Select Page

The prepared text for the sermon this morning at MacAlpine Presbyterian Church in Buffalo, New York is below.  Note that the service begins at 10 a.m. for the rest of the summer.  The sermon audio, playing with the figurative and literal meanings of “out of touch,” is available at this link.  Next Sundays sermon will cover only Numbers 5:1-4.  Stay tuned in two weeks for the rest of Numbers 5.  More commentary on these chapters is available here at this link.

When we say that someone is “out of touch” we mean that they don’t know or care about us and our circumstances. I remember when the media enjoyed asking politicians the price of milk. The question was designed to demonstrate that the politician being questioned was out of touch. He was considered out of touch because if he didn’t know the price of milk then he didn’t care about the average person and our circumstances. The media was also stoking the class warfare angle because the politicians they targeted as out of touch often had enough money that they hired people to buy groceries for them. The phrase “out of touch” is meant to show there is great distance between them and us. But wherever the people of Israel journeyed in the wilderness, they knew that the Lord was not out of touch in this sense. Just the opposite, the Lord was in their midst. Whenever they set up camp, His tent was pitched in the middle of the encampment. Whenever they set out, His tent was taken down and the tent pieces and everything that was in the tent they carried with them—including the ark of the testimony that served as a throne or footstool for the Lord. No one could accuse the Lord with being out of touch figuratively speaking. He was dwelling in their very midst. He was not out of touch figuratively speaking but at the same time He was literally out of touch. We can begin to appreciate how literally out of touch the Lord was for the people of Israel in the wilderness when we turn to Numbers 4. We’ve already seen—at least speaking generally—that the Levites acted as a sort of buffer between the Lord and the twelve tribes of Israel. In other words, already we have seen that the Lord was literally out of touch for the twelve tribes—lest they die. In Numbers 3, Moses reminded us how dangerous the work of the priest can be when they fail to follow directions when he mentioned Nadab and Abihu who offered unauthorized fire before the Lord and fire came out from presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died in the presence of the Lord. Now the Lord turns to address the other divisions of the Levites beginning with the Kohathite division, which carried the objects found in the holy of holies.

Numbers 4:1-49 

  1. The Lord’s complete holiness is the reason that the Lord was literally out of touch for the people of Israel in the wilderness.
    1. The closer you got to God, the greater degree of holiness you needed. The word “holy” simply means to be “set apart.” In other words, the Lord appointed the people to certain levels of holiness. Among the Levites, He appointed the Merarite division to the least level of holiness. Then He appointed the Gershonite division to the next greater level of holiness. And He appointed the Kohathite division to an even greater level of holiness than the Merarites and Gershonites. In fact, Kohath was the second born and Gershon was the firstborn. Thus God in His grace elevated the Kohathites above the Gershonites. But it was a dangerous promotion. The Kohathites couldn’t touch or even look at the sacred objects they carried. It was the responsibility of the priests to package the holiest of objects for the Kohathites to carry. Thus the Kohathites had the great privilege of being in this second tier of holiness, but it came with some rather demanding responsibilities. So their greater level of holiness came with a greater level of danger. This was the case so much so that the Lord was concerned that there might not be any Kohathites left by the time the people of Israel left the wilderness. Indeed, that was the Lord’s concern for the whole nation of Israel. He knew that by being in their presence—in all of His holiness—there was the danger that there would be no nation of Israel left to inherit the Promised Land. (For this reason, God gave the people of Israel the kinds of instructions we read in Numbers 4.)

