Sunday, September 27, 2009

Lectionary 26
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
Psalm 19:7-14
James 5:13-20
Mark 9:38-50

For every one shall be salted with fire.

The crowd that left Egypt during the Exodus was not made up solely of Israelites. It was a mixed group, perhaps made up of God-fearing Egyptians and other foreigners. Did they see hope in the eyes of the Israelites, faith in the way they willingly left home and security, even if the security was one of suffering and pain? Were they persecuted, or did they fear persecution once Pharaoh realized what he’d done? We don’t know why they traveled with the Israelites, but they were among the crowd that made it across the Red Sea into freedom and the new life promised by the God of Israel.

The Old Testament lesson for today begins, “The rabble among them…” This is referring to the non-Israelites that traveled with Moses out of Egypt. They were the ones that began to grumble about the lack of food. They hated the manna sent by this God they did not know or understand and were, perhaps, bothered by the fact that this escape wasn’t the easy trip they’d expected. They couldn’t have known when they left Egypt that they’d have to wander the desert for forty years.

They were craving the life they used to lead, the food they used to eat, the comfort of their homes and the stability of being in one place. When they Israelites heard the grumbling, they began to weep. They began to remember a life in Egypt that was much different than the reality. They remembered a good life, with good food and comfortable homes. They saw their past through the eyes of those foreigners and they forgot the pain and suffering of their slavery. They trusted in the memory of the rabble and forgot that the God of their forefathers had delivered them out of slavery into the life He had promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Moses was frustrated. He was given the responsibility to care for this crowd, both Israelites and non-Israelites, and he found it difficult to deal with their grumbling. “If this is what I have to put up with, God, just kill me right here and now.” He wanted the easy solution; he looked for the extreme answer to his problem. Instead, God decided to appoint and anoint other leaders to be his helpers.

Seventy men were chosen and at the given hour, God took some of Moses’ power and gave it to the seventy. Two men in the camp also received the power. They prophesied just like those who had been in the tent of meeting. Joshua was disturbed by the lack of order. Joshua was a man of discipline and control. How could those who had not been in the right place at the right time have received the same gift as those who gathered as directed? “Stop them,” he said to Moses.

Why would God ask for Moses to find seventy men to serve as elders? After all, there are twelve tribes of Israel. The twelve tribes could have six elders, except for two tribes that had to have five. Which tribes would willingly relinquish a place in the council of elders? So, apparently, Moses chose six leaders from each tribe and then made seventy-two lots, seventy with the word ‘elder’ and two blank. This was Moses’ way of letting God weed out the two who were not chosen. According to some sources, Eldad and Medad selected the blank lots. If this is the case, then God decided to bless them apart from the lots.

Other sources say that they never went to draw. But why would Eldad and Medad stay in the camp? The Talmud gives two possibilities. Either they were afraid of rejection or they did not feel that they were worthy of the honor.

God is not limited by our sense of order or by our fears and uncertainties. Those two men were among those chosen to lead because God chose them. He gave the gift of the Spirit even though they were still in the camp. Tradition holds that Eldad and Medad gave the most incredible prophecies that day. They say that Eldad prophesied that Moses would die before entering Canaan, that it would be Joshua to lead the people into the Promised Land. Medad is said to have prophesied about the quail. We don’t know why they weren’t among the other leaders. God doesn’t seem to care. They were His chosen and they were given the gift of the Spirit. Joshua was upset that about the men prophesying, but he may have been even more upset about the prophecies. He wanted it to stop. Moses answered Joshua’s request, “Art thou jealous for my sake? would that all Jehovah's people were prophets, that Jehovah would put his Spirit upon them!”

Moses accepted God’s action because he knew that God did what is right and good and true. Moses also looked forward to the day when all God’s people would have the power to speak God’s Word into the world, a prophecy of what would be in the future. We have very narrow vision, seeing only what fits into our expectation and point of view. God sees the world through a much broader lens. He knows things we can never know. He sees hearts. He understands motive. He recognizes abilities and grants gifts. He knows what has been and what will be.

So, God solves the problem of the grumbling in the wilderness and Moses’ lack of confidence. We don’t hear the parts in today’s passage about the complaint or the solution, but in this passage they ask for meat and God answers. He doesn’t promise to send some meat; He tells them that they’ll receive so much meat that they’ll eat it until they are sick. And then when they do eat the meat, they become sick with a plague, brought on by God’s anger that burned against the people for their lack of faith. And those who grumbled died. This isn’t the kind of story we like to read in the scriptures; it shows a side of God we’d rather not deal with. But we are reminded that there are consequences that stem from our lack of faith and encouraged to trust in the God who delivers and provides.

The psalmist writes, “Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins; Let them not have dominion over me: Then shall I be upright, And I shall be clear from great transgression.” In these words we see the reality of our life in God’s kingdom: our blamelessness comes not by our power or might, but by the grace of God. In that state of mind we ask God to bless the words we speak and the things in our mind, that they might be acceptable to Him. Unfortunately, like the Israelites in the desert, we forget the Word and promise of God, hearing all too clearly the voices of those around us and joining in their complaints. We weep at what we hear, but we also fall prey to the worldly desires of those around us, joining in their demands.

