19th Sunday after Pentecost October 16, 2022
19, Worship Supplement 2000 #775 (alt. TLH 293), 291, 54
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
+ In the Name of Jesus Christ +
Prayer of the Day: O holy and most merciful God, You have taught us the way of Your commandments. We implore You to pour out Your grace into our hearts. Cause it to bear fruit in us that, being ever mindful of Your mercies and Your laws, we may always be directed to Your will and daily increase in love toward You and one another. Enable us to resist all evil and to live a godly life. Help us to follow the example of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and to walk in His steps until we shall possess the kingdom that has been prepared for us in heaven; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Now on the day that the tabernacle was raised up, the cloud covered the tabernacle, the tent of the Testimony; from evening until morning it was above the tabernacle like the appearance of fire. So it was always: the cloud covered it by day, and the appearance of fire by night. Whenever the cloud was taken up from above the tabernacle, after that the children of Israel would journey; and in the place where the cloud settled, there the children of Israel would pitch their tents. At the command of the LORD the children of Israel would journey, and at the command of the LORD they would camp; as long as the cloud stayed above the tabernacle they remained encamped. Even when the cloud continued long, many days above the tabernacle, the children of Israel kept the charge of the LORD and did not journey. So it was, when the cloud was above the tabernacle a few days: according to the command of the LORD they would remain encamped, and according to the command of the LORD they would journey. So it was, when the cloud remained only from evening until morning: when the cloud was taken up in the morning, then they would journey; whether by day or by night, whenever the cloud was taken up, they would journey. Whether it was two days, a month, or a year that the cloud remained above the tabernacle, the children of Israel would remain encamped and not journey; but when it was taken up, they would journey. At the command of the LORD they remained encamped, and at the command of the LORD they journeyed; they kept the charge of the LORD, at the command of the LORD by the hand of Moses. (NKJV)
Dearly Beloved Fellow Believers,
We can easily become inpatient with someone who keeps repeating the same thing over and over. It could be the relative that tells the same story again and again. It could be a parent or teacher who keeps repeating lessons that are important to be learned. Sometimes we would like to say, “All right, I’ve got it. I know that already.” Yet any of us can be guilty of unwisely or unnecessarily repeating something and exasperating those who have to listen to us.
There are also sections of Scripture where information is repeated. But when we are reading these sections or listening to them we shouldn’t be impatient, and certainly never be exasperated. In the Scriptures it is God who is speaking to us, and we know that if He repeats something we can be sure that it is necessary to do so and that He has a purpose in it.
Our text is a good example of this. Several times it tells us about the cloud by which God guided the children of Israel through the wilderness and how they obeyed its directions, pitching their tents when the cloud descended on the tabernacle and breaking camp and moving when it was taken up. These repetitions should lead us to take careful note of this history, for it is clear that God especially wants us to know what happened here and to learn from it.
This we will endeavor to do today—to think about the signals that God gave His Old Testament people and to consider how He still gives us signals to guide us. Our theme is: “DIVINE SIGNALS.”
The cloud by which God led His people is first mentioned near the end of the book of Exodus (chap. 40:34-38). There we read about the construction of the tabernacle. It was a tent-like house of worship that could be disassembled and moved as the children of Israel lived a nomadic existence until their entrance into Canaan. The tabernacle was built under the direction of Moses according to plans that were given to Him by God Himself. When the tabernacle was completed the cloud descended on it and the glory of the LORD filled it.
The cloud, then, was the visible presence of God among His people. By that cloud everyone in the nation could see that God was with them; it was He that was protecting them and guiding them. By day it was a cloud; by night a pillar of fire, so that they could travel even by night when God wanted them to do so. In this way, they were never without a visible sign of God’s presence among them.
Our text repeats what was said about the cloud in Exodus and enlarges on it. Here Moses tells us how the cloud functioned in the life of the people from the time that they left Mount Sinai after the giving of the Law until they came to the Promised Land of Canaan. It provided them with both shelter and illumination. But the function of the cloud that Moses dwells on here is that of signaling the people; it told them when God wanted them to break camp and move, and it told them when to stop and set up camp again. The signal for breaking camp was the lifting of the cloud. The signal for stopping was the settling of the cloud again on the tabernacle. And all the while that the children of Israel were moving, they were following the direction of the cloud, so that they were constantly living and moving under divine guidance.
