NUMBERS CHAPTER 14 VERSES 1 – 25.
We have been thinking about fear these past few weeks and I want us to continue with that theme running through what I want us to look at today.
When I thought about fear this week my mind went back to the time when my mother-in-law was learning to drive.
When we were up North we used to come south in the holidays and stay with them in Greenock. During this time she was learning to drive she used to ask me to take her out for a lesson.
She has her own little Nissan Micra, with automatic gears, and well I felt that taking her out for an odd lesson more than paid for our board while we are staying with them. Anyway this particular time we were down, she was driving through Greenock with me sitting in the passengers seat, with an extra rear-view mirror stuck to the window.
At one stage she pulled out to over take a parked car, and then she said did I give enough clearance when I pulled out there. My reply was that I didn’t know because I hadn’t looked.
This gave her an awful lot of confidence, to think that I trusted her driving so much that I hadn’t even bothered to look in the mirror, and she went on and on about this for the rest of the lesson.
I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I hadn’t looked because my eyes were clenched shut in abject terror. I am of course exaggerating slightly she did go on to pass her test eventually.
The reason I relate that story was because it sort of follows on from what we were considering last week, and it came to mind when I was reading our passage this morning from Numbers chapter 14, because the thing that struck me most of all from the passage was that the people of Israel seemed to be spending their time in that desert looking into the rear-view mirror.
It struck me how often I and indeed how often all of us spend so much time doing just the same, not in a car but looking into the rear-view mirror as we go through life. It is safer doing that than worrying about what might lie ahead.
How often, how much time do we spend yearning for the “good old days”, when life was better, when money was worth something, when people cared about one another, when families were stronger, when our country had values, when people were happier and more content.
Even I in my relative youth,(ha ha), can look back to my childhood and the freedoms that we had then as children compared to now.
Yes, the good old days were best. We can even these days on television look back to centuries ago, in period dramas, and see the excitement, and romance of living hundreds of years ago, and we can say, yes those were the days.
Christians look at the church today with its many problems, and its ever decreasing numbers and we hark back to the good old days of the church, when there weren’t these problems that we face today, where we can look back to the joy of living in peace and tranquillity, yes bring back the good old days of the church.
Then in our passage we have the Israelite nation, in deep stress and pain it would seem. Look at verse 1, doesn’t it break your heart. “That night all the people of the community raised their voices and wept aloud.” Verse 2, “All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, `If only we had died in Egypt! Or in the desert!”
The Israelites were looking in the rear-view mirror as we often do, they didn’t like the situation they were facing, they feared for the future, we will look at that situation in a moment, so they looked back to their time in Egypt, they looked back to their journey through the desert over the years, and they longed for the past, rather than facing what the future contained.
The phrase that came to my mind in response to all that we have looked at up till now, the phrase that came to mind is, How quickly we forget.
Yes, in the good old days, living was different, and often happier than it is today, but then we forget about the real poverty that abounded, we forget that yes bread was so cheap, but that so many couldn’t afford it.
We forget that there was no welfare system or National Health System. We forget that medicines we take for granted were not available or invented, we remember the good things but so easily and quickly forget about the bad and the awful, we forget that murder and rape and robbery were not invented in the 21st Century but have always been there.
Even further back we don’t realise the rank and squalor of centuries ago.
Have you ever been to York and visited the Yorvik centre? Part of the experience takes you on a trip into the past, to York in the time of the Vikings, it was pretty realistic, even down to the smells of the day, and to say that the conditions that people lived in at that time were appalling would be to put it mildly.
Oh how quickly we forget, as we harp back to the good old days of the church, but the question that comes to my mind is what church. Believers have faced difficulties, huge difficulties right from the very beginning of the church. The early church as we see from Scripture was plagued by sexual immorality, and by heresy and dissension, to name but three.
Friends, aware of the danger that this might sound a bit pessimistic, there were no good old days of the church, not in the first century, not in the sixteenth century, and not in the twenty first century.
Problems we face now are problems that the church has always faced and always will as long as imperfect, sinners like you and I make up that Church.
