Camping Under the Clouds    Numbers 9:15-23   Pastor Josh Suddath   

(1st Service)  {Manuscript–See Video for complete content}

As a young boy, I remember my dad taking me camping in the Nantahala Forest in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Now if you’re a rugged Colorado adventurer, you might turn your nose up at our itinerary for the weekend, but to me this was adventure.  A weekend with my dad in the woods.  I’d get to ask him life’s questions, we’d share some holy moments, and he’d share his heart, and maybe I’d share mine. We would make a couple meals over a fire, camp under the night sky, and then in the morning, brave the class 2 rapids of the Nantahala River, in our own personal rafts called “duckies.”  As it turns out however, we were not the only ones spending the night in the Nantahala Forest that weekend.  Word had made its way around the camp that it was very likely that an out-of-town guest had also decided to make camp in those woods that night.  Eric Rudolph, top ten on the FBI’s Most Wanted, the Olympic Park Bomber, who, as time would tell, would last for the next five years hiding out in the Kudzu-laden forests of the Nantahala, had made camp somewhere near ours.  Now I was twelve years old. This was no measurable threat.  I owned a Swiss army knife and knew how to whittle. I was not fine.  I was afraid. I didn’t deserve this!  I wondered why God and my dad had brought me to the woods to meet my demise.  I slept with both eyes open and I needed the sun to come up a little sooner than was planned for the next day.  I wanted to get the heck out of that camp, get in that raft, paddle as fast as I could, and get to where we were going.  And looking back, I think I missed out on some holy moments with my dad.

I wonder what life would’ve been like as a young Levite boy, traveling with the Israelites in the desert on the way to the Promised Land.  They were camping out.  If you have a Bible today you can turn with me to the book of Numbers 9:15.  And as we jump into this journey with the Israelites today I was reminded of a quote from one of my favorite pastors, Mark Dever, of Capitol Hill Baptist in Washington, DC. — “The Old Testament is the New Testament concealed.” In another book he wrote:  “The New Testament is the Old Testament revealed.”    Whether that saying is original to him or not, I don’t know, but I know that he’s echoing the words of Paul in Romans 15:4 — For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.  

Let’s look at that first verse together in Numbers 9:15 — On the day the tabernacle, the tent of the covenant law, was set up, the cloud covered it.  God is making a statement here that on the day when the people have brought what they have to set up this tabernacle, He is saying to them, by covering it with a cloud, that whatever they encounter along this journey, whatever they’re about to experience, whatever practices they engage in underneath this tent, “I am here and I am covering it.”  As we jump into this account, I want you to be reminded from that verse in Romans, whatever you walked in here with today, whatever the pace of your life was like this week, whatever spiritual practices you engaged in, or didn’t,  whatever pain you may have encountered that you didn’t see coming, you’re here and something about what we are looking at today is meant to teach us to endure and to encourage us to have hope.

The centerpiece of the camp was the tabernacle, a sanctuary, where the people of God practiced the ways of God.  Encamped immediately around the tabernacle were those God assigned to care for the structure.  They were in charge of set up and tear down, maintenance, and care of the holy things.  The tribe of Levi, and if I’m a 12-year-old Levite boy, this is my tribe.  On the outskirts of the camp were the remaining tribes of Israel, each assigned their plot of land by the Lord.  God was really clear that the Levites were to be the only ones that would go near the tabernacle.  If anyone outside of the Levite tribe ever dared go near it, they were to be put to death. I mean if I was that Levite boy, I might just have some fun with this one.  Invite that kid over from the tribe of Dan that I’m not too fond of.  Draw a few lines in the sand.  Come at me, bro!  Cross that line and see what happens. The camp is pretty special, and my family is a pretty special part of what’s happening here. Whatever face I’m projecting on the outside, I still have some questions.  What is actually happening here?  I mean what are we really doing here?  What is this tabernacle about? And aren’t we supposed to be headed somewhere awesome? And I’m watching the older people around me.  Whether they think I’m watching or not, I’m watching, and I’m learning.  How are they going about this whole thing? What are they gaining from all of these practices?  I mean we get it, you go in, you sprinkle everything with blood, you kill a few of our pets, and what gives?  I mean we get it, we go every Sunday, you sit there, you put your weekly allowance in a basket, you drink the most worthless amount of grape juice, and what gives? And sometimes the questions and the monotony of it all begins to drive us to want to take control of our own destiny and travel at our own pace along the journey.

