It would seem very strange, wouldn’t it, if at what we thought was the end of today’s worship service, Pastor Casmer would say, “Wait a minute, everyone. We have to first consult the Lord to see if it’s okay to go out there yet,” and then from his robe he would pull off two stones – one white and one black – and throw them out to see which one ended up farther away from him, and then would say, “That’s the white stone out there farther. That means I can say the blessing – and you can say ‘Amen’ – and we can go home. If it had been the black stone, we would still be here for a while, because that is what God would have wanted us to do.”
We don’t know exactly what they were – they might have been a couple of different colored stones or a couple of sticks of different length – but we do know that in the early times of the Old Testament of the Bible the High Priest of the people was to place two somethings on his robe called the Urim and the Thummin, two somethings – maybe stones – that the Lord not only gave them permission to use, but in fact told them to use, when, among other reasons, they were wandering for those forty years in the wilderness to know exactly when to stop their wandering for that day or that week – and to begin setting up the tabernacle so they could offer their sacrifices of worship and praise. That was a big deal for God’s people because on their own they were helpless, and that is what is being talked about in today’s Lesson from Numbers 27 in verse 21 near the end of the second paragraph on page 9, if you want to take a look at that, where God said this to Moses about his successor Joshua, “He (Joshua) is to stand before Eleazar the priest, who will obtain decisions for him by inquiring of the Urim before the Lord. At his command he and the entire community of the Israelites will go out, and at his command they will come in.” Today we say for God, “This is the Word of the Lord.” At that time they could say for God, “This is the Urim of the Lord.” What I pray God will make clear to us today is what that means for us today, whether we are in here in our worship or out there in our world.
One thing that it means for us is that there will always be people who will lead and guide us in the Word of God by telling us in effect, “This is the Urim of the Lord.” After all, what was going on here in the first place? There was a succession plan being carried out – not a succession plan for a business, but a succession plan for the ministry. Moses was being told by his Lord that he would soon be gathered to his people – that he would die – leading Moses to pray to the Lord that there would be someone to succeed him so that the people would not be, as he said, “like sheep without a shepherd.” The Lord was already way ahead of Moses. He told him in verse 18 to take Joshua and lay his hand on him to designate him as the next spiritual leader of the people of Israel – and to them have him stand before the high priest named Eleazar, who was the one who would give Joshua the direction he needed by telling him at the necessary times, “This is the Urim of the Lord.” This is what God wants you to know, and this is what God wants you to be. Believe him – and rely on him – and follow him.
Many of you may know that often on Sunday afternoons and evenings I am in other congregations and have the privilege of taking part in something that is essentially exactly the same thing as what happened on that mountain range where God spoke to Moses and showed him the land he was going to give the children of Israel as the Promised Land. What I get to take part is basically a succession plan. This evening I will be at a church in southern Wisconsin where a young twenty-something Seminary graduate will be added to the ministry of a large congregation to shepherd the flock with an older shepherd, as those two together say to the sheep and lambs they serve, “This is the Urim of the Lord.” This is what God wants you to know, and this is what God wants you to do. Believe him – and rely on him – and follow him.” Next Sunday afternoon I will be at a congregation in Illinois where the comparison will be even more direct. A pastor who is now retiring from the ministry after over forty years of service is going to pass the mantle to you a young man forty years his junior to take over where he has left off, not knowing what blessings and challenges lie ahead for his successor any more than he knew what they would be for him forty years before, but he will tell him to tell the people of God, “This is the Urim of the Lord.” Love your people so much that you will them that is what God wants you to know and this is what God wants you to be. Tell them to believe in him and to rely on him and to follow him – and you, my young brother, you do the same, even as I face the future, however long or short it may be, with that same need and with that same confidence.
The point is that God promises in his Word – his Urim – that there will always be people to lead God’s people as ministers of the gospel in what we call the public or holy ministry. The apostle Paul once wrote that “it was (Christ) who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers to prepare God’s people for works of service so that the body of Christ may be built up…” It’s just that today God does not come to someone in a dream and tell him, “I want you to be a pastor or a teacher,” but he uses all of us in the body of Christ to encourage especially our children, younger and older, that maybe they could think about studying to be a pastor or a teacher – something I pray more and more of those in our high school and grade school and Sunday School will think about doing, partly, hopefully, because they see what joy in life and meaning for life they see flowing from those of us who are teaching and preaching to them.
But the reason that this means something for our worship in here and for our life out there that there will always be people to say, “This is Urim of the Lord,” is because there will always be a need for people to say this is the Urim of the Lord. Did you catch what God was saying in verse 14 as to why Moses would get to see the Promised Land from a mountain range, but would not get to enter it? It was because he rebelled against his Lord and disobeyed his God’s command in what was called, as verse 14 says, the Desert of Zin by the waters of Meribah. We may not understand why this was so bad, but the Lord said it was so bad that instead of speaking to a rock to bring forth water for the people in a waterless place, Moses struck that rock – and then struck it again – apparently with a big show, making it look like he was the one who was responsible for the miracle of water gushing forth to relieve the thirst of the people and their many animals, and in that way taking away the glory that was due to God alone. God did not reject his servant Moses, but he certainly chastised him by giving him this powerful reminder of his sin that after forty years of leading people right to the edge of the Promised Land, he himself would not be able to enter it.
The point for you and me is that all of us constantly need the Urim of the Lord, because all of us deserve the Thummim of the Lord. Earlier I mentioned the two stones – the Urim and the Thummin. The Urim was for “yes” and for blessing. The Thummin was for “no” and for cursing. Constantly day by day don’t we in effect “strike the rock” by doing things we want to do rather than what God wants us to do – whether that is in how we speak or think or act? So God in his love allows us to be chastised, as well. We know very well that there are so many difficulties in our lives. And while we cannot say they are a result of a specific sin, they are always a result of sin – sin of which we are guilty – and sin which is committed against us. That is just the way it is in this world the way it is and in our lives the way we are. That’s why we need to keep hearing the Urim and Thummim of the Lord.
But we do still get to see the Promised Land. One last thing. Look at the opening verse, verse 12, again. What do you notice about how God speaks to this dear man he loves, despite the fact that like the rest of us he was a man of sin? Verse 12: “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Go up this mountain range in the Abarim range and see the land I have given the Israelites.’” What is so striking about that? God said, “See the land I have given the Israelites,” but the Lord had not yet given the land to the Israelites. To our way of thinking that would not happen for quite a few more years. But to God his promise of the Promised Land meant it was a fact. He had already given them the Promised Land.
Are you in the Promised Land yet? To our way of thinking, no. But in the way God thinks, you most certainly are in the Promised Land by faith, because he has promised you something for the sake of the One who is at the center of the Urim of the Lord – your Lord Jesus, who 1500 years later was born in that very land of promise that Moses saw off in the distance, and gave us every reason to worship him in here for forgiving our every sin against him – and to live for him out there in a way that shows our thanks and that makes what we know and believe and rely on and follow something that others, we pray, might want to know and believe and rely on and follow, too. Today we don’t need the Urim any more, because God gave the prophets and apostles to speak and write in the Bible about the work of him whose forgiveness we desperately need and whose forgiveness we wonderfully have – made certain in the book of which we can say with unending joy and total confidence, “This is the Word of the Lord.” Thanks be to God. Amen.