Changing A Culture With Your Ears

Text:  Numbers 27:1-11
Message Theme: Moses exercised the most forgotten leadership skill from people in a position of power—he listened carefully, prayed and then acted.

What was the problem? (vs.26)

Moses faced three problems:

  1. The practical question of the women:  What shall we do?  Life is unfair?  God is unfair?  The rules are unfair?
  2. The social question:  What shall we do with these women?
  3. The leadership question: How do I handle this?
  1. Moses’ Solution 

He listened

He prayed

He acted

III.            The Long-lasting implication and application

Biblically and theologically


  Lessons from Moses on leadership

  Lesson from the women on faith



Sacred or Sacred Cow?

(1) The daughters of Zelophehad, son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Makir, the son of Manasseh, belonged to the clans of Manasseh son of Joseph.  The names of the daughters were Mihlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah.  They approached (2) the entrance to the Tent of Meeting and stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders and the whole assembly, and said, (3) “Our father died in the desert. He was not among Korah’s followers, who banded together against the Lord, but he died because he had no son? Give us property among our father’s relatives.  (4) Why should our father’s name disappear from his clan because he had not son?  Give us property among our fathers’ relatives.”

(5) So Moses brought their case before the Lord and the (6) Lord said to him, (7) “What Zelophehad’s daughters are saying is right.  You must certainly give them property as an inheritance among their father’s relatives and turn their father’s inheritance over to them.

“Say to the Israelites, ‘If a man dies and leaves no son, turn his inheritance over to his daughter.  (9) If he has no daughter, give his inheritance to his brothers.  (10) If he has no brothers, give brothers.  (10) If he has no brothers, give his inheritance to his father’s brothers.  (11) If his father has no brothers, give his inheritance to the nearest relative in his clan, that he may posses it.  This is to be a legal requirement for the Israelites, as the Lord commanded Moses.’”


“Today we deal with one of the hottest issues in leadership–how to make good decisions.”  In the 30 minutes today, I can only introduce you to this subject.  If you own a business, or are on the board of an organization, or in leadership I suggest you take these ideas and probe them deeply. Some of the questions we raise could determine the outcome of your impact as a leader.

The issue is innovation:

And the bigger a company gets, the more difficult it is to make innovative decisions.

The August issue of Fast Company raises the question of “bigger” and the ability to innovate.  James B. Lee, Jr. VP  of Morgan Chase, put it this way:  “Bigger is not better. Bigger is absolutely mandatory.” That is the prevailing logic today:  Size is not the result of success–it is a precondition for success.  Unless you are ubiquitous enough to rule at retail, muscular enough to squeeze suppliers, and global enough to operate in every corner of the world, then you do not have the resources necessary to stay in the game.  And if you can’t stay in the game, you can’t win.”

However, can big companies innovate?  Rajiv Laroia was charged with optimizing wireless standards for his company.  His team came up with a new idea, but it would mean cannibalizing their own products.  The company wouldn’t innovate, so he and his team left the company and started Flarios Tech.

Dutch Royal/Shell, five years ago set aside 10% of research budget for “crazy ideas.”  Anyone could apply for the funding–not tied to managers.  A group of four or five employees–well known mavericks and nonconformists–were charged with deciding how the money was spent.  The strategy was called GameChanger.  It has attracted 150 projects a year and 10% of those programs have become commercialized.

I agree with Gary Hamel, who says, “Innovation is the most exciting problem to solve in the world today.”

Not only is this true in Silicon Valley, but it is really true in the church.

Our story today in Scripture is an old story, over 3000 years old, and yet it deals with the same leadership challenge–innovation of visionary leadership.

The problem with the church, and church leadership today is that our sacred cows imprison us so that no one is able to challenge the status quo.  But Moses and the five daughters of Zelophehad teach us how to be liberated from our sacred cows.

I.                    What Was the Problem?  (vv. 1-4)


The practical questions of the women:  What shall we do?  Life is unfair?  God is unfair?  The rules are unfair?

This story is one of the two incidents recorded of the decisions, which Moses made about civil and family affairs in the governing of the children of Israel as they came out of Canaan.  It is interesting that the other time is recorded in Numbers 36 and it is also about the daughters of Zelophehad.

Moses was now quite old.  He had led the Israelites for forty years of wilderness wanderings. All those who had left the land of Egypt had died, except for Joshua, Caleb and Moses.  A new generation had been born and was anticipating the new land.

In the midst of this division of the land by lots the five daughters of Zelophehad brought a petition to Moses.   Since their father had died in the wilderness wanderings, according to Jewish, civil law, there would be no inheritance.  The family had been promised a part in the land that lay before them, flowing with milk and honey.  It is possible that many times while they were wondering in the wilderness that they had anticipated what their portion of the land would be like.  Yet it looks now as though they have lost all this.  When their father died, their inheritance seemingly vanished because their father had died and there was no male heir.  By custom throughout that whole Middle East region, only males could inherit property. It looked like a lost cause.

