May 31, 2020 – Pentecost Sunday – Sermon
“If Only God Would Put God’s Spirit on Them!”
1 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
Numbers 11:16-17, 24-30
16 So the Lord said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tent of meeting, and have them take their place there with you. 17 I will come down and talk with you there; and I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself.
24 So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. 25 Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again.
26 Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. 27 And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” 28 And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” 29 But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” 30 And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.
“If Only God Would Put God’s Spirit on Them!”
I absolutely LOVE the pageantry of Pentecost in modern main-line Christian congregations. For me, our celebration of Pentecost rivals that of any other day or season of the year, except Christmas. In terms of pageantry, it’s right up there with Palm Sunday, Thanksgiving Sunday, Easter Sunday. On Pentecost:
- We typically have a dramatic reading of the Pentecost story, today’s first scripture reading, the pouring out of God’s Holy Spirit upon Jesus’ followers. Often, the reading involves more than one voice. Sometimes, I even assign parts to different groups within the congregation.
- We typically sing special songs written specifically for this day, like today’s “On Pentecost They Gathered”.
- We typically include some kind of acting out of the story. I’m reminded of years in which we waved streamers attached to the ends of sticks, streamers that are the color of flames to represent the Holy Spirit appearing as “tongues of fire”.
- In the past, when we had children’s sermons, I can recall many a children’s sermon in which a birthday cake was presented to the kids on Pentecost, followed by a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday” sung to the universal Church.
- And of course we change the liturgical colors for Pentecost Sunday. Since Pentecost follows the season of Eastertide, we see a dramatic shift from white to flame red.
I absolutely LOVE the pageantry of Pentecost in modern main-line congregations like ours. I get a little nostalgic thinking about the pageantry this year since, due to COVID restrictions, we can’t DO all those things we have done in the past, not the way we’ve done them anyway. Obviously, each of you could perform your own Pentecost pageant at home if you so desire. I hope some of you will. Even for those of us gathered at the church building for our first in-person communal worship service in 2-½ months, we’ve got to tone down the pageantry – meaning not have much at all – to be safe. Even the obvious sign of Pentecost around us, the changing of the colors from white to red, will be almost impossible to detect since we likely cannot recall the liturgical colors of 2-½ months ago. So I get a little nostalgic thinking about the pageantry this year. Next year, NEXT YEAR, we’ll have the biggest, most audacious, Pentecost celebration any of us can remember…I hope.
As I mourned – a bit – the loss of the pageantry in preparation for Pentecost this year, as I took my grieving of this loss to God, something amazing happened. (It seems that something amazing almost ALWAYS happens when I take my grief to God…but that’s another story for another sermon.) In this case, God directed my attention to an aspect of Pentecost I’m not sure I’ve ever preached about before. God offered me something new out of my grief. And I want to share it with you today.
When I think about Pentecost celebrations past – and especially those children’s sermons – I think of Pentecost celebrated primarily as the birth of the universal Church, the birthday of the Church. Indeed, as I performed a bit of cursory research about Pentecost on Google this past week, trying to find references to how big the Pentecost festival was in the early Church, almost every article mentioned within the first three or four sentences how Pentecost is considered the birth of the Church. THAT’S primarily how we Christians think about it. Which is perfectly fine…because “birth day of the church” is an apt description of Pentecost.
BUT – what God reminded me of this week and what I want to remind you of today is that there was quite a lot more going on than JUST the birth of Christ’s Church on that day we read about in our first scripture reading. Indeed, God was doing something that had begun more than a thousand years prior, that “something’ being placing God’s Spirit upon people to get stuff done.
Let’s spend some time on our second scripture reading that recalls those events from more than 1,000 years prior to the birth of the Church.
