Sermon July 4th, 2021 by Rev. David Hodgson

When Truth Becomes the Minority Report

“So they brought to the people of Israel an evil report of the land which they had spied out.”            Numbers 13:32a

“So…they brought to the people…an evil report of the land…”  It compels me to ask why anyone would ever do such a thing ~ to lie about the goodness of the land and distort the beauty of its people, especially by those entrusted with leadership…among the twelve tribes of Israel, of course!

If there were nothing to fear of the land and its people why were they so fearful?  Was it because of some weakness within themselves that they felt they needed to hide?  Or perhaps because of some moral compromise along the way they knew would not withstand honest inquiry?  And being somewhat familiar with the riddle of the chicken and the egg, I wonder which came first:  Was it their fear that caused them to lie to the people, or was it the lies they told to the people that gave them reason to fear?

Since we too live in a time when false narratives are being told to the people over and over again by those who see themselves as leaders, we would do well to let God show us here in this passage how lying to the people quickly becomes a cycle of self-destruction.  And at once, how truth always prevails even when it has become the minority report.

Permit me, please, to let the passage unfold in this way.

Once upon a time, Moses really needed to know the truth about the land of Canaan that God had promised to the Hebrews and those who were already living upon that land.  He could not do a Google search and learn everything there was to know about the Canaanites because ~ well, because there was no Internet, so he  asked God what to do and God suggested that he enlist the services of one leader from each of the twelve tribes of Israel, men known for their integrity, valor and character, and send them in to spy out the land.  They were given specific instructions to evaluate the land and take stock of the people with great courage ~ and to bring back some fruit of the land.

They were gone for forty days and forty nights, and I’m sure Moses had moments when he wondered what was taking them so long.  Then one day they all came back ~ all twelve of them ~ and Moses was listening to their every word.  That’s when God’s story with us begins.

One of the spies told a little fib ~ small in size as fibs go, but huge in scope because it jeopardized the  credibility of God’s narrative with a chosen people for decades of recorded history ~ because he was afraid that the truth might cause him to lose influence with the people.  He said, “Moses, those people over there are stronger than we are so we have to turn back to Egypt.”

Moses was intrigues by the spy’s report, but countered with an assessment of the strength of his own people.  “But we are a strong people too.  Look at how far we’ve come and how we have survived!  We’ve come too far to turn back now!”

Then spy number two ~ because he was offended that Moses would dare to match his first-hand assessment of his own people against the second-hand knowledge of an unknown people ~ added to the lie his colleague in spy craft had offered:  “He’s right, Moses, they are not only stronger than we are but they are bigger than we are.”

Moses was startled indeed:  “Bigger?” he replied.  “As in taller, or wider, or heavier?”

Spy number three, sensing that the false narrative they were spinning was suffering for lack of credibility ~ or maybe realizing that the people were not as gullible as they were making them out to be, helped the lie to grow ever more.  “Oh, Moses, those people over there are not only big, they are huge!  I’ve seen them with my own eyes.”

“Huge people?” exclaimed Moses.  “I’ve never heard of such a thing.  I was under the impression that God made all of us to be relatively about the same size!”

Moses’ astonishment inspired spy number four to chime in.  He added to the lie because he wanted to be respected by his fellow spies, and he allowed himself to believe that the false narrative would eventually prevail and alter the course of this people of God if enough messengers of the news repeated the same story.  He lied about the people because he was afraid that the truth would discredit their narrative.  “Moses, I can vouch for the other three, those people are not only stronger and bigger, but they look real mean!”

“How can this be?” declared Moses.  “God would not bring us all this way just to have this people stop us!  There must be some way to inherit the blessing of the homeland promised by God.”

Now bringing God ~ or divine providence ~ into the public discussion is always problematic for those who lie because ~ well, because God is able to look upon the heart and expose the lie, and, well, because the will of God takes priority over the will of man. 

So, spy number five took the lie and made it bigger still ~ so much so that it seemed absolutely ridiculous.  It’s God’s way of showing us how those who lie to the people and promote their false narrative lose all credibility and actually try to make that which is ridiculous seem believable!   He said, “Moses, I kid you not, those people over there are so frightening, so huge, that compared to them we seemed like grasshoppers!”

So it was that the little fib told in fear grew bigger and bigger and bigger of necessity until it became really foolish/. Well, that’s what happened, and not only with five of the spies, but five more all added to the same lie ~ because, well, because they wanted to be on the right side of history and needed the false narrative to be accepted as the truth about a people and their land.

Then something amazing happened, and it changed everything!  Spy number eleven told the truth!  That must have taken special courage.  He said, “Moses, I disagree.  I went there, and saw the same people, and they are people just like you and me.  And here, this is the fruit of the land.  They sent it back with us as a welcome gift to the people of Israel”  

And guess what?  Spy number twelve spoke up and said, “He’s telling the truth, Moses, they are people just like you and me, and here is the fruit of the land.  They sent it here as a welcome gift when they learned of your interest in a land that flows with milk and honey. Therefore, let us go up at once and claim the inheritance that God has prepared for us!”

For those who know the Bible well, you know I’ve just taken some liberties with the text, but did so to align it with the sacred purpose of God throughout all of the Bible.  You see, the Bible is an amazing book because it not only reveals Divine Nature, but shows the ages human nature in all of its promise and with all of its peril.

Therefore, I have eliminated the thoughts of conquest imbedded in the text.  The Bible is filled with references implying that God intends the Jews to destroy their enemies and take possession of the land that God intends them to share with those already living there.  There is no reason to believe that God loved the Israelites more than the Philistines, or the Moabites, or the Canaanites, but intended all peoples to live on that Promised Land in peace together.

And I am persuaded that God put his account in the Holy Bible so that we would find it when we most have need of it.  It is the timeless image of how truth, even when it is the minority report, has power to undermine the false narratives by which a people are taught to fear their neighbors, and programmed to surrender their dreams to tyranny,  and driven to relinquish their faith to godlessness.

Those false narratives divide by race that which God has united in spirit, and turn once tranquil neighborhoods into hostile encampments.  False narratives redefine violence as therapeutic even when it is destructive to the common life of all; and they repeatedly attempt to tell us who to fear and who to silence, who to shame and whom to hate.

The Bible doesn’t tell us what happened to those leaders who became spies and perpetrated a false narrative.  Maybe God just figured that we’d find out for ourselves one day.  I suspect that when the people of Israel discover the extent to which they had been lied to, and realized that none of what ten of their leaders was true, that ~ well, let’s just imagine that they were no longer invited to prestigious cocktail parties, no longer called upon to be keynote speakers at awards banquets or political fundraisers, and were generally shunned as appropriate social sanctions were imposed upon them.

For once their collective lying was revealed, it would have been obvious to one and all why God carved into stone this timeless warning:   Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”