From Blessing to Burden, Deuteronomy 1:9-18


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From Blessing to Burden

Deuteronomy 1:9-18

September 12, 2021

Faith Presbyterian Church – Morning Service

Pastor Nicoletti

We continue this morning with our fall series in the book of Deuteronomy. Moses is gathered with the second generation of Israel after the exodus from Egypt. They are on the edge of the promised land. And Moses is preaching a series of sermons to them. This first one is a look back on what God has done for them so far.

Last week, we heard Moses speak about the mountain-experience of God’s presence and how it led to the mission God gave to his people in the world.

This week we hear about the blessing God had already poured out on his people, and how it led to an increased burden that they needed to bear.

Last week our scope was broad: we considered the cosmic story of what God is doing in the world and our place in it as the Church. This week, we zoom in, and look at the inner workings of the Church itself, and how God works within the Church to make it a body that can do the work he has called it to do in the world.

With that said, we turn now to our text: Deuteronomy 1:9-18.

Please do listen carefully, for this is God’s word for us this morning.

Moses says: 1:“At that time I said to you, ‘I am not able to bear you by myself. 10 Yahweh your God has multiplied you, and behold, you are today as numerous as the stars of heaven. 11 May Yahweh, the God of your fathers, make you a thousand times as many as you are and bless you, as he has promised you! 12 How can I bear by myself the weight and burden of you and your strife? 13 Choose for your tribes wise, understanding, and experienced men, and I will appoint them as your heads.’ 14 And you answered me, ‘The thing that you have spoken is good for us to do.’ 15 So I took the heads of your tribes, wise and experienced men, and set them as heads over you, commanders of thousands, commanders of hundreds, commanders of fifties, commanders of tens, and officers, throughout your tribes. 16 And I charged your judges at that time, ‘Hear the cases between your brothers, and judge righteously between a man and his brother or the alien who is with him. 17 You shall not be partial in judgment. You shall hear the small and the great alike. You shall not be intimidated by anyone, for the judgment is God’s. And the case that is too hard for you, you shall bring to me, and I will hear it.’ 18 And I commanded you at that time all the things that you should do.

This is the word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God.)

“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” [1 Peter 1:24-25]

Let’s pray …

Lord,

we ask you to work now through this, your word to your servants,

the very word in which you have helped us to place our hope.

For our comfort in the afflictions we face in this world

is that your promises in your word give us life.

Though the world may deride us,

we do not turn from this your revelation to us.

Teach us from it now, we ask, in Jesus’s name. Amen.

[Based on Psalm 119:49-51]

Introduction

Our text this morning can feel like an odd aside. In the previous passage Moses recounted God’s call to Israel to leave Mt. Sinai. In the next passage God calls them to enter the land. These are big, well-known parts of God’s story with Israel, and both we, and the original audience, would expect Moses to go right from one to the other. But instead we have this pause to talk about administrative structures and organizational health.

This can seem odd and unimportant. An unnecessary rabbit trail. But I would argue that it’s not.

I would argue that it’s not, first, because we should trust Moses’s wisdom and the Holy Spirit’s guidance in going to this topic next.

But second, I would argue that personal experience tells us that these sort of organizational issues – and the roles people play – really are a matter of spiritual importance, and key to spiritual health. We’ve all been a part of an organization where it feels like the structure (or the lack of structure) is hindering the mission of the organization. We’ve all seen cases where people misunderstanding their role in a group or project has caused all sorts of dysfunction in the organization or the lives of those involved. And we’ve all seen the pattern, when some prominent Christian leader’s ministry implodes, that after the first round of stories about their personal misconduct, there usually comes a second round of stories about how the organization and the people around them fostered a culture that enabled or even encouraged their behavior.

Knowing the roles people are called to fill, and how they are to fill them, and how they are to relate to one another – knowing what organizational health looks like – is key to spiritual health.