First, let me set the scene. You’re familiar with Moses, so I don’t need to tell you too much about him. God sent Moses to deliver God’s people, Israel, from Egyptian slavery. And I would imagine most of us think of the book of Exodus as providing the details of that Exodus journey. But, the book of Exodus only tells of the journey as far as Sinai, where God gave the 10 Commandments and the rest of the law. The book of Numbers tells about the rest of the journey, how the Israelites got from Sinai to a place overlooking the Promised Land. The book of Numbers tells the story of a 40 year journey. And that journey from Sinai to the Promised Land began with the Israelites complaining against God – by complaining against Moses – in the desert. The people complained to Moses, and Moses complained to God. That’s how Numbers 11 begins. Right before our reading from Numbers this morning, Moses complained to God about the people, saying:
14 I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. 15 If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once—if I have found favor in your sight—and do not let me see my misery.
The crux of Moses’ complaint was that Moses couldn’t do all that God had asked Moses to do, not alone, anyway. The task was too great for just one person. After all, there were a LOT of Israelites. Numbers 1:46 records the results of a census of all the fighting men aged 20+ as totaling 603,550. Since this number didn’t include anyone under the age of 20….or anyone in the tribe of Levi…or any of the women, there must have been well in excess of a million Israelites, and Moses felt like he had the task of appeasing and encouraging them ALL. No wonder Moses asked God to “put [him] to death at once” if this is how God was going to treat him. I have enough difficulty leading a flock of around 100 of God’s people…and I’ve got help; I can’t imagine trying to lead more than a million by myself.
Our reading today provides God’s answer to Moses, God’s AMAZING answer. God recognized Moses’ dilemma and responded by taking some of the power of God’s Spirit that God had placed upon Moses and dividing it among 70 elders of the people. God gave Moses some HELP…in a very specific form: God’s Holy Spirit poured out among some more of God’s people. (Sound familiar? Maybe even Pentecost-y?)
At that time, however, God’s Spirit was not poured out upon all of God’s people – like at Pentecost, just a select few. Which yielded the unusual story of two of the elders who had received a portion of God’s Spirit. These two men, Eldad and Medad, were apparently part of the 70 elders Moses had chosen, but Eldad and Medad did not go to the tent with the others. They remained in the camp and received their portion of the Spirit there…a set of circumstances which allowed the rest of the story to unfold. When Eldad and Medad received their portions of the Spirit – while still in camp – they started prophesying, which at that time meant doing some very visible things that ONLY Moses had been doing up to that point. And remember, the people in the camp didn’t know what was going on in the tent with the other 68 elders and Moses. So the people in the camp got…CONCERNED. They sent a messenger to Moses to ask Moses to tell Eldad and Medad to STOP. Even Joshua, Moses’ assistant, urged Moses to tell them to stop. Don’t you wonder why?
Remember, the Israelites’ experience with God’s power at that point hadn’t been altogether positive – from their perspective. When God tried to speak to the whole assembled nation at Mt. Horeb, they were terrified and told Moses to tell God to stop. Even before that, they had seen the plagues God sent upon Egypt and the Egyptians. And they saw God crush the Egyptian army in the Red Sea. Y’all, the Israelites were absolutely, positively TERRIFIED of God’s power…when they encountered it. Strange, isn’t it, that they had no problem complaining incessantly against God and God’s appointed servant…when they were so afraid of God’s power?
Anyway, the people in the camp didn’t know what God was up to; they just saw God’s power being unleashed in Eldad and Medad, and it seems to have terrified them. But Moses’ response is so different from the response of everyone else, so amazing, so much a reflection – I think – of God’s will and God’s desires: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” In MY words: “If only God would put God’s Spirit on ALL of them!”
Y’all, more than 1,000 years before the Holy Spirit was poured out on God’s people, the followers of Jesus, at the first Christian Pentecost, God had ALREADY foreshadowed God’s plans, God’s desires. And God’s plan was this: have enough people of God, enough people who would do the right thing with the power of God’s Spirit, to pour out God’s Holy Spirit on ALL of them.
The way I read it, what Moses wished for, longed for, asked for, pleaded for…is exactly what God finally DID on Pentecost and has been doing ever since.
