This is the audio (38:34, 25.0 MB) of a sermon preached at our Lithuania home church, Klaipėda Free Christian Church, on March 29. The sermon is titled, “God Draws Near,” and the main texts are Numbers 5:1-4 and 9:1-14.
This sermon was preached under exceptional circumstances due to COVID-19 restrictions: a service live-streamed from a nearly-empty sanctuary to our congregation over Facebook. You can watch the service here on Facebook. I was honored to be able to address our local body under these circumstances, and I hope that I was able to lend some encouragement. Enjoy hearing the sermon in both English and Lithuanian (back-and-forth)!
Attentive followers of this blog will perhaps see some insights drawn from the paper I gave at the November 2019 conference, “Chronicles and the Priestly Literature” in Lausanne, which will soon be published in an edited volume.
Here is the full manuscript of the sermon (which always varies slightly in oral delivery.
Well, it is a great blessing to be able to speak with you all today, even though we’re all scattered all over Klaipėda in our homes, or even further in Lithuania—or anywhere in the world. It seems very difficult to talk about anything else right now, other than the coronavirus and how it has changed our lives. Our regular patterns of work and school and family and church have been thrown completely into a mess. We are physically separated from one another, walking around in public with masks and scarves over our faces, keeping appropriate distance. And there is the danger that fear will overtake us: fear of sickness and death, fear of losing our jobs and paying our bills, and fear of chaos in our public spaces, and fear of loneliness and isolation.
The blessing of preaching occasionally, not every week, is that sometimes I see that God has being laying a particular passage or concept on my mind for many months, and then it comes to my heart in an important moment. Over the last few months especially, I have been studying the ritual purity laws in the Bible, particularly in the books of Leviticus and Numbers, mainly for an article I am writing. And, in our family Bible readings we have worked through Leviticus, one chapter each day—and now we are in the Book of Numbers.
And, I think that by stepping out of our world for a little while, into the world of the Bible, we can learn a lot that is relevant for our current situation. When we start to talk about ritual purity and contamination in the laws of ancient Israel, it’s obvious that the biblical authors are writing from a different worldview. Our modern worldview thinks of sickness and contamination in terms of germs, viruses, particles, antibiotics, and chemical cleaning solutions. The worldview of the Bible thinks of ritual purity in terms of bodily contact that represents death and life. Sometimes we can see that God was giving the Israelites rules that they didn’t understand at the time, but which were designed to protect them from disease in ways that they didn’t understand. Other rules don’t appear to have any health reason behind them; they may symbolize other things.
But I think there are some parallels that are relevant for us. In our passages for today, we see that individuals sometimes needed to be isolated from contact with others, and not because of anything that they did wrong. Isolation makes us long for connection with God and with other people. But our holy God goes to great lengths to be with his people, including sometimes bending the “rules” that he himself has given us. And, if we immerse ourselves in the biblical story, the Holy Spirit will use that knowledge to guide us in uncertain times. Finally, our hope is in Jesus, God who took on human flesh, who chose to get mixed up in our world of germs and pain and suffering. His touch brings cleanness and healing, and eternal life.
This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
First, we should say something about these early chapters of the book of Numbers. The LORD God is preparing the Israelites to march from Mount Sinai, where they have received his law, to the land of Canaan that he has promised to give them. The most important part of their success will be that the LORD is with them as they journey and as they fight. At the end of the book of Exodus, the LORD is meeting regularly with Moses in a tent outside the camp of Israel. But after receiving the instructions of Exodus 25–31 and the book of Leviticus, we see in the first few chapters of Numbers that YHWH moves from the edge of the camp to the very center of the people, with the priests and the Levites arranged around the new tabernacle, and the twelve tribes arranged in a circle around them. The Holy God of Israel really wants to be with his people, right in the middle with them. He makes a system of sacrifices and rules so that they can approach him and his holiness. And he invites them to bring meat and grain and wine, to share meals with him.
These meals are called šelamim, or “peace offerings.” And the most important peace offering is the yearly Passover, the celebration of the LORD bringing the Israelites out of Egypt. It is their “Independence Day” barbecue, their birthday meal (like Pastor Modestas had yesterday?), their celebration with the God who rescued them.
But a situation arises in chapter 9, when the rules protecting God’s holiness prevent some men from celebrating the Passover. These men are ceremonially unclean because a relative of theirs had died, and they performed their obligation to bury him and mourn him. According to chapter 19, the period of impurity for a burial is seven days, which in this case includes the 14th day of the 1st month of the calendar. These men really want to draw near to God and to celebrate the Passover with their families. But they also know the danger of approaching a holy God in a state of uncleanness. In fact, if you follow the dates closely, you can see that some of these men would have been Aaron’s nephews, Levites who sadly had to bury their cousins, Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu, ordained priests who had approached God in an impure way and had been struck down dead in Leviticus 10. God takes his holiness seriously, and no one can simply ignore his rules.
But in this case, because these men come humbly to Moses and ask God for guidance, God makes an exception for them. In fact, he establishes three permanent exceptions for Passover: those who are ritually unclean because of mourning a relative, or unable to celebrate because of a long journey, may celebrate the Passover in the 2nd month, on the 14th day. Additionally, sojourners—foreigners living with Israel—are invited and encouraged to celebrate the Passover. God desires to be with his people and to eat this meal with them, so he bends the rules and makes new rules in order to accommodate this.