Have you ever taken a long trip with a large group of people?  Maybe it’s just a family vacation or a group tour of another country, or a mission trip.  If you’ve ever experienced this, you have undoubtedly learned that people tend to want travel at their personally desired pace. Isn’t it true, though, that our desired pace is often defined by our perceived destination?  This is why people stuck in lines at customs at the Cancun airport are always so pissed off.  They are all wearing shirts that say, “Tequila on the Beach.”   Unless they are a youth pastor, in which case they are thinking very holy thoughts about their upcoming service to God on the mission field.  Not that I would know. The people of Israel have been promised a destination.  But I get the impression from what comes next in this passage that God had more for them than just a destination.  And perhaps as he’s leading them he sees that they’ve become a little too destination-minded.  Maybe so much so that they’ve forgotten about their family, and what it’s like to be present with somebody or to recognize when he’s present with them.  So the Israelites are made to travel at the pace of their God.  Maybe there are lessons God wants them to learn along the way.  Maybe He wants them to really experience His presence, to get used to what it FEELS like in the holy moments.  I wonder if that’s a question each of us ought to consider—What does it mean for us to travel at the pace of our God?

Here’s how God goes about slowing the roll of the Israelites.  Numbers 9:15–On the day the tabernacle, the tent of the covenant law, was set up, the cloud covered it.  From evening until morning, the cloud above the tabernacle looked like fire. That is how it continued to be; the cloud covered it, and at night it looked like fire.  Whenever the cloud lifted from above the tent, the Israelites set out; wherever the cloud settled, the Israelites encamped. At the Lords command, the Israelites set out, and at his command they encamped.  As long as the cloud stayed over the tabernacle, they remained in camp.  When the cloud remained over the camp for a long time, the Israelites obeyed the Lord’s order and did not set out. Sometimes the cloud was over the tabernacle only a few days; at the Lords command they would encamp, and then at his command they would set out.

I mean why the repetitive nature of this text?  The Israelites obeyed.  The Israelites obeyed.  They are getting really good at this pattern of obedience.  They’re getting really good at being good.  Now I’m not just a teenage Levite with weekly chores at this point. I’m a little frustrated.  I mean I’m part of the help here and you mean we’ve got to keep setting up and tearing this thing down every time the cloud moves?  Who’s controlling this thing and why can’t why can’t I access this Google Doc!

What does is mean to travel at the pace of our God?  I didn’t ask for this pace.  Can we just get where we are supposed to be going? I mean isn’t it really good?  I mean I’m stuck here in high school, but life is really going to start for me when I get out.  I’m stuck here in this job, but I have so many other passions, God, and why aren’t the doors opening for me? In my experience, I tend to get the most frustrated about the pace of my life when I get the most consumed with myself.

I was a 24-year-old living in Nashville, working in the wealth management field.  I had a back office.  I spent my time doing investment trading on the Stock Market.  I had begun to develop gifts, talents, dreams, visions, and hopes of traveling the country and getting out and speaking to people and sharing Jesus and what he was doing in my life. I remembered I called my dad one day from that office and said, “Dad, I’m doing it!  I’m going out on my own.  I’m going to buy an RV and travel the country and be an itinerant preacher.”  You know what my dad said to me?  “Put down the phone, go back to your office, do your job, and stop thinking of yourself as the next Messiah.”   It was a holy moment.  It was a hard moment, but it was a holy moment.  Teaching me to endure. And what do you do when the pace of your life isn’t what you desired?  Look for the holy moments.  And some of them may be difficult and meant to teach you to endure, and some may be encouraging and meant to give you great hope.  And the holiest of moments can be found in the simplest of moments.  They are found in what’s happening around you everyday, right now, where you are, not where you think you are going to be. Nineteenth  century poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, wrote, “Earth is crammed with heaven and every common bush afire with God, but only those who see take off their shoes.”

Well eventually in Numbers 13, twelve people are sent outside the camp to explore the Promised Land, the promised destination.  And ten out of the twelve completely freak out when they get outside the camp.  The realities of life outside the camp hit them hard.  Enemies, danger, potential suffering.   Maybe camp is safer after all, under the cloud. Ten out of the twelve bring back a negative report.  Joshua and Caleb return with a positive report.   Ten out the twelve prove they haven’t really learned anything along the way.

The cloud hadn’t lifted at this point.   There wasn’t a direct command to take the land. It’s almost as if God is seeing where the people’s confidence is.  Have they learned to sense His presence?  Have they soaked up holy moments?  Or have they just become really good at obeying?  Did they get so head down in their practices, in the monotony and regularity of it all that they missed out on learning to discern his presence?  Joshua and Caleb might have learned something.  They’re trying to discern his Spirit.  They’ve paid attention to his presence and they’re trying to listen to his voice. Listen to how they say it:  The land we passed through and explored is exceedingly good.  If the Lord is pleased with us, he will lead  us into that land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and will give it to us.   IF the Lord is pleased with us.

Paul writes in I Corinthians 10—I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud, and that they all passed through the sea.  They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.  They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock, was Christ!    Or did they? They ate the food and drank the drink, but anybody can give a little money and enjoy some grape juice once a month.  Paul goes on to say:  Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, for they were struck down in the wilderness. Their practices of their life were lacking something.  They were good practices; in fact, they were God-ordained practices.  And they were very regular. And you and I fall into these same patterns.  At the end of this service today, you’re going to have an opportunity to take communion.  I’ve been a Christian since I was four; that’s thirty years of grape juice.   So often I’ve come to the table to do penance for the person I know I should’ve been but that I know I haven’t been.   And when you get into the practice of trying to make yourself better, it can be extremely draining.

