************ Sermon on Numbers 20:13 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on October 16, 2005
"The Lord Shows Himself Holy"
Unbelievable. Amazing. These are two words that come to mind when I read Numbers 20.
What is so amazing about this incident? What isn't amazing is Israel's complaint for Israel was always complaining. What makes this incident amazing is its occasion, its time, and its place.
First, the occasion of the incident in Numbers 20 is thirst, a lack of water. Israel should have known better for she faced thirst before. In fact, the incident in front of us is remarkably similar to an incident recorded in Exodus 17. In that incident the people "grumbled against Moses" because of a lack of water and asked, "Why did you bring us up out of Egypt?" On that occasion God told Moses to take his staff and strike a rock. When Moses did this, water came pouring out of the rock for the people to drink. The children of Israel knew and experienced first-hand the wondrous and gracious power of God to provide water, and food, and victory over enemies. Yet, instead of trusting God to provide, they complain and doubt and rebel. No wonder God calls them stiff-necked, rebellious, and faithless.
Second, the time of this incident. Do you realize in what year of Israel's calendar this incident took place? It took place in the fortieth year of Israel's wilderness experience. Some 40 years earlier Israel had listened to the discouraging and faithless words of ten of the spies. As a punishment, Israel was denied entry into the Promised Land and for 40 years she was forced to wander the wilderness until all of that generation of faithless people had died. Now, the 40 years of wandering are almost over. Israel is once again poised to enter the Promised Land. And, Israel again lacks faith in God.
Third, the place of this incident. Israel complained and expressed a lack of faith in God in the desert of Zin at Kadesh. This is the same place where Israel abandoned her faith in God after the discouraging report of the ten spies.
The occasion, the time, the place, the attitude and faithlessness of the people must have appeared as a case of deja-vu to Moses, Aaron, Joshua, and Caleb. They must have thought, "Didn't we go through all this before?" And, they must have wondered, "Will Israel once more exclude herself from the Promised Land?"
I The Lord Shows Himself Holy in a Gracious Response
A The people lacked water and they complained. Listen again to their complaint:
(Num 20:3-5) "If only we had died when our brothers fell dead before the LORD! (4) Why did you bring the Lord's community into this desert, that we and our livestock should die here? (5) Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to this terrible place? It has no grain or figs, grapevines or pomegranates. And there is no water to drink!" Notice the specific details of Israel's complaint. In their faithless discontent the people accused Moses of leading them and their livestock into the desert in order to die. They went so far as to wish they had died with their brothers who "fell dead before the Lord." This is a particularly awful statement. The brothers who died are Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (cf Num 16). If you remember, these men and 250 of their followers rebelled against the leadership of Moses. In front of the entire congregation of Israel the earth split open and swallowed the 3 men, their households, and their possessions; and, the Lord sent down fire from heaven to consume the 250 followers. The people saw this and heard the cries as the earth closed over her victims. And, now the people wish they had died this horrible death?! What a terrible thing to say. What a wicked response. What ungrateful, thankless, complainers they are.
Here was Israel, poised to enter a land flowing with milk and honey, yet they talked and dreamt of Egypt: "Why did you bring us up out of Egypt?" This is so ironic when you consider none of them ever lived in Egypt but only heard of it from their faithless, complaining parents. Furthermore, the Egypt they talked and dreamt of did not match the reality – for in Egypt the Israelites were slaves; there their infant sons were brutally murdered; there they were ruthlessly oppressed. The good old days – which were not so good after all – were preferred to the glory of what awaited them in the Promised Land. Can you believe this? The Israelites long for a past they have never experienced and discount a future with incredible promise.
B Notice to whom the Israelites complain: Moses. Their thirst threatens them and their herds with death, yet they complain to Moses. But what can Moses do? He is only a man like the rest of them. They quarrel with Moses and say,
(Num 20:4) Why did you bring the Lord's community into this desert, that we and our livestock should die here?Yet, it isn't Moses but the Lord who led them into the desert.
The chief charge to be leveled against the people of Israel here is that they do not cry out to the Lord. When we go to man with our complaints, our needs, we are going to the wrong place for help. If we complain to men, our complaints almost always come back to haunt us and our suffering becomes even more intense.
By complaining to Moses, do you know what the people are doing? They are looking to man rather than to God. They are profaning the name and holiness of the Lord. They are acting as if Moses is God. In this incident, the people act as if the Lord does not even exist. They treat the covenant God as if He has no relevance to their thirsty situation.
