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