Summary: This text is one of multiple examples in the bible that God wants to give us a fresh start.
50In the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho, the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: 51Speak to the Israelites, and say to them: When you cross over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, 52you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, destroy all their figured stones, destroy all their cast images, and demolish all their high places. 53You shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given you the land to possess. 54You shall apportion the land by lot according to your clans; to a large one you shall give a large inheritance, and to a small one you shall give a small inheritance; the inheritance shall belong to the person on whom the lot falls; according to your ancestral tribes you shall inherit. 55But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those whom you let remain shall be as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides; they shall trouble you in the land where you are settling. 56And I will do to you as I thought to do to them (Numbers 33:50-56)
A while back, we did an analysis of our church’s web site search engine statistics and found something peculiar. The search for our church tracked very well to Holy Week, the beginning of fall and Christmas. People tend to transition over the summer and look for places of worship at the end of vacation season; they also look for churches to attend to observe the birth and death of Christ. What surprised us was the incredibly high number of searches around New Year’s Day. Most people are still coming over the river and through the woods from grandmother’s house around that time. We surmised that these are the people who were resetting their lifestyle calendars (i.e., ‘a new you for the New Year’). Diets, gym memberships, resolutions, health care benefits, and legislation – many things start fresh with the first day of the Gregorian calendar year.
What we observed in our analyses was corroborated by the team of Hengchen Dai, Katherine L. Milkman and Jason Riis. They are the authors of a study named ‘The Fresh Start Effect: Temporal Landmarks Motivate Aspirational Behavior’. They suggested that time landmarks create mental accounting periods that relegate past imperfections to a previous period, thus motivating aspirational behavior. Hence, for those persons searching for our church, having programming available on January 1st was an issue of concern. These cyber seekers were looking for a fresh start.
Today’s text shows us that the concept of a fresh start is not a recent phenomenon. The Israelites were on a geographical and theological journey with God. They had been in Egypt for 400 years, but now God is giving them a fresh start. At this point, the adults 20 years old and above (except for Joshua and Caleb) have been condemned to die in the wilderness because they rejected the offer of a fresh start; in chapters 13 and 14, they chose to adhere to the report of the 10 spies and planned to return to Egypt. In chapter 20, Moses commits a sin that will prevent him from entering the Promised Land. A bit earlier in this 33rd chapter (verses 38-39) Aaron, the high priest and brother of Moses has died. Thus leadership-wise, Israel would have to prepare for a fresh start. Now God is asking the Israelites to remove anyone or anything that pointed back to another nation or another god. No reminders of who used to live in the land or how they worshiped. Everyone and everything of the past had to be driven out and/or destroyed.
If we think about it, the concept of a fresh start runs the gamut of the scriptures. The story of Ruth is about a fresh start. The story of Rehab is a story about a fresh start. When God commands the Israelites not to try to preserve the manna, or when Christ prays for daily bread, the common theme is having faith for a fresh start. When the composer of Psalm 30 says that ‘weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning’, that is a promise of a fresh start. When we read in Isaiah 1:18 the invitation to ‘come, let us reason together’, that is an offer of a fresh start. In Isaiah 43:18-19, the command to ‘remember not the former things’ is an offer of a fresh start. The stories of the Prodigal Son, the woman caught in adultery and the woman at the well are all stories of people receiving a fresh start. Christ raising the dead, healing the sick, opening blinded eyes, making the insane and possessed whole – these all point to God giving humanity a fresh start. When Paul admonishes us to ‘be transformed by the renewing of our minds’, or that we should ‘forget the things that are behind and reach for the prize’, he is referring to a fresh start. When 1st John 1:9 says that ‘if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness’, he is speaking of a fresh start. When Paul says that ‘if anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation’ or when Christ says ‘behold I make all things new’, the idea is that Jesus wants to give you a fresh start.