And Moses seems to know this. Because even though this story has been recorded earlier, in Exodus 18, Moses wants to tell it again. He wants to remind the second generation of it, and highlight certain aspects of it.

Now, this story doesn’t get into the organizational weeds. In fact, it leaves some details out that we might find interesting. But instead, it gives us the big picture with some key concepts.

The passage begins with a problem. It begins, in verse nine, with a burden. “I am not able to bear you” Moses says. There is a burden to be borne, and Moses needs to figure out what to do with it.

So let’s ask four questions.

First, why is there a burden?

Second, who is called to bear that burden?

Third, what is the chief aim in bearing that burden?

And fourth, how is that burden to be born?

So: Why, who, what, and how?

Why Is There a Burden?

First: Why? Why is there a burden to be borne?

And the text actually gives two answers – two factors that when together lead to this burden.

The first factor is that God has blessed them. The first reason for this burden is that God has blessed them.

Take a look at verses nine through eleven again. Moses says: “At that time I said to you, ‘I am not able to bear you by myself. 10 Yahweh your God has multiplied you, and behold, you are today as numerous as the stars of heaven. 11 May Yahweh, the God of your fathers, make you a thousand times as many as you are and bless you, as he has promised you!

Moses, there alludes to the promise God made to Abraham, that has in part, been fulfilled. And that makes sense because Moses had explicitly mentioned that promise just a verse earlier.

Remember, God’s – Yahweh’s – relationship with Israel is rooted in the promise – the covenant – he made with Abraham centuries earlier. And as we discussed last Sunday, he promised Abraham five things: To make his descendants into a great nation, to be with him and bless him, to defend him against his enemies, to give him a promised land, and to bless all families and nations of the earth through his descendants.

And that first promise – the promise to make Abraham’s descendants into a great nation – is repeated by God several times. In Genesis 22[:17] God puts it like this – he says: “I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore.”

And so, when Moses says, here in verse ten, that Israel is “as numerous as the stars of heaven,” he is saying that God has blessed them as he promised to, and made them into a great nation.

But that blessing has led to a burden. Because God has blessed Israel so greatly, Moses says “I am not able to bear you by myself.”

God’s blessing of his people often leads to a greater burden for them. And that is worth stopping and reflecting on. Because that truth can make us resistant to blessing.

This is a dynamic at work in almost every area of life. Blessing and success brings about the death of the old thing, as it brings about something new.

I was reading recently about the tech startup company Scaled Robotics. The organization, like most tech start-ups, began with a core group of workers – in their case, just seven – laboring hard together, depending closely on one another. The goal is always to grow the company. They work tirelessly toward that goal – that blessing. And yet, with that blessing, should they achieve it, comes a new kind of burden.

The leader of the startup explained in the piece how it really feels true that the company is like a family. He shared how after a night socializing with the small group of employees, one of them came up to him and said that he liked coming to work every day, but he was afraid that if they succeeded and the company grew, that might no longer be the case. The young CEO then comments: “I don’t want things to change. This is one of the best moments of my life. With the money coming in, maybe it will be positive and maybe it won’t. I hope it will be positive, and I have the power to try to make it that way, but I totally understand his point of view that you want to preserve those happy things that you have.” [Cox, 128-129]

And the church can struggle with the same thing. I spoke to a pastor recently whose church had introduced a new discipleship program, and they were seeing real growth – the Lord was blessing their ministry and using it to draw more people into the church and closer to the Lord. But some in the congregation wanted to get rid of the program. Their complaint was that there were too many new people … and they didn’t like how that made the church feel different.

Now … they’re not wrong about the effects of the ministry’s success. Blessing often brings a new burden. It can bring the death of how things were. And that can be sad. That can be something to mourn.

But at the same time, we serve a God who brings new life out of death. That dynamic is written into creation (as the Apostle Paul noted), it is written into human life, and it is especially true of spiritual life, rooted in the death and resurrection of Christ.

And so blessings and burdens can be all tied up together. That is what we see here.

