The fortunes of the Israelites are starting to change. The older generation – which defied God’s command to enter the Promised Land – has pretty much died off. The younger generations are now preparing to do what their parents and grandparents refused to do – and God is blessing them.
They have started moving again – and on their way to the land of Moab, they come to the Valley of Beer,
where God tells Moses to gather the people together and He will give them water.
What do you notice about this? What’s missing from the usual story of God’s giving water to the Israelites?
Numbers 21 says nothing about complaining. No griping from the people. They had been following the pillar of cloud and fire faithfully, and God sees that they need water. They don’t even have to ask – He just gives it to them when they are gathered together and their leaders start digging a well.
Then they burst into song:
“Spring up, O well! Sing about it, about the well that the princes dug, that the nobles of the people
sank – the nobles with scepters and staffs.”
This is another change in the usual way of doing things: instead of having Moses smack a rock with his staff, the leaders of the Israelites dug a well. Kinda makes you wonder why they didn’t think of that before …
In any case, God still provides the water. Digging a well is no guarantee of success. But without digging, there is little or no chance of getting water.
The people of God have learned a valuable lesson from the bitter experience of their parents and grandparents: God knows their need as much as or even more than they know it – and God is willing to supply their need. But God wants them to put in some effort – and it will happen in God’s good time.
The next story sounds familiar – Moses sent a request to the king of the Amorites, asking for permission to pass through on the King’s Highway. And as happened with the Edomites, King Sihon mustered his army and marched out into the desert to attack the Israelites.
But this time, the Israelites fought back instead of changing course.
They had to, because they had no other way to get to the Promised Land.
And this time, the Amorite king was killed in battle and the Israelites captured all of his cities. Numbers 21 quotes an ancient poem:
“Fire went out from Heshbon, a blaze from the city of Sihon.
It consumed Ar of Moab, the citizens of Arnon’s heights.”
This was not a literal fire – but the Israelite army moved so quickly through Moab that it resembled a wildfire spreading.
When the Israelite camp had regrouped and started moving again toward Bashan, King Og marched his army out to meet them. He apparently had not been watching CNN – the Canaanite News Network – or he would have known about what happened to the Amorites.
God told Moses, “Do not be afraid of him, for I have handed him over to you, with his whole army and his land. Do to him what you did to Sihon king of the Amorites, who reigned in Heshbon.”
God is clearly fighting on the side of the Israelites – and Og and his entire army were wiped out.
Again we see that God knows the need of His people as much as or even more than they know it – and God is willing to supply their need. But God wants them to put in some effort – and it will happen in God’s good time.
This was now the time. After almost 40 years of wandering or camping out in the wilderness, it is time for the Israelites to claim their inheritance – the Promised Land. Nothing can stop them now. God will provide whatever they need – but God is working through them to provide it.
We see that so often in the Bible: God works through people to accomplish His will. Yes – God could just do everything Himself, but because our God is a God of relationship – just think of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in an eternal dance of relationship – God enjoys working in and through His people.
And God enjoys working in and through you and me. Sometimes the work looks intimidating – as I’m sure the Israelites were anxious when they saw the Amorite and Bashanite armies moving toward them. But the God who never changes is with us as much as with the ancient Israelites.
And God has given us signs and seals of His presence and power. Let’s look again at what John the Baptist said to the people when he saw Jesus approaching:
“I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”
We have our baptism, in which God declares us to be His much-loved children. And we have the Holy Spirit – which came like fire at Pentecost – causing the Gospel to spread like wildfire (or like the Israelite army through Bashan).
The Anglican Bishop and author N.T. Wright says that Christians are “water-and-fire people.” We live out of our baptism and we live in the power of the Spirit.
Our baptism is the symbolic start of our lifelong journey with Jesus – and the Holy Spirit is the living fire of God’s own presence and power, which comes to live inside us. But the Spirit is not just for us – it is God’s gift of Himself through us to the rest of the world, especially to the little bits of the world where He has called you and placed you.
I say, “called you and placed you”, because nothing is an accident. Our God knows the needs of the world, and has called you in baptism and empowered you by His Holy Spirit to fulfill some of those needs. But God asks you to work with Him – to put in some effort – and God will make it happen.
Our biggest single engagement with the community as a church takes place two weeks from tomorrow. Sometimes – when we struggle to find help or we don’t get as many kids as we would like and the kids we get don’t seem to be paying any attention – we wonder whether we’re making a difference. We may feel defeated even before we begin.
We had a girl who attended our VBS at Kirkwood for many years – and continued to come to help out for several more years. She hardly ever smiled and had a rather dark personality – accentuated by her black clothing – and probably the result of a messed-up home life. We wondered whether anything we taught her had ever sunk in.
Then one day, several of the high-school-aged volunteers were sitting around, talking. One of them said to her, “Why do you keep coming back? This doesn’t seem like it would be your thing.”
She replied, “This is the only week of the year that I am happy.”
We don’t know when it will happen – or what will trigger it – but God knows our need and the needs of the children of our community as much as or even more than we or they know it. God will supply those needs – in His good time – and may even let us be part of it. May we be willing to do our part – which we are able to do because of the water of our Baptism and the fire of God’s Spirit.