Refugee: Why It’s Lonely at the Top

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June 11, 2017
Pastor Jeff Struecker

Sermon Notes

I’m going to start off this morning with a sentence you heard on the playground when you were in elementary school. In fact, you probably said this when you were on the playground. The sentence is: sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me. You’ve heard this before but let’s examine the truth of this sentence. This is about as stupid of sentence as you could possibly get. Of course sticks and stones hurt. You could send me to the hospital with a broken arm because of sticks and stones. However, the words that you say hurt too. If you were honest, some of us would say the words that you say probably wound us deeper. Those wounds stay around a lot longer than the words that somebody who just barely knows you would say. In fact, that hurts more than sticks and stones do. When it comes to friends and family they can hurt you really bad because they know you. The words that they say are probably going to cut deeper. You can probably remember three or four statements that somebody, who you love deeply, said about you that’s wounded you to your core. You will carry that hurt with you to your grave. Something that is true of all of us is that you let your guard down with family. You love family and friends so can’t nobody do you like family and friends can do you when it comes to their criticism or the words that they use against you.

If you’re new to Calvary, we’re studying through the life of Moses. Moses was an Israelite who was miraculously rescued by God as a baby. He was raised as a prince in Egypt. He had the world at his fingertips. Then Moses threw it all away as a young man when he murdered somebody. Moses ran away from his crime and lived as a refugee in the desert for 40 years raising his father-in-law’s sheep. One day, God gave Moses a mission and sent Moses back to Egypt to go rescue his people out of slavery. God did these miraculous things through Moses and led his people, probably the largest migration in human history, out of Egypt. In the book of Numbers, Moses is taking Israel from Egypt to the edge of what is modern-day Israel, the Promised Land. Go back and look at Numbers Chapter 11 and you see from the Bible that Moses has been hurt really bad by the people of Israel because they’re complaining about how hard life is. Moses is also hurt really bad by the foreigners that are traveling around with Israel. They’re complaining about the miraculous food, the manna from Heaven. They don’t like the taste of it anymore. They’re complaining about the food that they’re eating. It gets so bad in Numbers chapter 11 that at the end of the chapter Moses says, “God, it’s too much. I can’t handle it anymore. The pressure to lead these people is too great.” Go back and read it for yourself. Moses says, “God, just kill me because I would rather be dead then going through what I’m going through right now.”

In Numbers Chapter 12 it gets worse because at least in Numbers Chapter 11 he had his brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam, to handle the load with him. In Numbers Chapter 12 the people that Moses loved the most turn on him and his own family starts to criticize him. Somehow this man holds it all together. there’s something I think we can all learn from Moses today. He didn’t throw in the towel, though he wanted to. He didn’t give up. He didn’t quit, though he really wanted to. He hung in there and he took the criticism even though it was lonely at the top. So today I think you and I can learn a few things from this great man Moses.

I. Be ready for criticism

Moses was criticized; you’re going to be criticized. Be ready for criticism because it’s going to come to all of us. It comes in all shapes and sizes. It’s not easy to lead. Sometimes it’s just plain miserable. It’s even worse when the people that you love dearly turn on you. That’s what happens in Numbers Chapter 12 today.

Numbers 12:1-3
While they were at Hazeroth, Miriam and Aaron criticized Moses because he had married a Cushite woman. 2 They said, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Hasn’t he spoken through us, too?” But the Lord heard them. 3 (Now Moses was very humble—more humble than any other person on earth.)
Psalm 149:4
For the Lord takes pleasure in his people; he adorns the humble with salvation.

What hurts so bad about this attack that Moses goes through in Numbers Chapter 12 is that it came from the people that he loved the most. Miriam and Aaron are supposed to be sharing some of the leadership load. Exodus 15:20 says that Miriam was a priestess or a prophetess who is helping to lead Israel with Moses. Micah 6:4 says that God is leading Israel through all three of them: Miriam, Aaron, and Moses. However, it’s not okay for Miriam and Aaron to have some part in Moses’s leadership they want it all. They decide to attack Moses. Now Moses is a godly man and they can’t attack his character so they attack the one thing that they can find a flaw in. They attack the wife that Moses married. Moses didn’t marry a girl from Israel. Moses married a foreign girl.

