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Below is the prepared text from this morning’s sermon at MacAlpine Presbyterian Church in Buffalo, New York.  The sermon audio is uploaded the link is here (I worked the theme of the children’s message that I planned into the sermon).   The sermon looks at the example of Israel’s giving of offerings to the Lord in Numbers 7.  I recommend reading the blessing at the end of Numbers 6 and then all of Numbers 7 before listening to the sermon or reading the text below.  Numbers 7 is long, but that’s part of the point the text is making and you might miss the effect/affect of the length of the passage if you don’t read it first.  A second-best choice might be to listen or read the sermon introduction and then read the whole passage.  I only read selected verses in the sermon audio.  For further reading, you can find out more about the larger context of Numbers 1-10 in this post linked here.

It isn’t an accident that today’s passage with the giving of offerings for the dedication of the tabernacle comes immediately after the blessing the Lord gave to Aaron to put on the people of Israel. The opening of the book was like a call to worship. Then the three negative case studies about sin as defilement, transgression, and unfaithfulness and the positive example of the Nazirite vow confronted Israel with the reminder that she wasn’t a Nazirite at heart but a fallen sinner in need of salvation. Thus according to those passages in Numbers 5-6 the people had to confess their sin, make restitution as appropriate, and sacrifices for their atonement. This was like the prayer of confession in our worship service. Then the people hear the good news: God Himself blesses them. He blesses them even though they don’t deserve it. He blesses them and protects them. He blesses them with being in His presence and having a face-to-face relationship with Him. Like the groom whose face is shining or beaming when he sees the bride coming down the aisle, God’s face is shining upon them. He shows them His favor. It is a blessing of grace – He chooses to be gracious to His people. He blesses them with a message of Shalom – of peace. Peace that is more than just the absence of conflict between Him and His people but a positive peace of wholeness and health. So the people hear this good news of God’s grace and they see that true blessing is not found in material things they might amass but in a personal relationship with the Lord God. Only then, after hearing this good news—only then, after hearing God’s words of blessing to them, do they give their offerings for the dedication of the tabernacle. In other words, the people give generously as a response to God’s grace. And in order to emphasize how generous and tremendous their giving was he takes no less than 89 verses to do so. Now we will not read all of them for reasons of time, but know that even though the things we are skipping do not add any new content for the gifts of each of the tribes were identical, the reason this passage is so long and repetitious is that you will only really appreciate the extent of their generous giving because there are so many verses devoted to it. Numbers 7 could have been really short—even shorter than what we will read. But it would not have the same effect on us. Duguid’s commentary compares it to the The Twelve Days of Christmas which is also repetitive to emphasize the enormity of his outpouring of love. Let’s read of Israel’s tremendous outpouring of love for the God who has blessed them:

Numbers 7:1-89

  1. The tabernacle was a portable house of God, so the people of Israel brought housewarming gifts that met its needs.
    1. They brought gifts to help lighten the load for the Levites who moved the heavy pieces. The first gifts that they brought in Numbers 7:3 was six wagons and twelve oxen. Two tribes each split the cost of a wagon and every tribe contributed an ox. Thus there were two oxen to pull each wagon. The tabernacle included some very heavy pieces. So this was an incredibly thoughtful gift. It never said that God told them to give this. They saw the need and they gave to meet it. In response, God told Moses to accept these gifts and distribute them among the Levites for moving the tabernacle. He took two of the wagons and four oxen and gave them to the Gershonites who had to move the curtains of the tabernacle. Then he took four of the wagons and eight of the oxen to the Merarites because they had to do most of the heavy lifting. The Merarites had to move the tabernacle’s frames, posts, and bases. Moses didn’t give any of the carts or oxen to the Kohathites because the Kohathites carried the most holy things that had to be hand-carried. In any case, the twelve tribes brought gifts that helped lighten the load for the Levites when moving many heavy pieces.

