And Moses said: “See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. … Now choose life.”
This weekend we’ve read Chapter 6 of The Story together, and it’s a doozie, isn’t it? It’s absolutely jam packed, one stunning thing after another.
God had kept his promises, He had shown his glory in bringing his people out of Egypt, and being among them in powerful ways like no one had ever imagined before. He promises to provide, called them to be his people, and asked in response that they would be holy – set apart – so that all the world would see his goodness and mercy and come to worship Almighty God alone.
For a year they camped out, learning what this holiness was all about, learning to trust God and worship Him. And then – this was it, the moment they were waiting for. It was time to enter the Promised Land. God was driving out their enemies before them… but that wasn’t enough to settle their rumbling bellies. They had set out to enter the land promised to their ancestors, but all they could think about was the great selection of produce back in Egypt; God is right there with them, but they’d happily trade God in for some quail, or cucumbers, or leeks, or melons. They would trade in God’s presence for a good meal.
And it’s funny how the memory becomes selective, isn’t it?
“Think of the great food we ate at no cost! It didn’t cost us anything!”.
Well, no, it didn’t cost you anything because you were slaves! We humans have this ‘skill’ to cling to something bad while talking ourselves into thinking it’s better than it was, don’t we?
And the rest of the chapter just went downhill from there. There’s a leadership battle, as Moses’ brother and sister become jealous of his position. The scouts sent ahead to check out the promised land don’t trust that God will help them in battle, so they spread a false report, and the people lose heart, right at the doorstep of their new land – they plot to replace Moses, saying they’d rather die in the wilderness than face the Canaanites.
And finally, that’s where God says “fine, I’ll do as you wish”.
Isn’t it strange how we tend to have learned that wandering in the desert to die was a punishment that God inflicted; but when we read the story and see the bigger picture, what we find is that it was something much sadder. Wandering in the desert until they died rather than facing their enemies wasn’t something God cooked up out of nowhere – no, it was exactly what they had asked for.
Moses, too, you might remember, had become fed up for having to nurse his people along like infants, and prayed that God would let him die rather than bear the complaints of his people. And, at the entrance into the promised land, rather than simply praying for water, he chose to be dramatic and strike the rock to make it look like a great magic trick so the people would stop complaining and trust him: but that’s not the kind of trust – or the kind of leadership – that God desires.
It was jam packed, wasn’t it! And there was more: more complaining, poisonous snakes, disease, politics, a talking donkey, and all the young men running off to worship another god because that god had pretty women working in its temple.
And so, the big point today is simply this: Perspective matters.
On the one hand we could say “is God angry? Why is He treating His people this way? I thought he loved them?”
But when we zoom out, when we know the whole story, we see just how inappropriate a question that is. God – the merciful and just, forgiving rebellion, but letting sin have its consequences – is recklessly patient. A dozen times He could have said, no, you know what, there’s a more obedient, less-stiff-necked option somewhere else; a dozen times He could have said ‘if you don’t want to be my people, then fine, go your own way’. But God sticks with them.
The problem though, when we zoom out, is that instead of using the law to become more like God, they’ve become more like pharaoh, haven’t they?
Every time they’ve seen God’s glory, they dug in their heels and hardened their hearts, choosing to focus on a problem rather than God’s solution.
Every time they experienced God’s forgiveness, rather than repenting – changing direction, fixing the problem, and doing things differently – instead they said, “oh good, God forgave us… but what about those cucumbers!” Or, “ooh, there are pretty women in that temple!”.
Perspective matters. And, if we look carefully, there’s a common thread woven throughout this story – and it’s one that applies directly to us today.
Pharoah wasn’t enslaving them.
Now, sure, when they were crying out in Egypt making bricks without straw, Pharoah sure looked like the problem. But that problem was dealt with. The Egyptians weren’t chasing them. They were free people now.
Pharoah sure looked like the problem at the start, but now it’s clear: they weren’t slaves to pharaoh. They’re slaves to sin. They’re slaves to the hardness of their own hearts. They’re slaves to selective memories, longing for what they don’t have, while happily throwing away the solutions that God has put right in front of their faces.
They thought they wanted freedom. But what they really craved was familiarity. They wanted a pot of meat and some melon slices, even if it meant back-breaking slave labour in the heat of the Egyptian sun.
And the same happens to us, far more than we realize.
We like to have a focus, a figurehead for our problems. But, how often is part of the problem just the simple fact that we will gladly choose what is familiar over what will make us free?
And, in this chapter of Israel’s history, we see another common thread that applies only too easily to ourselves.
God’s bright future was clouded out by regret.
God had so much prepared for them. And He was ready and willing to make it happen – all they had to do was follow. But, at every turn, rather than seeing all that was laid out in front of them, they were focused in the wrong direction. They wanted to go back, rather than move forward.
And how often do we do the same thing?
Now, this is a serious thing – it’s not something to take lightly at all. We’ve all have real hurts in our past; some of us have had real tragedy, real and lasting trauma. But God calls his people forward. And whether it’s 12 steps or 40 years of steps, the way through the valley of the shadow of death isn’t to stand still and stare at it, but to faithfully take that next step, one step at a time, one day at a time, accepting that God does have a better and brighter future prepared, but it means being ready to look forward rather than cling to the things that are behind.
And that links to the third common thread I see in this story, and which I know applies only too well to my own life.
God’s people talked themselves out of trusting.
Now don’t get me wrong, talking is good.
But they were on the threshold of the promised land. They were right on the verge of the best thing they could ever imagine, the greatest fulfilment and glory and provision that God had prepared.
And 12 went in to scope it out. It was perfect. Absolutely perfect. Everything they hoped for.
But, they were afraid. And that fear spread faster than any disease. Soon enough, all but two of those scouts had exaggerated, making the Canaanites out to be giants like Jack and the beanstalk, and then more false reports – fake news – spread, and before you know it, the people had talked themselves out of the solution that God had provided for them.
Now, I don’t want to get political or anything, but who here know someone who has talked themselves out of the solutions offered by science and medicine in this pandemic?
How many of us know someone who has talked themselves out of getting the help they need? Of talking to a counselor or going to a group, or taking that scary leap to do something new, to take that God-given opportunity to be forgiven and become a new creation as we follow where God leads?
See, I set before you life and prosperity, death and destruction
Pharoah wasn’t the problem. They wanted familiarity over freedom. God’s bright future was clouded by their own regret. And they talked until they talked themselves right out of trusting the solution God had provided.
And the saddest thing in all of this: this was their choice.
“See, I set before you life and prosperity, death and destruction… choose life.”
Is the Lord’s arm too short to provide all we need? No! Precious Lord, reach out and take my hand, right? Lord, I need you; every hour I need you.
We are God’s people, grafted into Israel by faith, adopted into the family of God as we are made a new creation as we pass through the waters of baptism.
We need to stop believing our doubts; instead, we need to go forward in faith, offering ourselves wholly to God, promising, committing to serve Christ to the end, knowing that he goes before us as our friend and master, so we don’t need to fear the battle or cling to any regrets from the past.
May God give us grace to go where he leads, and may he, who alone can change a heart of stone into a heart of flesh, give us the strength and courage to follow Him. Amen.