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The Promised Land – 2 traps to flee from and a treasure to tap on

Date: 15/09/2013/Speaker: Chong Lip

Good morning church. It’s me again!

I had the benefit of 2 different sets of Lectionary Passages to refer to as I was preparing for this short sharing. I had a tough time deciding what to focus and talk on, the problem with a buffet spread- too many choices and just enough time to chew on one sermon. I was then reminded of the Prodigal Family theme for the later half of the year that Miak shared, starting with the Youth Service in July. August, the non-Singaporeans amongst us and this month, the more matured amongst us here in FCC, in Oct the Straights, November the Transgender and Dec rounding up with the family.

And so I decided to pick the two lectionary passages Exodus 32 and Numbers 21, which talks about God’s chosen people- the Israelites as they journey in the wilderness and see how my own family here-FCC can learn from them (mostly on what NOT to do” The traps”)  even as we ourselves journey together in this complex socio-political landscape/nation of Singapore. Why do I say so? We are the only inclusive church in Singapore, and mainstream churches view us as a cult, and even amongst the LGBTQ community we are seen as unauthentic(as they have equated Church as anti-LGBTQ)

First off, I have always been skeptical of the country of Israel being the chosen people of God, the ones being ‘set apart’ for Him/Her. Really? What set of unique characteristics distinguish them from another nation- did their behaviour really match up to God’s standards? For me to say yes is outright lying, they have failed spectacularly.

If I really have to name what made them so special, it will have to be the following:  2 characteristics ring out clearly to me.

Characteristic (1) Stubborn/Stiff-Neck at being Bochap/Unfaithfulness/Lawlessness. Referring to Exodus 32:8 they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’

Exodus 32:7-14
32:7 The LORD said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely;
32:8 they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'”
32:9 The LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are.
32:10 Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”
32:11 But Moses implored the LORD his God, and said, “O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?
32:12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people.
32:13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.'”
32:14 And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

I mean just 30 days and you are cheating right under God’s holy hill? After promising to honour and worship God, they got restless, insecure and had an impulse to find another activity to replace the silence regarding Moses’s leadership and the uncertainty. Are we also like them, frantically search to fill that void in us when we do not get immediate answers and solutions? They were So very quick to fall back to the old ways of worshipping Baal, like how they were used to. No wonder God wanted to destroy them, even if God didn’t, they will somehow destroy themselves.

Are we guilty of that too? How do we as a people deal with silences(periods of waiting) in our lives? Individually, do we Switch to a less than desirable substitute- porn, alcohol, books, sex, charity, food or music so that we don’t have to deal with it? We all do, but to what extent do you let yourself carry it to. For me I indulge in food, too much in fact that it makes me feel uncomfortable afterwards.

As a church, how do we fare as we struggle for social justice and anti discrimination across all sorts of labels. Do we give up our ideals, be less controversial so as to fit in we switch to something else other than God when we don’t see God working through visible results? It can often feel like we are wandering in the wilderness eh. When will we reach the promised land, when 377a will be struck down (It has failed once, what if it does again in a few weeks time), when everyone in our country have the same anti-discrimination rights? So far I think we are still faithful and have not lost track of this yet.

The trap that is the temptation to be unfaithful to your ideals/promises, to cop out and opt for something less which God requires/demands of you.

Silences, fruitlessness, uncertainty is definite, Lots of inferior substitutes abound, but  nothing  compared to the real thing. So don’t lose faith and give up on your ideals! Press on and be faithful.

(2) The second characteristic or trap is probably (ungratefulness-leads to complaints). The Israelites forgot what God has done for them and wanted to continue being slaves back at Egypt if given the chance. It got quite bad that they grumbled and lied to God.

