Do You Want to Be Great?
A sermon based on Numbers 12:1-15
Sunday, September 27, 2015 – Pentecost 18B
"Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. I am the greatest of all time." So claimed famed boxer, Muhammad Ali. There's no doubt he was a great boxer. But he was also known for his great ego which often got him into trouble. One story tells of Ali settling into his airplane seat getting ready for takeoff. When the flight attendant reminded him to fasten his seatbelt, Ali proudly protested, "Superman don't need no seat belt." But without missing a beat the flight attendant replied, "Sir, Superman don't need no airplane, either." Humiliated, Ali fastened his seat belt.
The truth is that an over-inflated view of oneself can lead to all sorts of problems. That's certainly the case with two famous people of high position in our text for this morning. Miriam, the sister of Moses was called a prophetess after she led the women of Israel in a victory song after crossing the Red Sea. Her big brother, Aaron, was the High Priest of Israel, the only one allowed into the Most Holy Place, the one who confronted Pharaoh to let his people go.
There's no doubt they were great leaders, famous and important people in the most famous and important nation. But they let that greatness go to their heads. And God had an important lesson to teach them and through them us—a lesson about greatness, about pride, and about God. Listen now to the history of Miriam and Aaron's rebellion and of Moses' and God's responses. The account is recorded in Numbers 12:1-15...
1 Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite. 2 "Has the LORD spoken only through Moses?" they asked. "Hasn't he also spoken through us?" And the LORD heard this.
3 (Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.)
4 At once the LORD said to Moses, Aaron and Miriam, "Come out to the Tent of Meeting, all three of you." So the three of them came out. 5 Then the LORD came down in a pillar of cloud; he stood at the entrance to the Tent and summoned Aaron and Miriam. When both of them stepped forward, 6 he said, "Listen to my words: "When a prophet of the LORD is among you, I reveal myself to him in visions, I speak to him in dreams. 7 But this is not true of my servant Moses; he is faithful in all my house. 8 With him I speak face to face, clearly and not in riddles; he sees the form of the LORD. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?"
9 The anger of the LORD burned against them, and he left them.
10 When the cloud lifted from above the Tent, there stood Miriam—leprous, like snow. Aaron turned toward her and saw that she had leprosy; 11 and he said to Moses, "Please, my lord, do not hold against us the sin we have so foolishly committed. 12 Do not let her be like a stillborn infant coming from its mother's womb with its flesh half eaten away."
13 So Moses cried out to the LORD, "O God, please heal her!"
14 The LORD replied to Moses, "If her father had spit in her face, would she not have been in disgrace for seven days? Confine her outside the camp for seven days; after that she can be brought back."
15 So Miriam was confined outside the camp for seven days, and the people did not move on till she was brought back.
The whole history of Israel's wandering in the wilderness is a story of grumbling and complaining. They whined when the saw the Red Sea, "Weren't their enough graves in Egypt? Is that why you brought us to die out here?" They complained when the water they had to drink was bitter, "What are we supposed to drink out here? Egypt had plenty of water!" They griped when they saw no food, "Are you planning on starving this whole assembly to death?!" But the first mutiny, the first flat-out rebellion against Moses, came not from the assembly, but from Moses' own brother and sister.
While the formal complaint they lodge is against Moses' Gentile wife, it quickly became clear that it really had nothing to do with her. It was jealousy and sibling rivalry that stirred up trouble. "Has the LORD spoken only through Moses?" they asked. "Hasn't he also spoken through us?" They wanted to be great—greater than they already were! And so they sought to defame Moses, to overthrow him, and take his position of authority. But in doing so, they really sought to defame God, over throw him, and take his position of authority. After all, it was God who put Moses in his position of authority over them! The fault of Miriam and Aaron was disloyalty to God and treason against his established government.
And this is the real character of pride and jealousy—of our pride and jealousy. It's really rebellion against God. He put each of us where we are. He has given us the gifts, the abilities, the station in life to which we've been called. And so it is rebellion against God to be envious of those who have more gifts, abilities, or higher station in life than we have. To complain that we don't have the blessings of another and to be greater than God has made us is really to claim that God is doing things wrong. What presumptuous rebellion!
And on our own, there's nothing we can do about it! Benjamin Franklin knew the problem of pride. In his autobiography he wrote: "There is perhaps no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. Beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive. Even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility."
In fact, pride and jealousy are not the problems of the immature believer, but of the mature. With growth in the Christian life, we're quickly tempted to believe our own press reports that we're doing pretty well. Our pride leads to jealousy of the blessings of others and complaints against God. And we rebel. And we deserve the punishment that God should dish out. We deserve the shame of having the Father spit in our face. And is there any punishment worse than that: "The anger of the LORD burned against them, and he left them."? And that's exactly what we deserve: to be abandoned by God. To be kicked outside of his camp! That's what hell is: separation from him.
But God confronts us, not to destroy us, but to lead us to repentance and back to him. God appeared to Aaron and Miriam in the cloud and in the leporosy to bring them to repentance. And it worked. Aaron cried out to Moses, the same little brother he had just slandered: "Please, my lord, do not hold against us the sin we have so foolishly committed." And it was that confession that made Aaron truly great! And through Moses' merciful intercession (in spite of the fact that it was also Moses that they wronged), God granted forgiveness to Aaron and forgiveness and healing to Miriam.
And God does the same for us. He may not confront us by a pillar of cloud, but by the word spoken to you by a pastor, a family member, or a friend. He may confront you with the law in a devotion you read or a particular passage you hear. And when he calls us to account and levels our pride, there is only one proper response—that of Aaron—to fess up. Do you want to be great? Then confess your sinful pride and jealousy. Confess your rebellious complaints against God and plead for forgiveness.
And when you do? How will God respond? 1 John 1:9 tells us, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." How can this be? Because we have an intercessor too. One who not only pleads our case before God, but takes our place before God. Jesus was not jealous or proud but the epitome of humble. Philippians 2:8 says, "He humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!" Why? For you. That you might be forgiven and healed of the leprous affects of sin.
And now, the good news of the Gospel is that unlike Miriam you need not go outside the camp. It was Jesus' face which was spat on in shame so that you will never be shamed before the Father. He went outside the city of Jerusalem and endured God's wrath so that you and I will never be sent away, but will be welcomed as sons and daughters. Now, through Jesus, you and I truly are great!
And in thanks for such forgiveness, full and free—in thanks for making us so great!—we gladly humble ourselves before God. We get rid of pride and arrogance and jealousy in our lives and gladly accept whatever position, whatever honor, whatever place in life he grants us in thanks. When others speak against us, we act like Moses and let God deal with it. He'll do a much better job than we could anyway. When others speak out against God, we act like Moses and intercede before God on their behalf because the greatness that God gives us in Christ makes us eager to humble ourselves for him.
Don't envy others, friends. Don't be so foolish as Muhammed Ali, who boasted, "I am the greatest of all time," whether by words or by your actions or by the proud and jealous attitudes of your heart. Instead, be humble. Humble yourself before God in repentance as you pray, "Please, my lord, do not hold against us the sin we have so foolishly committed." Humble yourself before the cross where you'll find forgiveness and healing. And in thanks to your Savior who makes you great, humbly serve him. Be like Moses who prayed even for those who stung and hurt him. Be like Moses who "...was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth." Live in humility like him, and then you'll truly be great! In Jesus' name, dear friends, amen.