David describes the law of God six ways. In the American Standard Version of the Bible, the six words are law, testament, precepts, commandment, the fear and ordinances. These words are not very hopeful. They are, in a sense, oppressive. However, David also describes God’s law in terms of grace: it restores the soul, makes wise the simple, rejoices the heart and enlightens the eyes. The qualities of God’s law are perfection, dependability, righteous, plain pure and true. It is more precious than gold, sweeter than honey. “Moreover by them is thy servant warned: In keeping them there is great reward.” For though law reveals hidden things – sin – God’s grace reveals something even greater – forgiveness.

So, we are reminded how to keep our focus where it belongs: in God and His Word. James tells us that if we are suffering, we should pray. How easy it is, however, to hear the voices of those around us who grumble about problems, who make it seem like the best solution is the extreme solution. How easy it is for us to get caught up in that attitude that complaining is the way to get through our pain. James tells us that if we are happy we should sing songs of praise. Do we? Do we really praise God when we are experiencing good times? Or do we forget that God is the source of all things good? Do we get caught up with the voices that tell us that our triumph has come by our own power and take the glory for our selves? Finally, James tells us that if we are sick we should seek the help of the elders who will pray for our healing. We will know healing and forgiveness as we keep our focus on the God who provides both in our good times and in our bad.

James also reminds us that we have the responsibility to keep our brothers and sisters focused in the right place. If we see someone falling into the trap of following the rabble, we are to remind them of God’s Word and to help them turn back to the right path. We tend to avoid any sort of criticism or judgment because we are afraid to seem intolerant. While it is true that we must be aware that our criticism and judgment can alienate or condemn, our role as Christians is to call people to repentance so that they might know the forgiveness of God and be reconciled with Him and all of God’s creation. We are called to help one another see our sin and turn from it, so that we will all dwell in the fold of God’s loving arms.

In the book of Mark we see Jesus was doing amazing things, healing the sick and casting out demons. Even the disciples are given the chance to experience sharing the power of God, sent out into the villages to proclaim God’s Word and heal the sick. In today’s lesson, we join Jesus and His followers just after the disciples were arguing about who is the greatest among them. They had it set in their minds that Jesus would be king. They had tasted the possibility of power and position. They were anxious to be in control of their world.

But they heard that someone outside their group was healing and casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Like Joshua, they told the prophet to stop because “he followed not us.” They thought that only those who were part of their group, who thought as they did, could do the work Jesus had given for them to do. But Jesus reminds them that if the man was healing in His name, He would not be able to turn against them. The power is not the man’s, just as the power does not belong to the disciples. The power belongs to God and those blessed with His power can not turn from the One whom He sent. The disciples are blessed to be a blessing, and so are others. Jesus tells them that those who give them a drink of water just because they bear His name will be blessed. So, too, should they (and we) bless those who bear His name even if they do not follow us.

In the Old Testament texts, the voices of the world cause God’s people to turn from the God who delivers. In the Gospel lesson, Jesus shows us that sometimes the cause of our sin is not from outside, but is brought on by our own parts. The foot and the eye can cause us to stumble. The foot represents our actions and the eye our thoughts. But Jesus says that if you are tempted to do and think things that go against God’s Word, then you should cut off your foot or cut out your eye. This is an extreme solution to the problem, but it is better to be without the foot or eye than to be wandering in the wrong direction: like back into Egypt.

Those disciples in last week’s lesson thought they would be at the right hand of the king, and in so thinking might have followed a path of war and divisiveness. They certainly wanted to stop others who had been given the power of God. Joshua also wanted to stop those given the power of God because they didn’t fall into his idea of order. Yet God does what God does for God’s own reasons. We are called to trust in Him, to follow His ways and know that He does what is good and right and true.

The Greeks had a saying, “No one should trust a man without first eating a peck of salt with him.” A peck is equal to about eight quarts. By the time anyone ate that much salt with another, they had a bond that would be hard to break. In another tradition, a salt covenant was created when salt was served at a meal: in sharing salt a promise was made. Both parties agreed to a relationship of loyalty, protection and hospitality. In today’s lesson Jesus said, “For every one shall be salted with fire.” When God salts with fire, He does so with the Holy Spirit, anointing His people who are then called to be salt in the world: blessed to be a blessing.

We have been salted with fire, the fire of God’s Holy Spirit. This anointing has brought us into a covenant relationship with God, a relationship of loyalty, protection and hospitality. In that relationship we are called to be salt, to take the covenant into the world. “Salt is good, but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?” Sin takes away our saltiness, it destroys peace among brothers. And so we ask God to give us all that we need to live as salt in this world. We seek His continued blessing so that we can do what is good, right and true. We join in with the prayer of the psalmist, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Jehovah, my rock, and my redeemer.” It is by His grace that we can think and do what is acceptable to God, to stay on the right path and speak His Word into the world.

There are those who are given a place in the council of elders, anointed by God to do the work of the community. But we are reminded that sometimes God reaches beyond our expectations and our potential to others whom He chooses to also do His work. We are salt, but there are others who are also salt. Let us remember that if they do what they do in the name of Christ they cannot turn from Him later. They are His as we are His.

Why do we want to stop our neighbor’s ministry? Is it because we are jealous? Are we frustrated by our own inability to accomplish the work we feel called to do? Are we afraid that we will be pushed out of the picture or replaced by someone more gifted? Jesus reminds us, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Are they doing the work in Jesus’ name? Then we should not stop them. Are we sure that our concerns are for their sake, for Christ’s sake or for the sake of the Kingdom? Then we should pray and praise, offer forgiveness and reconciliation, heal and restore: be salt that seasons the world with the grace of God.

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