A sermon based on Numbers 11:16, 24-29
Sunday, October 4, 2015 - Pentecost 19B
You know what seems to spread even faster than fire on the Peninsula in a dry summer month? Jealousy and complaining. That was certainly the case in Numbers 11. The people of Israel had been rescued from Egypt and had come to Mt. Sinai to receive God's law. They had spent about a year there, camped at the foot of the mountain. But now, it was time for their journey to the promised land to begin. And only three days into their travels, they began to complain.
In verse 4 we're told that "the rabble" traveling with the Israelites—whoever that was—began complaining about their food. And their complaints spread to the Israelites who grumbled that they were sick of this manna God gave to keep them alive. Fresh vegetables and tasty meat were on their minds but not on their menus, and they responded by complaining and wailing, "each [family] at the entrance of his tent." "Oh, for the good old days," they cried, "when we were slaves back in Egypt! Back then—when our Egyptian masters were cracking the whips on our back and slaughtering our sons, well, back then—at least we had fresh fish to eat and garlic and onions! Mmmm! Oh, how good it was back in the day!" And the complaining spread.
It got to Moses. Overwhelmed by the complaining, he did some complaining of his own. He said, "Why have you brought this trouble on your servant? What have I done to displease you that you put the burden of all these people on me? 12 Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? Why do you tell me to carry them in my arms, as a nurse carries an infant, to the land you promised on oath to their forefathers? 13 Where can I get meat for all these people? They keep wailing to me, 'Give us meat to eat!' 14 I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me. 15 If this is how you are going to treat me, put me to death right now—if I have found favor in your eyes—and do not let me face my own ruin."
And God answered. That's where our text for this morning picks up, at Numbers 11:16...
16 The LORD said to Moses: "Bring me seventy of Israel's elders who are known to you as leaders and officials among the people. Have them come to the Tent of Meeting, that they may stand there with you...
24 So Moses went out and told the people what the LORD had said. He brought together seventy of their elders and had them stand around the Tent. 25 Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke with him, and he took of the Spirit that was on him and put the Spirit on the seventy elders. When the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied, but they did not do so again.
26 However, two men, whose names were Eldad and Medad, had remained in the camp. They were listed among the elders, but did not go out to the Tent. Yet the Spirit also rested on them, and they prophesied in the camp. 27 A young man ran and told Moses, "Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp."
28 Joshua son of Nun, who had been Moses' aide since youth, spoke up and said, "Moses, my lord, stop them!"
29 But Moses replied, "Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the LORD's people were prophets and that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!"
I. Not of Others
It's almost hard to believe that this is the same Moses that we read about last week: "(Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.)" (Numbers 12:3) Grumbling and complaining against God, asking to be relieved of his duty, even relieved of his life, if he has to put up with any more from these ungrateful Israelites.
Maybe it was because he was trying to do it all on his own and didn't really trust God to give him help, but the truth is that Moses became just as guilty as the people by complaining to God that he had thrust this leadership role upon him. His prayer, full of personal pronouns, was full of self-pity as Moses seemed more concerned about his personal status than with God's glory.
And his complaining spread! When God granted Moses the help he needed, Moses' aid, Joshua, also griped, "These two didn't even bother to show up for their own ordination! They're going to take some of the glory that belongs to you and make it their own!" "Moses, my lord, stop them!"
Does this attitude of grumbling and griping sound familiar? I know it does to me. We too, sometimes get that "Woe is me!" attitude that cries out to God, "The job you've given me is too big! I don't want this responsibility!" "Lord, I don't know anything about being a parent—how can I do this?" "I don't think I can be the kind of teacher of God's Word these kids deserve." "God, do you really expect me to be a faithful spouse when I get so little love in return?" "Lord, they gave me a new position at work—I'm in way over my head here!" "God, I don't think I can confront my relative in their sin." "Lord, I don't want to serve at church. It's too much work! And I'm already so busy!" We too cry out in our hearts, "The burden is too heavy for me. If this is how you are going to treat me, put me to death right now."
