The Promised Land (A Sermon)

This sermon was preached to the virtually gathered congregation of Paris Presbyterian Church on June 14, 2020, on the fourteenth week of online worship due to the COVID-19 virus.

Deuteronomy 1:19–33

Matthew 9:38–10:1, 5–20

This year has taken us all on a journey none of us were prepared for, a road that many of us would have rather not traveled, even considering the circumstances. We have sought, now for our fourteenth week since the beginning of the Coronavirus Pandemic, a return to normalcy, only to be stuck in a wilderness of difficulty and confusion.

Following the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, we have been forced to respond to another pandemic which we would have rather ignored: the pandemic caused by the virus of racism, a virus that to some degree hides within or affects each of us.

Out in the wilderness of unrest, confrontation, and continued social distancing, our feelings of dis-ease are only growing the longer we remain in this desert place.

Lest we imagine that we are living in truly unprecedented times, canoeing without so much as a paddle through chaotic waters, we have gathered once again as a virtual community to turn to the words of Scripture. Every time we do so, we recognize how much our lives connect with the story God has been telling since the beginning of time. 

We have been on a journey from “normal,” through various waystations in the wilderness such as beginning of the stay-at-home order and killing of George Floyd to some sort of “new normal” off in the distance.

When we read the Old Testament, we hear of a similar movement from the normalcy of slavery in Egypt, through various challenges and temptations in the desert, to the Promised Land off in the distance.

When we read the New Testament, again, there is the old normal of sin and death, the ministry of Jesus who like Moses leads the crowd through the wilderness, and a resurrection that gives birth to a new land of promise.

The central question in each of these movements through the wilderness is this: will the people turn back to the old normal (the virus of sin and death) or will they dream of milk and honey and follow Moses, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit to that new place that is just on the other side of the mountaintop.

Will the Israelites turn back and return to slavery in Egypt?

Will the Disciples turn back and pick up their fishing nets and swords?

Will we turn back to the comfort of the past and do our best to forget this wilderness ever happened at all?


When we pick up the story of the Israelites journey through the wilderness in the story from Numbers 13, which is retold for us in Deuteronomy 1:19, the trip is not yet the “wilderness wandering” to which we normally refer.

To be sure, the route out of Egypt for the past year and a half (or so) has had its fair share of challenges. The only food has been manna and quail, the former called manna specifically because it is unrecognizable as food at all. Even water has been difficult to come by. Time and time again, the people have complained. At this point, their complaints have become so constant that they are for Moses the background noise of his ministry—his ears do their best to tune them out.

The exodus from Egypt through the wilderness has had its fair share of blessings too. There is food to eat and water to drink, thanks to the Lord who provides. And God has appeared to Moses and given the people of God an identity through the expectations of the Ten Commandments.

At this point, the journey to the Promised Land may have seemed like it was taking forever, but it wasn’t. What is a couple of years of walking for a people that had been enslaved for hundreds? 

Except there’s that tiny little detail in Deuteronomy 1:2 that the trip from Horeb, the Mountain of God, to Kadesh-barnea, the doorstep of the promised land, should take only 11 days.

Let’s just say the Israelites didn’t take the most direct route.

Even so, they’re now so close to the land of promise that they can taste it. Numbers 13:20 tells us they got to Kadesh-barnea during the season of the first ripe grapes. Imagine what a sweet, juicy grape would taste like after a few years in the desert eating only manna and quail.

Fortunately, their watering mouths don’t distract them from the importance of military strategy. They come up with a plan to send twelve men, one of the best from each of the twelve tribes, to scout out the Promised Land to see if God held up his end of the bargain; to ensure it was everything they had been promised.

It’s a wonder Hollywood hasn’t made a spy thriller based on this passage. The feelings of suspense and anticipation are at least as great in this story as in the attempt by Rebel forces to steal the Death Star plans from Scarif in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

The spies successfully infiltrate enemy territory and make it back to Moses with the intelligence they were sent to gather. And here’s the report:

“We came to the land to which you sent us; it flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit!”

Wait for it.

But Moses, the people who live in the land are strong, and the towns are very large, and besides, we saw giants there. We are small and weak like grasshoppers—we could never defeat them.”

Now they’re just making stuff up. Giants? Really?

They didn’t know and believe, as I was taught when I was growing up through Veggie Tales, that “God is bigger than the bogeyman. He’s bigger than Godzilla, or the monsters on TV. He’s watching out for you and me.”

Only Joshua and Caleb dissent from the majority report. Only two out of the twelve have faith that the Lord God will bring them into the land of promise. All twelve dream of the milk and honey the land would provide, but only two believe God can make that dream a reality. There are just too many giants standing in the way.

