God to lead into that future.

 

Have you ever been part of a project that’s been sabotaged from the inside?  Maybe at work, maybe even at church?  The very people who are in the meetings and voice their support are firing torpedoes at the plan by the time they reach the parking lot?  Do you know how damaging that sort of behavior can be?

 

Have you considered the cost of the damage to the entire community when that sort of thing happens?  How destructive it is when fear wins out over faith?  How it prevents an entire community from moving into God’s preferred future? 

 

It happens so often in communities of faith, and it’s exactly what happened to the Hebrew people.  Fear took control and faith took a back seat.  Instead of trusting God and moving forward,  a "Back to Egypt” Committee sprung up with the idea to turn around and go back to how it used to be, and the people were so fearful, they bought it, and God’s plan for them wasn’t realized for another forty years.

 

So why this story when we talk about our future?  Because, the easy thing is to learn from someone else’s mistakes.  The hard thing is to learn from our own.  The tragic thing is to learn from neither.

 

Because, we can believe our best days are ahead of us, or we can believe our best days are behind us, and either way, we’ll be right.

 

Because, we have a choice between faith in God for our future, or fear about the unknowns in our future.  Whether it’s the difference between optimism and pessimism, seeing the glass half-full or half-empty, anticipating the best or anticipating the worst, fear or faith, I’m choosing faith, and I invite you to come with me.

 

My observation is that every community of faith has a “Back to Egypt” Committee.  No use fighting it.  There will always be some who have their own ideas about where they want to go.  The key is for the rest of us to stay on track.  Ashley and I were on vacation in the Dominican Republic one year, and we signed up for an excursion that took us to the other side of the island for a cruise and a trip to a private island.  Long story short, the excursion wasn’t all it was advertised to be, including a bus ride that was two and a half hours each way.  But, to top it off, on the way back, four people on the bus begged our guide to stop at a cigar factory, which he agreed to.  For the next hour, the rest of us waited on the bus while these four toured the cigar factory, took pictures, and then didn’t even buy anything!  To say that I was a bit irritated would be an understatement!

 

Here’s my beef.  If they wanted to go tour a cigar factory, there were other excursions they could have signed up for – namely, the one advertised as “cigar factory tour.”  The people on this bus signed up for “cruise to private island,” do you see how that is not the same as “cigar factory tour,” and that if you wanted to go to the cigar factory, the best thing would have been to sign up for the trip that said “cigar factory tour”?

 

It happens in communities of faith, too.  The key is to be clear about where we are headed, and to not let the back to Egypt Committee hijack the trip – so let me be very clear here: if you want to go back to Egypt, you’re on the wrong bus.  That’s not where we’re going.  We’re moving ahead into God’s preferred future, that’s where I’m going – and I invite you to come along with me.

 
A year ago, I stood here for the first time and delivered my first sermon as your pastor.  I’ve spent much of the last year listening to both and God, in prayer, study and discernment about where God is specifically calling Morehead Church to go.

 

A year ago, I felt God calling us to be a faith family joined by grace, growing in God’s love.  God is still calling us to be that; the difference is that a year later, I have more clarity about God’s preferred future for our church, and I firmly believe that for Morehead Church, the best is yet to come.  Our best days are still ahead of us!  God isn’t done with us, if we’re willing to do what God asks.

 

When it comes to God’s future, God’s call on us as a church, I do want to be clear about a few things.  I do believe growth will happen – more people will become part of our church – but growth is the inevitable result of doing what we’re supposed to do, not a goal in and of itself.  I am not interested in adding members for the sake of adding members; but I am aware that if we are faithful in what God wants us to do, that numerical growth will necessarily happen.

 

Likewise, buildings, money, staff, and programs are tools and resources designed to support our overall mission.  We will continually assess the degree to which all of these things are supporting and fostering our movement into God’s preferred future, but none of them is a goal in and of itself.  I am convinced that if we are faithful in listening to and following God’s lead into our future, then God will provide the resources and tools we need along the journey.

 

So where are we going?  Consider me as one who has spied out the land, and this is my initial report about what I see in our future.  In the month of August, we’ll spend some time in a series looking at these things in greater depth, but for now, here’s the overview on where we’re going, and the ways God is calling us to grow as we move into God’s preferred future.  This is all on some cards you can pick up on your way out, for now, don’t write, just listen:

 

In God’s preferred future, Morehead Church will grow in faith.