Or maybe we're not jealous of those who have less of a burden than us, but, like Joshua, our jealousy is of those who have more prestige. Do you ever think to yourself, "Here I am, working at a business, in a job, at a career, that hardly matters in God's kingdom?" Do you sometimes feel like your role is too small? And that others are getting the glory that should be due you?
And whether we sound like Moses or like Joshua, we too often gripe and complain and sound like the Israelites: "Oh for the good old days when I was a slave to sin and my selfish nature. Then—when I was stuck in sin and bound for hell, back then—at least I could live life as I pleased and do only what I wanted!" And such whining and complaining before God is a serious sin because we begin to view life not in terms of what God has done and continues to do for us, but in terms of what God hasn't done for us.
And so we deserve to have God say, "Fine. You don't want the responsibility? You're done. I will take your life, you whiner." Or, "You don't like others helping because you're worried they'll get more recognition than you? Fine! Do it all alone!" What we really deserve for our jealousy of others, whether it's because they have less to do than us or more, what we deserve for the complaints that result, is… hell.
God responded to Moses complaints, not with a "Suck it up, buttercup, and quit being such a wimp!" Not with a "Fine. You are done. Zap!" or by taking his life. Instead God exercised great patience with Moses, with Joshua, and with the people. Instead of punishment, God sent help. 70 elders were chosen by Moses, and ordained by God. They were filled with the same Holy Spirit that gave strength to Moses. And they would prophesy to show that God did indeed sanction them to serve in the ministry—all 70 of them—even the two that, for whatever reason, didn't make it to their ordination. They would help Moses and Joshua carry the burden of the people.
And as we hear Moses complain that the task God had given to him was too big to handle, we can't help but notice a contrast between him and Jesus, who took the task given to him—though it was far, far greater—without complaint. Moses was called to lead 2 million people. Jesus was called to take the place of far more than 2 million, or even 2 billion people, and to endure hell for their sins. And though he too was overwhelmed with the task before him, he wasn't jealous of those who didn't have such a burden. He didn't gripe. He didn't shrink back.
And like Moses, later in our account, Jesus wished that all God's people might be prophets and have the Spirit as he did. And he made it possible. He took our sins—every gripe, every complaint, every jealousy of others—away when he took those sins on himself on the cross. And paying the penalty of hell that those sins deserve he paid our debt. And then he sent his Spirit to you and to me and brought us to faith in what he's done.
Moses' prayer that the Lord would put his Spirit on all his people (11:29) came true on the day of Pentecost. On that day God fulfilled his prophecy to "pour out his Spirit" on all his people. Ever since that day, we have God's promise that his Spirit is truly present in every believer, strengthening our faith in Jesus and enabling us to serve him in our own station in life, no matter how glorious or humble that station might be.
And we can't help but respond. Moses' point with his aid was that Joshua should be jealous for the Lord and for his work and not for the honor or position of Moses. And the same is true of us. We are jealous, not of others or their position—whether because they have less responsibility or more glory—but we're jealous for the Lord. We want him to get the glory! And so we strive with all zeal to that end.
You are spirit-filled, dear friends! And the work of the gospel at Grace Lutheran and across the Peninsula belongs to all of us. All 70 or so who have gathered today. And to the others who didn't show up this morning. And our task? To share the good news of Jesus' forgiveness "that all the LORD's people [might be] prophets and that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!" We do our work no matter how difficult or tiring it may seem, not because we must, not because it is our divinely-given responsibility (though it is: yours as well as mine), and not out of jealousy of others or out of competition with them, but because we want to. We long to serve our Savior in thanks for the way he first served us. We long to give him the glory.
Just because you aren't prophesying like Eldad and Medad doesn't mean you don't have the same Holy Spirit that they did. You are God's child through the death of Jesus! You are an heir of eternal life. And the opportunities God gives you to serve him whether large or small are the perfect opportunity to be jealous, not of others, but for God and for his glory. "Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God." (1 Corinthians 10:31) In Jesus' name, dear friends, amen.