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What a Nation Should Never Forget


The Fourth of July is a wonderful weekend of celebration of the goodness of God in national life. It is also an important reminder for us to cherish the freedom that God has given to us and to thank him for it. And, as I've thought about the significance of the Fourth of July, my mind has been drawn very much to Hebrews 9:1-14, and particularly to one verse, which is Hebrews 9:4. Almost anywhere you go in the world, if someone sees the stars and the stripes they will say That's America. Or if you show someone a picture of the Statue of Liberty they will stay That's America. These are national symbols that are recognized almost anywhere in the world. They speak of things that are valued, things that hold a whole nation together.

As far as I'm aware, ancient Israel did not have a flag or a statue. But they did have some very powerful national symbols. And none of these was greater than the Ark of the Covenant, which was kept at the very center of the life of the nation. If you know the story of the Old Testament then you know that Israel, the people of God, had become slaves in Egypt. They longed for liberty. They cried to God under their oppression, and God raised Moses up to become their deliverer. Through a miracle, they were led across the Red Sea, and later the whole community, the nation, was camped at the bottom of the mountain called Sinai.

There, God spoke to Moses and instructed him as to how the people were to live, how national life was to be ordered, and how the people were to worship. And over the period of about a year this disorganized rabble was united into a powerful nation. God himself was to be at the very center of national life. And, the presence of God at the center of the nation, was symbolized by the Ark of the Covenant.

The Ark was simply a wooden chest about four feet long, two feet wide, and two feet deep. There were golden rings on the side of it and long poles that were put through the rings, so that it could be carried as the people moved on in their journey through the desert. When camp was set up, it was placed in a tent-like structure called the tabernacle. It was put behind a curtain and, in fact, was never seen directly by the people. When they broke camp, it was the job of Aaron, the high priest, to go in to take down the curtain and to wrap the Ark in the curtain. Then there were a group of Old Testament removal people, a group of Levites called the Kohathites, and their job was to come in once the Ark was wrapped, to take the poles, and to carry the Ark.

The book of Numbers tells us how the people were organized when they traveled. It must have been a marvelous sight to see from a bird's eye view, because the Ark, with the Kohathites and other Levites around it, was right at the center. At that time, Israel was probably of the order of two million people. They organized themselves so that about half a million people were to the north of the Ark, half a million to the south, half a million to the east, and half a million to the west. If you could have looked down on this group of people moving through the desert, it would have been like a giant plus sign—or, if you like, the sign of a cross—moving through the desert. And, at the very center, there was a visual aid, the symbol of the presence of God at the very heart of national life. So this symbol was the sign of the nation's unity, its faith, its values, and its purpose. Just as someone seeing the Statue of Liberty would say That's America, someone seeing the Ark would say That's the people of God.

What I want you to notice in Hebrews 9:4 is that they were told very clearly that three things were to be placed inside the Ark—three things that told their own story. These things became object lessons, or visual aids, as to the primary things that mattered in the life of the nation. They were to be kept right at the very center so that, as often as the people would see this wrapped Ark of the Covenant, they would be reminded of these three things.

The first item in the Ark was the gold jar of manna.

First of all, inside the Ark of the Covenant was the gold jar of manna. The story of the manna is told in Exodus 16. The people were in the desert. They were beginning to run short of food. And though it was only a short time since the miracle of the Red Sea, there were already people who were beginning to think that the whole venture was a disastrous mistake, and they began to blame Moses. Moses said to them, in effect, Well, why are you blaming me? It was God who brought you out here. It wasn't me. And he said, Wait till tomorrow because you are going to see some evidence of God's hand upon you.

The following morning, the people kicked off their blankets, stretched a little bit, came outside of their tents, and, to their absolute amazement, the Old Testament tells us there were thin flakes like frost on the desert floor. Looking at this, the Israelites said, What is it? Which, in Hebrew, is Manna, manna, manna. And so that was its name. It was manna. From then onwards the name stuck.

Moses said to the people, "I'll tell you what it is. It is the bread that God has given you to eat." The Old Testament tells us that they gathered it, and it tasted sweet like honey. They baked it. They boiled it. They did all kinds of other things with it. It was in this way, as the manna appeared outside the tents every morning, that God sustained them through all the time that they were in the desert.

Can you imagine being in the shoes of these people? Every morning you wake up. You stretch and out you go outside your tent and there it is—breakfast by special delivery to your door—a free breakfast buffet, and no taxes to add. Every morning there are two million people coming out for this free food, and every one of them gets down on their knees and gathers the stuff to eat for all the family, and there is enough for everybody. Later in the day Mrs. Brown meets Mrs. Jones and they get talking and Mrs. Brown says, "Was there manna outside your tent this morning?" "Oh yes," says Mrs. Jones, "and there was yesterday. I never met anyone who didn't find manna outside of their tent."

