3 challenges: Duncan’s sermon on Sunday


On Sunday, Duncan was preaching on Numbers 14:1-12

The Israelites had been treated as slaves in Egypt, and longed to escape. God heard there cries for help, and had rescued them from slavery. Having escaped from the pursuing Egyptian army, the travelled across the desert until they were close to the land of Canaan, the ‘Promised Land’ which God had assured Abraham would one day belong to his descendants.

12 spies were sent to explore this territory. Two of them came back with positive reports – it was a fertile, beautiful land, a land ‘flowing with milk and honey.’  But the other ten anticipated major problems in occupying Canaan. As Duncan put it, ‘the challenges and the difficulties ahead outweigh the merits of going forward.’

Challenges of leadership

And as a result of their negative assessment, all the Israelites grumbled. They were on the edge of the long-promised land, but they panicked, overtaken by fear. Their leaders, Moses and Aaron, bore the brunt of their complaining, as they talked of choosing a new leader and going back into captivity.

Duncan said that his sympathies were with the leaders. How quickly, he noted, fear and pessimism can overcome a whole group, a whole community, a whole organisation, a whole nation, a whole church. Moses had taken on a job he didn’t really want in the first place, and tried to lead the people in faithfulness to God, and now they are turning against him.

Duncan continued:

It’s no different today as we can see in so many areas of our world. It’s no different very often in church fellowships either.

Over the last couple of years, as a minister who has been around for quite a while, I have begun to take a particular interest in seeking to support pastorally ministers in the early stages of their career.

As I read today’s passage, it struck me that so many of the conversations I share with younger ministers in different congregations across Scotland have often centred around how to deal with exactly the same words reflected in Numbers.

People murmuring, complaining, raising their voices angrily in meetings.

I haven’t heard, however, of anyone facing the threats Moses and Aaron faced: ‘The whole assembly talked about stoning them.’ (Numbers 14:10)

Moses is a leader under pressure. I think this is a timely Scripture for our day and generation. Because it seems to me that it doesn’t matter what sector we care to point towards – health, business, retail, politics, local government of faith – leadership is an incredibly challenging place to be, because of the challenge that comes from every quarter. Murmurings, complaints……….and far worse.

Who, for example, would want to be a politician today, with the vile attacks that come their way on social media?

Moses stands today as a classic representation of the challenges of being a leader. People have short memories, and the tide of public opinion can so quickly turn against you.

I am not for one moment suggesting today that leaders shouldn’t be held to account for the quality of their leadership. But equally, speaking from a faith perspective, I think that if our society is to thrive, then people we place in positions of leadership need to be encouraged and affirmed and prayed for.

It’s striking that in the midst of all of this criticism, ‘Moses and Aaron fell face down in front of the whole Israelite assembly gathered there.’ (v5) It’s as if their only hope is in God, as they bow before Him in prayer, in the presence and company of all these people who are expressing utter contempt towards them, and talking of stoning them.

Challenges of Scripture

Duncan acknowledged that we find aspects of passages like these hard to understand.

Let me say that there is so much in this story that I wouldn’t pretend to be able to give a complete answer to. The text speaks of God sending a plague upon the people who take issue with Moses. (v12)

The background to this story is one of God seeming to be right behind Israel, as they plan a campaign of genocidal murder.

These aspects of the story seem to stand at odds with my understanding of God, as it has been revealed to us in Jesus.

So I will put these questions to the side because I can’t address theme here. Suffice to say, there isn’t one simple answer to these very complex issues.

Challenges of memory

‘One of the most important words in the Bible is remember,’ Duncan continued. And

The Israelites have forgotten. They have quickly forgotten that at every stage of the journey God has been with them, God has looked after them.

In their panic and fear, following the bad report of the ten spies, instead of remembering God’s presence and help all along the way, they forgot.

What is God’s response?  Moses falls on the ground surrounded by the people (v5) and then (v10) ‘The glory of the Lord appeared.’ God was there with them.

He had led them this far. They didn’t need to panic. They didn’t need to talk about going back. They didn’t need to be afraid. They just needed to remember God’s promises, to keep trusting and to keep moving forward.

God keeps his promises. We can rely on him even in the darkest times of life.

The same call comes to us today in the face of the fears and the concerns and the anxieties we have. God has promised to be with us, to never leave us, never forsake us.

‘I am with you always,’ said Jesus. (Matthew 28:20)

And Duncan concluded with a challenge to us: ‘Remember this week, whatever the challenges, whatever the fears and anxieties that come our way, God is with us!’

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