·        We will believe that God always has even greater things in our future.

·        We will seek to do God’s will above our own.

·        We will trust God daily to lead and provide beyond our expectation.

 

In God’s preferred future, Morehead Church will grow as disciples.

·        We will be Christ-centered in all we do.

·        We will be more interested in making disciples of Jesus than members of Morehead, because we are not here to introduce people to ourselves, we are here to introduce them to Jesus.

·        We will seek transformed lives as the norm as we grow in love of God and neighbor.

 

In God’s preferred future, Morehead Church will grow in grace.

·        We will be warm-hearted no matter what size we become.

·        We will be a welcoming and safe place for all people who want to sit at the feet of Jesus.

·        We will live out of the center of the Methodist tradition.  Methodism is by design a broad-based faith with room for lots of different opinion and diversity of thought.  That’s not a weakness, it’s a strength.  I don’t care if you’re a conservative or a liberal - genuine faithful Christians live along the entire breadth of that spectrum, and we have room for all of it.  There’s room at our table for anyone who can also make room for others.

 

In God’s preferred future, Morehead Church will grow as neighbors.

·        We will generously share what we have received from the generous hand of God.

·        We will be the church for all people who live within a five-minute drive, even if they’ve never been here, they will think of Morehead as their church.

·        We will seek to be the answer to our neighbors’ prayers.

 

That’s where we’re going.  That’s where I’ll be leading.  That’s the future, the preferred future to which God is calling us.  I have the faith that if God calls us to it, God will see through it.

 
Friends, we’ve already got some great days behind us.  But as good as those were, what if even better days are in our future?  I don’t know about you, but I can hardly wait to see what God has in store.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Are We There Yet? (Exodus 16:2-8,13-15,31; 17:1-7)


The whole Israelite community complained against Moses and Aaron in the desert. The Israelites said to them, “Oh, how we wish that the Lord had just put us to death while we were still in the land of Egypt. There we could sit by the pots cooking meat and eat our fill of bread. Instead, you’ve brought us out into this desert to starve this whole assembly to death.” Then the Lord said to Moses, “I’m going to make bread rain down from the sky for you. The people will go out each day and gather just enough for that day. In this way, I’ll test them to see whether or not they follow my Instruction. On the sixth day, when they measure out what they have collected, it will be twice as much as they collected on other days.” So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “This evening you will know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt. And in the morning you will see the Lord’s glorious presence, because your complaints against the Lord have been heard. Who are we? Why blame us?” Moses continued, “The Lord will give you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning because the Lord heard the complaints you made against him. Who are we? Your complaints aren’t against us but against the Lord.”

13 In the evening a flock of quail flew down and covered the camp. And in the morning there was a layer of dew all around the camp. 14 When the layer of dew lifted, there on the desert surface were thin flakes, as thin as frost on the ground. 15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to each other, “What is it?” They didn’t know what it was. Moses said to them, “This is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat. 31 The Israelite people called it manna. It was like coriander seed, white, and tasted like honey wafers.

 

The whole Israelite community broke camp and set out from the Sin desert to continue their journey, as the Lord commanded. They set up their camp at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people argued with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why are you arguing with me? Why are you testing the Lord?”

But the people were very thirsty for water there, and they complained to Moses, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us, our children, and our livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What should I do with this people? They are getting ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of Israel’s elders with you. Take in your hand the shepherd’s rod that you used to strike the Nile River, and go. I’ll be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Hit the rock. Water will come out of it, and the people will be able to drink.” Moses did so while Israel’s elders watched. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites argued with and tested the Lord, asking, “Is the Lord really with us or not?”

 

“Are we there yet?”  Four words that indicate the family road trip has gone on entirely too long for everyone in the car.  Four words that somehow make the trip longer – right up there with other phrases, such as “I’m hungry.”  “I have to go to the bathroom.”  “I don’t feel so good.”  And, alternately, “He’s touching me” or “He’s on my side.”  I am one of four kids, and when our family was on the road together, even when we drove our Suburban, someone was always on someone else’s side, someone was always touching someone else.

