June 27, 2017

June 25, 2017 - Numbers 6:22-27

Heritage of our Fathers Part 1
What God wants you to know
1. He will bless and keep you
2. He will look upon you with mercy and peace

How do we understand God? What is the experimental nature of our faith? Comparing it to other fields of study helps us a bit. For example, a Geologist studies rocks. The entire initiative is one-sided. If he does not go and find them, nothing happens. But at the same time, the rocks never run away. Once he finds them he can study them. A zoologist is a bit more expansive. Again, the initiative is the scientist’s. He must go find the animals to study. But, he also needs the animals to cooperate. They can run away. He has to take greater care than the geologist. The person who studies humans has it even harder. Not only can humans run, they can keep you from really getting to know them, even if you are in the same locale. To study one another we must meet on equal levels. 

What does it take to study God, to understand Him? Here’s what makes it difficult for many people. The initiative is God’s alone. He must come to us. He must reveal Himself or we will never learn anything about Him.  

Many people try to dumb down the revelation of God in His Word, because it’s more palatable. Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that Jesus can’t be true God since He is also human. Easier to understand but also exposed immediately as false because it’s a simplification. People don’t just do this with the person of God, they do it to specific teachings too. Can’t understand how the bread could be Christ’s body or the wine could be His blood? Who can? So simplify it, make it easier to digest mentally, and it becomes easier to accept. But, it strays farther from the truth. All knowledge of God is revealed by God. Therefore, it is going to be more complicated.

The struggle of faith is that while we will never know everything about God here on earth, in order to be with Him we need to know something. In our text for today, one which has endured throughout the ages, God reminds us what He wants us to know: 

Numbers 6:22-27 And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: 23 "Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying,`This is the way you shall bless the children of Israel. Say to them: 24 "The LORD bless you and keep you; 25 The LORD make His face shine upon you, And be gracious to you; 26 The LORD lift up His countenance upon you, And give you peace."' 27 "So they shall put My name on the children of Israel, and I will bless them."

We’re familiar with these words. We use them every Sunday as the Benediction, or blessing. Think of them as the care package that God sends you off with each weekend. He wants you to go about your week with full assurance and confidence that He is with you, that He has all things under control, and that He seeks to bless you with mercy and peace. Quite a gift indeed. 

But, because we are so familiar with these words it can be difficult for us to apply them in new ways to our lives, week after week. Very often this section is also looked at as an inference to the Holy Trinity, as God phrases these blessings in three parts, just like the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Therefore, we consider this text around Trinity Sunday and we pair it with the Trinitarian sections of our historic confessions. It is in this connection, between the nature of the Triune God and our understanding of who He is, that we find a great application of this text for our lives. So often we think in terms of what we know or want to know. If matters of life don’t measure up to our basis of knowledge, we often reject them. But, herein is the struggle with God. We don’t know everything, or even close to as much as God does. Our lives in Christ are based on what God says to us, not the other way around. Telling God how we think it should be is the first step toward idolatry. God knows this. After all, He created us. He designed our thinking. He is the author of logic and knowledge. He knows that it is a struggle to deal with the unknown, even though He knows everything. 

But, to help us with this struggle, God says, “I’ll simplify things. I won’t tell you everything because you can’t handle it yet, but I will tell you what you need to know.” This was the same process He took with the Israelites here in our text and it’s the same way He operates with us today. We don’t have it all, yet anyway, but we have everything we need. 

Think about the time when this blessing came into play for God’s people. We know of this benediction as a historic and enduring gift, but for the people at this time it was a new thing. They were in a formative time as a nation, both materially and spiritually. Aaron, the one who God first entrusted with this blessing, was also the first high priest. This was the beginning of organized religion around the true God. Perhaps organized religion existed among the unbelieving nations, but not among believers yet. Before this God revealed His word independently with people called the Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. For the first time, God’s people were now becoming a community of faith; think of it as the first local church on earth. 

And so, God started them off slowly. He didn’t tell them everything, just a few passages. But slow and simple as it was, God’s Words here are the sum and substance of the Christian faith. No matter the circumstance of life or the person involved, God says, “This is what I want you to know.” It begins with this: that He will bless and keep you. 

Part 1: He will bless and keep you

We’re familiar with the idea that God blesses people. We think of this in terms of the earthly gifts He gives us such as: food, clothing, shelter, family, and so on. Luther explains those in detail in the explanation to the fourth petition of the Lord’s prayer – Give us this day our daily bread. God can do the same in spiritual blessings too. The word “blessing” means much more than just giving us some type of gift, though. In the Hebrew, a blessing is a religious term. Very often the same word is used in contexts of people blessing God by praising or honoring His name. Obviously, God is not promising to worship us when He says that He will bless us. But, it should give us pause to see how the word is used also of what we offer God. 

