"The Surprising Presence of God"
A Sermon By:
David D. McDonald
Text: Numbers 11: 24-30
I Corinthians 12: 3b-13
May 31, 2020
24So Moses went out and told the people the words of the LORD; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. 25Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again.
26Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. 27And a young man ran and told Moses, "Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp." 28And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, "My lord Moses, stop them!" 29But Moses said to him, "Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!" 30And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
3bNo one can say "Jesus is Lord" except by the Holy Spirit.
4Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; 6and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 7To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.
12For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
The presence of the Holy Spirit is a source of great energy and mystery. From the most ancient of days the Spirit’s presence has been misunderstood and often accompanied by great consternation. In the days of Moses when the people of Israel were wandering in the wilderness, the Spirit came upon two ordinary men Eldad and Medad, the whole nation seemed to take up sides and a riot of sorts ensued. In the days following the resurrection of Jesus the Spirit descended upon the apostles and allegations of public drunkenness ensued. In the days of Paul, the Spirit endowed the people of God with a diversity of gifts and human nature reared its ugly head and some interpreted their gifts as better then their neighbors. The coming of the Spirit is not only noted by its advancement of the kingdom; it is often accompanied by a disturbance among the people of God. King Ahab called Elijah “a troubler of Israel.” Paul was alleged to have disturbed the peace and incited a riot.
All this is simply to say that we often are woefully lacking in our understanding of the Spirit’s work. I am reminded of a short anecdote that appeared in The Presbyterian Outlook in the 90’s.
"This cute little girl decides to have a funeral for her worn-out teddy bear. She digs a small grave in the garden, lines up her dolls as the congregation and dons her rain coat ('cause she thinks it looks sorta preacherish). She holds high the bear and proclaims: "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and in the hole he goes." The Presbyterian Outlook, May 12, p.12.
It strikes me that this little girl is a lot like most of us; she knows God by the name of Father, and by the name of Son, but has little knowledge or appreciation of our God as Spirit.
We see that "hole" in ancient Israel's theology in this wonderful story from Numbers. To set the context, Chapters 11 and 12 of Numbers are sometimes known as the chapters of Israel's murmurings. Moses, who has been wrestling with the demands of a whole nation, can no longer handle the burden. The people complain bitterly that Moses has brought them out into the wilderness to die. They complain that they were better off in Egypt where they had meat to eat. They have grown weary of God's continual providence of Manna which has sustained them in their journey. They have eaten themselves to death on the quail that the Lord provided. Moses begs God to put him to death if this is the way life has got to be. Moses situation is somewhat like a family on vacation and the children are bickering in the back seat:
"How much longer? He keeps kicking me."
"Can't we stop and get something to eat? She ate all the candy bars'”
"Tell my brother to leave me alone!"
The big difference is that Moses has 600,000 children of Israel. So, he consults God who takes compassion upon Moses and promises to take a portion of his Spirit and divide it among 70 elders whom Moses has chosen. The burden of leadership is divided and Moses is given help. For once, the Spirit quickens the elders and then it appears to be all over – like a flash in the pan. However, the work of the Spirit isn't over. The Spirit jumps to Eldad and Medad. Moses had proclaimed that the Lord would send his Spirit upon the 70 elders and when this new excitement breaks loose there are those who think Moses was a liar or God couldn't count, because there were Eldad and Medad acting like elders - holding up prophetic visions of what God was going to do among and with his people - and there were already elders in whom the Spirit was present, but only for this one occasion.
Joshua, the same Joshua who would lead the people against Jericho, begged Moses to put an end to this charade. He blurts out in distaste:
"My lord Moses, stop them!" (11:28)
Joshua wants to do things decently and in order. The elders have finished their one time prophetic event - now its time to get back to business as usual. From the perspective of Joshua, God has come, the Spirit, is certainly here, and now its time to get back to the matter of feeding 600,000 hungry mouths and finding them a homeland, reading maps in the sand, keeping the neighbors happy, dividing the daily bread on the way to a land promised by God, while the people continued their complaining.
We would expect Moses to side with Joshua. We would expect that Moses would be ready for some peace and quiet. We would expect Moses to retire to his tent and say to his elders:
"You are duly installed and confirmed shepherds of Israel - take care of the people!"
Moses; however, in one of those great lines that seem to run counter to our preconceived notions of the man, speaks saying:
"Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord's people were prophets and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!" (11:29)
As one commentator has written:
"Numbers 11: 24-30 is an excellent story for probing the charismatic power of God's spirit on Pentecost, because it affirms both the power of structure (seventy elders) and the surprises of God (Eldad and Medad). (P.R.C.L.)
These two characteristics of God's community - the power of structure and the surprises of God - are found in the development of Christianity. They were certainly present at the First Pentecost. They are also seen in the tension of the Corinthian community. The Spirit of God had endowed the Christian community with a variety of gifts. Not everyone had received the same gift. This diversity of gifts made it clear that there was not a unique gift or gifts which would distinguish the presence of God. Rather, this very diversity itself distinguished the Christian community. It made it quite clear that all were needed. Paul uses the image of the body of Christ to talk about that relationship. The foot and the hand are different parts of the body. Each is needed. The hand is uniquely fitted for its task and likewise the foot. They are not valued one more than the other. The body needs both. So it is with the Body of Christ.
