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No Country for Old Men

May 6, 2012

Sermon:  No Country for Old Men
Text:  Numbers 13-14; Joshua 14

“No Country for Old Men” is an appropriate title today on this Senior Adult Sunday.  That phrase actually appears in the first line of “Sailing to Byzantium,” written by William Butler Yeats.  In the opening lines of the poem, Yeats describes a country more suited for young people falling in love, a country where the joys of youthfulness and springtime permeate all aspects of life there.  In contrast, “An aged man is but a paltry thing, a tattered coat on a stick.”  Sailing to Byzantium, described as a “holy city” in the poem, offers a solution to the agony of old age.

“No Country for Old Men” became the title of a novel written by Cormac McCarther in 2005.  A movie of the same name, which followed in 2007, won four Academy Awards, including Movie of the Year.  The story, set in the remote desert of southern Texas along the Mexican border, centers around an illicit drug deal that has gone terribly wrong.  Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, a World War II veteran, has become very weary of law enforcement.  Now his hands are filled with one very complicated murder after another.  The plot follows this old, tired, and weary sheriff as he unsuccessfully tries to solve the case before he retires.  Sheriff Bell is the character who reflects, “This is no country for old men.”

Consider how God used senior adults to do His work.  First, God chose an eighty-year-old man, Moses, to go into Egypt to declare freedom, deliverance, for the people of Israel.  God, speaking through a burning bush that was not consumed, pointed out to Moses that he must follow God’s orders, regardless of his reluctance.

God promised to help Moses in this mission.  God fulfilled His promise by inflicting ten awful plagues on all the Egyptians until Pharaoh relented and set the people free from bondage.  God again acted on behalf of His people when they came to the Red Sea, an enormous barrier.  He parted the sea so that they could go across on dry land.  Once free from Pharaoh, Moses revealed that God was leading them to a land flowing with milk and honey.  Their destination was called the Promised Land.

I want to call your attention to three passages of Scripture today, two from the book of Numbers, Chapters 13 and 14, and one from the book of Joshua, Chapter 14.  I will not read all of the verses, but I do want to read select passages from each of these chapters.  Hear now the Word of God.

Numbers 13, beginning at Verse 1:

The Lord said to Moses, “Send some men to explore the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites. From each ancestral tribe send one of its leaders.”

One from the tribe of Judah, Caleb son of Jephunneh;

from the tribe of Ephraim, Hoshea son of Nun;

16 These are the names of the men Moses sent to explore the land. (Moses gave Hoshea son of Nun the name Joshua.)

17 When Moses sent them to explore Canaan, he said, “Go up through the Negev and on into the hill country. 18 See what the land is like and whether the people who live there are strong or weak, few or many. 19 What kind of land do they live in? Is it good or bad? What kind of towns do they live in? Are they unwalled or fortified? 20 How is the soil? Is it fertile or poor? Are there trees in it or not? Do your best to bring back some of the fruit of the land.” (It was the season for the first ripe grapes.)

21 So they went up and explored the land from the Desert of Zin as far as Rehob, toward Lebo Hamath. 22 They went up through the Negev and came to Hebron, where Ahiman, Sheshai and Talmai, the descendants of Anak, lived. (Hebron had been built seven years before Zoan in Egypt.) 23 When they reached the Valley of Eshkol, they cut off a branch bearing a single cluster of grapes. Two of them carried it on a pole between them, along with some pomegranates and figs. 24 That place was called the Valley of Eshkol because of the cluster of grapes the Israelites cut off there. 25 At the end of forty days they returned from exploring the land…27 “We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit.

28 But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large. We even saw descendants of Anak there. 29 The Amalekites live in the Negev; the Hittites, Jebusites and Amorites live in the hill country; and the Canaanites live near the sea and along the Jordan.

Thinking it a good idea to send a reconnaissance team to check out the land, Moses chose one man from each tribe.  When the twelve returned after forty days, all were in total agreement that the land was indeed fruitful.  It was flowing with milk and honey.  They brought back a cluster of enormous grapes, simply to show an example of the produce in the land.  They all tout the land’s fertility.

