In Numbers 10, Moses encourages Hobab, son of Reuel the Midianite, to come with them to the next place the Lord is leading them, namely, the Desert of Paran:
“We are setting out for the place about which the Lord said, ‘I will give it to you.’ Come with us and we will treat you well, for the Lord has promised good things to Israel.”
30 He answered, “No, I will not go; I am going back to my own land and my own people.”
31 But Moses said, “Please do not leave us. You know where we should camp in the wilderness, and you can be our eyes. 32 If you come with us, we will share with you whatever good things the Lord gives us.” (Numbers 10:29b-32)
Even though God has good things ahead, Hobab is resistant to change, resistant to moving. He is comfortable in his inertia. And even when they get there, the Israelites long for the comforts that they knew back in Egypt:
11 Now the people complained about their hardships in the hearing of the Lord, and when he heard them his anger was aroused. Then fire from the Lord burned among them and consumed some of the outskirts of the camp. 2 When the people cried out to Moses, he prayed to the Lord and the fire died down. 3 So that place was called Taberah, because fire from the Lord had burned among them.
4 The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, “If only we had meat to eat! 5 We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. 6 But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!” (Numbers 11:1-6)
How quickly they forget that in Egypt they were slaves, and that though they say the food was “at no cost,” it was at the cost of their sweat and freedom.
I think these two extracts reveal something about human nature. Most of us don’t like change. Even a change to something better may cause us some grumbling, because we are creatures of habit. We prefer “the devil we know” because we have become familiar with it, and change brings with it some uncertainties.
I remember being in East Germany just after the Wall came down in 1989, and there was an initial flush of excitement and exuberance at being delivered from the grip of East German communism, and its security apparatus, the Stasi.
But within a few short months, the complaining started. Under the old regime, jobs were guaranteed, even though they were low paid, housing and utilities were subsidized, life was secure. But it was secure in the sense that it was a prison, with little room for individuality or freedom of expression. The people lived in fear that any murmurings against the State would be reported to the Stasi, and then they could expect a midnight visit with unpleasant consequences, and might never see their families again.
Under the new, capitalist regime, there was indeed freedom. But this meant that there was no longer a guaranteed job for everybody, that your child was not automatically given a free place in Kindergarten etc., etc. That’s not the way a market-driven economy works. And companies that were formerly propped up and subsidized by the State now had to lay off workers to become profitable. And so, the complaining. “Perhaps it was better the old way. At least we knew what to expect. At least it was secure.”
So, from the Desert of Paran, to Berlin, now to the 21st century church. I wondered, as I was reading this, whether we too are settled in with inertia. We like things the way they are. We don’t want change. The reality often is that when a smaller church starts growing, people become unhappy.
“Yes, new people are coming to faith and are being baptized, and that’s great, but I miss the intimate feel of the small church. I miss knowing everybody’s name.”
This is entirely understandable, and this is why it is the pastor’s job to continually remind the people why we are here. We are not here to simply be a Christian social club, small and exclusive. We are here to be a beachhead of God’s kingdom on earth, extending the invitation to others and embracing them as they want to belong to this wonderful family of faith.
In a very real sense, we may have to choose between “the cozy” and “the cause.”
And with that truth in mind, we can expect a certain amount of discomfort or dislocation as Christians. We may be enjoying or very familiar with “what is,” but it’s fairly sure that God has something beyond that in mind for us. Are we willing to “break camp” as the Israelites did, sometimes after 2 days, sometimes after a year, and go where God will lead us. And to do so without grumbling and longing for the old days?
Or will we remain where we are, resistant like Hobab, complaining like the Israelites?
As my current church is about to celebrate its 75th anniversary, this is an interesting time. Naturally, we want to celebrate all that God has done over the past 75 years. But we do not want to fall into the nostalgia trap of thinking that the best days are behind us.
As much as I appreciate, and am deeply thankful for the rich heritage of faith at Central Christian Church, I dare to believe that even greater days may be ahead, as we seek to be a people responsive to the Lord, chasing hard after His Will, seeking His kingdom above all else.
May it be so!