We’re made for ____ (community) – but, by nature, we’re community _____ (crashers). But that’s okay because God chose Abraham and made a _____ (covenant). And at the heart of that covenant is God’s desire to ____ (bless the entire world). But, if God is going to transform the world, then first he must transform the messengers. And so in order to reveal the contents of his own heart, God gives Israel the ______ (law). Good job (A+ for everyone).
And so tonight we continue our story about a ragtag group of fugitive slaves, who happen to be at the very center of God’s purpose to save the world. They’ve left Egypt. They’ve received the law. And now, it’s time to move forward to the land of Canaan – or to the Promised Land as it’s commonly called. But here’s the question I left us with last week – do they have the faith required to move forward?
Well, Moses is a smart leader. He doesn’t want to take any chances and so he sends out twelve spies to survey the land of Canaan and after forty days they bring back a report. “I’ve got some good news and some bad news,” they say. The good news is that Canaan is freaking awesome. It’s a dreamland, a land of abundance, a land that flows with milk and honey. That’s the good news. But then they sober up, tell Israel to brace themselves, and give some really bad news. This is from Numbers 13:32-33.
They spread discouraging reports about the land among the Israelites: "The land we explored will swallow up any who go to live there. All the people we saw were huge. 33 We even saw giants there. We felt like grasshoppers next to them, and that's what we looked like to them!"
To paraphrase them, “going to Canaan is a suicide mission. Canaan is perfect, but frankly, we’re just outnumbered.” Now in all fairness, two of the spies – Joshua and Caleb – give a dissenting report. They remind the Israelites that it was for this very reason that God brought them out of Egypt in the first place, and that the same God who overthrew Pharaoh wouldn’t have the slightest problem with the giants of Canaan. But the Israelites don’t buy it. They get scared. Their fear takes over.
And so they’re in quite the pickle. They obviously can’t go back to Egypt, even if they wanted to. After all, do you really think that God would part the Red Sea a second time so that they could return to a life of slavery? Absolutely not. But on the other hand, they’re too scared to move forward. Canaan is too scary. And so does anyone remember what they do?
Nothing. They sit in the desert for forty years and do nothing until the entire generation dies. They refuse to believe that God will protect them. They refuse to enter the Promised Land. For forty years, they do absolutely nothing but grumble and weep in the desert. I can’t help but think that their lack of faith broke God’s heart.
You see, the people of Israel had a choice to make that day. It was either faith. Or it was fear. It was either a lifetime of boredom in the desert. Or it was the day by day faith-filled adventure of following a risky God into the unknown. And so to answer the question I left us with last time – did the Israelites have the faith required to move forward? The answer is no – the first generation did not – because they were too scared.
We often assume that the greatest enemy of faith is doubt. But that’s a bunch of nonsense. Everyone has doubts. The greatest enemy to faith is fear. And here’s the sentence that reveals the power of fear: “we seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes.” And just to show how poisonous fear can be, we need to remember that this all began with just ten people and from there spread to all of Israel. That’s all it took – ten scared spies telling the rest of the people that they felt like grasshoppers in Canaan – and within moments every single one of them had a grasshopper complex. Apparently, the Israelites can’t seem to grasp the fact that they’re not slaves anymore – that the same God that set them free from Egypt would also protect them in Canaan. And because of that, they feel small, inadequate, and weak – like grasshoppers.
Now, a lot of people in our world live with a deep-seated grasshopper complex. They look in the mirror, and all they see is a grasshopper. “I’m not adequate. I’m not competent. I’m not strong enough. I’m not as smart, as tall, as skinny, as pretty, as funny, as successful – compared to so and so, I’m a grasshopper.” It’s a sad thing, but a lot of people deal with the daily pain of feeling deeply inferior. But here’s the thing – the question isn’t whether we are adequate or competent or strong enough. The question is always whether or not we’re willing to trust that God is adequate and competent and strong enough. And it’s sad, but the first generation just couldn’t do it. And so it might be worth asking ourselves – do we focus more on our inability or on God’s ability? Do we focus more on our weakness or on God’s strength?
Well, fortunately for us, God is patient – he doesn’t desert his people. For forty years, God waits with the Israelites in the desert. For forty years, God just hangs out and watches over his chosen people while a new generation of Israelites grows up – and so back to our question. Will this new generation have the faith required to move forward?
And so here’s what I need us to do – let’s fast-forward forty years and look at the new generation. Moses is dead, and Joshua – the son of Nun – is their new leader, and God tells Joshua that it’s time to move forward. And there’s only one thing that stands between the people of Israel and the outskirts of Canaan – and that one thing, the last barrier, the only obstacle – is the Jordan River. And so that’s where the book of Joshua picks up.
So Joshua told the Israelites, "Come and listen to what the LORD your God says. 10 Today you will know that the living God is among you. The Ark of the Covenant, … will lead you across the Jordan River! 12 Now choose twelve men, one from each tribe. 13 The priests will be carrying the Ark of the LORD, the Lord of all the earth. When their feet touch the water, the flow of water will be cut off upstream, and the river will pile up there in one heap." 14 Now it was the harvest season, and the Jordan was flooding. But as soon as the feet of the priests who were carrying the Ark touched the water at the river's edge, 16 the water [stopped] and … the riverbed was dry. Then all the people crossed over.
