Walking in the Wilderness Forever Young

Numbers 6:22–27 The Lord said to Moses, 23 “Tell Aaron and his sons, ‘This is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them: 24 “‘“The Lord bless you and keep you; 25 the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; 26 the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.”’ 27 “So they will put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.”

We have buckets of old, old bits of Scripture especially since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It’s amazing. Scrolls of Isaiah. Scraps of the Torah. Amazing. But you know what the very oldest inscription we have of something from the Bible is? I don’t think it’s an accident for a second. You know what the oldest piece of Scripture we have is? It makes an awful lot of sense why it is when you think about it. There was one piece of Scripture that wasn’t only placed on papyri or animal skins that just won’t last unless you somehow manage to preserve them in the perfect environmental conditions. There was one piece of Scripture that was so important that people also inscribed it on silver amulets. So important that they wanted to see it first when they started their day; notice it through the day; and see it last before they closed their eyes at night. We have those amulets today. But you know what’s even better? We have that Scripture. The Aaronic Blessing. The oldest preserved Scripture on earth.

It’s not hard to understand why. It’s stunning Scripture. If you’re reading along in Numbers it’s rule after rule and law after law until you get to something called the Nazarite vow, which was the strictest law of all. In fact, the Jews mistakenly came to believe that the people who took the vow were the holiest of the holy. That if you abstained from wine and let your hair grow wild and never got involved with funerals even if they were for close relatives that you were especially special to God. You were the height of holiness. And that, therefore, God would give you his full attention because he apparently had yours. That was the idea Moses knew people would immediately go to. So it’s right after this vow and right after these supposedly uber holy people get talked about that the Aaronic Blessing comes. And it’s stunning. It’s stunning because in it the Lord indiscriminately gives his full and unfettered love and attention to everybody. It’s like by it he’s throwing out all the wrong ideas about God that we so easily get in our heads. That if we pay attention to him enough and if we worship him enough and if we’re uber holy, he’ll pay attention to us in return. In Aaron’s blessing God’s saying, “Nazarite or not. Holy or not. I’m blessing you.”

And that’s stunning. And not just stunning for where it sits in Numbers, but also for the way it speaks to our souls. You know who might have known this better than anybody in the modern world? Bob Dylan. No joke. Bob Dylan. He knew this so well that he recorded not just one, but two versions of a song that unapologetically ripped off the Aaronic Blessing. Did you know that? The song became such a mega hit that another person came along with a song by the same name not so long later and did the exact same thing. You know who did that? Rod Stewart. They both ripped off ideas from the Aaronic Blessing to speak to the American soul. You know what they sang? May God bless and keep you always… May you stay forever young. You know when Bob Dylan wrote Forever Young? When he became a dad. And I was wrong about the song ’til now. I always thought it was a song about physical youth. About physical immortality. About the chase for the youthful energy and spunk, but I was wrong. You know what the song’s really about? Bob Dylan was staring at his young son wanting him to stay spiritually young.

He was praying that as his son physically aged he would still go out into wilderness of this life being courageous, joyful, and true. Jesus actually said he wanted the same thing for all of us when he said that nobody can enter the kingdom of God unless they receive it like little children. In other words, Jesus was saying that the one thing we need for heaven is trust. Trust. Just like a child has. Trust just like a three-year-old has. Never does mine get up wondering what she’ll eat. Never does mine go into a day worrying about what could go wrong next or anxious about what already did. She’s in every moment and she’s trusting. It’s adulthood that wrecks that in us. Sin grows up in us and we grow more fully into our natural state of self-reliance, and godlessness, and generally cynical thinking. Bob Dylan must’ve seen that in himself at some level, regretted it, and sung this song over his son praying that it would never happen to him. Not the way it happened to himself or the way it had happened to the people in the book of Numbers. They went out in the wilderness of life and they worried and they whined and they grumbled. Like God wasn’t there. Like the Lord hadn’t poured out water from a rock, dropped manna from the sky, or flew in quail from the sea.

