This sermon was preached to the virtually gathered congregation of Paris Presbyterian Church on June 14, 2020, on the fourteenth week of online worship due to the COVID-19 virus.
This year has taken us all on a journey none of us were prepared for, a road that many of us would have rather not traveled, even considering the circumstances. We have sought, now for our fourteenth week since the beginning of the Coronavirus Pandemic, a return to normalcy, only to be stuck in a wilderness of difficulty and confusion.
Following the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, we have been forced to respond to another pandemic which we would have rather ignored: the pandemic caused by the virus of racism, a virus that to some degree hides within or affects each of us.
Out in the wilderness of unrest, confrontation, and continued social distancing, our feelings of dis-ease are only growing the longer we remain in this desert place.
Lest we imagine that we are living in truly unprecedented times, canoeing without so much as a paddle through chaotic waters, we have gathered once again as a virtual community to turn to the words of Scripture. Every time we do so, we recognize how much our lives connect with the story God has been telling since the beginning of time.
We have been on a journey from “normal,” through various waystations in the wilderness such as beginning of the stay-at-home order and killing of George Floyd to some sort of “new normal” off in the distance.
When we read the Old Testament, we hear of a similar movement from the normalcy of slavery in Egypt, through various challenges and temptations in the desert, to the Promised Land off in the distance.
When we read the New Testament, again, there is the old normal of sin and death, the ministry of Jesus who like Moses leads the crowd through the wilderness, and a resurrection that gives birth to a new land of promise.
The central question in each of these movements through the wilderness is this: will the people turn back to the old normal (the virus of sin and death) or will they dream of milk and honey and follow Moses, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit to that new place that is just on the other side of the mountaintop.
Will the Israelites turn back and return to slavery in Egypt?
Will the Disciples turn back and pick up their fishing nets and swords?
Will we turn back to the comfort of the past and do our best to forget this wilderness ever happened at all?
When we pick up the story of the Israelites journey through the wilderness in the story from Numbers 13, which is retold for us in Deuteronomy 1:19, the trip is not yet the “wilderness wandering” to which we normally refer.
To be sure, the route out of Egypt for the past year and a half (or so) has had its fair share of challenges. The only food has been manna and quail, the former called manna specifically because it is unrecognizable as food at all. Even water has been difficult to come by. Time and time again, the people have complained. At this point, their complaints have become so constant that they are for Moses the background noise of his ministry—his ears do their best to tune them out.
The exodus from Egypt through the wilderness has had its fair share of blessings too. There is food to eat and water to drink, thanks to the Lord who provides. And God has appeared to Moses and given the people of God an identity through the expectations of the Ten Commandments.
At this point, the journey to the Promised Land may have seemed like it was taking forever, but it wasn’t. What is a couple of years of walking for a people that had been enslaved for hundreds?
Except there’s that tiny little detail in Deuteronomy 1:2 that the trip from Horeb, the Mountain of God, to Kadesh-barnea, the doorstep of the promised land, should take only 11 days.
Let’s just say the Israelites didn’t take the most direct route.
Even so, they’re now so close to the land of promise that they can taste it. Numbers 13:20 tells us they got to Kadesh-barnea during the season of the first ripe grapes. Imagine what a sweet, juicy grape would taste like after a few years in the desert eating only manna and quail.
Fortunately, their watering mouths don’t distract them from the importance of military strategy. They come up with a plan to send twelve men, one of the best from each of the twelve tribes, to scout out the Promised Land to see if God held up his end of the bargain; to ensure it was everything they had been promised.
It’s a wonder Hollywood hasn’t made a spy thriller based on this passage. The feelings of suspense and anticipation are at least as great in this story as in the attempt by Rebel forces to steal the Death Star plans from Scarif in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
The spies successfully infiltrate enemy territory and make it back to Moses with the intelligence they were sent to gather. And here’s the report:
“We came to the land to which you sent us; it flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit!”
Wait for it.
“But Moses, the people who live in the land are strong, and the towns are very large, and besides, we saw giants there. We are small and weak like grasshoppers—we could never defeat them.”
Now they’re just making stuff up. Giants? Really?
They didn’t know and believe, as I was taught when I was growing up through Veggie Tales, that “God is bigger than the bogeyman. He’s bigger than Godzilla, or the monsters on TV. He’s watching out for you and me.”
Only Joshua and Caleb dissent from the majority report. Only two out of the twelve have faith that the Lord God will bring them into the land of promise. All twelve dream of the milk and honey the land would provide, but only two believe God can make that dream a reality. There are just too many giants standing in the way.
This scene, at the doormat of the Promised Land, just a couple years out of Egypt, sets off a chain of devastating events. The Israelites are cursed to wander for 40 years. Moses curses at the people and strikes the rock out of anger. Aaron dies. Israelites die from snakes and a pandemic. And Moses dies on the mountaintop overlooking the Promised Land, never to enter it.
The journey that was supposed to take eleven days will now take 40 years because of a lack of faith, hope, trust, and conviction that God will do what God promises.
In our reading from Matthew’s gospel, we find ourselves in a similar scene. Compare Matthew 10 and the sending of the twelve disciples with Numbers 13 and the sending of the twelve spies and you’ll find many structural similarities.