It is too easy to be like Israel, to look to man rather than to God. Man is so quick to look to fellow man for solutions to his problems. And yes, we do have problems, big problems, in this country and in our world: huge sections of the South need to be rebuilt after Katrina, we have a huge budget deficit and a huge trade deficit, our soldiers continue to be at risk in Iraq & Afghanistan, thousands of people need help after a devastating earthquake in Pakistan; there are also problems like pollution, toxic wastes, rising energy costs, smog, nuclear waste disposal, an education crisis, and the drug wars. We are fooling ourselves if we think a President or a Prime Minister or a Moses is the person to look to for help. The One to look to, to cry to, to come to, is God.
It is too easy to be like Israel, to look to man rather than to God. Man is so quick to look to fellow man for solutions to his problems. And yes, we do have problems, big problems, in the wider church: Bible interpretation, disagreement on how to read the Genesis account, the place of women in the church, divorce & remarriage, schism and separation, liberal professors, and a declining morality. We are fooling ourselves if we think a minister or an elder or a denominational leader is the person to look to for help. The One to look to, to cry to, to come to, is God.
C What does God do when the people complain? How does He respond? In our text, Scripture says,
(Num 20:13) These were the waters of Meribah, where the Israelites quarreled with the LORD and where he showed himself holy among them. The Lord shows Himself holy. Two questions: 1) how does He show Himself holy? 2) what does this mean?
God shows Himself holy. How does He do this? God, in all His glory, appears to Moses and Aaron. He instructs them on what to do: take the staff, gather the people together, speak to the rock before the people, and it will pour out its water.
In the final analysis, we see that God shows "himself holy among them" by causing water to gush forth from the rock. "And," says Scripture, "the community and their livestock drank." The LORD shows the people that He satisfies all their thirst. The water shames the people into silence. They know then they had been wrong to complain. They know then they had been wrong not to trust in silence upon the Lord. They know then that their God has again provided for their needs in the most miraculous of ways. God's gracious providence of the water they need shows Israel's complaint for what it really is: unbelief and faithlessness.
God shows Himself holy. What does this mean? This means that God shows Himself as a righteous God Who tolerates no unbelief, no sin, no distrust, no ingratitude. God wants and demands faith, obedience, trust, and righteousness from His people.
God shows Himself holy. But His holiness is not expressed in anger. It is expressed in love and with water. We cannot help but note the Lord's patience and mercy. And, the Lord's instructions to Moses and Aaron contain not a trace of anger. God's shows Himself holy, not to destroy the people, not to judge the people, not to condemn the people, but to win them. Why else would He pour out water upon a people who deserve only judgment and wrath? Towards His people, then, God's holiness is a redeeming holiness and not a judgmental one. As the LORD says through one of the prophets:
(Hos 11:9) I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I turn and devastate Ephraim. For I am God, and not man--the Holy One among you. I will not come in wrath.
II The Lord Shows Himself Holy in a Chastisement
A At the waters of Meribah the LORD showed Himself holy among the people. He did this not only in His gracious providence of water but also in His chastisement of Moses and Aaron.
The LORD Himself confronts Moses and Aaron and tells them that they profaned His holiness.
(Num 20:12) But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, "Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them." Another translation says Moses did not "believe" in God.
How can Moses' actions be reckoned as distrust or unbelief? Here we have to compare Moses' actions with God's instructions. Moses was instructed by God to "take the staff ... gather the assembly together ... speak to that rock before their eyes." That's what God told Moses to do. But what did Moses actually do? Moses took the staff, gathered the assembly together in front of the rock, spoke to the people instead of the rock, and then struck the rock twice with his staff. Though this caused water to gush out, it was not produced the way God intended; it was counted as rebellion (vs 24) and unbelief.
In the Old Testament any correct response to God's Word, whether it is a word of promise or a word of command, is counted as faith. Thus Psalm 119 can say, "I believe in your commands" (vs 66) – in this case belief is counted as obedience. Thus, Moses' failure to carry out the Lord's instructions is an act of unbelief; it is as much an act of unbelief as the people's failure to trust God's promises instead of the spies' pessimistic report (Numbers 14:11).
