In studying this week’s first reading from Numbers, a couple of problems came up for me that I think speak clearly to our continued experiences as God’s people today. But before I go there, let’s set the stage for what’s happening in Numbers 11.
The people are wandering in the wilderness, having been miraculously delivered from over 400 years of slavery, and though they’ve experienced God’s miraculous deliverance, and the, for the most part, faithful leadership of Moses, the people all start to weep in their longing for the food they used to eat when they were slaves. They’re craving the fish and flesh, the melons and leeks, the onions and garlic, and all they have is manna to look at. And make sure you hear that clearly. ALL they have is manna!? ALL they have is God’s miraculous provision!? And for them, it’s not enough!?
Now, if you’re used to melons, and fish, and lots of good flavors, I guess manna could get a little boring. In the verses that we skip over it describes manna as being like coriander seeds that they people would boil and make into cakes that tasted like cakes baked with oil. So I guess it could get boring. But, still, it beats the alternative, doesn’t it? Isn’t manna better than slavery? Isn’t eating manna better than starving to death in the wilderness?
Well, anyway, Moses, hearing their complaints, starts to take it all personally, and turns his complaints toward God. Why have you treated me so badly by given me this lousy group of people to lead? After all, they’re your people, not mine! I didn’t create them; you did! If this is how you’re going to treat me, I’d really rather you just strike me dead here and now! Moses is clearly not having a good day here, and thinks God has pulled a good ole fashioned bait and switch on him.
So, not only are the people way out of line and focusing on their cravings, rather than on God’s deliverance and provision, but Moses, forgets God’s provision, as well, and just starts to feel sorry for himself, and he strikes out at God, too!
But God’s ready to provide a solution for Moses, and he tells Moses to gather up 70 recognized elders of the people, and to bring them to the tent of meeting.
Now, the tent of meeting is the tabernacle where God was thought to dwell. In other words, it’s where God promised to be. It’s where you went to meet with God. It’s also where people went to meet Moses as God’s representative.
Now, notice that we skip over a bunch of verses at this point, from verse 16 to 24. In these skipped verses, we learn some important things:
- God promises to come and talk with Moses and the 70 elders there. God promises to show up!
- God’s going to take some of the Spirit from Moses, and share it among the elders, so that they’ll all share the burden of leading the people.
- And God promises to send the people meat to eat, even though the multitude numbers over 600,000! In fact, God says he’s going to send meat not one day, or two, or three, but until it’s coming out of their nostrils! So, apparently, God’s not having a very good day, either!
And it’s at this point that Moses, in verse 24, comes out to speak to the people. Which leads us to the part that raises two questions, or poses two problems for me, that are problems I think we still face in the Church today.
The 70 are identified and registered and told to gather around the tent which is out on the outskirts of the encampment. And God comes down in a cloud and speaks to this assembly of elders, and pours out some of the spirit that had been on Moses onto them, and, in what sounds very much like a precursor of the Pentecost scene, found in Acts chapter 2, or of what the prophet Joel will prophecy many years later about the coming Reign of God in the end times, the elders start to prophecy.
But then there’s this disturbing little line there at the end of verse 25 where it says: “But they did not do so again.” which, to me, is simply devastating!
Look, to prophecy simply means to proclaim God’s word, and when the Spirit came on them, they did just that, but they only did it at the tent of meeting. They never did it again. They didn’t bring God’s word back into the community. They didn’t go back as leaders and proclaim what God had done to the people back in the encampment.
So, how often do you hear your brothers and sisters in Christ say things like: “Oh, I just keep my faith to myself.” or “My faith’s a private matter.”?
There’s a problem here. It’s like having God breaking you out of slavery, and miraculously providing manna, and water, and quail, and all you want is to go back to slavery and eat spicy fish and melons! It’s a real problem! But it’s not the only problematic thing that happens in this story. There’s a problem on the other side, too. I mean, at least the 70 gather at the tent of meeting, or, 68 of them do.
