A.J. Thomas is the Founder of Joyful Giving Group, whose mission is to cultivate a culture of generosity.
A.J. is a practiced believer in the power of generosity to transform individual lives, congregations, and entire communities.
A.J. is an ordained United Methodist pastor with over a decade of leadership experience in the local church. He is appointed to Joyful Giving Group as an extension ministry of the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.
The Lord spoke to Moses: 2 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.
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. 2 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! 3 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?” 4 So they said to each other, “Let’s pick a leader
& let’s go back to Egypt.”
5 Then Moses
and Aaron fell on their faces before the assembled Israelite community. 6 But
Joshua, Nun’s son, and Caleb, Jephunneh’s son, from those who had explored the
land, tore their clothes 7 and said to the entire Israelite
community, “The land we crossed through to explore is an exceptionally good
land. 8 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
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
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
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.
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
·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.
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
2 The whole
Israelite community complained against Moses and Aaron in the desert. 3 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.” 4 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. 5 On
the sixth day, when they measure out what they have collected, it will be twice
as much as they collected on other days.” 6 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. 7 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?” 8 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
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. 2 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?”
3 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?” 4 So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What should I do
with this people? They are getting ready to stone me.” 5 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. 6 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. 7 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
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
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
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
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?”
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
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
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
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