B Let's take a closer look at exactly what Moses says and does. To the people, Moses says, "Listen, you rebels ..." No leader of Israel – no prophet, priest, or king – can talk this way to God's people. God knows their sin and rebellious ways yet He calls them "my treasured possession ... a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Ex 19:5-6).
Moses then says, "must we bring you water out of this rock?" Psalm 106 says, "rash words came from Moses' lips" (Ps 106:33). What is wrong with Moses' words? Moses draws attention to himself and Aaron: "Must we bring you water ..." Instead, the attention should be drawn to God, to the awesome yet gracious LORD Who provides so much for His people. Moses speaks as if water from the rock is his doing, not the Lord's; his words indicate an improper regard for human exertion and an inadequate regard for God's power and sovereignty.
Finally, instead of speaking to the rock, Moses strikes it twice. This is not only an act of disobedience, it is also an act of sacrilege. The rock symbolizes God. Note, for instance, the people are gathered in a solemn assembly before the rock and Moses. Furthermore, God is often likened to a rock (Psalms 18:2; 31:3; 42:9; etc). This understanding of the rock is confirmed by the words of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 10: "They drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ" (vs 4).
C In his disobedience, his unbelief, his rash words, and his lack of respect for the symbol of God's presence, Moses fails to honor God as holy (vs 12). Moses does not acknowledge the purity and awesomeness of God. So God punishes him: "you will not bring this community into the land I give them." Moses was not allowed to enter Canaan.
Moses had put up with so much. He had been faithful for so long. He kept faith when the people worshiped the golden calf. He kept faith when the ten spies brought back their negative report. He trusted in God time after time to graciously provide for all the needs of the people. He witnessed the Lord's judgment against the generation that came out of Egypt as they died off one by one during the desert wanderings. Yet, he makes one mistake and he too is barred from entering the Promised Land. To our point of view this judgment seems a little harsh. But, then, God always judges those closest to Him the hardest. For, because of their position they are held more accountable.
Many times Moses had interceded successfully with God on behalf of Israel. In Deuteronomy 3 we see Moses interceding with God on his own behalf; he pleads with God to change His judgment about not being allowed to enter the Promised Land. But, all his pleas are turned down. "That is enough," says the Lord. "Do not speak to me anymore about this matter" (Deuteronomy 3:26).
In the punishment He gives to Moses and Aaron the LORD shows Himself holy among the people. A clear lesson is being given that not even leaders can get away with profaning the holiness of God by unbelief and disrespect.
God, though, is still a loving and gracious God. It is true that Moses was not allowed to enter the Promised Land. Nevertheless, just before Moses died, God took him to the top of Mount Nebo and showed him the land (Deut 34:1-3). That last event in Moses' life was also the greatest: because it was not just the Promised Land but also the place where the Messiah would do His work of salvation.
That day the LORD "showed himself holy among them." What the Lord did then He continues to do now.
First of all, there is message in this passage to all leaders in the church. When I look over the first sermons I wrote more than 25 years ago I have to cringe; my sermons were so harsh and so critical of God's people. My mentor kept saying to me, "Don't forget they are the people of God." Wise advice, advice that Moses forgot. Leaders must never forget that the church, though it is filled with sin and sinners, is still "a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God" (1 Pt 2:9). We must never forget: God shows Himself holy before His people.
God also reminds all leaders that because of their position they are held more accountable. Every leader in the church – a minister, an elder, a deacon, a church school teacher, a young people leader, a coffee break leader, a committee chairperson – must realize the burden of leadership. Those who are closest to the Lord are judged more harshly and held more accountable than others within the church. Likewise, those who are raised up as covenant children will have to answer for more than those who are not. We must never forget: God shows Himself holy before His people.
Every leader is also warned against focusing attention upon themselves and taking it away from God. Every leader who obscures the depth of the power and grace of God stands condemned before God. We must never forget: God shows Himself holy before His people.
Finally, there is a message here for the people of God. Our God shows Himself holy among us. This means that as with Israel, He hates our sin and demands righteousness. Yet, as with Israel, God's shows Himself holy, not to destroy us, not to judge us, not to condemn us, but to win us unto Him. Why else did He send Christ to a world that deserves only judgment and wrath? Towards His people, then, God's holiness is a redeeming holiness and not a judgmental one.
At the waters of Meribah God showed Himself holy among the children of Israel. Today, God shows Himself holy within the church.
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