This scene, at the doormat of the Promised Land, just a couple years out of Egypt, sets off a chain of devastating events. The Israelites are cursed to wander for 40 years. Moses curses at the people and strikes the rock out of anger. Aaron dies. Israelites die from snakes and a pandemic. And Moses dies on the mountaintop overlooking the Promised Land, never to enter it. 

The journey that was supposed to take eleven days will now take 40 years because of a lack of faith, hope, trust, and conviction that God will do what God promises.


In our reading from Matthew’s gospel, we find ourselves in a similar scene. Compare Matthew 10 and the sending of the twelve disciples with Numbers 13 and the sending of the twelve spies and you’ll find many structural similarities.

More than the structure of the story, Jesus is clearly leading a New Exodus out of slavery to sin and death and into God’s Kingdom. As Jesus travels among the cities and villages of Judea, a political wilderness under Roman occupation, crowds follow him, desperate to leave their bondage to sickness, sin, and death behind. They’ve heard that he can heal, that he has the answers to the problems of their society. They are wandering around a wilderness like “sheep without a shepherd” year after year, ruler after ruler with no true “leader” among them.

So, what does Jesus do? He sends his leadership, those who have been hand-picked from the twelve tribes of Israel, out as ambassadors throughout the promised land of Israel.

Jesus sends them out among the crowds demanding a better government, into the hospitals where people are sick, into homes where people are hiding in sin, and he gives them a message of hope:

“The Kingdom of Heaven, the real Promised Land, has come near!”

These emissaries of the Kingdom are to take nothing with them except the peace of Jesus as they go to house after house, bringing the Good News.

Like the spies sent into Canaan in the Old Testament, these disciples are engaging in a highly risky activity. They could find themselves in a difficult situation with the Roman occupying forces as they told of a New Kingdom. They could be chased away by those who wanted to maintain the status quo. They were the furthest thing from self-reliant, depending on the hospitality of others for food and lodging.

Jesus tells them, “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to the courts and flog you in their places of worship, and you will be made an example in the court of public opinion. You will be hated by all because of my name, but the one who endures to the end will be saved.”

All of this difficulty in the place between how things were and how things will be is necessary so that they actually get somewhere! Sure, they could have stayed in the old normal of sickness, sin, and death, crying out for a leader, forever. Just like the Israelites could have remained in Egypt in slavery, being worked so hard they had no time to worship God.

If Jesus is going to take his people into the Kingdom of God, the new land of promise, things are going to get worse before they get better.


I’ve been spending most of my devotional and reading time since mid-March thinking, studying, and praying over these scenes of Israel in the wilderness, Jesus in the wilderness, and the disciples eventually leading people into the new land of promise that we call the “Church.”

The leadership team has been reading a book about Lewis & Clark, how they were sent out through an uncertain wilderness as emissaries for President Thomas Jefferson and the United States. They went out on canoes in search of a waterway to the Pacific Ocean until they reached the end of the water. They came upon a mountain pass and realized they couldn’t get to their destination the same way they started out. Such is true, in many ways, of the Biblical journeys through the wilderness I have been talking about.

But over the past couple weeks, as NASA prepared to send astronauts to the International Space Station from US soil, on an American rocket for the first time since 2011, I got to thinking about those modern voyagers, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken. They were strapped into a crew module atop a 230 ft tall Falcon 9 rocket, which had never before carried humans into space.

Right now, in this time of unprecedented change, anticipating leaving the wilderness of the COVID-19 pandemic, finding ourselves in the wilderness of confronting the sin of racism, we feel like we’re strapped to a rocket.

We’re not cool and calm—we’re not astronauts. We would rather stay on the ground. We would rather stay in the wilderness or back in Egypt. We would rather not go anywhere new and different. We want to go back to our old norm.

But God is asking us now, as he did in the Old and New Testaments, to go higher and farther, to boldly go where no one has gone before, to become trailblazers for the Kingdom of God.

The new ideas and challenges from Rev. Tina and the leadership team are outside the “usual” box—from online worship to house churches to doing things differently when we return to the sanctuary.

And you know what, we’ve done really well considering than none of us would have voluntarily strapped ourselves on this particular rocket or taken this particular wilderness journey.

But as we look to the next part of our journey from the old normal, through this wilderness, to the promised land on the other side—there’s a real risk, not just a perceived one. Doug and Bob took a risk when they got strapped into that rocket. There had been failed launches before. We remember the Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia. As the spies had reported to Moses, there was a real risk involved in entering the promised land—the people were big and scary. Jesus and his disciples risked it all too, remaining faithful to God to the point of death.

