Saturday, August 26, 2017

Sermon - Giants in the Land

This week was our second and last "preview service" for our new church. We read together from Hebrews 11. We sang "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing" and "O God our Help in Ages Past." My wife Gena, who is in the process of finding her own church fellowship close to our home in Keller but who is an enthusiastic supporter of this new church (which will be quite a ways from our house) with her prayers and her help even as she follows God’s call for her, joined with us to sing a solo version of "Love Lifted Me."

I preached about the failure of God’s people to march in faith into the Promised Land. I suppose that some think that in this last service before we launch, I should have led a pep rally on how great things are going to be, but the truth is that this infant church will never be more vulnerable than we are right now. We needed to take a few moments to look into the face of God, steel ourselves for what is ahead, and step forward in faith. The good news, of course, is that our Leader is ready and waiting for us to do just that.

With that in mind, I preached the following sermon:

Numbers 13: 1-2, 26-33 -- The Lord said to Moses, “Send some men to explore the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites. From each ancestral tribe send one of its leaders.” ... They came back to Moses and Aaron and the whole Israelite community at Kadesh in the Desert of Paran. There they reported to them and to the whole assembly and showed them the fruit of the land. They gave Moses this account: “We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit. But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large. We even saw descendants of Anak there. The Amalekites live in the Negev; the Hittites, Jebusites and Amorites live in the hill country; and the Canaanites live near the sea and along the Jordan.” Then Caleb silenced the people before Moses and said, “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.” But the men who had gone up with him said, “We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are.” And they spread among the Israelites a bad report about the land they had explored. They said, “The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.”


In moments of self-satisfied daydreaming, we fancy ourselves to be adventurers, conquerors who face stumbling blocks with resolve and find a way to do what is necessary, what is heroic, what may even appear impossible. In reality, we do a lot less overcoming and a lot more ducking as we navigate detours and survive to fight another day.

It is not surprising, then, that some of our movies try to alert us to omens, lest we rush headlong into danger. In “Titanic,” for example, there are all sorts of warnings about the seaworthiness of the vessel, but that advice doesn’t stop them from heading off across the Atlantic. And I hate to spoil it for you, but the boat sinks. You remember other movies with admonitions that go unheeded, movies like “The Fly” (“Be afraid, be very afraid.”) or “Jaws” (“Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water…”). Who can forget the first time you watched Jimmy Stewart climb that tower in “Vertigo?” You wanted to grab his shoulder and hold him back. You wanted to scream for him to stop, to spare himself what was to come.

Many, many bad horror movies are built on the premise of ignoring the caution signs. The main characters always seem to disregard the haunting music that should be warning them not to go into the woods or the vacant room when they know better. They walk into the perilous darkness anyway. The end result is always hellish.

More often, though, with our conceptions of valor – and maybe with a little touch of faith – we like movies where the hero overcomes barriers with pizazz and courage to beat the odds. We love it when Indiana Jones enters the cave despite the poison darts and the booby traps and that menacing rolling boulder. We cheer when the Ghostbusters destroy the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. We want Rudy to play for Notre Dame, even though he is much too small and really has no talent. We are awed when Schindler defies the Nazis for years.

We like those stories because they portray what we wish we were, what we feel we should be. Too often, though, we are not John Wayne. We do not bravely vanquish interference and leap tall buildings in a single bound. Too often, most of us are shell-shocked Corporal Upham in “Saving Private Ryan,” who sobs on the stairway while his friend is killed and then haplessly watches the German murderer walk past him and away. When the going gets tough … Upham retreats into himself, living, at least in that moment, like Falstaff, as a counterfeit while those around him give their lives for others.

And so, we turn to our Bible story from the Book of Numbers: the story of the spies and the giants they see and the recommendations they make to Moses and the tribes of Israel. You know this story. Even if you did not learn it in Sunday School, you have heard references to these events in a number of contexts.

