At that time the LORD said to Joshua, "Make flint knives and circumcise the Israelites a second time." ... For the Israelites traveled forty years in the wilderness, until all the nation, the warriors who came out of Egypt, perished, not having listened to the voice of the LORD. To them the LORD swore that he would not let them see the land that he had sworn to their ancestors to give us, a land flowing with milk and honey. So it was their children, who he raised up in their place, that Joshua circumcised; for they were uncircumcised, because they had not been circumcised on the way. - Joshua 5:2, 6-7
The generation of Israelites that came out of Egypt were familiar with circumcision, because they themselves were circumcised upon leaving Egypt. So if they were familiar with the expectation, why did they not perform circumcision on their own children? Could it be that, once they knew the Promised Land would not be within their reach, they saw no reason to fulfill this covenantal expectation?
I think about the children of Israel, and I think about that person who thinks that they have sinned so badly that they are beyond repair. They give up once any hope of restoration seems beyond their reach. I just finished reading Josh Hamilton's biography, and he talks about how easy it was in 4 years of drug use to just continue to spiral downward. Once he had hit what seemed like bottom, recovery seemed like such an impossible task that he saw no reason to do anything else but just dig deeper into drugs. He talked about disappearing for days, not returning the phone calls of his wife who was at home with their newborn child. When there seems to be no hope, why bother keeping a promise?
This story in Joshua points out one of the problems with giving up: their children were delayed in receiving the promise. They had wait in their camp for several days while the men healed from their circumcision, they delaying their entry into this land flowing with milk and honey. I know we are only talking about a few days. Still, if you are standing at the gate of Disney World and it is 8:55 and the park opens at 9:00, how hard is it to wait that last five minutes?
There was another issue that arose from that first generation's giving up, a much bigger problem: their surrender kept disgrace alive. God tells Joshua after all the the men have been circumcised, "Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt." 40 years after leaving Egypt! And no one that had actually been in Egypt was still alive! Yet their lack of circumcision made it seem that nothing had changed: the Israelites were still just escaped slaves, not God's people. Even though none of this generation had ever known the Pharoah's whip, they still carried with them the disgrace.
I can't imagine how hard it must have been to know that you would never enter the Promised Land, especially to know that you would not enter because of your own moral failure. It would seem so easy to just thrown in the towel, to give up on God because there was no hope. Would Christians today be as concerned about righteousness and morality if God said that he was taking Heaven away? Of course, if our faith is only about getting to Heaven, are we missing something important in our faith?
It seems to me that the promise of Heaven is only part of a much more important promise: the promise of presence. God desires an ongoing relationship with His people. Heaven is the part of the promise that lets us know that the relationship God desires is an eternal relationship. Heaven is not the ultimate goal, the relationship is the ultimate goal. Even when the Promised Land was moved beyond their grasp, God still offered the opportunity of relationship in the form of the tent of meeting and daily manna. These people who were once slaves were still free. They were still God's people, and He still wanted to be their God. Even without the Promised Land, none of this had changed.
I know what it is like to sense that God's promise, God's reward is out of reach. I know what it is like to feel like I will never attain what I hoped to attain. And I know very well the temptation in those moments to just give up. What's the point, if I am not going to get the ultimate payoff? Perhaps the first step to overcoming this temptation is to ask the question: even if the Promised Land is gone, is the relationship still possible? Even if I can't have everything I hoped, can I still have everything I need?
Jim Valvano was a successful basketball coach, but his lasting legacy has become the words, "Don't give up, don't ever give up." To those who feel that the promises of God have been pushed beyond reach, I would say, "Don't give up, don't ever give up." The presence and the love of God are still yours to have.