Scripture: Deuteronomy 34
One of the things that surprised me most about being parent is how kids learn to talk. With a lot of the other skills like rolling over, crawling, and walking they get closer and closer and then do it. Once a baby learns to walk, they start walking everywhere. I sort of expected talking to be the same way. I did not expect for talking to be such a long gradual process. We are back in that process again, as Callie is now in the early stages of talking. Given that, this did not come as a surprise to me, but I recently read that “no” is one of the first ten words that most kids learn to say. That is certainly true for my daughter, and “no is certainly her most expressive word. The opposite, “Yes” is learned much later. It is interesting that we learn the word “No” so early, because we certainly do not like being told no. If you have ever had the horror of being “that parent” when a child melts down after telling them that no, they cannot have something then you know just how much we do not like being told no. Fortunately, adults typically do not throw temper tantrums, but we still do not like to be told “no”. Marketers realize this and they capitalize on the fact that we do not like to be told no. Lot of research has shown that a tried and true marketing technique is to create exclusivity. When we believe something is limited, then we are more likely to want it. This exclusivity is created in a lot of ways. Sometimes there is an artificially limited quantity which creates a limited supply. Other times good are only good for a limited time, and then other times exclusivity is created by setting a higher price point that naturally excludes certain people. All of these techniques work so well, because exclusivity is a passive way to tell us “no”. Exclusivity communicates that if we do not act fast enough or spend enough then we cannot have something. This passive no drives our own demand for whatever product is being sold. If many of us were being honest, we would have agree that if someone tells us we cannot do something then we are more likely to try and find a way to get around their no and do it anyway. We do not (usually) throw fits anymore, but we still have the same aversion to being told no that we had as toddlers. We simply do not like being told no. This morning’s scripture reminds us that when we are being obedient to following God, sometimes the answer is “no”. Sometimes we may feel that we desperately want something, but God’s consistent response is “Nope. Not happening.” As we consider this scripture, we can better understand our own faith and how we should respond when God says no.
This morning’s scripture is the very end of the biblical epic of Moses. It is kind of unfair just reading this scripture, doing so is kind of like watching only the last fifteen minutes of the final movie in the Lord of the Rings trilogy or just reading the epilogue of the seventh Harry Potter book. Many of you know the basics of his story. After being saved by God as an infant, Moses grew up to eventually be called by God. This is probably the part of the story you know the best. God called to Moses from a burning bush, and though the bush was aflame the fire did not consume it. God called Moses to go back to Egypt, to lead the people out of captivity. At this time, on the holy ground by the burning bush, God told Moses all about a promised land: a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey. As the story goes, Moses went. Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. God sent plagues, Pharaoh did not relent. The plagues got worse. Pharaoh stayed stubborn, until the first born of all of Egypt died in the final great and terrible plague. The Israelites were free and as they escaped they crossed the red sea with the partings of water. Then they were in the wilderness.
Now this part of the story caused me some confusion growing up. When I was a child in Sunday school and I was taught the story of Moses, I was told they were in the wilderness for 40 years. I imagined this wilderness to be this vast huge expanse that too 40 years to cross. As I got older and began to understand geography, I did not understand this. The distance between Egypt and Israel is not that big. It should not take forty years to cross the Saini Peninsula. In fact I looked it up, and according to google maps, someone today could walk from Cairo, Egypt to Jerusalem in just over six days. I missed in Sunday school why it took forty years, and that is because the people doubted God. They did not trust that God could actually deliver the promise land. As they got close to the promise land, scouts came back and reported that there were walled cities and giant, fearsome warriors. The people feared and even got angry at God for taking them out of Egypt. Because they doubted and did not trust in God to provide, they had to spend forty years in the wilderness.
Moses too did not trust God. In Numbers 20, we find a story bringing water from a rock because the people were thirsty. God told Moses to speak to the rock, but Moses hit it with his staff. Then in Numbers 20:12 God responds, “But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I gave you.” This might be a little confusing at first because that seems a fairly severe punishment for hitting a rock.
Years earlier in the wilderness story, God instructed Moses to hit a rock to make water come out of it. This time though, God told him to speak to the rock. Moses did not listen to God. Some biblical scholars think that Moses did not trust God enough, so he did what he knew worked last time. He fell back on the safe instead of being faithful to where God was leading. Other scholars think he was trying to take matters into his own hand, and act on his own authority. The last time he struck a rock water came out, so it should happen again this time. Finally, other scholars think that Moses hit the rock in anger and he was acting out against the constant complaining of the people and by extension acting out in anger to God. Whatever the reason, God saw this not listening as something that required a consequence. Can you imagine how devastating this must have been for Moses? Remember, God told him all that time ago at the burning bush about the promise land. Moses, had endured going head to head with Pharaoh, he had led a stubborn people, and he had wandered through the wilderness with them. He did all of this because he knew and he claimed the promise that the promise land is coming. This had to drive Moses, this had to be a major motivator for him, and now God was denying that. The bible does not record this, but I imagine that Moses must have pleased with God to change His mind, but God said “no”.
