Lessons from the desert – where’s our focus?

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This week’s lesson from the desert jumps ahead a little in the Israelite’s story, to a few months later than where we last left them. They have been in the desert for at least a couple of months, and we’re going to meet them now in the book of Numbers. This story is a brilliant exploration of where people choose to focus when looking at the future, and gives us an opportunity to explore, where’s our focus?

The Israelites have been through an incredible amount of uncertainty, and are now keen to get a better idea of where they’re heading. In one way may seem like a bizarre request, from our position of reading the story, already knowing the ending. God has already provided them with so many reassurances that he’s with them, guiding them, how could they still want to know more? But, in another way, the request also sounds all too human. If we were actually with the group on their journey, I wonder how our reactions would have been today? It’s all to easy to think that we’d have been one of the ones that put their implicit trust in God and Moses, but, when it came down to the crunch, and our families needed feeding, and we were tired and thirsty, I wonder how much we’d still be able to keep our eyes ahead, to a future that was as yet unknown?

If you think about it in our current situation, and emerging from lockdown, how quickly our human nature can make us want to know where it is that we’re going. This is certainly playing out currently as we look towards what life looks like after lockdown – people want a plan for what emerging from lockdown looks like. For many, they want to know where we’re headed. As we embark on unchartered territory, and through an awful lot of uncertainty, I hope that this part of the story serves to provide faith and courage to be able to keep going, and keep putting one metaphorical foot in front of the other.

The 12 explorers are sent out to the Promised Land

In Numbers 13 we meet the Israelites in the wilderness of Paran. They have come further on their journey towards the land that they’ve been promised, and God now tells Moses that it’s time to send out explorers, one from each of the 12 tribes, to go and check out the land towards which they’re heading. This is amazing news! Up until now the Israelites have been heading towards the Promised Land in blind faith, trusting (often begrudgingly) where Moses is leading. The miracles to date have helped to allay fears when they have arisen, but that old companion fear is rising again, and it seems it’s time for the people to hear a more solid report of what the intended land looks like.

Moses selects the 12 carefully, and amongst them are Joshua and Caleb. The 12 are sent out with clear instructions “Go north through Negev into the hill country. See what the land is like, and find out whether the people living there are strong or weak, few or many. See what kind of land they live in. Is it good or bad? Do their towns have walls, or are they unprotected like open camps? Is the soil fertile or poor? Are there many trees? Do your best to bring back samples of the crops you see” (Num 13 vs 17-20).

The explorers report back

The mission seems to be initially a resounding success. The explorers find pomegranates, figs, and grapes so large that it took two people together to carry a single cluster back! We’re told that after exploring the land for forty days, the men returned to Moses and Aaron in the wilderness of Paran.

The explorers reported to Moses “We entered the land you sent us to explore, and it is indeed a bountiful country – a land flowing with milk and honey. Here is the kind of fruit it produces. But the people there are powerful, and their towns are large and fortified. We even saw giants there, the descendants of Anak! The Amalekites live in the Negev, and the Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites live in the hill country, the Canaanites live along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea and along the Jordan Valley.” (Num 13 vs 27-29).

The land sounds like paradise! After the months of trudging through the desert, not knowing where they were heading to, and what they would find when they were there, the Israelites finally had some answers. They had already been promised that God would guide them, and he had already shown his blessing in the battles they had faced – both battles of survival in a hostile environment, and also battles against the peoples they had already come against. However, the Israelites have again lost sight of this, and it seems that the message that they choose to hear from the witnesses are not the ones that had been hoped for.

not all witnesses agreed

This is where the story gets particularly interesting. Caleb and Joshua both chose to see the potential of the land, and also held onto the promises they had already received. They knew that God had promised to go with them and so they have absolute trust for the next season, saying “let’s go at once and take the land” (Num 13 v 30), trying to quiet the crowd and encourage them to take the next steps.