That’s why the Aaronic Blessing lands in Numbers. Because it’s in Numbers where people are walking the road of this life and dealing with its wilderness that’s so broken. And if we’re anything like those people in Numbers we’re no good at it. We just make God mad. You know how we do that the quickest? We don’t trust. That’s what gets him the hottest. When we are thinking he doesn’t care. Do you see that? Nothing’s more insulting to him. And he does tell us that especially in Numbers. You know why? God knows that as we do this life we’re always believing a trinity. That’s not the question. The question is whether or not its the holy one. And that’s what we’re abysmal at. You know which trinity we’re awesome at trusting – the one we have the most reliable relationship with? The unholy one. We’re innately good at trusting the unholy trinity of fear, worry, and anxiety. Something happens in our wilderness and we say to that unholy trinity, “What bad thing are you going to send me next?” Something good happens and we trust that unholy trinity thinking, “How is he going to wreck it?” Or sometimes nothing happens at all and we’re communing with the unholy trinity anyway. God the Anxiety swirls in us. God the Fear talks to us. And God the Worry makes us trust.

And that’s why this is the oldest piece of the Bible we’ve got. People treasured its grace. And there is grace here. Nobody got carded before receiving this blessing. Nobody. The Lord didn’t have his priests check to see if people were holy enough to have his protection, or trusting enough for his love. The Lord didn’t divide the people up to receive the parts of his blessing that they deserved. They all just stood there and received the exact same blessing. No matter how much they had communed with or trusted or believed the unholy trinity they all still received the exact same blessing. The priest was to be totally indiscriminate with the blessing. You know why he could be? Because the blessing came from the priest. It came from the priest. It came from the guy who had redeemed them before God. It came from the guy who had made sure that all their debts had been paid. It came from the guy who was responsible for the blood and the dying and the altar. And it had to be that way. Because not a one of them deserved it. In fact, grace is implicit in the whole idea of blessing. They needed blessing so they wouldn’t receive their deserved cursed. So the Lord wouldn’t turn away. So the Lord wouldn’t glower at them.

So the blessing comes from the priest who has redeemed people: the priest who never checks ID’s. The priest who never divides people into classes of holiness or levels of worthiness. It comes from that priest. Always did. Always will. You know who that is? Christ. I don’t think it’s an accident that the last glimpse we ever got of Christ was of his hands. And what was he doing with those nail marked hands? He was blessing. Quite indiscriminately, I might add. He was blessing people who thought their fears had more control of their lives than he did. He was blessing people who thought their anxiety was better than his love. He was blessing people who believed their worry was better at forecasting than his faithfulness. He was blessing exactly those kinds of people. You know why he did? Because he was their priest. And he was their blood. And he was their sacrifice and their redemption and their salvation. He was the one who made the Lord’s face beam in our direction with unbroken and unchanging rays of grace. He’s was the one who made the Lord’s face turn to you with a determination to love you and be faithful to you no matter how life thundered around you. He’s the one whose priestly work was so perfect, so good, and so powerful that what you have here in the Aaronic Blessing is this holy, mighty God cooing over you. And wooing you. And loving you.

Make no mistake. That’s what he’s doing. This is no one-liner of a blessing. Like he can’t wait to be done with it and get out it out of this mouth. This is a three-liner. Every person of the Trinity has it on his heart to gush over you. Just so you know. Just so you get it. He’s totally got you in life. Comprehensively. You’ve got this God here who says he’s going to “bless you and keep you.” (v. 24) Totally abstract terms. And that’s the point. He wants you making applications everywhere and to everything in your life. From the spoon that’s hitting your mouth in the morning to the shut eye you need at night. From the income stream you need for necessities to the relationships that keep you fulfilled. And he will, “be gracious to you.” (v. 25) Always and in spades. You need forgiveness for trusting the unholy trinity? Already done. You feel guilt for your lust or your greed or the incessant way you put people down in your head? He’s already got it gone. And the help you’re going to need along the way in this wilderness? “The Lord will turn his face toward you.” (v. 26) And he won’t ever look away. He’ll send you exactly the doctors, the health, the wealth he knows you need. Because he’s the Holy Trinity and that’s what he does.