What is interesting to me, is how Moses responded to this. When God said “no”, Moses did not get mad and turn his back on God. Moses did not walk away and try to fulfill what he wanted on his own terms away from God. Even though God had told Moses “no” in a specific instance, Moses held on to God’s bigger “yes”. Moses continued to faithfully follow God, continued to fulfill God’s instruction, and lead the people. Decades of following God, led Moses to this morning’s scripture. Where Moses and God spend a quiet moment together. God lovingly shows Moses the entirety of the land the Israelites are moving into. The depth of relationship between Moses and God was so great, that God even personally buried Moses after he died, according to verse 6. Even though God had said “no” to Moses, Moses was still faithful to God and because of that the scripture records in verse 10 “Since then no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.” I do not why God gave such a severe consequence to Moses, and I cannot understand why God told Moses no in that way. I am not meant to. God’s ways are not our ways. God’s will is so much greater and God’s wisdom is far superior to our own. God had a reason for saying “no”, and Moses responded by accepting that God having a reason was good enough.
How do we do with the idea of God saying no? Research shows the answer is that we do not do very well with this. A little over a decade ago the largest most comprehensive study on the religious views of teenagers was done. As these teenagers have aged into young thirty year olds and twenty year olds, more recent studies have yielded the same results. These studies have found that the dominant religious outlook of the young adult generation is that of moralistic therapeutic deism. That mouth full of words basically means God is viewed as a sort of divine butler, who stands in the background, and whose main goal is to make us happy. This viewpoint believes that God exist for our pleasure, not the other way around and that faith in God is important because God helps us get what we want. It is easy to shake our heads at young adults for having this warped view on God, but we have to remember that they have viewed God this way since they were teens; they had to learn it from somewhere.
Now I am willing to bet many church goers would not actually say they believe God is a divine butler, but I wonder what do their actions really communicate? When we pray to God for things that we feel we need in our lives, do we honestly ask him or do we tell him? Do we ask questions that God is allowed to say “no” too? Do we naturally assume that God wants the most in the world is for us to be happy? And that God is willing to do anything and give us anything to ensure we feel that way?
Brothers and sisters in Christ, as you search your hearts I hope you find that those beliefs are not true for you. God loves us. God loves us more than we can express and even more than we can understand. But loving us does not mean it is God’s job to ensure that we are happy. If you have ever been a parent, then you know loving a child sometimes means telling them no. You know that to love a child means that there is sometimes consequences. You know that love is not the same thing as indulgence. We tell kids no sometimes to protect them. We tell kids no because we know better than they do sometimes what is best for them, and we tell kids no often for reasons they cannot quite understand. We probably know of or have heard stories of parenting, where this did not happen, where kids did not hear no very often. Without fail these stories always end up with a petulant, selfish child who feels entitled to all of their fickle whims. A hard lesson to learn in parenting, is that saying “no” is important for the maturity of the child. In the same way, we need to mature in our faith enough to realize that sometimes God tells us “no”. Sometimes God closes a door and He does not open a window because God has a completely different in mind. We do not like to hear no, but we should follow the example of Moses and realize that God’s plans our greater than our plans.
One of my most profound experiences with God saying “no” comes from when I was in college. I went to the University of Evansville, which actually owns a campus in England. Because of this they have an extensive study abroad program out of Harlixton college in Grantham, England. Going into college I had assumed that for financial reasons that would not be an option for me. However, a week after my sophomore year started and a few days before the applications were due, my parents called to tell me that if I wanted to go to Harlixton the next spring, they could make it work. To make it better, my then girlfriend (now wife) Abigail was already all signed up to be there. It seemed like a dream come true and even a bit like a minor miracle. As I was on my way to the office to get the application. I realized that I had not yet prayed or brought up doing this to God, so I took a detour to the chapel. I’ll be honest, I approached this prayer like a mere formality. I mostly thanked God for the opportunity, etc. However, when I prayed something to the effect of “if it is in your will. . .” and I did not finish the sentence. While it was not an audible voice and there was no burning bush that day, I felt deep in my being “no”. For the next few days I prayed a lot trying to convince God why this is something that I should do-but that did not change how I felt. The answer was “nope-not happening”, I felt that so deep and so loudly in my spirit that I could not deny it. So in January when Abigail boarded a plane to fly to England to semester, I got in a car to go back to Evansville. The answer was “no”, but that is because God had other plans.
One of the Christian organizations I was involved with elected new leaders based on a calendar year, and not a school year. I became part of the leadership team for that organization that spring semester I stayed behind. That was my first real experience with Christian leadership, and I know that experience led to building some of the foundations that made me being here today possible. During spring break of that semester, I went on a mission trip to Mexico. For me that was a powerful, powerful faith experience. However, the most important thing that I did on that trip was not about me. They gave us side by side Spanish-English bibles in case we needed or wanted to show a certain scripture to someone, we could look it up in English and show them the Spanish translation. One day I spent a good deal of time interacting with a young teen who was enamored with our group because we spoke English. This teen was really wanting to learn English and he was thrilled to practice on us. He said that he had taught himself English by watching TV in Spanish with English subtitles. In the small group I was with, I was the only one who had brought the side by side bible with me. I showed it to the teen, and I showed him how he could use it to further understand English. I gave it to him, recommended he start reading the gospels. He was so happy, and almost immediately opened the book up. As sure as I know and felt deep within me that God did not want to go to England that semester, I know that one of the main reasons why is so that I could an eternal difference in the life of that teen. I am fully convinced that when I find myself spending eternity in God’s kingdom I am going to meet this teen again.
May we be obedient to following God, and may we be mature enough to realize that sometimes means that God is going to say No. May we be willing to accept that graciously. May we not see God as a divine butler there to serve us, but may we see God as the loving Father who loves us to much to leave us where we are. Whether God is telling us yes or God is telling us no, may we still be able to praise Him as the Lord of all.