The Lord's Day Morning
September 25, 2011
The Reverend Mr. William E. Dempsey
If you’ll turn to Numbers chapter 6, verses 22 through 27, that will be my text today. In a moment I'm going to pray and ask God to open our hearts.
Let's go to the Lord in prayer.
Father, it's Your Word, not ours. It's Your Word, now speak, and help us, by Your grace, to lay aside every stray thought, every distraction, every care, and to hang on Your every word because we don't live by bread alone but by the very word that falls from Your mouth. Speak it into our hearts, speak it into our lives, and make us like Christ. We pray in His name, amen.
And now from Numbers chapter 6 beginning with verse 22. Hear the Word of God:
“The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the people of Israel: you shall say to them,
The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make His face to shine on you and be gracious to you, the LORD lift up His countenance on you and give you peace.
So they shall invoke My name on the sons of Israel, and I will bless them.’”
All men are like grass and all their glory is like the flower of the field. The grass withers and the flower fades, but the Word of our God stands forever.
Let's think for just a moment. The people of Israel are about to start a great journey. They have just been at Sinai and they’re about to find out what it means to be constituted, or live out what it means to be constituted as the people of God. If you go back to read the first few chapters of Numbers you won't find them praying a prayer, “O God, bless us.” You will find God sovereignly determining, “They need My blessing;” God taking the initiate to ascribe to His people His blessing; God taking the initiative to set upon His people His name, generation after generation after generation. Why? Because God knows we need Him. We need Him and we need every power He brings to bear. We are insufficient in and of ourselves to make our circuit in this world. We are insufficient when times are good to recognize, “I've not done this myself.” We’re insufficient when times are bad to recognize the sweet truthfulness and the sweet faithfulness of God's promises to us. We need an echo. We need an echo in the mountain peak; we need an echo in the valley of the shadow of death. Here's the echo. Here's the echo that God takes the initiate to ascribe to His people, generation after generation.
Let's understand that God is not saying to His people, “Don't worry, be happy.” He's not saying to His people, “Think happy thoughts.” He's promising to bless, and by that promise He is promising to bend all the power of the universe, all the power at His disposal, to bring about good for His people. That's the promise in a nutshell. That's the promise that God will bend all the power at His disposal to bring about good for His people. We need that echo.
Maybe you've had a bad word from the doctor. Maybe you've suffered a grievous loss, a loss the likes of which you think you’ll never be over. Maybe your business is headed downhill fast and you've tried everything, you've done all the right things, and it's going nowhere — nowhere good. We need this echo. Certainly in our church family we're had a trying, bitter season. We need this echo and we need to remember that God has a plan that is greater than our trouble, that God has a purpose that is greater than our fear, that God has a purpose that He is accomplishing and the wheels have not stopped, though at times it feels as though our wheels are falling off. The wheels of His purposes move forward and God is accomplishing all His holy will. Sometimes we think, “Wait, don't accomplish anymore!” We need the echo because we are not sufficient in and of ourselves to recognize what the holy will of His is because we are naturally self-absorbed, self-preoccupied. We’re not thinking about God's ways, we're thinking about our comfort. We need the echo.
THE LORD BLESS YOU
What is the echo? Let's look at the passage to tell us what the echo is. The echo is just this — the Lord says, “Tell the people of Israel, ‘The LORD bless you.’” What does that mean, to bless? That's a comprehensive term. It really is kind of an all-encompassing term. Maybe Calvin says it well for us. “Blessing is the act of God's genuine generosity because of the abundance of all good things that come to us from His favor as their only source.” The abundance of all good things. Let's not just think about cars and houses and a nice bottom line. The abundance of all good things, good things like a marvelous day today, good things like the ability to get out and enjoy it, good things like good food that we’ll be consuming in just a little while, and the list goes on and on and on. God is giving good things and sweetens every moment, sweetens every care, sweetens every day with the abundance of good things that He brings to us. We are a bit preoccupied to recognize those things. Sometimes we need that old hymn to ring in our ears, “Count your many blessings, name them one by one; count your many blessings see what God has done.” God has saturated our living with His goodness.