 

For some reason, however, the four words, “Are we there yet?” made an already long trip even longer.  If you have to ask it, the answer is already painfully obvious.  Are we there yet?  Look around; no, we’re not.  This question was so unpopular in our car that my Dad banned its use.  We were not allowed to ask, “Are we there yet?” so I started asking, instead, “How much longer?”

 

If you’re just joining us today, today is the second message in a three-part series on “Reaching for the Promise: An Exodus Journey Toward God’s Preferred Future.”  We are re-tracing the journey of the Hebrew people from slavery and bondage in Egypt toward the promised land.  Last week we took off our shoes and stood with Moses on holy ground, as he encountered God in a burning bush, who called him to lead the people somewhere better than where they were.  Next week, we’ll overlook the promised land and see about moving into it.

 

But today, we find ourselves between those two places.  We find ourselves somewhere between “where we’ve been” and “where we’re going.”  It’s the wilderness, somewhere on the road, making a journey together – no longer where we used to be, not yet where we’ll end up.  God is calling, always calling us toward a preferred future.  Will we reach it?  How long will the trip take?  Well, that’s sort of up to us.  May we pray.

 

One of the most significant road trips my family took was when I was three.  We moved from Oklahoma to New York.  Mom drove the car – an Olds Cutlass, at the time – while Dad drove the moving truck.  There were three kids in the family at the time – and at each stop, we rotated which kid rode in the truck with Dad.

 

One of my sisters was riding in the truck, which left me and my other sister in the back of the car.  HotWheels cars were one of my favorite toys as a kid (Ashley jokes that cars are still my favorite toy, my taste in toys is just more expensive now than ever), and, apparently bored, I began to throw cars at my sister on the other side of the car.  Mom told me to stop throwing cars at my sister, which I did; I began throwing them at the back of Mom’s head, instead!  Dad was following behind in the truck, and he thought there must have been something wrong with the car with as quickly as Mom pulled over and hauled me out of the backseat to administer some “roadside discipline.”

 

Asking “Are we there yet?” only makes the trip seem to take longer.  A bad attitude and bad behavior actually does lengthen the trip.

 

So it was for the Hebrew people on their journey toward God’s preferred future, freed from the shackles of their past, moving toward the promised land.  A sometimes difficult journey through the wilderness, certainly, but it should have been a time of rejoicing, right?  Look at where they had been!  Look at what was promised ahead of them.  Not there yet, but pointed in the right direction, closer today than they were yesterday, closer tomorrow than they are today.

 

But instead of rejoicing, the story finds them grumbling and complaining so much I’m surprised it doesn’t say anything about Moses asking them if they wanted some cheese to go with their whine.

 

First, they’re hungry.  Starving, apparently to death, and they complain against Moses.  Back in Egypt, they had food, but out here?  None.  Now it’s true that it’s difficult to hear God over the rumbling of an empty stomach – anyone who has ever skipped breakfast before church and then sat through an unusually long sermon can attest to that.

 

Without food, the people’s chance at survival is slim.  God knows that, and provides for their need with quail and manna – a flaky, light, sweet, bread that literally came down from heaven in the nightly dewfall, and remained in the morning when the dew had evaporated.  Each day, there was enough for that day and that day only.  Some tried to hoard it and store up jars of it, but it became rancid and worm-infested when they did.

 

Why only a one-day supply at a time?  Because each day was an opportunity to trust God to provide.  Each day was an opportunity for God to demonstrate God’s faithfulness, and each day was a day to exercise faith that God would come through, and sure enough, God did and God does.  Years later, Jesus would teach us to pray for daily bread.  The message is clear – our desire for and dependence on God should be as daily and basic as our hunger for food.  God had already proven faithful in providing, God was still faithful, and God was simply putting it to the people, “How’s your faith?  Do you trust me?”

 

Apparently, they didn’t.  Only one chapter later, they’re thirsty, and it’s déjà vu all over again as they whine and complain about their thirst, once again ready to overthrow Moses, elect a new leader, and head back to Egypt.  First they accused Moses of bringing them out in the wilderness to starve, now they’re sure they’re going to die of thirst.  Sure, God provided yesterday for them, but that was then; what about today?