The report then became divided between a majority of ten and a minority of two.  The twelve did not agree on the course of the action they should take.  The majority stressed the large size of the people living in the land and the great strength of the city.  They declared, “We cannot go.  We have no reason to put ourselves at risk.  We will be like grasshoppers.  These people are too big, too numerous; and their cities are too strong.  We cannot go.”  When they encountered this obstacle of giants in the land they hoped to inhabit, they did not want to tackle that problem.

30 Then Caleb silenced the people before Moses and said, “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.”

31 But the men who had gone up with him said, “We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are.” 32 And they spread among the Israelites a bad report about the land they had explored. They said, “The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. 33 We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.”

Think about this.  This event at Kadesh-Barnea happened within two years of the time that God miraculously delivered the people from Egypt and helped them cross the Red Sea.  They could not have left Egypt without God’s intervention.  They certainly could not have crossed the Red Sea without God’s assistance.  God had already demonstrated His power to make a way where there seemed to be no way.  He had already shown the Israelites what He could do.

Numbers 14, beginning at Verse 5:

Then Moses and Aaron fell face down in front of the whole Israelite assembly gathered there. Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, who were among those who had explored the land, tore their clothes and said to the entire Israelite assembly, “The land we passed through and explored is exceedingly good. If the Lord is pleased with us, he will lead us into that land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and will give it to us. Only do not rebel against the Lord. And do not be afraid of the people of the land, because we will devour them. Their protection is gone, but the Lord is with us. Do not be afraid of them.”

10 But the whole assembly talked about stoning them.

Caleb and Joshua were the only two from the reconnaissance team that gave a minority report.  Unrelenting in their insistence that the people go into the land, they encouraged, “Listen.  The God who has been with us before will be with us again.  He has not changed.  He has told us that He will guide and protect us.  We need to follow Him.”  They strongly encouraged the people to take possession of the land.

Entering the land was not going to happen. The people became rebellious, saying, “Moses has led us out here into the wilderness, and now we are talking about going into a land of giants.”  I suppose they could say, “This is no country for anybody – not for old men or young men.  It is no country for our people.”  They wanted to fire Moses from his leadership position and choose someone new to guide them back to Egypt where they had been enslaved.  They even wanted to put Joshua and Caleb to death by stoning.

Now we turn to Joshua 14 and fast forward forty-five years.  Because the Israelites had refused to enter the Promised Land, God punished His people by making them wander for forty years in the wilderness. God told them, “All of you who have brought the majority report – anybody who is older than twenty years of age – will not go into the land.  Your punishment is to wander for forty years and then die here in the wilderness.  You had forty days to explore the land.  Now you will have forty years to wander because you would not believe that I could take you into this land.”  The ten who gave the majority report and many of their kinsmen died during those years.  Finally, God guided the remaining people to the Land of Promise, providing for them their basic needs.

Joshua 14:

Now the people of Judah approached Joshua at Gilgal, and Caleb son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite said to him, “You know what the Lord said to Moses the man of God at Kadesh Barnea about you and me. I was forty years old when Moses the servant of the Lord sent me from Kadesh Barnea to explore the land. And I brought him back a report according to my convictions, but my fellow Israelites who went up with me made the hearts of the people melt in fear. I, however, followed the Lord my God wholeheartedly. So on that day Moses swore to me, ‘The land on which your feet have walked will be your inheritance and that of your children forever, because you have followed the Lord my God wholeheartedly.’

10 “Now then, just as the Lord promised, he has kept me alive for forty-five years since the time he said this to Moses, while Israel moved about in the wilderness. So here I am today, eighty-five years old! 11 I am still as strong today as the day Moses sent me out; I’m just as vigorous to go out to battle now as I was then. 12 Now give me this hill country that the Lord promised me that day. You yourself heard then that the Anakites were there and their cities were large and fortified, but, the Lord helping me, I will drive them out just as he said.”

