Do We Limit God?
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The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the people of Israel: you shall say to them, The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace. “So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.”
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
Something to keep in mind, I’m going to use those lights in different ways as we get into the sermon. We’re turning today to some of the most familiar words in the Bible, particularly the first passage—the Aaronic blessing, because these were the words given to Aaron, Moses’ brother. The second passage is one of Paul’s prayers for the Ephesians. If you’ve been following our Acts series, you know Paul had a deep, loving relationship with the believers in Ephesus. All I want to add to that part of our reading is that he had just reminded them that his calling was “to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery…I ask you, therefore, not to be discouraged because of my sufferings for you, which are your glory.” Paul preached Christ and he was willing to suffer for him.
Numbers, on the other hand, frequently gets grouped into what some describe as a boring part of Scripture. The end of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy is sometimes assumed to lack action; there are just a lot of names and counting and laws which don’t apply today, so we just skip over them. While that might be true for a good part of those books, it’s not accurate for the whole, and we shouldn’t neglect these books.
As you see on the screen, when we start the book of Numbers, it’s the second year after Israel came out of Egypt. The LORD called for a census, which counted 603,550 men age 20 or over. If you’ve heard that there were well over a million people when the Israelites journeyed in the wilderness, this is one of the foundations for that. Numbers 3 brings us to the duties and dedication of the priests, the line of Levi, Aaron and his sons.
This is really interesting—Numbers 3:11-13, “The LORD also said to Moses, ‘I have taken the Levites from among the Israelites in place of the first male offspring of every Israelite woman. The Levites are mine, for all the firstborn are mine. When I struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, I set apart for myself every firstborn in Israel, whether man or animal. They are to be mine. I am the LORD.’” When we think of the Passover, we likely usually just think blood on the doorframe, Israelite firstborns live, Egyptian ones die. But there was also this understanding that God would take one tribe for his service on behalf of each of the nation’s firstborns. From one month old and up, there were 22,000 Levite males to serve as priests, which was just shy of all the firstborns in Israel at that time. Shortly after, we find this.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, as much as we and others might want to deny it, we all have limitations. As much as we may keep from using the word “can’t” and convince ourselves that nothing is impossible, at some point we face a red light. It can be in physical terms: strength or speed, stamina or distance or concentration—at some point, there will be something you are too weak to do, you won’t be able to go any faster or farther or for any longer. We all reach a point when we need sleep or help, or we hurt much more than we used to. It’s true with knowledge, we literally cannot know or remember everything. Also, with influence, at some point we won’t be able to convince certain people. But some people—adrenaline junkies, professional athletes, entrepreneurs, constantly feel the need push the limits and minimize what might hold them back.
Other people, though, fall back on their limitations quickly or quit prematurely. They won’t try harder. They won’t challenge themselves. They won’t spend much time wondering, “What if”—“What if we try something different?” “What if we push beyond our comfort zone?” “What if we take a risk or a chance?” For those people or facing those situations, they live by what comfortably fits their expectations. Sometimes that means going by what experience has proven is likely to happen. It’s like the fisherman who will only ever go to a single spot on a single lake where they once caught fish. They won’t ever go to a different lake or even a different spot on that lake. Even if the fish aren’t biting, who knows where the fish could be or if they’ll bite, at least they came to this spot sometime—they’ll be back, just wait. Yet that hesitancy, they’re unwillingness to try something different, does not guarantee success.
If each of us look at our lives, I’m guessing there are some things that we look forward to as a challenge, we will pursue with a green light as long as we’re able to, but there are other things where we see limits and we start slowing down when the light has barely turned yellow, we choose the comfort of stopping quite quickly. Yet I wonder if looking at how we approach different things for ourselves also affects our view of God and his abilities? I want us to think deeply this morning and going forward in our lives of faith, what do we believe about God, not just what do we say, but what do we actually believe? And what do we expect he can do and is willing to do?