This teaches us about the nature of God’s blessings in our lives. His gifts to us are very often immaterial. Things like: a good reputation, honor by His grace, a status as redeemed. The world scoffs at these blessings because you can’t hold them in your hand or deposit them in your bank account. But, they are far more precious in the long run. The fact that the Lord’s blessing can be a status of honor certainly gives meaning to a passage like: 1 Peter 5:6 Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time. 

God lifts us up because Jesus has earned the right to His blessing. The honor Jesus is given as Savior is also reflected to a degree on His followers by faith. We are not His equals but are blessed with His benefits. 

The idea of God keeping us is also used in other religious contexts. Another way it could be phrased is that God protects and treasures us. It’s sort of a spiritual swiss army knife type of word. In other contexts of Scripture, it is used of a watchmen who seeks to protect by keeping a look out on the wall, or of a shepherd who keeps or tends sheep, and it’s even used of an act of reverence or devotion in treasuring a god. Very simply, a person cannot be religious if they do not “keep” or treasure something in life. In that way, I suppose, all people are religious even if they don’t subscribe to a particular creed. There is always something that we revere in life. The Lord wants to be that something for us, by faith in Christ. It starts with His faithfulness to us. Because He promises to keep us, in so many different ways, we can return the same to Him.    

Part 2: He will look upon you with mercy and peace

A mother with her newborn, a husband with his bride, a little boy with his puppy. What do they all have in common? The look of love. You can tell, in each circumstance, that love is present when the one looks upon the other. It’s not a complicated thing. The same is true in the last two blessings from God in our text. In both He promises to look upon us, first by saying “I will make my face shine upon you” and second by saying “I will lift up my countenance upon you.” These expressions essentially mean the same thing. God promises to see you. That may seem to be quite an obvious thing so what does it matter? Well, the hope, much like His blessing and protection, is in the nature of God’s look. It’s one of love. 

It’s wasn’t always that way though, and perhaps that’s a reminder within the blessing for us. Maybe God repeats this promise twice because the very first reaction to sin was much different. When Adam and Eve fell, what did they do? They hid. They were ashamed, as they should have been. They didn’t want God to look upon them. They ran from His presence and they knew they deserved to be punished. That’s quite a different picture than a mother with her newborn or a husband with his bride. 

It’s the same for us too. No one wakes up and thinks, “I’d like to sin publicly today so that everyone can see and know my deepest secrets!” No, everyone hides in one way or another. How foolish to try to hide from God. The Psalmist declares: “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? 8 If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there. (Psalm 139:7-8).” If God knows who is in heaven or hell, you can be sure He knows who’s on earth and what they’re doing. And furthermore, He promises that all things will be made known in the end. 

There’s no hiding from God, and yet we desperately try because the shame and guilt of sin is so powerful. Here is where we find the true grace of Christ in this benediction. It’s one thing to have the promise of blessing and protection. That means God watches over me when I am sick. That means He will help provide for our families. That means He won’t allow a temptation to come your way that He can’t also help you with. But as one Christian writer says, “Why stop at nickels and dimes? God has tens and twenties too.” 

When speaking to sinners, who shiver and cower in their self-inflicted guilt, God says. “I will look upon you with mercy and peace.” Only the grace of Christ could offer such a gift. We’re talking about the eternal questions of our souls. We’re looking at the weight of hell itself lifting off our shoulders. Surely that counts as more than a mortgage payment or a trip to the ER. Only through Jesus could God look at me in a different way than my sins deserve. Only through His Holy Spirit could I evaluate this blessing as the greatest treasure in my life.   

We began by asking, how do you understand God? His Trinitarian nature is beyond our wisdom. Perhaps, the struggle is greatest when we ignore the more important question: What does God want you to know? That’s much simpler and much more important. God is straightforward. He wants you to know that He will bless and keep you, and that He will look upon you in mercy and peace. Let us not be so busy fretting and worrying about our perception of God and trust instead that He knows us and what we need and that’s all that matters.

Experiencing God – it’s what we all long for. But, God is not like experiencing a stone, or an animal, or even another human. All the initiative rests on Him. We will know what He wants and what He allows us to know, nothing more. Life on earth is kind of like seeing God through a window. We aren’t fully present. We can’t discern everything. And sometimes, the pane becomes cloudy or dirty. This is where the Word comes in. The teachings of God’s Word work like cleaner on that window pane. Is your vision clouded by doubt and uncertainty? Return to the truth: God reassures you He is in control. Got some of the dirt of temptation and sin in the way. Wash it out with the blood of Christ which cleanses sinners.     

We’ll never have it all here on earth. But, we have more than enough from God. We have what He wants us to know. He will bless and keep us. He will look upon us with mercy and peace. That clears anything up. Amen. 

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, Amen. 

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