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Guidance: Trusting in the LORD

Reading: Proverbs 3:5-6

Introduction: On the day the tabernacle, the Tent of the Testimony, was set up, the cloud covered it. From evening till morning the cloud above the tabernacle looked like fire. 16 That is how it continued to be; the cloud covered it, and at night it looked like fire. 17 Whenever the cloud lifted from above the Tent, the Israelites set out; wherever the cloud settled, the Israelites encamped. 18 At the LORD’s command the Israelites set out, and at his command they encamped. As long as the cloud stayed over the tabernacle, they remained in camp. 19 When the cloud remained over the tabernacle a long time, the Israelites obeyed the LORD’s order and did not set out. 20 Sometimes the cloud was over the tabernacle only a few days; at the LORD’s command they would encamp, and then at his command they would set out. 21 Sometimes the cloud stayed only from evening till morning, and when it lifted in the morning, they set out. Whether by day or by night, whenever the cloud lifted, they set out. 22 Whether the cloud stayed over the tabernacle for two days or a month or a year, the Israelites would remain in camp and not set out; but when it lifted, they would set out. 23 At the LORD’s command they encamped, and at the LORD’s command they set out. They obeyed the LORD’s order, in accordance with his command through Moses. (Numbers 9:15-23)

Wouldn’t it be great if seeking the guidance of the Lord was that simple in our time? Some people think it is I suppose. But in my experience, knowing the direction that the Lord is leading me has never been that clear. The only times I can recall seeing the cloud or the pillar of fire in the sky have been when looking through the rear view mirror! In retrospect, most of us have had those crystal clear moments of recognition when we know that God has acted in our behalf. We know that God has led us through a particularly difficult circumstance; we know that God has delivered us, or God has led us to a new job situation, or led us even to make life-changing decisions or geographic moves across the county. I can see that intervention, that guidance of God in hindsight. But I’ve not always been very adept at deciphering the will of God in the present, much less live with a constant awareness that God is leading me in every step of life’s journey.

This story of God leading his newly formed people in the wilderness is told in Numbers chapter nine. The have received the Law at Sinai, and this account of the cloud and the pillar of fire is told just before we read about their journey from Sinai to the edge of Canaan. One would think that after the deliverance they received from bondage in Egypt, after the incredible deliverance they received at the Red Sea, after the experience of Moses on Mount Sinai—and especially after their loss of trust and that whole golden calf episode—one would think that Israel now understood that God was in control of their safety and their future as his people. Their food needs had been met. Every morning bread from heaven, literally, was delivered to them in the form of manna. When they needed water, God supplied it. He made covenant relationship with them. He ordered the building of the tabernacle and now he demonstrates his presence among them in this incredibly overt way—a cloud by day, pillar of fire by night. If the cloud moves, they move. If it stays in one place, they stay put themselves. You would think that with God-presence that obvious, these people would put their trust in the LORD. But we all remember that such was not the case. Even before they can reach the promised land, the people are complaining about their misfortunes, complaining that they have no meat. Moses’ own siblings, Miriam and Aaron, decide that they aren’t getting the attention and power that they deserve and so they vie for his position of leadership. When the people arrive on the edge of the Promised Land and send 12 tribal representatives to spy out the Land, only two of the twelve believe that the LORD truly is capable of delivering their enemies into their hands. That visual presence of LORD in their midst turns out to be no guarantee at all that the people will trust in that presence, no guarantee that the people will not trust in themselves rather than in God.

Our primary text for today comes from Proverbs 3, verses 5-6: Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight. The question is, how do you know? How do you know when you really are trusting in the Lord and not leaning on your own understanding? Even when I don’t suffer the plight of Israel, when I’m not simply complaining about every self-centered desire of my heart, and I really am trying to not lean on my own understanding, how do I differentiate my will from God’s will? There are those times when I am certain—absolutely certain—that I am doing God’s will, only to discover that my actions are really quite self-serving! There are times when I have thought my moves back and forth across the country, dragging my family along, were clearly the leading of God—I thought the cloud and the pillar of fire were right there in front of my eyes. Only in hindsight could I see that I had painted those images on my glasses to sanction what I wanted to do. And there have certainly been times when God’s will for my life was not even a consideration because I was too busy chasing after my own dreams, my own desires to have more stuff, to gain more prestige, to make a name for myself. There are those times when what I honestly believe is the will of the Lord turns out to be just a false reading of Scripture—I was sure I was just preaching the truth—but reading Scripture, making doctrines on the basis of Scripture—can be an act totally devoid of the will of God! Let me rephrase that: Our reading of Scripture is an act of our minds and it can be done without acknowledging God at all, can’t it?