13 Then Joshua blessed Caleb son of Jephunneh and gave him Hebron as his inheritance. 14 So Hebron has belonged to Caleb son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite ever since, because he followed the Lord, the God of Israel, wholeheartedly.

Are there places on this planet that old people should not be?  Is there no country for old men or old women?

It is not a stretch, by any human standard, to say that Egypt was no country for old men.  God, however, sent Moses, an eighty-year-old man, to take on Pharaoh by saying, “Let my people go.”  It is not difficult to see that the wilderness, where the people wandered for forty years, was no country for old men or for old women.  It is not a stretch to say that the land of Canaan was no country for old men.  By the time they arrived, Caleb and Joshua were both old men, octogenarians.  The giants were still in Hebron when Caleb arrived.  Though eighty-five, he took them on and conquered them.   Yes, old men were in all three locations, but they should not have had to endure the hardships that came with the territory.  They should not have had to suffer through the plagues, trudge through the desert, or take on the giants still in Hebron.  These places were not for old men.

Do we have giants to conquer in our personal lives?  Think about the giants that we face with North Korea, Syria, and Iran.  Walking through the valley of the shadow of death with someone we love is daunting.  Facing an illness is daunting.  We can shrink back in fear and say, “I cannot go there.  I am not up to this” or we can go forward, trusting in God’s help.

Has the God who has been with us and been sovereign to us through so many events in our history given up on us now and decided to abandon us?  No.  We certainly have to be vigilant.  One of the worst decisions we can make is to respond in fear, which is a terrible and powerful enemy.  Fear will absolutely lead the people of God to cower from the mission God has for them.

One of my favorite verses is Joshua 1:9, a verse that God gave Joshua before he entered the Land of Promise:   “Be strong and of good courage.  Do not be afraid; I will be with you wherever you go.”  That Scripture is just as appropriate for our day.  We cannot let fear control our decisions.  Fear is a strong enemy, but faith is a powerful ally.  The truth is that a land of promise is always straight ahead.  We always have reason to hope, reason to anticipate what God has in store for us.  We have a choice of fear or faith.

I read this and realize that God did not have a retirement plan for Joshua, Caleb, or Moses this side of heaven.  Heaven is God’s retirement plan.  God is not finished with any of us.  He wants us to be available to do His work all of our days.  He expects total commitment.  The Bible says that Caleb wholly followed the Lord six times.  That is a lifetime commitment.  That is the definition of being faithful.  We know that Joshua lived to be 110 years old.  I cannot tell you how long Caleb lived, but I can tell you that both men were faithful to God’s will all the way to the end.

I can honestly think of no better example of living life all the way to the end than my own father, who died about a year ago.  God expects the same from all of us.

Caleb was eighty-five when he claimed the hill country of Hebron, a place that was important in the life of Israel.  Abraham had pitched his first tent here when he came into this new land.  He had also built an altar and struck a covenant with God in this location.  Here God had shown Abraham the stars in the sky and promised, “That is how many descendents you are going to have.”  Remember that Abraham and Sarah did not have even one child at that point.  It was also there that Abraham had bought a cave and buried his dear wife when she died.  Others buried there include Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Leah.  All the patriarchs and the matriarchs were buried there except for Rachel, who was buried by the road to Bethlehem when she died in childbirth with Benjamin.  God expects us to live our lives in a fruitful way.

I want to suggest to you that aging is not so much a matter of arteries as it is of attitude.  Attitude plays a large part in the aging process.  An example in the book of Ecclesiastes 12 shows how attitude can accelerate aging.  We often quote Verse 1 to our young people:

1 Remember your Creator
in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
and the years approach when you will say,
“I find no pleasure in them”—
before the sun and the light
and the moon and the stars grow dark,
and the clouds return after the rain;
when the keepers of the house tremble,
and the strong men stoop,
when the grinders cease because they are few,
and those looking through the windows grow dim;
when the doors to the street are closed
and the sound of grinding fades;
when people rise up at the sound of birds,
but all their songs grow faint;
when people are afraid of heights
and of dangers in the streets;
when the almond tree blossoms
and the grasshopper drags itself along
and desire no longer is stirred.
Then people go to their eternal home
and mourners go about the streets.