I think this is pretty amazing, and beautiful! And, I’m not the only one to think so. Apparently, the author of the Book of Chronicles thought so, also. He retells the story, hundreds of years after Moses, about the reforms in the time of Hezekiah, King of Judah. When Hezekiah became king, everyone had been rebelling against God’s law, and everyone had neglected the LORD’s temple—the government, the priests, the Levites, and the people. As part of their acts of repentance, they consider the Law and decide to apply it in creative, but faithful ways. The altar, the priests, the Levites, and all the people had become impure. But instead of waiting until the 7th month to hold the “Day of Atonement” ceremony, they hold an atonement ceremony right on the spot, in the first month of the year. Repentance and obedience could not wait six months! And then, because the ritual cleansing of the temple took sixteen days total and prevented them from celebrating the Passover on the 14th day of the 1st month, they decide to take other measures. Let’s read now from 2 Chronicles 30:1–5.
This is like the Numbers 9 situation, but because all of the people and the priests and the altar were unclean at the regular Passover time, they decide to celebrate all together, in the 2nd month. The way the Chronicler words this chapter signals to us that the Numbers 9 exceptions are in his mind. It even says that many from the Northern extent of Israel came on a long journey to celebrate this delayed Passover; and that “sojourners” celebrated with them. In this joyful event, even though not everyone had properly purified themselves to celebrate, Hezekiah prays to God to forgive and “atone” for their uncleanness—and God hears and forgives. In fact, there was so much joyful celebration with the God of Israel and with each other, that they decided to celebrate not just the Passover but also the Feast of Unleavened Bread together (which is technically a separate festival for seven days after Passover), and then an additional seven days after that!
You see, God makes accommodation for his people when we draw close to him with repentance, and with sincerity, and with joyful confidence that he will accept us for Jesus’s sake. Next week we will celebrate Palm Sunday; then we will have Holy Thursday, Good Friday—and the most important day of the Christian year: Easter Sunday. Because of my Jewish upbringing, my family also celebrates Passover, which is on the evening of April 8th. What shall we do about this? Is there some way to celebrate the Lord’s Supper together, remotely? I don’t know. I don’t think the Bible’s teaching binds us to anything specific on this point (see Col 2:16–17). We’ll probably be worshiping like this, together on Facebook, and celebrating in our homes. But it just won’t be the same, of course. I imagine that when we are permitted to gather once again, we will have a lot of bottled-up joy, so maybe we will celebrate Easter in August this year! (Maybe in June? We can hope…)
But the converse is also true. We know that there are many who will suffer during this time, and some people close to us will die—some will die from the virus. Those funerals will need to be very small gatherings, or perhaps there will be no funerals at all during this time. As human beings, we need to mourn, and we need to mourn together with others, to bring our pain before God, and to mark the changes in our lives. But that human need will be blocked for now. There will be bottled-up suffering that we will need to mourn when this is over, and the double-mourning of not being able to properly lament at the right time.
And, throughout this time many of us are simply missing human touch and human contact, and direct interaction not through a screen. We are doing the best we can, but it is not the same. I imagine those families in ancient Israel who had loved ones with skin diseases, who had to stay outside the camp or the city and only call out to one another from afar.
But there is hope, there is Good News. God was not satisfied with living in a tent or a stone temple among his people. As John writes in his Gospel, “The Word became flesh, and pitched a tent among us, and we beheld his glory.” As we look to the life of Jesus, the Son of God and the Son of Man, I want to point to just two stories. You may be familiar with these already, but in case you’re not, you can read them in Mark’s Gospel, chapter 1 verses 40–44, and chapter 5 verses 21–43. In these passages, Jesus touches three people who would be considered ritually impure according to the Law: a man with skin disease, a woman with a continual flow of blood, and a child who had just died. Normally, according to the Law, Jesus would become impure by touching these bodies. But instead: purity, healing, and life flow from Jesus into these people—the man and the woman are healed and the little girl is raised from the dead. Jesus himself is the God who wrote the laws about purity as a picture of his own holiness—and he himself could transcend those laws so that people could draw near to him in faith, and so that those people could be reunited with their loved ones.
Jesus is the human face of God, God in the flesh. He celebrated at birthdays and weddings. He cried at funerals, even for his friend Lazarus when he knew that he would soon raise Lazarus from the dead. He had compassion on people, he touched and healed them. He chose to suffer the limitations of being human in our world, and he even went to a painful death on the cross—in order that we could be reconciled to Him, so that we can draw near to Him.
He has made a way for us, just as he made a way for those sad mourners to rejoice at the Passover a month later, just as he accepted the offerings of those who repented and turned to him in the days of Hezekiah. So, let us continue to draw near to him, every day in prayer and reading of Scripture, every week as we worship him together as a local body—even though we are physically separated from one another.
And let’s allow our hearts and our minds and our lives to be transformed by the Holy Spirit, as we fill ourselves with God’s Word. We don’t know what the future holds for us and for our world. But our God remains the same, and as we look to his past relationship with his people, through the Scriptures and through the history of the church, our faith in his power and his compassion will grow strong.
Audio and text: ©2020 by Benjamin D. Giffone. Reproduction and distribution are permitted, providing that the author is properly credited and that no fee is charged.