I enjoy a good spy story. Perhaps that is why I am glad to spend time in the Old Testament book of Numbers. Chapter thirteen begins with the Lord speaking. Usually when the Lord speaks in an Old Testament text we are trained to expect something religious. Instead, the word from the Lord is “Send out spies.” The rest of the chapter is about the selection of spies, the completion of the spy mission, and listening to the spy report.
There is nothing like an adventure. I suspect each of us interpret adventure differently, but suspect we all enjoy adventure at some level. The story grabs us, we get caught up in the words and become convinced we are Nancy Drew solving a mystery or Huck Finn on a river raft. Some chart their own adventure, always ready to leap over the back fence with nothing but a loaf of bread and a pound of tea and a lot of adventure ahead.
Some of us wish things felt more like an adventure. Some might like to avoid adventure. Some wish our adventure was different than the one we seem to be on. But the fact is, we are all part of an adventure. We have fallen into a story and cannot get out of it. It doesn’t matter if we were looking for it or if we wanted to. We are here and we are in it.
The text from Numbers 13 knows about adventure. It starts off with a word from the Lord. This is not the word from the Lord we are expecting. Expecting something religious we instead hear “Send out spies.” Different translations use different words, “scout”, explorer.” Yet the fact is God is suggesting espionage. This is to be a recon mission.
Our text names the spies. One of them stands out from the others because of a name change. The spy named Hoshea is now called Joshua. We get the feeling there is more going on than a simple name change. Our story includes our own fragile ways and other obstacles. Our story includes a God always looking for a faithful voice in the congregation to speak against the majority opinion.
The assignment is given and carried out. At first, it appears to have been a successful mission with a positive report. A single cluster of grapes required two men to carry and there were pomegranates and figs. The grape clusters were so impressive they named the valley after them. But then… we discover the grapes are not the only thing that is large out there. The cities are large and they are fortified. The people are large, they are giants. So large they make the rest of us feel like grasshoppers. Everything seems so much larger than life.
This prompts a voice from the congregation. The spy Caleb disagrees with majority opinion. I cannot help but notice how we read Numbers thirteen as if we are Joshua or Caleb. As if we are the ones trusting in the promise of God. Wondering what is up with the other ten spies who have so many doubts. It is more likely we resemble the other ten spies. Sheer numbers suggest that is the case. Plus, it is not always easy to enter the places where God wants us to go. It is easier to choose our own place, at least choose our own timing. We would prefer to design a property to fit our own needs.
Yet God gives a particular land. A place that is not deserved or earned, it is promised and given. A place of grace. Who will enter this place? Who will realize no other place can replace what God has given? Who will hunger for the grapes of Eschol? Who will recognize that not just any grapes will do? I hope the passage reminds us we are engaged in mission. In our adventure the task is large, there are large obstacles and there are giants out there. Yet we must not forget that our story includes a God who always seems to be looking for impossible situations.
There is some temptation at verse 33 to make this a self-esteem sermon. “Don’t be a grasshopper… God wants you to take on giants…there are no mascots called the fighting grasshoppers… do not be a grasshopper… be who you were created to be.” But this is no message of self-esteem. This is a message for a doubting congregation who is trying to survive in a rational land by siding with the majority. This is a message about a God who is always looking to send people into impossible situations. This is a message calling for a faithful voice in the congregation who is willing to stand against the majority on the side of God.
When I suggest we are on an adventure I am not suggesting we start moving about under the cloak of darkness. Or that we begin seeking giants to engage in battle. Neither am I proposing adventure as a metaphor where we spiritualize obstacles and territory and responsibilities. I am saying we are on a literal adventure. One we cannot step out of if we wanted to. We are sent on an adventure where we are to cast suspicion that the way things are is not ok. We are sent to be a minority voice who is willing to side with a God of the impossible.
We cannot overlook the obstacles named in the text. They are significant, larger than life. They are real, no one denies the obstacles exist, not even the spy Caleb. The obstacles are real. There are giants in the land. But there is a real difference in the way one responds to obstacles.
In this text everything is large. The assignment is large. The fruits are large. The cities are large. Even the people are large. This is an adventure larger than life. Yet this text would have us know – nothing is larger than this God.