Pastor Seminarian Martin Loescher delivers a sermon entitled “God is Delivering His People” based on Numbers 11, various verses at Peace Lutheran Church in Hartford, Wisconsin.
Delivered on Sunday, September 30, 2018
When we go to church, does our enjoyment of the service depend on how much we like the people involved? The Word of God gladdens our hearts, for sure, but our personal feelings for the preacher, musicians, or people we sit next to, taints our listening; we don’t appreciate the message as much if we don’t appreciate the people. But not so with the apostle Paul in our first lesson. Paul writes that certain men were actually trying to cause trouble for him, and elevate themselves over him, by preaching while he was stuck in prison. But do you remember Paul’s reaction? “What does it matter? The important things is, Christ is being preached! And for this I rejoice!” If only the apostle John, in our Gospel, could have kept the same attitude. Instead, John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” What was with John? Couldn’t he tell the man driving out demons was on his side? The reason why John made him stop, is that he lost sight of the big picture. God was delivering people through that man’s work! But jealousy blinded John; jealousy blinded Joshua in our sermon text too, and finally, jealousy blinds us. But God has a way of directing our eyes back to the big picture and we rejoice when we see it: God is among us, delivering his people.
Now how is it possible for us not see that? Well, think about how Joshua and Moses lost sight of this in our lesson. The people of Israel had just been complaining (again) about the hardships of traveling through the desert, and God rained down holy fire to teach them about complaining. But not long after, the Israelites found something else to complain about—manna. Manna was a sweet-tasting kind of bread that God had been giving them to eat. But after years of eating manna, they were sick of it. Every family wailed at the entrance of their tents, “We have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna! We want meat!” And God burned with anger.
Moses could see, things were not looking good, and according to his prayer, he seemed to have convinced himself that Israel’s fate rested on his shoulders. Where am I going to get meat for them? I cannot carry all these people by myself. If this is how it’s going to be, why don’t you just kill me—so I don’t have to face my own ruin.”
Wow—Moses had the gall to say before God that he was carrying all these people by himself? And Moses despaired so much that he asked God to kill him?
But God answered Moses with surprising mercy. God told Moses to gather 70 elders around the tent of meeting, (the tabernacle), and then God placed his Holy Spirit on each elder and enabled them to prophesy (speak God’s words.) In effect God stamped his divine approval on these elders and equipped them to help Moses lead the wayward people. Even two elders who didn’t come to the tabernacle, Eldad and Medad, joined in. We’re not sure why they didn’t gather with the rest of the elders, either Moses didn’t choose them, or they just failed to show up. Either way, the Holy Spirit apparently didn’t care, and enabled them to prophesy inside the camp.
And what a reaction from Joshua! “Moses, stop Eldad and Medad!” The Bible says he was Moses’ loyal aide since he was a kid. He felt jealous on behalf of Moses’ because of the unauthorized prophesying of Eldad and Medad, and possibly for his own sake too. But then he tells Moses to stop them? What was Moses going to do, bind and gag Eldad and Medad, and tell the Holy Spirit to cut it out? Joshua was too jealous to see the big picture. The Holy Spirit was with them, intervening and delivering his people.
But if we put ourselves in Joshua’s sandals, could we have seen any better? Jealousy blinds us too. When someone we know starts talking about their faith on social media, or in person, we get a little smug, “Really? Do we all need another personal testimonial from this lady? She thinks she’s so spiritual but her actions don’t show it. Not like mine. And as if this guy is expounding some deep truths I don’t already know! I could have said it better. He doesn’t deserve a voice, not until he knows his Bible as well as I do.” Other times we cast a jealous eye upon a church musician, or pastor, or another leader in the congregation: just look at him, walking around like he’s the best thing that ever happened to this church. Why should I listen to him? I don’t even like the guy. How come no one ever recognizes my gifts? No one ever thanks me, most of the people here don’t even know how much I do for this church.” This jealousy we feel is not just a little problem of ours, it’s an offence to God.
Moses of course is, the other extreme. Remember how he grew tired of the spotlight, and went so far as asking God to kill him? His prayer shocks us, but, ironically, we don’t sound different. God, I’m done! Do you expect me to carry this family, these school-children, these church members all by myself? How am I supposed to pay the bills this month? How do you expect me to keep my actions and my thoughts so clean, all the time? This isn’t fair, it’s too heavy for me. I’ve had enough. Again, this isn’t just a character flaw we’re talking about, it’s a sin against God. It’s a sin that blinds us, and makes us and lose sight of the big picture.
