Strength for the Journey: “Redirection” – Numbers 17

redirection2Every good parent knows the idea, if not the term “redirection”. This is the notion of moving a child’s attention from the forbidden thing they are fixated on, to something that will attract him or her back to a safe and secure activity. Let me illustrate:

You are getting ready for a big party. The whole family will be coming, and you have put out the best dishes, and set a beautiful table. You have candles and the nicest platters. You are serving the best foods, and the setting would have made Henry VIII sit down and gird on his napkin. With all the attention focused on the details of the room, you haven’t been paying enough attention to your little toddler. Suddenly you look across the room in horror and see them “teething” on a gravy spoon and walking with a carving knife from the table. You don’t want to alarm the child, because they don’t walk with stability, and this situation is truly life threatening. You quickly move across the room, but you know they will resist giving up a beautiful and shiny object now in their possession. How can you take it from them safely? You swiftly come to the child and your hand swoops down on their favorite stuffed animal lying nearby. You work to both disarm the child, and at the same time, redirect their attention to the “game” you are playing with the stuffed animal. Instead of protesting the loss of the shiny knife, they laugh as you tickle them and make animal noises. Redirection has done its job and you have the unsafe object.

Though the Israelites in the desert were not children, the record of the recent weeks in their journey showed they often acted like they were. As a leader, the last few weeks in Moses’ life were particularly difficult, because of the constant misbehavior of the people. Think back over the last few chapters:

• First, the spies were sent into the land, and their negative report left Israel in tears (Numbers 13).

• Next, open rebellion pressed Moses to fall before God to defend the people and keep them from summary judgment – but in God’s patience the people only stepped up rebellion further. They rushed into the land against Moses’ overt leadership. It was a disaster. The people of God were routed and the enemies were celebrating (Numbers 14).

• In the wake of that fateful decision to fight without God’s direction and presence, God regrouped the people with Moses and presented some new laws. These were meant to both encourage the people that they WOULD be entering the land, and warn the people that future rebellion would need to be faced soberly, with the consequences of sin clearly outlined (Numbers 15).

• Finally, Numbers 16 recounted first how Moses dealt with rebels, and then how God dealt with them. This rebellion left no body bags or burials, the earth swallowed the rebels up in one moment.

No matter how justified these actions were in judgment, they still meant that Moses faced a pummeling series of losses. The innocence of the people was gone, and any illusion that this would be a tranquil journey or an easy acquisition of the land of promise had long since evaporated. This uncomfortably hot and sweaty journey was going to continue, for God was still sculpting a people – and who would make it to the end was very much in question in the leader’s mind.

The people had questions God’s goodness and God’s choices. They didn’t like the menu, they hated the conditions of the journey, they were unsure of the God-appointed leaders, and they grumbled against the apparent favoritism and nepotism involved in the choice to place the priestly offices with the brother of Moses. All this they made very clear. Even in the moments that God’s people were closest to Him – the amazing time of His manifest presence in the desert, they fussed about the circumstances…

At that point God decided to redirect the attention of the people. He refocused them with a simple but powerful tool. He endorsed the leaders and placed a powerful symbol of direction in the midst of His people. He wanted them to quit fussing about how the circumstances appeared to be going, and focus on His direction and His choices. He did it by taking something DEAD and making it ALIVE.

Key Principle: God refocuses wayward people by showing them what He alone can do – creating a NEW LIFE!

In Numbers 17, God used the staff of a man to show His power, direction and approval. God used a stick to show endorsement – bringing empowering new life and productivity to a dead stick.

The Plan Unfolded (17:1-5)

Numbers 17:1 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Speak to the sons of Israel, and get from them a rod for each father’s household: twelve rods, from all their leaders according to their fathers’ households. You shall write each name on his rod, 3 and write Aaron’s name on the rod of Levi; for there is one rod for the head [of each] of their fathers’ households. 4 “You shall then deposit them in the tent of meeting in front of the testimony, where I meet with you. 5 “It will come about that the rod of the man whom I choose will sprout. Thus I will lessen from upon Myself the grumblings of the sons of Israel, who are grumbling against you.”

Notice three things about the unfolding of God’s plan in Numbers 17:1-5:

First, God made the plan. It was His work, and Moses was just the person that did the Master’s bidding. Moses didn’t make the plan effective; he just played an obedient role before God.

