Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Carrying Holy Things (Numbers 7:1-9)

Below is the manuscript of a message I preached earlier today in the Chapel Service for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina in Cary, NC.

Numbers 7:1-9
Carrying Holy Things
A Chapel Message for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina
October 30, 2013

It is a joy to be with you all today, and I bring you greetings from all of your friends at Immanuel Baptist Church in Greensboro, where I have been privileged to serve for the last 8 years as pastor. I am grateful for the invitation from Dr. Hollifield to bring this message to you here in this service. Over the last year, it was a great privilege to serve on the Board of Directors, as I filled out an unexpired term for our region. The greatest blessing of that period of service was meeting many of you and coming to a better understanding of the important work that so many of you do here in the service of our Lord through the Convention.

As I prayed about what I might share with you today, I kept thinking about the awesome responsibility that all of us who are engaged in the work of the Lord have. Some of you are handling matters of eternal importance every day, and for many of you, that work is done behind the scenes. Folks around this state don’t know your names or faces, but your work impacts them. In fact, the impact of your work goes beyond this state and touches portions of our nation and our world where the needs are incalculable. I know first hand how easy it is to become discouraged in ministry, and to feel insignificant; or to feel frustrated and even overwhelmed by the needs and demands of ministry. We are working with broken people in a broken world. It gets messy sometimes. You’ve probably heard that old, tired adage that ministry would be easy if it weren’t for people. But it is people who make ministry necessary. It is when we are dealing with people that real ministry is taking place. The temptation is to see the needs of people around us as a distraction to our work. But the great reality that we have to keep in front of us is that meeting those needs is our work, and it is a holy work that God has called us to by His grace.

As I thought about these things, I felt the Lord leading me to this passage here in Numbers 7. I recently led a Bible Conference at Friendship Southern Baptist Church in Concord, and I asked the folks to raise their hands if they had ever started to read the Bible straight through from Genesis to Revelation. Everyone raised their hands. I asked, “How many of you gave up before you got to the end?” And again, everyone raised their hands. So I asked them to tell me how far they got before they gave up, and invariably they all said that they never made it past Leviticus or Numbers. Sometimes, we get lost in all the details of these passages and we begin to think that there is nothing of value for us in these texts. I can relate to that feeling, and I have tried to battle through it many times myself. One exercise I have tried to implement to get me through passages that seem, on the surface, to be very mundane, is a little game I learned as a child watching Sesame Street called “One of Things Is Not Like the Other.” In that segment of Sesame Street, several items or objects would be displayed and you have to decide which one is different from the others. So, for example, in one episode, there was a hammer, a pair of pliers, a saw, and a shoe. So, when I come to a passage like this one in Numbers, I play that old Sesame Street game to look for clues that help me unlock the significance of the passage.

As I read this passage, I find that the heads of the households brought offerings before the Lord upon the completion of the tabernacle: six covered carts and twelve oxen to be divided up among the Levites for use in their service. So, according to the Lord’s command, Moses began to distribute them in verse 6. In verse 7, we find that he gave two carts and four oxen to the sons of Gershon, “according to their service.” In Numbers 4, we find that they were responsible for the curtains, the coverings, the hangings, and the cords of the tabernacle. So, now they have two fancy carts, each one with a two ox-power engine to transport those things from place to place. Then, in verse 8, Moses gave four carts and eight oxen to the sons of Merari, “according to their service.” In Numbers 4, the duties of the sons of Merari included the care of the tabernacle’s boards, bars, pillars and sockets along with their respective pegs and cords.  They now have four carts, each one with its own two ox-power engine under the hood, to transport those items.

But now in verse 9, we find one of these things that is not like the other. We come to the sons of Kohath. In Numbers 3:31, we read, “Now their duties involved the ark, the table, the lampstand, the altars, and the utensils of the sanctuary with which they minister, and the screen, and all the service concerning them.” In Numbers 4:4, these things are described as “the most holy things.” These are the things that stand as symbols and reminders of God’s covenant with His people; these are the things by which people are permitted to approach God through their sacrifices and offerings. These are the things that represent God’s presence among His people; His faithful provision to them; His light that shines in their darkness; His mercy and grace to forgive them of their sins when blood is shed.

Now, on the day that Moses was giving out carts and oxen, he did something different for the sons of Kohath. Unlike the sons of Gershon and Merari, the sons of Kohath did not receive carts or oxen. Verse 9 says that Moses “did not give any to the sons of Kohath.” Why was this? Did he just not like them as much as he liked the others? Was it because the offerings were not sufficient? Did they simply run out before the Kohathites turn came up in the distribution? No, the answer is given to us here in the text: “He did not give any to the sons of Kohath because theirs was the service of the holy objects, which they carried on the shoulder.” It was the nature of their ministry that made the difference.

