Unhappy Campers, Week 4 — The “Wildwood” Sermon Rewind

Below you will find my sermon from July 23, the final message in the Unhappy Campers series called “Wildwood.”

Due to Sunday travel, unfamiliarity with a new laptop, and lack of time, I did not post this last week.  So, with Ron Dozier preaching at Good Shepherd yesterday (July 30), this gives me a chance to do what I didn’t do previously. Got that?

In any event, the sermon below …

  • Concluded with an open microphone response time;
  • Demonstrated that the entire library of Scripture is a “runway to the resurrection”;
  • Landed at this bottom line:  When God wants to prove his authority, he makes dead things live.


Oh. My. Goodness.  I get to teach you from a story today that until about two months ago I DIDN’T EVEN  KNOW EXISTED; I DID NOT KNOW IT WAS IN THE BIBLE & I’VE BEEN PREACHING FOR 27 YEARS!  And before you get all judgmental on me, not only am I going to teach you from this story that I didn’t know was a story, but when I teach it to you and then show you the larger pattern that it is part of in the entire library of Scripture, well, you will never, ever look at life & death & despair & authority the same again.  It will rock your world & might even rock you like a hurricane.  No pressure there, right?   

                And the story that I’m going to teach you, a story all about 400,000 unhappy campers, 12 walking sticks and one batch of almonds (Yes!) is actually the kind of story that if  you had asked me back in, say, April, “is that in the bible?” I would have answered, “nah, of course not; who ever heard of such a thing?”  Except it IS and pretty soon we’re ALL going to have heard of such a thing.  But before the story, the story behind the story.  See, THIS has happened: CLIP of RED SEA PARTING.  But what do they do on the other side?  Some of you already know the answer: they quickly turn into a community of grumblers & whiners, people who often vocalize how much they prefer slavery to freedom.  They’d take the certainty over the misery of uncertainty.  And at the core of their discontent is dissatisfaction with their leadership.  Don’t people ALWAYS blame their preachers for their problems?!?!  In addition to questioning and undermining the leadership of Moses (aka, Charlton Heston), they don’t believe that his brother Aaron is legitimate in his role as the lead priest for the people.  In their ancient thinking, the priest was a go-between between the people and their God; in Numbers 16 Aaron has been a go-between between the living and the dead.  If you have a RC background, you know a little bit of that role; only this was bigger.

                Well, in response to the people’s grumbling, murmuring, and whining that Aaron is not legit and isn’t there a younger, hipper priest somewhere? One with a book deal, perhaps? God intervenes.  Because mutiny against Moses & Aaron is really a coup attempt against God himself.  Grumbling against Aaron = whining twaords God.  And Numbers 16 (which is before the previously unknown story we’re fixin’ to study) is a bloody chapter, as a primary consequence of the rebellion against God is that a lot of living things die.  Tuck that away.  Because even after so many living things die, the people remain unconvinced & so God embarks on a strategy & initiates a contest in which his authority to choose his priest (and rule his people!) revolves around dead things living.

                Look at Numbers 17:1-3: 

17 [a]The Lord said to Moses, 2 “Speak to the Israelites and get twelve staffs from them, one from the leader of each of their ancestral tribes. Write the name of each man on his staff. 3 On the staff of Levi write Aaron’s name, for there must be one staff for the head of each ancestral tribe.

OK, Moses, get you 12 walking sticks.  And what is the difference twixt a stick and a branch?  One’s dead and the other’s alive.  A stick is disconnected from the trunk and the sap so it no longer lives, and a branch is still connected and ERGO! alive.  Then the leader of each of the tribe is to put his name on the stick, and for the tribe of Levi you need to have Aaron write his name on it. It’s odd, it’s strange, I don’t know what you’d want with 12 walking sticks, but OK.  Then look at 17:4-5:


4 Place them in the tent of meeting in front of the ark of the covenant law, where I meet with you. 5 The staff belonging to the man I choose will sprout, and I will rid myself of this constant grumbling against you by the Israelites.”


Ah, that’s why.  One of them 12 will sprout.  A dead stick will bring forth a living sprout and whichever staff does that, well the name written on it is to be the high priest.  And, strangely, the people thought this was a good idea and did as they were told, putting their walking sticks before the Lord & ark of covenant (READ 17:6-7)  So 12 sticks stayed overnight together.  A one night stand for sticks!

                So in the aftermath of both bloodshed and plague, the Lord devises and odd contest by which his authority will be proven … or not.  Maybe some of you today question his authority.  I bet some of you question his very existence.  That’s cool, that’s fine, I’ve been there.  But others of you here who don’t so much doubt his existence, you do nevertheless doubt his goodness or whether or not he’s doing his job well.  Why did he allow HER to commit suicide?  Why did he make ME lose my job?  Why does he have such a narrow path to salvation, an all or nothing response to Jesus?  And then maybe there are some of you who haven’t so much questioned his authority; it’s just been a LOOONG time since you’ve considered his relevance.  And honestly, you’re wondering if a 3500 years old story involving 12 walking sticks has any bearing on any of that.

                Except look at 17:8:

8 The next day Moses entered the tent and saw that Aaron’s staff, which represented the tribe of Levi, had not only sprouted but had budded, blossomed and produced almonds.

Whoa!  Talk about underpromising and overdelivering!  The staff with Aaron’s name on it not only sprouted, but then it budded, then it blossomed, and then it became its very own nut producing tree!  It’s like you meet a guy on Match and you think he looks like this (DUD) and he shows up at your door and he’s this (Dr. McDreamy).  It’s like you get promised some Morton salt and instead you get a Morton steak (AV)!  Or it’s like you go to be thinking in the a.m. you’re getting a Nissan Altima and instead in the a.m. it’s a …. Maxima!  (AV).  That’s what God does here!  And the people see it, they record their answer mentally, and each leader takes his own still dead stick home.  12 sticks, 11 stay dead, and one becomes a branch.

                And I see what happens in this story – remember! A story that I didn’t know was in here! – and I put it together with some other places I remember from the biblical library and the conclusion is unmistakable:  When God wants to prove his authority, he makes dead things live.  Yes!  It’s a pattern throughout history, it’s a pattern throughout Scripture.  God gets tested, God gets tried, God gets ignored or questioned or belittled and his response is remarkably consistent:  When God wants to prove his authority, he makes dead things live.

                And biblically speaking, the pattern starts a long time before you think it does.  We tend to think that Easter just appears out of nowhere, with no real foreshadowing, no appetizers, when actually, nothing could be further from the truth.  If you’re looking for it – and because of today, you are and you will be – you’ll see that the whole biblical library is just a long runway leading up to resurrection Sunday … and those that follow. When God wants to prove his authority, he makes dead things live.

                Let me show you what I mean.  Think back to the very first Jews; Abraham & Sarah, the ancestors of these Unhappy Campers, the mom & pop of three world religions.  Gave birth to Isaac when he was 100 & she was 75.  And what does Scripture say about them?  READ Romans 4:19 & Hebrews 11:12, emphasizing as good as dead:


19 Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead.


12 And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.


I love that!  As good as dead!  That’s not by accident.  It’s divine design, not only in history but also in the composition of the Scripture telling us the history.  So you see that when God wants to prove his authority he makes dead things live  in the lives and offspring of Abraham & Sarah.

                And then look at Ezekiel 37:3:  3 He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”  I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.” Listen: a bone with no skin, that’s a skeleton.  And except for Grateful Dead videos, skeletons simply do not live.  Yet look what happens next: 

4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! 5 This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath[a] enter you, and you will come to life. 6 I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”
7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.
9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.


Whooo!  And the reason these dry bones go through all that?  Look at 37:14:  14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’” Oh yeah.  Authority!  Who is in charge!   A dead stick gives birth to living almonds, a dead womb gives birth to a living descendant, and now dead bones bring forth life.  Yep.  That’s the way God Gods.

                And more: look at Lazarus in John 11:41-42:

41 So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”

See the purpose?  To establish Jesus’ authority.  Then, of course, the runway to the resurrection includes THE resurrection.  And what does Jesus say about THAT in Matthew 28:18? “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me …”  Over and over and over, when God wants to prove his authority, he makes dead things live.  Dead sticks pointing to a risen Savior!

                But there’s more because there’s YOU.  Look at Ephesians 2:1: As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins  Ah!  Not just sticks and not just wombs and not just bones, but YOU!  ME!  ALL!  But then look what happens in 2:5:  4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.   Made alive.  Colossians 2:13 says the same thing: When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you[a] alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins,   Oh, Lord, some of you here are that YOU.  See, the resurrection didn’t come out of nowhere.  The bible is a runway to resurrection.  And it didn’t stop on Easter morning!  That same power is relentlessly at work, today.  Almost like the 3 year old whose parents asked her if she knew the meaning of Easter and she nodded confidently, spread her arms out, and said, “SURPRISE!”  Yep!  That’s it!  A surprise that keeps on surprising. 

                Because someone came to church this morning with a dead marriage.  When God wants to prove his authority, he makes dead things live.

                Someone else, it is as if your faith has died.  You believed for a time, but now it seems childish and you really can’t take it seriously. Doubt and disillusionment have settled in. Guess what?  That was me.  1986.  Dead, dead, dead.  But then God intervened and Jesus happened and a year later I was studying for the ministry.  When God wants to prove his authority, he makes dead things live.  I stopped being the authority over my life when Jesus asserted his.

                And then, I suspect for a handful here it’s even your conscience that has died.  It’s easier to stop feeling anything over that thing that used to haunt you, and that’s exactly what you’ve done.  But Jesus is intervening TODAY and rekindling his great gift of a conscience, his grace of guilt, in your life today. When God wants to prove his authority, he makes dead things live.

                See, there is this inevitability to what I am talking about.  Jesus is GONNA proved his authority over everything when he sums up all things in himself.  He really will have the final word; as I Cor 15:26 says: The last enemy to be destroyed is death.  That means that you’re going to get a resurrected body where bones don’t break, hearts don’t fail, eyes don’t go blind, hair doesn’t fall out and skin doesn’t break out.  Can I get a hallelujah for that?  And I am convinced that that power is backloaded into all of creation.  The power of eternity is retrofitted into history.  Yours and mine.  That authority-proving pattern of new life from the dead didn’t stop on Easter; it keeps happening and will for all of eternity, forever.  We see it on a stick, we see it in a Savior, and I see it in so many of you.  When God wants to prove his authority, he makes dead things live.

                Because wait wait wait.  The children of Israel were given an enduring reminder of God’s power in a stick coming to life.  And look at their response:


10 The Lord said to Moses, “Put back Aaron’s staff in front of the ark of the covenant law, to be kept as a sign to the rebellious. This will put an end to their grumbling against me, so that they will not die.” 11 Moses did just as the Lord commanded him.
12 The Israelites said to Moses, “We will die! We are lost, we are all lost! 13 Anyone who even comes near the tabernacle of the Lord will die. Are we all going to die?”


They respond with a whine!  More grumbling!  But not us, not here!  We’re going to respond to resurrecting power not with a whine but with a whoooo! Not with a grumbling but with celebrating.  Because who here, who here, has seen God make a dead thing come to life in you? 

Open mike