“Giants vs. Grasshoppers” is not a metaphor for Kentucky vs. Hampton in the NCAA tournament, and yes I know there is no mention of giants or grasshoppers in Numbers 14 – but I promise you they will show up soon.
We are still in the murmuring/complaining section of the Hebrew’s wilderness journey, but before you complain about how long we’ve been there during this Lenten season, let me assure you that we’re almost finished. The Hebrews are now on the banks of the Jordan River, in sight of the land God has promised them – but that has not stopped the complaining, it has in fact raised the level from murmuring to murderous threats against their leaders.
To understand this new level of frustration, we have to go back and see what happened in chapter 13. When the Israelites finally near their destination after 40 long years in the wilderness they discover that there are already people living in their promised land. And just as the Israeli’s and Palestinians today have very different opinions about whose land this is, we’ve got a problem. So Moses and Aaron decide to send some spies across the river to scope out the situation and see how big a problem there is. They pick 12 men, one from each of the 12 tribes, to do reconnaissance, and when they return from their mission, the spies have good news and bad news. The land is indeed fertile and beautiful, just as God has promised, but the bad news is the current occupants are very powerful. And here’s where we hear about the giants and grasshoppers. The vast majority of the spies agree that the people living in the promised land are an overwhelming foe and to take them on would be like grasshoppers going battle against an army of Giants.
And that’s where Chapter 14 picks up the story. The whole congregation we are told raises a loud cry and weeps. They ask Moses, again, “Why have you brought us here to die by the sword? Our wives and children will become booty. Let’s choose a captain and go back to Egypt.”
Isn’t that how we often feel in the wilderness? When we think we’ve almost achieved a hard fought goal and someone else gets the promotion, or a serious illness derails our plans for retirement, or a tragic accident turns a family’s life upside down. Granted we may need to cut the Israelites some slack. Remember these poor people have been traveling in difficult circumstances for 40 years! To realize how long that is, think about how long ago 1975 was. Diana and I were on a trip two years ago to China and our return trip involved flights from Shanghai to Beijing to New York, and then an 11 hour bus ride back to Columbus. All tolled we were traveling without a break for 36 hours, and I can tell you we were not the happiest of campers. I can’t imagine 40 years!!!
Sometimes when a goal seems impossible – when the mountain is just too high to climb, when our patience and endurance are at the breaking point, we just want to throw in the towel and give up. Take us back to Egypt – things were better there. Really? Sometimes memory plays tricks on us. There was a book out a few years ago titled The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, by Stephanie Coontz. One of the things Coontz says in her book is that while we tend to romanticize the 1950’s as a period of peace and prosperity before all the turmoil and conflicts of the 60’s and 70’s, we forget how oppressed women and minorities were, and that beneath the façade of domestic tranquility there was a hidden unrest. Coontz’s evidence for that is that valium and other popular drugs for depression and anxiety came into widespread use during that decade. It wasn’t all “Ozzie and Harriet” or “Leave it to Beaver.”
Fear distorts our memories of how things were in the past. As the theme song from the movie “The Way We Were” says, “What’s too painful to remember, we sometimes choose to forget.” That’s what happens to the Hebrews. They are so disappointed and fearful about the challenges and obstacles they see before them, they are ready to give up when they are so close but so far from their goal. Someone once told me that there are no trophies for running a 99 yard dash – you have to finish the race to win the prize.
We’ve also noticed in these murmuring chapters in Numbers that complaining is contagious. The text says, “The Whole Congregation” is ready to give up. When I was a kid and wanted something my friends had – a new toy or the coolest clothes – or if I wanted to go somewhere that I knew my parents probably would not approve of, I would often tell my mother, “But everybody else has one! All the other kids at school are going!” Her response was often, “Name Three.” And more times than not I couldn’t. End of discussion. So do you think “the whole congregation” might be an exaggeration?
Actually we know it is, because among the 12 spies there is a minority report. Two of the twelve, Caleb and Joshua, have a different take on the situation. They have seen the same evidence as the other 10. They all agree the land is flowing with milk and honey and would be a great place to settle. They all agree the people living there are a formidable problem. But Joshua and Caleb come from a perspective of faith instead of fear. They say, “If God is pleased with us – if we don’t rebel against the Lord, God will deliver on his promise. If God is on our side, nothing else matters.”
And how do the people respond? Verse 10 says, “The whole congregation threatened to stone them.” Dreamers, visionaries and prophets often meet with that kind of reaction – think Copernicus or Galileo. Psychologists explain it this way. When someone has a vision of reality that is very different from ours it creates what is called cognitive dissonance, which is just a fancy way of saying discomfort because things don’t line up the way we think they should. That can create fear and the need to do something to relieve the dissonance.