You see, sometimes we can get caught up in our boards, curtains, and poles of ministry. But notice that it was not the curtains, the poles, or the boards of the tabernacle that were considered “holy things” by the Lord. It was these objects that the Kohathites were responsible for – the things that represented God’s gracious actions toward His people; the things that represented God’s desire for the people to draw near to Him; the things that made the approach of sinful men to a holy God possible. The holy things that we deal with are not our buildings, our furnishings, or any of the material and external objects that we often associate with the church. Our holy things are the ministries by which we engage broken people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Now, the sons of Kohath were people just like us. Don’t you think that there was a moment there when they thought to themselves, “Wait a second! This isn’t fair! How come they get carts and oxen and we don’t!” I imagine there were times during their wilderness wanderings that the Kohathites were struggling under the burden of their loads, when some of those sons of Gershon and Merari came whizzing past them with their carts and oxen. They might have thought, “Oh, I tell you, I’d like to give them a piece of my mind about their fancy carts!” It is not unthinkable that they might have been jealous of them, and wished for a moment that they could trade places with them or have the luxuries that they had. I didn’t read that in a commentary or a Bible Dictionary. I read it in my own heart. I know how I would feel if I were them. And I imagine they were not immune to the same thoughts.

What we need is a reminder. We carry holy things. What a privilege of grace, that God would choose the likes of us to carry His holy Gospel into this broken world and present it before broken people! What have we done to deserve this? Absolutely nothing! Why do we do what we are doing? Because the Lord chose us and called us to do it. Some days, that may be the only reason we have to get out bed and do it. I tell young men who are going into the ministry to be very sure of their calling, because some days, it will be the only thing they have to motivate them. Let’s face it: Ministry is hard, messy work. It can be a great burden. There is never a time when we can stand back and say we’ve finished the task. There is always something else that needs to be done. There is another lost soul that needs to hear the gospel. There is another broken person that needs to hear godly counsel about how the gospel can be applied to their situation. There is another soul facing the valley of the shadow of death that needs to be ushered through it with gospel promises. We just want a decent night’s sleep and a real day off and a real vacation! We just want to throw our cell phones and laptops into the ocean for a week and take it easy. But the needs never go away, do they?

Such is the nature of working with holy things. And we need to be reminded – holy things cannot be put on a cart. They have to be carried on the shoulder. There aren’t any shortcuts or easy ways out. Those holy things are not going to move themselves. So, we’ve just got to get up under it and carry it. And all the while, let us be thankful that God has called us to do this. Sure it’s hard. Sure we want to rest. But it might be that we have to wait until heaven to enter that great Sabbath rest for which we so desperately long. Meanwhile, it is just more heavy lifting – carrying the holy things of Gospel ministry on our shoulders.

Let us not look for carts to make the carrying of holy things easier. That was done once. In 2 Samuel 6, David gave the order to transport the Ark of the Covenant on a new cart. It sure did make transportation easier! Instead of buckling under the load, the people had their hands free to play all manner of musical instruments and have a great and joyous celebration. But, let’s not forget, the oxen pulling that cart stumbled and nearly knocked the ark off the cart. And there was a well-intentioned, otherwise innocent man there named Uzzah who reached out his hand to steady it and God struck him down. You see, when we look for shortcuts in ministry, we may rejoice in the freedoms and luxuries we find. But the people to whom we are called to minister are the ones who suffer. David’s idea for a new cart didn’t hurt David. It killed Uzzah. David’s plan to take a shortcut cost the life of one of the men for whom he was responsible as a leader. If God wanted the Gospel to be conveyed to broken people in a broken world by shortcuts, He could have come up with any number of them. But God seems to consider our shoulders the most reliable means to carry the burdens of holy things.

Maybe you are discouraged, frustrated, or just plain tired today. Maybe you are on the verge of throwing in the towel, or worse, you are looking for a shortcut. Friends, let us be encouraged. It is a great and gracious thing that the Lord has done for us. He has given us charge of holy things. Carry them on your shoulders. You might be laboring day in and day out in the work of the Lord here in this Convention and wonder if any fruit will ever come from it. Let us not grow weary in well-doing, for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not. Let’s continue carrying these holy things on our shoulders until Jesus comes.

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