So there’s quite a bit of background in our story from Numbers that we didn’t hear this morning. The people of Israel had recently experienced their freedom through the Exodus, and have left Egypt behind for good. However, being enslaved had provided them with some regular foods that they could not find in the desert wilderness. God had been providing them with manna—literally “What is it?” in Hebrew—which appeared every morning except on the Sabbath in order to be collected from the ground. (They got a double portion Friday mornings.) They used it to make cakes and breads to sustain them.
A sermon based on Numbers 11 and Acts 2.
But they were getting sick of eating mana soufflé and manana bread. So they cried out to Moses, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic! But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” Moses heard their whining and brought so of his own to the Lord. “Why have you treated me so badly?” he asked the Almighty. “Why have I not found favor in your sight that you lay the burden of all this people on me? … I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. If this is the way you are going to treat me, then put me to death at once.” Drama much, Moses?
But God heard his lament for help, and asks Moses to call together 70 elders of the people, leaders who had emerged in the community. They were to assemble at the tent of meeting. And then God would take some of the spirit that was on Moses and place it on the 70 so that they could bear the burden of the people along with Moses and so he wouldn’t have to carry it all by himself.
That’s what we heard this morning. Moses gathers the 70, and they came into the tent of meeting. He spreads them out, and then God comes in the form of the cloud to speak with Moses. Then the cloud splinters and moves around taking some of the spirit from Moses and sharing it amongst the elders. They began to prophesy. Except it wasn’t 70 elders in the tent, but 68. Two of them remained in the camp. They forgot to set a notification on their phones when they added the appointment in iCal. “Go to tent of meeting with Mo” they diligently typed in, but then didn’t bother putting in a reminder alert.
But it didn’t matter to God’s Spirit. They were part of the invited guest list to help share the burden of leadership, and so what that they weren’t in the right place at the right time: God found them anyway. And they started prophesying too. That’s when a young man ran in all flustered. “Eldad and Medad are prophesying out in the camp!” he says to Moses. That’s when Joshua—one of Moses’ top advisors—says, “My lord, Moses, stop them!”
“Are you jealous for my sake?” he asks Joshua. “I wish that all of the Lord’s people would prophesy because the Spirit was on them!”
Which makes you ask: Is Moses’ response due to his simply being burnt out? Or is he expressing some deeper spiritual truth?
Today we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost—known to many as the “birthday of the Church.” The 120 women and men gathered in that Upper Room experienced the outpouring of the Spirit of God and began proclaiming God’s deeds of power in a multitude of languages. In some churches I’ve been a part of, there is a replication of the scene with a handful of parishioners scattered throughout the worship space reading the gospel in different languages that they knew at the same time. On one occasion this led an older man with a hearing issue to turn to his wife and ask loudly, “What the heck is going on?!?!” Except he didn’t say “heck.”
Many of the assembled people on that day in Jerusalem were asking the same thing. “Why do we hear these Galileans speaking in our own languages?” some asked. Others added, “These are clearly drunk with new wine!” This always makes me wonder what experiences these folks have had in the past that would lead them to believe that a good merlot would make them proficient in French.
Peter stands up and speaks to the crowd, likely using Aramaic, one of the languages most would have known. “These people aren’t drunk,” he says, “it’s not even nine o’clock in the morning!” Rather, he says, these ones are prophesying about the goodness of God, sons and daughters, old men and young women, as described by the prophet Joel, all proclaiming about the way of Jesus. We didn’t read it this morning, but this led to 3000 people getting baptized and choosing to become disciples. Because of the proclamation of these women and men, a huge multitude followed Jesus.
There are two things for us to take from these stories. The first is this: It is not just those of us who have been ordained who have been given the Spirit to speak words of God’s love. We aren’t the only ones who can give comfort to those who are hurting, or words of challenge to those who’ve abandoned the way. Too many believe that this work is limited to the modern day equivalents of Moses and those 70 elders. But Moses rightfully declares, “Would that all God’s people prophesied!” Would that more of us shared the word of God with others.
Second, in a similar vein, we cannot decide to exclude people from giving voice to God’s word when it is evident that God’s Spirit rests with them. With both of these stores, it is clear that the Spirit moves in mysterious ways. That we cannot limit or control where the Spirit goes, anymore than we can direct a blown up balloon once we let it go. The Spirit goes wherever God wants to act.
Historically, of course, the Church has sought to limit who can and cannot proclaim the good news. Even though Acts is clear that women and men were being filled with the power of the Spirit on Pentecost, it took a very long time for women in our own denomination to be welcomed into the priesthood. (And, as you know, there are still Christian denominations today who refuse women from ordination.) More recently this has included LGBTQ people, and some in power determining that God’s Spirit could not be on them. Or we say that younger people shouldn’t speak up until they have more life experience—something too many of my younger peers in seminary heard from their bishops—and on it goes.
What’s really being said, of course, is the words of Joshua: “Make them stop, Moses!” Do not permit them to speak. But Moses opens up a whole new level of reality. Not only should Eldad and Medad be allowed to speak, but all of the assembled people should too. All of the people together providing a chorus of the good news of God. A plethora of languages and people of different experiences and ways of life and nationalities and genders all giving voice to the utter goodness of God and God’s desire to bring abundant life to us all.
And on this Pentecost I want to assure you that God is indeed calling you to do the same. Perhaps it’s not ordination, but that doesn’t preclude you from this work. I am a firm believer in the belief of St. Francis who said, “Preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words.” Live a life that shows others you are a follower of Jesus. However, do not think that you can avoid using your tongue altogether. It will be necessary at times to speak words of God’s deeds of power in your own life. Times when you will be empowered by the Spirit to tell someone that God loves them deeply. Or to take a stand that is morally right and to proclaim that hard truth. Or to offer compassion to someone who is broken hearted and needing love.
“Would that all of God’s people prophesied.” “God’s Spirit came on all of them in the rush of a mighty wind.” May God’s Spirit move among us, filling us with the power and courage and grace to proclaim through our actions and in our words the wonderful truth of God’s mercy and love. Our world wants to hear those words if only we are bold enough to say them.