One of my childhood memories is of a swimming complex in a neighboring town. This big regional recreation facility included two very large swimming pools. One of the two pools featured man-made and generated waves that mimicked the feel of swimming in the ocean. The other was an Olympic pool complete with regulation spring boards and platform diving.
A favorite activity for me at that facility, which was called Point Mallard, was to position myself in the cool water of the Olympic pool so that I could watch those who made their way onto one of the three platforms from which you could dive. I was especially drawn to those who went all the way to the top. Again, these were Olympic regulation platforms and it was an actual Olympic training pool where several members of the American national team practiced at times. So, you can imagine what it was like for the average joe in his palm tree bathing suit in Alabama to climb to the top platform on a dare from a couple of his buddies on a July afternoon.
In turn, it probably comes as no surprise that many people reached the top platform, walked out to the edge, looked at the water far below and had second thoughts. This was the exact reason I enjoyed floating in the water and watching – it was great theater. You never really knew what decision people would ultimately make. Would they have the courage to jump? Or would their fear, nerves and worries get the best of them leading to their turning around and going back down the ladder? It was a true lesson for me as a young boy that there is a very thin line between daring, risk taking behavior and playing it safe and listening to our fears.
In many ways, in our text for today, the Israelites were out on the end of the highest platform deciding whether or not they were going to jump. Of course, their moment of decision was related to whether or not they would follow God into the Promised Land and occupy this special piece of earth that God had long said would be their home. As they debated the decision, they were literally sitting on the edge, the boundary, the precipice – it was such a thin line between more time in the wilderness and crossing over into the Promised Land.
As you know from reading the text and from hearing this story over the years, the decision comes just after 12 spies, 1 individual from each of the 12 Israelite tribes, has returned from taking a 40 day scouting trip into the Promised Land.
In essence, their report is a mixture of good and bad. On the one hand, the Promised Land is a special place. It has fertile soil, abundant crops and geographically speaking it seems to be a wonderful place to call home. At the same time, it is already populated including people with advanced military training and those who are intimidating in terms of their physical make-up. Eventually, what we learn is that the vote is 10 to 2. 10 of the 12 spies feel that the dangers are too great and the risk is too high. Their feeling is the right decision is to simply wait until a better, more opportune time. 2 of the 12, Caleb and Joshua, to be exact, feel they should go forward even in spite of challenges that they will face.
As a result, this unfolding story offers numerous lessons about the importance of being courageous and the need in life to have the willingness to step out and take a leap of faith even when the dangers and obstacles are real and not simply imagined. As has already been said, this should have been a time of beginnings for the Israelites; the beginnings of their life in the Promised Land. Yet, because of the lack of courage and faith, that new beginning was put on hold. Nonetheless, their story speaks to some of the things that will be required for us to act courageously over the course of this new year that we are in the process of beginning. Among the many lessons to be found in this text, here are a few that I think are very worthy of our attention and focus.
First, courage means acting even when real dangers are present. One of the things I really appreciate about this text is that the dangers the 10 spies opposed to entering the Promised Land point to are real, valid concerns. In life, so often, the objections that people raise to decisions can be overblown, exaggerated or fictitious. Yet, their concerns are legitimate.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that being courageous always means throwing caution to the wind. But, it is true and I believe it is also Biblical to affirm that both being courageous and following God often require obedience even in the midst of real concerns and not only when all worries have been put to rest. Courage is rarely required when there is not risk at all.
Second, courage often means following the minority viewpoint not the majority perspective. Another very insightful element of this passage is the recognition that the majority is wrong. Here, the minority view is the right view. This is a needed reminder in a world where we so often assume that what is most popular or draws the biggest crowd or support must be right.
Instead as people seeking to live both courageously and faithfully, we need to be reminded regularly that doing the right thing often means following the narrow road and the less traveled path. Without a doubt, just like you, I know how hard it can be to stand on our own or with just a few. Yet, the Bible and history is full of people who made both the lonely decision that was also the right decision.
When I think about being courageous enough to stand in the midst of opposition and even in the threat of danger, I am reminded of an example that was lived out for many years right here in our midst. Many if not most of you remember the story of our own Gene Burns and his role with Japanese American troops in World War II. As so many of you know, there was great mistrust in those days of Japanese American citizens due to Pearl Harbor and the Empire of Japan. Many assumed that all Japanese Americans were on the side of their homeland and could not be trusted. Gene however was one of the American officers during the war willing to command an all Japanese American unit. He trusted the men of his unit and believed in both their loyalty to our country and their ability to be good soldiers. He knew that their being of Japanese ancestry was not necessarily an indicator of their heart. Gene and others like him were right but it wasn’t necessarily the popular or the safest attitude to have at the time. Instead it required courage.
Finally, courage always requires trusting God more than we trust anyone else. In the end, the courage of Caleb and Joshua isn’t really built on their fearlessness or their daring. Their courage is ultimately the result of their willingness to trust God more than they trust anyone else. One could also say, I believe, that their courage is built on a desire to follow God first and others second. Throughout Numbers chapters 13 & 14, it is clear that going into the Promised Land is what God wanted the people to do. This in turn, is why Joshua and Caleb wanted to do it. Sure, they trusted in their people’s ability and they believed that the Promised Land would supply them all with a better life, but it was the fact that God was leading in this direction that ultimately made the difference.
There is a funny little story about a man who walked around bragging about and holding up hair he claimed he had cut from the tail of a ferocious, roaring lion. Offering his show and tell to a particular group, one of those present asked, “if you are so brave and the lion was so dangerous, why didn’t you behead the lion rather than snipping a few hairs from the creatures tail?” To which the man replied, “oh, well, that is because someone had already taken off the beast’s head.” (Adapted from a story attributed to Adrian Rodgers)
What about us? If it is clear that God is calling us to do something, to say something or to take a stand for something in this year ahead, will we, like Joshua and Caleb, have the courage to follow even if we face dangers and even if we are clearly in the minority? Or, like the man in this story, will we only exhibit courage after others have done so first? Amen.