Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
I will sing unto Jehovah as long as I live: I will sing praise to my God while I have any being.
There's something about three days. Benjamin Franklin once said, "Guests, like fish, get old after three days." I'm not sure that's entirely true, especially if it is company that you love, but there's something about three days. Wednesday, the third day of the week, is in some ways the hardest day of the week: you have been at work three days, the job is getting to you and the weekend seems so far off. We love a three day weekend. Exercise experts recommend to those beginning an exercise program that they should rest on the third day after having a good workout the other two; without rest the body becomes more susceptible to severe muscle soreness, a suppressed immune system, improper sleep, a decrease in strength and performance, and injury. We know, of course, the most grief-filled three days happened about two thousand years ago as our Lord Jesus was in the tomb.
I was surprised when I read today's Old Testament lesson, because it seems like we just talked about the Israelites complaining about being hungry. We did; a few weeks ago we saw the story of the Israelites when they had just crossed the Red Sea. They began complaining on the third day. In response, God provided both manna and quail as well as water from the rock.
Today's story takes place just three days after the Israelites began their forty year wandering in the wilderness. They had just left Sinai after receiving the Tablets of the Law. They had just received the instructions of God for organizing the nation. They were probably still in the shadow of the mountain and they had already forgotten to trust in the God who saved them from the Egyptians. As a matter of fact, they were already recalling the good food they had in Egypt, the fish and fruit 'at no cost.' They had already forgotten the slavery and the abuse they experienced. The day they left Sinai was just one year, one month and one week after the day they left Goshen, and they looked at it as 'the good old days.'
Think about the amazing things God had done in that one year, one month and one week. He parted the Red Sea, killed the Egyptian army, provided water, manna and quail in the desert. At the foot of Sinai He proved His power and He gave the people His Law. He was with them as they wandered, in the cloud by day and fire by night, leading them toward the Promised Land. He had saved them and was taking them to the place He gave to their father Abraham, but all they could think about by the third day is how inconvenient it was. God was teaching them how to trust in Him, but quickly (in three days) fell back into their old ways, desire and arrogance. They thought they knew better than God and they complained.
Don't we all.
Moses had his own complaints. "God, why did you make me the leader of these troublesome people?" One of the things we have to remember is that the group that left Egypt was not just Hebrews. Many God-fearing Egyptians and other foreigners had joined them. They did not have the history with God; they did not know the forefathers who were given the promises. Yet, despite being outsiders, they, too, had benefitted from the hand of God. They may not have suffered as the Hebrews did in Egypt, but they left for a reason? Did they have compassion on those they saw suffering? Were they Egyptians whose consciences demanded they do what was right by those to whom they had done so much wrong? They saw something in the people who were being led to freedom and they followed, yet at the first moment of discomfort, they fanned the flames of discontent in the entire camp. It is easy to blame the rabble, but even the faithful were easily led astray.
The rabble was 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 didn't know what to do. He knew the reality of the slavery because he had risked his own life to lead the people out of Egypt. He knew the dangers of returning. He knew the blessings of following God. "Why did you stick me with this mess?" he wondered to God. 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.
Ah, the easy out. Don't we all want to take it? Isn't it easier to just let our neighbor do what they want to do, rather than show them the blessing of what God has to offer? Isn't it easier to follow them to a life that seems like it might just be a little better than pursuing after a God who seems to want us to suffer? The world, the outsiders, make that life seem so wonderful. They talk about freedom. They talk about pleasure. They talk about satisfaction, and we want to join because it looks so much better.
Have you ever asked God to just remove the problem, perhaps by asking to die? That's a pretty extreme response to the troubles we face, but it is the prayer Moses prayed when after three days the rabble and the Hebrews were already complaining. Instead of death, God decided to give Moses some help and told him to appoint and anoint other leaders. He probably felt very alone, one man against a million complainers with no idea how to meet their needs. God reminded him that he is not alone, and once the camp was involved in the day to day decisions, they settled down.
God sent quail later, but He took care of the more difficult problem first: establishing authority. 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.
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. God proved His authority once again by choosing those outside our expectation and granting the gifts necessary even if the men were not where the people expected them to be. 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; 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.
The disciples had the same problem. They saw a man casting demons in Jesus' name and they were jealous for His sake. Or perhaps they were jealous for their own sakes; after all, by this point in Mark's telling of the story, the disciples had themselves been out healing 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 reminded 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 did not belong to the disciples. The power belongs to God and those blessed with His power cannot turn from the One whom He sent. Those called and gifted by God are blessed to be a blessing, and those that bless then will also be blessed. The point here is that we should not doubt the gifts and the work others do in the name of Jesus and for the sake of our God even when they don't meet our expectations because those gifts and calling are given to them by Him. We worry not for God's sake but for our own because we don't want to lose our power or authority to an outsider.
This text comes right after the passage we heard last week about the disciples wondering who was the greatest. Jesus made it clear that they should be servants to one another. In this story, Jesus continues the thought to include the outsiders, the 'rabble.' Don't doubt what God can do, for God does what He knows to be right and good, whatever our expectations. We are called simply to trust Him and to follow where He leads us because it is the right way to go.
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 ourselves? 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. It is easier to let the crowd go their own way. It is much harder to trust that God has a plan that will lead us to a Promised Land that is better than anything the world has to offer.
The rabble and the Hebrews could not wait until the day that they would see the promise, so they started looking back to a time that seemed better than the present. Joshua was worried that the two elders who didn't follow the instructions would become troublesome for Moses, or for himself, and so he argued that they should be stopped. The disciples had expectations that were not what God was planning, so they didn't know how to handle things when God did something different. I would become even worse as they drew nearer to the cross because then they would see a world turned upside down.
We are called to trust in the Lord. The psalmist says, "These wait all for thee, That thou mayest give them their food in due season." This life we live in faith may not always go the way we expect it to go. We may experience suffering and pain. We may lose our position to another who is more qualified. We may have to eat manna without meat or wander in the wilderness for forty years. We may have to watch as others have gifts that we thought were limited to those who belong to us.
However, God is the power. He is the authority. It is for Him we work and live. So do others. They might not follow us. They might even disagree with us. But if God has blessed them to be a blessing, who are we to stop them? Who are we to silence their prophecies? Who are we to stop their ministry?
So, let us praise God for every blessing, whether they are the ones through our lives or those that God gives through others. He is at work when the work is done in His name. They can't do a might work in Jesus' name and then quickly speak evil of Him. "For he that is not against us is for us." We might just discover that the one we want to stop is the one whom God has sent to speak the Word we need to hear. He or she might be the one to give us a cold cup of water to drink. They might be the one whom God has called to salt us with fire, to make us grow and mature in faith, to humble us and to bring us closer to God.
He that is not against Jesus is not against us, and therefore is for Jesus and for us. We are no better than the rabble who instigates or the crowd that follows. We are no better than Joshua and the disciples. We fail. We follow the wrong people. We complain and doubt and desire our own way. We want to be satisfied and we seek the wrong things to satisfy us. But God has called us to a new life in Christ. He has forgiven us, giving us gifts and sent us into a world that needs to hear His Word. They need what we have to give. We need to trust that God will use us to share His grace, even when everything seems to be out of our control. Here's the secret: it is better when it is out of our control because then it is in God's. Who is better at this? Can we, the humans, see the whole picture? Or is it the God worthy of our praise who has the answers?
A WORD FOR TODAY
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