New life is God’s business. Obedience is our business. In fact, doing the Master’s bidding sets up receiving the Master’s blessing – it has always been this way.

Second, God’s plan was to take all the sticks of the leaders, and approve only ONE stick.

The Lord said to Moses: “Get the staffs of the leaders together and write their names on each. Take Levi’s staff from Aaron and write the name of Levi on it. Put them in the tent of meeting, and I will bring new life out of one – as a demonstration to all where I am at work.” People have a natural default to follow in the world – and it may even seem right – but it isn’t where He is leading. God’s leaders aren’t necessarily the ones the world would choose – but they are His choice. The staffs of each leader were brought to the test, so that God could show His choice. Let’s be clear: God doesn’t choose as men choose – and God’s choice is always best for God’s purpose.

In addition, note the reality that God’s people need to take the time to discern God’s direction, not just a poll from the world of what would have the most popular support – or a decision based on the most pragmatic solution. We need leaders that will stand against culture, when need be – because these leaders are fixed on God’s unchanging Word.

When moral boundaries are fixed by popular sentiment, character cannot be taught by leaders. Character requires absolutes that will stand even in the face of shifting popular morays. Without character, the decisions of any society will keep growing downward. On the bright side, it makes those who live with moral boundaries will truly “stick out”! Candles are brightest in dark rooms.

Third, God was clear on the objective. He said “…that should quiet down the grumbling.”

God knew the distraction of His people was unhealthy because the whining made it impossible for the people to enjoy their walk with Him – and that is what God wanted. God uses believers that offer a positive vision – not an incessant whine of decline and failure. We must trust God, and we must deliberately turn aside anxiety. Worry about the circumstances robs the believer of joy in the walk. This is nothing new, but God’s people need again to be re-directed.

The Pieces Collected (Numbers 17:6-7)

Numbers 17:6 Moses therefore spoke to the sons of Israel, and all their leaders gave him a rod apiece, for each leader according to their fathers’ households, twelve rods, with the rod of Aaron among their rods. 7 So Moses deposited the rods before the LORD in the tent of the testimony.

The Hebrew word for rod in this passage is “matteh”, and it has several meanings. It can mean simply a rod or a stick. Because they were used as both markers and standards – the meaning grew metaphorically to be a staff, or even a tribe. Because the rod was at times a means of chastisement – the rod took on a poetic meaning familiar to those of us who misbehaved in a home that believed in corporal punishment (i.e. spanking). In addition, the small staff or shaft of a rod also played the role as a ruler’s scepter in the Biblical world.

In the beginning, it was probably a simple walking stick or staff associated with shepherds. It was a BASIC NEED or a primary symbol of provision – a point made by Ezekiel 4:16: “Moreover he said unto me, Son of man, behold, I will break the staff of bread in Jerusalem: and they shall eat bread by weight, and with care; and they shall drink water by measure, and with astonishment.” (KJV). Eventually, the rod of the patriarch of a tribe came to be a symbol or standard for that tribe. That appears to be what is in view in Numbers 17.

God pulled together all the staff rods of the leaders of each tribe to make a point. Each one was a treasured piece in that part of the camp – a symbol of the authority of that tribe. It was just a stick, but it meant much more to the people of Israel in the camp. Consider some simple truths we can learn from looking at those sticks:

First, the rod lived a natural life but became more important long after it looked like its life was over. It started as a seedling. Over time it grew up from the ground, drinking the modest rains, and weathering the intense Near Eastern sun. Seasons of drought, rain and cold came and went. The tree grew and grew. It sprouted, yielded both blossom and nuts, and stood proudly. One day, someone cut the tree down… and it looked like it would contribute no further to the world. Birds would no longer lodge in the branches. Children would no longer collect the nuts. It was over… or so it seemed. The truth is that when the branch of that tree was chosen to fashion into a staff – the most important days of that wood had just begun. It is important that we remember something about the way God works His plans: it isn’t over until He says it is over. Our lives run the course of man, and the outer man decays – but God can renew our purpose with the rising of each day’s sun.

A second truth, equally valuable is this: in the right hands, even old wood increases in value. In the hands of God’s leader – the stick could be dramatically used to become a snake, or to part a sea. In the King’s use – it could become a scepter of a righteous ruler. In the dry and dirty hands of a shepherd, it can become a powerful weapon or a point of comfort to the sheep. It may be to the world a dried out piece of wood, but in the hands of God – even something that seems worthless can be mightily uses in God’s hand to tell His story.

