Strength for the Journey: "The Stance" (Part One) – Numbers 8

Setting up the footing at the beginning of a race is critically important if you want to win. All the participants line up for the starting gun, and in very formal competitions, they line up their footing on starting blocks to be prepared to get the maximum push when the starting gun signals – propelling them forward at high speed, and giving them thrust to push ahead in the race. Haphazard footing causes the runner to waste energy or, even worse, step out of their lane and move off course from the goal. Good runners prepare. They stretch and they step into their stance for the best position. Sometimes they do it several times as a “dry run” before they actually position themselves for the race’s beginning. Practicing how to position the start can help them prepare their mind for the race, this helps their body become set for the track ahead.

Why are we talking about the setting of a race? Because it is a significant and prepared beginning, and that is the subject of Numbers 1-10. The idea is not the beginning of a race, but the setting of a ministry. It is the foundation of the worship of God’s people, and their critical formation from rabble to nation – so that they could experience God’s blessing together. The people were organized in families and the whole society was encamped around one structure – the meeting place with God.

By now, the priests were chosen and consecrated. The Tabernacle was fully equipped, clean, ready, and consecrated. The smell of anointing oils wafted from its tent coverings. You may have been following the story as we studied together…

Numbers 1 showed the people were organized to stand their ground in battle, and had leaderships structures set in place. The people were numbered and knew their position in the various tribes. The enemy cannot be ignored in any stage of drawing together God’s people – or getting them engaged. There must always be those who are set to withstand and be vigilant against the attack – and it WILL come.

Numbers 2 showed the priorities of the people in organizing their ranks – family, worship, and educational training were the marked orders God gave them. God’s people don’t naturally think differently than the world around them. They need to be shown the importance and maintenance involved in a family, and the reality and work involved in real worship.

Numbers 3 and 4 showed the preparation and consecration of the priests to operate the Tabernacle worship according to God’s parameters. Nothing succeeds without an essential core of God’s chosen leaders, affirmed by God’s faithful followers.

Numbers 5 delineated the responsibilities of priestly and Levitical families, as well as specifying some defilements that needed to be guarded against. Leaders may have titles, but they must be given parameters of responsibility, so they can be directed.

Numbers 6 detailed the radical commitment involved in a specific call to some of His people for a time, and offered a special blessing to the people. God will call out of the congregation some gifted people with specially timed radical commitments to push the whole ministry forward.

Numbers 7 offered a picture of the anointing and dedication ceremony of the Tabernacle, as Moses moved ever closer to moving the people from the foot of the Mountain of God toward the Promised Land. The parts and pieces of ministry are BOTH spiritual and physical. The physical plant needs to be established, clean and consecrated for God’s use. This includes the meeting place, but also times and ordered responsibilities.

Even with all that preparation, the people were not yet ready to move ahead.

God would put the people on the move soon – but not quite yet. Before they could go forward, six essentials were still needed – and they are carefully enumerated and fulfilled in Numbers 8-10:

The Heart of the Worship center needed to beat with God’s truth and God’s spirit. Light was required to be sure things were happening correctly.
The workers that would keep the place, fulfill much of the ministry under the priestly direction and serve God faithfully needed to be enlisted, cleaned, and fully prepared for the work ahead. Sustainable ministry is never a one-man band.
Special sensitivity needed to be observed by putting restraints on those who could not keep the work moving because of physical age, and they needed God’s release to do less. Though the lazy struggle to get moving, responsible people need to be told to stop so they can appropriately rest.
An observance needed to be “test run” before they tried to do it on the road – and Passover was coming soon.
God’s symbolic presence needed to be seen and experienced in a powerful and dramatic way. The whole effort without God’s power showing up is just a Broadway show. When God enters and people know it – ministry is really effective.
The method of gathering and dispersing needed to be established and tested – so an alarm system was created. Attacks would come, and getting the people ready was an important part of preparedness to journey forward.

Today’s lesson will be about three of the six essentials, as contained in the words of Numbers 8. Every part of the preparation was so important that God drew out the story over ten chapters of Scripture – and we dare not brush it off or rush through it – because God thinks preparation is tremendously important…

Key Principle: God knows exactly what it takes to build a ministry well and has shared it openly. Sustained and effective ministry isn’t ready to move forward until all the preparations are completed as God prescribed them – or they will spend time later “back filling”.

Reaching a country with the Gospel – or even reaching out in a small village effectively is a difficult task. The winds of culture whip in your face. The Satanic foothold of generations ****

“Six Essentials for Effective Long-term Ministry”

Essential One: Turn on the Light.