Just like Moses couldn’t guide more than a million people – WELL – all by himself, even with the amazing power of God’s Spirit upon him, God’s people today cannot possibly guide God’s people well, perform the work of the Spirit within us which is to work for the common good, we can’t do this well if only a few of us have God’s Holy Spirit upon us or tap into the power of God’s Holy Spirit upon us.
But there’s something working against this amazing thing God has been up to, God has been doing. There’s fear when the power of God, the power of the Holy Spirit working through people, is manifest on earth.
In the time of Moses, people who witnessed Eldad and Medad prophesying – literally acting out of the power of the Spirit upon them – people who witnessed that said, “Stop them!”
In the time of the first Christian Pentecost, some who witnessed the Spirit’s power working through the assembled disciples proclaimed, “they are filled with new wine!” In other words, “they are drunk; don’t listen to them.” Proclaiming the disciples to be drunkards would have much the same effect as saying “stop them!”
Fast forward to our time. The power of God’s Spirit certainly hasn’t changed. I don’t think the power of God’s Spirit CAN change. And so I must imagine, must assume, the reason we don’t seem to see, seem to experience, very many people working out of the power of the Spirit today has to do with the same kind of thing that tried to stop the work of the Spirit’s power through people in the time of the first Christian Penteocts and the time of Moses: fear.
Actually, I can more than assume. I see fear of the Spirit’s power all the time:
- Fear that if we acknowledge and accept and act out of the great power of the Spirit working in us and through us that we might actually have to DO something.
- Fear that if we acknowledge and accept and act out of the great power of the Spirit working in us and through us that we might actually lose some of whatever control we think we have, because the Spirit’s power can only be used to do God’s will, not so much our will.
- Fear that if we acknowledge and accept and act out of the great power of the Spirit working within us that maybe some of our long held beliefs about the way the world works will come crashing down like the house of cards the Spirit can prove those beliefs to be: beliefs about scientific stuff, beliefs about historical stuff, beliefs about religious stuff, beliefs about the place and role of people in this Creation stuff.
- Fear from people outside the Church as well, fears not so different from those that crucified Jesus so long ago:
- Fear that a consistent display of the Spirit’s power by God’s people will upset the apple cart of power on this earth.
- Fear that people might discover the power of God’s Spirit working within them and so become much less controllable.
- Fear that there really is a God that more and more people could discover.
- Fear that what so many people think life is about is little more than smoke and mirrors and that the stuff we long for in life really doesn’t matter…the realization of which would turn our world – and especially our economy – upside down.
- Fear that people don’t occupy the place on the hierarchy of beings that so many people think we occupy.
- And just the plain old fear that long-held beliefs about the way of things are demonstrably wrong.
So, my friends, here’s the thing:
- Today IS our annual celebration of Pentecost.
- Today IS our celebration of and remembrance that what Moses wished would become true HAS become true.
- Today IS our celebration that God’s Holy Spirit has been poured out among the universal Church, among all followers of Jesus, and to be used for the common good.
- Today IS our celebration that God’s power is real, that God’s power is accessible, that God’s power is available to US.
Y’all, there is power, real power, in what we celebrate today. And there is real fear about that power, just like there is fear among people when it comes to ANY kind of real power.
On THIS Pentecost Sunday, we’ve got to ask ourselves: are we going to allow our fears to overcome our chance to grasp and fully utilize the power we remember, the power God makes available to us by the great gift of God’s Holy Spirit being outpoured upon us? Or are we going to finally live EVERY single day trying to do our part in making the wish expressed by Moses more than 3,000 years ago and the wish both expressed and fulfilled by God 2,000 years ago, to become a reality?
I told you near the beginning of this sermon that I realized something this week, that God placed a revelation of sorts before me this week: that Pentecost is about MORE than just the birth of the Church, that Pentecost is about the PURPOSE of the Church, that Pentecost is about God’s long held desire to place God’s Spirit upon people to get stuff done.
God has done God’s part. Will we do ours and use the Spirit’s power to get stuff done for the common good?