This Sunday is the fifteenth anniversary of the events of September 11, 2001. As I reflect on our experiences in New York that day I recall the way New Yorkers talked to one another, caring for and supporting one another. Churches in the city were full – people grieving lost loved ones, others looking for answers. But within weeks, for most, the non-churchgoing pattern of life returned.
Is there anything we can do that might make a difference in a post 9/11 world? Come with me to Numbers 14 and a prayer of Moses.
A little over three millennia ago, God’s people were on the southern border of ancient Canaan. Twelve Hebrew spies had brought in their reports. All were agreed on the prosperity of the land. They had a bunch of grapes to prove it!
But their report was divided. Ten said that the cities were well defended and the legendary sons of Anak were in the Canaanite armies. But two of the group, Caleb and Joshua, had provided a minority report. ‘Yes, the odds are against us,’ they said, ‘but we should go and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it. God is with us’.
No one listened. Taking Canaan might be God’s promise, but it would be at a cost: lives would be lost. Could they really trust God on the basis of a ‘word to Moses’? They rejected the words of the men who trusted God at his Word – ‘the possibility thinkers’.
In Numbers 14:11f we read God’s chilling words: “How long will this people despise me? And how long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them? I will strike them with pestilence and disinherit them…”
God went on to make an offer to Moses: “I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they.”
This must have seemed extraordinarily attractive to Moses. He would be rid of this fickle crowd. However his response was to pray: “Then the Egyptians will hear of it! (Numbers 14:13).
He didn’t make excuses for Israel, pleading mitigating circumstances. Rather, he appealed to the character of God: “In your might or power you brought these people from Egypt…” he said. Aren’t you a God of your word?’
‘What will the nations think?’ he continued. “If you kill this people all at one time, then the nations who have heard about you will say, ‘It is because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land he swore to give them that he has slaughtered them in the wilderness.’”
Most of all Moses appealed to God’s unchangeable love: “And now, therefore, let the power of the Lord be great in the way that you promised when you spoke, saying, ‘The Lord is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but by no means clearing the guilty…”
What a moving prayer this is. Here is a single individual praying, and the fate of God’s people hinges on it. How can the prayer of any man or woman possibly have such significance?
Moses’ prayer shows us that it is because of God’s character we can be very confident when we pray. Moses knew that God is a God of his word. Above all he knew that God is a God of mercy.
An outcome of Moses’ prayer was that God tempered his judgment with mercy. The people were forgiven, but they were destined to die without seeing the promise.
So what do we learn from this? With the coming of the Lord Jesus we live under another, very different covenant. God’s promise now is not to a specific race of people but to all people. It is not about land or material wealth.
In Matthew 16:18 we read that Jesus is committed to build his church. As he died on the cross he prayed, ‘Father forgive them…’ Following his resurrection he commissioned his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations, teaching them to observe all that he had taught.
We can be sure of this: God is committed to drawing men and women everywhere to himself through the Lord Jesus Christ.
What if everyone who reads this ‘Word’ were to commit to pray for three or four people? Would our prayers make a difference? Moses knew that his prayer would because of who God is.
Do you have the same confidence? Do you pray earnestly and consistently that God will act with mercy to people you know for the honor of his name?
© John G. Mason