Numbers 21:4b-9
21:4b but the people became impatient on the way.
21:5 The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”
21:6 Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.
21:7 The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.
21:8 And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”
21:9 So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

Referring to Numbers: 21:5 The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Hmm, HELLO! This accusation against God is unfounded as you and I can easily dismantle. Detesting the food is not equal to not having  food. Just a chapter before, at the waters of Meribah, Moses spilt the rock and there were fresh water gushing out in Numbers 20:11. Also before, the Israelites complained about not having water and God brought them to a nice place, Elim (In Exodus 15:22) with 70 palm trees and 12 Springs much earlier. The Trees are not for shade only, Palm Hearts are really delicious. Not to forget at the beginning when they did complain, God actually gave them manna(which tasted like honey) and quail, which is like some delicacy in Hong Kong and France. (It’s like a safari camp with the same buffet items, in a God induced Climate- I don’t think they faced the extreme fluctuations in temperature and the harsh desert conditions today with the Pillar of Fire by night which provided warmth in the sub-zero nights and Pillar of Cloud by day to block the harsh afternoon sun)

I know they missed their pots of meat(probably lamb), grain, figs, grapevine and pomegranates but at least their basic dietary needs were met.  Numbers 20:5 “It has no grain or figs, grapevines or pomegranates!” (manna and quail-but that was not enough! Greedy) We eat rice all our lives right? Is it that difficult? After all they had a land filled with milk and honey awaiting them. I think you get my point. How many times can God hear the same old complaints, the same ungratefulness for all his timely providence? No wonder God calls them a ‘Stiff-necked’ people!

Just a little sharing from myself, I was thinking about our new space we had to enquire in One Commonwealth because of financial prudence and long term planning(the landlord keeps increasing the rent and we are at the mercy of the landlord and be evicted with no sanctuary to worship in). The whole process was a lengthy one, but not 40 years thank God. I was initiated quite excited but when it got to actually getting the space at One Commonwealth, it was quite a chore. You have to set up the governance issues, the structure, the loan, SPV, do a fundraising, get guarantors while sorting out the AOA and By-Laws etc and leave this comfortable space here. You can easily get disillusioned and I did for a short while grumble to myself on how we have to leave this cosy environment and rebuild a new home altogether. I had so much fond memories here- I met Simon here, gave my first sermon here, had my first cell group here! I mean it’s just another industrial building right, just slightly bigger and in a new location? I could somehow relate to the Israelites, why halfway down the journey in the wilderness they missed Egypt and the familiarity it offered.

I did not really see how the vision of FCC can be further accomplished through this new space.  This was until Zi Hao/Gary (who probably played the role of Moses) showed the potential of the building through Project Renewvation by giving the church members a voice to describe what they would want the new church sanctuary to be like. All these feedback has actually been reflected through his painstakingly drawn design brief/space that I got a preview of during yesterday’s Board Retreat. I was actually very touched by it, so all my complaints/fears about all the trouble to get to this promised land-One commonwealth melted away. Sometimes we need a glimpse of the Promised Land, but there are those. I admit I am one of them who lack the faith to just blindly believe.

So lesson learnt and trap to avoid is:

Don’t be ungrateful, it stops you from being thankful and seeing the things that God has done, is doing and will be doing. If we do complain and grumble, we have to ask ourselves- are these the things that really matter? If we keep it unchecked, do we run the same risk of being bitten by the poisonous serpents which kills our faith in God’s goodness and providence?

“Interesting Questions to think about- not in the sermon but just some food for thought”

Was God too harsh, quick to judge and violent, or was God justified in readily sending the fiery/poisonous snakes to bite and kill off the Israelites? This time Moses had no time to plead to God or no interest or no mood (Aaron had just died).. Maybe God was running out of patience, or killing off the rest of the original cursed generation to pave way for the new, thus fulfilling his promise that only the new generation will get to the promise land. (Very Eugenics, reminds me of Lee Kuan Yew, take away all the bad apples and start with the new, but God would have probably chosen another more superior species, eh?)

Just an interesting thing I noticed. God knew that the Israelites had a particular thing about admiring and worshipping cast ‘idols’, and so instructed Moses to create a Bronze Snake for them to look at to be healed. The very thing that caused them death is to be the very thing that preserved their life as well. All very topsy turvy isn’t it, either God is very macabre or humorous. One of the other lectionary passages (John 3:14) talk about how this is symbolic to how Jesus was raised to be the exemplar that Man should look to to be healed of sin (live a life free of sin(poison) and live.