Ok, so we need to understand what’s going on in the story. A new generation stands on the banks of the Jordan, and God doesn’t want them to experience the pain of forty years in the desert like their parents did. Remember, the old generation died from a serious case of grasshopper syndrome, but now, their children – a completely new generation – are staring at the Jordan River and they start to wonder. Do we have the faith to do what our parents were too scared to do? In other words, what choice are we going to make – faith or fear?
And so this new generation has waited a long time for this very moment. In fact, a lot of these people were probably born in the desert. In other words, sitting around and doing nothing is all they’ve ever known. And yet here’s the dilemma – there’s no way they can cross the river without divine intervention. The bible tells us its flood season. Normally, the Jordan River isn’t all that treacherous but flood season is a different story altogether. And so we need to imagine a riverbed that’s 150 feet wide and up to 20 feet deep. But not only that, the water is moving really fast because the Jordan starts 7000 ft. above sea level and ends at 1,300 feet below sea level. In other words, Michael Phelps would have a hard time crossing the Jordan during flood season. And so imagine a caravan of people, raised in a desert, many of whom have never seen a body of water at all, being asked to step into this river. Do you see what’s going on? It’s a death sentence. In other words, God is asking this new generation to step into the Jordan during the most dangerous time of year with nothing but a promise – “you’ll be ok, I’m with you, step into the river.”
Do you see the catch? Do you remember how the Exodus worked? Moses parted the Red Sea, and then the people of Israel crossed. Not this time. This time, God reverses the order. God tells the new generation that first, they have to step into the water – and only after they take that step of faith will the waters dry up. Do you see how radical this is? Imagine jumping out of an airplane with a parachute. That’s hard enough. But what about jumping without one? What if God was like “jump. I’ll catch you. I promise.” But you don’t have a chute.
And that’s basically what God is saying to this new generation – I brought you out of Egypt. I’ve been with you for forty years. I’ve fed you, protected you, provided for you. But I think it’s about time that you grow in your faith, and so, I’m not going to part the waters before you step in. You have to take a step of faith. And then – then you’ll see my miraculous power.
And so if the old generation taught us about fear, what does this new generation – that did cross the Jordan – teach us about faith? Simply this – and we’ll call it the law of the first step. Are you ready? Sometimes God refuses to act until we begin to move in faith! Now, I’m not saying that we initiate a relationship with God. That is incorrect. God, out of his own goodness, draws us to himself initially. That being said, once God makes that first move, there inevitably comes a point in each of our lives where He wants us to grow in our faith – and faith is always about action. And so once again, the law of the first step: sometimes God refuses to act until we begin to move in faith.
And so God taught a really important lesson to that new generation before they crossed the Jordan River – and it’s a lesson that each and every one of us needs to internalize. And that lesson is this: when you face a huge obstacle that, if left alone, would crush you – God’s power is sufficient. He will make a way. He wants to deliver you. But, that same obstacle that we ask God to remove, that we always see as a problem, God usually sees as an opportunity to deepen our faith. Once again, what we see as a problem, God sees as an opportunity. And what that means is that more often than not, we have to take the first step. Step into the Jordan River first and only then will you see the waters dry up.
And so here’s a question that I’m going to challenge each of us to wrestle with. What’s your Jordan River? Where is God asking you to take a step of faith? Because the truth is, we all find ourselves at the banks of the Jordan from time to time. We all know what it’s like to face barriers that scare us. And if we’re not careful, these barriers can paralyze us with fear. But if that happens, we’ll live boring lives in the desert – we’ll never become the risk-taking, faith-filled adventurers that God wants us to be.
In other words, these two generations, really, present us with two different choices – two different ways of living altogether. We can be like the old generation, all of whom died of grasshopper syndrome. And trust me, a lot of people in our world live that way. They refuse to cross the Jordan River out of fear and so they die in the desert. Or, we can be like the new generation – we can take that first step into the Jordan, watch the miracle happen, and move deeper and deeper into God’s plan to rescue the world.
Now, some of you might be thinking – I don’t have a Jordan River. Sure you do. And do you want to know how you can tell what your Jordan River is? It’s actually pretty easy. Your fear will tell you. Plain and simple. Think about what scares you. Think about the prayers you’ve prayed over life situations that just scare the crap out of you or that make you anxious. Maybe you’ve been on the banks of the Jordan praying for God to send a bridge for a while now, but God – He’s just waiting patiently for you to take the first step, to trust that He loves you and that never in a million years would he let you drown.
And so today we heard the tale of two generations, which are two different ways of living – which one will we choose? You see, believe it or not, as followers of Jesus we’re part of this same story. Like the Israelites, we happen to be at the very center of God’s purpose to save the world. And the more we live into this story – which is to say the more we grow in our faith – the more often we’ll run into things that scare us. But remember, what we see as a problem, God sees as an opportunity. Because if God is going to transform the world, then first he must transform the messengers – which means that He has to teach us trust Him, to become faithful people that love taking the first step.
If you’re not there now, at some point in your life, you’ll be standing at the banks of the Jordan. Will you have the faith required to move forward? No matter what, God’s going to stay with you – that’s His promise. But, just don’t forget that the same thing God said to the Israelites he says to you and to me: “you’ll be ok, I’m with you, step into the river.”
NOTE ON SOURCES
This OMEGA series “OT Greatest Hits” is inspired by a 32-week Christian Education program put out by Willow Creek called the “Old Testament Challenge.” Some Omega talks will rely on this resource more heavily than others. Some will not even be based on it at all. However, if you have specific questions please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more info on the OT Challenge, see http://www.willowcreek.com/resources/courses/otc/.