First, what do we believe to be true about God? That’s a pretty vague question, I know. There are many things that could be on this list. We could pull out the Psalter Hymnals and flip to the back and start breaking down the Apostles’, the Nicene, and the Athanasian Creeds as well as our Reformed confessions. We could talk about the Trinity, about the incarnation of Jesus, about God’s redemptive plan. We could talk about God being eternal. We could dive into the communicable attributes, the characteristics that God has given us that we share with him, and the incommunicable ones, the ones that he alone possesses.
Yet let’s rein it in to just our passages; there’s plenty here. In Numbers, the LORD God spoke to Moses. We believe, according to Scripture, that God was in direct communication with his people, at least through particular individuals like Moses. That’s easy to rush over, but it is something we believe to be true about God—he has methods of communicating that human beings can understand what he wants us to hear.
We also learn about God through what he said. God is able to bless, to keep, to make his face shine upon, to be gracious, to turn his face toward or to lift up his countenance, to give peace, and to put his name on his chosen people. If there’s any question whether this blessing is for anyone who hears it—no, it’s not. God said this through Moses through the priests in the context of his covenant relationship with Israel. The favor he promised would be with them was different from any other people. Going back to the Hebrew, these phrases speak of love and filling with strength, to watch over and preserve them, to grant mercy, to provide for well-being.
Israel was a people who had been brought away from what they knew as home, but wasn’t really home. Israel was going to be stuck in the wilderness for a lengthy period of time. They didn’t know exactly how things were going to go, and yet God truthfully and genuinely wanted this spoken to them. Amid all the unknowns and uncertainty of having left Egypt, meeting this terrifying God at Mount Sinai, already having grumbled multiple times, following this guy Moses that they didn’t completely trust—God offered his blessing; he was actually their leader. He’d be with them. There’s such security in that. If they’d live in the covenant, they had nothing to worry.
Let’s keep looking at our beliefs through the lens of Ephesians 3. The first thing we see is that Paul calls God the Father, not just of Jesus, but of “his whole family in heaven and on earth.” That is his title, his role, the loving provider, the one who can be trusted to never forsake or fail. He is in the business of strengthening his people through the Spirit, so that Christ may dwell in our hearts, and again, God as one who loves comes up. When we looked at Numbers, the Israelites in the Old Testament had the Law, which they fell short of; as I said to the boys and girls, they would go through the red lights just like we do. God kept his covenant, they failed. But on the New Testament side, there’s a change, the covenant is fully in Christ. What we have of God, our trust in him, our peace, our love from him has all been revealed in Jesus. We have our faithful Savior.
The last piece I’ll mention for this point is that last verse. We know God “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.” Whatever limitations come to your mind, “God can do anything, but…” No, not buts. Or, “I believe God is incredible; he holds the answer to most of my prayers except when we get into this part of life”—no, no exceptions. We believe God is way bigger, way more capable than what any single person can imagine or think of God. God is not bound to our feebleness, our frailty, our limitations.
We can intellectually agree with all of this, but where is your level of faith? This is our second point. Hebrews 11:1 is our standard here, “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Is your faith in a comfort zone? You hear about God blessing, and you’re thinking, “I don’t know about blessing, but I’m content with being saved in Jesus, and I’m looking forward to the blessing of salvation. This life, I’ll take care of it; I’ll do my best.” Maybe you feel like you’re a step further, a level of not wanting to bother God. In this stage, you may ask God for help, to bless you, to answer your prayers, but you add on, “God, please do this, if it’s not too much trouble, if it’s not too big of a deal or too much to ask. God, I know you’re busy and you’ve got bigger and better things to do—really, don’t worry about me.” You think highly of God, but there’s still separation there.
Or do you approach God the way Paul ended his prayer for the Ephesians? “God, you are able to do immeasurably more than all [I] ask or imagine.” With that faith, you’re willing to take your ideas, your hopes, your concerns for what God can accomplish for your benefit and the benefit of others. We still pray, “If it be your will, God,” but we don’t enter into prayer expecting him to shoot us down or push aside in favor of someone else. If this is our level of faith, we likely wait hopefully for an answer. We express joy when we see God’s answer, especially when he works in ways greater than we expected.