More than the structure of the story, Jesus is clearly leading a New Exodus out of slavery to sin and death and into God’s Kingdom. As Jesus travels among the cities and villages of Judea, a political wilderness under Roman occupation, crowds follow him, desperate to leave their bondage to sickness, sin, and death behind. They’ve heard that he can heal, that he has the answers to the problems of their society. They are wandering around a wilderness like “sheep without a shepherd” year after year, ruler after ruler with no true “leader” among them.
So, what does Jesus do? He sends his leadership, those who have been hand-picked from the twelve tribes of Israel, out as ambassadors throughout the promised land of Israel.
Jesus sends them out among the crowds demanding a better government, into the hospitals where people are sick, into homes where people are hiding in sin, and he gives them a message of hope:
“The Kingdom of Heaven, the real Promised Land, has come near!”
These emissaries of the Kingdom are to take nothing with them except the peace of Jesus as they go to house after house, bringing the Good News.
Like the spies sent into Canaan in the Old Testament, these disciples are engaging in a highly risky activity. They could find themselves in a difficult situation with the Roman occupying forces as they told of a New Kingdom. They could be chased away by those who wanted to maintain the status quo. They were the furthest thing from self-reliant, depending on the hospitality of others for food and lodging.
Jesus tells them, “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to the courts and flog you in their places of worship, and you will be made an example in the court of public opinion. You will be hated by all because of my name, but the one who endures to the end will be saved.”
All of this difficulty in the place between how things were and how things will be is necessary so that they actually get somewhere! Sure, they could have stayed in the old normal of sickness, sin, and death, crying out for a leader, forever. Just like the Israelites could have remained in Egypt in slavery, being worked so hard they had no time to worship God.
If Jesus is going to take his people into the Kingdom of God, the new land of promise, things are going to get worse before they get better.
I’ve been spending most of my devotional and reading time since mid-March thinking, studying, and praying over these scenes of Israel in the wilderness, Jesus in the wilderness, and the disciples eventually leading people into the new land of promise that we call the “Church.”
The leadership team has been reading a book about Lewis & Clark, how they were sent out through an uncertain wilderness as emissaries for President Thomas Jefferson and the United States. They went out on canoes in search of a waterway to the Pacific Ocean until they reached the end of the water. They came upon a mountain pass and realized they couldn’t get to their destination the same way they started out. Such is true, in many ways, of the Biblical journeys through the wilderness I have been talking about.
But over the past couple weeks, as NASA prepared to send astronauts to the International Space Station from US soil, on an American rocket for the first time since 2011, I got to thinking about those modern voyagers, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken. They were strapped into a crew module atop a 230 ft tall Falcon 9 rocket, which had never before carried humans into space.
Right now, in this time of unprecedented change, anticipating leaving the wilderness of the COVID-19 pandemic, finding ourselves in the wilderness of confronting the sin of racism, we feel like we’re strapped to a rocket.
We’re not cool and calm—we’re not astronauts. We would rather stay on the ground. We would rather stay in the wilderness or back in Egypt. We would rather not go anywhere new and different. We want to go back to our old norm.
But God is asking us now, as he did in the Old and New Testaments, to go higher and farther, to boldly go where no one has gone before, to become trailblazers for the Kingdom of God.
The new ideas and challenges from Rev. Tina and the leadership team are outside the “usual” box—from online worship to house churches to doing things differently when we return to the sanctuary.
And you know what, we’ve done really well considering than none of us would have voluntarily strapped ourselves on this particular rocket or taken this particular wilderness journey.
But as we look to the next part of our journey from the old normal, through this wilderness, to the promised land on the other side—there’s a real risk, not just a perceived one. Doug and Bob took a risk when they got strapped into that rocket. There had been failed launches before. We remember the Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia. As the spies had reported to Moses, there was a real risk involved in entering the promised land—the people were big and scary. Jesus and his disciples risked it all too, remaining faithful to God to the point of death.
The journey out of COVID-19 to a new normal is going to challenge all of us. There are real risks to consider: exposing people to the virus, facing reduced tithing and giving, alienating people, trying things differently and failing, as well as not doing things differently and failing to grow.
Likewise, the journey of dealing with the sin of racism is fraught with challenges. There are risks of saying the wrong thing and in saying nothing at all. There is a risk that the opportunities to face this challenge now won’t be taken, and that we’ll end up right back where we were.
But I believe, because I see it in Scripture, that there is a new world on the other side of these challenges. There is a promised land. There is a strong and faithful Church. There is a land flowing with milk and honey on the other side of the mountain at the end of this wilderness.
Martin Luther King Jr., in his last speech on the night before he was murdered, said this:
“The world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding — something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today… the cry is always the same — ‘We want to be free.’ Now, I’m just happy that God has allowed me to live in this period, to see what is unfolding…Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind”
Oh, that we could have such faith to declare not that “the old days were better than these” (Ecclesiastes 7:10), but that the work of God that is unfolding is flowing with milk and honey and hope. Oh, that we would have the faith to reach the mountaintop and see that promised land.
We might, sometimes, rather head back to Egypt like the Israelites, go back to our normal fishing jobs like the disciples, or go back to how everything was before.
But at a certain point, there’s no return. We’re strapped onto the rocket. We’re about to take flight. The flame of Pentecost is about to be lit underneath us. And all we can do is look to the sky and declare: “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back.”
As Astronaut Alan Shepherd is famous for declaring, strapped into the rocket for America’s first human spaceflight, let’s “light this candle.” Amen.