We get preoccupied by our woes and our trials - “They've got to be fixed!” But God promises blessings; God promises good things. And even the woes and the trials themselves are not just distractions. What's the fantastic promise of Romans chapter 8? That “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.” Paul is sitting with Numbers chapter 6 right in front of him. God promising, pledging, to bring good even out of our trouble and our woe and the things that we would call wretched, God says, “Good will come.” That's what it means for God to bless us.
But God also promises — and maybe the rest of the phrases here are an outworking of this comprehensive idea of blessing. God promises not only to bless but to keep. For the Israelites, I’ll tell you what that means. That means that they are about to take a journey that they don't know exactly will end up where and they know that they will go through territories that don't belong to them. What's going to happen? We remember how when they’re at the journey's end they’re sitting at the edge of the Promised Land and they send the spies forth and the spies come back with this tale of how good and great and wonderful the land is, everything that God has promised, but there are giants in the land and “they’ll gobble up our children.” That's kind of a Dempsey translation! They did not believe in God's keeping. God promised them in Exodus chapter 23 verse 20, “You will go from here” and they’re gathered around Mt. Sinai, “You will go from here and I’ll send an angel to go with you to guard you.” Guard is the same word as “keep.” Or maybe from another perspective, Joshua, at the end of his life, after the conquest is done and after those forty years of wandering because of their unbelief that I mentioned just a moment ago, Joshua addressing his people in the final hours of his life saying, “The Lord has preserved you though you traveled through other people's land.” Preserved is the same word “kept” or “keep.” God will keep you. God will protect us. God will keep us.
That's an importance echo because sometimes let's face it, let's admit it, we don't feel very “kept” do we? We feel kind of thrown aside. We feel kind of overlooked. I just moved; I'm still moving in fact. I found a lot of things that I've kept that I'd totally forgot about. And as I'm loading them into the POD I'm saying, “Why are we moving this? Why are we moving this? Why are we moving this? I didn't even know we had it still!” We've kept it for some unknown reason. God's keeping of us is not that way because there are other things we kept that are precious, that we know exactly where they were in the house, we know exactly where they’re supposed to be in the POD, and we know when we’ll find them. They’re precious to us; that's how God keeps you and me. That's how God keeps. He knows exactly what's happening with us. He knows exactly where we are. He knows exactly what's going on. He hasn't forgotten; He hasn't overlooked. He hasn't misjudged who we are and what we're capable of undergoing and enduring. He knows exactly that we're made of dust and He's kept us and He will keep us today and He will keep us tomorrow. As families, as individuals, as a church, His promise has been to keep us because we're precious in His sight.
THE LORD MAKE HIS FACE SHINE UPON YOU
“The LORD make His face to shine on you.” It's a marvelous Hebrew idiom and you have done it this very day. As you have greeted your children this morning, you have greeted them with your face shining. As you have gathered to worship and you've seen friends that maybe you just saw yesterday or maybe you haven't seen since last Lord's Day or even more than that, your face shined as you greeted them because you were glad to see them because you loved them and they’re a delight to you. You see, God's face shines because you delight Him. God's face shines as He looks at you because you are the object of His overwhelming affection. God's face shines as He hears you call out to Him in prayer because He delights that you call on Him. God's face shines on you when in that moment of gut-wrenching trial you’re saying, “God, I cannot endure more. God, why is it so hard and why is it so bad? I trust You.” Nonetheless, His face shines. Because you are returning the love He bears for you with trust and with honor, His face shines. His face shines on you when you don't do that because He delights in us nonetheless.
