Hope, Hopelessness and Building Community
I preached recently at church all about Moses crying out to God in hopelessness. It came a few weeks after George Floyd’s murder and a week after the Forbury Gardens attack in Reading. As I prepared my heart felt heavy and thinking about Moses crying out to God in hopelessness felt somewhat appropriate.
This week I saw a post on Instagram about how grief and hope could co-exist and it was something that clearly resonated with a lot of people given the conversations I had after sharing it.
When I take a funeral service I often talk about this tension between loss and gratitude. Between hopelessness and hope. Between the grief and loss of a precious person and the gratitude for the memories and time we shared with that person. Then I invite those attending to feel all that they are feeling, allowing both the tears and the smiles. Sitting with all that they’re feeling and letting it all be valid.
It was something I also explored in my sermon so I wanted to share it in case anyone else is needing that permission today. Permission to feel all that they’re feeling, to allow the tears and the smiles and to bring it all before God. To sit with the hope and the hopelessness.
So, I’ve edited my sermon notes for you to have a read but if you fancy having a listen rather than a read then you can do that here.
MSG // 11-15 Moses said to God, “Why are you treating me this way? What did I ever do to you to deserve this? Did I conceive them? Was I their mother? So why dump the responsibility of this people on me? Why tell me to carry them around like a nursing mother, carry them all the way to the land you promised to their ancestors? Where am I supposed to get meat for all these people who are whining to me, ‘Give us meat; we want meat.’ I can’t do this by myself—it’s too much, all these people. If this is how you intend to treat me, do me a favour and kill me. I’ve seen enough; I’ve had enough. Let me out of here.”
16-17 God said to Moses, “Gather together seventy men from among the leaders of Israel, men whom you know to be respected and responsible. Take them to the Tent of Meeting. I’ll meet you there. I’ll come down and speak with you. I’ll take some of the Spirit that is on you and place it on them; they’ll then be able to take some of the load of this people—you won’t have to carry the whole thing alone.Numbers 11:10-17
We find the Israelites in the wilderness, on their way to the promised land. Complaining. Again. A nation that are so blessed but seem to so easily forget. Ok, living in the wilderness wouldn’t have been fun but God has literally brought them out of slavery in Egypt and revealed Himself to them over and over again. But, instead of gratitude, they complain.
We’re going to look at Moses and what we can learn from his honest outpouring to God but first I wonder if there’s something for us to reflect on from the Israelites’ response? A lesson for us as God’s people.
The Israelites have had manna. God has provided them with food. But they want meat. They lose sight of all God has provided and his promises for them and they begin to grumble and complain.
Who do we complain to?
Firstly, they go to Moses rather than God. When we complain who do we go to first? Do we take our heart to God or do we complain to others? If we are complaining about problems in the church, do we expect our leaders to respond rather than chatting to God first?
The Israelites were focussed on their own comfort and happiness and lost sight of God’s Kingdom and righteousness. Camping in the wilderness must have been unpleasant, it was not the promised land but perhaps the people needed to adjust to the reality of their journey. Acknowledging it might be uncomfortable but that God was still good, and His promises were still true.
What does this look like for us?
Is this ever true for us in our lives? Do we lose sight of God’s promises? Never fully being satisfied… always asking for more?
There is always hope. God has promised us so much as His children but we can lose sight of that, we can forget and need to come back before Him.
Perhaps this feels true in the current coronavirus crisis more than ever. Church doesn’t look like normal and community is difficult, but what would happen to our hearts if instead of complaining we chatted honestly with God? If we acknowledged that maybe this a situation that we have to live with for the present and asked for Him to speak to us in it, asked Him to help us to help our leaders at church as they lead us through it? If we adjusted to the reality of this journey, knowing we’re in a tough place, but focusing on God’s promises and all we have to look forward to. How might that change our hearts right now?
The Israelites didn’t do that. We see they complained to Moses. And it got too much for him. He feels frustrated.
He feels despondent. The definition of despondent is ‘being unhappy because you are experiencing difficulties which you think you won’t be able to overcome’. Hopelessness.
