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The text of today’s sermon at MacAlpine Presbyterian Church in Buffalo, New York is below.  The sermon is called an unclean people because then and today we live in the midst of unclean people.  We are not referring to cleanliness the way that Americans usually think of it — like needing to take a shower.  We are referring to the need for unclean people to become holy to be in the presence of God.  In other words, the term has to do with purity.  The audio of today’s message is available here at this link.  You can find my commentary for the big picture of the first ten chapters in this post linked here.  Note, however, that the sermon introduction below adds some new insights to those in that commentary.  Next Sunday, at the 10 a.m. service, we will look at the next two case studies of Numbers 5:5-31.  The following Sunday we will explore Numbers 6:1-21.

At the church picnic we saw that Numbers 1-2 is similar to Genesis 1:1-2:3. Genesis 1:1-2:3 is the prologue to Genesis showing how God brought order out of chaos and ending with the Lord God enthroned as King over His creation and sitting to rest on the seventh day. Numbers 1-2 is a new creation story where God organizes Israel and ends with the Lord God enthroned as King for His tent is in the center of the encampment of Israel when they stop to rest. Well in Genesis there are two creation stories. The creation story in the prologue was a general story from the perspective of heaven looking down on the earth and the second creation story focuses in on some particulars on the ground. The first is in the prologue. The second is in the first book, as Genesis 2:4 says, “These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that YHWH God made the earth and the heavens.” I mentioned that each of the ten books of Genesis begin, “These are the generations of…” Likewise, Numbers 3:1 begins, “These are the generations of Aaron and Moses at the time when YHWH spoke with Moses on Mount Sinai.” Think of it this way—Numbers 3-4 are a second telling of this new creation story. But this time, like in Genesis, the second creation story focuses in on some particulars on the ground. In Genesis, Adam was to work the garden of Eden and to guard it like a priest. He was given one rule to keep with the sanction of death for transgressing it. In Numbers, the story focuses in on the Levites whose work it was to take down, carry, and set up the tabernacle and who were to guard the tabernacle. The Kohathites were told they must not touch the holy things or even look on the holy things for even a moment, lest they die. The lampstand in the tabernacle is even a new tree of life. If this helps, the tabernacle was a portable garden of Eden. I’ve gone into some detail to make this point about a new creation because Numbers 5 reminds us that the people have not changed. Recall again the story of the flood. Genesis 6:5 says, “YHWH saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” So God decided to start over with Noah and his family. The flood was a new creation event with several parallels to Genesis 1, but then we read after the flood in Genesis 8:21, “the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” Thus the flood was a new creation event but it did not include new hearts. Now God is starting over with the people of Israel. But Numbers 5 gives us three case studies that show how things haven’t changed. The first case study is Numbers 5:1-4.

Numbers 5:1-4 (ESV)

  1. The most basic way that things hadn’t changed in Numbers was that contact with the realm of death defiled the people of Israel.
    1. Having a skin disease meant you were in contact with the realm of death and thus you were ceremonially defiled. “Everyone who is leprous,” refers to those with skin diseases. Skin diseases were a kind of walking death – think zombies. Their skin was literally rotting or dying for everyone to see. Thus everyone who was leprous was considered ritually unclean. This rule had nothing to do with public health. It wasn’t to keep others from catching a contagious disease. They were ritually defiled and that defilement meant that they could not be in the camp of Israel. We all know that sin separates us from God—the Holy God cannot dwell in the midst of sin. And we know that the wages of sin is death. But we Americans often seem to think that sin is wrong behavior. Hence the belief that if we are a good person, then we can be in the presence of God. But the problem is so much deeper than behavior. All of those who are in Adam are dead people walking. Death is consuming everyone in Adam just as a skin disease eats the flesh. It wasn’t the leper’s behavior that cast him out of the camp, it was his uncleanness—an uncleanness that may not have been his “fault” at all. The lepers outside the camp of Israel were walking reminders that God will not dwell in the presence of death. They needed a miraculous healing (a resurrection) in order to rejoin their people.

    2. The next category of those who are in contact with the realm of death and therefore are ceremonially defiled are those people who have had a discharge. The two most common bodily discharges are blood and semen. This one may be the hardest for us to understand, but these too brought you into contact with the realm of death. The thinking is this: those bodily discharges are associated with life and so the loss of those fluids is associated with death. Beginning in Genesis, blood is always associated with life in Scripture. To be “living flesh” is to have blood coursing through the body. (This association of blood with life is why they wouldn’t eat meat with the blood in it.) The loss of blood we are talking about in Numbers 5 isn’t literally the loss of life since the person with the bloody discharge usually lives. Nevertheless, the loss of blood is a loss of what makes us alive. This may be the easier one to see. But think about the most common discharge of blood—once a month women of childbearing age who were not pregnant would have a discharge of blood where they lose the egg. Perhaps in light of the loss of the egg we can appreciate how the loss of semen is also associated with death. It isn’t literally the loss of life since life doesn’t begin until conception when the two come together to make a new person. Nevertheless, it too is a necessary ingredient for new life in the womb. Thus its loss is associated with death. Every adult of childbearing age in Israel came into contact with the realm of death through these discharges. When they had one, they were put outside the camp. It was a constant reminder to Israel of their ceremonial uncleanness that alienated them from God. They needed to be cleansed in order to come back into the camp.

