February 22, 2014 - Numbers 14:39-45
"Presumption" - Andrew Scott, Pastor (printable version)
If there’s anything that the internet has taught us, it’s that the four most dangerous words in the English language are, “dude, hold my beer.” Inevitably, what follows is bound to be… painful. And stupid. YouTube is full of it. Not that stupid bravado is a product of the digital age. My all-time favorite “last words” were uttered in 1864 by Union General John Sedgwick on the battlefield at Spotsylvania Courthouse, Va. When a junior officer warned him to get under cover, Sedgwick mocked him for cowardice and said, “they couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist…” If I asked you to name that sin, you’d probably say “stupidity.” Which is true, in the general sense. But there’s actually a word for that peculiar blend of stupidity and arrogance and pride and even more stupidity that leads people to peer off the edge of the roof at a swimming pool thirty feet below and twenty feet away, and think, “yeah, I can make it.” It’s presumption. Presumption is the real problem here at the end of Numbers 14, in this story of a failed invasion. To understand why, you have to remember the background: the nation of Israel had been saved, delivered from 400 years of slavery in Egypt, by the power of God. They had been led out of Egypt, across the Red Sea, and through the wilderness by a pillar of cloud during the day, and fire at night. God had promised to bring them into the land of Canaan, the land that had been given to their ancestor Abraham centuries earlier. Yes, there were people there, but they had been judged by God for their sins, and he told the Israelites that he would drive the Canaanites out before them. When they finally got to the border of the promised land, though, the Israelites had second thoughts. They sent twelve spies into the land to scope it out, to see if it was all it was cracked up to be. To see if it was worth the risk. The spies came back and said, yes, it’s a fertile land, with good rivers and forests and meadows, a great place to live – except that it’s occupied. We talked about this last week: when they gave their report to Moses, the spies stuck to the facts. The land is good, the cities are strong, and the people are numerous and large. But when they reported to the people – all of the spies except for Joshua and Caleb – they said that the land “devours its inhabitants” (13:32) and is completely inhabited by giants. So the people wept, and moaned, and demanded to return to slavery in Egypt. Mind you, this was about the nine hundred and forty-second time they had griped this way, so the Lord laid down his judgment: None of the Israelites over the age of 20 would enter the promised land. The people needed to learn obedience, and trust, and faithfulness, and the Lord, through Moses, told them that they were going to learn it over the next 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. We find out later that not even Moses would enter the promised land. There was a time of training necessary. At which point the Israelites did the same thing any nine-year-old does, in the face of punishment. They claimed to have learned their lesson, promised that they’d be much better in the future, and to prove how much they had learned, they decided to launch an invasion of Canaan right then and there: “We will go up to the place that the Lord has promised, for we have sinned,” they said. In other words, they were the equivalent of the kid who despite being told to put on his pants and shoes and get in the car six times, refused, only to be told that fine, we’re not going anywhere then. At which point he throws on pants and stomps out to the car by himself… and goes nowhere. Because dad actually meant it. Moses warned them: “Why then are you now transgressing the command of the Lord, when that will not succeed? Do not go up, for the Lord is not among you…” (Num. 14:41-2) So… I’ll leave it to you, scholars, as you are, of human nature: what did the Israelites do? Of course. They went anyway. Without that stick-in-the-mud Moses. Without Aaron, and that weird box he always carried around (a.k.a., the Ark of the Covenant). Aaaaaand… they got thumped. Horribly. Predictably. Etc., etc., etc. You see, for all their protestations, they hadn’t learned. They hadn’t learned anything. Every problem they had gotten into, up to this point, was because of their failure a.) to listen to God, and b.) to obey him. So what did they do here? They ignored God’s judgment that they were to remain in the wilderness for forty more years, and that none of them over the age of twenty would enter the promised land; and they went on anyway, in spite of it. When I put it like that, it sounds almost unpardonably obvious, and, well, dumb. And it was. But the reasoning they used to get there was really similar to some of the reasoning we use, and we should be aware of it.