It was a great blessing for the children of Israel to have such signals and guidance that came directly from God. By the movement of the cloud they knew exactly when and where He wanted them to go. We might wish we could have divine guidance like that for our daily life. Wouldn’t we be able to live more confidently if God was telling us each day exactly what he wanted us to do? There would be no more uncertainty about difficult decisions and choices. Sometimes when we wonder what to do next, we may wish for some kind of guiding divine signal like that.
But we should understand that, though the pillar of cloud and fire was indeed a great blessing to the children of Israel, it was also a device that treated them as children. When we were young children, we needed close supervision and detailed instructions for our daily lives. We needed boundaries set for us, to have a specific time for going to bed at night and getting up in the morning. If we went out to play in the neighborhood, we needed to know when we should be home. As young children we needed boundaries like that because we lacked the maturity for setting our own boundaries. As we got older, we were gradually given more freedom. By the time we became adults we had the responsibility to set and keep to our own daily schedule.
The children of Israel had things laid out for them, and not just with the signals and direction given them by the cloud. The Old Testament law gave them detailed instructions governing their lives. In the New Testament age God treats His children like adults. We have the Gospel not just in promise but in fulfillment; Christ has come and has done everything necessary for our salvation. We have the forgiveness of sins and eternal life through faith in Him. We have the Holy Spirit given to us, and He is dwelling in each of us. Instead of detailed instructions for worshiping, we have general admonitions not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together (Hebrews 10:25); to hear the word of God and keep it (Luke 11:28); to teach and admonish one another with Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Colossians 3:16). Instead of detailed rules of conduct the Lord admonishes us to love one another, to forgive one another, to be patient, etc.
It isn’t that we have no guidance. In place of the cloud that led the children of Israel we have the written Word of God, the Bible. It tells us what is pleasing to God and what is not pleasing to Him. It warns us against dangers and temptations. It certainly doesn’t tell us to go out and live as we please. It doesn’t give consent for whatever we think will make us happy or fulfilled. The parts of the Old Testament law that are permanent are restated for us in the New Testament. There are clear lines that we are forbidden to cross. These are very helpful to us as we travel through this world. When we are faced with a decision or choice we need to ask questions such as these: Is this choice God-pleasing, or does it involve me in sin or put me in danger of sinning? Do my plans include regular worship and study of God’s Word, or do they make these things a low priority? By His Word God gives us the signals that we need. We should be actively looking for them and recognizing them when we see them.
The amazing thing in our text—besides the divine signals in the cloud and fire—is the children of Israel’s obedience to these signals. It is this obedience that the text especially emphasizes by repetition. Whenever the cloud was taken up they would travel. Where the cloud settled, they would stop and pitch their tents. This is wonderful to read, because in so many other places we read of their disobedience and the grief that they brought upon themselves by it. But here we are told that they obeyed the signals and that they did so without fail. Even when the cloud rested on the camp for many days, they did not take it upon themselves to set out and travel. And when the cloud remained over the camp for only one night they would get up, strike their tents, and set out. They would set out when they were signaled to do so no matter when the signal came, whether it was by day or by night.
Why were the children of Israel so humbly obedient when it came to these divine signals? It was because they were in the middle of the desert, traveling through unfamiliar territory where there were hazards and where food and water were scarce. They were conscious of their dependence on God. They didn’t want to venture out without Him. We need to have that same sense of our dependence on God. We need to realize that this world is still a wilderness with many hazards. We need to realize these things so that we too will want to stay close to God by Bible study, worship, Holy Communion, and prayer.
Let’s follow the good example of the children of Israel here and heed those divine signals when and where we see them. If something threatens to draw us into sinful behavior, let’s not go there. But if we see an opportunity to serve the Lord, to worship Him, to learn His word, to do good, then by all means let us go there. God help us by His Spirit through His Word to recognize His signals and to follow them. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.