Text: Numbers 11
Date: Pentecost XVIII (Proper 21) + 9/30/12
When people talk about “the spirit of the times” they mean to set about describing the character, the mood, the temper or disposition of people populating a place at a particular time. God’s Word before us today describes God’s people of all times, the Church as she struggles between faithfulness to the God who called her into existence and the spirit of the world that tempts us to fall back into disobedience and faithlessness. The Spirit of the Church in this world is always such a struggle. There are times when we may feel especially, purposefully committed, faithful and bold in following the Lord who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light. But then, if we are honest, there are times when such jealousy for the Lord turns into only pride of self. The account of Israel’s initial travels in the wilderness after their miraculous deliverance from slavery in Egypt describes all-too-familiar thoughts and emotions of the Church today, of a people called to follow the saving God by faith in His Word and promise alone. We need the encouragement of God’s Word to remain faithful through it all, to be able to repent when we are in the wrong, and nevertheless, as Luther said, to “sin boldly and yet believe in God more boldly still” when we act in the right of God’s Word. For this struggle and journey God gives His Holy Spirit to all whom He has called into His family.
Ah, Numbers chapter eleven! The “lectionary people” have given us an outline of the entire eleventh chapter. You didn’t miss a lot this morning—only the details about the people’s complaining, the description of the otherwise yummy manna God was providing, then God’s promise and provision of meat in the form of quail, and of God’s punishment for the people’s complaining. The main point, echoing today’s Gospel, is the giving of the Holy Spirit to all, as we say, “when and where it pleases God” to all who hear the Gospel (AC V) and are called to proclaim God’s wonderful deeds for the salvation of the world.
This should sound familiar. For, like you, God’s people had their beginning in God calling them through Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to be His people. It was, after all, only because of God’s promise and will, and through His Word that you were brought into the family of God. It wasn’t after your “due consideration,” “decision” or even awareness, as most of us were “called, gathered and enlightened” through our parents bringing us to the sacrament of Holy Baptism. And that’s as it should be. For we must confess that, even as adults, it is not because of our own reason or strength that we have come to faith but always and only because of the Holy Spirit working through the Word of God that faith is created in the heart. This is the first and most important work of the Spirit of the Church.
It didn’t (and it doesn’t) take too long, however, for our sinful nature to resist the Spirit and try to go our own way. “The rabble” of Israel quickly developed “a strong craving.” You know what a strong craving is, don’t you? It may be a strong craving for chocolate, or for fresh air. A strong craving for booze is called alcoholism. A strong craving for gambling is called compulsive gambling. Most “strong cravings” lead to sinful or destructive ends. So here. These folks developed a strong craving for what? Food! “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing.” And then they even list the menu: “cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic,” all those things that add “zip” or tastiness to food. “Oh that we had meat to eat!” they said. This was the original version of the cry, “WHERE’S THE BEEF?” And then they didn’t mean just the beef, but, with all the condiments, too: “two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun!”
This really does illustrate the problem of today and of all times when the provision and revelation of God doesn’t seem to be enough. God was providing sustenance through this food called “manna.” So God provides us, His people today, with spiritual sustenance through the food called His Word and Sacraments. As the rabble of the children of Israel then wanted something more—more agreeable, more stimulating, more interesting or attractive—you know, “cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic,” “special sauce, lettuce, cheese pickles,” or should we say pit bands and soloistic music that we really can’t sing, so we may take God’s provision for granted, the doctrine of His mighty Word and the blessed sacraments. When many get bored with the usual, the old liturgy, sermon and sacrament, then they tend to blame it on the liturgy, the sermon and the sacrament itself rather than their own discontented hearts.
Interesting, isn’t it that the discontent and discord of the people seems to rub off even on their leader, Moses? So he is even tempted to despair over the excessive burden of his office. “Why have you dealt ill with your servant? And why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me?” Pastors for generations have at times sat alone in their study, saying the complaint of Moses, “I am not able to carry all this people alone; the burden is too heavy for me.” If anyone needed a “pastoral appreciation Sunday” it was Moses and it was now. Pastor’s today need to remember and to be encouraged by the fact that the burden of their office really is too heavy for any one man. But also that God’s Spirit is perfectly sufficient for the performance of the duties of his office. Therefore all the promises of the office are repeated at every ordination and installation service. For instance, St. Paul in Second Corinthians writes, “Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God” (2 Cor 3:4-5).
God answered Moses by giving him the assistance of the seventy elders whom He said would “bear the burden of the people with you” (11:17). Then God moved to answer the people’s complaint, but in a way that had its own built-in punishment. For God said He would surely send meat, not just for one day, or two days, or five days, or ten days, or twenty days, but a whole month, “until it comes out at your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you.” In other words God was going to send them so much that they’d have meat “out of the wazoo!”
Before this, however, Moses gathered the seventy men of the elders of the people and the Lord came down in the cloud and took some of the Spirit that was on Moses and put it on the seventy elders. Now wherever God sends or fills with His Spirit, there always follows preaching, proclamation. “As soon as the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied.”
Now the miraculous part of all this is that even two of the elders who remained in the camp and didn’t attend at the tent of meeting, they also received the Spirit and began to prophesy in the camp. When some questioned whether these were authorized to preach, Moses said, “Are you jealous for my sake?” So we heard the disciple John telling Jesus that they tried to stop someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name who wasn’t of their number. Moses said, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets.” Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:39-40).
The Spirit of the Church is the Spirit of Christ who calls, gathers and enlightens people creating faith in the heart, when and where it pleases God, in those who hear the gospel. The Spirit of the Church is the Spirit of Christ who always points to Jesus Christ. For it wasn’t Moses who provided forgiveness, it wasn’t a prophet, apostle, pastor or teacher who carried your burdens to the cross. It was Jesus, only Jesus.
This will be the burden of the coming celebration of the 500th anniversary of the conservative Lutheran Reformation in five years in 2017, namely not to get caught up only in self pride, saying, “look how great we are,” but in doing the real, Lutheran thing, namely, proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ—God Himself come from heaven, taking on our human flesh, living under God’s Law. Having perfectly fulfilled God’s holy Law Jesus nevertheless offered Himself as the one, sufficient sacrifice for the sin of the world, your sin and mine, shedding His life-giving blood on the cross. Then, “after making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb 1:3). And now all to whom He comes by means of His Word carried into the heart by the Spirit, are adopted into God’s family, given eternal life through the forgiveness of their sins, being buried with Christ by Holy Baptism and sustained in faith through the sacrament of the altar until that glorious day when we shall stand before His throne, singing with angels and archangels the eternal song of praise to God our Savior.
For now “Church” is a struggle. But we have always before us the great promise:
Through toil and tribulation
And tumult of her war
She waits the consummation
Of peace forevermore
Till with the vision glorious
He longing eyes are blest,
And the great Church victorious
Shall be the Church at rest. (LSB 644:4)