Promises, Promises: Whoever Believes
Lena Paahlsson’s wedding ring was designed especially for her. It was a white-gold band, set with seven small diamonds, and, as most wedding rings are, full of sentimental value in addition to being very pretty.
Paahlsson lost her ring, though, in 1995, one day when she and her daughters were doing some Christmas baking in the kitchen. It seems she took the ring off her hand and put it somewhere on the work surface, but it disappeared. No matter how hard she looked, she couldn’t find the ring. She and her family did everything they could think of—even pulled up flooring—to try to find it. No luck.
It was not until 16 years later when Mrs. Paahlsson was pulling up carrots in her garden that she noticed a carrot growing with the gold band fastened tightly around it. You guessed it. It was her wedding ring.
She doesn’t know exactly what happened, but she thinks maybe the ring fell into a sink back in 1995 and was lost in vegetable peelings that were turned into compost or fed to their sheep. When asked if she was surprised to find the ring, Paahlsson said: “I had given up hope,”
Stories like these make the news because all of us know what it’s like to wait and wait and hope and wait some more, then finally surrender hope. We do it all the time. And so it was with the Israelites. While they’d believed God’s promise and followed Yahweh out of Egypt, forty years had passed—forty years—and they had given up hope. Despite the evidence of God’s provision all around them, they were tired and they didn’t believe anymore that the promise would come.
Today we read another covenant story, another chapter in the long tale of the relationship between God and the Israelites. This story of the covenant between God and God’s people comes after times when they were desperately thirsty, lost in the desert and sure they would die, only to be saved by God’s provision of water…and that the time that they got tired of waiting for God and pooled their jewelry to manufacture a golden calf, a new god for themselves. Remember those?
Covenant, the making and keeping of promises, is predicated upon, of course, relationship—that mutual sharing of life and trust with another, the belief, even in times of discouragement and pain, that a promise has been made and that promise would be kept, and the practice of living believing in the promise even when all evidence points to the contrary. God was in covenant with the Israelite people. They had made promises to each other. And in today’s passage they are, once again, living through a testing of those promises.
I often say that it’s tricky for us to read the Bible as we do—one passage here, one passage there, all carefully selected and organized according to theme. When we do that, it’s like sitting in a little café, out on the sidewalk, listening to someone talk on a telephone. By listening to the conversation we certainly can get some sense of what’s going on. However, we can never get the whole picture, the full details, if we only hear part of the conversation.
And so it is with reading the Bible—particularly the passages we’ve been reading lately, the Hebrew text telling of God’s relationship with the people, of all the dramatic incidents that made up their life together. One commentator calls it the story ofIsrael’s long, hazardous journey to understand God. Each week as we hear parts of the story, little pieces of the whole, we have some sense of what’s going on but not the whole picture—not by a long shot. And that’s certainly true of today’s story. You recall what happened.
It seems the people are headed back toward theRed Seain this part of the story. The text says they had grown impatient with Moses and angry at God—again. They complained by asking why God had taken them out of Egypt in the first place…just so they could die out in the desert—they said all that, again. For there was no food and no water, they complained, and, they said, “We detest this miserable food!”
Do they sound like unhappy children to you? Me, too. The Israelites have been complaining bitterly for the past few weeks in every narrative we’ve read. It seems that getting used to desert living was proving hard for them, we might think…except for the fact that when we read this passage out of context we are not getting the full picture of what’s going on.
All the worry about food and sweet drinking water, all the concerns over the rule of law and the order of their society, their uncertainty about where to go and how to worship God…well, that was kind of understandable last week, when we were reading out of the book of Exodus about the state of the Israelite people in the months immediately following their dramatic rescue from Egypt.
But if you read about today’s incidence of complaint, you might not immediately realize that the people are complaining bitterly about God and Moses, but now almost 40 years have passed. When we read today’s passage in the context in which it was written—after years of waiting for the promise—we can see that the Israelites were still having trouble faithfully following Yahweh. They’d had trouble at the beginning of their journey, but it seems the hard lessons of life as followers of Yahweh had yet to sink into their hard heads…either that, or they were tired, so tired, of waiting for the promise to come.
