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The prepared sermon text for this morning’s message at MacAlpine Presbyterian Church in Buffalo, New York is below.  The sermon audio is available at this link.  The sermon title “starting well, continuing well” has to do with the journey that we are on as Christians headed for the Promised Land.  The next part of the commentary on Numbers if you want to study it more is available here.  Next Sunday the plan is to look at Numbers 11.

“It’s a dangerous business…going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to,” to borrow from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Indeed, God invites each one of us on an adventure. It isn’t a safe journey and we don’t know what we will see along the way. But we know who and what waits for us at the end. We will read that the people of Israel set out from Mount Sinai for the Promised Land in the second year, in the second month, on the twentieth day of the month. The timing is not an accident. You may recall that the people of Israel observed the Passover in the second year, in the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, in the wilderness of Sinai. At that time, there were certain men who wanted to celebrate the Passover but they were unclean and they came to Moses asking what they could do about it. And the Lord spoke to Moses and told him to have a make-up Passover class exactly a month later. So the make-up Passover would’ve been in the second year, in the second month, on the fourteenth day of the month. In other words, Israel set out six days after the make-up Passover. In the beginning, man was created on the sixth day and God rested as king over His creation on the seventh day. This newly created people began their journey from Sinai on the sixth day after the Passover make-up as a reminder of their destination rest. Israel started well. We will read about how the people set out exactly the way that they had been taught to do so. Indeed, if they continued as well as they began then they could’ve been in the Promised Land within a few weeks. This shows that Israel understood what God wanted them to do and that the fall that comes later is their own fault. In fact, we are going to look at how Israel started well to see how we can continue well and even finish well. But this passage is more than just a paradigm for us to successfully navigate our adventure to the Promised Land. In more ways than one, this passage reminds us of what Jesus Christ has done and is doing for us on our adventures today.

Numbers 10:11-36

  1. Jesus is leading us, and those who respond with faith to the call to join us, on our wilderness journey as to a war.

    1. Jesus goes before us and He fights for us on our way to the Promised Land. It is for this reason that the chief of the tribe of Judah was in the lead of the army of Israel. It was the tribe from which the Christ would come. The most shocking thing as the Bible unfolds is that Christ would win the decisive battle by dying on a cross. But that is what He did for us. He is our Champion who laid down His life so that we might live. Indeed, Jesus not only died for us on the cross, but on the third day Jesus rose from the dead. Thus Jesus has gone before us into battle and even conquered death for us. It is for this reason that the people of Israel set out from the mount of the Lord where they sacrificed the Passover lamb on a three days’ journey to seek out a resting place for them. It was a three’ days journey to seek out a resting place because it foreshadows Jesus. But it isn’t even just that it uses the special number of three days, which is found throughout the Bible for the day of resurrection. Stick with me for a minute. In the beginning, God created people on the sixth day, “and there was evening and there was morning, day six.” Then on the seventh day God rested—the image is of a king sitting down because he has defeated all of his enemies. But there is no formula ending that day in Genesis, it never says, “and there was evening and there was morning, day seven.” It doesn’t say the day ended because it hasn’t yet. But the Bible keeps speaking of the day of the Lord—the day of judgment—the day when we who believe would enter His rest—the day of the new heavens and earth. That is the eighth day. A three days’ journey starting on the sixth day means that the people of Israel would arrive on the eighth day! (6,7,8) Jesus died on Good Friday, was under the power of death on the Jewish Sabbath (seventh day of the week, Holy Saturday), and rose from the dead on the eighth day (Easter Sunday). In every way you count it, they arrived on the day of resurrection. Thus all of these things are foreshadowing Jesus who has gone ahead of us to lay down His life to save us and rise from the dead to conquer death for us. And Jesus ascended into heaven on the glory-cloud where He continues to lead us in spiritual warfare. “And whenever the ark set out, Moses said, ‘Arise, O YHWH, and let your enemies be scattered, and let those who hate you flee before you’” (Num 10:35). When Moses says, “Arise” it is a cry to arms. He isn’t asking God to wake up or get up. It is a military term. But picture it for a moment, whenever the glory-cloud rose from the tabernacle the glory-cloud would go in front of them so the people of Israel could see that the Lord was leading them into battle. The ark was like a footstool for God. So the glory-cloud would have been hovering over the ark and the ark went in front of the tribe of Judah. Thus Moses would shout that line every time they set out. It served a similar purpose to sounding the silver trumpet. It was a prayer of a prophet calling upon God to fight for them and it reminded the people that the Lord was leading them and would fight for them. The translation I used says, “And when it rested, he said, ‘Return, O Lord, to the ten thousand thousands of Israel” (Num 10:36). If we want to interpret the number literally, it would be 10,000 times a thousand, which is ten million. In the census of Numbers 1, the twelve tribes only numbered 603,550—a difference of more than nine million. Moses wasn’t calling upon the Lord to return to the ten thousand thousands of Israel. Israel didn’t number that many. A better translation would be, “And when it rested, he said, ‘Return, O YHWH, the ten thousand thousands of Israel” (Num 10:36). Jewish translations often get the sense of it right saying something like, “Return, O Lord, You are the ten thousand thousands of Israel.” In other words, Moses was praying as a prophet for the Lord to be their host—he was praying for the Lord to be their army. At the very least, Moses is calling upon the heavenly host – the Lord and His angels – to stay with them and fight for them. It was a prayer acknowledging that unless the Lord fights for us, we lose. The psalmist says, “Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain” (Psalm 127:1). They are getting ready to meet a lot of cities where the watchmen stay awake in vain because the Lord didn’t fight for them. But if you were to look at the military situation Israel faced in the Promised Land purely from a human perspective, Israel didn’t have enough people to storm these cities. It might not take ten thousand thousands, but it would’ve taken a lot more than Israel had. But their situation wasn’t merely a human battle, God was bringing a glimpse of the final judgment. The implications for our continuing and finishing well are that we need to realize that the Lord fights for us and remind ourselves and each other of it repeatedly. Moses repeated the one line every time they set out and the other line every time they came to rest. It is easy for us to forget. So remember when you step out of your door on Monday morning, that Jesus Christ is leading you as to war and he doesn’t lose. (In any case, you know that our spiritual warfare today is different. This too is a shocking thing as the Bible unfolds since many of the people of Israel came to expect the Christ to be a military commander like those of other nations and lead Israel to conquer the world that way. But until Christ returns, our spiritual warfare looks more like something else that happens in this passage.)