Of course there were a few aspiring fat cats who thought that this could be a great business opportunity. Just think what you could do. Aaaaaaah … Stock that didn't cost you anything. You could get this stuff without any capital outlay, place it in storage, and when the time came that it was needed, you would have a corner on the market. You could even get some advertising going. We could offer manna pie. We could offer Holman tent deliveries of manna. We could even do a diet manna if we took the sugar out of it. And so some people gathered enough for a whole warehouse, and in the morning it had become, the Bible says, a festering pile of maggots. I think that must have given the neighbors a good laugh. You know, Don't try to be so clever, big guy. Learn to depend on God like everybody else.

And this was how it was every day until they reached the Promised Land, the fertile land in which God gave them crops, a land flowing with milk and with honey. Now, God said to Moses, This is what you're to do. You tell Aaron to go and gather an omer of the manna, just one day's supply. Get him to put it in a golden jar. Seal the jar. And then place that jar in the Ark of the Covenant. Keep the Ark of the Covenant at the very center of national life, and every time people see the Ark of the Covenant they'll think of what's inside it—the symbol of God's abundant provision. And generations later, kids will be asking their parents about the Ark. They'll say, "What's in that box?" And a mother or a father can say, "Well, inside that box there's manna." And the kids will say, "Manna? What is it?" And the parent can answer, "It is the bread that God gave to our fathers, because our fathers came through the desert. And if it wasn't for the gracious provision of God, they would have died, and you wouldn't have been here. Just as God in that miraculous way provided for them in the desert, it is the same God who makes your crops grow, who makes your economy strong. Every good thing that you enjoy is a blessing to be received gratefully from the hand of God." Keep that right at the center of your nation—the Ark of the Covenant, and in it the golden pot of manna.

Christian believers surely cannot read this without remembering that the Lord Jesus took up this image of manna as he said, "I am the living bread come down from heaven." He's saying to us, It's not just that God wants you to enjoy freedom and a good life in all its abundance in America. God has sent Jesus Christ into the world so that you can enjoy more than this earthly life, so that your soul can be nourished to life everlasting. It is the blessing of an abundantly good and gracious God.

The second item in the Ark was Aaron's rod that bloomed.

Then there was a second thing that was to be kept right at the center of national life. Not only the gold jar of manna, but also Aaron's rod that budded. Some of us may know this story; some of us may not. You can read it in the book of Numbers 16 and 17. It is a wonderful story, and a very important one in the Old Testament. It shows that God not only fed the people, he also provided a way in which the people may be kept in a relationship of fellowship with him. God said, There's a way in which I want you to approach me, and this is it: I'm going to appoint a high priest and it's going to be Aaron. He is the one that I have chosen. I want you to come to me through Aaron, for Aaron the high priest will be the one who goes into the most holy place, behind the curtain, once a year. He will offer prayers and sacrifices for the people. And God says, I will listen to Aaron's prayer and I will accept the animal sacrifices that Aaron offers on behalf of the people. This is how it is to be and this is how the people are to approach me.

Well, that was fine until a few people began to question it. Imagine a few of them sitting outside of their tents, and they begin to talk. "Who is this Aaron fellow anyway? Who does he think he is? And who appointed him that he should be the only high priest?" "Ah," someone says, "he's Moses' brother you know. Probably all going to Moses. A bit of nepotism, if you ask me." "Well," says somebody else, "isn't it all to do with the holiness of God? There has to be a high priest who comes into God's presence on our behalf." "Yes," says somebody else, "but Aaron's not any more holy than you and I. He's just a man like the rest of us. So who does he think he is?" Finally someone says, "You know, we've all swallowed this business of there being only one way to come to God for far too long. I'm not sure that there's any basis for it. My goodness, we're living in the middle of the second millennium BC. In fact, it seems to me that this is probably just a mechanism that Moses is using to keep him and Aaron in power, megalomaniacs that they are. Aren't we all children of God? Surely there's nothing that Aaron can do for us that we cannot do for ourselves."

If you read Numbers 16, there's a man by the name of Korah who came to the fore in the ferment of this discussion. No doubt he was a man of great personal charisma. He and a few friends began to lobby, and it wasn't long before they had two hundred and fifty leaders—not just ordinary folks in Israel, but leaders of the council in Israel, part of their leadership structure—who supported their position. Numbers 16:2 puts it this way:

With them (that is, with Korah and his colleagues), there were two hundred and fifty Israelite men, well-known community leaders who had been appointed members of the council. They came as a group to oppose Moses and Aaron and said to them, "You have gone too far. The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is with them. So why then do you set yourselves above the Lord's assembly?"