But, even so, we are still to seek the blessings of God. Which is why Moses can look at the multitude, acknowledge that they are already too much for him to bear, and still say: “May Yahweh, the God of your fathers, make you a thousand times as many as you are and bless you, as he has promised you!

So the burden is the result of the blessing. That’s one cause.

But the other cause is the limitations on the blessing. God has grown them. God has blessed them. But God has not yet perfected them.

And that is highlighted in verse twelve. Moses says: How can I bear by myself the weight and burden of you and your strife?

Moses uses three words there: weight, burden, and strife. As one commentator puts it: “The words are graphic and remind us of the many occasions in the wilderness narrative when the people murmured, complained, disputed, and argued – taxing even Moses’ outstanding leadership ability.” [Wright, 26]

The remaining sinfulness of God’s people is another reason for the burden.

And this is important. The Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper comments that what you think about the church will largely be determined by what you think about sin. If you think people’s flaws are mostly manageable, then the church for you will be viewed more as a nice club for spiritually like-minded people. Nice to have, maybe, but not essential.

But if you view sin as a deep problem in human life, a burden that every individual and every family and every community will continue to struggle with and need to bear in this life – then you will view the church as essential. Because the church is designed to address that burden.

Anyone who doesn’t believe in the need for organized religion, also probably doesn’t believe in the depth and pervasiveness of sin and evil in the world. And anyone who knows the reality of the burden of sin in this life, should see the need for the Church. [Kuyper, 20]

And so, we see two causes that combine to create the burden that Moses is dealing with: First, that God has blessed them. Second, that God has not yet perfected them.

The blessing has led to a burden. Which brings us to our second question …

Who Is Called to Bear That Burden?

Who is called to bear that burden?

And the answer of our text is: a variety of people, in a variety of ways.

Commentators differ on the details, but there are four different terms present here, which seem to describe at least three different roles. The four different terms used appear in verses fifteen and sixteen. [Block, 64-65; Wright, 27]

As Daniel Block divides them, these roles included “heads” or “leading men,” which “refers to those who bear responsibility for the well being of a social group.Then, second, “commanders” which “refers to military leaders within specific spheres of jurisdiction.And then finally “officials throughout [each] tribe” which “refers to a literate group called upon to record decisions or muster the troops.” Then, collectively, these different leaders are referred to as “judges.” [Block, 64-65]

Christopher Wright divides the terms up somewhat differently, but agrees that at least three different roles seem to be highlighted here. [Wright, 27]

Whatever the details, Moses is describing a range of roles, and that is noteworthy for a couple reasons.

For one, it’s not like there were no leaders in Israel before this. The events Moses is recounting here occurred in Exodus chapter eighteen. But we know that at least as far back as Exodus 3 there were already elders in Israel. In the very next chapter of Exodus – chapter nineteen – God will refer to Israel’s priests, and he will more formally address that office a few chapters later [Ex 28]. And a few chapters after that [Ex 38] the special role of the Levites will be acknowledged, with more detail given in Leviticus and Numbers.

But we should note that while the roles of heads, and commanders, and officials may overlap with these offices at timers in other words, while some of the men in these roles may also have been elders, or priests, or Levites these roles seem to be presented as distinct from those offices. These roles are not here limited to those officers, and it is nowhere stated here that every officer would be a good fit for these specific roles.

Which is important, because it reminds us that the burden of ministry is not limited to the officers of the Church. Instead, it falls in different ways on the faithful, according to their gifting.

This is what the Apostle Paul describes as he speaks of the Church. In First Corinthians he writes:

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

[…]

14 For the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.

21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” […] But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, 25 that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.

And that’s what we see here in Exodus and Deuteronomy as well. There seem to be two concerns about the men called to this role.

One is that they are faithful. That is emphasized in the parallel telling of Exodus 18. There, Jethro says to Moses Moreover, look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens.” [Ex 18:21] They needed to be faithful.