Of course there has been much blessing over the centuries of the church, but there has never been the perfect church, there has never been a church that we can look back to with longing and say, why isn’t the church like that today. Look in any minute book of any church over the years and again those not so good things that we tend to forget as we gaze longingly in our rear-view mirrors, soon show us that indeed there is no such thing as the good old days of the church.
What about the people of Israel in our passage, and again the phrase, Oh how quickly we forget. There they were standing on the threshold of this promised land, but yet were harking back to the good old days of Egypt, you know when they had work to do instead of aimlessly walking through a desert. Where they had roofs over their heads, where they and their families were safe from the ravages of the desert and the enemies that they now had to face.
Look at verse 3, can you feel the irony in these words, “Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt.”
Oh how quickly they forgot, that they were slaves, how they had no freedom , how they were whipped and lashed and abused by the Egyptians, oh how quickly they forgot, Exodus 1 v12f,
“But the more they oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites and worked them ruthlessly. They made their lives bitter with hard labour in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their hard labour the Egyptians used them ruthlessly.”
It even got to the stage if you remember that every male child that was born was killed. Oh how quickly they forgot their plea to the lord, “And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them.” (Exodus 3 v 9).
Why then did they, why do we so often forget, so often spend time looking in that rear-view mirror, don’t get me wrong I am not saying that we should never look back if we didn’t then we would never learn from our mistakes or give glory to God for what he has accomplished.
But this continual harking back to the good old days is a trap, one I believe laid for us by the devil, because as long as we continue to look back, then we are never going to move forward. The devil knows, and we so often forget, that for the person whose life is centred in Christ, the best is always yet to come, and I am sure that if you are a believer here this morning you would agree with that, but then why oh why, do I, do you, did the Israelites look to the past. I found two things in this passage, to reason that are true of us today.
1. THEY HAD A FEAR OF THE FUTURE.
The people, the Israelites were afraid, they were nearly there, nearly ready to enter into this promised land, nearly ready to step out into the unknown and they didn’t fancy it, especially when they heard of the dangers.
Caleb and Joshua in the previous chapter, 13, had been into the land and had spied it out and came back reporting that indeed it was a land flowing with milk and honey, but, the big but was that the people who lived there were going to be no walk over, they were powerful, their cities were huge and heavily fortified.
The people were afraid of what lay ahead, even though there in verses 9, Joshua and Caleb tell them not to be afraid because the Lord is with them.
The Israelites were afraid of what lay ahead, even to the extent as we saw that they seemed to forget the hardship that they endured in Egypt and indeed the past forty years in the desert, they preferred all of that, because although it wasn’t pleasant, they felt safe in what they had already experienced, if they went back to Egypt at least they knew what to expect and had experienced it all before, but this which lay ahead was unknown to them, and they rebelled.
You know we today can be exactly the same, we always feel safer in the known, no matter how bad it is, than facing the unknown. This very fear can stop us perhaps going for a new job, which involves areas that we have never dealt with before, and we fear that we wont be able to cope, so we stick with what we know. This very fear can stop us moving on as a church, afraid to strike out differently, and when faced with something new, whether in approach to the unconverted or indeed in our worship, we say wait a minute this is different, what’s wrong with what we have always done.
This very fear can stop us accepting Christ for the first time as we hear all about this wonderful new life with Jesus, as we hear of his love, as we hear of the cross and what he did for us there, as we hear of our need of him in our lives to save us from the power of sin in our lives, but we are afraid, because it is something that we haven’t experienced before, and we say Och, I’ll stay with what I know, even though often in our heart of hearts we know that it is the wrong road to travel on.
Those words of Joshua and Caleb there in verse 9, are there for all of us, because I believe that all of us can relate to these Israelites in their keenness to look in the rear-view mirror, “Only do not rebel against the Lord. And do not be afraid of the people of the land, because we will swallow them up. Their protection is gone, but the Lord is with us. Do not be afraid of them.”
I don’t know about you, but for all my harking back to the good old days of my childhood or whatever, I would not really be happy to go back to those days, we would not really be happy going back to live in the good old days, because we have so much more now, society has moved on and indeed so have we, things that we would have been happy with then, would not be enough for us now. The Israelites I am sure if they had gone back to Egypt would have realised just how much they had changed as well.
