Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister




On the Edge of Promise:

God’s Confidence and Our Nervousness

Sunday, February 25, 2007



Numbers 13: 1-20a

Rev. Dean Snyder


I am fascinated by the biblical story of the Israelites’ journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. It is the story not only of the Israelites in the Bible; it is the story of every freedom movement, the story of every new society being born; it is the story of every religious congregation growing; and, most of all, it is the story of your life and mine.


The part of the story that is most fascinating to me is the 40 years in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land. A friend tells me that if you traveled in a straight line across the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt to Palestine the trip would take maybe six months, even for a very large group of people.


But Israel spent 40 years in the wilderness.


I’ve talked about the Israelites’ 40 years in the wilderness before, but the part of the story I’d like to ask you to think about with me this Lent is the Israelites’ experience at the edge of the Promised Land…the time in the wilderness just before Israel crosses the Jordan River and enters the Promise Land. The theme is “On the Edge of Promise.”


The question I want to ask is what keeps us stuck on the edge of promise? We’ve spend years in the wilderness, learning, growing, seeking, searching, praying and hoping, but we can’t seem to take the last leap of faith and cross over the river into the land God has promised us. We’ve done therapy and had spiritual guides and participated in small groups and Bible studies, but we somehow can’t build up the nerve to claim the promise. We get stuck on the edge of promise.


I’d like to begin this morning by looking at the first opportunity the Israelites had to cross over into the Promised Land. It happened relatively early on in their journey – two years into the wilderness journey.


It is described in Numbers 13 and again in Deuteronomy 1. It is the story of God telling the Israelites to send out spies to check out the Promised Land. The story has two parts. I’d like us to look at the first part of this particular story this morning and the second part next Sunday.


Here’s what Id like us to notice in the first part of the story. The Israelites have no idea what the Promised Land looks like. I mean, the Israelites have no clue what the Promised Land looks like.


This is intriguing. They didn’t know what the land was like, whether the people living in it were weak or strong, few or many, whether the land was good or bad, unwalled or fortified, rich or poor. They didn’t even know whether there were trees in the Promised Land.


The Israelites have no inkling, not the smallest hint, of what the Promised Land was like.


This is all they knew…that they had been slaves in Egypt and that God had rescued them from slavery and God had promised them a land where they would be free but they had no clue what freedom looked like. All they know about the land of freedom is a negative – that it isn’t slavery.


One of the reason we have a hard time stepping over the edge of promise into the Promised Lands of our lives is because we don’t know what the promise looks like. We have no idea of what our promise looks like. All we know is what it isn’t.


Because they had no idea what the Promised Land looked like, God couldn’t allow the Israelites to cross over into it because, if the only vision they have is a negative, it is the negative that will come to define them. The negative will define them so that the Promised Land of freedom will be not a land of freedom at all but a mirror image of the land of slavery.


This is why the Israelites could not cross over into the Promised Land the first time. They had no vision of the Promise but only a reaction to the negative they were escaping. If we are driven only by a negative, the negative still owns us and will eventually win out in our lives.


The Israelites needed to learn that not being a slave is not the same thing as being free. In fact if you are too obsessed with not being a slave, the end result will almost surely be some state of un-freedom.


If we are focused on a negative without a vision of the positive, we are almost surely to one way or another recreate the negative in our lives. It is one of the things that keep us from crossing over into the Promised Land.


Here’s an example I run into from time to time. I usually hear it from a man or a woman preparing for a wedding or a commitment service. We are doing premarital work and someone will say: “All I really want in my marriage is for it to not be like my parents’ marriage.”


Uh, oh. When I hear something like that I know we’ve got some work to do. When someone enters into a marriage or a committed relationship and all they have is a negative they are reacting against, the negative will come to dominate the relationship.


Avoiding a bad marriage or a bad committed relationship does not equal marital intimacy. Matter of fact, those driven by not having a relationship like one they experienced growing up will find intimacy very difficult because protecting oneself from a negative is the enemy of intimacy. Trying to control a relationship in order to avoid a negative within the relationship makes mutuality and intimacy very, very difficult.