The writer of Hebrews 9:19-28 says it this way—When Moses had proclaimed every commandment of the law to all the people, he took the blood of calves, together with water, scarlet wool and branches of hyssop, and sprinkled the scroll and all the people.  He said, “This is the blood of the covenant, which God Has commanded you to keep.”  In the same way, he sprinkled with the blood both the tabernacle and everything used in its ceremonies.  In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.  It was necessary, then, for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these sacrifices than these.  For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence.  Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own.  Otherwise Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world.  But he has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.  Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.   

That was perfect will of God, South, that Christ would be sacrificed once on our behalf for our forgiveness. Later in the book of Hebrews (10:10), the writer will say—And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.   What do you do when the practices of your life are feeling desolate?  Remember that you’ve already been made holy.  When you come to the table today, don’t come to do penance for the person you should have been.  Come to remember, as Brennan Manning said, that He loves you just as you are and not as you should be, because you’re never gonna be as you should be.

Listen to what happens to the people who bring back the report at the close of Numbers 14:36—So the men Moses had sent to explore the land, who returned and made the whole community grumble against him by spreading a bad report about it—these men who were responsible for spreading the bad report about the land were struck down and died of a plague before the Lord.  Of the men who went to explore the land, only Joshua  son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh survived.  When Moses reported this to all the Israelites, they mourned bitterly.    When you and I encounter pain that we didn’t see coming we respond in all kinds of different ways.  I’ve run the gamut of responses and you probably have too. The Israelites response is interesting to me.  They mourned bitterly, number one, and don’t miss that word bitterly.  This was a tragic moment of pain for them.  Ten of their brothers died of a plague before the Lord.  Were they killed for disobeying a command?  No.  Seemingly they were killed due to a moment of lack of trust.  This was hard to take.  We didn’t deserve this as a community.  You just sent us in to explore the land.    Here’s how they respond —- Early the next morning they went up toward the high hill country.  “We have sinned,” they said, “we will go up to the place the Lord promised.”  They repent!  They acknowledge their sin, and they turn toward the Lord.  Or do they?  But Moses said, “Why are you disobeying the Lord’s command?  This will not succeed.  Do not go up, because the Lord is not with you.  You will be defeated by your enemies, for the Amalekites and Canaanites will face you there.  Because you have turned away from the Lord, He will not be with you and you will fall by the sword.” Nevertheless, in their presumption, they went up, though neither Moses nor the ark of the Lord’s covenant moved from the camp.   Neither the representation of the law to the people, Moses, or the representation of God’s presence to the people, the ark, went with them.

Is it possible that sometimes even in our perceived obedience, we are missing the point?  How often do we “obey the Lord” out of a deep sense of guilt?  We know the way forward, after all we’ve heard it our whole life.  We repent, we lean in to our morality, to our religious roots, we go and do the “right thing.”  Maybe we feel like we have to make up for something else we did.  Maybe we feel like the pain is our fault—God is punishing me.  And by running to obey the Holy One, we are running away from the Holy One.  When the pain in your life isn’t what you deserve, look for the Holy One.  Don’t be quick to run and fix it on your own terms.  It’s already been fixed.  God doesn’t want your sacrifices, He wants your heart.

If you’ve followed the Christian music world for a while, you may have heard of Steven Curtis Chapman.  The Chapmans have six kids.  When I was living in Nashville, I was attending the church where the Chapmans attended, Christ Community Church.  The Chapmans went through a tragic experience in their family.  They lost their little girl Maria—she was five years old—in a tragic car accident in their driveway.  One of their sons accidentally hit her with their vehicle.  I remember hearing the story at Christ Community—after the funeral, the family came back to their house and saw a piece of paper on the kitchen table.  It was a drawing Maria had done before she died.  The drawing was a flower with six petals—for the six kids—and one petal was colored in.  Underneath the flower there was one little word that Maria had written.  Steven said she had never written this word before.  She had written the word “see.”  It was a holy moment for the Chapman family.

In Job 42:5, Job says—My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you.  Tim Keller remarked about this:  “Job never saw why he suffered.  But he saw God, and that was enough.”  When you feel like the pain in your life isn’t what you deserve, look for the Holy One and seek His heart.  Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, help us to see the holy moments you’ve given us and the people who are right here with us.  Help us to slow down a little bit along this journey and to pay attention to what your presence feels like.  Help us to see ourselves as you see us, when we come to this table today.  And over it all, Lord, covering all of it, help us to see You, as we encounter the unexpected and those things we didn’t see coming in our lives.  Help us to look for You and help us to find You.  In Jesus’s name.  Amen.