You see what they're saying? We want the freedom to come to God in our own way. We do not accept that Aaron has to be the one to go into the presence of God on our behalf. You know what's wrong with you, Moses? You've made this whole business of fellowship with God too restrictive. You're saying to us that the only way in which we can have a living relationship with God is through this one man. Well, frankly we're just not going to accept that anymore.

Numbers 16 is a classic story of confrontation. Positions harden, and soon Korah and his supporters will not even meet with or speak to Moses, and the whole thing spills over to become a national debate. The whole culture is involved in this debate, and it splits the nation right down the middle. What you have here is a clash of two incompatible systems of belief. On the one hand, you have Korah and two hundred and fifty elected leaders from the council of Israel, who are saying that we're all children of God and we all ought to be free to come to God in any way that any of us choose. On the other hand, you've got Moses, saying that God is God and none of us dare come to him except in the way that he has appointed.

Do you see that these two beliefs are mutually exclusive? You cannot at the same time say, we can all come to God in any way that we choose, and, we can only come to God in the way that he has appointed. They're mutually exclusive. So, the community is divided. So, Moses speaks to the community, and this is what he says: If any of you have pitched your tents near to Korah and his two hundred and fifty supporters, it's time to pull up pegs and move. Because the judgment of God will come upon all those whose position is that anyone can come to God in any way that they choose.

Now put yourself in their shoes. You've been sitting in the tent taking in the sun and your wife comes home in the evening and says, "I heard a sermon old Moses was preaching this afternoon. And I know it's late in the day, honey," she might say, "but would you please move the tent?" And you say, "My goodness, it's been a hard day's work. You want me to move the tent now? Whatever for?" "Well, in the next row there—you know, the Korahs—they've got their pitch there. And there might be some trouble. I think we ought to move." And you say, "Don't be ridiculous. Where's my remote?" Now the question you face is simple, isn't it? Do you believe Moses? Do you believe that the word that Moses speaks is actually the word of God? Or is Moses talking a load of hot air? If you believe that Moses speaks the Word of God, you will move your tent.

That is the question that we face when we come to church every Sunday. We're facing this question: Is this book the Word of God, which directs what we should believe and how we should behave? Or is this book a relic of religious history from which the pastor—if he works hard—can get some blessed thoughts for us every week, and enable us to go on living exactly the same as we were before? That's the choice. And our decision will be known by the degree to which we act on what the Bible says.

I have no doubt that some moved their tents, and that some said Don't be so ridiculous and stayed. You know what happened? Let me read from Numbers 16:31.

The ground under Korah and his supporters split apart, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them, with their household and all Korah's men and all their possessions. They went down alive into the grave with everything they owned. The earth closed over them. And they perished and were gone from the community.

Would you have moved your tent? See, the truth is, some of us would say, Actually I've got a lot of sympathy with Korah. It seems to me in this modern age that Korah's striking a bit of a bell. I mean, he's saying that all these different folks can come in different ways. That seems to be much more sensible than that we should all go through Aaron.

Then God said to Moses, Here's what you're to do, because I want these people to learn this lesson so deeply that they will never forget it. I want you to take twelve sticks—twelve rods— one for each of the tribes of Israel. And, on the bottom of each of the rods, I want you to write the names of the tribes of Israel. And on the stick for the tribe of Levi, you will write the name Aaron. Then, take the twelve sticks of wood and bring them into the tabernacle and leave them there all night. Moses did what God said. The next morning he went into the tabernacle, brought out the sticks, and the stick with the name Aaron on it had budded, the Bible says. It had blossomed and produced almonds. Could anyone not have gotten the message?

Essentially, God was saying, Never let there be any doubt in this nation that you come to me in the way that I appoint, and not in the way of your own choosing. And God told Moses to take Aaron's rod that had budded and stick it in the box. He put it in the Ark of the Covenant, so that for generations to come, every time the people saw the symbol of national life they were reminded, first of the jar of manna—that it is God who blessed them and provided for them—but, second, of Aaron's rod that budded—that they can come to God only in the way that he has appointed and never by the way of their own choosing.

