Today we are continuing the summer study/sermon series, exploring “Great Prayers of the Old Testament”. Our scripture this morning comes from the book of Numbers; a book of the Bible that is not often chosen for preaching texts. In part, the “counting” for which it gets its name isn’t exactly inspiring, plus many of the accounts are duplicates of other stories including the other books of the Pentateuch, which are the first five books of our Bible. The book gets its name from its passion for counting and for lists, including at two censuses of the Hebrew people. However, in the Jewish Torah, it is named “In the Wilderness”, a name that perhaps is more fitting of the included content. This book follows the 40 years of the wilderness wanderings of a people, and includes episodes of their lack of faith which led to the almost complete destruction of that exodus generation; which was to be replaced by a new generation, born in the wilderness and who looked forward to Canaan rather than backwards to Egypt.
The book of Numbers includes most of the familiar characters in the Exodus narrative: Miriam, Aaron, Caleb, Joshua and of course, Moses. It is Moses who figures most prominently in our reading today. Scholars have referred to Moses the “man in the Middle” or the man “in-between). References have been drawn to Moses as one in the middle since his birth. As an infant, he was placed in the middle of the reeds on the banks of the River Nile, a relatively safe place to be discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter. Later, he found himself in the “middle” or “in-between” a Hebrew slave and a brutalizing Egyptian task-master, finding himself caught “in-between” his native ethnicity and adopted heritage, between Egyptian life and the oppression of his people. Ultimately, he found himself placed – by God - in-between his people and Pharoah, in the position of advocate and liberator of the Hebrews. After contests with the Egyptian magicians, delivering the Word of YHWH to Pharaoh, a word that threatens to undo the whole economic engine of Egypt, after calling down a series of incredible plagues on the land of Egypt, Moses is at last able to follow God’s direction to take the people out of Egypt into freedom.
Not that everyone was thrilled to escape Egypt; despite generations praying for deliverance, once it actually happened, there was much angst and wailing and complaining. Not that the Hebrews enjoyed being forced to perform slave labor, but at least it was familiar. Once free of their Egyptian captors, the people are regularly resistant and skeptical about the whole process and focus their complaining toward Moses, as the mediator and visible messenger “in-between” themselves and a God that was only visible in fire and cloud. For the next 40 years, Moses would mediate between the people and God; he was what we might call the “go between” God and the children of Israel
Once liberated from Egypt and faced the reality of the wilderness life, the people started complaining. And kept complaining. For decades. When they were thirsty, they blamed Moses. So, Moses, acting on God’s behalf, found them water in the rock. Then they were hungry, and again reproached Moses. So again, God, upon hearing Moses’ plea on the peoples’ behalf, provided manna to eat. But then they got tired of manna, and renewed their grumbling, so at Moses’ request, God provided quail for them to eat. Every time the people complained, Moses stood “in between” them and God, praying on behalf of the people for their wants and needs to be met, and God graciously heeded the words of Moses.
But they kept on griping, and eventually moved to rebellion. Despite the covenant with God to be God’s people and worship God only, they decided they needed something tangible to worship, and built the golden calf. God was understandably angry. Yet Moses again prays on behalf of the people; God again hears, and forgives.
As recorded in the Old Testament narrative, throughout the time in the wilderness, the people have repeatedly complained and rebelled against God. Repeatedly, Moses has stood “in between” the people and God, seeking reconciliation. As we come to this morning’s scripture, YHWH and the people of Israel are once again fed up with each other, and Moses is, yet again, caught “in-between”. Here, the people are wanting to escape the wilderness, revoke the Exodus, and find a new leader who will take them back to Egypt. Frankly, they want to get rid of Moses, go back to Egypt, leaving God behind in the process. At the same time, God has become exasperated with the Hebrews and is ready to get rid of them and their griping and grousing, once and for all. In fact, God proposes to destroy the people and start over again with Moses.
And here, once more, Moses stands “in-between” the people and their God. While loyal to God Moses is still devoted to the people in his care. And so, Moses resists God’s plan to terminate the people of Israel, and begins to pray. He begins by appealing to God’s power and might. But also, as he prays, he appeals to God’s inherent nature, that of justice and righteousness, but also of mercy. Moses boldly prays to God to pardon the people, out of the steadfast love that he knows God has for them. Not that Israel deserves to be pardoned, nor that God is obligated to forgive. Rather, Moses appeals to YHWH steadfast love, God’s most core identity, that binds God to his children despite all the transgression and disobedience on the part of Israel. And heeding the plea of Moses, God relents. Out of love and mercy, God forgives the people. Yet God remains just: declaring that in response to that first generation, who whined and complained so much, they would not see the promised land. But the rest of the nation of Israel will be saved.
A couple things we might take away from this magnificent prayer of Moses. First, we see again the mighty power of prayer in Moses’ intervention on behalf of the people. Like Abraham before him, Moses has demonstrated a deep and constant practice of prayer. Moses was no stranger coming before the Lord with his requests; his bold request grows out of a long, trusting history of communication. Moses prayed boldly for the people; standing in the middle, “in-between” God and the people, asking for their forgiveness. And God heard, and God answered. Maybe we too are called to stand “in-between”, or as some commentators have said, “in the breach”, to repair any rifts between our friends, family, and God; to intercede for those in need of God’s grace and mercy.
It is also a lesson for us regarding the justice and mercy of God. The people rebelled against God; in response, while acting justly and allowing consequences for their words and actions, God also acted mercifully. God ultimately gave them second and third chances, allowing the new generation to come to trust and follow him into the Promised Land.
As I think about the transforming power of mercy, I am reminded of a scene from “Les Misérables”. The protagonist, Jean Valjean, has been released from the galley after 19 years, and is penniless. He knows no other way to lead his life except through theft and dishonesty. He encounters a bishop, who shows kindness towards him by giving him dinner and a room for the night. While Valjean is shocked and overwhelmed, he is still unable to prevent himself from stealing the bishop’s ornate silver candlesticks and running away in the middle of the night. When he is brought back by the police, the bishop exclaims that the candlesticks were a gift to Valjean, and that the policemen should let him go. The candlesticks thus symbolize the mercy shown to Valjean by the Bishop, as perhaps we might think of God’s mercy shown to us. This act by the bishop begins a transformation within the former convict, and the candlesticks also reappear at various moments throughout the novel, as Valjean keeps them close to him as a reminder of the man and the act that began his transformation. At one point, he nearly throws them into the fire, but then is reminded of the bishop’s system of morality and mercy—thus, by keeping them rather than throwing them out, Valjean recommits himself to the new path he’s chosen.
God indeed is “slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, forgiving sin and transgression”. If we come to God with prayers asking for forgiveness and mercy for others, we can, in faith, trust God to be true to God’s merciful and loving nature. If we come to God in prayers for forgiveness for ourselves, how much more will God answer, especially through the love of his Son, Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God. Amen.