We undoubtedly read Old Testament accounts like this as history, as how the Hebrew people acted reacted and how God dealt with His people in the primitive stages of the world. We also study these stories for their prophetic value. Israel approaches the Promised Land as though it were a game of hokey pokey – you put your right foot in, you take your right foot out – foreshadowing how God’s children will approach His promises from then on.

There is a third way to read these Old Testament narratives, and that is to see them as models for how God deals with us today. Ponder what God has promised you, what God has set before you, and the potential impediments and pitfalls you see to accepting God’s gift. Then, when you see the word “Israel” in the passage, replace it with your name. You will quickly see Israel’s story as your own.

1. There are always giants in the land.
Anyone who tells you different is either naïve or trying to sell you something.

The chosen ones have followed God to the border of the Promised Land. Now, when God invites them to explore a little and take their first peek, Israel deploys twelve spies to test what God has in store. The unanimous report – metaphorical in its wording and wonderful in its promise – is that the area is “a land flowing with milk and honey.” The Hebrew here is actually more descriptive than simply flowing. The better translation is that the land is “gushing.” This is a good place.

Ten of the scouts, however, are nonetheless unwilling to enter because of an additional undeniable fact: there are giants in the land.

We are about to embark on a wonderful new journey. We are starting a new church, promised to us by God. We have been led to this place, maybe not by a pillar of fire or a cloud, but no less clearly by the hand and voice of God. Some of you have been guided here because you want Jim Pannell to be your pastor. Others have arrived out of frustration, unable to find the church you need and hopeful that this will be the one. Maybe a few have shown up out of curiosity – what is the deal with this pair of volunteer pastors? Whatever your motivation, God has piloted you here, and it is not hard for you to look at this church-to-be and understand that it holds enormous potential, that its milk and honey will not only sustain you but can also be a life force for the city of Fort Worth if only a group of Christians will do the work.

But you are hesitant. After all, you foresee complications. Starting a new church is daunting. There are giants in the land. It is going to cost money. It is going to require commitment. If I am going to get involved on the front end of a church start, I can’t really get away with coming every other Sunday and sitting anonymously in a pew and hoping nobody asks me to do anything. Do I really need to leave the church where I am, where I am comfortable? What if not enough people show up? What if nobody else has children or youth my kids’ age? What if the building does not work out? Is it too far for me to drive? There is not a ready-made community or Sunday School class for me; there may not be anybody else my age when we start. What if, heaven forbid, disagreements arise? What if these so-called co-pastors can’t get their act together?

Giants in the land.

As you read these verses from Numbers, don’t get hung up on how tall these descendants of Anak were. Your version of scripture, like the one I read, may not actually use the word giants. It may call them the Nephilim or describe them as being “of great stature.” It does not matter. The key is verse 31, which in your translation says either that these giants are “too strong” or “stronger than we are.” The Living Bible paraphrases the words like this: “They will crush us.” The emphasis of scripture must not be lost in the minutiae of debate points about whether there is any such thing as a “real giant.” The meaning is that the road to the Promised Land is fraught with obstructions that are bigger and stronger than we are. If you have bought into the coffee-cup catchphrase theology that teaches that God will never let you face anything that you cannot handle, it is time to think again. Scripture teaches differently. We are constantly faced with crushing giants that are too big and too strong for us to confound.

What giants do you see standing in your way? Is it health? Are you getting old? Do you simply hate your body, with its failings and its weight you cannot lose and its disease and what seems to you to be its ugliness? Are you tired of creaking joints and frustrated that you cannot do what you used to do? Has cancer come back?

What about the giant of poisoned relationships? Have you been betrayed? Does the boss treat you like debris and make you feel easily replaceable?

Your giant could be addiction. It might be money, or politics, or lost opportunity. As school starts for you or for your children this week, your giant may be calculus or social studies or, if you are anything like the student I was, art. You may be surrounded by rising tides of distress, depression, and disillusionment. Your giant could be someone else in your life, who beats you down and demands everything you have and gives nothing in return.