First and foremost, they went against the Word of God. Yes, God had promised them the land of Canaan. But he had also just decreed that they wouldn’t see it for a generation. So what did they do? They said, “here we are, we will go up to the place that the Lord has promised.” That sounded good and pious. But all the best deception does. It’s not hard to trot out godly-sounding justifications for ungodliness. You hear it all the time – for example, and this isn’t in any way the most egregious, but maybe the most common, in defense of sex outside monogamous, heterosexual marriage: “Doesn’t God want us to love one another? Hasn’t he called us to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ? Isn’t it true that perfect love casts out all fear? Judge not lest you be judged?” Of course. But it’s also true that the Word of God is unanimously, and unambiguously, against sexual unions outside the lifelong bond of marriage between a husband and a wife. The unmarried, twenty-year-old me wished that weren’t true, but it is. And all the godly sounding talk in the world isn’t going to make it otherwise. Second, they presumed on the Lord’s past mercies. “We’re here! We got this far! Let’s go!” Our version is to say, “hey, the Lord hasn’t smote me yet, so I can just go on sinning. I mean, we believe in grace, right?” Of course we do. At least, I do, and I hope you do. I am, by nature, a worthless sinner. By nature, I can do nothing to please God, or earn his love. And yet he loved me, in spite of myself. He chose me, before the foundation of the world (so it says in Ephesians 1:4) to call me his own. He gave me his Son, who died on the cross in my place, that I might live forever with him. He called me to himself. He gave me a heart of flesh in place of my old, calloused heart of stone, to see the beauty of Christ, to trust in him, and not in myself. All of it was a gift. Every atom, every moment. And yet that can’t be an excuse to sin. “What shall we say, then?” asks Paul in Romans 6:1. “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” Along the same lines, Hebrews 10:26-7 warns that “if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment.” Yes, God found you a sinner. Yes, he loved you a sinner. But he loved you far, far too much to leave you the way he found you. You can’t claim his grace as an excuse for sin. Third, their presumption extended to a false confession of sin: “We will go up to the place that the Lord has promised, for we have sinned.” (v.40) Confession is great. I highly recommend it; Scripture commands it, but it does us no good to confess our sins with the intention of immediately doing the same thing again. I’ve had men walk up to me and confess, “I’ll be honest, pastor, I’ve been drinking.” Trust me, if you have to tell me, I already know. But confession without submission to the will of God is empty and meaningless. No amount of confession was going to change the fact that God had told the Israelites that only their children would possess the land of Canaan. And no amount of confession is going to change the fact that what God looks for in us is repentance, not just honesty. And what did the Israelites experience? Defeat. Disaster, really. Disgrace. Death. “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall,” it says in Proverbs 16:18. Which, I assume, we want to avoid. But how? How do we avoid falling into the old trap of stupid, sinful presumption? How do we avoid the spiritual equivalent of “hey, watch this!” First, we want to watch out for godless efforts. That is, you’re not going to succeed in Christ’s work without the power and the presence of the Holy Spirit, and without the authority of God’s word. Period. It doesn’t matter how wonderful your plans are. Second, don’t rely on formalism – in other words, don’t say to yourself, “hey, I said the sinner’s prayer when I was 11,” or “I’ve gone to church every Sunday for 34 years.” If you really want the assurance of your salvation, ask “do I love Christ? Do I trust him, and him alone? Do I trust him enough to listen to him, to hate my sin, and to strive for obedience?” And finally, don’t fall prey to the temptation of a last-minute repentance. Is it true that Christ receives the worker hired at the last hour, the same as he does the first? Yes. But don’t think you’re going to glide through life doing your own thing and finally, after the judgment has been pronounced, repent and make your peace with God. It doesn’t work that way. He doesn’t want you at the end. If you are in fact one of his own, he wants you right now. Without excuses. Without procrastination. The Israelites presumed on God’s goodness in the wilderness, and paid for it. God prevent us from making the same mistake. Amen.