Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister




On the Edge of Promise: Giants and Grasshoppers

Sunday, March 4, 2007



Numbers 13: 21-33

Rev. Dean Snyder


What keeps us stuck on the edge of promise? What keeps us going round in circles in the wilderness instead of crossing the Jordan into the promised lands of our lives?


I am fascinated by the story of the journey of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. I am especially fascinated by the 40 years they spent in between Egypt and the Promised Land.


I am fascinated by this story because I think it is more than the story of the Israelites in the Bible. I think it is the story of every freedom movement, the story of every society being born, the story of every congregation in mission, and – most of all – it is my story and it is your story.


I would like us to spend this Lent thinking about what kept the Israelites stuck at the edge of promise, and what they finally had to do to make it across the Jordan River into the Promised Land.


Last Sunday and this Sunday we are looking at Numbers 13. Numbers 13 takes place about two years after the Israelites have escaped slavery in Egypt. It is when God first plans to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land.


But the Israelites were not ready and because they weren’t ready, they stayed stuck in the wilderness another 38 years.


Here’s what happens in Numbers 13.


God wants to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land but they have no vision of the Promised Land. No idea of what it might be like. They don’t know if the land is rich or poor, whether the people who live there are weak or strong, they don’t even know whether there are trees there.


The Israelites are driven only by the bitter memory of the negative past which they are trying to escape and have no vision of the promise they are to become.


If we are fixated on a negative past that we are running away from, with no vision of a positive promise which draws us, the pain of the past will continue to shape us and hold us in its grip. We will be merely reactionary and we will not be able to enter our promised land.


This is why movements, and societies, and congregations, and you and I need healing from the pain of our pasts in order to claim our promise. We need analysis and therapy and healing and perspective, so that we can stop being shaped by pain and begin to live into the positive vision of our Promise.


So, in Numbers 13, God has the Israelites send spies into the Promised Land to see how good and rich the land of freedom is.


We need to be spies in our own Promised Lands. Let me say for our Pre-Cana class that this is what dating is – being a spy in the Promised Land of love…testing out your promise for intimacy and caring and partnership. You’ve been spies in the Promised Land of love and now you are getting ready to settle down there.


Sometimes job interviews we go on or even jobs we take are spy trips into possible vocational Promised Lands.


Freedom movements experiment with new ways of being in the political and social world.


The church’s job is to be spies in the Promised Land of God’s kingdom. We are to be the community who try to live together in the world as though God’s kingdom were already fully here.


In Numbers 13 God has the Israelites send spies into the Promised Land.


The spies are amazed. The Promised Land of freedom is wonderful … grapes so large that it takes two people just to carry one cluster … pomegranates the size of a man’s head and figs the size of fists … milk and honey flowing in the streets.


The Promised Land of freedom is a paradise…except for one problem. The people who live there seem to the Israelite spies to be giants. In comparison to the giants occupying the land, the Israelite spies feel like grasshoppers next to them.


It is this perception that keeps the Israelites out of the Promised Land and roaming in the wilderness on the edge of promise for 38 more years.


Here’s what happened to the Israelite spies: They got a vision of the Promised Land, they got a sense of the Promised Land, but they couldn’t see themselves in it. They couldn’t imagine that they belonged in their own Promised Land.


They thought it was a Promised Land for somebody else…for giants who really deserved it.


It can happen to us too. Our Promised Land is a wonderful place but it doesn’t seem to belong to us…it belongs to giants…and we aren’t giants, we are grasshoppers. We really aren’t up to a Promised Land of love or freedom or peace.


So the Israelite spies, except for Caleb, bring back a negative report, saying that there are giants in the land and that there is no place for us Israelites there. We aren’t big enough. We aren’t smart enough. We aren’t good enough.  


It is all perception, of course. The Israelites were as big and as smart and as good as anybody. They just couldn’t perceive it. They were scared. So instead of claiming their Promised Land, they gave away their power.


This is what happens when we are scared to enter our Promised Lands. We give away our power to become our promise.


Think how dependent we become on the approval of others. Needing the approval of others is a way of giving away our power and never claiming our promise.


If we let ourselves feel like grasshoppers in the midst of giants, we come to need the approval of others. We need their praise and we are destroyed by their criticism. We turn others into giants and give them power over our lives.  


Who do we give power to? Why? Do we still need our parent’s approval? Are we dependent upon our partner’s approval? Our supervisor’s approval? Our teacher’s approval? Who do we give our power to?


It commonly happens, I think, with freedom movements that those seeking their freedom begin the movement still needing the approval of the people whom they are trying to become free from.


I think a pivotal turning point in the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King was the Birmingham campaign. Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is to me perhaps his most powerful writing.[i]


Eight liberal clergymen, including two Methodist bishops, had issued a public statement criticizing Dr. King’s Birmingham campaign as “unwise and untimely.”[ii] Their statement was a page long.


Dr. King’s response was 12 pages long. He usually did not respond to criticism, but this criticism got to him and made him articulate and powerful.


Dr. King had gotten his theology degrees at Crozer, a white liberal Baptist Seminary and Boston University, a white liberal Methodist seminary.


I think until Birmingham there was a part of him that needed the approval of white liberals – they were his giants – but he freed himself from that in the Birmingham jail.

He wrote in his letter: “I must make [an] honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers.…I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate [he means liberal]. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another [person’s] freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

It was King’s declaration of independence from white liberals – his giants.

It did not mean he would not work with white liberals, it did not mean he wouldn’t accept their affirmation or consider their criticisms. It did mean that he would no longer need their approval.

The reason this is important is because a grasshopper and a giant can’t really have an authentic relationship. We cannot really be in community with the people we turn into giants. Or the people we turn into grasshoppers.

The only real giant in our lives is God. God is the only one whose approval we really need. And the biblical story says that God stopped being a giant and took on the form of humanity who dwelt among us so that, instead of being a giant, God might become our friend.

This is what we experience in this Holy Communion. God sits at table with us and eats with us and drinks with us. And we eat and drink with one another. No giants. No grasshoppers. But a Promised Land in which we are all valued, all included, all loved.

We invite you to this table today…this Promised Land.  Step over your River Jordan. You are a friend of God. Because God has called us friends, we are neither giants nor grasshoppers but friends to one another and to all.