But you know the sad thing is that while we would not be satisfied with going back to the good old days, it would seem that often when it comes to the church, then we are happy and content to stay there, not to consider moving on, not to consider change because well the church is different isn’t it.
But friends if we really think about it, to think and to say that God is happy and pleased that while society, while our world moves on and advances, His church, His glorious Church stays static and the gap continues to grow and grow between the Church and the people that the Church is called to reach out to with the glorious truth of the gospel, to think for one minute that God is happy and pleased with that, is surely insulting our God, the God who led His people in the past, does so now and will continue to into the future. The story of the people of God from the beginning of the Bible to the end is a story of progress a story of advancement is a story of change and leading us on to our second point is a story of His people stepping out into the future not in fear, but in faith and trust in Him.
Our second and final point then the reason that we so often hark back to the past is due to :-
2. A LACK OF FAITH IN OUR GOD.
LOOK AT V 11, “The Lord said to Moses, `How long will these people treat me with contempt? How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of the miraculous signs I have performed among them?”
Faith is the answer to our fear, faith is the key to the future.
You know as I read that verse 11, I wondered how many times God says those words or indeed expresses the same concern of me. Think back to all that he had done for the Israelite people, the miracles that he had performed in their lives as he for example parted the Red Sea, how he had guided them through the desert, fed them with manna and quails, given them water from bare rock, to name but a few.
We think back to our own lives, we think back especially to the miracle of the cross and our salvation and indeed the numerous times he has wonderfully answered prayer in our lives but yet like the Israelites, we doubt Him, we doubt His hand in our future, and we instead of moving on with Him, we bury our head in the sand of yesterday.
You know I tried to imagine what it must have been like in those verses in chapter 13, when Joshua and Caleb came back from their spying mission in Canaan. I can see in my minds eye the excitement growing as they are seen returning, and the people gathering round to hear of what they saw, I can see their eyes lighting up, their faces beaming as they hear of this Land just as it was promises to them, flowing with milk and honey.
I can hear them praising God once more for his faithfulness, and then the joy being replaced by fear, the praise being replaced by shock and grumbling as they hear of the powerful people they would have to face, and worry and doubt and as we read in v 1 and 2, grumbling and weeping replace, their faith and trust in their God who has brought them this far.
Friends we face hostility out there in our world, in our community, we face a people living in darkness a people who desperately need the light of the gospel in their lives, but how are we going to reach them, are we just going to do what we always did, or are we going to listen to God, are we going to, step out in faith and in trust in our God, who holds the future.
It was not going to be easy for the Israelite people as they entered Canaan, but God was with them, because it was God who wanted them to go. It will not be easy as we face the future, it is not going to be comfortable, but then where does it say in scripture that Christianity is comfortable, but we have to trust and not be afraid, because God is with us, because it is God that wants us to reach that community for Him.
Friends the key is to trust Him, trust Him for the future, trust and faith overcomes the fear, and the same applies to the person who does not know Christ, who is perhaps holding back as we said for fear of the future, of the unknown, the key is to trust in God, trust in His Christ who went to that cross for us, trust in Him and keep on trusting Him.
There are many reasons put forward for the fact that in so many places the Church of Jesus Christ is dwindling, I believe that a key reason is what we have looked at this morning, a fear of the future, a fear of change, a lack of trusting in God and being open to Him for the future, a lack of hearing his voice, which makes the most wonderful message ever the wonderful message of the gospel seem not relevant to so many.
Friends we need to be like Joshua and Caleb, God gave them the privilege of entering the Promised land they saw the good, they saw what they faced, but yet their faith in God for the future never waned.
They did not look in the rear-view mirror, but looked ahead with eyes of faith, trusting in their God, knowing that he was with them, and God said about Caleb there in verse 24, “But because my servant Caleb has a different spirit and follows me wholeheartedly, I will bring him into the land he went to, and his descendants will inherit it.”
Those who doubted were not to see the promised land, were not to see the fulfilment of the promise, friends how much do we miss out on, how much do we fail to see the promises of God fulfilled because of our fear and lack of trust in Him.