The Ark, The Camp, and The Cloud

Embracing change in a time of advance

Change – you love it or hate it. Some thrive on change, finding God’s adventure in it, while others thrive on things staying the same, finding God’s faithfulness in it. Neither attitude is ‘more spiritual’ than the other, just different; for God’s plans embrace both times of change and times of stability. So change-lovers have to love and live with non-change-lovers, and vice-versa – and both have to live with God and whatever he is doing at that particular time.

That was certainly true for Israel on its journey to the Promised Land. When they fled Egypt on Passover night, I don’t imagine it was a very orderly affair. They probably just grabbed their bags and ran. And crossing the Red Sea probably wasn’t much different, especially with Pharaoh’s army on their tail. It was probably more chaos than co-ordination! But then, when they reached Mt Sinai, something happened: God transformed this rag-tag bunch of people into ‘a holy nation’ (Exodus 19:6) and began to bring order into their lives through the laws he gave them.

But after a year or so at Sinai, it was time for change. What had been an escaping rabble needed to become an ordered army; ‘divisions’ (as the NIV translates the Hebrew word for ‘a mass of people’ or ‘a host’) needed to become battalions. And so Numbers begins with God bringing organisation into Israel’s life, telling them how they should camp from now on, with the 12 tribes gathered around the Tabernacle containing the Ark of the Covenant, representing God’s presence. Here’s a diagram of how things looked (Numbers 2:1-34):

But God also said that, when it was time to move on, they weren’t free to rush off however they wanted to any more. He gave them precise instructions on what was to happen and how they were to reorganise themselves (change!) for moving on. Here’s how things then looked (Numbers 10:11-33):

I recently found myself staring at two diagrams like this in my Study Bible when suddenly I felt God speak to me. I’ve still got the scrap of paper I wrote on at the time. It says: ‘There is a pattern of life that is appropriate for a time of peace and gathering; but there is a pattern of life that is appropriate for a time of advance and progress.’ It spoke at the time to issues facing some of us as we gathered for the Salt & Light International Consultation; but I believe there’s something God wants to say to OCC through it too.

The truth is, all of us get comfortable. We all like to know where we ‘fit’ and where our friends are, just like the Israelites when they were camped around the Tabernacle. But when it was time to advance, they had to be ready to be unsettled, to move, to change. Look at the drawings again: people at the front suddenly found themselves at the back; people at the back had to move forward; people on the right flank had to move to the left – it must all have felt very unsettling, especially at first. But it was a key aspect of following the cloud towards the inheritance God had promised them. And yet, though they were in different positions, they were still the same nation, the same tribes, the same clans, the same families, with the same God – and in that lay their security.

I believe God wants us too to understand this principle: that there is a pattern for a time of peace and gathering, and a pattern for a time of advance and progress. And that means all of us need to be ready to change and move and, yes, even be uncomfortable for a time. Some who’ve been ‘up front’ may need to move back for a season; some who’ve been sitting comfortably at the back may need to move forward; some who’ve comfortably worked in one area of church life and mission may need to move to another area. Change, for the purpose of advance and following the cloud. Of course, we also need times to stop and re-gather, like Israel did, to ensure fellowship is real and robust, for that is what helps us move on again. But as surely as the cloud by day and fire by night were there whether Israel was on the move or was camped, so the Holy Spirit is there for us, whether at rest or on the move. With him, we never ‘lose’ anything by moving, and we never ‘keep’ anything by staying. We only win by doing what he says, when he says it. And that, for all of us, means change. 

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