    2. Every day they were in the wilderness, the people of Israel had a picture to show them that holy perfection is necessary to be in God’s presence and live. Actually that is somewhat of an understatement. It was more than a picture. They lived it. The instructions for the Merarite division of Levites only take four verses because they carried the least holy and therefore least dangerous objects concerning God’s tent. The instructions for the Gersonite division of Levites took twice that many verses for the holy objects that were their responsibility were holier than those carried by the Merarites. But the instructions for the Kohathites are some twenty verses because they carried the things found in the holy of holies. Thus it was not just that the people of Israel had to be appointed to a greater degree of holiness to get closer to God, the closer they got to God they also had to follow more directions to avoid the danger of death. Allow me to illustrate with some examples that by comparison may seem silly. Yet these examples are relevant because the closer one gets to the holiness of God the more deadly the consequences of sin. In other words, remember that holy perfection is necessary to be in God’s presence and live. Sara Groves has a song called Toy Packaging where she says, “Nothing makes me lose my cool like toy packaging. Ask the kids, please, leave the room, it’s time for toy packaging.” She says, “I’m drawing up a battle plan to extricate this robot man, my self esteem is in the can, toy packaging.” The lyrics conclude, “I hope to have it by tonight, never mind this dynamite, toy packaging.” Indeed, anyone who has tried to open toy packaging lately can identify with her frustration. They don’t even give you directions on how to get the toy out from the packaging, which might be helpful. But it is a dangerous undertaking because it leads us to sin and the wages of sin is death. Equally frustrating are those directions that you get for something with the dreaded words, “some assembly required.” They always seem like they were written in another language and poorly translated into English and, maybe it is just me, but much of the time you can’t understand the text or the pictures. The frustration that ensues can also lead to death since the wages of sin is death. But clear directions, written in our everyday language, are even more important when they help us to avoid an immediate death. That’s what these verses in Numbers 4 gave the Kohathites. The greater the danger, the greater the detail of the directions. But because of the real risk of death, the Lord gave them these instructions clearly and in everyday Hebrew so that they would understand them. The sad thing about anyone dying doing this work is that it was completely preventable. They simply had to follow the directions. And the closer you got to God in the wilderness, the more important it was to know and follow His instructions. (But again the Lord was not out of touch in the sense of distant and unconcerned but He was out of touch literally because of the greater level of holiness necessary to be in His presence. The greater level of your holiness—the closer you could get to God—but the more dangerous it became because holy perfection is necessary to be in God’s presence and live. So what does this have to do with us? What is it that God has done so that we are much better off today as we journey to our Promised Land? Why, of course, our Father God sent Jesus so that God is never out of touch for those who believe in Jesus.)

  2. God is not out of touch because Jesus Christ, tempted in every way that we are and yet without sin, went to the cross for our sins so that we can be in the presence of the glory of God and live.

    1. No one can accuse God with being out of touch, figuratively speaking. He understands our struggles. Jesus experienced every temptation that is common to man. He can sympathize with our circumstances. Jesus gave up the riches of heaven to come here and live in poverty among us. Indeed, Jesus has experienced similar or worse circumstances than we have including hunger, pain, and death—even death on a cross. Truly, God is not out of touch—figuratively speaking. (But, even better,…)

    2. One day God will not be out of touch, literally either. We’ve just reflected a little on the incarnation of God in Christ Jesus, but let’s go further. Indeed, while it is impossible to touch God—it is possible to touch Jesus. And Jesus is God the Son in the flesh. He is the answer to God’s longing to be with His people without His holiness consuming His people. In theological terminology we might speak of God’s immanence and His transcendence. To say that God is immanent means that He is near. To say that God is transcendent means that He is totally other than us—He is far above us. With the incarnation, the God who is totally other than us because of His complete holiness took on human flesh to be God with us. As I’ve noted before, Christ tabernacled among us. The eternal second person of the Trinity pitching His tent among us is another way of saying that He took on human flesh so that we have seen His glory. This incarnation continues today. In other words, it was and will be possible again one day for us to literally touch God in the flesh. (But, this does not mean God is out of touch for us even now. For already,…)

    3. By faith, we can be in the presence of the glory of God and live. Until we have our resurrection bodies and see Jesus on that Day, we Spiritually touch God with the Lord’s Supper. Until that Day, we Christians are journeying in the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land. But we are journeying in the wilderness in the presence of God and can live to tell about it. We still don’t follow the directions well and our old-age-self still deserves death, but we also already belong in the new creation where we are in the presence of God—in all of His holiness—and we live. We are not righteous by works of the law. It is not even possible for us to follow all of the directions necessary to avoid death for our old-age-self is a sinner. We are not righteous by works of the law, but we are reckoned righteous by faith in Jesus. The Jesus who did not avoid death but died that we might live. Indeed, as the apostle Paul told the Romans, “The one who is righteous-by-faith will live” (Rom 1:17). That life isn’t just in the future. The future is now—if you will. Righteous-by-faith, we are already alive and living in the presence of the glory and holiness of God. Hallelujah. Amen.

%d bloggers like this: