Posts Tagged ‘our sins condemn us’

Joshua 20:1-9
The Cities of Refuge

One of things that never changes even in this generation of indoor kids with their addiction to video games that they play for hours on end is the outdoor games that children play. Once you get a group of children outside, one of the inevitable games that they play is the game of tag. In this game, to begin a kid either volunteers to be “it” or kids devise some method to pick the first “it” person. Another of the pre-game choices that must be made is to establish a home base object. It can be a tree, a car, a porch, or just about anything that is sturdy and that can’t be broken by a kid running at full speed toward it and grabbing hold of it. Once all this stuff is defined, the game begins. Another decision that must be made is how high the kid who is “it” must count before he can begin his pursuit of losing his “it” designation.

The person who is “it” then must close their eyes and count to ten, twenty or a hundred (depending on what the group of kids agree upon). While the “it” kid is counting to the pre-specified limit of the sequence of numbers (1 through 10, for example), all the other kids are scurrying to find hiding places. When the “it” kid finished his/her count, they began running around the yard trying to seek out and identity and “tag” one of the other kids. This can take a short period of time or a long period time depending on the athletic skills of the kids being chased and of the kid chasing. One of the reasons a home base object or location is chosen is so that the kid being chased can go and touch the home base and the “it” kid can no longer tag that person as long as they are touching the home base. The chase was over and the “it” kid had to move on and chase some other kid until he was able to touch, “tag”, them before a kid being chase could reach home base. Kids can entertain themselves for hours with this game. It would not end until a majority of the kids either got bored with the game or everybody was so tired that all the kids fell out on the ground and started laughing and talking about what had just happened while the game was on. Another stopping factor could be nightfall and kids getting called home for dinner, or the host house’s mom bring out drinks and/or snacks for the kids. It was always a fun game and certainly moms encouraged us kids to get outside and play the game so (1) she would not have a bunch kids running around her house and (2) so we would get so tired from playing the game that she would have no trouble getting us to go to sleep that night.

It was that concept of the home base tree that I thought of when I read through this passage for today, Joshua 20:1-9. Let’s read through it together, right now:

20 Then the Lord said to Joshua: 2 “Tell the Israelites to designate the cities of refuge, as I instructed you through Moses, 3 so that anyone who kills a person accidentally and unintentionally may flee there and find protection from the avenger of blood. 4 When they flee to one of these cities, they are to stand in the entrance of the city gate and state their case before the elders of that city. Then the elders are to admit the fugitive into their city and provide a place to live among them. 5 If the avenger of blood comes in pursuit, the elders must not surrender the fugitive, because the fugitive killed their neighbor unintentionally and without malice aforethought. 6 They are to stay in that city until they have stood trial before the assembly and until the death of the high priest who is serving at that time. Then they may go back to their own home in the town from which they fled.”

7 So they set apart Kedesh in Galilee in the hill country of Naphtali, Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim, and Kiriath Arba (that is, Hebron) in the hill country of Judah. 8 East of the Jordan (on the other side from Jericho) they designated Bezer in the wilderness on the plateau in the tribe of Reuben, Ramoth in Gilead in the tribe of Gad, and Golan in Bashan in the tribe of Manasseh. 9 Any of the Israelites or any foreigner residing among them who killed someone accidentally could flee to these designated cities and not be killed by the avenger of blood prior to standing trial before the assembly.

In this passage, we see a new nation in a new land forming and they needed a new form of government. Many years earlier, God had told Moses how this government should function. Once of the tasks that God wanted the Israelites to do when they entered the promised land was to designate certain cities as “cities of refuge” These cities were to be scattered throughout the land. Their purpose was to prevent injustice, especially in cases of the perceived need for revenge. For example, if someone accidently, without malice of forethought, killed another person, he could flee to a city of refuge where he would be safe until he could have a fair trial. The Levites were in charge of these towns. They were to ensure that God’s principles of justice and fairness were kept. If a person were found innocent, when standing trial at a city of refuge, they were free to remain in the city of refuge for the remainder of their lives or when the priest that had judged him innocent died. At that point, they were free to leave the city of refuge. If they were found guilty of maliciously killing someone they were left outside the city and the gates would be closed. They would then face the wrath of the family who accused him of murder.

These cities of refuge reminded me of home base in the game of tag. Once we got to home base the kid who was chasing us no longer could do so. We were free from being tagged as “it” and then have to do the dreaded chasing of other kids trying to get rid of our label as “it”. That is what these cities of refuge were like – a home base of sorts. Once a person accused of malicious murder got to these cities they could not be touched and a trial had to ensue to determine their guilt or innocence.

