Sermon given by Barbara Bell
Sermon for Parashah Sh’lach L’cha June 5th 2021
In today’s Parashah, the Hebrews are arguing ferociously because they do not want to go into Canaan. They will not go.
The account provides us with insight into the nature of fear and how it effects crowds but were the Hebrews refusing to enter the Promised Land just because they were afraid? Why were they rebelling?
We know the story.
In Egypt, Pharaoh exerted absolute power over the Hebrews, compelling them with fearful threats to behave in ways that were contrary to their own values and welfare. They could not bear their servitude any longer and cried out for rescue. God responded in ways they could never have imagined – or ever requested. Following plagues, parting seas, mass drownings; when they stood trembling at Sinai, in the thunder and lightning, as the mountain shook and covered in fire and smoke, were they affirming allegiance to this Yahweh-god freely, out of love - or fear? Or did they see Him as another type of power-wielding-Pharaoh-god? How terrified and traumatised were they by the cosmic clash of the gods they had been physically embroiled in?
Power and authority are very different and are better not muddled. Power can be terrifying when exercised without mercy, but authority exercised in love is liberating. As yet, our Hebrews may not have known the difference between the two types of masters.
Authority has been described by the clinical psychologist, Dr Peterson as, ‘…a competence that is spontaneously recognised and appreciated by others, and generally followed willingly, with a certain relief, and with the sense that justice is being served.’
Of course, authority might also have some power but when it’s genuine, it’s used with measured, reasonable restraint for the good of those it serves. So, in spite of God’s ultimate authority as Creator, He restrains His power for our benefit.
With hindsight, we know this, but at this point our Hebrew ancestors could not.
Consider this philosophical dilemma.
In front of you are two contracts, one of which you must sign. They represent a choice between your two possible futures. One future might be difficult with no guarantees that you will fulfil your dreams. In the other, you will achieve above and beyond your wildest hopes and you are guaranteed to be permanently happy. However, the first future is in the real world, the second would be lived entirely in the Experience Machine, in a virtual reality setting. In the Experience Machine, all that happens will be designed to make you happy and fulfilled and you will not know that you are not in the real world, nor that you are not in control of meeting your own needs. Once in the Machine, your life is guaranteed to be wonderful.
Which life contract would you sign?
I suspect that most of us would choose the first option, to live in our own reduced reality because we want our future to be a product of our own will and efforts. We like to be in control. We call that freedom.
So, the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey, handed over as a form of undeserved favour, once they enter, may not have been that appealing. It might almost seem like a virtual reality. Or another type of servitude.
After all, the goal had been achieved. They were free from slavery. Job done. They had a degree of safety and certainty as shepherds in the wilderness. Why risk it?
Harold Kushner says, ‘Future shock is the shattering stress induced in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time.’ Change can be frightening because it ‘threatens to render us irrelevant, no longer competent, no longer able to speak with authority and pass on our wisdom to others.’ He explains how children need to have mature ethical behaviour modelled for them, which takes both time and a close community.
So, we might agree with Maimonides, who said that God knew that the Hebrews would naturally need time for such great changes in identity and lifestyle. God was not surprised or angry. The wilderness was not a punishment but an integral part of the redemption process. Redemption needs time.
God asks Moses a question which reveals the heart of the problem. ‘How long will this people spurn Me, and how long will they have no faith in Me despite all the signs that I have performed in their midst?’
It seems that God wants to be believed - wants to be trusted. They are essential for us - and He knows they take time.
He is, as He said at the start of the redemption project, the Father to Israel, His first-born son. He has shown His authority as the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth, now how long will it take to earn the Hebrews trust?
Moses thinks it might take 3 or 4 generations. They are a complaining bunch who need a lot of forgiveness. God has more faith in them – it’ll take just 40 years.
40 years later they’re back. This time just two men spy out Canaan. There, Rahab tells them how the Canaanites had heard about the LORD’s miracles and believed that He was giving Canaan to them. She said, ‘our hearts sank and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.’
Clearly, the Hebrews had changed in the wilderness. They had become a powerful witness to God’s glory.
What happened to cause this great change?
The first short happening is recorded in our parashah and involves a man who broke the Sabbath. Failure to enter Canaan had made the community remorseful and they now seem willing to listen to the Lord’s advice concerning how they should react to this miscreant. Together, they follow His instructions and instigate the law’s pattern as a non-negotiable rhythm for their corporate life throughout the year; as a type of skeleton in time.
Then Korah’s rebellion illustrates the difference between power and authority. Nietzsche observed that resentment was the essential characteristic of the slave morality. This type of resentment fuels Korah’s desire for power. Moses responds by misusing power with disastrous results. Eventually, they learn about authority with a gentle miracle - Aaron’s rod miraculously buds and fruits overnight. Unlike other nations, Israel’s leaders are to be humble, unselfish, peace loving, merciful. They must see themselves as God’s servant, shouldering responsibility for the sake of their community, even standing between their community and death. Complaints against such leadership are really a challenge to God’s authority. The Hebrews begin to learn to argue for the sake of heaven. The skeleton has a thinking head.
Then flesh is put on the nation’s bones. The children learned that their community is different from other nations. They collected their daily food, provided for them from heaven. Rocks gave forth torrents of water, enough for them and their cattle. Their clothes and shoes never wore out. By day, they were protected from the scorching heat by a cloud, by night from the freezing cold, by fire. Faithfully, day after day, night after night, year after year, they were protected and provided for and experienced God’s fatherhood right in the middle of their community. Someone once said that if we truly want to hand on our legacy to our children, we must teach them to love it. This was happening in the desert. They were learning to believe. They were learning to trust.
Over the years, with attention to detail, God was modelling His son’s ethical features. Until, finally, God’s first-born-son became mature, strong and determined enough to fight. They were trained for battle and ready to earn the Promised land for themselves. They reflected their Father’s image.
So, we might say that in those years in the wilderness, the Hebrews were redeemed from the slave morality to become the loving son of a Faithful Father who recognised and appreciated God’s authority and His competence and willingly, with a certain relief, understood that justice was being served. They were deserving of their future reality in the Promised Land, which had become a prize worthy of the risk.
Redemption takes time.
So, this week, as we go into our week, may we take the time to ponder God’s question and make it personal. And regardless of our age or gender, may we be the son that chooses to believe and trust our Father-God. May we turn our wildernesses into opportunities for maturity. And may we work out our own redemption with God who is at work in us.