Moses became hopeless because he listened to the Israelites complaining about problems he could not fix. Where in the wilderness was he going to get enough meat to feed two and a half million people?!
Letting complaints and impossible demands get to you is a sure fire way to head towards hopelessness.
As well as letting the complaints get to him, Moses tried to do it by himself.
We’ll look in a moment at how God instructs Moses to build community and we’ll see how there were other leaders amongst the people who he could perhaps have already turned to. However, Moses took it all upon himself, he tried to do everything on his own and he burned out.
Losing sight of hope
Finally, like the Israelites, in spite of all he’s experienced and knows about God, Moses forgets God’s power and promises. He loses sight of hope and he cries out. Asking why God has put this burden on him? He loses focus on God and is overwhelmed by the burden of looking after the Israelites.
It’s hard not to feel for Moses. Things have gotten too much, and understandably so.
And he’s not the first leader in the Bible to have gotten to that place of despondency.
Job suffered and wished he could die. Jeremiah wished he had never been born. (Jer 15:10, 20:14-18). Jonah wanted God to judge the people of Nineveh and kill him (Jonah 4:3). Elijah, who had seen God do the most incredible things, asked God to take his life.
The Bible doesn’t shy away from sharing people’s deepest, darkest feelings.
The Bible normalises them, makes it clear that all emotions are valid.
So, we see Moses here. Completely hopeless, frustrated and just totally fed-up. He cries out to God, “I am sick and tired of this… if you really love me LORD, kill me right now”. He is not in a good place but he prays honestly from his heart.
And what we see is God won’t answer Moses request, but he will answer the prayer of his heart. Moses doesn’t want to see his own hopelessness, his ‘own ruin’. But this again is another prayer God won’t answer. God wants Moses to see himself. He wants him to see his inability to fix the problem without God. When Moses acknowledges his weakness, then he can be strong in God’s strength (as we see in 2 Corinthians 12:9).
When we’re completely overwhelmed with hopelessness, what do we do? Do we take the feelings to God and let go of them? Or do we have a tendency to shut down?
I remember once at University I was with a girl who was a relatively new Christian. She was feeling very angry about some stuff from her past and wanted to chat about what the Bible said. I suggested we pray and she said, “I can’t talk to God. I’m angry at Him.” She didn’t think she could come before God and express her deepest, darkest feelings. Her anger.
And how often do we do that? Dwell on the anger. Groan to others (like the Israelites perhaps?) And not take our honest prayers straight to God?
Sometimes we can think we need to act like everything’s ok. To put on a brave face. To not cry.
But in the Bible when people come before God, when Moses came before God, He doesn’t tell him not to feel what he’s feeling. In fact he acknowledges that the burden is big and he helps him work his way through it.
God doesn’t always take away the storm but he is with us in it. He teaches us in relationship with him. He doesn’t fix our feelings but he walks alongside us in our hopelessness.
Moses reaction here can seem extreme perhaps because we’re not always good at talking about despondency and depression. The Bible is full of encouragement for us in hard times, making it abundantly clear that times will be hard, our faith will tested. Feeling despondent and losing hope is normal. But, even though we sometimes lose sight of it, there is always hope.
In fact, this is the overarching message of Scripture. Genesis 1 and 2 are full of hope then from Genesis 3 to Revelation 22 we encounter hopelessness. Until that day we are with God again in Heaven.
Every good story follows the same narrative. It’s why we watch superhero films like the Marvel ones, they follow this hope, despondency, hope cycle. Losing hope is normal. Yet sometimes we can find it hard to be open and honest and bring our hopelessness before the Lord.
All emotions are valid
All emotions are valid. And God knows and expects them all. He wants us to connect with Him, and for us pour out our hearts honestly in relationship with Him.
So, Moses pours out his heart and is totally honest with God. God doesn’t fix the feeling, and he doesn’t tell him not to feel it. Let’s look at what he does to meet Moses’ needs.