Another example – AA people tell me that not drinking is not the same thing as becoming sober. They call not drinking “being dry” but being dry does not necessarily make you sober. AA people say that you can stop drinking and still be an active alcoholic. The term they use for this is being a “dry drunk.” It isn’t enough to stop drinking; you’ve got to work the program in order to become whole. If you are merely reacting to a negative you want to escape rather than working toward a vision ahead of you, you can stop drinking but never get to the Promised Land.


Bill Kirk in his book the Desegregation of the Methodist Church reminds us that “desegregation” and “integration” are not the same thing. The Methodist Church has been trying to repent of our historic racial segregation for half-a-century. If you read our denominational constitution, it is very clear and strong about not discriminating. But I’ve noticed after reading Bill’s book that there is very little vision of what we want to become – just the negatives we want to avoid.


Part of the reason Dr. Martin Luther King’s message was so powerful was that he did not just talk about the negatives to be escaped but he talked even more about the vision of what he called a “beloved community.” He was not defined by Egypt but by the Promised Land.


We become what we hate. If a hate from the past – no matter how legitimate – is what drives us rather than something we love drawing us, we get stuck at the edge of promise.


The Israelites got stuck at the edge of promise because they knew every detail of the Egypt they hated but had no clue about the Promised Land. As long as they stayed fixated on the Egypt they were escaping rather than God’s Promise for them, if they were to cross over into the Promised Land they would turn it back into Egypt.  


* * *


So this is God’s solution in Numbers 13. God instructed the Israelites to send spies into the Promised Land to bring back a report of what the land is like.


God wants to create within the Israelites a longing and a love for the Promised Land of freedom rather than just a hate for the conditions of oppression they were escaping.


And I want to suggest that this is what we need to do as well in our lives. We need to be spies in our Promised Lands.


We need to go spy out our Promised Lands to get a taste of what our Promise looks and feels and smells and tastes like until it is a longing for our Promise that draws us there rather than a distain for our past.


We need to be spies in our own Promise.


In North Philadelphia I used to love to go to the revivals at Triumph Baptist Church. Every time someone got up into the lectern or pulpit, they would say “Victory” and the congregation would reply with one word, “Victory.”


My favorite revival preacher at Triumph was Johnny Rae Youngblood, a native of New Orleans who served a Baptist Church in Brooklyn for 30-some years. When he preached revivals at Triumph, Johnny Rae Youngblood used to say, “Fake it until you make it.”


Fake it until you make it. Be a spy in your own Promised Land.


This is very Methodist, actually. John Wesley, when he was a young man going through a crisis of faith, asked his Moravian friend Peter Boehler whether he should stop preaching because of his own lack of faith. Boehler answered: "Preach faith until you have it, then, because you have it, you will preach faith."


Fake it until you make it. Be a spy in your Promised Land.


We sometimes change because we feel and think ourselves into new behavior. We more often change because we behave ourselves into new ways of thinking and feeling.


This is actually what the church is supposed to be. We are supposed to be spies in the kingdom of heaven. We are supposed to be the place where people can come and get a foretaste, a glimpse, a vision of what God’s realm will be like so that we can claim it and it can claim us.


We can’t achieve what we can’t perceive.


One of my Lenten devotions this year is to spend some time every day reading and thinking about war and peace. It has occurred to me that one of our problems is that we can no longer envision world peace.


A century ago people were envisioning world peace. The League of Nations was born and then, when the League of Nations wasn’t working, the United Nations.


But the 20th century turned out to be bloody and mean, and we gave up by and large on the vision of world peace.


We can’t achieve what we can’t perceive. It is true in our own personal lives, in our communities, and it is true globally.


We need to be spies in our Promised Lands. We need to put ourselves where we can see, feel, taste and smell our own promise. Fake it until we make it.


The story of the Israelites makes this clear – the entire Bible makes this clear – God has great confidence in us. There is almost nothing that God doesn’t believe we can do. But we are scared and nervous – focused on the pains and defeats of the past rather than the promise of today and tomorrow.


But God is confident in us. So God tells us to just step a foot over into the Promised Land. If we can just get a vision of it, we can make it happen.


We are scared. We are nervous. But God is confident in us. Be a spy in your own Promised Land.