If we are honest, the toughest giants we all face are self-created… because we are sinners. We know better, but we walk where we should not go, and we ignore the scary warning music playing in our heads, and then we do it again. And again. Your giants may have names like dishonesty and selfishness and lust, or meanness, or envy. Or perhaps self-promotion. You may summon your giant at the computer or out of a bottle. Perhaps you, like David, are an adulterer, or worse. When we are candid, we know that we are far too often personally responsible for our own horror movies. We ignore the alarms, and we do what we know better than to do, and the end result is hell. We have generated our own giant.

There may be milk and honey down the road, but all we can see are giants in the land. Israel’s story is our story.

The people have followed only to the edge. Now, they hesitate, choosing to test the provision of God. Unwilling to march in faith into the Promised Land, they stick their proverbial toes in the water by sending in spies. When they get the reports back, they do not feel like Oskar Shindler. Instead, reluctant to advance, they could identify with Hamlet:

To be, or not to be – that is the question….
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all…

[William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, scene i]

Convinced that the hurdles in their way are too high, Israel declines God’s offer. Standing on the periphery of the Promised Land, they turn away. The hymnwriter would say that they are prone to wander.

That would not make a very popular movie, would it? Maybe not, but all too often, Israel’s story is our story.

And the question is, will it become this church’s story? As we stand here, on the verge of something great, something promised, something that God has in store for us, something that God is anxiously waiting to lead us into… will we go marching forward, or will we dip in our toe and do the hokey pokey, seeing the difficulties ahead and deciding to pull our whole selves out?

God presents us bounty and beauty beyond our understanding. Our descriptions of what we allow ourselves to see may be as symbolic and incomplete as “milk and honey” or “streams of mercy, never ceasing.” We know the treasure is there, for we have glimpsed it.

Now, we are presented once again with the promise of God. Too often, we are over-cautious. Instead of trusting, we decide to spy things out, and sure enough, we detect giants in the land. We quickly conclude that the world that inhabits our Promised Land is frightening and wants to devour us. We see monsters around every corner. We stop short.

2. God calls us to march forward anyway.

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that God never shows us that we are on the wrong path, and I am not saying that God never shuts a door. He does both, at times. Sometimes, He brings us a new call.

But, God does not play tricks on His children, and when we have been faithfully following thus far, right up to the threshold, God is not in the business of pulling the rug out from under us. When we are obeying God, temporary complications are often just that: temporary; and those that are more permanent are not roadblocks to disciples of the Almighty. There may be a thorn with which we, like Paul, must deal, but God’s grace is always sufficient for the path He has laid before us.

Tis grace has brought us safe thus far, and grace will lead us home.

Honest faith knows that God has never promised that our way will be without problems. In fact, scripture confirms that we will be hard pressed on every side, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down. We left our Garden of Eden long ago. This new church will not be paradise.

Notice that nowhere in our Numbers passage does God even hint that He will remove the giants, or distract them, or give Israel the magic formula to defeat them. God simply lays out a promise and leads the people forward. And God, as God always does, leaves Israel – and us – with the choice.

Scripture makes the point over and over again. We are called to accept God’s offer in spite of the giants. Abram is sent on a journey to an unspecified destination through dangerous country with threatening kings. Joseph must live through murderous brothers and the pit and slavery and a trumped-up rape charge and imprisonment – God does not eliminate any of that. Elijah faces rejection so often that he wants to quit. David faces Saul, and Absalom, and, ultimately, himself. Daniel gets lions, and his friends get a fiery furnace. Hosea’s wife leaves him for a life of prostitution. Jonah gets a big hungry fish, and Habakkuk gets a vine with no fruit. The people get exile, and the temple comes crashing down.

This is not just an Old Testament story. Peter has the finger pointed at him in anger. Paul has to be secretly lowered over a wall in a basket to avoid the mob out to murder him. And, of course, Jesus is tempted, rejected, wrongfully accused, denied, betrayed, tortured, and crucified.