    3. The third, and most obvious, way that the people came into contact with the realm of death and became ritually defiled was coming into contact with a dead body. Ancient Israel did not try to live in denial of death like modern people do. Death was a curse. But they could not ignore it. Its presence among the people of Israel made them ceremonially unclean. We have seen that the Hebrew people were constantly reminded of the presence of death. Lepers who were outside the camp were a living reminder of death. Bodily discharges that made one unclean were a constant living reminder of death. And, yes, when you had a funeral for a loved one you also became ritually defiled. Here again, you were not the one who died—but you came into contact with the realm of death and thus were not fit to be in the presence of God. All of these things were reminders to the people of Israel that they were among the walking dead. One of the major ways that things had not changed with the new creation of Numbers 1-4 is the ongoing presence of death. Of course, this is hardly a surprise to us because we know that they were wandering in the wilderness for forty years under God’s wrath until that whole generation died. In any case, this new creation didn’t include new hearts and the reality of death was a constant reminder to Israel that it didn’t include new hearts. Death in Genesis was exile. Thus coming into contact with death meant exile from the camp and therefore exile from God. (All of this is to say that we have inherited a body of death from Adam and thus we are by nature unclean and ritually defiled and therefore we are unfit to be in the presence of the Holy God of Israel. We are unclean people in the midst of unclean people. Or in the words of the prophet Isaiah upon seeing the glory of God: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, YHWH of Hosts” (Isaiah 6:5).)

  2. But the Jesus who healed lepers and healed the woman with the bloody discharge and brought the dead back to life, that Jesus was put outside the camp and crucified so that we would be cleansed of our uncleannesses and never die.

    1. The Holy One of Israel, Jesus Christ, came into contact with an unclean people and made them clean—even better, made them holy—and thus able to be in the presence of our God and Father. The woman who had a discharge of blood for twelve years and spent everything that she had on doctors was supposed to steer clear of the temple of God on earth and yet she touched the fringe of the garment of the Holy One of Israel and her discharge ceased (Luke 8:43-44). Jesus told her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well, go in peace” (Luke 8:48). She had been alienated from God and His people, but now she was well. This all happened while Jesus was on his way to heal a little girl who died before He arrived and He took her by the hand and said, “Child, arise” (Luke 8:53-54). He touched a dead body of a little girl and her spirit returned and she got up at once (Luke 8:55). Likewise, Jesus touched lepers and healed them. He then instructed those lepers to go and show themselves to a priest, as the Torah required so that they would be able to worship (Luke 5:12-14). Jesus made it possible for all of them to enter the presence of God when He came into contact with them by touch. And as Hebrews 13:11-13 puts it, “For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through His own blood. Therefore let us go to Him outside the camp and bear the reproach He endured.” The author of Hebrews does not say that we are to avoid unclean people. He concludes just the opposite. We are to join Jesus Christ outside the camp and bear the reproach He endured. That is very instructive for us while we are on our wilderness journey to the Promised Land ahead of us today. We come to worship in the presence of God on Sunday morning, resting on the journey, and then He sends us outside the camp during the week to bear the reproach Jesus endured ministering to lepers and other social outcasts among the walking dead. And what we offer to the walking dead is Jesus for we are His hands that touch the unclean and we are His lips that say, “Child, arise,” and “your faith has made you well, go in peace.” (But speaking of Jesus and His death outside the camp…)

    2. Something amazing happened when the Holy One of Israel Himself came into contact with the realm of death on His cross—He transformed death into a blessing—and risen from the dead He poured out the Spirit so that we would have new hearts. Indeed, I would say that Jesus was put outside the camp and crucified so that we would be cleansed and never die. Jesus says in the Gospel of John that we will never die (John 11:26). He does not mean that we will escape the physical death of the bodies we inherited from Adam. But He does mean that we are no longer under the curse that we have inherited and that we deserved. We are not living in denial of death, we have overcome it through Jesus Christ our Lord. It is important to always remember that we cannot take our old selves and clean it up—we needed a miraculous healing, we needed new hearts, the problem we had was not just one of bad behavior but of what we inherited from Adam. But neither can we take our new selves and make them unclean. Don’t misunderstand – I’m not saying what we should or shouldn’t do—what we ought or ought not to do—I’m saying we cannot do it. We cannot be saved by works of the law and we cannot step back into living only in the old age. With the apostle Paul, our old selves cry out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom 7:24). And our new hearts reply, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom 7:25). Our old selves continue to need to be put to death outside the camp while we journey in our wilderness to the Promised Land. But our new hearts live in the presence of the Holy One of Israel. Our hearts have been cleansed of all uncleannesses so that we are not defiled—we are holy to the Lord. And this is all because the Holy One of Israel physically touched the realm of death with the cursed cross He endured and rose on the third day and ascended into heaven to pour out the Spirit on His people. Thus when we join Him outside the camp this week and minister to the outcasts and the rest of the walking dead, we may experience the reproach of those who would rather not get their hands dirty (so to speak) but we will not become unclean for our hearts are holy in Christ Jesus. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! Amen.

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