John 3:13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.3:14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,3:15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 3:17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

2 Thoughts:

(1)WHERE WERE THE ELDERS!? Is Moses the only spokesperson, the only sane one? No governance, gatekeeper? Joshua and Caleb son of Nun? The Judges of 50s, 100s and 1000s, the elders that Jethro have taught Moses to appoint. Where were these people? Why wasn’t Aaron stopped by an injunction by these Elders who are supposed to know better.

A Case of Monkey See Monkey Do- the power of Group Think. Were they convinced of who God is in their lives?

Herein lies the importance of the elder members of the church, those who has seen its ebb and flow, growth and decline, her history. The Israelites had a lost generation, those condemned by God to 40 years in the desert and never being able to enter the promised land. Yet they sure had a wealth of stories under their belt, be it direct encounters with God, their struggles, defeats and victories against hostile nations. Recall, these were the same generation who were first hand witnesses of God parting the Red Sea, the Pillar of Fire by night and cloud by day, The transfiguration of Moses on Mt Sinai, the miraculous manna and quail that appeared every morning for foraging for food- in short miracles and wonders that would amaze us today.

I wonder what they told their offspring in the desert. (Please note that their offspring were born in the desert and probably had no basis of comparison. They probably thought that the desert environment was the norm and that the Pillar/Cloud by day, the manna and quail were natural phenomenon unless told. Imagine their shock when they entered the promised land! Where the clouds stopped leading them, no more free manna and quail!)

To be fair, the desert is still a hostile environment with God’s providence and it’s very easy to be cynical and bitter, especially if you seem to be going around in circles with no progress, it’s like going on the treadmill forever and not being able to escape out of that! Did they inspire their offspring with their lifestyle and stories about God’s goodness and presence, or twist the same old stories of God under-providing for them or of the old gods of Baal or the fantastic lives as slaves in Egypt?

I am extremely glad for fatherly and motherly figures in FCC who stop and made me think/reflect my relationship with God. I am sure many of them have gone through so much more than me, living in an age where it is not as liberal, probably akin to the Wilderness like the Israelites. I am glad for Rev Yap & Mrs Yap, Susan, Su-Lin (though she hasn’t hit 40!), Eu Meng, Clarence, Douglas, Geoffrey, Jaime, Molly, Henry and of course Simon. Their experiences, wisdom, knowledge, passion, sharing at one point or another  has impacted and shaped me, and I am a better person because of it.

(2)What is your promised land?  Do we believe that everyone of us can live to see it, believe in it. I don’t think we are limited like the lost generation of Israelites. It is a mindset we have to unshackle- DO NOT be disillusioned that all good things must come to an end, or that just because the road is long and tough and very windy (Remember Edom, even their brother tribe didn’t want to let them pass, how unfriendly, much like how other mainstream churches treat us as a cult, nevermind that!) We are all in this together and we will make the journey together, to the promised land! I don’t think we are forever banned or barred like the lost generation was led to believe, remember God has promised Abraham descendants like stars but he was almost ready to break it and destroy them all in Exodus 32 but He/She changed His/Her Mind!  I am not saying God is wishy washy and flexible, but that his compassion always outweighed His/Her Judgement, much like how Jesus showed love and compassion above the rigidity of the Law. So when we have veered away, let us not doubt in God’s redeeming love. (Recall Jonah and the Assyrian Empire)

We had a really great time of reflection in the Board Retreat yesterday and we look forward to participation for members and aspiring members to be to define what is our Promised Land… which is looking to be like a Commonwealth!


But is it fair to blame the Israelites for this type of behaviour? Wasn’t God very harsh on them? 40 years punished in the desert for their initial disbelief, if I were them I would rather kill myself than suffer such a fate. Then again you may argue it’s a very nice desert environment, free manna, free quail, live pillar of cloud and fire, water from rocks.

You know what, I am glad that even though Israel was totally going to be destroyed, God showed compassion when Moses pleaded for them. God does change his mind, He does show deep compassion.