This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Numbers 9:15-23, 10:11-13, 33-36
Brothers and sisters and boys and girls loved by Jesus Christ,
A lot of people wonder where God is leading them. Young people might struggle with their identity and feel they have no sense of direction for life, even though they are brimming with talent. Christian youth, who are serious about following the Lord—perhaps some who have recently graduated—may pray, "Lord, what do you want me to do with my life?" But it doesn’t stop there. Adults come to crossroads in their lives due to changes in health, lose of a job, family changes or other issues. But then we to need to turn to God and ask for direction.
Sometimes this picture of Israel in the desert appeals to people. Wouldn't it be great, young people, if the Lord would just clearly show you where you need to go after high school? And wouldn't it be wonderful if all of us could just look up, like Israel did, and see a cloud from God leading us in a certain direction? Wouldn’t it be great if we could just follow a cloud to know which job we should chase or even what person would be our spouse? That would be so great! Sometimes it seems that following God ought to be a little more of an exact science since that is such an important part of the road of holiness that God calls us to pursue.
Perhaps today's Scripture reading can cast a little light on this subject.
God’s Promise to be with Us
The first thing to notice is that wherever we go, we must remember that God is with us. The cloud that covered the tabernacle by day gave the appearance of fire on the tabernacle by night. So both day and night it gave a visible reminder to Israel that God was with them. The cloud and pillar of fire also led Israel out of Egypt. In Exodus 13 the pillar of cloud is Israel's guide as she crosses the Red Sea (vv.21-22). And in Exodus 14, both the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire protect Israel from Pharaoh and his army who are pursuing them (vv.19,24). In other words, the talk of cloud and fire in Numbers points us back to Exodus where both always indicate God's presence with his people, including his protection and guidance. As we look for direction from God, then, we begin with that assurance that God is always with us, even protecting and guiding us.
God's presence is one of our covenant privileges. God has covenanted—which means he’s promised—to be our God and we promise to be his people. So no matter where we are and no matter what we have to go through, God promises to protect us. In the words of Psalm 121,
Ps 121:7 The Lord will keep you from all harm—he will watch over your life;
He is protecting us along the way just as surely as he protected Israel in her day. When we face attacks from people or from the forces of evil, God is in charge. When you hit some sort of wall in your life, that's not a surprise to God. He brought you there. When your plans fail and your heart is broken, God knows. He’s with you and is leading the way. It's not that he enjoys seeing us stumble or go through trials. But those are some of the things he providentially uses to get us where we need to be. Sometimes he may have to move us spiritually and other times physically. And in order to do that he sometimes brings challenges our way. But through it all, he promises to go with us.
It’s clear that he also guides us. And we should be thankful for that. On our own we'd get so lost. Sometimes, though, God's way involves waiting. God is in charge of that too. Can you imagine how frustrating it might have been for the people of Israel to have to move only when the cloud moved and to stop whenever it stopped. Sometimes it moved for several days in a row. Then it would stop. The people wouldn't know how long. In the meantime, they had to set up camp. They had to put the tabernacle up and they had to live for the Lord right where they were.
That's the same for us too. We have waiting periods in our lives too. We may feel uncertain of what God wants us to do next. So until it is clearer to us, we need to learn to wait upon the Lord. Remember what Isaiah once wrote?
Is 40:31 (ESV) …they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint.
Isaiah helped the people see that waiting for God to lead us forward is worthwhile.
Waiting times are healthy. They are times for soul-searching. They are times for getting closer to God. They are times, you might say, for cuddling up to Jesus. So much of our lives are lived on the run. Most of us are too busy for our own good. So it makes perfect sense that God would try to teach his people to live close to him before they get into the Promised Land. Once they take possession of the new land, you can be sure that they may easily fall into the same trap as many of us: too busy for God. So when God makes us wait, we should take advantage of the time. Think of it as an opportunity rather than something to be endured. During the waiting, God works to strengthen and prepare us for the next step.
In all the days of our lives, no matter where we are or where we are headed, even in the days of uncertainty, we have the promise that God is with us—protecting and guiding us. He's not in the cloud anymore. Because of Jesus, he’s with us. He now lives in us in the person of the Holy Spirit. He is with us.
One preacher said, "We can't know for sure that we are going the way the Spirit wants until later." And another replied, “I've noticed that in my own life too. I was pretty sure that God called me to be a minister when I was about 20. But for the next five years I simply had to jump through certain hoops. I needed a college degree. So I went to college. Then I had to complete my first year of seminary. Only after that did I get to try the ministry out. After that first summer-assignment, though, I knew that God had led me where I needed to be. I knew from the Bible that God calls people to the ministry. What I needed to discover for myself and wait for was the leading of God to an actual church where I could be ordained. Getting there was sometimes tough. I wondered a few times whether it would actually happen. But it did.” You see, friends, God is still guiding our steps! Even when he seems to take forever to lead us forward somewhere, he is still leading us. We can count on that. He promised he would.