But something made these women hope that things could be different. What do you think it was?  I like the words of Ray Stedman when he uses his “sanctified imagination.”  He says that he can imagine these women getting together after the death of their father and talking it all over.  After all, that would surely be a woman’s approach to the problem, wouldn’t it?  As they talked among themselves, they began to realize something.  Probably they noticed one important factor about this promise of the land — that it was not according to merit but according to grace, that God was not asking the Israelites to earn the land of Canaan, but he was giving it to them.  It did not depend on how hard they worked or how many battles they fought, but rather upon the grace of God that would make it available to them.  These women had been raised in a home that understood faith and grace and other such terms, and as they thought about these things they said to one another.  “Look, perhaps all is not lost. After all, if this is a matter of grace and not of Law, then let us remember that grace can give what Law cannot.  Perhaps, if we ask, God has already made provision for a situation like ours.  There’s nothing revealed that is against it, and, perhaps, in grace, God has found a way to supply what we lack.”

So they handed the problem over to Moses and the leaders of the congregation:

And they stood before Moses, and before Eliazar the priest, and before the leaders and all the congregation, at the door of the tent of meeting (Num 27:2 RSV)

If you look back in Chapter 26, Verse 51, you will see that the number of the people of Israel was 601,730.  But that included only the men; women and children were not included.  It is before this entire congregation of over a million that these five women came.

But the greatest obstacle they had to cross is what I want to talk about this morning.  It is something that we deal with in business, in organizations and especially in the church.  It is the issue of sacred cows—those traditions that we think are sacred, but are not.  And those are difficult to change.

They raised a question of thinking outside the box.  We hear that phrase a lot and it is so overused that I was tempted not to use it; however, the metaphor really helps us to understand what these five women had to face.

The leadership question: We are told to think outside the box? What box do I think outside of?


The four spheres of thinking paradigms (boxes)

Just what box should we think outside of?  Picture with me four boxes, each one inside the other.

Box One: The laws—our laws of the land

The largest box–the most external–is the law.  When you think outside this box, you end up in jail. What is happening in Enron right now is an example of leaders who thought outside that box.  They broke the law.   It is not wise to think outside this box unless you want to land in jail.  It is interesting that in the New Testament the only law that the first church broke was on preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ.  The church never took a stand on slavery or other social issues.  That is a whole different subject, but for the most part, the early church obeyed the laws of Rome.

Box Two: Values – (i.e. Theology—the sacred) 


The second box is our values, what we are willing to die for—what we believe.  For the church this is our theology.  Calvary Church is an evangelical church that has a Baptist theology.   We believe in the inspiration and authority of Scriptures in all matters of faith and practice.  We believe that Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation.  We have a theological base.

Back in 1969  the church decided to emphasize it’s evangelical theology rather than it’s Baptist tradition and dropped the name “Baptist” off of the title.  It seems so natural now, but in 1969 it met with a lot of opposition.  I can remember when the secretaries started answering the phone, “Calvary Church.” and church members would say, “Are you ashamed of being a Baptist?  Have you changed your theology?”

 In staff meetings we would discuss this issue and our conclusion at that time was that “Baptist” had many negative caricatures and we valued being an evangelical church.  The church that Susie and I belong too has not learned that lesson and sometimes I think it values the denomination more than Christ.

Box Three: Culture

Inside the values box, the next box is culture.  Each country, business, and church has a culture. Our culture is usually determined by our history and soon this culture becomes tradition.

In the early ‘70s, Southwest Airlines totally changed a business culture when they sold one airplane to pay some bills and ran the same flight schedule with three airplanes.  Their famous 20 minute turn around became the new culture of Southwest airlines.  But, they did not mess with the first box—the laws of aerodynamics.  They just changed how they were going to get people in and out of the airplanes.  In the early 70’s, when they were going through an incredible cultural change, they even experimented with music and found that if they played the William Tell Overture when people got into the plane, they moved faster.

The Inner Box: Sacred cows


The toughest box to deal with is the sacred cows.  These are the traditions that have grown for so many years, that people confuse them with the law.  And changing these are almost impossible—but leadership is the ability to challenge the sacred cows.

The definition of a sacred cow is the following:

      Once a rule is in place, it is very difficult to replace that rule, even though the original reason for the rule has disappeared.