If you aren’t aware, Cush in Moses’s day was modern-day Ethiopia. Here’s what Miriam and Aaron are saying, “Moses, you’re in an interracial relationship. Moses you married a black woman and because of this we don’t believe you should be leading anymore. In fact, we believe we should be leading.” I want you to wrestle with this parents or grandparents who still have a problem with the idea of your children or grandchildren marrying outside your race. Moses married a foreign woman. Moses married a woman that didn’t look like him. The reason why it was easy to attack Moses is because Moses was a humble man. Moses was not about to stand up and to defend himself. So, they jumped on the bandwagon and they criticized their own brother. They hurt him in ways that nobody could possibly hurt Moses. Like I said earlier, nobody can hurt you like friends can hurt you. Nobody can say stuff to you that’s going to hurt like families can hurt you. This was a surprise attack. Moses didn’t see it coming.

One of the challenges that we have to learn from the Bible today is to not let criticism hold us back. How do you hear that kind of criticism and not take it personally? Well, one of the first steps is don’t stand up and defend yourself. Allow God to be your defense. Humbly submit to the Lord and trust him. Here’s what the Bible says about humility and this would certainly be true of Moses. Psalm 149:4, “For the Lord takes pleasure in his people; he adorns the humble with salvation.” Moses is a humble man and so he’s open to attack. The rest of Chapter 12 describes how Moses handled this attack. I think you and I can learn from this.

II. Let Jesus be your defense

The first step that Moses does in Numbers 12 when he’s attacked is he doesn’t try to defend himself. He allows God to do it. I’m challenging you to allow Jesus to be your defense when somebody criticizes you. We all have critics. Miriam and Aaron are acting like spoiled children so God the Father calls them on the carpet for it. Literally, God the Father calls a family meeting because of this.

Numbers 12:4-5
So immediately the Lord called to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam and said, “Go out to the Tabernacle, all three of you!” So the three of them went to the Tabernacle. 5 Then the Lord descended in the pillar of cloud and stood at the entrance of the Tabernacle. “Aaron and Miriam!” he called, and they stepped forward.

The Tabernacle is the place where God normally met with his people. He’s not wasting any time on this. If this doesn’t get addressed right away, then this can turn into rebellion throughout the camp. So God wasted no time dealing with it.

The language the Old Testament is using the kind of words that you would hear when you are playing in the backyard and your mama called you by your full name. You all remember what that was like. Right? When she used your full name you didn’t even know what it was but you knew it was bad and you were in trouble. That’s the kind of language that God uses here with Miriam and Aaron. He is by calling them by their first name and saying, “Hey, you three get in here! You two step forward! I have something that I need to talk to you about. I have something that you need to hear from me.” This is God the Father dealing with a family problem immediately because he knows he can’t let it go on any longer. This is God calling out Miriam and Aaron for calling out Moses. Exodus 15:20 says that Miriam was already a coleader in Israel. Micah 6:4 said that Aaron was already a coleader in Israel. They didn’t complain about Moses’s wife. Really what these two wanted was Moses’s life. They didn’t want to follow Moses anymore. They wanted Moses to follow them. So now they start to criticize the one area of his life that’s easy to criticize and God will have nothing to do with it.

Moses is a unique man in Scripture. In fact, among leaders Moses is second only to Jesus Christ. One of the most successful leadership books in our generation is Good to Great by Jim Collins. Many people from all over the world have read Jim Collins’ book. In this book Jim Collins examines great companies who have stood the test of time. He noticed that all of these companies, though they come from very different fields and do very different things, all share a few things in common. Every company has something similar. They have a similar leader. Totally different kinds of companies but all of the leaders in these great companies are pretty much the same. Jim Collins says they are a rare combination of incredible personal drive (they will stop at nothing to help their business exceed) but then they don’t take any credit for it. Jim Collins refers to these leaders as level 5 leaders. Very few people will ever see leaders like this. The thing that makes them so rare is that they have this intense personal passion to see their company succeed but they are so humble they don’t take any credit for it. What you have in Moses is this level five leader who’s giving everything that he’s got to leading the people of Israel and when he’s criticized by his own family he doesn’t stand up and defend himself. He allows God to be his defense. then the Lord descended in the pillar of cloud and stood at the entrance of the tabernacle.