Our Desire to Follow
A second thing we learn from our reading is the need for God’s people to follow his leading, based on thankfulness or gratitude. In the verses we read, it said at least a dozen times in different forms that at the Lord's command they set out. If you read the entire passage you will hear references like this:
Num 9:18 At the LORD’s command the Israelites set out, and at his command they encamped.
Israel's desire to follow God was not something they came about naturally. There were several challenges to God's direction. There were complaints about the directions being followed or the pace of getting to the Promised Land. You see, since coming out of Egypt with Israel, Moses received all kinds of instructions from the Lord that he passes on to the people—all kinds of ceremonial and social laws. And most importantly, he receives direction for building the tabernacle.
Girls and boys, do you remember that the people wanted a golden calf to worship as God? What did Aaron say? He let them do it, didn't he? But Moses came down the mountain and destroyed the calf. Moses had to work hard to help the people understand that whether they can see their God or not, the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob has brought his people Israel out of Egypt. He has saved them by his grace and power. God didn't save them because Israel was so good. He didn't save them because they were better than anyone else. He saved them because that's what he promised to do. He saved them because of his electing love. And he chose them for a holy calling: to be his people, to take possession of a promised land and to bring the Savior—our Lord Jesus—into this world to save us from sin.
Israel had been rescued from a terrible place, a land of hopelessness and slavery. And they needed to remember that. You see, their motivation to obey was rooted in their rescue. Thankfulness for the rescue was the only lasting and true motivation to obey God and pursue his calling to possess Canaan.
As God's people living after Christ, our desire to do God's will must be equally motivated by thanksgiving and gratitude. We were slaves to sin. Our lives were headed from bad to worse. Our future was hopeless. But that all changes when God takes hold of us. When Christ rescues us from sin and hell, then we should be grateful—eternally thankful. And out of gratitude we obey him because we trust him. He has been faithful in rescuing us from sin. Why wouldn't he be faithful in leading us on the road of life?
For all of us—young and old—following God’s lead means we have to trust him and love him wholeheartedly. If we believe that Jesus died for us, rescued us selflessly so that we could have a new life, then we’ve got to know that he wants to lead us into that full and abundant life as well. Holiness begins with a grateful heart which gladly obeys. God's plan for our lives is to finish the work that he has begun in Christ. Well-known teacher and author J.I. Packer wrote, "He has sovereignly committed Himself to complete the transformation of me into Christ's likeness and to set me, faultless and glorified, in His own presence for all eternity." (cf. Packer, Rediscovering Holiness, p.75). We’re safe and secure in him. So we follow gratefully.
Gratitude is not something our society teaches real well. We have so much already that instead of being grateful for what we have, we often balk and complain and want more. But, my friends, when God's almighty love has totally taken over the task of getting you home to glory, there can only be one fitting response. The only real response is to love God and that is expressed by thanksgiving and obedience to whatever he says.
So as you consider where God is leading you, you must remember that if you belong to Jesus, God is leading you. Over hills and through valleys. Sometimes fast and sometimes slow. But always at just the right pace for you. You might not be happy in your present situation, but as you wait for God’s direction, you've got to do things his way and do them out of gratitude for your salvation in Christ. That is your holy calling. The writer of Ecclesiastes summarized the purpose of life this way:
Eccl 12:13 Fear (that is, love and adore) God and keep His commandments. This is the whole duty of man.
As you do, be assured that God is leading you just as the cloud led Israel in the desert. But the leading of God requires that we go in thankfulness wherever he wants us to go. He will always lead us and get us where we need to be.
Prayer of Response: Our Father in heaven, we praise you for your faithful leading. Thank you that our lives are secure in your hands and that you lead us sovereignly through good and hard times in our lives. Give us confidence and faith to trust in you in all we do. Young and old, may our lives be marked by trusting you and obeying your Word all the time. Fill us with your Spirit to that end, we pray. In the name of Jesus, Amen.
Order of Worship
BRINGING PRAISE TO THE LORD
Welcome and Announcements
* We Greet One Another
* Gathering Song: Arms Of Love
* Call to Worship (Isaiah 6)
* God’s Greeting
* Songs of Praise: Revelation Song, We Bow Down
CELEBRATING GOD’S GRACE
Prayer of Confession
God’s Word of Forgiveness
Song: Draw Me Close
God’s Will for Our Lives (Romans 12)
* Song of Response: Heart of Worship
HEARING GOD’S WORD
Prayer for the Word
Scripture Reading: Numbers 9:15-23, 10:11-13, 33-36
Sermon: A Holy Calling to Pursue
* Song of Response: Guide Me, O My Great Redeemer #543
OFFERING OUR PRAYERS & GIFTS TO GOD
Tithes and Offerings:
LEAVING WITH GOD’S BLESSING
Commissioning Prayer for our Teen Group
* Closing Song: Be Thou My Vision