Remember him—before the silver cord is severed,
and the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
and the wheel broken at the well,
and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

Look at your life.  Do you want to know how to grow old fast?  Allow little inconveniences and details to burden you.  Let the minutiae take control.  Have you ever whined or fussed, “Where is my remote”?  Maybe you have gone to the grocery store and complained, “He’s in the express line, and he has eleven items.”  If you want to age much faster, allow insignificant matters that do not amount to a row of peas take control of your life.  Allow them to become the grasshoppers of life.  Be afraid of heights, of the driving or walking in the streets, of taking risks, of trying new challenges.  Play it safe. Focus on the “good ole days.”  Glorify the past at the expense of the present.  Behave in this manner, and you are making a choice to become old much faster.

People who age gracefully push aside the victories or defeats of the past that limit their view of the opportunities ahead.  They look to the future, not to the past.  They take risks and welcome adventure.  They believe that God is in control of whatever may happen.  Though we never know what the future holds, we know God holds the future in His hands.

Living wholeheartedly before the Lord is the way to grow old gracefully.  I am fortunate that I have had such good models in the faith.  One such example is my grandfather, who had a difficult life during the Great Depression.  Like so many others, he lost his business and his house. Some of his colleagues lost all hope and decided to take their lives.  One businessman in particular stopped up the windows and doors of his office with rags.  He turned on the gas and asphyxiated himself.  My grandfather said, “He did not have to do that.  There was a better way.”

Once pretty much stripped of everything he owned, he, his wife, and their nine children moved to Cedar Springs where he rented a house for $25.  He owned a cow and a goat, and bought a mule off the chain-gang.  He grew sweet potatoes, raised turkeys, and grew a big garden.  My grandfather made it through the Depression by cutting a deal with Dr. Walker, the Superintendent for the School for the Deaf and Blind.  He sold sweet potatoes and turkeys to the school.  The state had money.

When the Depression was over, my grandfather bought a piece of land on a railroad siding.  He built a lumber shed on one end and the house where Clare and I live on the other end.  My grandparents designated a little room in that house for prayer.  We still call the room Mammy’s Prayer Parlor.  There they read the Bible and prayed every night.  In fact, they prayed three sons and a son-in-law through World War II in that parlor.  They also prayed for missionary children there.

If we make a decision to live in the faith, we set an example for others.

I have often told you that Clare and I like the Steve Green song titled “Find Us Faithful.”  Listen to the words of the song.

We’re pilgrims on the journey
Of the narrow road
And those who’ve gone before us line the way
Cheering on the faithful, encouraging the weary
Their lives a stirring testament to God’s sustaining grace

Surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses
Let us run the race not only for the prize
But as those who’ve gone before us
Let us leave to those behind us
The heritage of faithfulness passed on through godly lives

Oh may all who come behind us find us faithful
May the fire of our devotion light their way
May the footprints that we leave
Lead them to believe
And the lives we live inspire them to obey

Oh may all who come behind us find us faithful

After all our hopes and dreams have come and gone
And our children sift through all we’ve left behind
May the clues that they discover and the memories they uncover
Become the light that leads them to the road we each must find

God has been absolutely faithful to us.  Do you want to live your life in faithfulness to Him? You have a choice.  You can shrink back and say, “The giants are too big.  It is too scary out there,” or you can anticipate the future and say, “This is what God is leading me to do now.”  By faith and faithfulness we can move forward into the bright future that God has for us.

Do you know Christ Jesus as your Savior?  If you have never accepted him, could I invite you to do that today?  Some of you have other decisions to make.  You come as God leads.

Kirk H. Neely
© May 2012

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