For example, we can choose to just ignore the problem, as in denial of climate change. Or we can remove ourselves from the situation–end a relationship, quit a job, move to a new home, etc. But on rare occasions where the dissonance is extremely high, things can turn violent, and history is full of martyrs like Jesus, Gandhi, and Joan of Arc, Lincoln, Martin Luther King and many less famous ones who have met that fate. And that’s what Caleb and Joshua are facing on the banks of the Jordan. If you read on in Numbers you will discover that God is much happier with Caleb and Joshua’s faithful response than the 10 other spies and the rebellious congregation. Because of their fear and complaining none of the latter group will be allowed to enter the promised land, but Caleb and Joshua are rewarded for their courage and faith and lead the new generation at last to their new home.
I was talking with a woman a few weeks ago who was dealing with a terrible family crisis. She was feeling like a grasshopper facing gigantic new challenges. When I suggested she just take things one day at a time and break the problems down into smaller pieces, she said, “I know, Steve, I tell other people that all the time. But I can’t live that way. I have to be in control and know what’s going to happen.” That’s the way we all would like life to be, but it simply isn’t.
And because it isn’t we all need faith and the support of others who are facing the giants with us. One of the problems with us rugged individualistic Americans is that we aren’t good at showing our own vulnerabilities and letting others in. We keep up a good front even when we’re dying on the inside. Another old Barbra Streisand song, “People,” describes that situation very well:
“We’re children, needing other children
And yet letting a grown-up pride
Hide all the need inside
Acting more like children than children.”
I was listening to a webinar the other day about transitions in life and was struck by a comment from Robert C. (Bob) Atchley, Distinguished Professor of Gerontology (emeritus) from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, who said, “All of life is Assisted-Living.” Think about how true that is. We use that term “assisted-living” to describe a level of care for elderly people, but it describes all of life. None of us would have come into life or survived infancy and childhood without someone to care for us and teach us. But somewhere along the line we get the notion that we don’t need parents anymore telling us what to do. We move out into the wilderness of adolescence and adulthood on our own, yearning for independence and self-sufficiency. That personal quest is a necessary part of growing up and sometimes it feels great, but when faced with giants, it feels oh so very lonely.
Feeling alone and isolated in the wilderness is a major theme in the movie “Into the Woods.” The song “No one Is Alone,” sung by the Baker and Cinderella, both of whom have suffered terrible losses in the woods, addresses that issue this way:
“Maybe we forgot: they are not alone.
No one is alone.
Hard to see the light now.
Just don’t let it go
Things will come out right now.
We can make it so.
Someone is on your side
No one is alone.”
People of faith know who is on our side. And people of faith also know that we need to be there for each other. Jimmy, a little boy was scared one night by a thunder storm raging outside his bedroom window. When his father came into his room to comfort him he assured him by reminding him that he had learned in Sunday school that Jesus was always with him. Jimmy said, “yes, I know that Dad, but sometimes I just need someone with skin on them.” We need to be those skin-covered people for each other, especially in the wilderness times of life, but if we pretend we don’t need each other, thinking that we can avoid our problems by ignoring them – we cut ourselves off from the very support we need.
I want to finish today by talking about another kind of wilderness experience – one that is voluntary. When we think of the wilderness we often think of it as times of crisis, dealing with unexpected problems, but the wilderness can also be a time of intentional withdrawal from the distractions of daily living to get a better perspective on life – to see the bigger picture. Lent is a good time to do that, but any season of our lives will work. Someone once told me it’s hard to remember that your goal is to drain the swamp when you are up to your waist in alligators. Times of solitude for prayer and refection are needed when we get out of the swamp and see the bigger picture to remember or clarify what our purpose in life really is.
That’s not easy. We are all busy with multitudes of responsibilities. We need to intentionally build time into our schedules regularly to stop and evaluate where we are on life’s journey, to make mid-course corrections, to let go of regrets, guilt, grudges and other burdens that weigh us down. This is especially important at critical times that are rites of passage from one stage of life to another – adolescence to young adulthood, mid-life crises, career changes, new relationships, empty nesting, and retirement. Rather than jumping from one phase of life to another the way our culture says we “should,” taking time off to reflect on what God wants us to be and do is critical.
There is no need to be afraid of choosing to go to the wilderness because no one is alone. We journey with an eternal God who ultimately conquers all giants. Time in the wilderness is time to sort out priorities about the legacy we truly want to leave for future generations; to remember our real goal in life isn’t more stuff and wealth. The legacy we want to leave is faith and values for a life that is truly abundant in the deepest meaning of that term. Our real promised land is a life of peace that passes human understanding, and reaching that goal comes from saying “no” to the majority, who let fear rob them of their goal, and trusting and obeying the still small voice of God that says “put your money on the grasshoppers.”
Preached at Northwest United Methodist Church, Columbus, Ohio, March 22, 2015