Talking to rocks
Numbers 20: Speak to the rock…do we have to bring water out of this rock for you…slammed his staff against the rock.
We’re familiar with most of the big events in the life of Moses. We know about the bulrushes, the burning bush, the plagues, the Red Sea crossing, and Mount Sinai. Sadly, when the story of Moses is told his failure at Meribah has to be included. This is the blot on his life and, later on, this is what disqualifies him from entering the Promised Land. On the surface it seems like a minor infraction. God says to him, “Speak to the rock” and, instead, he “hits the rock.” As I read this and see the seriousness of God’s response I immediately think that there has to be more. I think the “more” is what Moses says before he strikes the rock. Moses’ leadership has been challenged before and each time he’s responded by pointing the people to the Lord. Moses’ entire case for leadership, his credentials, is that he’s God’s man. In this case as his leadership is being once again challenged, he takes matters into his own hands. He doesn’t say, “Listen, rebels! Watch what the Lord is going to do for you.” Instead, he says, “Listen, rebels! Do we have to bring water out of this rock for you?” The difference is profound. Instead of God getting the credit, Moses and Aaron are taking it. Remember, this is not the mistake of a young person in their first pastoral assignment. This is an intentional shifting of emphasis by a seasoned man of God who’s had many personal encounters with the Lord. God takes this intentional failure seriously. We see here that God expects gifted leaders to remember the source of their authority, to remember that they are stewards of his, and that they’re expected to always serve with that in mind. To do otherwise mars an otherwise exemplary ministry.
Take Away: The longer we walk with the Lord the more he expects of us.
Numbers 16: Earth opened its mouth and in one gulp swallowed them down.
In spite of the awesome encounters with the Almighty and his daily provision for them, and in spite of the progress that’s been made in the construction of the Tent of Worship as well as the organization of the hundreds of thousands of people, serious opposition is building in the camp. Many resent Moses’ assumption of authority and doubt his ability to lead them forward. Resentment and doubt fester and some step forward to seize the moment. They rally a collation to challenge Moses. Not once, but twice the entire nation is moments away from eradication due to the wrath of the Almighty. Moses calls for a contest of sorts. Representatives of both sides will come to burn incense before the Lord. God will choose who will lead his people. The contest is a brief one. No one can doubt the Lord’s answer as the earth opens to swallow up the rebels. The 250 who are offering incense to the Lord are struck dead by lightning. If that isn’t enough, the next day many throughout the camp complain, blaming Moses for all the death the previous day and the Lord responds by sending a plague that kills 14,700 people. Clearly, the Lord is intent on establishing, once and for all, Moses as the leader of the Israelites. Just as clear, is the realization that to this very day God expects his plans to be followed. Without doubt, I’m aware of the grace, mercy, patience and love the Lord has for us. I need to also be aware that none of this means the Lord will just go along with me when I challenge his purposes in the world. The result my rebellion may not be as dramatic as it was among these ancient Israelites but it will be just as serious. Challenging God is always serious business.
Take Away: Never doubt it: the Lord expects us to be obedient to his will.
There’s sin and then there’s Sin with a capital “S”
Numbers 15: The person…who sins defiantly, deliberately blaspheming God, must be cut off from his people.
This chapter of the book of Numbers returns to the subject of the resolution of sin. Sometimes, we’re told, people blunder into sin and don’t even know they’ve done wrong. In fact, the whole nation can mess up like that. Once the failure’s realized, they’re to confess it and then take steps to repair the crack in their relationship with God. As we’ve seen before that involves the death of a scarified animal and the application of its innocent blood. However, the Law clearly distinguishes between sins of error and intentional sin. Animal sacrifices offer no hope to someone who “deliberately despised God’s word” and “violated God’s command.” Such a person is no longer numbered among God’s people. This passage goes on to give an example of such intentional failure. In this case, the penalty is death. It’s easy to see that the Old Testament Law distinguishes between mistakes and intentional failure. Both are called “sin” but one is a hundred times more serious than the other. Sin with a lower case “s” receives an automatic portion of grace as one realizes the failure and moves to make things right. Sin with a capital “S” brings death. Now, having said all that, I’m glad the story doesn’t end here. Due to the fact that human beings are sinners by nature we’re all guilty of death dealing sin. We should all be taken out of the camp and executed for our intentional spiritual failure. Thankfully, in Jesus Christ there’s hope even here. Because of Jesus, Paul writes, we’re “not under law but under grace.” He also says, “Where sin increased, grace increased all the more.” What a wonderful difference the Son of God makes, dealing not only with sin but also with Sin with a capitol “S.”
