Today’s passage is essentially a summary of Israel’s journey. In some ways, it serves simply to mark a convenient point as our last Sunday on the book of Numbers. Note that there’s several chapters that we’re leaving out that have largely to do with distribution of land and some things regarding preparation for entering the land of Canaan. It’s also worth noting that one of the key things that Israel needs to do before entering the land of Canaan is re-visiting the covenant law – which is largely what we see in the book of Deuteronomy.
So I thought today we’d spend some time briefly reviewing some of the main themes or motifs that we’ve discussed as we’ve gone through Numbers.
The first one I want to think about has to do with complaining. Remember when we talked about how Israel, having come out of Egypt, at the foot of mount Sinai was complaining about not having meat to eat. And they would reminisce (falsely) about how great things were in Egypt, when they had “all the meat they wanted.” This motif of remembering or mis-remembering how great life was in Egypt, and how difficult things were now, was something that we’ve seen throughout Israel’s journey.
The key thing that we want to remember, in light of episodes like this, is how difficult it can be, and yet how important it is, that we trust in what God is doing. Often, we don’t understand why God is doing the things that He is, leading us where He is leading us. And I don’t necessarily believe that we will always be let in on His plans or that we will “figure it out.” But trusting in God isn’t about following Him when it’s convenient or acceptable to us. It’s about going where He wants us to go, even when we don’t necessarily want to be there.
The second motif that I want to think about has to do with the episode at the entrance to Canaan, when the Israelites refused to enter because they were afraid. We looked at how that episode had a lot in common with the golden calf incident in Exodus which reminded us that what we were seeing in the Israelite’s behaviour was not just fear and it wasn’t just complaining. What we were seeing was rebellion.
And we talked about how, at it’s root, rebellion is about a refusal to allow God to be God, a refusal to allow God to be king – the only king. Rebellion is fundamentally about elevating ourselves to the position of decision-maker, the judges of what is right and what is true. We are essentially saying that God’s direction and God’s plans are subject to our approval. And if they don’t meet with our approval, then we will do it for ourselves or we will decide for ourselves.
A third motif that we’ve explored is related to God’s determination to bless the people of Israel in spite of themselves. Remember the story of Balaam and Balak, when Balak wanted Balaam to curse the Israelites, whom he was afraid of. Despite all of their complaining, despite all of their rebellion, God leads Balaam to bless the Israelites instead. We talk about it so much that it’s almost easy to take it for granted – but I feel like if we really reflect on God’s grace, which alone leads us to blessing, I think it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed.
In our society, so much of our understanding of self-worth and identity is based on what you earn or what you achieve. But in God’s economy, according to kingdom values, who we are and what we get is not dependent upon ability, accomplishment, or merit. It’s dependent solely upon what God’s intentions for us and Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for us. We are not wanted because we’re valuable – we’re valuable because we are wanted.
Now that was, I think obviously, a very quick run-down of some of the themes and motifs that we’ve seen and discussed in the book of Numbers. One final item that we’ve talked about is formation – and the idea that God is creating a people. The notion of formation is over-arching to, or inter-woven through, the other themes that we’ve been talking about. Numbers is about God forming a people and some of the challenges and obstacles that are faced.
One item that is interesting about the book of Numbers is that in Jewish tradition, it wasn’t called “Numbers.” This title may come from the early part of the second century. The title came from the two censuses which appear in the text. However, though this isn’t exclusive, one of the early titles of the book, was derived from the fifth word of the book which translates to the phrase, “In the wilderness.” And this title seems to capture more of what the book is actually about. It has to do with Israel between deliverance (that is, the escape from Egypt) and consummation (that is, the arrival in the promised land).
So the book of Numbers reminds me of the importance of the in-between. Especially as evangelical Christians, we tend to focus on the beginning – conversion – and the end – that is, heaven. And we tend to conceive of heaven in a particular way. We’ve discussed this a little bit before, but we tend to hold, in part or in whole, what appears to be a caricature of heaven in our minds. (not least of the problems is that scripture doesn’t usually use the term “heaven” as the place we go when we die). Without getting into that discussion, this is related to something we talked about a few weeks back – the relationship between the terms eschatology and teleology. In other words, we are more concerned with where we end up than what we are here for.
And this is related to what we were exploring when we were talking about character – specifically about developing virtue. This is not about earning points or drawing lines – it’s about becoming a certain kind of person; about becoming a certain kind of people. It’s about moving closer to the goal – and that is, about allowing the Holy Spirit to work in us to mold us, shape us into – what we were meant to be.
Have you ever watched the show Seinfeld? For many years, Seinfeld was the most popular sitcom on television. Except that it wasn’t really a sitcom – or at least, it claimed it wasn’t. Seinfeld claimed that it was unlike other sitcoms. Most sitcoms involved characters who faced a particular situation and problem and they would solve that problem in the space of 30 minutes. Occasionally you would have a two-part episode where they would go to Hawaii or something, so it would take it a little longer. But usually, something would happen and it would have to be fixed. Think of shows like the Brady Bunch, Full House, or whatever.
Seinfeld claimed to, or tried to, be about nothing. Of course, it wasn’t about nothing. What it was about, at least sometimes, was the many little things that happen in-between that make life interesting. I think about episodes like waiting for a table at the restaurant, trying to find your car in a parking lot, or about ordering soup. And it was the little idiosyncrasies, the ridiculousness in the small moments, that made the show resonate with so many people.
Where I’m going with this is that Numbers, in its way, is about the in-between moments. It’s about formation on the journey. It’s about paying attention to what God is doing, about who we are becoming, on the way. This is where we are – on the way. Don’t get me wrong, in Christ, our eschaton and our telos are ensured. But we are a people who are becoming.
Today’s passage reminds us that all of the things that happen in the in-between, in fact, matter. It tells us that all of those in-between moments are part of our journey. They are part of our story.
We are not yet where we will wind up. We are not yet finished. But do you ever ask yourself how you wound up here?
You can ask a child, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” But when you do that, or when a young person thinks about that, you’re not just asking what outcome they would prefer to have. What you’re really asking – implicit within the question at least – is what are you willing to do between now and then in order to get to where you want to be.
Each of us get here through thousands of moments. Each of us arrived here through thousands of choices that we make. Some of those moments stand out more than others, but none of those moments are irrelevant. They are all part of the journey.
So my question for us is how did we get to where we are? And where is God leading us. Of course, there is a sense in which God is leading us where He is leading all of us – to eternity with Him in His new creation. But where is He leading us in the in-between. How are we paying attention to His leading to become who He wants us to be?