I have to admit that Numbers is not a book that I rush toward. The main reason for this is that I have not studied it in depth and so should probably preach it in order to develop my appreciation. Nonetheless, here are three thoughts from reading it through these last few days.
1. Faith does not automatically flow from the miraculous. Many people assume that if we could just see something miraculous, then we’d believe. After all, if we could just see God doing wonders in our midst then the culture would come flocking. Numbers again underlines that even God’s people don’t automatically respond in faith to observed wonders, so assuming others will is presumptuous. Water from a rock, a budding staff, the ground swallowing rebels, and consequently that generation were a people of faith? Not quite. The issue is not what we see, but how our hearts perceive what we see. If we don’t want to believe, no amount of miraculous intervention will guarantee true faith.
2. The Law’s community function did not generate faith. The nation that had started with one man, become twelve men, then seventy, then hundreds of thousands needed to be constrained and ordered. Their sin and rebellion had led to a growing statute book and legal code. By the time we get to Numbers we might assume that being a people with well defined laws meant they were ready to believe and trust God. Caleb and Joshua are the glorious exceptions. The ten spies didn’t. The people didn’t. Even Moses didn’t. In fact, rather than getting caught up in what Moses actually did wrong in chapter 20, perhaps the writer is vague on the errant action to point us to underlying faith issues. The great leader under the Law who disobeys God through lack of faith (Num.20:12) seems to contrast with the great man of faith before Law who kept God’s commands (compare and contrast Gen.26:5).
3. God’s promise plan is not thwarted even when the faithless miss out. It is important to help listeners know that Numbers sits in the flow of the Pentateuch, rather than as a stand-alone collection of stories. God’s plan to bless the world back in the beginning of Genesis was articulated clearly in his promise to Abram. By the end of Genesis the seed promise has grown into an extended family, with blessing to all families reiterated in the blessing of Judah by Jacob. That nation through which the blessing would come is born in Exodus despite the three-fold attempt by Pharoah to curse the “too numerous people.” At the other end of the wilderness sojourn we see another king seeking three times to curse a “too numerous” Israel. Again, the attempts to curse God’s nation lead only to their blessing. Thus the promise to Abraham marches on, with just Deuteronomy left: a sermonic call for circumcised hearts and love for God from the new generation heading into the dangerous place of security and peace.
Genesis is such a critical book! I suspect it simply isn’t preached enough. The rest of the Bible is built on the foundation of Genesis, and so preaching it enough and preaching it well are very important. Here are three mistakes to avoid, although many more could be added:
1. Atomistic Reading – This is where a text is snipped from the flow of the context and becomes a stand alone. Typically this leads to a Sunday School type of preaching that treats each narrative as complete in itself, and with its own “moral of the story.” Cain and Abel has to flow out of Genesis 3, and into the two genealogies of chapters 4 and 5. Abraham does not offer us a set of stand alone tales, but a sequence of growing faith, obedience and connection with God. Joseph’s brothers show consistency between snapshots, making them more than 11 faceless foils in the story of Joseph. Be careful to study and preach each unit in context.
2. Moralistic Reading – This is where a text is snipped from the artery of life that is God’s involvement in specific history, turning the text into a tale with a moral, a lesson for the day, a suggestion on how we can live better. So we should try to avoid infidelity like Joseph did, or not give away our wives like Abraham/Isaac did, or not get caught up in tempting conversations like Eve did. But actually the goal is not our independent successful functioning: that was what the serpent was pushing for. The goal is surely more God-centred than that. Eve didn’t trust God’s Word and God’s character, but God himself works the resolution to the sin problem and invites us to trust Him and His Word. Abraham was on a journey of faith as we are. Joseph lived as if God were with him, even though he had very little indication that he was!
3. Impositional Reading – This is where a text is seen, but not heard. It is where a text acts as a trigger to recall sermons heard and points previously stated. The preacher reads the text and looks for a sermon, instead of studying the text and looking for God. Impositional reading will always lead to superficial preaching. Probe, question, examine, query, ponder, mine, and wrestle with the text. Do that with God in conversation and see if the preaching of Genesis suddenly becomes a spring of living water instead of stale old picture book fables.
For the last couple of days I’ve been pondering issues of procrastination and preparation. But it is also important to consider anticipation.
Anticipating Future Preaching – The whole issue of preparation cycles is important. Robinson taught us that a five-day cycle was not long enough and he was right. This is only exacerbated by delays as you can end up with a message on Saturday night that has one night and one breakfast time to be embedded in your life as a preacher. That is hardly long enough to scratch the surface of personalizing experience of the message or forming any sort of conviction. You may know the material, but only in the head. A longer cycle allows for the Bible passage to do some work in you and on you, the preacher. But it could be argued that even a 10-day cycle is not really long enough if the goal is to let the message become part of your own life and experience.
This is why it is helpful to anticipate preaching for weeks or even months. Obviously you can’t be preparing months worth of sermons in any detail at all. However, knowing that a series is coming ahead of time does allow for an initial reading, some initial prayerful pondering, etc. I am considering preaching through Colossians later in the year. Awareness of that series, even without any sort of extensive study, can influence my life and thinking now. By the time the series comes, there should be some deeper rootedness in my heart and life.
Anticipating Future Interruption – Any talk of schedules and delays must also lead us to ponder the possibility of future interruption. Could there be a pastoral crisis, family illness, broken kitchen appliance, car trouble, unexpected guest or excessive administration between now and the sermon. I suspect there might be. That is why we need to build in margin to the schedule, rather than cramming things into every corner and relying on a smooth run through the week. This isn’t easy for most of us, especially when it means saying no to ministry invitations, but there is no other way to avoid seasons of overwhelming stress than to say no to things before the crisis emerges.