THE LORD BE GRACIOUS TO YOU
“The LORD be gracious to you.” Let's remember that God is ascribing this blessing and directing Aaron to extend the blessing and his sons after him not very long after the apostasy at the golden calf. It's not been very long ago, just a matter of months maybe, that Aaron was the chief architect not only of the calf, in spite of what he was saying about the calf just kind of popping out of the fire after they poured the gold in there. It just kind of popped out, imagine that! Aaron, not only the chief architect of the golden calf but the chief architect of the worship used lightly, the orgy more correctly, that ensued. Aaron, the forgiven priest directed now to extend the blessing of God to the people of God. Aaron, not a pure vessel but God a faithful God, a gracious God, extending forgiveness to a people that He had threatened already to consume in His wrath, and Moses came to Him, “Don't do this! Don't do this!” God proclaimed Himself to Moses, you remember, in Exodus chapter 34, as “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” That's the God that blesses His people with graciousness. That grace is not free. It's free to you, it's free to me. It cost someone everything.
Listen to this. This sound note of justice who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children to the third and fourth generation. God telling us, “I'm not light on sin; I'm gracious. I'm not blind to sin; I'm gracious. There's got to be a payment. There's god to be justice, but My heart is merciful.” God extends His grace to us though we don't deserve it. What do you have that you deserve? I don't have anything I deserve. God has been gracious. What do I have that I have not received from a God who's heart is gracious towards me? Nothing. My work becomes His servant to give me the gifts He desires me to have. The same with you. God is gracious.
THE LORD LIFT UP HIS COUNTENANCE ON YOU
“The LORD,” verse 26, “lift up His countenance on you.” How many times have you come in at the end of a hard day and really all you want to do is read the newspaper or watch the news or do some other kind of diverting activity. And you think you can do, and your child has come to you and they want to tell you something that's of earthshaking importance to them and you think, “Okay, I can do this. I can keep this eye on the television, I can keep this eye on Junior, and I can do both things at once and maybe somehow have a little peace and quiet at the end of it,” and Junior does what small children are reliable to do. He's smarter than you think he is, for one thing. He knows he's only got half your attention at best, really a lot less, but he knows there's one eye looking at him and so he grabs your face and he says, “Daddy, listen to me. Daddy, look at me.” And Junior's got me dead to rights. He longs for my entire attention.
That's what it means for God to lift His countenance upon us. We have His entire attention. There's nothing, there's nothing more important, there's nothing more pressing, there's nothing more useful in that moment, whatever moment we are, that God's attention is not entirely upon us. Remember Psalm 121? “He who watches Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” That's what God's promising here, to lift up His countenance upon us so we have His undivided attention all the time, not just in the bad times, that we have His undivided attention all the time, every moment. Not as someone keeping score — “Oh, you blew that one! She dropped the ball there!” — But it's Someone who loves us and who is working a marvelous purpose for our good and His glory.
Let me tell you about a good friend that I met many years ago. Debbie and I were introduced to many of the concepts and priorities and sacrifices of Christian education through this lady from Cleveland, Mississippi. When we met her, her body was already very badly crippled with arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and there was not much she could really do for herself anymore. In fact, she couldn't even raise her hands to fix her hair. Her husband, a hand-fisted kind of guy with a big heart, not very good with a comb, had to fluff her hair for her and kind of get it passable. We didn't care. We loved Libba's heart. She loved the Lord, and to visit her in her home was a joy and a delight and a treat that we will always treasure for the rest of our lives.
In the course of time she discovered, through reading of her own and her doctor's research, a treatment that was being experimented with in England and was showing promise. She seemed to be a good candidate for the procedure and for the therapy and by God's grace, away she went. She and her husband, and they went to England and had the treatment. I’ll never forget the conversation, the last conversation that I had with her before that trip. I said, “Libba, are you excited? This really is looking good!” And she said, “Let me tell you, I want my body back, and if this can give me my body back I'm all for it, but more than that, I want Jesus, and if having my health again means I know Jesus less, I trust Him less, I'm less interested in following Him, I’ll keep the disease. I’ll keep the disease if it's the only way I keep all of Jesus.” My friend Libba knew something about this blessing.
