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From a Distance (II)

July 5, 2020, More from this speaker 更多关于此讲员: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee (Psalm 43:1-5) For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: Psalms
Preached at a Bilingual (Mandarin-English, Sunday) service

Tags: Korah, Maskil

Listen to sermon recording with the play button or download with the download link. 您可点播或下载讲道录音。
About Rev. Wong Siow Hwee: Rev. Wong is the moderator of Jubilee Church, serving there since 2002. 王晓晖牧师是禧年堂的主理牧师。自2002年,在那牧会将近20年。
Bible passage (ESV) of the sermon can be found at the bottom of the page.

Title: From a Distance (II)
Date: 5th July 2020
Preacher: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee

Allow me to start with a story of redemption. It is a story about the authors of the combined Psalms 42-43: the sons of Korah. The story began in Numbers 16 when Korah staged a protest against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. As you may know from the story of Exodus, Moses and Aaron were the chosen leaders of God, who led the people out from Egyptian slavery towards the Promised Land. Through Moses and Aaron, God sent plagues upon the Egyptians, brought his people across the Red Sea, and fed them with manna, meat and water through the wilderness. Unfortunately, just as they were about to enter the Promised Land, scouts spotted the gigantic Amalekites in there. The people were afraid and disobeyed God’s command to fight the Canaanites. So, except for Joshua and Caleb, that entire generation of Israelites was banned from entering the Promised Land. Moses and Aaron now had the unenviable task of leading them around the wilderness for 40 years, until that generation of Israelites all passed away. It was a literal trip to nowhere that no one would willingly sign up for. Imagine if this was part of the manifesto in any of our political parties in our general election, vote for Moses and Aaron, and we will bring you to wander around in the wilderness for 40 years, you can be sure that they will surely lose their election deposit.

I do not know if this was the main reason for the rebellion, but Korah then led a group of 250 people to challenge the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Within the Kohathites, [1] as the sons of Amram, Moses served as the leader, and Aaron as the high priest, their sister Miriam was a prophetess. The descendants of Aaron were also separated exclusively to serve as the priests in the sanctuary. Korah, as the son of Izhar the second son, was the first cousin of Moses and Aaron, but he didn’t get to be part of the priesthood. So near, but yet so far. If you think about it in terms of family line, you can see that if the sons of Amram, Moses and Aaron, were discredited, then Korah, as the eldest son of Izhar would be next in line. Korah might also think that he would certainly be a better leader than Moses and Aaron, since he would not be leading the people to wander in the wilderness for the next 40 years.

But this was not about the will of the people, but the will of God, and the rebellion was squashed. Fire from God consumed Korah and his 250 followers. The earth opened and swallowed up the rest of the people who joined them. And lastly a plague came upon all the people who grumbled about this divine judgment. It was decided there and then, once and for all, that Moses and Aaron were indeed the chosen leaders. And the people of God had to accept their judgment for their disobedience against God. The ban from the Promised Land wasn’t something that they could just evade by simply changing the leaders. Korah became the symbolic historical figure of rebellion against God’s divinely appointed leaders (Jude 1:11).

Now this is where the story gets very interesting for me. Apparently, the sons of Korah did not join their father in the rebellion. So when the next generation was being counted to enter the Promised Land in Numbers 26, there was a special mention of their survival. 10 The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them along with Korah, whose followers died when the fire devoured the 250 men. And they served as a warning sign. 11 The line of Korah, however, did not die out. The sons of Korah were counted amongst the Levites. 58 These also were Levite clans: the Korahite clan.

I said from the beginning that this was a story of redemption. As the sons of Korah, they could have been labelled and shamed for life because of the acts of their forefather Korah. When bad things happen and people are looking for some people to blame, they would have been the most obvious targets, “see lah, it was all because of those cursed sons of Korah.” But that never happened. The laws of God made clear that the sins of the father do not pass on to his children (Ezekiel 18:19-20).

I do not know what the sons of Korah did during such trying times. But the psalms they wrote may be good indications. In psalm 42-43, we see them crying out to God for vindication. They asked God to rescue them from those who were deceitful and wicked. They never wavered in hanging on to God’s grace. Their faith was strengthened by remembering God and continuing to hope in him. From the psalms they had written, we can sense their intimacy with God. They poured out their troubles and sorrows wholeheartedly because they knew God was their Savior and their Rock.

