Rob Tennant, Hillside Church, Chapel Hill, NC
Pentecost, Sunday, May 31, 2020
(COVID-19, steaming worship)
Shavuot is the commemoration of Moses receiving the Torah, the law, on Mount Sinai. Some Christians will say they don’t like the law. Some Christians ignore Jesus’ statement “I have come not to abolish the law but to fulfill it.” Jesus adored God’s law and knew it better than anyone. He read the law, memorized the law, and meditated on the law.
What is this law? Read the first five books of the Old Testament, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Creation. Establishment of Israel as God’s people. Slavery in Egypt and Exodus. And law. Much of this law, we Christians don’t observe because we believe the sacrificial worship system was fulfilled by Jesus. Still, the law is in the Bible we claim to revere. We have to read it, respect it, and understand it.
Shavuot; Jewish people remember Moses receiving the law.
In Acts 2, the followers of Jesus were where we left them last week in Acts 1, in Jerusalem, waiting to see what God would do next. The day of Shavuot came, or in Greek, the language of the New Testament, the day of Pentecost. God’s next move was to rain down fire – the Holy Spirit, filling the hearts and minds of Jesus’ followers, empowering them to spread God’s love as they bore witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus.
In his Pentecost sermon, Peter tied the coming of the Spirit to the vision of the prophet Joel. “In the last days, … God declares, … I will pour out my Spirit” (Acts 2:17; Joel 2:28). Christians today rightly associate Pentecost with the coming of the Holy Spirit. We don’t pay enough attention to the activity of the Spirit throughout God’s word. We circle this as the moment God empowered his followers. It’s not the first time God acted as Spirit. This event at Shavuot, the Pentecost that came immediately after the resurrection, falls in line with a tradition of God’s Spirit filling His people so they could achieve his purposes.
Of the 100’s of Old Testament stories in which we see the Spirit, consider Numbers 11. Moses has led Israel out of Egypt. The nation camped out at the foot of Mount Sinai while Moses received the law. Then, the people moved across the Sinai Peninsula toward Canaan – the Promised Land. In Numbers 11, on the move, the people complained.
Griping, groaning, grousing: it’s one of the original human activities. In Exodus chapter 2, enslaved in Egypt, the Israelites groan. Verse 24 says “God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, and God looked upon the Israelites, and God noticed them.” Heard. Remembered. Looked. Noticed. Through Moses, God led his people through the Red Sea, and into the wilderness, completely dependent upon him. By the time we arrive at Numbers 11, the people have complained a lot. Now they are pining to go back to Egypt.
They have forgotten how unbearable life was under the taskmaster’s whip. “We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at” (Numbers 11:5-6). In the face of wilderness challenges, they whine and complain and God isn’t having it.
This part of the story should be very familiar for us, especially in today’s outrage culture. Facebook and Twitter exist for us to, unchecked, spew forth our self-righteousness. We are easily offended. From the busybody on the neighborhood list serve to the school friend you haven’t seen in a decade to the past-his-prime comedian to the White House; everyone can go on these platforms and try to shame those they don’t like. Outrage culture is polarizing our country. It is dangerous and immediate. We are better and quicker at complaining than we have ever been.
Moses heard the people complaining. Because of his special relationship with God, he knew their complaints angered God. I am certain God is none-to-happy with the way we, in our culture talk about about one another. God was furious, the people wept, and Moses was in the middle of it. So, he complained. He barks at God, “Why have you treated [me] so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of this people on me? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child,’ to the land you promised on oath to their ancestors? Where am I to get meat to give all these people? For they come weeping to me and say, ‘Give us meat to eat.’ I am not able to carry all these people alone, for they are too heavy for me. If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once” (Numbers 11:11-15).
Oh, Moses really tells God off. As your pastor, I suggest you don’t talk to God the way Moses did. If you do, don’t expect God to react the same way to you that he did to Moses. Look at Eve, Noah, Abraham, Hagar, Jacob, Joseph, Joshua, Ruth, Samson, Job, David, Elijah, Jeremiah, Esther, and Daniel, just to name a few. Each one has a dynamic relationship with God as Spirit, but each is unique, different from the others. If you have put your trust in Jesus Christ, you will develop your relationship with God the Spirit and maybe you’ll find a moment where you want to complain as Moses did. God relates to each individual individually. What we see with Moses is not a formula or a pattern; it’s story. Your part in the story will be unique to your relationship with God.