And God’s message to every single one of these is the same. “Keep following. March forward. I have indescribable wonders in store for you. I promise.”

The champions of scripture understand. They do not ask or wait for all the giants to go away. They follow God, desperate for the promise. In the litany we read together earlier, the writer of Hebrews tells us to look for a city which will last forever. Like Sarah, we are called to trust God to do what he has vowed. Like these heroes, we are looking for a better country. We want the Promised Land, giants or no giants. And God has made a city with a sure foundation ready for us. His love lifts us up, if we simply let Him.

Joshua and Caleb, who are the Luke Skywalker and Han Solo of our Numbers story, are ready to enter the Promised Land. They know that God is with them, and they want the milk and honey. I love the scene in the first “Star Wars” movie where Luke tells Solo that if they rescue the Princess, Solo will be rewarded with more than he can imagine. Han’s response is, “I don’t know, I can imagine quite a bit.” That reminds me of Paul’s words in Ephesians 3:20, where he refers to God as the one “who is able to do immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine.” I am like Han Solo: I can imagine a lot, and yet no eye has seen, nor has my mind or anyone else’s conceived, the wonder of what God has in store for me and for you and for this new church in our Promised Land.

In Numbers Chapter 14, in verses shortly after what I read earlier, Joshua pleads with the people:
The land we passed through and explored is exceedingly good. If the LORD is pleased with us, he will lead us into that land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and will give it to us. Only do not rebel against the LORD. And do not be afraid of the people of the land, because we will devour them. Their protection is gone, but the LORD is with us. Do not be afraid of them. [Numbers 14:7-9]

The people of Israel, though, are much too smart for their own good. They do not seem to have any imagination at all, much less faith. They start wishing aloud that they could go back to Egypt, where at least they had a bed at night and an occasional warm meal. Joshua and Caleb are overruled.

Israel’s story is our story, and we too reject God’s promise far too often. The giants in the land scare us more than the milk and honey invite us. We turn away.

3. Faith enters God’s Promised Land.

Many of you have been through your proverbial Egypt – that is why you are looking for a new church. You don’t want to go back. You sure don’t want to wander in the wilderness for the next forty years.

How, then, can we face what is certainly ahead of us? As I said at the beginning of the service, we will never be more vulnerable than we are right now. If we are going to commit to forming this new church, one thing I can promise you is that there are giants in the land. We cannot even say for sure when and where we will start regular services. We have to look into God’s future and step forward with courage. We need a little Indiana Jones.

Whether you are a part of the new church or not, your own life has and will have giants. How can we face them?

Hear me very clearly. When I said that what I call the coffee-cup “God does not give you anything bigger than you can handle” maxim is wrong, what I meant is that it is insufficient. It is immature. It is not enough. The truth is that God will not call you to anything without supporting and equipping you, without being ready to walk with you. The giants in your land may be – no, they are - too big and too strong for you alone, but you are never alone. God is the Lord of wind and flame. God makes the stars and heals the sick. And He will assuredly go with us. When we are prone to wander, prone to leave the God we love … when nothing else can help, God is always able to save.

Some of you are surprised that I made it this far in a sermon about giants without mentioning Goliath. We know that young David armed himself with a slingshot and five smooth stones… but never let yourself stop with the simplicity of the Vacation Bible School version of the story. David did not win the battle and defeat his giant with rocks and a leather strap. Scripture tells us how David faced Goliath:
Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him. The LORD who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine. You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the LORD Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the LORD saves; for the battle is the LORD’s, and he will give all of you into our hands. [1 Samuel 17, various verses]

Our future includes giants, and so long as we try to wear the world’s ill-fitting armor and bank on its heavy swords, the giants will laugh at us. When, however, we rely on the Lord, who has delivered us in the past and who holds the battle now, the giants are no longer obstacles. It takes the Hebrew children forty years to figure that out, but when they are finally in the Promised Land, Israel will in fact rout the giants; the Anakites who had once caused such fear are nothing more than a footnote in Chapter 11 of the Book of Joshua on the people’s march into Canaan.