No matter what season of life we’re in, no matter our life history, we’re called to come to God in faith. That means we can bring our hurt, our troubles, our sorrow, our afflictions, but we also are to approach God on the basis of what we find in Scripture. God’s word teaches us that he can do incredible things, things that truly may seem impossible to us. We can ask him to intervene and work in ways that no person can. God could snap his fingers or say a word, and healing could happen, all viruses would instantly disappear, the effects would be gone. We know that health is part of the coming kingdom, it’s something we don’t yet see in full—but that shouldn’t stop us from praying in faith for it.
We can continue to praise God that he is still with his people in the midst of struggle and hurt and sickness. He is still calling people to repentance and forgiving them. He’s still sustaining his Word to go to the ends of the earth. Let it be clear, asking God to do way more than we ask or imagine doesn’t mean going to God and saying, “God, I’ve been trying to figure out if I should buy a Toyota Camry, but I believe you could and want to bless me with a Ferrari.” That is not what Scripture is regularly talking about. Seeking the Lord’s blessing is asking God to do things that are for our ultimate good and the church’s ultimate good.
We’ll close on this question: what are you praying for God to do in a limitless way that he alone is capable of? When you think of God blessing you, in Christ Jesus, and you hear words of blessing each week in church services—what are you hoping he’ll do? Part of what prompted me to preach this topic today is the picture that Yves shared with us last week of dozens of people, maybe even over a hundred people, lined up for baptism when his dad, a pastor named after John the Baptist, had arranged to baptize one converted witchdoctor. That wasn’t Operation Christmas Child’s doing, though it was tool. That wasn’t Yves’ dad’s doing or even the witchdoctor who had spoken to and discipled all these other people—though they were tools. That was God who did that. God can still do things like that anywhere today. He could do that here in Baldwin today—bring dozens, hundreds, thousands of souls to repent and believe and hope in him. He can completely change peoples’ hearts and lives. He can completely bring them into submission to his will and reception of his grace faster than we’re accustomed to. Sometimes God chooses to do a bunch of work all at one time.
If you believe that, if you gave a hearty “Amen” to that work, what are you praying for God to do in a limitless way—here and around the world? We can talk all day long about God’s sovereignty and how he is almighty, but that’s not just a creation thing, that’s ongoing. In Acts 2:41, we read this a long time ago, “Those who accepted [Peter’s] message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to [the believers’] number that day.” In Acts 4 verse 4, we read, “many who heard the message believed, and the number of men grew to about five thousand.” We’ve heard of the apostles healing and exorcising demons and even bringing people back to life, the same things that Jesus had done during his time on earth. The Son of God came to this earth, did the impossible himself, and he gave them the ability to do “impossible” works as well.
Brothers and sisters, I know that each of us have things on our hearts—and this includes me—I need to grow in my faith, too—there are things on my heart, there are things in this world, that I know I need to bring in faith before God. There are troubles, there are hardships, that I see and either just push aside or mutter it to God and feel like I’ve done enough. To believe God will work and do mighty, powerful things takes faith. Faith in God, faith in the truth that he is able, faith in the reality that Jesus is interceding for us. It’s not just our wants, our words or groans or tears, but Jesus takes our words that are in line with his will to God.
Do you believe God can still bless in unexpected ways, in ways that go against what we’ve accepted is our lot in life? Or do we limit God? Again, faith is believing what we don’t yet see. There may be times when we get our hopes up because we believe God can do something, it should be in his will to answer how we’ve requested, and yet he may not answer or bless in the way we want. If prayer and trusting God becomes only about what we want, whether God fits his work into our hopes and dreams, we will be disappointed. We don’t give God the green light to do what he wants to do. Yet what has God accomplished that we all to easily missed, that we can’t credit ourselves with? What are you praying for him to still do and maybe to involve your life, your mission, to be a part of, all for his glory? Amen.