    2. Today Jesus is the new Moses inviting us Gentiles to come with Him to the Promised Land, and anyone else who responds with faith to His call too. Moses said to his Midianite father-in-law, “We are setting out for the place of which YHWH said, ‘I will give it to you.’ Come with us, and we will do good to you, for YHWH has promised good to Israel.” It was a gospel invitation. Moses spoke the word of God that creates faith. In other words, Moses repeated the promise of God in order to lead this man to trust YHWH to bring him and his family to the city not made with hands—that is, not of this creation. The response of this Gentile at first was not to break out in song, “I will go, Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.” No, just the opposite, he said, “I will NOT go. I will depart to my own land and my kin.” But Moses, didn’t give up there. Moses said, “Please do not leave us, for you know where we should camp in the wilderness, and you will serve as eyes for us” (Num 10:31) Moses sees what they can bring to God’s people and he knows that God can work through them and their gifts and experience. Now you might think that Israel doesn’t need that—they have the Lord to guide them who sees all things. But often, God works through us. We believe that God is in control, but that doesn’t mean we sit back and do nothing. The Lord will save all those who belong to Him, but that doesn’t mean we keep silent. If the Lord is watching over a city, that doesn’t mean the watchman should go to sleep. No, we invite others to join us on the adventure and we keep trying when they say no. And when that person comes to faith, the Lord works through their gifts and experiences to reach others. Perhaps we can even take our lead from the passage if we have unbelieving family members and invite them to come along with us for the journey to the Promised Land. It is fitting that the passage doesn’t make it clear that his father-in-law stayed with them because we never know how people will respond to the invitation or how long it will take to persuade them. But we do know that Moses managed to get through to him, for we read in Judges 1:6, “And the descendants of the Kenite, Moses’ father-in-law, went up with the people of Judah from the city of palms into the wilderness of Judah, which lies in the Negeb (south) near Arad, and they went and settled with the people.” We have been chosen by God to go on this journey and to invite others to join us. “’Why was I chosen?’ ‘Such questions cannot be answered,’ said Gandalf. ‘You may be sure that it was not for any merit that others do not possess: nor for power or wisdom, at any rate. But you have been chosen, and you must therefore use such strength and heart and wits as you have.’” Tolkien’s words seem appropriate for us as well. After all, we are on an adventure wandering through this wilderness and Jesus is leading the way. Some people might scoff when we invite them to share in an adventure, like Bilbo saying, “We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner.” But sometimes later they experience a stirring inside and run to join us. Bilbo is right, adventures can be nasty disturbing uncomfortable things and make you late for dinner but this adventure we’re on is going to the Promised Land. And…

  2. Not only is Christ leading us on this adventure but Christ is at the center of the rest and peace we experience during it.

    1. We may start well, but the only way we will continue well is if we believe in the Lord who is God with us. I’ll not repeat much of what I’ve said on other Sundays about the tabernacle being in the center of the camp when they rest, but just want to say that as the tabernacle was at the center of the camp so too Jesus is at the center of our worship. Right now you are experiencing a bit of needed respite from the journey and you are feeding on the bread of life. You are even resting in the new creation where we are headed—sitting with Jesus ahead of time—when you worship with faith. What we go through in this life can be draining and it can be discouraging to feel like you are wandering all week. But as Tolkein said, “Not all those who wander are lost.” As the tabernacle was a picture of God with us, know this: we have Jesus with us. We aren’t lost—we’ve been found. Everybody wanders, but not everyone has Jesus with them. And that makes all the difference. It makes a difference all of the time.

    2. We continue well when we remember we are camping. Israel wasn’t looking for a place to settle down and live in the wilderness. Nor were they to expect to enjoy all of the comforts of home while they were in the wilderness. Bilbo was longing for home and missing the comforts of home in The Hobbit, even lamenting that he forgot to pack pocket-handkerchiefs. So Gandalf, the prophet-figure in Tolkien’s best-known stories, said, “You will have to do without pocket-handkerchiefs, and a great many other things, before we reach our journey’s end.” Christians may seem like an odd lot to the world for most people are trying to find ways to make our wandering more comfortable and enjoyable. The world tries to buy or make things to bring them rest and peace and to help them forget that they are wandering aimlessly. But we’re not lost—we know where we are headed. Thus Christians often give instead of making a more comfortable lifestyle for ourselves. Some Christians even face persecution—sometimes involving imprisonment and death. Truly, our adventure will include discomfort and suffering. No adventure worthy of the word is safe, easy, and comfortable. But we willingly make these sacrifices on our journey because of what lies at the finish line. And we press on even though it doesn’t seem like we are any closer. But as Tolkien says, “Little by little, one travels far.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

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