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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.

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