Take Away: We’re recipients of grace and its grace that we need.
Numbers 14: In this wilderness they will come to their end. There they will die.
It sounds unfair, doesn’t it? God brings them out of Egypt, cares for them and leads them to the land he’s promised. Then, when they’re afraid of the giants of Canaan he dumps them. It sounds unfair; but it isn’t. Here’s what’s happening: he’s giving them their own way. They don’t want to listen to the pleading and encouraging word of Caleb and Joshua, they don’t want to follow the lead of Moses, and they don’t want to trust God. So God says, “Okay.” If they prefer to go back into the wilderness he’ll let them go. The result will be tragic, their bones scattered across the desert. But if they insist, he’ll let them have it their way. Even here there’s grace. Manna will continue to fall, their clothes won’t wear out, and God will still be their God. The words quoted above aren’t a death sentence. Rather, they’re a statement of reality. The Lord will patiently wait until these decision-makers have died off and then give the same command and make the same offer to their children. Passages like this define both free will and grace. On one hand, God won’t force us to obey him. On the other, he’ll never stop working in our lives, patiently calling us to himself and to his purposes for us.
Take Away: The Lord won’t negate our free will, even for our own good.
Numbers 14: If God is pleased with us, he will lead us into the land…just don’t rebel against God!…Don’t be afraid of them.”
Joshua and Caleb – I like these guys! While everyone else is talking grasshopper talk they’re talking faith talk! They saw all the same things their fellow explorers saw – both the good and the bad, yet while the others are convinced of sure failure, these two gents are trying to rally the troops into action. It isn’t that they’ve decided that their army is superior to those of their foes. Instead, they believe God has made certain promises to them, has brought them to this place, and now commands them to action. You see, Joshua and Caleb aren’t especially brave. In fact, they’re fearful. They’re afraid, not of giants, but of rebelling against God. Let’s see: giants over here, God over there. If I’m going displease one or the other, which should it be? It’s easy: I’d rather have God on my side against the giants than have giants on my side against God!
Take Away: If I’m going to be fearful, let me be fearful of failing God.
Numbers 13: Alongside them we felt like grasshoppers. And they looked down on us as if we were grasshoppers.
I’d love to come up with some unique, interesting way to talk about this famous statement, but, alas, I think preachers across the centuries have pretty much nailed it. In preparation for invading the Promised Land twelve explorers are sent to check out the area. They find a rich, bountiful land and, to the dismay of most of them, they also find physically imposing warriors. All their faith in God and his promises concerning this land dissipates. The most famous line of the report of the majority is that, compared to those big guys they feel like grasshoppers. Through the centuries since, preachers like me used this passage to remind our listeners that if we think of ourselves as grasshoppers others will do the same. Grasshopper thinking stops us from even attempting great things by defeating us before we ever begin. It’s a self-fulfilling and God displeasing prophecy. When God gives me his plan, my job is not to evaluate the wisdom of that plan. Instead, I’m to trust him and obey in the assurance that God will provide everything necessary for it to succeed. To do otherwise is to see myself as a grasshopper – what Zig Ziggler called, “Stinkin’ thinkin’.”
Take Away: If we think of ourselves as grasshoppers we’ll perform like grasshoppers and others will tend to see us that way too.
All in the family
Numbers 12: God overheard their talk.
On the surface it’s a family squabble. Moses’ brother and sister, Miriam and Aaron, don’t like his wife. This isn’t especially earthshaking. There are many in-laws who don’t get along. In this case, though, Moses’ brother and sister go public with their family dispute, apparently undermining his leadership by pointing out that Moses is married to a non-Israelite. It’s here that we find this chilling sentence: “God overheard their talk.” Actually, this passage usually brings a smile to my face. The statement that Moses is the most humble man on the face of the earth is quite funny when we think of the tradition that Moses is the author of Numbers. Supposedly we have him describing himself here as the most humble man on earth! In spite of the smile, however, this is quite a serious passage. God doesn’t like it when people undermine the leadership he’s put in place. The issue here isn’t about disagreeing with leaders, questioning some decision they’ve made. Instead, it’s about undermining God-given authority. In this case, God doesn’t like what he hears and acts to shore up his chosen leader’s status by diminishing theirs. Surely there are times when church leaders need correction but if they need to be taken down a peg or two, we’d better be careful about our place in it.