A third truth that is also worth recalling is this: in support of God’s leader, the stick offered stability and assistance. On a journey, the staff was carried to aid walking, to help with climbing, and to give a third “leg” to add balance when needed. As men aged they grew in wisdom, but their physical stamina and stability needed to be boosted – and the staff helped do that. The staff began as a symbol to the patriarch in his younger years – but became an essential tool in his later years. God provides for our later time by allowing us to shape balancing tools in our earlier walk.

A fourth truth is this: the staff was a symbol of the man’s identity and work. For a shepherd it was his prized tool. For a patriarch of a tribe, it was the symbol passed from his father of an important work. It was the symbol of spiritual and familial authority. God seasoned the man for the position to be used of Him when the body was not as strong as the position. “God’s leaders should be sober, and those who engender respect,” Paul told Timothy. The symbols of authority do little good if the men bearing them don’t live in a way that matches their meaning.

A fifth truth concerning the staff is this: The rod protected a man in peril. The staff supplied a measure of security. In the face of wild animals on the way, the staff could save lives. Confronting selfish shepherds at a well, Moses used his staff to drive away men who harassed the women at the well (Exodus 2). Though a dead piece of wood – it was a valued tool in the hands of a skilled carrier. The simplest things are powerful and useful when God places them into the story.

Let me encourage you for a moment. You might not feel special. You might see your life as mostly over. You may feel more like a dead stick than a living person. I don’t know – it is certainly possible. What I do know is this: in God’s hands your life can be more valuable than ever before. He can transform you into what He can most use right now and right here. If God can make a dead stick into a living snake – He can change you into something dangerous to the enemy. If God can make a dead stick break open the waters of an ocean – He can make from your life something that will ripple across your family’s coming generations. The only catch is this: God only uses the stick that is put wholly into His hands and will be shaped by His intention.

The Power Displayed (17:8)

All the rods were put into the Tabernacle. The text says they stayed there overnight:

Numbers 17:8 Now on the next day Moses went into the tent of the testimony; and behold, the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi had sprouted and put forth buds and produced blossoms, and it bore ripe almonds.

Here is the powerful part of the story… It took only one night in God’s Holy Presence to be completely transformed and renewed. When God touched the dead stick, two things happened that powerfully impacted the story:

First, the dead rod became alive!

All the twelve rods were alike when they were taken into the Tent of Meeting – they were all equally dead. They had been cut away from sap long before. The natural flow of life was over in all of them – until the Author of life had them placed before Him.

• Placed before God and given to Him – death becomes a doorway to something new God wants to do.

• Placed before God and given to Him – valueless trinkets become powerful tools for His kingdom.

• Placed before God and given to Him – simple symbols of human authority are transformed by God’s empowering.

• Placed before God and given to Him – monuments of the past become tools for the future.

Now is the time for the rebirth of what God has done in the past…

• Denominations are fading and whole fellowships are sliding into the foolish pursuit of popularity. In God’s presence they can be renewed and re-established if they will do His bidding.

• Local churches are struggling under the fickle crowds that flow from one hall to the next depending on the menu of the day. In God’s presence they can become powerful places to see God bring new life and new fruit.

• Marriages of so many are just “getting by”. God was there at the beginning altar, but He was not taken home to the daily altar. In God’s presence these homes can renewed as a shelter to the struggling who need to see God at work.

Don’t be weary doing God’s will. Get back into His presence – that is where the power is. Fall on your knees and pull up close. He is there, waiting. He has so much more that He wants to do through you – if you will just let Him!

Second, the dead rod became fruitful!

Look at the end of 17:8! The rod didn’t only blossom, it produce full, ripe fruit! What was impossible with man was possible with God. What would have taken men millions in science grants took God a night without a single test tube or beaker. Why do we doubt the God who bore a child to Abraham and Sarah and later to Zecharias and Elizabeth?

Brothers and sisters, we have learned nothing more than Zecharias of old. We still doubt God’s ability. He calls for prayer, and we supply worry. He calls for trust, and we buy a franchised program that worked somewhere else. He calls for yielded hearts, and we supply overworked hands and anxiety filled minds.

Let’s imagine for a moment a God that is bigger than a Christian publishing house. Let’s set aside the latest songs, the newest authors, the hottest film series, the cutting-edge seminars… let’s see what would happen if we would be serious about quiet, real, fervent, intentional, focused and powerful prayer for our community. Could God reach our town by putting old sticks in a tent? You KNOW He could!!