Now… there are two temptations that came to me at this point in preparing this sermon. The first was to go to Google and look up a few inspirational quotes about overcoming adversity and tell you that “the only thing that overcomes hard luck is hard work” … or “if opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door” … or how about “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” The problem is: these pithy statements are not scriptural. God most assuredly does not tell us that the way to defeat the giants in the land is just to work harder.

The second temptation was for me to do what some TV preachers and printers of those posters you can buy at the Christian bookstore do. I could promise you that God will make your backaches and addictions go away and tell you that if you pray the right words and set your face in a certain direction, then you will immediately overcome everything and our new church will be an Oscar-winning hit.

In fact, of course, the giants do not vanish that easily. Your body still creaks and the boss is still a jerk. What is meaningful still, as always, requires courage, living into the risk with faith.

And our new church will have budget issues and disagreements and distances to travel and may or may not start meeting when we want.

So, how, then, can we as a new church face our giants and step boldly into this promise, into the future that God has guaranteed us? For most of us, the giant story is figurative: we do not face a nine-foot tall opponent in a duel in the desert, and our giants seem much different and harder to overcome.

But God is the same God, the strengthener of weak hands and feeble knees.

Peter Kuzmic says: “Hope is the ability to hear the music of the future. Faith is the courage to dance to it today.”

I am persuaded that God does not often explain the “how” of faith. Rarely does God tell us simply to use certain words and face certain directions. You can’t find the dance step pattern on the internet, or in a proof text in the Bible. God tells us not the “how” but rather the “who.” And the “who” is not us, with our commitment and our hard work. Don’t get me wrong – we must work hard and be steadfast, and we can use all the Michael Jordan and Steve Jobs quotes we can find to help motivate us. But believing in ourselves is not the answer; that cannot be where we place our faith. Hard work will not part the Red Seas that stand between you and God’s promise. All the perseverance in the world will not surmount something that is too big and too strong for you to overcome.

God bids us to place our faith in Him. Wherever you are in your walk, faith is this: trusting God. You don’t have to be a Joshua or a Caleb to trust God.

Faith, even childlike, new faith, dances to the music of the future with the conviction that God will deal with the giants. Faith marches into the Promised Land.

Abram, who did not know where he was going, becomes Abraham, whose descendants number more than the sands of the sea.
Joseph escapes slavery and jail to become second only to Pharaoh and saves not only his family but his nation.
Elijah hears the still small voice of God and is taken to heaven in a chariot of fire.
David rebounds from his sin and the coup d’état led by his own son to be the king, the man after God’s own heart, Psalmist, and ancestor of the Christ.
Daniel emerges from the lions’ den, and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego walk out of the fiery furnace. And they are all given places of honor by Nebuchadnezzar.
Hosea’s wife comes home to his love.
Jonah gets a second chance, and Habakkuk gets a song. The exiles are restored, and the temple is rebuilt, and out of it flows the river of life.
Peter leaves denial behind to lead the church. Paul writes the bulk of the New Testament. And, of course, Jesus rises again and rules the world.

And it has happened to me, and to Jim, and to you. Again and again, God has fulfilled His promises, giants or no giants.

We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.
[2 Corinthians 4:8-9]

The lesson is not just for a new church, of course. If you do not yet know Christ, this message is for you. This is the gospel. Your sin is too big and too strong, and you cannot go forward. You are sinking deep in sin, far from any peaceful shore, but Jesus Christ died so that the giants cannot keep you from the presence of God. And He lives so that your Promised Land is ready.

And for our new church, God has led us to this brink, and He is calling us to go forward. He is sending us. We will face giants along the way… but oh the milk and honey that await!

1 comment:

Chris O said...

This turned out well, I think. Thoughtfully woven and obviously timely for the congregation, but bigger than that. It is encouraging. I liked the expanded version of the Hamlet quote. That worked. Thanks for sharing it.