You see the repetition here? “The LORD make His face to shine upon you; the LORD lift up His countenance upon you.” You know what the blessing of the blessing is? The blessing of the blessing is the Lord God Almighty Himself. It's not houses and land, it's not cars, it's not anything other than the Lord God Himself. That's the blessing of the blessing, that God is giving us Himself and inviting us into an intimate personal relationship with Him, the relationship not of masters or servants to a master or soldiers to a general, but of sons and daughters to a Father. He's giving us Himself and my friend Libba knew that. She wanted health so much, but she wanted Jesus more than anything. She wanted Jesus more than anything. And that's what God is giving us. God is giving us Himself, more than anything, because He knows that we need Him more than anything.
But we all love happy endings. There's not one to that story because the treatment didn't work and our friend Libba finished her days in a body that was a jailhouse of pain and limitation, but her heart was free. She knew Jesus and because her body was racked with pain, she knew Him better. You see, she knew something about peace. That's the concluding promise. In the midst of her woe, in the midst of her trial and her deep physical pain, she knew peace because she knew the God who gave life to her and all things from the palm of His hand. And while she wanted something she couldn't have, she rejoiced in what she did have, the Lord God Himself, her Father who helped her and guided her and blessed her with His presence every day. “I’ll keep a disease if loosing the disease means I lose Jesus.”
One more thing before we close. How do we know that this is not just so much happy talk? How do we know that this not just so much think happy thoughts — “The LORD bless you and keep you and make His face shine upon you.” How do we know this is real, that it really describes God's attitude and action towards us, His people? Look at the cross. Because it is in the cross that we find God not blessing His own Son, not keeping His Son but throwing Him away because He wore my sin and yours and was not fit for God's presence. God is not blessing Him with His favor; God is not delighting in Him; God is not forgiving Him. He doesn't know the joy of God's countenance being lifted upon Him. In fact, He knows what it is to be deserved at His hour of greatest need. Remember that cry? “My God, My God! Why have You forsaken Me?” God has thrown Him away, turned His back on Him, has not kept it, has not treasured it. And He certainly knows no peace hanging there, bearing your sin and mine. It is that act, it is that spilled blood, that buys this blessing for me and you today. And these words can reflect a true reality working in our lives every day.
So the question is not really, “Is this real?” The question is, “Do I trust Christ who bought it for me? Do I trust Christ who endured the withdrawing of these blessings and promises so I could have them? Do I trust Christ and find in Him and Him alone my only comfort and all I need?” That's the question I leave with you today. If you trust Christ, these promises are how you make it in hard times. If you trust Christ, these promises are how you keep your feet under you when times are wonderful and you’re tempted to think, “Oh look, I did this!” If you trust Christ, then these words are the echo that makes everything else make sense.
In a moment we're going to sing, “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken.” Why are glorious things spoken of God's people? There's certainly nothing glorious about us in and of ourselves. The glory comes from God and what He has done and what He has said about us. The glory comes from God and the beautiful work of the Gospel that is ours in Christ. The glory comes from God and what He does with us as we go out there and live as the salt and light in this community that He's called us to be. Glorious things are about Him. We become His fellow workers and bring Him the glory.
Let me ask you to stand and let's go to the Lord in prayer.
Father, Your mercies are rich and true; Your mercies are without end. Father, thank You for these rich promises. Shape us, mold us with them. Let them be the echo that reverberates in our heads and hearts all day, every day, so that our attentions are firmly placed on You and not us, on You and not our trouble, on You and Your grace and Your kindness. Thank You that You have applied Your name to us and written Your name upon us. Father, thank You for the love You have for us that causes You to make us Your own. Hear us, in the name of Jesus and for His sake. And all God's people said, amen.
Our hymn, number 345, “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken.”
And now, look up, to receive the blessing of God. And now may the Lord bless you and keep you, may the Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you, may the Lord Himself lift up His countenance upon you and give you His peace, both now and forevermore. Amen.
© First Presbyterian Church.
This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.
Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.