Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
You send out your Spirit and they are created. You renew the face of the ground.
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 mixed multitude that was among them...” Some versions translate this “The rabble...” 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 go so far for so long. And this was just the beginning of the journey.
They had already complained repeatedly during the journey from Goshen to Sinai, and God always remained faithful despite their unfaithfulness. He provided food and water. He healed them and led them on the path to the Promised Land. They turned from God quickly as they waited beneath the mountain for Moses to return. They created a golden idol while Moses received the tablets of the Law.
Today’s story takes place just three days after the Israelites began their forty year wandering in the wilderness. 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 “for nothing.” 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.”
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. The rabble complained and the Israelites wept. 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.
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 by the third day all they could think about was how inconvenient it was. God was teaching them how to trust in Him, but they quickly (in three days) fell back into their old ways, desire and arrogance. They thought they knew better than God and they complained.
Moses was displeased. “Why did you make me the leader of these troublesome people?” Moses asked God; he 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. 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 a man of discipline and control and was disturbed by the lack of order. 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.
Tradition suggests several reasons for why the two were not at the tent of meeting. Some think that Eldad and Medad were afraid of rejection or they did not feel that they were worthy of the honor. Others say that because there were twelve tribes there was no easy way to appoint seventy elders. Which tribes would willingly relinquish a place in the council of elders? So, perhaps Moses chose six leaders from each of the twelve tribes and then made seventy-two lots, seventy with the word ‘elder’ and two blank, 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.
God is not limited by our sense of order or by our fears and uncertainties. Those two men received the Spirit because God chose them to be leaders. 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, “Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all Yahweh’s people were prophets, that Yahweh would put his Spirit on them!”
John had exactly the same reaction in this week’s Gospel reading. The disciples had seen someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name, but he wasn’t part of their group. Ironically, it was earlier in this chapter of Mark that John and the other disciples were unable to cast out a demon from a boy. They had failed. How much harder must it have been then, to see a stranger doing the work that they could not accomplish?
Moses answered Joshua and Jesus answered John, “Don’t stop them.” Were they jealous for Moses or Jesus’ sake, or for their own? Joshua was Moses’ right hand man, and now there were seventy others called to leadership. Was there room for even two more? John was part of Jesus’ inner circle, Jesus’ closest friends. John even asked Jesus if he could be His right hand man when He ruled. There were already twelve leaders. Was there room for more? What would happen if the disciples were never able to drive out demons, or heal, or impact the world? Would someone more gifted take their place? It was a very real fear for them, as it continues to be for us.
Jesus said, “Don’t stop them. Whoever is not against us is for us.” Perhaps this sounds backwards. We usually say, “Whoever is not for us is against us.” This limits our allies to those who are part of our circle. Jesus turns our thinking upside down. He tells us that we need not be concerned about those who are not against us. There were enough people against Jesus. Jesus assured them that they would not have to worry. “There is no one who will do a mighty work in my name, and be able quickly to speak evil of me.” Deeds of power came by the Spirit of God. If they had that Spirit, they could not work against the will and purpose of God.
Yesterday I talked about the choices we have in the grocery store. Have you ever seen how many different types of salt you can buy? I was once fascinated by a display in a country store because the salt was so beautiful: pink, black, chunky, flaky, and smoked. The salt came from all over the world, enchanting places like Hawaii, India, Italy and France. Some of the salt is so rare that it costs a fortune. One type of salt, I’ve learned, is mined from a cave in India, often in large blocks. Some chefs use the salt blocks for displaying and serving food, so the food is flavored by the vessel.
I have salt in a shaker and in a grinder which I use for cooking. I also have flavored salts, like garlic and celery salt which I use in recipes. And we all have a box of course salt in the pantry for making ice cream. Lately I have recently seen more types available in the grocery store, but since I didn’t know how to use the unusual types and colors, I never really paid much attention. I do have kosher salt because several recipes I have used recently called specifically for it.
