Ambulans in Itinere

Friday, June 23, 2006

Bringing back grapes

A couple of notes before I get into today's Scripture:

First, some have not realized that the "bullet points" above each entry, where I mention the Scripture that I am going to be discussing, are actually links to the text under discussion. You can click on the Scripture reference to read the text -- in fact, I would recommend doing just that, in order for you to see the Word for yourself before you listen to my ramblings on it.

Second, note that each entry usually discusses two texts, and that discussion of both texts is necessary to understand the readings for the day, in my view (in other words, read both, or what I say won't make sense).

Now, on to the readings for today.

Numbers 13:1-3, 21-30

In today's Old Testament reading, we return to Moses and the Hebrews with God in the wilderness. The story is a familiar one, and it is easy to gloss over to the reading with our traditional understanding about Joshua alone being faithful enough to pursue God's will in taking the Promised Land.

I want to try, though, to understand this story on a deeper level.

I suppose the first question that one might ask is why the Lord would telll Moses to send spies in the first place. It is not as though God needs spies; indeed, if we believe that God created the world, and if we believe that God is all-knowing, then God already knew the lay of the land and exactly where and what the people possessing it were doing. It seems almost disingenuous for God to order Moses and the Israelites to find a representative of each tribe to sneak into Canaan and "find out" what was going on there.

Notice, though, that God just doesn't ask for one man from each tribe. Instead, the Lord commands that "every one [of the spies should be] a leader among them [their tribe]." So perhaps, then, God is giving the Israelites a chance to honor their leaders and show each tribe faithful to the Lord. After all, surely the leader of a tribe of Israelites fears the God who brought them out of the land of Egypt.

Well, we shall see.

The Bible goes on to describe the route that the Hebrew spies took as they followed God's command to scout the land. The see all of the peoples living there, they see the strong places and crops that the people keep. They collect some samples of the fruit, and they return back to the Wilderness of Paran, to Kadesh, where the Israelites are camping out.

But wait a second-- God's command didn't say anything about looking for crops or the people, did it? God said to "spy out the land." He had already told them that the land was flowing with milk and honey. So why in the world did the spies take the trouble to "cut down from there a branch with a single cluster of grapes, and they carried it on a pole between two of them"? Why did they bring back "pomegranates and figs"?

Apparently, the people who have seen their God bring them through the middle of the sea, who brought them out of slavery in Egypt, and who appeared to them every day in the form of a pillar of cloud don't have enough faith to believe God when he tells them that he is taking them to a land that has enough food and room for the people.

But it wasn't just the spies at fault: Moses himself, who took God's command for the people, is the person who adds the admonition to the spies to bring back the fruit of the land. God's purpose in sending the spies was to give the Hebrews an opportunity to glorify God for his faithfulness: but they turn it into an opportunity for fear, and for a failure of faith.

It is easy, sometimes, to get frustrated with the Hebrews when reading about all that they went through when God was bringing them out of Egypt. But just when you are about to get frustrated, look at your own life. If you know Christ as your friend and Savior, you, too, have seen wonders. I know that in my own life, God has blessed me in so many ways that I should join with the Hebrews in singing, "The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him. The Lord is a warrior; YHWH is his name!"

The resounding chorus can quickly turn into a stuttering and mumbling, "Yet the people who live in the land are strong, and the towns are fortified and very large; and besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there." Ah, the descendants of Anak. The God who was a "my strength and my might", "my salvation", and "a warrior" surely cannot handle Anak's sons.

It is hard to be Caleb. It is astoundingly difficult to say, with confidence, "Let us go up at once" and claim the promise that the Lord has made. It is so much easier, when faced with a challenge and struggle to run home to Moses, with our tails between our legs, and whine about the problems we face. To exaggerate those problems into something that seems insurmountable.

But the call of Caleb -- and the call of all people who's "strength and might" is the mighty warrior YHWH -- is a call of courage and faith. The spies of the Israelites were right: they, in their own strength, could not take Canaan. If they tried, the alphabet soup of descendants who possessed the land would destroy them. But they -- and we -- must not rest on our own counsel or courage. We must rely upon him who commanded Moses to scout the land for the Hebrew invasion: to prepare our spirit with the armor of God to war against unrighteousness and ungodliness.