However, not all the witnesses agreed. In fact, 10 of of the 12 choose to report a very different picture. The other 10 explorers tell the crowd “We can’t go up against them! They are stronger than we are! So they spread this bad report about the land among the Israelites. “The land we traveled through and explored will devour anyone who goes there. All the people we saw were huge. We even saw giants there, the descendants of Anak. Next to them we felt like grasshoppers, and that’s what they thought too” (Num 13 vs 31-33).

Few people saw blessings, many saw fear

This mixed review of opinion, causes an interesting reaction to the news that there’s a land flowing with milk and honey, and an abundance of food sources, rather than their daily manna and quail. They have already been told in Ex 23v20 that God has promised to send before them an angel at all times “For my angel will go before you and bring you into the land of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites and Jebusites so you may live there. And I will destroy them completely“. This shows, they have been told that victory in this new land is promised by God, and yet they again seem to have lost sight of the promises, and have given into that awful voice of fear. That voice that says this change is too hard. That voice that wants to stay put rather than moving forward. Here in the wilderness of Paran, the crowd’s consensus is to listen to the fear of the situation, and not the opportunity.

It can again be so easy to view this story through a lens that says we would have listened to the positive news, and acted upon it, but we do also have the advantage of knowing how the story played out from reading it a few millennia later. If we had been with the Israelites at the time, what role would we have played? Would we have been an explorer, called to witness back to the rest? Would we have been part of the crowd, and hungered for the fruit? Or would we have seen the giants, and the potential difficulties, and dug our heels in, wanting to just revert back to how things were?

I do find the whole of the Israelite’s journey through the desert a fascinating insight into how people deal with change. The Israelites have so much potential put in front of them, but so often in their journey, they make their journey so much longer than it needed to be, because fear gets in the way. Change can often be difficult, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do it.

DO WE TRUST US OR TRUST GOD?

We know from the history books, and also the amazing archaeological sites that have been left behind that the people groups listed were particularly warriorsome. The Hittites (with their capital in southern Turkey) alone have a fascinating history, taking on many of the other empires in the area at the time, and yet the amazing thing is that God promises the Israelites that they will take the promised land from them. The Canaanites are detailed many times in the Old Testament as challenging the Israelites, and yet here again, God promises victory.

One thing that strikes me about this story, is the fact that God uses a few to witness to the many. Out of the few, there are only two that hold onto the full potential of what they next season could bring. Rather than seeing the potential obstacles of the people groups already in the land, they see the potential of what could be, and also have enough faith to know that if God has promised it, then there is a way of it coming into being.

What we choose to listen to

The most striking thing about this story, is that it’s incredibly apparent that the Israelites faith in the potential of the next season, is entirely dependant on the story that they choose to listen to in their current one. Had they chosen to hold on to the promises from the last, and also the potential blessings in the next, it is very possible it wouldn’t have taken them another 40 years to get to the promised land. Sadly however, we learn from the next chapter that this is indeed what happens, because the overall consensus of the Israelites is that they would prefer to stick with what they know, rather than striving for the blessings of the season that is to come.

This shows just how important it is for us to always measure what it is God is speaking to us about by taking it to him, as well as measuring with others. Sadly, even within the global church currently, it can be all to easy for people to want to stick with what is known, rather than to explore the potential blessings of what could come next.

what is god showing you?

We have embraced a certain amount of needed change in a short space of time, but now people want a plan. Where are we going? What does emerging look like? Will there be a second wave? All these things sadly can’t be answered in a definite, as there is not a single person who knows for sure, but, what we do know as Christians, is that God has a purpose for the season. How we choose to adapt and work things through depends entirely on what we choose to fix our focus on.

What has God shown you, that you’re being called to witness to other people? Can you see an area of potential from this season, that you can encourage others to see? Where are we being called to be voices for change, and not getting tied down in the ‘buts’?

Will we choose to look at the coming season with eyes of potential, using it as an opportunity to tear up the pre-existing rule book, and embrace the changes that have been so badly needed for so long; or, will we dig our heels into where we were before lockdown hit, and still want to stay there, ignoring the potential of the next season?

For more encouragement for this season in leading through change, or dealing with anxiety please read the recent blogs.

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