The Heart of the Worship center needed to beat with God’s truth and God’s spirit. Light was required to be sure things were happening correctly.

Numbers 8:1 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Speak to Aaron and say to him, ‘When you mount the lamps, the seven lamps will give light in the front of the lampstand.’” 3 Aaron therefore did so; he mounted its lamps at the front of the lampstand, just as the LORD had commanded Moses. 4 Now this was the workmanship of the lampstand, hammered work of gold; from its base to its flowers it was hammered work; according to the pattern which the LORD had shown Moses, so he made the lampstand.

Moses was instructed to have Aaron place the lamps in their respective mounts – made to hold each of seven lamps (Numbers 8:1-2). It was clear in the text that the placement was to “give light” in front of the lamp stand in the Holy Place. The sheen off of the gold-covered walls helped to magnify the light into a glow.

The purpose. The primary point of each lamp was to bring light into the dark room of the holy place, but it was to bring TRUTH there as well. Without stretching, we can easily see that LIGHT was used in two ways in Scripture – to denote God’s presence and absolute truth. In the case of truth, for instance, when Jesus said in the Gospel of John “I am the Light of the World” (John 5:12), the context was a lie that was being perpetrated in His midst. He wouldn’t stand for it. He is the light, and that light shines in every hidden corner.

The number. The lamp stand had three branches on either side of a center branch – making seven in all. From the account of creation with the completion in seven days, to the 54 times the word seven shows up in the closing book of the Bible – Revelation – the number seven has been synonymous with completion. The number occurs 700 times in the Bible, and often in the sense of completion. The message? God has given sufficient light for the workers to complete their task – and sufficient light for HIM to see what we are truly doing. The lamp was God-designed and brought COMPLETE light to the place of worship.

The pattern. The pattern “the Lord revealed to Moses” (8:4) were branches were to be shaped as the flowering almond branch – something that God repeated several times in Exodus 25 and 37. The name of the almond is shaqed in Hebrew. It comes from the word “shaqad”, the word for “to watch over, to keep watch or lie awake.” The unmistakable message is that God is watching! The One who watches His people is recalled in the play on words with the Almond. The light not only helped the priests see, it reminded them WHO ELSE WAS WATCHING OVER THEM. You can’t hide in God’s presence – He knows what you aren’t saying. He sees inside. The last place to try to hide sin is in the presence of a Holy and all seeing God.

At the heart of worship is honest inspection in light of the truth. The truth, like light, shows our flaws, and exposes our deeply held deceptions. It reminds us that God really does know the truth, and that He isn’t faked out by our presence, while we hide what is going on inside.

There are a number of reasons that believers don’t get their lives clean before God.

• One problem is that we MAY NOT BE SURE HOW to really use the lamp of God’s Word to see the blemishes, vermin and dirt in our lives. We see the huge content in the Word, and get lost in the language – unable to make the intended applications. For that, believers are offered both the Spirit of God and the people of God that will mentor, teach and disciple.

I am more convinced than ever before that people need much more training than they did when our culture expected more common sense. I read this from a Pastor’s newsletter up north. Maybe this will help you see what I am saying:

A letter appeared in the national news that was sent to a deceased person by the Indiana Department of Social Services. It read as follows: “Your food stamps will be stopped effective March 1st, because we received notice that you passed away. May God bless you. You may reapply if there is a change in your circumstances.” I just want to know what the person writing that letter was really thinking about!

• A second problem may be that we have learned to set conviction aside. James warns that some look into the mirror– but walk away and do nothing to change. We learn to shield the light from making its way into corners reserved for self carefully protected inside us.

• Still others may be haphazard in the use of the light, using it in a way that doesn’t identify and illuminate our real problem areas.

TRUE WORSHIP happens when we allow the light of God’s Holy Word to fall into every dark corner of our lives, and we allow that truth to identify even the secret intents of the heart – especially when we aren’t flattered by what the light reveals within us. That is why real worship may well include tears. The lamp lights up the truth and exposes what we are really all about.

God’s call from the HOLY PLACE of the Tabernacle was this…Don’t hide. Don’t run. Don’t shrink away. Draw near. Confess to God what you both already know. Ask Him for intense strength to break the grip of sin and guilt. Ask Him to remove a hook from your heart if you don’t have the strength to do it. You will find that He isn’t lighting up sin in you to bring condemnation – but to bring you comfort in the return to Him. He will not call wrong –“right”. He will not excuse rebellion. Humble before Him and be blessed anew by Him! Turn the Light ON!