We need to understand that. Every abstraction in this blessing is some concrete reality he promising. We’re talking real-time, rubber-meets-the-road providing that’s coming. He’s promising that. Not praying. Not wishing. He’s promising. A lot of people get that wrong about this blessing. They think of it as a churchy good-bye or a pious Christian wish or prayer. Nothing could be farther from the truth. These are words that do what they say. They give to you the Lord’s comprehensive blessing as they’re being said. That’s what God’s people have always believed about these words. Did you know that’s where Spock’s international symbol comes from? The actor, Leonard Nimoy, created the Vulcan salute saying, “Live long and prosper,” because he grew up in a traditional Jewish home in which he attended synagogue where the priest would lift up his hands split them to signify the name of the Lord and speak the Aaronic Blessing. The people believed so firmly that it was the Lord speaking those words over them that they wouldn’t even look at the priest out of respect. One day little Leonard Nimoy looked up and saw the priests hands looking like this.

The point is that people have always believed that Aaron’s blessing is blessing. Not Aaron’s prayer. Let’s be clear. The blessing is not something we’re asking God to do. It’s something God is doing. People talk about that reality in all kinds of ways. Sometimes they call this a performative promise. Sometimes they talk about how these words bring to pass what they say. I don’t really care how you talk about it. The point is this: The Lord is doing what he says in this blessing. But I think you knew that. I think you knew that when I say the blessing it’s not really me saying it. It’s your priest, Christ. I think you knew that Aaron’s blessing wasn’t just a churchy goodbye. That’s it’s Jesus’ promise to stay with you even as you go. That the promise has the power and the backing of the Lord Jesus Christ who was crucified, died, rose, and ascended with nail marked hands raised in blessing showing us that every single word of this blessing is a point of fact that was written with the quill of his body and with the ink of his blood. I think you knew that. And that’s why I see you receiving the blessing the way you do. I see your eyes light. I see hands upraised. I see your faces lift. Because you believe the Holy Trinity will do what he says.

And that will never change for you no matter where you go in the wilderness of this life. I’m not sure what rocks will have to gush water for you as you go, but I do know they will. I’m not sure what snakes may bite so that the only antidote that will save you is the grace of Jesus and his cross. I just know Jesus will give it. I’m not sure what deserts you’ll have to pass through so that manna will have to come. I just know the manna will come. To you. To me that might be the most surprising and grace-filled part of this blessing. Did you know that the “you,” in the blessing is singular? It’s singular. I know that sounds like a funny grammatical point in English because in English you can be talking about just one you (singular) or you (group). But not in Hebrew. In Hebrew it’s either or. And here it’s singular. Do you see the point? The blessing may be always spoken to a group, but it always seeks the individual, the you, and it burrows into your circumstances and weeds out the circumstances of others. It comes to your grief and says, “The Lord bless you and keep you.” It comes to your worry and your sin and says, “The Lord be gracious to you.” It comes to your heart and your life and promises just to you, “The Lord look on you with favor.” Just you.

And that’s how the Lord makes you forever spiritually young. He sings Aaron’s blessing into your heart. And you become a trusting child as you do life. Never do you get up wondering what you’ll eat. Never do you go into a day worrying about what might go wrong next or become anxious about what already did. You’re there in every moment trusting. You’re joyful in the morning that you’re not facing the day alone. You’re courageous in the afternoon knowing the Lord is keeping you. And you’re peaceful in the evening celebrating his blessing on another day. And there it is. Peace. Shalom. This profound sense of wholeness and well-being. Peace. The same word the angels sang at Jesus’ birth. The same word Jesus spoke to his disciples after he rose from the dead. And always the last word you hear at a church called Peace. Peace that defies the unholy trinity of worry, anxiety and fear. Peace that trusts that the Lord’s constructing something in you even as your world deconstructs around you. Peace that promises that life’s deserts won’t leave you spiritually malnourished or dehydrated. Peace that comes from a promise so precious its worth wearing as the amulet of your soul. The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord look on you with favor and give you peace. Amen.

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