The book of Numbers comes fourth in the Bible, three books behind Genesis and the story of God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah, and two books behind Exodus, the story of the Israelites’ delivery fromEgypt. Scholars agree that Numbers has two distinct sections, and these sections are divided by the reports of two censuses of the Hebrew people. The first census is in chapter one of Numbers, where everybody in the current band of Israelites was named and counted. The second census, in chapter 26, names the generation that will be poised on the edge ofCanaanwhen the book reaches its end. The names are different. It took a long, long time, many, many years of wandering and waiting and hoping for the promise, the people still hadn’t learned that God was with them in the middle of their waiting, that God was perpetually inviting them to believe…to believe that the promise was on its way.
Those of you who have done some tubing or rafting in the past will know that the whole experience is an exercise in trust. You get dropped off at the edge of the river; you leave behind everything you brought with you; you enter the water with only the inner tube to support you. And there you are, several miles up river from the point at which your guides have promised to pick you up, floating in the cold darkness of a powerful body of water. You lean back on your inner tube and you float, trusting the integrity of the tube, the buoyancy of the water, and the word of your guide. And with those three assurances you set out to float down the river.
Living in covenant with God is filled with waiting but it’s also filled with trusting like that sometimes—during the waiting. We don’t always see the promise laid out in front of us, neatly packaged and on a mutually agreeable timeframe. No, instead, living in covenant with eternal God means often being tempted to give healing and hope up for lost. And, on the days that you don’t throw in the towel altogether, you can manage somehow to lean back in a trust that defies logic, to rest with the tenacious assurance that God will not leave, that the covenant promise will come to be.
Forty years had passed. Forty years since they’d set out with a certain degree of terror and uncertainty, toward the incomprehensible situation they faced, straight through the middle of the fear that surrounded them, with nothing to hang onto, nothing to buoy them in the middle of the dessert, nothing to keep them going except the promise—God’s promise that he would be their God, that they would have what they needed to survive, that God would create a future for their people.
But it was taking so long. Too long. They’d leaned into the promise that God had made them when they were slaves inEgypt; they’d hung on for dear life through all sorts of situations. But they got tired. The promise wasn’t coming to be fast enough. They were getting worried and sometimes they didn’t believe anymore.
It was too hard to believe when what they’d envisioned was not coming to be, when life was hard and hope was absent, and signs of God’s presence were coming too few and too far between for anybody’s preference. They gave up hope. They forgot to believe. In the middle of the long, long journey they questioned their initial belief that God would show up, that God would hold them safe and cared for, that God would come through on God’s promise to save them.
But he did. Again. Forty years and countless experiences later, God showed up again to heal them. They were in desperate circumstances yet again, unsure of the promise of God altogether, doubting their own logic and wondering when, if ever, they would see the promise come to be. And God showed up.
It was shortly after today’s Hebrew text that the Israelites made their way into Canaan, into the Promised Land, home. For so many years they had wandered the desert, and in those years of darkness, misdirection, and pain, they had begun to see only the difficult circumstances that surrounded them. They did not remember the promise. They forgot they were living in covenant. They did not have the courage to believe.
And who can blame them? We know a little of what they must have been feeling.
None of us has been delivered from slavery, but all of us have been delivered from something.
None of us has ever been lost in the desert for forty years, but all of us have waited for a promise to come to fruition.
And none of us has ever been named a special nation chosen by God, but all of us have been invited into covenant with God through Jesus Christ.
Our challenge today is to consider, in the face of all of this, whether we will believe that the promise will come to be.
Thousands of years after the Hebrews had these problems with snakes, Jesus Christ came to earth. He talked about life lived in relationship with God. He taught about God’s relentless concern for our salvation. He told stories about God as a great shepherd who cared tenderly for his flock. He said that God the shepherd would carefully count all of his sheep and, upon finding one was missing, he would go out and search and search and search until he found that one lost sheep. And when he did, he would hoist it up on his shoulders and carry it home.
Ever wonder how it felt to be the sheep? Out there in the cold, all alone, separated from the rest of your flock, alert to any and every noise that broke the night air. All alone, vulnerable, in danger…wondering where the shepherd was, if the shepherd would ever come to save you. It must have felt something like the life of a Hebrew slave inEgyptwho gave up everything to follow this god Yahweh through harrowing circumstances in the hope of finding a way home. The longer that precarious insecurity remained, the harder it was to believe that the promise was true…that God would, in fact, lead them home. It was so hard to believe.
Today the story of the Hebrews and the Gospel of John remind us that it is in just these most desperate circumstances that God does, finally, show up. The God of the covenant will not leave us, no matter how bleak our circumstances. We are not left on our own, and we are not left to our own devices. God will save us, if only we believe: the promise is on its way.