Take Away: A God called leader remains human and prone to error but he or she also deserves respect as one set apart by the Lord.
The first thing about spiritual leadership
Numbers 11: Would that all God’s people were prophets. Would that God would put his Spirit on all of them.
There’s more going on in Numbers 11 than just Moses needing to organize with some key leaders. God intends to take some of the Spirit he’s given Moses and divide it up among those chosen to assist him. When seventy leaders are gathered to initiate this new approach something spiritual happens, and, in ways that cause us to think of the unique events on the Day of Pentecost, there are outward signs of this spiritual event. A couple of the chosen leaders miss the meeting and out there in the camp they too publicly prophesy. It’s this public display that concerns some. When word is brought to Moses he’s undisturbed. It’s okay with him for God to place his Spirit on them even though they missed the meeting. In fact, he wishes all God’s people were endowed for service. Here I see that beyond all the articles in “Leadership Magazine” and beyond all the good advice in “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”, and beyond all the important leadership lessons to be learned is the fact that God gifts people for leadership. Leadership in the Kingdom is first, a spiritual act. Pastors and other church leaders must never forget that. Our authority is based on God putting his Spirit in us.
Take Away: Training is important but beyond that is the truth that God gifts some people for leadership.
Be quiet and eat your manna
Numbers 11: I’ll take some of the Spirit that is on you and place it on them.
There’s a problem with the manna. It still tastes fine and supplies, apparently, the recommended daily dietary needs. However, manna for breakfast, lunch, and supper seven days a week is boring. In Egypt they had meat, cucumbers and melons, onions and garlic. In the wilderness they have manna, manna, and more manna. In their dietary frustration they complain to God’s, man, Moses and for him this is the breaking moment. He’s angry with the people and he’s angry with God. In fact, he declares, if this is the way it has to be he would just as soon be dead. Moses has been burning the candle at both ends and now the fire has met in the middle. People, like Moses, who have performed admirably through the most difficult circumstances, hit the wall and suddenly some minor problem causes them to crash. Know what? I think it’s Moses’ own fault. His father-in-law, Jethro, told him he couldn’t do it all alone back in Exodus 18 and a plan was set up at that time. After that Moses spent time on the mountain with God, the terrible golden calf incident and some other things happened. I don’t know this for sure, but it looks like the plan Jethro suggested has dropped by the way and Moses is back to being “the guy” for everything. If this is true the result is predictable: Moses finds himself drowning in responsibility. Leaders need to remember that no matter how skillfully they organize things in the beginning and no matter how high the quality of leadership that’s brought on board, that they must continue to hold the plan in shape. Otherwise, things will unravel, and, over time everything will once again be propped up against them.
Take Away: Skillful leadership includes recognizing, training, and empowering others. It also includes the providing of constant maintenance.
Sign me up
Numbers 10: If you come with us, we’ll make sure that you share in all the good things God will do for us.
What a sight it is! Banners are flying, the Ark of the Covenant is leading the way, and the Pillar of Cloud is overhead. It’s time for the Israelites break camp. Hundreds of thousands of people with all their possessions move forward with precision and purpose. In just a few months this nation of slaves has been transformed into an organized, decisive people of God. During the organizational process, Hobab, the brother-in-law of Moses has kept company with the Israelites. Now, as they prepare to break camp he tells Moses that he’s going to leave for home. He’s not an Israelite and his family and neighbors are elsewhere. Moses, though, encourages him to cast his lot with God’s people. For one thing Hobab is an outdoorsman, familiar with this territory to the east of Egypt. His expertise will come in handy in the days to come. For another, he’s welcome to share in the blessing of these descendants of Abraham. If he stays, Moses promises, he’ll get a part of the blessing God has for them. Today, I’m drawn to this good man who, before we ever hear of the righteous Cornelius of the book of Acts, or follow Paul and Silas on that first missionary journey, connects himself to the people of God. That’s what I’ve done too. I don’t deserve it and should, instead, be forever an outsider. Instead, as Moses did long ago, God’s Son Jesus invites me to tag along. When I agree, he connects me to himself, making me a citizen of a country that will forever be blessed by the Lord.
Take Away: How wonderful it is to be invited to join God’s people on their journey!