“They Might Be Giants”

February 12, 2012


Numbers 13:25-14:9

Mark 8:22-25


The Old Testament book “Numbers” is in Hebrew, called “In the Wilderness.” That’s a good title, I think. It refers to the long period, traditionally forty years, that the Hebrew people spent wandering after the exodus from Egypt. This book tells of a people who found that, in the strange providence of God, the journey from promise to fulfillment took a round about way through the wilderness.[i]

At one point in these desert wanderings, the people come close to the Promised Land. Moses, their leader, sends Joshua, Caleb, and others to spy out the land. Are the people who live there strong or weak? Few or many? Is the land good or bad, rich or poor—and does it have any trees. “Be bold,” Moses tells them. And since it was the season for grapes, he adds, “Bring back some of the fruit.”

It makes good sense, really, doesn’t it? Look before you leap. Know what you’re getting into. Going into unknown territory—a new business, a new relationship, any new venture—requires open eyes.

The spies take forty days—and any time you see the number forty in the Bible, you know they’re talking about a long time. They come back with some grapes and figs and pomegranates.

Their report is mixed. The land is good. It “flows with milk and honey.” The people, however, are strong and their cities are fortified. In addition to that—and here’s the real down side—they “saw the descendents of Anak there.” You see, Anak’s descendents were regarded as unusually tall people. They might be giants.

What to do? What to do?

Caleb assesses the situation and advises moving ahead: “Let us go up at once and occupy it.” Weighing the pros and cons he decides it’s best to get any obstacles out of the way and go forward—to finally enter the land of promise.

The rest of the spies have a different spin.

They tell the assembled people: “This is a land that devours its inhabitants. The people there are so great in size that to ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers. And those giants thought the same thing.”

Maybe it’s a matter of how you look at things.

Parents know that the night shadows can play tricks on a child’s eyes. What in the daytime is a loveable stuffed animal becomes a threatening monster when illuminated only by the nightlight. And day or night, from the vantage point of someone just thirty inches off the ground, we adults may look like giants.

Of course, we know that a Teddy bear is just a Teddy bear, that there are no giants.


And yet, how often we see giants even as adults. Sometimes we fear something because it looks large and overwhelming. Often, however, the challenges of life appear as giants because we fear them. Fear can make the giants seem invincible.

The people receive the report with fear and are ready to go back to Egypt. Caleb and Joshua suggest that, even if there are giants, God will be with them as they move forward. And that sounds inspiring and encouraging.

The next verse after this, however, reads: “But, the whole congregation threatened to stone them.” So much for peaceful conflict resolution.

Now, what might all of this mean for us as a congregation, as God’s fearful and faithful people?

The first thing that comes to my mind right now is the unanimous vote by this congregation to raise $500,000 for repairs and renovations around here.

For nearly 150 years, our church building has been a place of worship, education, music, fellowship, and service to our community and to the world.

Our steeple shines a light in the darkness on the downtown and the UI campus.

Our “Dove of Peace” window announces God’s hope for all creation.

Our doors open wide to welcome all people into our common life.

Our pulpit announces a liberal faith that respects questions and nurtures body, mind, and spirit.

Our chapel provides a place of meditation and quiet in a busy and noisy city.

Our rooms offer space for meetings, counseling, learning, and support.

Truly, our current congregation has received a wonderful gift in this place, handed on to us from those who were good stewards of our building in years past. Engineers tell us that because of the past and current care given to this building, there is every reason to think that it will last at least into the next century if we keep it dry and in good general repair. Many times this congregation has made the decision to stay in this place—and that decision has a firm foundation.

Now it is our turn to provide some major repairs and renovations to this place so that it will stand as a center of prayer and action in the years ahead. We get to continue to use this building and we will be able to pass it on to generations yet to come.

When the Trustees started to consider the work that was needed, they were encouraged to “think big.” Some might think that “big” eventually became “gigantic” as the estimates for a new roof over the sanctuary and on the steeple, repair of the woodwork outside, tuck-pointing, covering the cost of our new sound system, fixing those beautiful front doors so that they actually do open with some ease, and a few other projects quickly came to at least $500,000. (And I’m wondering, which sounds greater: $500,000 or half a million dollars?)

No doubt some will hear those figures and think: “Giants!”

Well, we are calling in some modern day “Calebs” and “Joshuas” who would go up against the “descendants of Anak”—people like you and me. And after all the members have listened to the campaign committee members and made their pledges I think what we’re going to discover is that the “giant” wasn’t so big after all. Using the resources with which God has blessed this congregation, giving generously, we can meet and most likely surpass our goal.

In some ways this might be because we are the descendants in faith of some very ambitious and daring people. In the 1860’s our Congregational ancestors here built one of the largest and most expensive churches west of the Mississippi. In the middle of the Great Depression, they risked a major renovation and remodeling of our building, including steeple repairs that had scaffolding rising high above Clinton St. Of course, it was never just a building for the sake of a building. Faithful Congregationalists have used this place to both seek God and seek the good.

As our own Great Recession continues to show signs of an end, there is no better time to do the work that is needed. We’re not talking about an architect’s plans or a building that might go up someday. We’re talking about a place that is used by us and many others throughout the week.

In recent years we have grown as a congregation—not just in numbers but in action and in commitment. We’ve looked at our city and at the university and are finding new ways of ministering to the community that surrounds us. We’ve opened our doors and people once again know where the Congregational Church is.

Now might be the best time to raise this money.

But a word of caution.

When we reach our goal—and we will—and make the needed repairs and renovations—and we will—there will be new “giants” that people will see out there. There always will be.

The future can be scary. New programs can be scary. Change can be scary. Or at least such things scare me at times. They can loom like giants in the imagination of our hearts and minds. Like the Hebrews who longed to go back to slavery in Egypt, we naturally prefer the past or present discomfort that we know to the future discomfort that we don’t know.

We are a congregation that ministers to individuals and families, that provides opportunities for people of all ages to explore their faith and seek justice, a congregation known for music that inspires and lifts the spirit, a congregation that reaches out to our community. But growing in these ways can be disturbing.

What we need is the clear vision that faith provides.

Jesus touches the eyes of a blind man. He asks, “Can you see anything?”

The man replies, “I can see people but they look like trees, walking.”

A second touch and his sight is restored.

This is the only story in Mark’s gospel of a miracle that happens gradually. And yet this gradual quality is what gives this story its ring of truth. We know that restoration, new health usually occurs in stages.

Little by little, God helps us to see more clearly. What looked like trees are actually people. What looked like giants are actually opportunities for us to grow and to find new strength.

While I’ve been thinking a lot about our capital campaign—and taking a lot about it this morning, you might be facing and thinking about other giants today. The scripture lessons invite us to let our eyes be opened. Take a second look. A problem that seems a mile high might only be a micron thin. And maybe those giants just aren’t as invincible as they seem.

Remember the message of Christmas, which is also the message of Easter: “Do not be afraid.”

Remember that the future toward which we always move is the gift of a loving God.

Come to think of it. Those are pretty good suggestions for living in general. Let us seek clear sight and generous hearts.

[i] See introduction to Numbers in Oxford Annotated NRSV.