"The Lord is a warrior; YHWH is his name!"

Matthew 18:21-35

We turn from the grapes of Canaan to the grapes of wrath. My favorite disciple -- the loud-mouthed, foot-in-mouth disciple -- is Peter. I identify strongly with Peter. He is, to me, an example of how Jesus takes ordinary, fallen people and turns them into extraordinary, wise leaders. In this passage, Peter has gone and asked another one of those questions. He wasn't satisified arguing, two days ago, about who would be the greatest in Heaven's Kingdom; no, today he asks Jesus how many times he "has to forgive" someone.

We almost cringe as Peter asks the question. We want to condescendingly tell him, "Peter, don't embarass yourself again! Don't ask Jesus another stupid question." Indeed, for some of us, pulling for Peter to be smart is doing the same for ourselves.

But Peter ploughs ahead, without regard for whether or not he is asking a question that could make him look like an oaf. And that's one of the reasons Jesus loves him. For in Peter's seemingly bumbling manner, Christ has hold of a genuine man who asks honest questions from his heart. Christ's reception of Peter, in all his inadequacies, is Christ's reception of us, just as we are. But -- thanks be to God! -- Jesus doesn't leave Peter, or us, where he found us. Jesus is in the business of changing lives, and Peter's life is an example of how he has done that in the past, and how he can do it for us in the future.

Let us return to the substance of Peter's question. It is actually a reasonable question. Jesus has been talking about forgiveness, and Peter has taken notice. You can almost hear the wheels in his head turning as he comes to the next logical conclusion that all of us, as human beings, think about next. "How many times should I forgive?"

I can see Jesus smile. Here is the man who will three times betray Christ asking for a number. "Is it seven, Lord?"

"No, Peter. Seventy times seven."

Now, for those of you who are math whizzes out there, don't get too excited. I have literally known people -- people very close to me -- who have done the multiplication and seem to keep track of how many times they forgive me. I'm guessing that when I get to 490, they're going to never accept my apologies ever again.

That, folks, is not what Jesus is saying, and the parable he gives afterward is a perfect example of why. Jesus' story about the slave -- read me and you -- who owed more than he could ever hope to pay -- again, read me and you, and our debt of sin -- is almost sent off to his just "reward" -- you know what that means for us -- when the Master has compassion and forgives the man his entire debt. He didn't do anything, except ask for mercy. He didn't deserve mercy, but the Master gave it to him anyway (a fine example of God's grace).

The man, rejoicing, goes on his way. And then, he meets one of his own debtors, and proceeds to choke him. Yikes. Not a pretty picture: you and I who are believers, whose debts have been forgiven by the Master, go out into the world and try to choke other debtors, other people whose debts haven't yet been forgiven, into paying up. We don't forgive. After having been forgiven.

The Master's reaction when the slave gets told on is fitting: "wicked slave!" Like the God who forgives the unfaithful Israelites who go hunting for produce, and like the Master who forgave the indebted slave, we, dear Peter, must forgive everyone as we have been forgiven.

Talk about a hard assignment. It is not in human nature to be forgiving without something in return. We worry about being hurt in the same way, and we set up rules and procedures for how we will not let ourselves be hurt that way again. We run and find our debtors and we choke them until they submit.

And all the while, we run to our Master -- every day -- and ask him to keep forgiving the huge debt that we've managed to pile up since the last time we begged for mercy.

Will God forgive us seven times? Four hundred and ninety? Forever?

"The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him."

God our Father, we confess that we do not place our whole trust in you and in doing so, we fail to show your love and forgiveness as it has been shown to us. We praise you for your mercy and grace, that you continue to reconcile us with you despite our failure to follow you. Save us, Lord God, from faithlessness and from arrogance. Help us to love you and serve your children. Help us to show grace as it has been shown to us. We thank you for saving us, for forgiving us, and for loving us; throgh Jesus Christ, our Lord, Amen.

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