Then someone who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer, and deposit them outside the camp in a clean place; and they shall be kept for the congregation of the Israelites for the water for cleansing. It is a purification offering.
The book of Numbers describes the journey of the Israelites as they wander in the wilderness because of their disobedience, disbelief, rebellion, and lack of faith. It chronicles the time just after God delivered the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai and ends just before God’s next generation crosses over to the Promised Land. This wilderness journey can be seen as a time of reflection and preparation for the fulfillment of God’s promise. This 40-year journey was filled with God’s regulations and instruction, the people’s disobedience, God’s punishment, their promise to change, their failures, their disappointments, and God’s consistent fulfillment of his promises. Yes, that is the constant in this wilderness story, God always provides. This is the story of a generation of people who just didn’t get it right, yet God still delivers on his promise. Numbers 19:9 comes within this wilderness journey after the people have begun to complain about their hardships, their dissatisfaction with their provisions, their longing to be back in Egypt, their anger with God and Moses. They rebel again and again and God continues to offer forgiveness and issues regulations to bring them back into right relationship with him and each other. For the Israelites if a person touched a dead body, they were deemed unclean and thereby unable to approach God in worship. God provided, however, a means by which to be cleansed. A heifer was to be sacrificed and burned completely. Someone considered pure would gather the ashes and take them to a place outside the camp that was considered clean. An unclean person could mix the ashes with water for purification, be washed, and able once again to approach God. Yes, God provides!
We too may feel that we are on a wilderness journey. It is a journey filled with uncertainty, sickness, death, political unrest, intolerance of differences, inequalities, disobedience, disbelief, rebellion, and lack of faith. We are complaining about wearing masks or about those who don’t. We are complaining about who was elected or who wasn’t. We are dissatisfied with our provisions; we long for things to be back to normal; we are angry with those who don’t think like us, or worship like us; we are angry with those we profess to love, and those we label too judgmental. We are even angry with God for not ending this pandemic, for not healing our loved ones, for not answering our prayers at all or not with the expediency we expect. Yes, we too are unclean! Where is our heifer? Once again, God provides. Yes, God provided his only son to be our heifer, pure, unblemished and without sin to die for us so that we can be made ceremonially clean and never again separated from God. He has taken away our shame and declared us good! May this Lenten time be our time of reflection and preparation. May we choose to be grateful for the lessons we are learning. May we be washed clean from our guilt and all that blinds us from being able to see as Christ sees thereby freeing us to love our neighbors despite our differences. May we be Christ’s light in the darkness carrying the cleansing ashes to those in need. Yes, we have been cleansed by the blood of Christ so now it is up to us to respond with gratitude and discipleship.