16 The Lord said to Moses: “Bring me seventy of Israel’s elders who are known to you as leaders and officials among the people. Have them come to the tent of meeting, that they may stand there with you. 17 I will come down and speak with you there, and I will take some of the power of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them. They will share the burden of the people with you so that you will not have to carry it alone.Numbers 11:16-17
If you’ve heard me preach before, or if you know me, you’ll know I LOVE this solution.
God suggests community.
Life for Moses probably could have been quite lonely. Given what we know about him, he may have been one of the only males his age in his community. He had his brother but he hadn’t always been the wisest person to go to. In fact when Moses was being picked for leadership there may not have been that many contenders for the position.
Leading people who complained as much as the Israelites was probably quite lonely!
So, what instructions does God give Moses for building community?
Firstly, he told him to pick people who were leaders and officials. Not to pick the people he thought should become leaders but those who were already known because of their wisdom and ministry to others. These were people already chosen by God and recognised by the people. So, he’s telling Moses to pick people who God has already said are wise.
Secondly, he says, get them so that ‘they may stand there with you.’ The call for this community was to stand alongside Moses, before God. To support Moses with their presence. A simple but powerful act when Moses has been serving alone in leadership and feeling alone in his hopelessness.
Thirdly, God says, (v17) ‘I will take some of the power of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them’. This community are to have the same heart, vision and Spirit that was on Moses. They are to have God’s heart so they can serve well together. And I think it’s important to note that God doesn’t say, ‘pick people who share your vision’ but that they will share God’s vision. They will serve in agreement with one another but challenge and encourage one another as together they pursue God’s heart.
And finally, (v17) ’They will share the burden of the people with you so that you will not have to carry it alone.’ This community was going to help Moses carry the weight spiritually – to help him care for the people, and support him in ministry.
God acknowledges that it is a burden, he acknowledges that it is hard and he provides community to help Moses. To ensure Moses doesn’t have to carry it alone.
God gives Moses instructions to create intentional community.
So, how do we create community like that for ourselves?
Is our community built of people who are full of Godly wisdom and who challenge us to connect with God?
Do we have community who simply stand alongside us in God’s presence?
Do we share God’s vision and heart with those people?
When you feel burdened by what God has put on your heart, do you have people who help you care and hold the weight of that burden?
How do we get that?
The community Moses was to create didn’t just happen organically. God gave him specific instructions for intentionally building community.
And we can do the same.
We can choose, like the characters in the Bible who shared their utter joy and hopelessness, to be honest and vulnerable, with God and with our community, allowing our relationships to go deeper. Sharing our hearts and challenging each other to draw closer to God.
Creating intentional community
We can seek out those people we want to stand alongside and invite them into community with us.
When we first arrived at our church and were trying to figure out what our community might look like, we had lots of people welcoming us. We ended up having lunch with one of those couples in their garden a week after arriving. Partly, we pushed it because we really wanted to be fed (and now we’ve tasted their cooking we know that was not a wrong decision) but mostly when we met them we sensed they were wise and we wanted to be in community with them. And they, amongst others, are people who we have sought to be in community with, to connect with regularly, to have our kids get to know, to know they are standing alongside us in God’s presence and people we can go to if we feel alone.
Another example for me is when I began preaching at Greyfriars and our Youth Pastor and I started to chat through our sermons together. Finding time to chat through our thoughts and listen to God for one another. In fact this week he knew I was preaching and before I even asked he asked me if I wanted to chat it through, even in lockdown he was stood alongside me.
Perhaps you can picture now who those people are in your community. Or perhaps if you don’t have those people then today is an opportunity to ask God who the wise people you need to invite into community are?
The people who will stand alongside you, reminding you of God’s promises and power.
If today you’re feeling hopeless what would it look like to be totality honest with God?
How could you seek to build intentional community? Could you ask God to bring people to mind?
And finally, do you need permission today to feel all that you’re feeling? To sit in that place of hope and hopelessness, to allow the tears and the smiles and to bring it all before God?
Wherever you’re at today I pray that you would now God’s presence, and that you would find community with Him and with others.
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