In the end, not only were the sons of Korah kept alive, their full redemption occurred when David was restoring the entire worship system in Jerusalem. David included the sons of Korah as part of his worship team. They were “the gatekeepers (the Korahites) responsible for guarding the thresholds of the tent just as their ancestors had been responsible for guarding the entrance to the dwelling of the Lord” (1 Chronicles 9:17-19). “31 A Levite named Mattithiah, the firstborn son of Shallum the Korahite, was entrusted with the responsibility for baking the offering bread. 32 Some of the Kohathites, their fellow Levites, were in charge of preparing for every Sabbath the bread set out on the table (1 Chronicles 9:31-32) .” Most prominently, Heman, a descendant of Korah, who wrote Psalm 88, was one of the key musicians in the sanctuary (1 Chronicles 6:31-38). My point of listing all these is this: The sons of Korah could have been excluded from holy duties of the Levites since the sins of Korah were recorded black and white in the Torah, but they were redeemed instead, and restored to their rightful place to serve God for the people.

Because of their unique experience of redemption, I think it is especially impactful that these 11-12 psalms of the sons of Korah were included as part of the collection of Psalms. Above everybody else, these sons of Korah could really identify with those who had been scorned and mocked by others who felt that they deserved divine judgment. This was especially so whenever events occurred that separated the people of God from worshipping God. Where is your God? (Psalm 42:3,10) You are the sons of Korah. You are sinners. God is rejecting you. There is no hope for you. Where is your God?

We do not know when exactly these 11-12 psalms of the sons of Korah were written, and for what particular context. But I think they must have been especially applicable when the people of God were exiled into foreign lands. They were physically separated from the Jerusalem Temple, and even if they made their way there, the Temple was eventually destroyed. The people of God must have felt cursed to eternal damnation. Gone were the days when they could go to the altar of God in worship. Wherever they might have been, be it in Assyria or Babylon, they could feel the burning shame of a fallen people, ridiculed by their conquerors. Where is your God? You are sinners. And God doesn’t want you anymore.

But the sons of Korah would know that these accusations were just deceit from the wicked. They could send the POFMA against such falsehoods. [2] On one hand, God would judge against sinners, just like what he did with Israel and Judah. But on the other hand, the judgment did not continue to the next generation, and even sinners could be forgiven by God through their repentance. This message was critical to the next generation of those living in exile. They must not give up or think that God had forsaken them forever. The sons of Korah experienced in their own history the redemption of God. And so they could write from their own experience to lead these people in worship whenever they felt separated from God. The separation because of sin is only temporal. The key is to turn back to God for salvation.

1 Vindicate me, my God,
and plead my cause
against an unfaithful nation.
Rescue me from those who are
deceitful and wicked.
2 You are God my stronghold.
3 Send me your light and your faithful care,
let them lead me;
let them bring me to your holy mountain,
to the place where you dwell.

What can we learn from this story of redemption? We learn that the judgment of God is not forever. We know that when we feel separated from God, even if it might really be because of our sins and unfaithfulness, we can still pray like the sons of Korah:
5 Why, my soul, are you downcast?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Savior and my God.

Lastly, I want to share a little reflection as I write this sermon in the heat of our general election. Like me, you might have read the stories of the candidates and their manifestos of their vision for Singapore. Many of these stories speak of how they overcame the odds of their humble backgrounds, and hopefully as leaders they can also create the same opportunities for all Singaporeans. These stories and visions inspire us to work towards a society that is compassionate in giving second chances, and fair in ensuring social mobility.

My belief is that our Christian faith is the same. As we look back in history from the Old Testament to the New, God’s story is a consistent pattern of forgiveness and service towards the weak and vulnerable. The reason we tell ourselves to hope in God as our Savior is because that was how God acted repeatedly in history. This was what the sons of Korah testified in their psalms. And let this be the culture of Jubilee: a place of compassion and forgiveness. That no matter whatever background or past we might have, in this place, it is always open for a new life of service to God.

[1]The Levites were divided into 3 main groups, based on the 3 sons of Levi, to take on the sacred task of serving the people at the sanctuary. At the outermost group, the Merarites, named after the youngest son of Levi, Merari, were responsible for the care of the framework - posts, crossbars, courtyard, tent pegs, etc. - of the sanctuary. At the middle layer, the Gershonites, named after the eldest son of Levi, Gershon, were responsible for the care of the curtains, hangings, and ropes of the sanctuary. At the innermost layer, the Kohathites, named after the middle son of Levi, Kohath, were responsible for the care of the vessels and objects within the sanctuary. So, based on the division of labor of among the Levites, you can sense a sort of hierarchy based on their family line.
[2]https://www.pofmaoffice.gov.sg/regulations/protection-from-online-falsehoods-and-manipulation-act/

Psalm 43 (Listen)

43:1   Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause
    against an ungodly people,
  from the deceitful and unjust man
    deliver me!
  For you are the God in whom I take refuge;
    why have you rejected me?
  Why do I go about mourning
    because of the oppression of the enemy?
  Send out your light and your truth;
    let them lead me;
  let them bring me to your holy hill
    and to your dwelling!
  Then I will go to the altar of God,
    to God my exceeding joy,
  and I will praise you with the lyre,
    O God, my God.
  Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    and why are you in turmoil within me?
  Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    my salvation and my God.

(ESV)