Thank God, for redirecting our vision to the bigger picture. If we take one more look at our sermon text, we’ll see how he did just that with Moses.
So Moses complains that his burden is too heavy for him, and asks the LORD to kill him, but God has a spectacular answer, full of grace. God has Moses gather 70 elders of the people, and he makes them stand around the tabernacle. Now picture these 70 aged men, facing outward towards every corner of the camp, waiting silently. Down comes God, shrouded in mist. You can’t quite make out what God is saying to Moses in the mist, but all of a sudden you see the 70 elders, one by one, just erupt! Their bearded mouths fly open, and out spews divine, heavenly words, comforting words, words spoken with a wisdom that is not of this world. And even old Eldad and Medad inside the camp begin to prophesy, thundering like the mouthpieces of God. Can you imagine the weight that has just been lifted from Moses’ shoulders? There Moses stands, beaming, while every wailing tent sits in astonished silence.
I wonder what he’s thinking. “I’m not really carrying these people, am I, LORD? You bore them out of Egypt on eagles’ wings, and these people had rejected you and were ready to turn back to Egypt (probably kill me too) but you spoke to them through the elders. You saw what we needed and you came to help.”
But then Joshua interrupts Moses’ thoughts–“Moses, stop Eldad and Medad from prophesying!” “Are you jealous for my sake?” Moses answers. “I wish all two million of the LORD’s people were prophets, this is exactly what we need!” Moses can’t help but rejoice, he finally sees the big picture—through the elders, including Eldad and Medad, God is delivering his people from their folly.
In fact, God is delivering us at that moment. Let’s say God let the Israelites turn back to Egypt. Let’s say they don’t make it to Canaan as planned. Abraham’s descendants die in the desert, or die in Egypt, and there never is a land of Israel. There would be no Bethlehem, no light to dawn on those living in the land of the shadow of death. There would be no Jesus, and no Roman cross to hang him on. There would be no payment for our sins.
But God would not let the Israelites turn back. He does not lead like Moses or like us. He did not grow tired of the Israelites’ stupid refusal to trust him. It was not a burden too heavy to bear.
When the Israelites shook their fists at God, and Moses begged for death, God loved Moses and the rest of his people. For no explicable reason, God at that moment in history so loved the world, that he could not let his plan of salvation die in the desert. God endured the Israelites, and gave them more leaders to bring them to the Promised Land, because all the while, he loved us. He knew about us, that we would come to church today carrying the burden of sins we can’t count, sins of jealousy, self-obsession, despair. He knew about us and he wanted us to meet his Son, so that he could wash all of those sins away. Everything that God did in our lesson, coming down in a pillar of cloud to speak with his weary servant Moses, placing his Holy Spirit on the 70 elders and causing them to prophesy, even enabling Eldad and Medad to prophesy, he did because he ordained that we would be saved by a descendant of Abraham, from Bethlehem in Judea. And he decreed that this man, Jesus, would take away the penalty for our sins of jealousy and despair.
Now we see the big picture, don’t we? God has delivered us! Nor did he leave it at that; he still delivers us, by giving each of us a share of the Holy Spirit. Just as God placed his Spirit on the 70 elders and enabled them to prophesy, and to lead, so God has given his Holy Spirit to our pastors, our teachers, our lay leaders, and to every person here who calls Jesus his Lord. Maybe we can’t prophesy like those 70 elders did, but the Holy Spirit has given us gifts of wisdom, knowledge, hospitality, kindness, gentleness, steadfastness—all these gifts God has given so that we might receive support and encouragement from one another in life’s harsh desert. Is this not a spectacular answer to our personal weaknesses and burdens? Does this not eliminate all reason to be jealous of someone else’s gifts?
Let’s not hold on to our burdens like Moses. God can carry them for us, and he often does so through the help of other believers. Let’s not compete with others like John, or be jealous of someone else’s honor like Joshua. God has given gifts to help you, because he plans on you making it your home in heaven, with him. So, let’s be like Paul, and like Moses at the end of the lesson. Let’s rejoice every time Christ is preached, no matter whose mouth it comes out of, or who gets to look good. God has delivered us from sin, and that’s all that matters. And he continues to deliver us from this world by giving us his Holy Spirit so that we do not lose faith, and so that we have leaders and companions on our long road to heaven. Amen.