But they also needed to have the gifting and skills for that particular role. Moses says to the people: “Choose for your tribes wise, understanding, and experienced men, and I will appoint them as your heads.” Their experience, wisdom, and skill are highlighted.

Both faithfulness and gifting are important in deciding who will bear what burden within the people of God.

And there are also gradations of those things. Its not all or nothing. There are not two classes of Christians here: one that is called to all the leadership and bearing of burdens and the other which is just to be served. There are levels of service here. There are heads over thousands, yes. But there are also heads over hundreds. And heads over fifties. And even heads over tens. There are gradations of responsibility and burden bearing. And so those who are faithful and who have some wisdom to offer can be placed in a role corresponding to their spiritual maturity and their gifting, with the possibility of expanding their role if they continue to grow in those areas.

And while the roles focused on in our text were designated for men, the overall concept described here is not limited to men. In Exodus 38:8 we have this sudden passing reference to “the ministering women who ministered at the entrance of the tent of meeting.” Moses gives no further explanation, which seems to indicate that his original audience would have known about and assumed the role of these women in the ministry of the tabernacle, since they required no further explanation. [Harris, 205] Centuries later, in First Samuel, we learn that this ministry of women at the tabernacle continues. [1 Sam 2:22] The Apostle Paul similarly has directions for how older and younger women might bear the burdens of the people of God in his letters to Titus [2:3-5] and Timothy [1 Tim 5:3-16].

When God blesses his imperfect people, the burden of the people of God increases. To carry that burden, he calls a variety of people to a variety of roles, at a variety of levels of responsibility. And in that way, he cares for his body, and bears their burdens.

And so, where is the Lord calling you to bear some of that burden?

You don’t need to be an officer to do that. You also don’t have to have it all together, or be the most skilled at some particular unique thing. If you are a Christian, then you are part of the Body. Which means God has gifted you to play some role here in bearing the burden of the People of God. It doesn’t have to be at the level of hundreds, or thousands, or fifties. It might be at the level of tens. It doesn’t have to be big up-front leadership, it might some other role behind the scenes.

Brothers and sisters, there are around 300 people here on the average Sunday morning … but we have often had consistent trouble finding people to serve some of the needs of the Church. Which means that some of you need to step in and bear some of the burden. That is what it means to be a part of the people of God.

Now, some of you are already doing a whole lot here. I’m not talking to you, so don’t take this as a guilt trip, or as me saying that we don’t appreciate the work you’ve already done. If anything, you may need to listen up in a few minutes when we talk about knowing your limits.

But to those who are not bearing much of the burden, or bearing none at all – I am talking to you. Where has God called you to serve within this body? Where has he gifted you to serve? It may be in volunteering to lead some ministry of the church. It may be in signing up to assist with some aspect of the ministry. It may, for example, be volunteering to help teach our children’s Sunday school. Brothers and sisters, ministry to covenant children is one of our church’s distinctive core values. And yet we have been struggling to come up with enough Sunday school teachers for our kids.

But, as we said, this kind of burden-bearing doesn’t need to be in big up-front ways either. We also need, for one more example, more volunteers to help clean up the coffee after our coffee hour. That service is not nothing. It has spiritual value. Our coffee out there is not just a nice perk. It’s not only there to keep you awake for the sermon (though that is a spiritual value). The coffee offered in the narthex provides a place for people to connect. It creates a space where people feel more at ease talking, and sharing about their lives with others in the church. It creates a space where visitors feel more comfortable lingering, and so we can better get to know them. Having it there provides a space for the building up of the body. But we’ve been at risk lately of having to cancel that ministry some Sundays due to lack of volunteers. Surely there are at least a few of us here, men or women, with the wisdom and spiritual maturity required to make and to clean up coffee.

I could go on and talk about other needs – other burdens to be borne within the church. Some are relational. Some are practical. Some involve leading. Some are more behind the scenes. But they are there. And we’ve often struggled to find people to bear them.

Now there are reasons for this current struggle.