You know they say that everything in the Old Testament points toward Jesus in symbolic ways so that God’s people would understand and be prepared to identify the Messiah when he did come. All the Old Testament is pointing us toward our need for a Messiah. Here in this passage, we see Jesus clearly in the symbolism of these refuge cities, these home base cities to use the analogy from the game of tag.

Jesus is our refuge city. In each case, the person running to the city stands accused of a crime, by the letter of the law, they committed. There was no disputing that a crime had been committed. It was up to the Levitical priest to determine whether a person had maliciously committed the crime or whether it was a crime committed accidently. Jesus is our refuge. It is through him that we can find refuge from our sins. If we confess our sins to him and are repentant of our sins we can dwell in him as long as he lives (and he lives eternally). We are no longer subject to the punishment for our sins – sins that condemn us to death, to hell, under the letter of the law of God. When we reach the city of refuge, we know that we are guilty. We understand that we are guilty before God….’there is none righteous, no not one’. But we are invited to come to Jesus for refuge. For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 6:23). Matthew 11:28 tells us that Jesus wants us to come unto Him and He will give us rest. He will give us refuge. The city of refuge was the only way to avoid punishment under the letter of the law. Similarly, Jesus is the only way we can be saved for there is no other name by which we are saved (Acts 4:12) and the only way to the Father in heaven is through Him (John 14:6).

Therefore, Jesus stands as the only way out of the mess that we have created for ourselves before the perfect law of God. We stand guilty of sin that condemns us to the death of hell where there is burning of flesh and gnashing of teeth forever. We deserve hell under the law. We deserve punishment eternally for our imperfection caused by our first sin much less the thousands upon thousands that we commit in a lifetime. We stand condemned must realistically beg for the mercy of Jesus Christ. We have no leverage of goodness. We are sinners. We stand before Jesus guilty as sin over our lifetime pattern of rebellious sin against God. We have no excuse. We have no rationalizations that will hold water before Jesus. We have sinned. We will have our lifetime of sin played out before us as we stand before God. We will know and understand how completely deserving we are of hell. It is only through begging Christ to be our Savior and Lord that we are relented from our just and deserved punishment. It is only through Christ having taken our punishment for us and imputing his perfection upon us through the act of salvation that we are admitted into the city of refuge. We are free from the penalty of our sin only, only, only through Jesus Christ and no other person and no other way. Never will we be good enough by going good deeds will we outweigh the weight of just one sin before God. Jesus is our only refuge. He is our only way that we are not caste out into the darkness of hell.

Thank you Jesus for being our home base and our refuge.


Amen and Amen.

Numbers 21:1-3

Arad Destroyed

Have you ever been given a reprieve from punishment that you knew that you deserved? I know I have. I know that I have told this story before here but seems appropriate again as my illustration for this morning. Back when I was just about to turn 14 years old, as the son of a Methodist minister, we were required by the Methodist Church in South Carolina to move from my dad’s appointment as the associate pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church in Anderson, SC to become the pastor of Travelers Rest and Jackson Grove United Methodist Churches in Travelers Rest, SC, north of Greenville, SC. It was in Anderson that I had become a teenager and it was there that I had kind of come into my own socially and was beginning to develop that sense of independence and separateness from my parents that you develop at that age. You start doing things separately from them. You start having a sense of your own life at that age. So, it was in Anderson that I was really enjoying life. I was a popular kid at school. I was on the middle school football team. I was part of the in-crowd. The girls thought I was cute. I was big flirt too. It was a grand time and in the fall I would have moved up Westside High School. I was very comfortable there and wanted and prayed that my dad would be there until I had graduated from Westside. That was my plan, but that was not the plan of the South Carolina convention of the United Methodist Church. We moved in June 1976. I was an angry, distraught young man.