Paul makes it clear that Christ chose us. Even our confession of Christ is a gift. Paul writes in 12:3:
"...and no one can say 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit."
In the early Christian community, the simple confession "Jesus is Lord" was at the heart of admission to baptism and the Lord's Supper. The Christian community by this distinguishing belief that "Jesus is Lord" and yet even that confession would not be possible without the prompting of the Spirit. Paul's conclusion is important because it makes no allowance for pride. We are Christ's not because of anything we have done, but because Christ called us. Christ chose us. Christ saves us. The redeeming life of Christian faith; therefore, is a gift which is ours to receive, but not to earn.
This clearly leads to a second conclusion which is that there is no hierarchy of gifts. They are all given by God and to be received as such. One is not better than another lest we be tempted to boast that God has favored us more than our neighbor. These gifts are not for show or performance or exhibit, but for service. Paul writes in 12: 7 :
"To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good."
They are not to be used for self-aggrandizement or profit, but to further the ministry of the Christian community not only for themselves, but for those outside as well.. Richard Hays, writing in his commentary on First Corinthians in the Interpretation series, states:
"The possession of any gift is therefore not a matter of individual merit or worthiness but of the sheer grace of God."
In our time the materialistic, greedy, hoarding spirit which characterizes so much of daily living obscures the Spirit of God's wonderful gifts. It is incomprehensible to think that we can encounter God while focusing on our every want and desire. We block our own view of what God is doing. In utilizing our every moment for self and creature comforts we make no room for using God's gifts.
The surprising presence of God comes when we allow the Spirit to work within the daily living of our lives. Returning once again to the story of Eldad and Medad from Numbers, please note that as devoted and sincere and God fearing and loving a man as Moses was, he tried to lead 600,000 Hebrews out of Egypt and through the wilderness by himself. He was willing to trust God - he was not too sure about his brothers and sisters - with good reason - Aaron instigated the making of the golden calf and Miriam lead a pagan dance around it. Until Moses let go of his control of the leadership and shared it with the 70 he was driven to the point of collapse. Moreover, he was given a lesson in the surprising presence of God when Eldad and Medad were given the Spirit as well. God overflowed the human structures. This story was told and repeated in the scriptures that none might forget how abundant is God's grace and the Spirit flows in both structures and in people. There was absolutely nothing which the Spirit of God could not accomplish in their midst.
Looking again at the Corinthian community we find both Jews and Gentiles. We find men and women who for generations had made a systematic effort to see that the practice of faith was in conformity to the guidelines of God's law. They were diligent in their search and knowledge of the scriptures. They were disciplined and practiced their piety. there were also those who had grown up among the idols of the Greeks and the Romans. They had heard God's voice in the din of the public square. They were as called of God as their Jewish brethren. They brought with them enthusiasm and creativity to follow Jesus. Such different communities. Such different family backgrounds. Such different assumptions about the way to worship and serve God. The lesson from Corinthians is this:
"For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body - Jews or Greeks, slaves or free - and we were all made to drink of one Spirit." (12:13)
Looking at those present at the first Pentecost we discover people from every nation under the sun hearing the Good News in their own language. Great excitement, great celebration, was visible because unlike the political systems of the day that forced divisions between slave and free, men and women, aristocrats and peons, landowners and hired hands; the community of Christ’s followers welcomed and spoke to all.
Sometimes we just do not like the voice that speaks from our nature. I suspect that the gifts of the Spirit should be viewed with discernment but also with a sense that God had a sense of humor in his creative acts. The Psalmist who composed Psalm 104 talks about Leviathan, the mighty monster of the deep sporting or perhaps better translated, playingin the seas of God’s creation. I had a chance to reflect on the nature of God’s humor on a morning run this week. My ears were inundated with the distinctive bay of a beagle on the hunt. Turning my head to be sure I wasn’t the object of his alarm I discovered that there was the paunchy hound, barely able to swagger to the fence that surrounded the yard. Just beyond the chain links were two Canadian Geese decoys fixed firmly in the ground. The poor old beagle was spirited, but obviously mistaken by what he was seeing, and deceived by his hearing and sense of smell as well. No doubt, he was living in a grander day when he would have flushed the quarry and pursued without weariness.
Today, as we celebrate Pentecost, we celebrate our diversity of gifts and the joy of being one in Christ. Let us look with excitement and expectation for what God is doing - not just in our lives, but among all the people of Christian faith. Let us rejoice when the Spirit of God appears even when it erupts in some totally unexpected places. Let us not become mired down in the past. Let us embrace the surprise of the Spirit’s working and resist the temptation to squelch its movement remembering the lessons of Moses, Eldad, and Medad, Upper room disciples, and Paul of Tarshish – who was very Roman and very Jewish, yet the greater writer of Christian thought. The current pandemic crisis has brought to the forefront a whole new way of worshipping God through the use of technology. To God be the glory, great things he is doing! Amen!