Now stop and consider how the new life and new fruit took place: the whole transformation occurred in one night!

Stop thinking it will take 100 years to turn this country upside down. It won’t if God decides to do it. It won’t if God finds in us people who are willing to dwell in His presence. One thousand years, a day, a decade – time really isn’t a big deal to an Eternal God. The inventor of time doesn’t need a watch…

What He desires are people who will be IN HIS PRESENCE. I read this story and I have to share it with you. It came from Pastor John Daniel Johnson, and was shared on the web (sermon central illustrations):

A couple of weeks ago, I got home from a long study night at the church and when I walked into the house, I told Jessica, “I need to relax a little bit. I’m going to go relax in the bathtub.” After filling the tub, I sat back and relaxed. I always keep a Bible on the bathroom counter, so while I relaxed, I began reading the Word of God. I don’t know how long I read the Word, but I knew I had been in there so long that the water was getting cold. Right before getting out of the tub, something happened. Now you must understand where this bathroom is in my house. It is located in the middle of the house. There are no windows and when the doors are closed in the hallway, that room can get mighty dark. Well, there I was about to get out of the water and the lights went out at the house. I couldn’t see anything. I still had my Bible in my hand and I didn’t want to get it wet, so I didn’t want to just jump and start feeling for the door knob. I slowly got out of the tub, and started drying off. Immediately, I heard a little knock on the bathroom door. Jessica had already gone to sleep, but [my daughter] Trinity was knocking. She knocked and ask, “Daddy, the lights went out. Are you scared in the dark?” I said, “No baby, I’m drying off. I’ll be out in a minute.” She replied, “Daddy, are you scared in there.” I replied back, “No baby, I’ve got my Bible.” After toweling off, I exited the bathroom and slowly made my way to the bedroom. By this time, Trinity had already awakened Jessica and said, “Mama, the lights went off and daddy said he wasn’t scared because God was in the bathroom with him.” …Out of the mouths of babes. She gets what this passage is teaching.

• We will be productive when we are deliberate about being in His presence. We will bear fruit when we focus more on delighting Him than drawing the praise of others.
• We will have more power when we stay in His presence. We will accomplish what cannot do in the flesh when His Spirit is working powerfully through us!
• We will be able to do in Him what cannot be done apart from Him.
• We will be a powerfully transformed symbol to others of what God can and will do…

But we must remember this ONE TRUTH: The whole transformation only happened when the rod was surrendered to God’s presence.

The passage isn’t finished yet. Look at the end of the story…

Numbers 17:9 Moses then brought out all the rods from the presence of the LORD to all the sons of Israel; and they looked, and each man took his rod. 10 But the LORD said to Moses, “Put back the rod of Aaron before the testimony to be kept as a sign against the rebels, that you may put an end to their grumblings against Me, so that they will not die.” 11 Thus Moses did; just as the LORD had commanded him, so he did.

Can you see it? God wanted the stick of Aaron back in the Tabernacle:

He wanted it to be a symbol – and that meant that Aaron no longer had it at HIS disposal. No one who serves God gets to pull Him into our plans. We surrender to His. Our lives become HIS to use, not the other way around. Believers should WEARY of the teachings that make God fill our lives with trinkets of this world.

God didn’t want Aaron to rely on his old crutch anymore. It was time to trust God to keep him stable in his later years. His own self-carved stick would become a memory, as His new found dependence on God grew day by day.

What if he began to stumble? What if he needed help? He could always recall what God did with a stick submitted for single night to His presence. He could remember that God made His direction clearest when troubles were at their worst. In the dark of a night God moved quietly in the Tent of Meeting. No fanfare, no video… just a stick in the dark touched by a God of limitless power and extraordinary wisdom. Joy came in the morning (Psalm 30:5).

God refocuses wayward people by showing them what He alone can do – creating a NEW LIFE!

Long ago the timber industry created great rafts of loose logs that were floated down the rivers to saw mills. Loggers skipped across the logs watching for a rock or obstruction that could cause thousands of logs to pile up in a huge “log jam”. When a jam was broken the logs would glide smoothly again. Sometimes the jam would be so great that dynamite had to be used to free the key log. If your life is tied up in knots, it may be time for a powerful work of God to “loose” you and transform you!