If we understood that principle, of course the question for us is, Who is our high priest, because Aaron and his sons died a long time ago? And that is what the whole book of Hebrews is about. Hebrews 9:11 speaks of Jesus Christ coming to be our high priest, the high priest for every generation before him and after him. And it explains to us in this very chapter that the whole set up of the tabernacle, including all of the curtains, was a physical visual illustration. It explains that, when Jesus Christ came, he didn't go behind some curtain in a tabernacle of a temple; he didn't shed the blood of an animal on the Ark of the Covenant. No. He went into the most holy place. He went into the presence of God as a man because he was incarnate. He went there on our behalf. But before he went there, he made a sacrifice—not by killing an animal, but by the shedding of his own blood and the laying down of his own life. This event was what the sacrifices of Aaron were pointing towards. It was a ceremony that pointed towards the fact that, through the blood of Jesus Christ spilled and shed for us, consciences would be made clean and we would be made acceptable to God.

Jesus Christ should be the one person through whom we come to God. The God who made a dead stick blossom took the dead corpse of Jesus and breathed life into it. He has appointed Jesus as Prince and Savior, and has given evidence of it by raising him from the dead.

The third item in the Ark was the stone, the tablets of the covenant.

So, right at the center of national life: the bread, the stick, and lastly and very briefly, the stone. Do you see that there? The tablets of the covenant.

Again the Old Testament tells us the story. Moses had gone up the mountain to receive the law of God, which was written on two tablets of stone. He was gone forty days and forty nights, which is a long time. And the people of God—remember now that it was, of course, the second millennium BC and that these people were not fools—reckoned Why do we need to wait for the law of God to be written down? I mean, can't we distinguish right from wrong for ourselves? Surely it's possible for each of us to discern what it is right and wrong in our own situation. We're adults. We're free. So they decided to take the law into their own hands, and they began to order the life of the community according to their own initiative. And so, someone with a bit of initiative said, "You know what? I just feel that a good thing for us to do right now would be to make a golden calf." And a lot of other people said, "Yeah, that seems like a good idea to us as well." So they made a golden calf, and they began to order the life of the community according to their own initiative. And before you could have blinked twice, the whole community had descended into an orgy of self-indulgence. For when a community is ordered by man's human initiative, apart from the law of God, that is always the way in which we go.

Moses came down the mountain. He was so grieved at what he saw that he smashed the stones. God said, Well, we'd better get another couple and we'll write it out all over again. And so God gave the law a second time, and Moses had to be rather careful not to waste what God had given again. So, God told Moses, You know what I want you to do with these tablets? You've got it. Put them in the box. Put them in the Ark of the Covenant. Put them in the place that's right in the center of national life. This way, whenever the people look at that which represents this nation, they will be reminded—not only of the provision of God, not only that we have to come to God in the way that he has appointed and not by any way of our own choosing—but that in coming to God we are called to walk and to live according to his commandments. Think of it. Whenever you draw near to the Ark you're drawing near to the law of God. You cannot draw near to God without drawing near to his blueprint for your life. If you love me, says Jesus, obey my commandments.

It seems to me that this is one of the great issues of our time. We want the bread and we want the stick, but we don't want the stone. We want the abundance of God's provision. We certainly want the life of heaven. But we're not so sure that we want to live according to the law of God. Leave me free to do my own thing, Lord. Amen.

So what does the church have to say to the nation on this great day? I think we want to talk about the bread, the stick, and the stone. We want to know, deep within our own hearts, and to be able to communicate to others around us. Your life is a gift from God. You were sustained by God on Wednesday and Thursday and Friday and Saturday, and you are sustained by God right now. So be thankful for his gift and live for his glory. And God wants you to know him, but you cannot come to him in any way of your choosing. If you do that, you're headed, like Korah, for disaster. Come to him through the new and living way—the way that Aaron points to—through Jesus Christ, the rod that has budded. Come through the one who has shed his own blood and risen from the dead and gives life to all his people. But, as you come to God, do not come to him as a matter of empty belief, of signing a card, of mere religious profession; for to come to God and to receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord is to begin to move into a life, a life that is lived according to his law. And the first evidence of new birth is that God takes the tablet of stone and he writes it on the tablet of our heart, says the Scripture, and moves us by his Spirit to be careful to obey his laws.

for Your Reflection

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? ____________________________________________________

Colin Smith is pastor of The Orchard Evangelical Free Church in Arlington Heights, Illinois.

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Sermon Outline:


God told the Israelites to place three objects in the Ark that would become visual representations of the life of the nation.

I. The first item in the Ark was the gold jar of manna.

II. The second item in the Ark was Aaron's rod that bloomed.

III. The third item in the Ark was the stone, the tablets of the covenant.


On this great day, the church wants to understand, and communicate to the nation, the significance of the bread, the stick, and the stone.