Sermon for February 16th, 2014. The text for this sermon was Numbers 13:25-32. A sermon about facing our fears and remembering that God is with us.
When I was 12 or 13, I went up for a church retreat to a place called NaCoMe. It was sort of like Mo Ranch for us, it was a beautiful camp where we would go every year for family camp. There were all sorts of things to do there, but the one thing we loved the most was going exploring up the creek. And this year, my friends Tom and Tim and I had headed up the creek. And we went way further than we had gone before. We were walking up this creek for more than an hour.
And we were scared out of our Aquasox. Nobody had ever gone up this far before, so far as we knew. And we were a long way from everyone else. We all wanted to go back to camp, where everyone was making popsicle stick boats for the boat race in the afternoon, or playing the “Ring game” on the porch. But none of us was willing to admit it. No one wanted to be the wuss. And so we kept trudging up this creek in the cold water getting more and more scared as we walked deeper into the woods. Eventually one of us stopped. I don’t remember who. But the rest of us stopped too. Maybe someone was going to take one for the team and finally admit that he was scared so that we could go home. But instead, Tim pointed, and he said, “I think I see, uh, an Anaconda.” Tom piped in, “I see it too. It’s huge.” Now I didn’t see anything that told me there was a large tropical snake nearby, but I didn’t see anything that told me there wasn’t one nearby either. Some of those tree branches were awful gnarled, and you know snakes are pretty good at camouflage. “Yeah,” I said “me too. We gotta get out of here.”
We hung there for a moment. Maybe we were afraid of the giant snake, or maybe we were just trying to see if we could really believe the giant lie we’d just told ourselves. And then we turned and fled. We were too scared to leave the creek on the way back, seeing as there was an anaconda on the loose, and I guess snakes can’t swim, so there was plenty of time to get our story straight before we got back to camp.
When we finally made it, we told the story of our harrowing escape from the anaconda with gusto. The snake started out big, 8 feet long, thick as your arm and green as Nickelodeon slime. But it got much bigger than that. Pretty soon it was 20 feet long, and thicker than a tree trunk. Its narrow slit eyes were the size of golf balls. The Anaconda started picking up details from the Jennifer Lopez movie, coincidentally about a giant Anaconda, that had just come out. Pretty soon the snake was so big that it was a wonder you couldn’t see it from here.
In our text from Numbers, Moses has sent spies into Canaan to spy out the Promised land for the people. And they come back with a similar tale. It was certainly a land of milk and honey, they say, bearing a bunch of grapes so big they have to tie it between poles to carry it home. But the people there were huge. The spies said that they saw the descendents of Anak, the Anakim, in the land. These men were so big they made the Hebrews look like grasshoppers in comparison.
The spies were scared. So they imagined something far worse than what was really there. Now what was really there? People. Established communities, cities and towns with walls around them. People whose lives we don’t know much about, but who lived and worked and played in the Promised Land just like we do here. Before we go on I just want to mention that this is part of a fairly troubling narrative, where God sends the Hebrews into the Promised Land to slaughter and kill everyone who lives in that land so that God can give it to his people Israel. But this story doesn’t really concern itself with their stories, and I won’t either, today, except to say that we remember that they were people too.
The “spies” are concerned with the Anakim, their version of my Anaconda. The Anakim come from the Nephilim, who are described in Genesis 6:4,
The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.”
Like we did as kids wandering up the creek, they created an image of their own fear, something that gave them good reason to run away from the task that they knew they were supposed to do.
A lot of times, as Christians, we know what we’re supposed to do. We know what God wants from us, but we are afraid to do it. We’re afraid to try, because trying so often means failure, and we see failure not as a learning experience, but as some sort of stink that lives with us the rest of our lives. We’re afraid because trying so often means changing, and changing involves leaving what we know and going out into the unknown,
So we throw up roadblocks for ourselves. We exaggerate the dangers of what’s ahead. We blow up everything into an insurmountable obstacle, so that we don’t have to keep going, so that we can stay in our comfort zones and not have to stretch and push ourselves to do something we didn’t think we could do. We make up anacondas. We see Anakim. We give good reasons why we can’t do the things that scare us, and those excuses get bigger and bigger until it’s a wonder we’re able to do anything at all, with beasts besetting us at every turn.
The Hebrews wandering in the desert behaved the same way. They said to each other, “Let’s choose a captain and go back to Egypt.” They liked a familiar slavery better than the anacondas that they had imagined for themselves. They rebelled against God, and they angered God, because they were unwilling even to try to do what God called them to do. Only Caleb and Joshua among the spies have enough trust in God to believe that their success is possible.
Today’s story challenges us to move forward to what God calls us to do, to choose to follow the Lord’s commands rather than blowing up problems between ourselves and what we should be doing. It asks us to be honest with God and with ourselves. We have to admit why we’re afraid to do God’s work, and face those fears honestly, without imagining anacondas in addition to the already substantial challenges we face as people of faith.
When Moses dies, Joshua, one of those spies who was brave enough to resist the others, becomes commander in his stead. And in the beginning of the book of Joshua, over and over God tells him, “Be strong and courageous,” and that he will succeed. Not because Joshua is stronger or smarter than any of the challenges that he will face, but simply because God is with him. “Be strong and courageous,” God says, “do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”
One of my favorite moments in the movie Shrek, and I’m sure I’ve told you this before, comes early in the movie. Donkey is being chased by soldiers, and suddenly finds himself cornered. He turns around to put up a fight, knowing that he’s outnumbered and out armed. He braces himself for a fight. And suddenly all of the soldiers take off running in fear. Donkey’s pretty proud of himself. But he doesn’t know the real reason the soldiers have run away. He doesn’t see that right behind him, Shrek, the big ogre, has showed up angry, and has terrified the soldiers into fleeing.
I’d like to suggest something to think about when our fear gets the best of us. When I can’t do anything right, becomes our mantra instead of “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” When the obstacles in front of us look insurmountable, when the challenges we face look impossible. Maybe, just maybe, the anaconda isn’t in front of us, but behind us.