III. Don’t listen to the wrong voices

Here’s the lesson for us to learn next. You have voices trying to criticize you or clamoring for your attention and then you have the voice of the Lord. Every day you have to get up and decide which of these two voices in your head you’re going to listen to. Are you going to listen to what God thinks about you or are you going to listen to what others say about you on Facebook? Are you going to listen to what somebody who’s speaking ugly about you behind your back says or are you going to listen to what Jesus thinks about you? Hear how God feels about his servant Moses. Miriam and Aaron didn’t understand Moses’s relationship with God.

Numbers 12:6-8
And the Lord said to them, “Now listen to what I say: “If there were prophets among you, I, the Lord, would reveal myself in visions. I would speak to them in dreams. 7 But not with my servant Moses. Of all my house, he is the one I trust. 8 I speak to him face to face, clearly, and not in riddles! He sees the Lord as he is. So why were you not afraid to criticize my servant Moses?”

I spent a lot of time researching this phrase ‘face-to-face’. This is the only time in the Bible God ever used this language to describe his relationship with somebody else. Here’s what the most reputable scholars of the Bible say about this phrase. God is saying, “I meet with Moses a lot and when I do I send my son Jesus. Jesus literally shows up in Moses’s presence. Jesus and Moses have a face-to-face conversation like a man would speak to another man. That’s the kind of relationship that I have with Moses. You have nothing close to the relationship that I have with my servant Moses. I give him my full presence and he sees my glory in ways that nobody else on the planet sees. How dare you speak about my servant Moses the way you’re speaking? How do you even have the courage to say the kind of things that you’re saying about him? If you understood that I had this kind of relationship with him, what were you thinking when you called him out in front of everybody? Didn’t you understand that as Moses follows me and the people follow Moses the people are really following me? So by attacking Moses you’re really attacking me.” God is setting the record straight here with Miriam and Aaron. He’s telling them, “You don’t have what Moses has because what I have with Moses is face-to-face and eyeball to eyeball. He is in my presence and I’m speaking to him like a man talks to another man. So why would you think you could get away with attacking this relationship?” I want you to hear this story and imagine that you’re Miriam. Ladies, imagine that you’re listening to God as Miriam listened to God. Guys, imagine you’re Aaron when God says this to those two and Moses is standing behind them.

There’s a phenomenon among our nation’s bird. The bald eagle is a majestic bird but when it lands on the ground it’s a pretty awkward creature. If you ever go to the zoo, watch an eagle while he’s on the ground and waddling back and forth. It’s a very awkward bird on the ground. In fact, when an eagle goes to scavenge food it’s easy for them to get bullied by other birds. Literally ravens, crows, and other songbirds will push an eagle out of the way when it’s trying to eat on the ground. However, an eagle when it’s in flight soars at heights that almost no other species on the planet can reach. An eagle can swoop down from heights that almost no other bird can arrive at. When it’s swoops down on its prey from a height, it’s not uncommon for an eagle to take on or fight with an animal for its prey. Eagles will sometimes steal prey away from dogs or coyotes. It has even been recorded that an eagle will fight with a bobcat for prey as long as it’s swooping down from the heights. When it gets on the ground that eagle starts to hear the hiss of the buzzards and it will quickly lose the food out of its mouth, if it spends all of its time on the ground.

Church, that’s what I want you to hear in the book of Numbers Chapter 12. You and I will never soar with the eagles, if the only voice that you’re listening to is the hiss of the buzzards. It’s easy for those buzzards to criticize, pick you apart, complain, and make comments about you. If you listen to them, you’re going to stay on the ground and you’ll never soar. You will never soar with the eagles, if the only voice that you’re listening to is the hiss of the buzzards. God wants his people to soar so you’ve got to stop listening to the wrong voices. Listen to what God says next about Miriam and Aaron after they criticized his servant Moses.

IV. Don’t get even

This is a challenge. All of us have a vindictive spirit. The challenge for you is don’t try to get even when somebody’s hurt you and said some ugly hateful things about you. Look at how God responds on Moses’s behalf.