Moses unloaded, gave God a piece of his mind. It wasn’t the first time and wouldn’t be the last. In this instance, God says, OK. Gather seventy elders and I’ll give them Spirit so it’s not all on you. He gives exactly what Moses requested. Then he tells Moses he’s going to give exactly what the people requested.
They don’t like the Manna God had fed them. He’ll give meat – quail meat. He’ll give so much they’ll have quail coming out of their noses (Numbers 11:20). What does Moses say? “I have 600,000 people with me” (11:21). He can’t believe God can do this. Moses has already seen a burning bush, the 10 plagues that devastated Egypt, God traveling before him in a fiery cloud, the parting of the Red Sea, water pour forth from rocks, the Earth open up and swallow some of the people in an another instance of complaining, and he has received the law, written by God on stone tablets. Will there ever come a moment when he doesn’t question God? God has had enough! He responds, “Is the Lord’s power limited? You shall whether [God’s] word will come true” (11:23).
At this point both God and Moses sound riled up. Does God get riled up? The Holy Spirit is God available to us, speaking to our hearts, opening our eyes, and empowering us to work for God’s good in the world. After this back-and-forth, Moses gathers 70 elders to the tent of meeting and the Spirit of the Lord comes on them, as it did in on Jesus’ followers at Pentecost in Acts 2.
With the Spirit of the Lord on them, they prophesy. This means they spoke God’s truth with clarity and conviction. For some reason, two of the appointed elders, Eldad and Medad miss the meeting. Can you imagine missing the one elder’s meeting where the Holy Spirit pours out on all the elders in a Pentecost-kind of way? But God’s spirit wasn’t confined to the tent. If they couldn’t make it, the Spirit would come to them! They prophesied too. They went around the camp speaking God’s truth.
“Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” cries Joshua. At this point, he’s Moses’ number 1 assistant. “Stop these clowns” he tells Moses. Eldad and Medad prophesying outside the tent didn’t fit Joshua’s paradigm. Throughout the narrative in Numbers, Deuteronomy, and the book of Joshua, he very rarely runs afoul of God’s will. But here, it is too much for him. As we often do, Joshua wants God to act, but not beyond what he can understand or control. Moses hits Joshua with a truth bomb Christians today badly need! “Are you jealous for me, Joshua” (11:29)? You think I want to be God’s only prophet? “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put His spirit on all of them!”
At Pentecost, we don’t all become prophets, but we do all have the opportunity, in Christ, to know God the Spirit. We can commit to speaking God’s truth. We may not all be prophets, but we can speak prophetically. Because God works with, in, and through anyone. He worked through constantly complaining cowardly Moses. He called out an imperfect people who fell short often, and through them settled the Promised Land. When he came to earth in human flesh, Jesus, it was in a peasant family in a backwater town of an occupied nation.
In spite of the shortcomings we have as a people, hypersensitive complainers in an instant, outrage culture, God will work though us, His church. God shook up the Roman empire working through the ragtag band of disciples whose leader had been crucified, and the world was changed. Now there are followers of Jesus in every nation.
The spread of the Gospel happened because God the Spirit worked through people and nothing is impossible for God. Moses saw God feed 600,000 people more meat than they could stomach. With five pieces of pita bread and two trout, Jesus fed 5000 people until they were buffet-full. There were 12 baskets of leftovers.
No limits apply to God. His Spirit pours out in the tent and outside it. Will the Coronavirus break us? Maybe, but if we, as God’s church, work in concert with the Holy Spirit, we’ll see the wonders God will do, even in a time such as this. Will political divisiveness tear us apart? To a degree, yes, but even in the midst of social turmoil, with the Spirit at work in us, we will see the wonders God works, working through His church.
It is Pentecost. Read the story: Numbers 11; Joel 2; Acts 2. Look at the world around you, the good, the bad, and the ugly. The Holy Spirit working in the church and through the lives of Jesus’ followers will continue drawing people to faith in Him. Watch and see. Is there anything God cannot do?