So how do we know when our search is genuine? How do we know when we have received guidance from the LORD? I was helped this week by a short oracle from the prophet Jeremiah. It’s found in chapter nine—actually, there are two short oracles together which I think are helpful. Look at these words with me, beginning in v. 23: This is what the LORD says: “Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,” declares the LORD. “The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will punish all who are circumcised only in the flesh—Egypt, Judah, Edom, Ammon, Moab and all who live in the desert in distant places. For all these nations are really uncircumcised, and even the whole house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart.” Jeremiah lists four things that one should not trust in when pursuing the will of the Lord. 1) Don’t trust in your own wisdom, your own brain power; 2) Don’t trust in your own strength; 3) Don’t trust in material wealth. 4) Don’t trust in outward signs of religious identity—I take this from the words of about circumcision, the outward sign of identity for Jewish males. You see, it turns out that Egyptians, Edomites, Moabits, and Ammonites also practiced circumcision. You can’t trust outward signs. What you can trust, Jeremiah says, is the ways of the Lord. Look for these attributes and boast in this: the kindness, justice, and righteousness of the Lord. That word “kindness” is our word “hesed” from last week’s lesson—the steadfast love of Lord. One commentator defines it this way. Hesed is “that inner aspect of character which prompts God or man, quite apart from any constraint of law, to show kindness, friendship, and magnanimity to another, whether or not such consideration is expected or deserved.” The will of God is always reflected in his hesed, his steadfast love, his mercy that never comes to an end. This is not about “random acts of kindness.” God’s hesed is always very intentional.

The word translated “justice” not only indicates God’s punishment of wrong-doing, it included a state of affairs where “right-doing” is encouraged and made possible. The operative question is “what is right with that?” not “what’s wrong with that?” The third word, “righteousness,” carries in it our idea of integrity in all walks of life—social, legal, ethical, religious. When one puts these descriptive words together—God’s steadfast love for us, his desire for what is right and his complete integrity—I think we also learn something about how to discern his will for our lives when we make decisions. When we can’t see the cloud over the tabernacle, when we are confused about our circumstances and the options before us and we genuinely want to know the will of the Lord, Jeremiah’s words suggest that the character of God can point us toward Him and his will. How will my actions reflect the steadfast love of the LORD? Am I genuinely seeking to do what is right or seeking to avoid what is wrong? Will my integrity be compromised in any way? And to that list I would add a fourth from the last part of these verses: Is this just for the sake of religious appearances or is it a matter of right heart before God?

How many choices in our time, how many decisions are made in the name of God—in God’s name—that really are not that at all? They are instead about the politics of church, or the pursuit of wealth and material security, or the desire to elevate our own prestige among our peers. To be guided by the LORD in our daily lives is to embrace the qualities of his own decisions about us. It is to pursue and become that hesed, that steadfast love that he has given us. After all, that is the promise we have claimed in becoming his children, is it not? The ultimate statement of God’s steadfast love is the giving of his Son, and the promise that for all of us who are in Christ Jesus, God-presence has come to dwell in us. Kindness, Justice, and Righteousness are now matters of the heart, given to us by the power and indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. You know the words of Paul. All of you who have been baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ… You are not your own; you were bought with a price…. Now you are the temple of God in the Spirit. The cloud and the fire are no longer external signs of God presence. We live with the faith conviction that God’s guidance is not off out there to be discovered but it is a presence that affirms right heart within us. The will of God, the guidance of God will be seen in our decisions to act as we have been acted upon by God.

I confess to you this morning that I have sometimes invoked the name of God on decisions that did not have to do with God’s kindness, justice and righteousness, especially in regard to my family. Oh they were great decisions for my climbing the ladder of prestige in the church, great for pursuing my career, sometimes even great for building my family’s financial security. I could even argue that they were decisions made with great outward signs of integrity. But in hindsight, I do not see the cloud or pillar of fire, except in this one regard. In spite of my uncircumcised heart, God has continued to show his steadfast love, his justice, and his righteousness in my life, and in my family.

That is his covenant promise to us all this morning. (I John 3:20)

Delivered at Woodmont Hills, October 1, 2000.

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