Numbers 12:9-12
The Lord was very angry with them, and he departed. 10 As the cloud moved from above the Tabernacle, there stood Miriam, her skin as white as snow from leprosy. When Aaron saw what had happened to her, 11 he cried out to Moses, “Oh, my master! Please don’t punish us for this sin we have so foolishly committed. 12 Don’t let her be like a stillborn baby, already decayed at birth.”

In Moses’s day leprosy was an unclean disease and incurable. This was a death sentence. It was a slow, very time-consuming death sentence. When you developed leprosy you became an outcast. Miriam became a social outcast. To prevent the disease from spreading around Israel, the leper would have to spend the rest of their life outside the camp of Israel. Anytime somebody got close to a leper, the leper would have to tell them that they were unclean. God immediately dealt with this too by giving Miriam a disease that people can see from head to toe. She’s covered like snow with the disease of leprosy.

Notice Aaron’s language changed with Moses immediately. Aaron doesn’t ask God to forgive. Aaron asked Moses to forgive. Aaron is saying, “Moses, we were foolish. We didn’t understand your relationship with God and we never should’ve said what we said. Moses, this was a sin. It was a sin against you and it was a sin against God what we just did. Moses, I’m sorry. Moses, would you forgive me? Moses, would you go back and ask God to forgive me and Miriam for what we just did?” If Moses was ugly or mean-spirited, he could have just simply rubbed their noses in it. From this moment on Miriam has to go outside the camp. From this moment on Miriam is infected with a disease that is making her unclean. From this moment on Miriam begins a death sentence. Aaron is pleading with his brother Moses not to allow his sister and him to die from this exchange.

Moses doesn’t ever stand up in this chapter to defend himself. Moses just allows God to be his defense. Did you know that there’s kind of a New Testament parallel to what you’re reading in the Bible today? It is found in 1 Timothy Chapter 5. The passage is about criticizing church leaders.

Even in the New Testament it warns you to be careful to the voices that you listen to and don’t jump on the bandwagon with everybody or else you might find yourself like a Miriam and Aaron criticizing Moses or criticizing God’s servant.

V. Love your critics – and your friends

It’s challenge enough not to try to get even when somebody’s hurt you but it’s an even bigger challenge that you and I are supposed to love our friends and our enemies. This means you’re supposed to love your critics, your friends, and your families. This is really hard when they are criticizing you and making your life miserable. Look at God’s final way of dealing with this rebellion among the leaders of Israel.

Numbers 12:13-16
So Moses cried out to the Lord, “O God, I beg you, please heal her!” But the Lord said to Moses, “If her father had done nothing more than spit in her face, wouldn’t she be defiled for seven days? So keep her outside the camp for seven days, and after that she may be accepted back.” 15 So Miriam was kept outside the camp for seven days, and the people waited until she was brought back before they traveled again. 16 Then they left Hazeroth and camped in the wilderness of Paran.

We still use this language today. The ultimate kind of insult would be for someone to spit in your face in public. In Moses’s day this was the ultimate public symbol of insult. For a dad to spit in the face of his children in public was the ultimate sign of dishonor. What God just did is said, “You two spit in the face of my servant Moses and by doing that you spit in my face. Now I’m going to spit in your face. Now people are going to see the mistake that you just made for seven days.”

Paran is the last place that Israel will stay before they step foot into the Promised Land. The Bible is telling us that for seven days more than 1 million people stayed and waited as God punished Miriam for this great sin that she just committed. For seven days they walked by Miriam and they heard her call out, “I’m unclean because of the ugly hateful words that I just used against my brother Moses.” For seven days the entire nation of Israel had to wait for Aaron and Miriam before God was willing to restore them and allow his people to march on again. This is the last spot before Israel steps into their last camp before going into the Promised Land.