Essential Two: Get the Team on Board.

The workers that would keep the place, fulfill much of the ministry under the priestly direction and serve God faithfully needed to be enlisted, cleaned, and fully prepared for the work ahead. Sustainable ministry is never a one-man band.

Numbers 8:5 Again the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 6 “Take the Levites from among the sons of Israel and cleanse them. 7 “Thus you shall do to them, for their cleansing: sprinkle purifying water on them, and let them use a razor over their whole body and wash their clothes, and they will be clean. 8 “Then let them take a bull with its grain offering, fine flour mixed with oil; and a second bull you shall take for a sin offering. 9 “So you shall present the Levites before the tent of meeting. You shall also assemble the whole congregation of the sons of Israel, 10 and present the Levites before the LORD; and the sons of Israel shall lay their hands on the Levites. 11 “Aaron then shall present the Levites before the LORD as a wave offering from the sons of Israel, that they may qualify to perform the service of the LORD. 12 “Now the Levites shall lay their hands on the heads of the bulls; then offer the one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering to the LORD, to make atonement for the Levites. 13 “You shall have the Levites stand before Aaron and before his sons so as to present them as a wave offering to the LORD. 14 “Thus you shall separate the Levites from among the sons of Israel, and the Levites shall be Mine. 15 “Then after that the Levites may go in to serve the tent of meeting. But you shall cleanse them and present them as a wave offering; 16 for they are wholly given to Me from among the sons of Israel. I have taken them for Myself instead of every first issue of the womb, the firstborn of all the sons of Israel. 17 “For every firstborn among the sons of Israel is Mine, among the men and among the animals; on the day that I struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt I sanctified them for Myself. 18 “But I have taken the Levites instead of every firstborn among the sons of Israel. 19 “I have given the Levites as a gift to Aaron and to his sons from among the sons of Israel, to perform the service of the sons of Israel at the tent of meeting and to make atonement on behalf of the sons of Israel, so that there will be no plague among the sons of Israel by their coming near to the sanctuary.” 20 Thus did Moses and Aaron and all the congregation of the sons of Israel to the Levites; according to all that the LORD had commanded Moses concerning the Levites, so the sons of Israel did to them. 21 The Levites, too, purified themselves from sin and washed their clothes; and Aaron presented them as a wave offering before the LORD. Aaron also made atonement for them to cleanse them. 22 Then after that the Levites went in to perform their service in the tent of meeting before Aaron and before his sons; just as the LORD had commanded Moses concerning the Levites, so they did to them.

As the Priests functioned in operation of the Tabernacle – the Elders functioned later in the church. As the Levites aided them and helped practical works of the Tabernacle – so the Deacons functioned later in the church. This is NOT to spiritualize the text – just make a comparison that may be helpful for our application. Look closely at the Levites:

They were chosen. They came from the Israelites, but were chosen by their God appointed birth to serve in a special way in regards to the worship center (8:6). In the same way, God has gifted some, at the time of the new birth in Messiah, to be special servants of the community. They are special, and they were chosen.

They were checked. They weren’t prepared to help until they underwent inspection and personal cleansing. The razor to the whole of the body insured that no blemish would be uninspected (8:7). This is critical in the appointment of leaders to God’s work. If sin and immaturity takes residence in leadership – the whole body suffers.

They were cleansed. They weren’t qualified simply by birth – they needed to apply the specific sin offering on their own behalf (8:8). They needed to accept the grace of God, that He would turn His face from their sin. Salvation was of the heart, sacrifice of the hands. Just as we pray to receive Christ, walk an aisle of raise a hand – so they offered a sacrifice – but the faith is what saves, not the actions. No one is ready to serve in the work until they are cleansed by the Master.

They were confirmed. They couldn’t formally function until they were publicly acknowledged by the people (8:9-10). In the same way, our Deacons are chosen from within the ranks of the body, and affirmed by the congregation. Leaders must be accountable – and as servants they are open to confirmation and correction.

They were cherished. Their lives were a special offering of the people before the Lord – because it COST to be in that service, but was a special blessing from God as well (8:11-19). Make no mistake, our modern day “Levites” are a cherished part of the work as well. Their countless hours of labor – visiting the sick, caring for the hurting, helping those in need – they are all remembered by God and should be by us!

They were coached. After they were prepared, they did their work before the priests and under the direction of Moses and Aaron (8:20-22). Our deacons work well with our elders and Pastors – and all meet together regularly. We try to help each other and honor properly each other!

