The book of Numbers is often about people of modern-day California, because it’s often about people who grumble about where they live. And therefore we need to consider its ancient lessons, about staying or leaving California.
The book of Numbers follows the Exodus, and by Numbers 20, as the people move through the wilderness, Moses is worn down, by the people’s grumbling.
This grumbling is understandable, humanly speaking. They’ve literally run out of water, a necessity for life (20:2). But they do more than complain: they “assemble against” and “quarrel with” Moses. It’s religiously uncouth to quarrel with God, so they take their frustrations out on Moses. But then this grumbling shows its true devilish source, when the boil is lanced and out comes the pus of lies:
– They would be better off dead (3)
– Moses’ purpose is to kill them (4)
– The place itself is evil (5)
Never mind the fact that they are still in the desert only because they had previously rejected the Promised Land (chapter 14), out of their lack of faith. It’s a devilish, dirty mess.
Discipline, Because of Grace
But what comes next from God is wholly surprising, and yet wholly within His character: He says nothing about their grumbling. There is no discipline (that will come in the next chapter). Instead He simply instructs Moses to tap the rock, and give them what they need. Whatever law we find operating in the Old Testament, it’s always being worked out inside God’s overall attitude of undeserved favor – grace.
Again, they DO experience discipline (chapter 21). But this is for their repentance, that they might continue following God, Who is still graciously leading them to the Promised Land, through His anointed leader, Moses. This is why, throughout these chapters, God’s discipline comes most swiftly and strongly not when the people grumble, but when that grumbling causes them to defect from Moses.
This is because the safest place in the world for them is not to go back to Egypt, nor is it to take up arms and fight the battles themselves. The safest place is to go wherever Moses leads them. Because God has set His favor on them, and given them Moses to lead them in His grace (Numbers 23:23):
For there is no enchantment against Jacob,
For there is no enchantment against,
No divination against Israel;
now it shall be said of Jacob and Israel,
“What has God wrought!”
Despite all their faults, they still live under His unmerited favor, His grace. And under that favor, mediated to them through Moses, no threat can stand against them; no army can defeat them.
Up to Today
Today we live and move through our wilderness, led as God’s people by the one Moses prefigured and pointed to, the greater Moses: Jesus. We are led by the same rock that led and supplied the people then (1 Cor. 10:4). And thus this story was recorded for us, that we might not desire to defect from Him, as they did (1 Cor. 10:11-12). Which lands us right in the middle of many folks’ considerations, about whether to stay or leave California.
Many people have made the decision to leave the state in the last decade – the recent Census data proves this. Some demographers say that this has been going on for some time, hidden by an inflow of illegal immigration, which dried up during COVID. And in our church, we will lose at least two families this year to freer, less-expensive states.* And I know of at least one church in Idaho that has tips for relocation on their website’s front page, for all the newcomers – mostly from California.
As a pastor, of course I don’t like this outflow, because we love these folks, and because I see God doing something good and strong and life-giving here at Grace. I would like everyone to remain and help in this spiritual building project. But as a father and a husband, I get it. I’ve lived in the Midwest and Rocky Mountain regions, and this is clearly the most expensive and governmentally-intrusive situation I’ve lived under. And California is both inviting and luxuriating in the judgment of God, six ways to Sunday. I get why someone would want to avoid the scorched earth.
So it’s not my place to say, as a pastor, whether you should stay or go. We all have to answer to God for what we do with what we are given. It’s not on me to judge another Man’s servant. In Christ, you are free men. Thus, as Paul told slaves, if you can avail yourself of your freedom, and you want to, do it. Or don’t, if you don’t. Love God, and do what you want.
Now, it’s that first part of that last sentence – “Love God” – that’s the kicker. The lesson of Numbers is this: whatever you do, either way, don’t defect from God.
If you stay, don’t stew in endless grumbling about the idiocies oozing out of Sacramento. Yes, see what is right and wrong. Don’t play the pollyanna. But step out of the grumbling, and return to a vibrant, vigorous mission, following your greater Moses. No “divination” from the governor’s or the President’s pen can ultimately prevail against the grace of God that rests on us. Rest in His grace on you, and out of that rest, courageously fulfill your mission, here. Love God, and love your neighbor, by sharing the gospel with them, and by standing up for their God-given rights. Love God and love the neighbor kids, by resisting godless, insane indoctrination, in the schools. Share the gospel. Live the mission.
But in the same way, if you decide to move, move on the mission, in loyal love to your Lord. You are free – if you want to move, move. But land in your new place with your feet already moving on the mission. Because if you defect from God – if you become so distracted by what’s wrong, so that that’s all that fills your vision – you will wander from the Giver of Life and become your own worst enemy, no matter where you live. Your worst enemy will travel with you in the U-Haul to Texas. Even a conservative – yes, even one like you – can gain the whole world by moving, and yet still lose his own soul.
Neither Here, Nor There
The only way forward is to set your life on the mission, loyally loving the One God has appointed, trusting him to lead you to the only Promised Land. Only then can we do what Paul commands in 1 Cor. 7:31:
. . . And those who deal with the world [must live] as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.
Paul’s point here is not to go into the desert and become a hermit. It’s that we must not make the things of this world things of ultimate, life-determining significance. Only one Person has earned that spot in our hearts, and He did so by raising Himself from the dead.
So then, if you are following Him, in loyal love, I suspect your decision to stay or go will be a pretty good one. Either way, you will be a courageous and useful person, who fulfills the Great Commandment, whether here or there: you will love God, and out of that love, you will love your neighbor enough to share the gospel with them, and stand up for them to defend their rights, against the encroaching darkness. And maybe, in leading you on that mission, King Jesus will lead you to leave, or stay. Either way, it’s just a waystop. The precursor to the Promised Land that exists now is not a state, but a people – the body of Christ. Love him, love His body, and you will do well. His church will be be built up, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it – neither here, nor there.
- * By “freer”, I mean the general level of intrusion of government into personal, family and church spheres of life.