The people closest to Moses hurt him deeply. I’ve got this phenomenon. I’ve seen it my whole life. This is true of me and it’s been true of you. It’s not just a leadership phenomenon; it’s a life phenomenon. I like to refer to this little phenomenon as Drop Dead Center. Ladies, when you have a baby for the first time and nobody else in your crowd of friends has a baby, you aren’t able to go do stuff with them on Friday night like you used which may cause your friends to get ugly with you. They may get hateful to you because you can’t do this stuff with them that you used to. Guys, let’s say you’re hanging out with the boys hunting with them and everybody’s starts to dip Copenhagen. All of a sudden you decide you’re going to stop dipping but still hang out with the boys and go hunting on Saturday morning and everybody looks at you like there’s something wrong with you. Pretty soon they start to treat you a little bit different because you’re no longer acting like one of the group. This is true every time you start to make steps towards holiness. People start to get uncomfortable around you. I like to refer to this little phenomenon as Drop Dead Center.

The church staff helped me prepare a little illustration. Here’s what Drop Dead Center looks like. You are in the center of the group all the boys in the deer stand dipping Copenhagen or you and the ladies are out on a Friday night until you decide it’s time for me to change. As long as you’re hanging around with the crowd and everybody’s happy and smiling because you’re doing what they are doing. When you stop doing what they’re doing all of a sudden the crowd gets unhappy with you. Now all of a sudden there’s a problem between you and them because you just took one step away from the crowd. The moment that you took a step out of the center of the circle and took a step towards God and holiness your friends got mad at you. I refer to this as Drop Dead Center because they will say some hurtful things about you. They’ll hurt you, if they can, because you stepped out of the center and started acting different. In fact, they’ll kill you for it. This is a leadership principle but it’s also a life principle. As soon as you start to live differently people start getting uncomfortable. This is what you see happening with Moses, Miriam, and Aaron in Numbers Chapter 12.

I want to put a really significant challenge in front of you. The challenge for you and I is to respond like Moses did. When people are saying some really ugly very hurtful things how do you let those things go and not taken them personally? Here’s the answer to that question. You have to make a conscious, deliberate effort to spend time with King Jesus and in an intimate relationship with him. You need to listen to his voice and not the voices of the people that are criticizing you. Allow his voice to start to get louder and louder. If that happens, those voices start to get softer and pretty soon all you can hear is what Jesus thinks about you not what your critics had to say about you. Pretty soon it doesn’t hurt so bad. It still hurts and maybe there’s a thing or two you can learn from them but you don’t feel the hurt of the criticism much anymore because you’re listening to the voice of your Father in Heaven.

Let me give you a really vivid example of this. This act that we’re going to do in just the second is kind of an example of this. This is just pita bread on a plate but it represents the body of Jesus Christ, the only perfect man, that was broken on a cross for you. This is just juice in this cup but it represents the blood of the Son of God that was poured out for you on the cross. What this act says is how God really feels about you. When you get into the presence of God the Father ask him, “God, what do you really think about me?” God would say, “The greatest way that I can answer this question for you is to show you the cross of my Son Jesus. This is what you mean to me. Yes, you made some mistakes. I know you’ve made some mistakes but you’re not defined by your mistakes.” Stop listening to your critics and start hearing what God thinks about you.

Next Steps

• Today, I will stop trusting in my efforts to be good. For the first time, I turn to Jesus and trust only in his death as payment for my sins.
– I have been listening to my critics. Their voice has started to get louder than the Lord’s voice lately. Pray for me to focus on Christ this week.
+ I will courageously follow Christ, no matter where he leads me this week.

Discussion Questions

  1. Have you ever left negative feedback online? Explain the circumstances.
  2. What was the name your parents used for you when you knew you were in trouble?
  3. Have you ever joined in a conversation about someone behind their back?
  4. Who was the person that hurt you the most? Were they close to you when they hurt you? How did you handle it?
  5. Who would you say you are leading right now? Have they ever hurt you?
  6. Why is it so hard not to get sidetracked when people that you are trying to lead criticize you?
  7. Pray for the strength to listen to the Holy Spirit above all other voices this week.

Further reading

Acts 8:1-4

May 5, 2019Pastor Jeff Struecker Sermon Notes I. The Gospel has always been under attack Acts 8:1Saul agreed with putting him to death. On that day a...

Acts 7

April 14, 2019Pastor Jeff Struecker Sermon Notes I. God calls a people Acts 7:1-8 “Are these things true?” the high priest asked. 2...