Some of you are older and have been serving in certain roles for years. And you’ve decided that the time has come for you to transition out of those roles. And that can make sense. And we appreciate your years of service. But I’d urge you to recognize that you don’t really retire from service in the kingdom of God. You may transfer your role, but you don’t retire. As you get older you may have less energy to give, but you may also have more wisdom to give. Maybe you shouldn’t be teaching children anymore. But maybe you should be seeking ways to mentor younger adults, or younger parents.

Some of you are young adults, and you’ve been used to other people around you doing the ministry for you. But it may be time for you to step up. You don’t need to leap into a big role. There is a range of opportunities. But there should be something that matches where you’re at spiritually.

So, the first thing we see is that the burden among the people of God exists because God has blessed them, but not yet perfected them.

The second thing we see is that God has called a variety of people to bear that burden, in a variety of ways.

What Is Our Chief Aim in Bearing the Burden?

The third question for us to consider is: What is our chief aim in bearing these burdens?

And here the answer is fairly straightforward: The chief aim is for us to be instruments of God’s love and care for his people.

In verses three and eighteen Moses reminds the people that his goal in teaching is simply to be an instrument by which the truth and the commands of God come to the people. And in verse seventeen he reminds these new leaders that their goal is to simply be the instruments by which God gives his judgment to his people.

Our calling, as we bear the burdens of the people of God, is to be God’s instruments, through which he shows his love and care for his people.

And that should shape how we do the work we are called to do.

First, we do not do this sort of work for ourselves.

But then second, we don’t do it according to our own wisdom, or the ways of the world, but we do it according to the ways of God.

The leaders are called on in verse seventeen not to be intimidated by the powerful. They are called on in verse sixteen to be careful not to overlook or look down on the weak – the resident alien. They get the command to do this from God’s character – because they are to bear the burden of his people, in the same pattern by which he bears the burden of his people. They get the strength to do this by God’s strength, because God will enable them to do what they are called to do by his Spirit.

And so with us. We are to carry out our role – however big or small, as God’s instruments, and so by his strength, and in a way that shows forth his character.

That is the third thing we see.

How Are We to Bear the Burden?

Which leads us to our fourth and final question: How are we to bear the burden given to us?

We see three answers to that question here in our text.

First, we need to recognize our limits. That is what Moses does here in verses nine and twelve. That’s the thing that precipitates this whole process.

Second, when we recognize our limitations, we need to depend on God – on his judgment and his word. We see this in verses seventeen and eighteen. In all that happens, the people are to rely on God’s judgment, and God’s commandments, and God’s wisdom. That is the ultimate source Moses points them to, to sustain them.

But that’s not the only place they are called to look. Third, we see that when we see our own limitations, we are to depend on God’s people. And we see that this works in all directions.

First, it means that those lower down in the hierarchy are to depend on those above them. We read at the end of verse seventeen, Moses says, “And the case that is too hard for you, you shall bring to me, and I will hear it.” Those officials lower down in the hierarchy are to recognize their limits, and when a case is too much for them, they are to depend on those above them.

But that dependance doesn’t just go in one direction. After all, the text began with he opposite dynamic: Moses, at the top of the hierarchy, has seen his limits, and he needs to depend not only on God, but on other people. That is why this whole structure of other leaders was put in place to start. This text is a case of a prominent leader, admitting he needs help, and then depending on those underneath him to help carry the burden God has given them.

Both up and down the structure of Israel, there is to be an expectation of bearing one another’s burdens.

Now, that might seem obvious. But we need to acknowledge that we’re not very good at it. Our tendency is to demand omnicompetence of ourselves or of others. Our tendency is to expect that either we or our leaders will be competent to handle anything that matters.

We are often drawn to leaders who project the aura that they can handle it all themselves. We find ourselves attracted to and assured by their confidence. We want omnicompetent leaders. And yet, stories abound of such supposedly omnicompetent leaders whose ministries collapse. You can listen to podcasts about them, or hear directly from those who have seen for themselves the damage this kind of leadership model can cause.