The QWERTY Configuration is an example of a sacred cow.  If you look at the top row of letters on your keyboard of your computer, you will see the letters QWERTY.  This was created in 1870 by Sholes and company, a typewriter company that was having trouble with typists who were typing much too fast and their typewriters were jaming.  Some of us in this room this morning are old enough to remember our old typewriters with those long steal arms that would smash a letter on the paper when we pushed the key down.  So, the engineers designed a key board configuration known as the QWERTY configuration in order to slow typists down. Even though we have much faster configurations today, why hasn’t the computer industry changed it.  Because of the sacred cow ruling:

Once a rule is in place, it is very difficult to replace that rule, even though the original reason for the rule no longer exists.

(Illustrations of visionary thinkers who thought outside the box.)

I remember in the 50’s when we started an early, 8:30 a.m. worship service.  We had always had worship services at 11:00.  Why would we change?  Researching the history of the 11:00 o-clock workshop service, we discovered that the reason that we worshipped at 11:00 a.m. was so that farmers would have time to milk all of their cows, get the morning chores done and make it to church on time.  In Los Gatos, we found that we didn’t have anyone milking cows.  The 11:00 a.m. service was a sacred cow and trying to change it was not easy.

Think of the innovators in the last 50 years.  Billy Graham broke tradition in the South when he integrated his evangelistic meetings.  Youth for Christ, Young Life, Navigators and Campus Crusade for Christ were all highly criticized for starting organizations outside the church.  Bill Bright was really criticized for the four spiritual laws because he started with the love of God when he stated, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.”  Only liberal churches talked about the love of God first.  We always used gospel tracks that started out with “Man is sinful and separated from God.”

II.     How Was the Problem Solved? (vv.  5-11)
Three Observations Of Visionary Leadership

1.      He LISTENS

I call it the 80/20 rule of leadership.  Many leaders today do not listen.  They practice the 95/5 rule—they talk 95% of the time and the 5% they are listening, they are really not listening but thinking of what they are going to say next when you take a breath.

  1. He prays. 


Determining if the issue is a sacred cow or a theological issue is an important role that leaders need to exercise.  And it is not always an easy decision.  So what does Moses do?  He prays. Many of you remember Jon Courson who was raised in this church.  Jon was always a dynamic leader from the time he was in the 7th grade, when he entered the youth ministry here.  When Jon was a sophomore in high school he had 75-100 student leaders in his home from Del Mar High School studying the Bible with him.  He was reading books like “The Cost of Discipleship” when he was a sophomore in high school.  After he graduated from Biola, we went up to Southern Oregon and started the Applegate Church.  Susie and I were visiting him several years ago and after the service he took us on a tour of the facilities.  In his office I saw something I had not seen in any other pastor’s office.  He had a kneeling bench in front of his desk.  I asked him about it and he told me that it was on that bench that he received the vision for the church.  It was on that bench that he would pray over every aspect of the sermons he preached.  Jon was a man of prayer.  What a thrill it was to see such a talented and gifted person, who was humble before God.  And I just found out that Jon has been asked to take Chuck Smith’s place at Calvary Chapel.

We must look at the issues that come up before us and ask the questions, “Is this theology or is it a sacred cow.”  Leaders are willing to ask that question and pray over it and then take the risk to take a stand.

  1.  They take the risk—not just Moses—the five daughters had a daring faith.

Moses brought their case before the Lord. And the Lord said to Moses, “The daughters of Zelophehad are right; you shall give them possession of an inheritance among their father’s brethren and cause the inheritance of their father to pass to them. And you shall say to the people of Israel, ‘If a man dies, and has no son, then you shall cause his inheritance to pass to his daughter. And if he has no daughter, then you shall give his inheritance to his brothers. And if he has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to his kinsman that is next to him of his family, and he shall possess it. And it shall be to the people of Israel a statute and ordinance, as the Lord commanded Moses.'” (Num 27:5-11 RSV)


What is interesting is that because of this law, Jesus was able to receive the inheritance through the line of Mary.  He was not the earthly son of Joseph and if challenged, he would be an heir to the throne of David.  But because of these five woman and their courage to challenge the status quo, Jesus was able to inherit the throne of David through his mother, Mary.

One thing I love about Calvary is that you have been willing to hold on to your theological foundation and challenge the status quo.  People see a need for a ministry and begin it.  I had the opportunity to speak at the “Job Ministry” for the many people in Silicon Valley who are out of work.  When I arrived early, a man from Petaluma had heard about this meeting came and asked about it.  That night I also heard the testimony of a young woman who had been out of work and she had just gotten a job.  But what was more exciting was the fact that she had received Christ.

But the wild thing I see you doing—that is way beyond me is your Octane ministry—where people bring their computers and play games—for 24 hours.  I guess people really love that stuff, and innovative people have figured out a way to bring people together to reach them for Christ.

What is the future of the church?  Who are the visionary thinkers?  Who are the visionary thinkers at Calvary who are going to think outside the cultural norms and within the Theological norms to change the world?

Read more about Tom McKee on his web page:


Tom McKee

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