    2. They also brought gifts so that the tabernacle could function as intended and the Lord could dwell in their midst. The gifts that each tribal leader brought each day were the dishes and the grains and animals for the different kinds of regular offerings. Part of each of these offerings were given to the priests so that the priests were paid with what they needed. But each offering had a different purpose. For example, the whole burnt offerings, for which they needed animals to sacrifice, were necessary to atone for sin and redeem the people. The sin offerings were necessary to deal with sin that would have kept God from being with His people. The grain offerings demonstrated the people’s submission to God as their king. The peace offerings were for ceremonial meals with God. With a peace offering, only part of the animal was offered on the altar to the Lord while the priest and his family and the people also joined in the feast. The twelve tribes brought these gifts so that the regular daily sacrifices could start. They gave generously as a response to the grace that they had received. They were giving for the work of the ministry and for those priests who serve in it. They were giving so that the tabernacle could function as it was intended and God could be with them on their wilderness journey. Indeed, the passage ends with the note that when Moses went into the tent of meeting to speak with the Lord he heard the Lord speaking. In other words, the tabernacle was functioning the way that it was intended to function because of their gifts. (I’ve noted before that we too are on a wilderness journey to the Promised Land. There are obvious differences. We don’t offer sacrifices for the atonement of sin, for example, because Jesus died for our sins. We don’t offer wagons and oxen to make it easier to move around the tabernacle because we are the pieces of the tabernacle Jesus is building. But we do still give generously in response to God’s grace when we hear the gospel. We bring different gifts, but…)

  2. The housewarming gifts we bring serve a similar purpose for they meet the needs of God’s tabernacle today.

    1. We bring gifts that help lighten the load for others who are doing the work of ministry including for the pastor, the pianist, and the various ministries of the church led by volunteers. We can write a check or bring cash to put in the offering plate so that the elders of the church can distribute those gifts. This is a common way that a church provides today for those bringing the ministry of the word and the ministry of music. But we also can look at the specific ministry needs of the church and bring, without being asked, gifts to meet that need. We can take our inspiration from the example of the twelve tribes giving six wagons and twelve oxen without being asked when they saw how helpful they would be. Of course, the gifts need to be a Biblical way to meet a need. Moses didn’t give the Kohathites any of the carts or oxen because that wasn’t God’s way to serve Him. Likewise, our gifts shouldn’t be some kind of idol to worship because that isn’t God’s way to worship Him. In any case, when you see a ministry need and bring, without being asked, gifts to meet that need, the elders and deacons of the church then are to distribute those gifts in keeping with the way God wants us to serve Him. These gifts are best when they lighten the load for other volunteers leading a particular ministry. For a random example, one church I served as the pastor would host a vehicle inspection for the vans and buses of all the area churches. This lightened the load not only for the volunteers in that church who drove the vans and buses because they needed to find a day and time and place to get it done every year, but it even lightened the load for the volunteers of all the area churches. In any case, the point is to keep your eyes open to see if there is some way that you might lighten the load for someone else who is also doing the work of ministry.

    2. We also bring gifts so that the church can function as intended. We give so that the church can provide for the ministry of the Word and Sacrament and for the ministry of music and for ministry to the poor and all the rest. The fact that we are on a journey in the wilderness following Jesus is perhaps a reminder that we should focus on these ministries and other ministries to those outside the camp where Jesus ministers instead of on making the building perfect. This might sound strange since I’ve called these housewarming gifts. But remember that the tabernacle today isn’t this building in which we are ministering—the tabernacle today consists of you and I. Don’t misunderstand. I know that we recently had a cleanup day for these grounds where we are worshiping today. I’m not criticizing that effort at all. To the contrary, by so many of you participating you have lightened the load that would have fallen on someone else to get it done. All I’m trying to say is that when a church is deciding where to put its resources the church should prioritize the needs of ministry and those doing the work of the ministry above unnecessary building upgrades. I’ve led a few churches through building projects and would do so again, but it is wise to do so only when the gifts to make it happen aren’t being made at the expense of the needs of ministry. To be sure, sometimes it is a matter of pay now or pay a lot more later. Indeed, these kinds of things can be complicated issues. It might even make sense for a church to take out loans in some situations. But the point here is that like ancient Israel we bring housewarming gifts so that the church can function as intended. Their gifts are a model for our giving—so long as we understand how to apply that model through Christ. Then and today all of our generous giving is a cheerful response to the gospel we have heard. Thus while ancient Israel gave gifts for animal sacrifices, our housewarming gifts include, as the author of Hebrews talks about in the New Testament, a sacrifice of praise (Heb 13:15). That verse in Hebrews is also taking the model of the gifts of ancient Israel through Christ. So whatever we do in response to the gospel, may God get the glory! Amen.

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