The journey out of COVID-19 to a new normal is going to challenge all of us. There are real risks to consider: exposing people to the virus, facing reduced tithing and giving, alienating people, trying things differently and failing, as well as not doing things differently and failing to grow.

Likewise, the journey of dealing with the sin of racism is fraught with challenges. There are risks of saying the wrong thing and in saying nothing at all. There is a risk that the opportunities to face this challenge now won’t be taken, and that we’ll end up right back where we were.

But I believe, because I see it in Scripture, that there is a new world on the other side of these challenges. There is a promised land. There is a strong and faithful Church. There is a land flowing with milk and honey on the other side of the mountain at the end of this wilderness.

Martin Luther King Jr., in his last speech on the night before he was murdered, said this:

“The world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding — something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today… the cry is always the same — ‘We want to be free.’ Now, I’m just happy that God has allowed me to live in this period, to see what is unfolding…Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind”

Oh, that we could have such faith to declare not that “the old days were better than these” (Ecclesiastes 7:10), but that the work of God that is unfolding is flowing with milk and honey and hope. Oh, that we would have the faith to reach the mountaintop and see that promised land.

We might, sometimes, rather head back to Egypt like the Israelites, go back to our normal fishing jobs like the disciples, or go back to how everything was before.

But at a certain point, there’s no return. We’re strapped onto the rocket. We’re about to take flight. The flame of Pentecost is about to be lit underneath us. And all we can do is look to the sky and declare: “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back.”

As Astronaut Alan Shepherd is famous for declaring, strapped into the rocket for America’s first human spaceflight, let’s “light this candle.” Amen.

Mixtape Theology: World Communion (Year C – Oct 6)

Welcome to the first edition of the (not necessarily) weekly series I’m calling Mixtape Theology — reflections on the texts and themes of the Revised Common Lectionary inspired by (secular) music.

Since we’re starting this playlist series on World Communion Sunday, I figured it would be appropriate to look for songs focusing on world peace, unity and diversity, tearing down walls, and sharing table fellowship. (I also figured it would be a good chance to throw some world music inspiration in the mix, but I mostly failed. Leave your suggestions in the comments!) Some of the songs below hit on those themes, but when I opened up the Old Testament lection (Lamentations!) and started reading chatter about Greta Thunberg’s speech to the UN, I knew I (or the providence of God) definitely picked the right week to begin this series.

For those who don’t know, World Communion Sunday got its start right here in Pittsburgh at the Shadyside Presbyterian Church in the period between the two World Wars. During the Second World War, the practice was adopted by the Federal Council of Churches as a way to unite Christians in the US with their brothers and sisters around the world.

Prelude:

We begin our service with a musical tableaux of the wind blowing through the “amber waves of grain” of the countryside.

Opening Praise: Praise God in his sanctuary! Praise God in creation! Let us join together in appreciating the sights of God’s work.

“Oh, what a world, I don’t wanna leave
There’s all kinds of magic, it’s hard to believe
Northern lights in our skies
Plants that grow and open your mind
Things that swim with a neon glow
How we all got here, nobody knows
These are real things
Oh, what a world, don’t wanna leave
All kinds of magic all around us, it’s hard to believe
Thank God it’s not too good to be true
Oh, what a world, and then there is you.”

Scripture:

How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! 

(Addition: How forsaken lies the earth, once full of species.)

How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! 

She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal. 

Lamentations 1

The global church is splintered and fractured, unable to even eat at the same table. The American church is a vassal of a corrupt government. The earth is a slave to human self-interest. The cosmos groan for redemption (Romans 8:22). Hear what God is saying to the Church. The children are watching.

Proclamation (of Judgment):

As one who has been criticized for my passion and conviction over issues people would rather be complacent and nonchalant about, can I say GO GRETA! Nevertheless, she preaches!

This is what conservatives mocking and scolding liberals for the attention they’ve paid Thunberg don’t understand. Thunberg isn’t being applauded because she’s being taken seriously. She’s being applauded because she’s not.

This is an iteration of the guilt suffused throughout liberal politics, which often seems better suited to producing tears and slogans than genuine change. 

OSITA NWANEVU, New Republic

As the people of God, liberal and conservative, Greta and her aftermath give us a lot to think about. Are we more capable of causing others guilt than we are inspiring real change in ourselves and others? What would it mean to abandon our lifestyle in pursuit of lasting, systemic change? What would it mean for us to come before God and our systemic sins in a true spirit of repentance, as people who are in exile.

Prayer of Confession: We build walls, not bridges. We squander the world’s resources rather than stewarding them. We stand idly by in the face of injustice. We cannot do this alone, O God.