Certain salts are better for cooking, while others are better for finishing. Regular table salt should be used for baking rather than a coarse salt because it will melt into the batter much better. The unusual salts are generally used for finishing because they are beautiful and add unique flavor to the dish. I don’t think I will spend much money on the more expensive salts because I doubt my palette is developed enough to notice the difference.
We take some things for granted because we know that we can go to the grocery store and get more if we run out. The salt most of us use is very inexpensive and available. In ancient times it was worth a great deal of money, perhaps even more than gold. Soldiers were paid in salt and slaves were traded for salt. This is why we have phrases such as “salt money” and “he is not worth his weight in salt.” Salt was used for flavor, but even more so it was used as a preservative and to seal covenants. If salt was used during a meal, it represented a relationship of loyalty, protection and hospitality. As a matter of fact, the ancient Greeks had a saying that “no one should trust a man without first eating a peck of salt with him.” A peck is a lot of salt (about 8 quarts.) By the time two men ate that much salt, they would know each other very well.
Salt was much more valuable in the old days because it was much less available. The Phoenicians were the first to harvest salt from the sea, flooding the plains with saltwater and allowing it to dry. Then the salt was harvested and sold to other nations. Such production helped to depreciate the value of salt. In the United States, the difficulty with salt production was not finding the salt, but transporting it from place to place. Morton Salt solved this problem by having salt plants all over the nation.
Jesus said to the disciples, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” Here He is referring to the salt covenant. They are the salt, “salted with fire” by God. Through them, God reveals His kingdom to the world, and through them He establishes a covenant of loyalty, protection and hospitality. Jesus says, “But if salt has lost its saltiness,” warning the disciples that if they have lost their saltiness, then they can’t do what they were called to do. The same is true of us. And if we do not live at peace with one another, how can we possibly share the peace of Christ with the world?
In last week’s Gospel text, 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.” We learn that we shouldn’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 Israelites and their companions certainly did not understand why Moses and God led them into the wilderness to die and they complained. Moses did not understand why God had placed such a heavy burden on his shoulder. Joshua and John did not understand why God would gift people outside their circles to do His work in the world. We don’t always understand how God is doing His work in this world, but we are called to trust in Him. Jesus Christ has finished the work of reconciliation on the cross, but the world is not yet perfect. Even the heavens and earth groan for the day when all will be restored as God created them to be. Until that day we will be surprised by God’s grace.
Today’s Psalm is a song of hope of how it can be with the world and all created beings living in the shadow of the Most High, trusting Him to provide all they need. In a perfect world, all of God’s creation will look to Him for food and all good things. In a perfect world, there is no anger or hatred, no war or violence, no tears or pain. Even the sea monsters - the leviathan - frolic in the ocean, leaving the ships to travel safely from port to port. In a perfect world, all creatures live together in fear of God and tremble in His presence, not because they are afraid but rather humbled by His magnificence. Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world because since Adam we have not feared God or looked to Him for all we need. Yet even in this there is hope, “You send out your Spirit and they are created. You renew the face of the ground.” He gives His Spirit to those He chooses; He can choose to give it to as many as He pleases. He knows the hearts of those who will live in humble obedience to His Word and He equips every one to do His work in the world.
Our scriptures this week cause us to consider how we determine who had the power and authority to do the work of the kingdom in this world. All too often we are quick to point fingers, like Joshua and John, at those who are outside our circle, complaining that they should not be able to prophesy or heal because they do not stand in the right relationship with God. “Lord, stop them” we say. There might be a valid reason for rebuke or correction. Yet, if they are doing the work in Jesus’ name, as Jesus has commanded, might there be another reason for our irritation? Are we jealous because they are doing things we can’t do? Are we frustrated because they stand outside our understanding of God? Are we offended because they do not fit into the mould we have established?
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: all is well when everything is out of our control because God will always be faithful and make all things right according to His good and perfect will.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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