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Millions of migrants escape from terror to seek a better life for their families

August 3, 2015

Numbers 11: 4-15                             Monday 3rd August 2015

We moved on from the Book of Exodus to the Book of Numbers. It is called the Book of Numbers because in chapter 1 they have a census of the people of Israel who have escaped from Egypt; and then at the end of the Book of Numbers there is another census 39 years later. The Jewish people call this book ‘In the Wilderness’, because it is all about the 40 years that the People of God spend in the wilderness. And as I have said before, it’s not in chronological order necessarily, it is in order of importance. It is about an important journey through time…. a very long journey. And it was a very long journey because of the foolishness of the people: they could’ve got to the Promised Land much quicker, but because of their disobedience they are left for 40 years wandering around.

Hidden in today’s first extract from the Book of Numbers the message is about rebellion and sin by the people; and God’s patience with His people.

I mentioned the census: you might be interested to know that in the second year after the exodus from Egypt things have moved on and the Israelites are making their way, they counted all the men over the age of 20 and below the age of 50 (some say up to 60) – basically they counted the guys who were fit and ultimately able to fight. And there were 603,550. That’s a very precise number, isn’t it!

600,000+ able-bodied men. The people who study these things and know about population statistics say that probably means there were about 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 million people in total. Amazing isn’t it.

Now, the reading in Hebrews start with ‘The sons of Israel began to wail.’ Actually, that’s only the second half of the first sentence. I don’t know why they’ve left the first half of the sentence out. It says ‘The rabble who had joined the people were overcome with greed, and the sons of his Israel began to wail.’ Yes, they use the word ‘rabble’.

Who are this ‘rabble’? These were people who were probably slaves in Egypt with the Jews, and they’ve come out of slavery with them; they are ‘camp followers’, they’re not the Jewish people. They are described using the Hebrew word ‘hasaphsuph‘, which can be translated as ‘rabble’ – it can even mean something like ‘riffraff’.

They are a rabble. They are group of people who are in tumult, in rebellion against Moses and they start making a lot of noise. Only after hearing the rabble did ‘the sons of Israel began to wail.’

We find ourselves in a similar situation now. People who moan about the dreadful situations they find themselves in…. everything is terrible, it’s all other people’s fault ….. blame the leaders. The danger is that our leaders can react to the rabble by acting rashly, with panic, in an effort to be seen to DO something…. anything!

I mention that because of the situation in Calais. We have several thousand people in Calais who want to get to this country for their own reasons. It turns out the majority of them are actually seeking asylum in this country. And you might say ‘why then don’t they ask for asylum in France?’ But the French government has links with a lot of the countries that these people have fled from. They are understandably frightened of being in France; and our country has a reputation for being a more tolerant society.

And yes, another reason: we are wealthier.

But we must not abuse that wealth. There is a real danger that a small number of people making a lot of noise can actually pressurise politicians in to do things which are actually outrageous.

For example, in all this hubbub, there is now a suggestion that the money will be cut off from the asylum seekers who are in this country who are with their families, making them destitute.  Listen to what Moses had to say and what the people of Israel were saying: ‘you brought us to this place with our families and we are starving and they will not feed us.’

It is a terrible thing, to remove all funding which would help destitute families. And on the news this morning – the Government is going to crack down on landlords so that there is nowhere for destitute asylum seekers to live in rented accommodation!

People complain that there is the problem – people complain and they get nostalgic about the past. Look at those people in the Book of Numbers who were complaining – two years earlier they were in slavery: now they are being nostalgic! Their memories have already distorted – they are saying ‘those were the good old days’!

These things are an important aspect of moulding a nation. Moses is leading these 2 million people, moulding them into a coherent nation. The nation of Israel is going through the trauma of becoming a nation. And it is growing up really, it’s sort of entering its childhood and teenage years….  You know what it’s like: the kids do complain about the food, don’t they! They won’t eat the food they’re given! And then the rebel against the authority that parents (we will hear about that tomorrow).

But such nostalgia is a risky thing. Consider again the history of our own country and compare it with Ancient Israel: Crossing the Red Sea’ was a seminal moment in Jewish history, a rallying point, an iconic moment, giving them a shared national identity. It is on a par with us enduring the Battle of Britain. Us, standing alone against a terrible enemy. Facing a real threat to the survival of our nation.

Yet that image can sometimes get distorted. I don’t know whether you know, but the Battle of Britain pilots…. a lot of them were ‘foreigners’! In fact, one in five of the pilots in the Battle of Britain were not British! They came from other countries. A lot from Poland. Refugees from terror, desperate people who had had their own country invaded. They were welcomed into this country and helped keep us free. We can forget about these things.

People quickly forget. People forget that one of the greatest successes of the European Union has been the longest period of peace ever known since Roman times in Europe. The ‘Pax Romana‘ was imposed on people, and if you objected to Roman rule you were ruthlessly crushed. And since 1945, the member countries of the European Union, who had traditionally been fighting each other for centuries and centuries, have been at peace.

And another great success of the EU is that because of peaceful co-operation we have become very wealthy. I looked at the figures: we joined the EU in 1973. Today our Gross Domestic Product is twice what it was in 1973! Now of course there are issues about sharing it out and how we share it out, and that is controversial. But this country is twice as rich as it was 40 years ago in 1973. 40 years – the length of time Moses was leading the people through the wilderness.

We should count our blessings and be grateful for what we have got. But we can make the mistake of relying on our distorted memories, on nostalgia and think things were better in the past, begrudging the present. And this is precisely what is going on with the People of Israel being led by Moses.

Moses seems to react in a strange way  – he himself seems to be complaining against God, and he seems to be angry. That is a very Jewish tradition and it’s called a ‘lament’. And we are entitled to do that. Sometimes things happen that make us really angry. We feel abandoned. We may say, ‘What is God doing? Why have I been left in this situation? It’s really difficult for me.’

Of course God is keeping an eye on us, of course God is looking after us. Ultimately He will do what is best for us – sometimes we forget that. We mustn’t do that. A lament is a Jewish way of praying to God and, if you like, ‘getting it out of the system’. Laments at for when we feel really angry or let down; and then in the second half of a lament is where we find that God responds; and a proper lament always ends up with praising God. Things work out.

Moses is saying, ‘What can I DO in the face of this rebellion?’ But, like Moses, we must be careful, because everything we do has consequences.

What were the consequences for the Jewish people and for Moses when their faith in God began to leave them? Well, even though they began to complain, God continued to look after them. But as a result of the turmoil,  the arguments, the disagreements, the confusion, and the lack of leadership, they were left wandering around for 40 years. It’s part of growing up – they were preparing to move to the Promised Land (and they will eventually get there).

But certain things that we do today, that we complain about, and then we try and change to try and impose solutions based on human thinking – such actions can have long-term consequences which are not good for our nation. We have to be very careful about making that same mistake as the Israelites; we must learn to trust in God rather than in our own distorted view of the world.

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