 

When we forget the lesson of daily trusting in God’s faithful provision, each new challenge becomes a crisis.  For whatever reason, our memories glaze over all the countless ways that God has already been exceedingly good and faithful to this very moment, and instead of an opportunity to lean more fully into God’s presence, we are filled with worry and anxiety, we become angry and quarrelsome, we whine and complain against God and each other.

 

Perhaps that’s human nature, but as the people of God, we are called to something better.  Though the people quarreled and complained against God and each other, though they voiced aloud, “Is God even among us or not?” the reality is that God had never left them.  It’s just that for all their negativity, they failed to discern what God was doing in their midst and on their behalf.

 

Friends, God is always faithful!  God always makes good on God’s promises!  If God calls and leads us in a direction, do we really think God is going to abandon us when we’re only partway there?  No!  If God calls us to it, God will see us through it!   Our faith grows with each challenge when we remember the ways God has been faithful in every previous challenge; and we lean on the lessons learned in times past, not merely for nostalgia’s sake, but as the living testimony for all that God has already done, the evidence, if you will, that God provided then, so God will certainly provide now and in the days ahead.

 

Perhaps the people were fearful about what lay ahead of them, and so they began to long for a return to what was behind them.  The further they get away from their past, the more nostalgic they become about it.  They view their past through increasingly rose-colored glasses, such that as they tell about their time in Egypt, they remember having food aplenty – apparently they were the best-fed slaves in the history of the world – sitting around the fondue pot all night stuffing themselves silly, amazing they could even get up the next morning and get any work done!  They make their time in Egypt sounds increasingly like a 4th of July backyard cookout, instead of centuries of hard, forced, labor at the cruel hands of a brutal regime – if that’s not selective memory, I don’t know what is!

 

It is both disturbing and destructive for a community, particularly a community of faith, to express such a strong preference for its past that it is unable to discern God in the present, or trust God into the future, especially when “what was” is so much less than “what can be.”  We build on the past, which is something altogether from longing to live there.  For people of faith, the past can be a priceless treasure of what God has done before, giving us the confidence that God will do it again.

 

I love the way Oswald Chambers put it: "It is of no use to pray for the old days; stand square where you are and make the present better than any past has been. Base all on your relationship to God and go forward, and presently you will find that what is emerging is infinitely better than the past ever was. The present excels the past because we have the wealth of the past to go on" (Shade of His Hand).

 

We don’t know what the future holds, but we do know that God holds the future.  People of God, God hasn’t left us yet; why would we think for even one second that God is going to leave us now?

 

God has already been faithful.  God will continue to be faithful, because God is faithful.  I know the national calendar says this is Independence Day weekend, but for the people of faith, we are called to respond to God’s faithfulness with daily dependence on God, and daily interdependence with each other – you know, that love of God and neighbor thing we talk about all the time.

 

And are we there yet?  No.  But hopefully, we are on the way.  Closer today than we were yesterday.  Closer tomorrow than we are today.  Growing in our faith, learning the lesson of daily dependence on God and interdependence with each other.  The longer it takes to learn and apply those lessons, the longer the journey takes.  How long it takes to get where we’re going is ultimately up to us.

 

Just ask the Hebrew people as they wandered in the wilderness, moving from “where they had been” to “where they were yet to be.”  They grumbled the whole way, and every complaint and quarrel indicated they hadn’t yet learned the lessons of daily dependence on God and interdependence with each other.  They weren’t there yet.  They were so slow to get there that a journey that should have taken a few weeks lasted over forty years; whoever said that “Getting there is half the fun” obviously wasn’t on that particular trip!

 

The journey took so long because instead of learning from the past, they kept trying to go back there.  They forgot about God’s faithfulness in the past, making it impossible to lean into God’s faithfulness for the future.

 

God has a preferred future for us.  God is calling us toward it.  God is faithfully providing what we need as we move toward it.  Are we there yet?  Not quite.  But the more fully we trust God, the closer we’ll be.

 

God is faithful.  Exceedingly faithful.  Always has been.  Always will be.  God has brought us this far, and God’s not done with us, yet.  We’re no longer “where we’ve been.”  We’re not yet “where we will be.”  The constant in that is God’s faithful presence; what do you say we trust God, and see where this thing can go?