Other times, it is ourselves we expect omnicompetence from. When we see our limits, we don’t look for help in bearing the burden, but we are ashamed of ourselves for having limits – ashamed of being the finite creatures God has made us to be, rather than the infinite creatures we want to be. And so we hide our limits. We deny them. We either try harder or we actively deceive people when they ask if we need help, and we smile, and say “No” to help, even when we know we need it.

But that’s not the model Moses gives us. Moses’s limits may be much further away than yours or mine but they were there. And when he saw them, he admitted them, and he sought help to bear the burdens. Are there places where you need to seek that help?

Moses was open about it. He took Jethro’s advice to get help in Exodus 18, rather than acting threatened or defensive about it. He spoke honestly to God about it, as you can read in a startling prayer in Numbers 11. God’s response there was not to tell Moses to get it together and try harder. His response, once again, was to call on more people to help Moses bear the burden.

When we fail to be open about our limitations, we may overwhelm ourselves … but worse than that, as the needs of others are not met, and we refuse to seek help in meeting those needs, we hurt the body of Christ.

Moses knows his limits, and he is willing to acknowledge them, and seek help when he reaches them.

What about you?

What do you do when your limitations come into sight? When the burden of your calling begins to become too much, what do you do? Do you berate yourself for having limits? Do you tell yourself you can do it if you just try harder? Do you try to keep up an illusion of omnicompetence before others? When others see and offer help, do you smile and say that you’ve got it covered … when you know you don’t? And when you do that … who is hurt by that? You? Others? Both?

You are not God. You were made to be finite. You were made, in other words, to be dependent on others. Do not resist the way God made you. Do not, in pride, insist that you don’t really need others. Do not, in selfishness, dismiss the burdens of others because you or they cannot handle them alone.

Instead, we must seek the help God has provided to address the burdens that are beyond what we can bear, either in our own lives or in the lives of others.

Conclusion

Now for Christians, this overall concept shouldn’t be revolutionary to us. We need to depend on others. That should, be obvious, right? After all, dependence is at the heart of the gospel we claim to believe. At the heart of what we confess is that we cannot save ourselves. We lack the moral integrity. We lack the strength. We lack the competence. We are cosmically helpless. We need Christ to come and bear the burden of our sin if we are to have any hope.

And our overall dependance is not limited to our fallenness. Even before sin entered the world, God could look at a man, standing by himself, without sin, and say of him “It is not good that the man should be alone. I will make a helper fit for him.” Humanity was made to need help. Help from God, ultimately, but help from other human beings too. It is written into creation.

This is what we believe and confess. And so the call to bear the burdens of others, and to allow others to bear our burdens that should not come as a shock.

And yet, it is not easy.

And so, let’s turn to God and ask him to help us accept these elements of our creation and our redemption.

Let’s ask him to help us accept the limitations of others, and seek to lovingly step in and help bear their burdens. Let’s ask him to help us accept our own limitations, and to humbly allow others to step into our lives and help bear our burdens.

Let’s ask for his help to be a people who fulfill the exhortation that the Apostle Paul gives to the Church of Christ: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” [6:2]

Amen.

This sermon draws on material from:

Barker, Paul. Introduction and notes to Deuteronomy in The ESV Study Bible. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008.

Block, Daniel I. The NIV Application Commentary: Deuteronomy. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012.

Cox, Christopher. The Deadline Effect. New York, NY: Avid Reader Press, 2021.

Harris, Kenneth Laing. Introduction and notes to Exodus in The ESV Study Bible. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008.

Kuyper, Abraham. Rooted & Grounded: The Church as Organism and Institution. Translated by Nelson D. Kloosterman. Foreword and Introduction by John Halsey Wood Jr. Grand Rapids, MI: Christian’s Library Press, 2013.

Wright, Christopher. Deuteronomy. NIBC. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996.

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