Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Importance of the Minority Report

August 1, 2010

Numbers 13:25-33

The Importance of the Minority Report

Democracy, Winston Churchill said, is the worst form of government, except of all the others that have been tried.

Living in a democracy, we are very familiar with the principle that the majority rules. The good news of democracy is that we have a vote; the bad news of democracy is that sometimes our vote goes to the losing side. But democracy also has a strong tradition of the dissenting minority. Even when we lose, it is our right to say what we believe and to praise or criticize the winning candidates. It’s a wonderful part of democracy that the minority opinion is allowed free expression. This is a time-honored tradition, for example, at the Supreme Court, where those who hold to the minority opinion can give a blistering dissent, and where time sometimes proves the minority opinion to be the correct opinion.

Did you know that Scripture has some minority reports as well? Today’s message is from one of those reports.

This morning’s text comes as Moses and the people are making their way through the wilderness to the Promised Land.

Moses and the Hebrew people were in their second year after being released from slavery in Egypt (9:1). It has not been an easy journey for them to this point. There were difficult challenges and the people failed to trust God. But after the months of difficult travel, the conflicts, and the complaining, they arrive at the edge of the Promised Land. This is the land promised generations before to Abraham and his descendants, and now his descendants are so close. It has been about four centuries since God first made his promise to Abraham, so imagine the anticipation in this moment. Centuries of waiting are about to come to an end.

Imagine being part of a people who had been waiting for centuries to see a great promise completed. Imagine that you are in that final generation, the generation that could finally enjoy the fulfillment of that great promise. Imagine being so close to the promise of this land – the Promised Land – that it was within sight. From your earliest memory you have heard the promises of this land. While a slave in Egypt the stories were told. When the lash of the Egyptians was felt across your back you reminded yourself of the promise that one day you and your people would be free of this slavery and would enjoy living in your own land. And now, you are part of the generation that finally arrives at the edge of this land. Wouldn’t you be anxious to go charging across the Jordan River and enter into the land?

Before they would enter Moses has everyone wait while he sends twelve spies into the land to check it out. He instructs the spies to determine if the people living in the land are strong or weak, if they are few or many, if the land is good or bad, whether or not the cities are heavily fortified, to see if the land is productive, and to bring back some of the fruit of the land. (13:18-20).

Notice also this is not the same story we usually think of when it comes to spies being sent into the land. That story comes later in the book of Joshua, when there are only two spies and they are given shelter by Rahab. The episode we’re studying this morning takes place thirty-eight years before the event recorded in Joshua.They could have entered into the land a generation earlier, but they did not.

It is not a great distance from Egypt to the Promised Land. The land of Israel as we know it today is only about the size of New Jersey and modern Egypt is about half the size of Alaska. This is still some distance to cover, but to travel even from southern Egypt to Jerusalem is only a distance of four or five hundred miles. Even with this huge group of people it was not a long journey for Moses to lead the people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. It is a journey that need not take forty years.

But the length of a journey is not just measured by physical distance. The length of this journey was much further and much longer than just the physical distance because of the failure of the people to place their trust in God. The story is more about a failure to trust and a failure to have faith. They were physically close, but spiritually they were a million miles away.

When the spies return from their forty day mission and give their report it is a good news/bad news report. They tell Moses and the people that it is indeed a land flowing with milk and honey and showed the fruit they brought back with them. The grapes they brought with them are so large they had to carry just one bunch on a pole between two of the men. The land is rich, productive – all the things they could hope for.

That’s the good news. The bad news then takes the rest of the report, and the news is really bad. The people in the land, they report, are very strong. The cities are very large and fortified and the people are as giants. There is no way, in the opinion of these spies, that the inhabitants of this land could be defeated. As attractive as is this Promised Land, there is simply no way they can move into the land and defeat these people.

But then comes the minority report. Caleb speaks up and says We should by all means go up and take possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it (13:30). Immediately those in the majority throw cold water on Caleb’s belief. We are not able to go up against the people, for they are too strong for us (13:31) say ten of the other spies. Upon hearing this, the people went into a state of despair, wept through the night, and then came against Moses and Aaron the next morning demanding to return to Egypt. Imagine, they want to go back to bondage and slavery. The people also decide they need to appoint a new leader, causing Moses and Aaron to fall on their faces in the presence of all the assembly of the congregation of the sons of Israel (14:5). It was a very volatile moment, and then Joshua and Caleb step forward, tearing their clothes in an act of grief. They remind the crowd that the land is an exceedingly good land (14:7) and reaffirm their belief that God will bring them successfully into the land. They plead with the people not to rebel against God, but the people responded with a demand that they be stoned to death.

And then in the midst of this terribly volatile moment the glory of the Lord appeared in the tent of meeting to all the sons of Israel (14:10).

God tells Moses that because of the failure of the people to believe that God will deliver them into the Promised Land they are banished to spend the next thirty-eight years in the wilderness. Those who failed to trust God must wander the wilderness until the entire generation is gone. Only two people out of this entire group will be allowed to enter into the Promised Land. Joshua and Caleb are the only two; not even Moses will be allowed to enter the land. Joshua and Caleb were the two of the twelve spies who believed they should enter the land – they were the authors of the minority report and the only two out of this huge group that leaves Egypt who will live to enter the Promised Land.

On the surface, it seems unfair, doesn’t it? But is it unfair? Is it a punishment that God levies against the people or is it an acknowledgement that this particular group of people will not have what it takes to enter and settle the Promised Land? I don’t think it is a punishment as much as it is a granting of the wish of the people. When it came down to it, after all the talk of wanting to be free of Egypt, after all the talk of trusting and following God, they find it was just that – talk. They weighed what was begin asked of them with what they needed to give and then made their decision.

There are some very powerful lessons in this story. One is that not all caution is really caution and not all recklessness is really recklessness. Sometimes fear comes under the guise of caution. I believe in the importance of being cautious. I believe it is important to weight one’s options and to count the costs involved in a decision. But I am also aware of the truth that caution can become something behind which we hide because we are really afraid. Sometimes in churches we proclaim caution when we are really afraid to do what faith calls us to do. We may claim it is reckless to push ahead, but not all that appears reckless is really reckless. Sometimes we claim something is reckless because it allows us to remain safe.

A second lesson is that of the danger of group thinking. Group thinking happens when we are intimidated by a group of people into remaining quiet or going against what is right because of our fear of the group. Some years ago my father was called to a meeting of the elders of my home church. The purpose of the meeting was a highly volatile matter and he traveled to the meeting with a neighbor. On the way the discussed how they would vote and were in agreement to vote against what they thought to be a very harmful motion. When the vote taken the other elder went along with the group and changed his vote. When my dad later asked him why he said he didn’t want to vote that way, but he was afraid to go against the rest of the group.

Group thinking can escalate very quickly, and it sweeps everyone along with it. Joshua and Caleb remained firm in their belief that the people should cross the Jordan and enter the Promised Land, even though they were met with great opposition.

This leads to the next lesson – great leadership. Upon the death of Moses, Joshua became the leader of the people. Joshua proved his leadership potential the day he stood with Caleb against this angry group of people who called for their stoning. People need good leaders. Churches need good leaders.

If you read through the church history of almost any congregation you will find examples of leadership. If you walk out of this room and look at the articles from the history of this congregation you will find examples of great leadership.

As we press on to the future God lays before us, there may be voices of fear that masquerade as caution, and there may be a huge majority of people who are skeptical of an opportunity. And that’s when we need a minority report, and that’s when we must listen to the minority report.

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