“And you know
The oceans they connect us all
No one can just build a wall
We have to work together
We can’t do this on our own
To think that you can stand aside
Is nothing more than foolish pride
‘Cause everyone’s a libertarian
‘Til the brown water floods their home”

Prayers of the People: A Lament for the perceived absence of God.

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? 

Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? 

Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? 

Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. 

So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. 

The wicked surround the righteous—therefore judgment comes forth perverted. 

Habakkuk 1 (NRSV)
From a fellow Houghton alum, Laura Johnson, bringing a hauntingly beautiful description of what it is to look for familiar sights in a sea of unknowns.
Some days God feels close and familiar, other days God’s presence can only be sensed through the “echoes” seen in “foreign faces and places.”
We feel alone, O God. We do not see you–we only see wrongdoing and trouble. Come to our aid. Make haste to help us.

Proclamation (of Gospel): God offers life-changing forgiveness for all of us. The Gospel declares “change is coming, whether you like it or not.” In communion, the change comes through “a box of wine,” that mysteriously is the blood of Christ.

I feel a change in the weather I feel a change in me. The days are getting shorter and the birds begin to leave. Even me, yes, yes, y’all. Who has been so long alone I’m headed home. Headed home. The nights are getting colder now. The air is getting crisp I first tasted the universe on a night like this. A box of wine, an alibi. And the hunger in her eyes. In a place where the tree of good and evil still resides. Still resides.”

Offertory:

“All creatures of our God and King, 
lift up your voice and with us sing 
alleluia, alleluia! 
Thou burning sun with golden beam, 
thou silver moon with softer gleam, 
O praise him, O praise him, 
alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!” – Assisi

Eucharist:

This Sunday, I will receive the sacrament for the first time since my conscience led me to abstain mid-Summer during a time in which I was estranged from some of my brothers and sisters in the faith (Mt. 5:24). The wounds have not yet healed, but I look forward to Christ’s broken body and spilled blood reminding me of the reconciliation that was, is, and is to come.

If you are able, find an opportunity to receive the sacrament of holy brokenness this week. Our country is broken. “The body of Christ, broken for you.” The equilibrium of our global environment is crumbling. “The body of Christ, crumbling onto the floor, yet given in abundance to you.”

I can’t offer the sacraments online (Methodists who remember that dispute will hopefully chuckle at the suggestion), but I can offer some sacramental suggestions from Wil Wheaton that might offer a glimpse of the Gospel for those of us suffering from Ecological (or otherwise) anxiety.

Take a shower.

Eat a nutritious meal.

Take a walk outside (even if it’s literally to the corner and back).

Do something — throw a ball, play tug of war, give belly rubs — with a dog. Just about any activity with my dogs, even if it’s just a snuggle on the couch for a few minutes, helps me.

Do five minutes of yoga stretching.

Listen to a guided meditation and follow along as best as you can. (Editor: Can I recommend Pray as you Go?)

Wil Wheaton

(As a survivor of intense, crippling anxiety at various stages of my life fueled by fears as myriad as nuclear bombs and saxophone recitals, I would also recommend to all of my human readers that you find a trusted therapist for your mental health. Even if you just need to talk through something you can’t tell anyone else. Everyone has mental health. Care for it.)

Song During Communion:

In communion, we remember that the body of Christ is beautiful in its interlocking brokenness:
“And I have to speculate
That God Himself did make
Us into corresponding shapes
Like puzzle pieces from the clay”

In the ecstacy of perceiving the divine mystery of Christ revealed to us, in the sursum corda: (‘lift up your hearts / we lift them up to the Lord’)
“They will see us waving from such great heights
Come down now, they’ll say
But everything looks perfect from far away
Come down now but we’ll stay”

Praise after Communion:

Song of Songs is a text between two lovers that’s also an allegory for the relationship between Christ and the Church. We know well of that love. But what if we sang this kind of love song about other members of the body of Christ?
Yet, this song also reveals the holy but broken nature of the relationships within the church, saying ‘it don’t mean we’ll stay together.’
Plus, nothing says World Communion like the album cover!

“We go together like sound and sight
Black and white, day and night
We go together like left and right
Oh, we go together
We go together like give and take
Pains and aches, real and fake
We go together, don’t be opaque
It’s clear we go together
We belong together
We belong together
Baby, there’s no use in being clever
Baby, it don’t mean we’ll stay together.”

Benediction:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. 

The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him. 

Lamentations 3 (NRSV)

It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. 

It is good for one to bear the yoke in youth, to sit alone in silence when the Lord has imposed it, to put one’s mouth to the dust (there may yet be hope), to give one’s cheek to the smiter, and be filled with insults. 

For the Lord will not reject forever. Although he causes grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone. 

Lamentations 3 (NRSV)

Go in Peace. Amen.