Here is the point: sustainable ministry is well spread ministry. Too much on too few is a recipe for burnout and break-up. It is the work of EVERY ELDER to look for those who will help and eventually replace them. It is the work of EVERY DEACON to spot believers that have gifts like those necessary for the work and coach them – so that one day we will have more trained help. From these come committees and workers and ministry. That sounds so sterile – but that is where ministry truly becomes real. It is in the lives of the hurting that receive comfort that God is so marvelously at work. It is in the transformation of the hard heart to a soft and open one that celebration breaks forth.

Some of you are teachers, and you should be mentoring and teaching. You can wait for a class, or you can grab someone who is open to learning and pour into them. Some of you are helpers, and you can wait for someone to ask you to help, or you can ask what needs to be done. Ministry happens best when the TEAM is growing and functioning.

Essential Three: Develop Sensitivity to People.

Though the lazy struggle to get moving, responsible people need to be told to stop so they can appropriately rest. Special restraints were placed on those who could not keep the work moving because of physical age, and they needed God’s release to do less.

Numbers 8:23 Now the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 24 “This is what applies to the Levites: from twenty-five years old and upward they shall enter to perform service in the work of the tent of meeting. 25 “But at the age of fifty years they shall retire from service in the work and not work any more. 26 “They may, however, assist their brothers in the tent of meeting, to keep an obligation, but they themselves shall do no work. Thus you shall deal with the Levites concerning their obligations.”

Notice that Levites were to work at the moving and set up of the Tabernacle from age twenty-five to age fifty. After fifty, the men were not strong enough to do the work. Wait a minute! I am more than fifty. OK, it is official… I retire. No! That is NOT the point of the Scripture.

Of course if I want to early retirement, I may have to be willing to go back to their short life spans. Life expectancy was more than twenty-three years shorter that ours – so that surely factors into the working age. Don’t get distracted by the retirement phrase – that isn’t really the problem. The problem in the passage was one of RELEASE. Responsible people tend to think of themselves as VITAL and IRREPLACABLE in the work – and the work of God is no different. Levites didn’t OWN the work – they came KNOWING they were here for a season.

I want you to know that I came here knowing that about my work as your leader. I knew that I would need from the beginning to replace myself. I am not secretly planning a departure – I am openly planning one. One day, either by God’s call home or His call elsewhere, my work among you will be done. When it is, only what is firmly built both in method and manpower will last. I cannot gather people to ME and think I am gathering them to Jesus. Moreover, a ministry should be judged not only by the impact of a man, but by the team that was deliberately built by that man, and the others around him.

I am concerned that some churches are forcing people who should be able to rest into perpetual strenuous work – because leadership hasn’t been raised up and trained along the way. I am concerned that men and women should a heavy burden because they don’t want to see their work DIE in front of them – but not enough was done to train up the next generation while they had vitality and energy. God offered a RETIREMENT DATE to remind the Levites they were not always going to be the ones who DO the work. It also was a way to release them from carrying the burden when they weren’t able – a gift of sensitivity. Someone has said that “If you have true respect for people as they are, you can be more effective in helping them to become better than they are.” I think tying too heavy a burden on people for too long disrespect them, and cuts off our ability to truly help them!

Everyone wants to be EFFECTIVE, but it requires that we LEARN to assess things properly under skilled leaders.

I love this old story: A cowboy lay sprawled across three entire seats in the posh Amarillo Theater. When the usher came by and noticed this, he whispered to the cowboy, “Sorry, sir, but you’re only allowed one seat.” The cowboy groaned but didn’t budge. The usher became more impatient: “Sir, if you don’t get up from there I’m going to have to call the manager.” Once again, the cowboy just groaned. The usher, realizing he’s dealing with an impaired individual, marched briskly back up the aisle, and in a moment he returned with the manager. Together the two of them tried repeatedly to move the cowboy, but with no success. Finally they summoned the police. The Texas Ranger surveyed the situation briefly, then asked, “All right buddy, what’s your name?” “Fred,” the cowboy moaned. “Where ya from, Fred?” asked the Ranger. With terrible pain in his voice and slowly pointing one finger painfully toward the ceiling, Fred replied, “…The balcony…” (sermon central illustrations).

Insensitive people don’t listen. They just PUSH ON and get their back up. That isn’t God’s way to handle people!

God knows exactly what it takes to build a ministry well and has shared it openly. Sustained and effective ministry isn’t ready to move forward until all the preparations are completed as God prescribed them – or they will spend time later “back filling”.