Apparently 2 of them decided to skip church that day!
Eldad and Medad, who are registered as part of the 70 leaders of the people, they don’t even bother to assemble where God has promised to meet them. So God just pushes the boundaries a bit, and the spirit falls on these two jokers right where they are, and they start to prophecy in the camp, and a couple of tattle-tales run to Moses and tell him to make them stop! They’re not playing by the rules, Moses! Tell them to knock it off!
And I’ve got to say, I really don’t know what’s worse, these 2 who don’t bother to show up where God promises to be, or the rest, the 68 others, who do go where they’re supposed to go, and who do get the spirit and proclaim God’s word, but then never do it again!
And I really mean that I don’t know which is worse, because they’re both problematic, and they’re both still happening all the time in the Church today! And I mean in the whole Church, not just here at Reformation, though it happens here, too, right? Right.
God has promised to show up in and through certain means of grace – through the Word, proclaimed, read, spoken, prayed and sung, and in and through the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion.
And we all know where and when these things are present and that it takes very little effort on our part to have access to them. All we’ve got to do is get to Church for an hour or so once a week.
But like Eldad and Medad, we can’t be bothered to put ourselves in the place where we’ll receive what God has promised – forgiveness, and grace, and love, and spiritual nourishment, and healing and so on – what? Because we want to sleep in? Or maybe we’ve got better things to do? Or the kids have sports to play? I don’t know.
But I’ve got to say that, at least equally disturbing, are those who come to Church as if it’s their own little power boost session, like I’m here to get what’s mine for me, and who, like the 68 who make it to the tent of meeting, receive the spirit, and have the experience of God’s blessing them with the gift of prophecy, but then never do it again! Are you kidding me?
Look, we must never forget that the whole reason we gather around Word and Sacrament, the whole reason God grants these abundant gifts, is not for our sake, but for the sake of the world into which we carry the good news of God’s love!
Now, by verse 29, Moses finally seems to have gotten out of his pity party, and when Joshua and the young man tell him to stop Eldad and Medad, because they’re not playing by the rules, Moses speaks, profoundly, saying: Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, ad that the Lord would put the divine spirit on them all. In other words, would that all of God’s people would speak God’s word, both in the tent of meeting, and out in the world that God so loves.
Would that all of God’s people would take seriously their role as prophets, because the fact of the matter is that God HAS poured out God’s Spirit on all flesh!
Each of us, in our baptism, has already been sealed by the promised Holy Spirit.
Each of us has already received this gift of proclamation, but, sadly, like the 68 at the tent, we, too often, stay silent. We forget that the reason we gather is to be sent out in mission. Or, like the disciples in Mark 9, we go, but then we feel the need to silence those who think differently, or pray differently, or believe differently than we do. We cut them off and throw them into the burning trash heap of Gehenna – and that’s what it is, by the way, it’s not hell, as it’s poorly translated in our reading, but Gehenna, the burning trash heap outside of Jerusalem, where refuse was burned – but we are too quick to cut off those who are different from us, as if we don’t need those parts of Christ’s Body that aren’t like us! We’re too quick to dismiss, or, worse, to condemn, those who are as different from us, as a hand is different from an eye, forgetting that a body cannot function as fully designed without all of its parts working together!
God in Christ, by his death and resurrection, has reconciled all things in himself, and so Jesus tells his disciples to “have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another.”
Hear this! Even as we read what can sound like really scary stuff in Mark’s Gospel, hear this! We have nothing to fear! God, in Christ, has given us all that we need and more –
- Nourishment beyond manna, in the Eucharist
- Word beyond speech, in the Incarnation of Jesus, who is the Living Word
- The Spirit poured out, not just on 70 elders, but on all flesh in these last days
- And the wisdom to live, to be at peace with one another, as those who are reconciled to God in the saving death and resurrection of Jesus.
Praise be to God for such abundant giftedness! Amen!