Later than summer, my best friend from Anderson came up to Travelers Rest to spend the week with me so that he could join me on our church’s youth trip to Six Flags over Georgia down in Atlanta on like Wednesday of that week. However, on Monday, when we were just hanging out at the house while my parents worked, Donnie and I got bored and started roaming through town to see what we could get into. We stole some candy from the drug store near our house and we spent the day doing things that teenage boys with too much time on their hands might do. Then, we came upon the elementary school. We decided that it would be fun to vandalize the school in some way. We decided that fun would be to pull the telephone wires out of the junction box on the outer wall of the school outside the office. This would be where the telephone wiring from the road meet the telephone wiring of the school. We thought that would be funny. When we yanked on those wires, the janitor was looking through a nearby window and saw us and hollered at us. We took off running down the street to a nearby convenience store and try to act cool as if we were shopping for candy and soft drinks. But being a small town and city hall being just blocks away from the school, the cops were upon us in minutes. We got arrested. In Greenville County, SC at the time, all the small towns had an agreement with the City/County Detention Center to transfer criminals for incarceration to that facility. So, my parents not only get shocked to find out that we had committed a crime, they had to drive to downtown Greenville, some 25-30 minutes away from our house, to come pick us up. The next hours were a blur and I dreaded seeing my dad more than anything law enforcement could throw at me (at least that’s what I worried about most was his anger and his disappointment in me).


We were released to there custody and we could not leave their sight. Donnie’s parents were in Arkansas visiting family so sending him home was not an option. Thus, there we were right up my parent’s butts the next day all day. And, our punishment on Wednesday was to not to allowed to leave their sight while our youth from both churches were on the trip to Six Flags. That was a punishment worse than death to a teenager. To have to hang out with our parents all day at an amusement park. It would have been a humiliation of the worst order. That was what I had to tell these teenagers from the church that I barely knew for less than a month. It was embarrassing. However, I don’t know what possessed my dad to do it (because he, before and since, was a dad who always enforced his punishment without exception and without concern for the hardships that punishing us would cause him), but my dad on this one day set us free when we got to Six Flags. We were going to have to pay for our crimes in the coming months after that in various ways but on this day, we were given a reprieve. We were given the freedom we sought. We were given freedom beyond what we deserved. I will never forget that grace that my dad showed us that day. We did not deserve anything but humiliation that day and we knew it and were resigned to our fate. Yet, we were given grace even still.


That was what I thought of this morning as I read through today’s short passage, Numbers 21:1-3. The Israelites were given victory even though they really didn’t deserve it when you consider the previous 37 years of history of these people. Let’s read this passage together this morning:


21 When the Canaanite king of Arad, who lived in the Negev, heard that Israel was coming along the road to Atharim, he attacked the Israelites and captured some of them. 2 Then Israel made this vow to the Lord: “If you will deliver these people into our hands, we will totally destroy their cities.” 3 The Lord listened to Israel’s plea and gave the Canaanites over to them. They completely destroyed them and their towns; so the place was named Hormah.


It is a short passage but one that I find intriguing anyway. What’s the takeaway here? It is the fact that the Israelites were a rebellious people throughout their time of wandering in the desert. God would punish them for this disobedience but yet they would still complain. God would provide for them but they would still complain. God required obedience from them but for the most part all he got from His chosen people was disobedience. They were not the poster children for obedient children of God. Why He did not completely destroy them is a testament to God’s patience with them. Here, after years of disobedience, whining, complaining, and doing often exactly the opposite of what God commanded, He shows them grace and gives them their first victory in what would become the war to take the Promised Land. If you have read any this history of Israel in the Old Testament, you know that they were a stiff-necked, stubborn people who rarely gave God the honor that He deserved. They rebelled against Him at every turn even though they had seen all these miracles of God’s protection and provision. They did not deserve victory on this day. They deserved to be roundly defeated. They deserved to be crushed. But, yet God in his grace and mercy gives His people victory.


God certainly does allow us to suffer the consequences of our sin, you and me, but yet He gives us grace through Jesus Christ. We do not deserve God’s grace. What we deserve is to be written off by Him eternally. We rebel against Him at every turn. We have done our deeds of disobedience and they are plain and clear to see. There is no negotiation away or acting as if our crimes were not committed. We have been caught with our sins in our hands. Our sins are laid bare before the Lord. He knows all that we have done. He is the judge with the photos from the crime scene spread out before Him. We are caught dead to rights. We are deserving of our punishment and we and God know it.


But He loves us anyway. Just like a couple of teenage boys with a punishment of hanging out with my parents the whole day at Six Flags who are suddenly told that we are free to do as we please (within reason) that day, we are too set free through Jesus Christ and the grace that He provides us at the cross. Our slate is wiped clean. We are covered by His grace that we do not deserve. The Israelites were given their first victory in the conquest of Canaan here even though they surely did not deserve to be providentially protected and guided in that victory. God’s grace abounds even to those who do not deserve it – which is every last one of us. God gives us victory though we are yet sinners. God gives us victory though His Son, Jesus Christ.


Amen and Amen.