“Are You Jealous?”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
June 4, 2017: Pentecost
Numbers 11:24-30 & Acts 2:1-13
Yelp is a platform on the internet where the general public can offer reviews of restaurants, dentists, hair stylists, mechanics, and other service providers. Over 146 million people have used Yelp all over the world this year.
Last year, Megan B. from Calgary, Canada, wrote a review of the Iron Horse Bar in New York City. She gave Iron Horse a one-star review and wrote, “Wouldn’t recommend this to eat or for a quiet drink. I met some friends here at 3pm in the afternoon and the music was so loud we couldn’t hear each other. The service was terrible just to get a drink at the bar. The food was also terrible.”
A day later, one of the owners of the Iron Horse Bar offered Megan a response to her review. He wrote, “Megan, thank you for visiting our establishment. As you took to Yelp to voice your opinion, I would like to voice ours. I read other reviews you posted on Yelp for places you have also visited. It seems that you like quiet coffee shops and fancy food, none of which we have ever advertised to provide.” The bar owner continues: “If you’re going to complain, I would hope it would be about something we actually advertise. We are primarily a loud, party type establishment, serving a mean burger, hot wings, and pub fare at ridiculously low prices. Where else is New York City can you get a half-pound burger for only $10?”.
The final paragraph of the bar owner’s response is the real kicker. He writes, “I recommend you align your expectations with the type of establishment you are visiting, and do more research before you decide on a place that will work for your personal preferences.”
Expectations. That is the underlying issue in the reading today from the book of Numbers. As I said in the introduction to the reading, at this point the Israelites are still wandering in the desert. They are in the desert because God brought them out of Egypt and has promised to show them a land of their own. The desert is an inhospitable place and the Israelites are a whiny, complaining people. Poor Moses does his best to lead these stubborn people, but no matter what he does, the people always find something wrong. This time, they are hungry, and they want meat. Moses takes their complaint before the Lord and the Lord promises two things. First, the Lord promises that Moses will have some help going forward in dealing with the whiny Israelites. God tells Moses to designate 70 elders who will receive God’s spirit. When the Spirit rests on them, they will have the same authority as Moses and they will be able to lead and govern with Moses. Second, God promises to send quail to the people to satisfy their hunger. God sends quail and there is so much quail that the people throw their hands up in defeat because they don’t know what to do with it all.
Moses does as the Lord says and he and the elders gather at the tabernacle, the holiest site of worship, and God comes down on them in a cloud. It is at this moment that God places on the elders the same spirit that is on Moses. Immediately, the elders begin to speak prophesies. The writer of Numbers does not tell us about their prophecies, just that one minute they were prophesying and the next minute they were quiet. The elders are now ready to lead the nation alongside Moses, as equals. This division of power and labor is one that we, as Presbyterians, take as a model for the way we govern and lead the church.
But, as always, as usual, someone is unhappy. Joshua rushes to Moses because it appears that God was so generous with the Spirit that it spilled over onto two people who were not a part of the 70. At the same time the elders are speaking prophesy, two men also begin to prophesy: Eldad and Medad. Eldad and Medad were in the camp when the Spirit open their mouths with God’s word. Their location is important because the camp is where everyone is, the common place, the unremarkable place, the sometimes dirty place. Moses and the 70 were at the tabernacle, the holiest site of all, when the Spirit fell on them; Eldad and Medad were in the camp when the Spirit fell on them.
This really disturbed Joshua. This disturbed Joshua because it ruffled his expectations. Joshua was among the elite in the Israel. He was known as a warrior, second in line to the legacy and leadership of Moses. Joshua had certain expectations when it came to who God lifted up as leaders and he had exactions when it came to who was worthy to receive God’s spirit. Joshua thought that only the 70 elders would be given the ability to speak God’s word in God’s name. He probably also thought they were the only ones who deserved to prophesy. Now, much to his dismay and anger, there are two commoners, two regular people, two nobodies speaking God’s word in the camp.
Moses asks Joshua, “Are you jealous for my sake?”. Indeed, Joshua is jealous, but not necessarily for Moses’ sake. And we don’t have to think much about it to understand why. Consider Joshua’s expectations and the journey the people have been on since they left Egypt. It has been exhausting, even deadly, and they have come this far only because of Moses’ faith and patience. Already Moses has indicated that Joshua will take leadership of the Israelites when Moses dies. Joshua lives in a very certain world: he is certain about who God is, he is certain about who the Israelites are, he is certain of his place in the grand scheme of things. Eldad and Medad throw all of this into chaos; Eldad and Medad put Joshua in the middle of a turf battle, a turf battle of worthiness and a turf battle of leadership.
Remember, the ability to prophecy is something only God can give, an this ability that was usually only given to the most righteous, the most worthy. Prophets did not enjoy power and prominence, but they were respected—respected and feared. Most of Israel’s prophets were messengers of bad news, news of God’s judgment against the sins of humanity. Because people took God seriously, they took prophets seriously, too. No matter what the prophet had to say, people listened because they knew the prophet was speaking for God.
Joshua is in chaos and he is jealous. Joshua is jealous because it looks like he might have to share leadership not just with the 70 elders, but now also with two nobodies from nowhere; Joshua is jealous because he thought he had everything figured out; Joshua is jealous because he expected one thing and something radically different has happened.
In a very courageous act of leadership, Moses challenges Joshua by saying, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” Moses is OK with Eldad and Medad prophesying and speaking the Word of God. In fact, Moses is OK with all of it: he is OK with sharing leadership with 70 others, he is OK that the Spirit spilled over the boundaries of the tabernacle, he is OK if every person in the nation of Israel becomes a prophet. Most importantly, Moses is OK when his own expectations, his own wants, his own desires, his own thoughts and ideas and principles, move and change and transform in the presence of a God who he cannot understand or explain.
Even more than expectations and jealousy and debate over who should or should not be a prophet, Numbers 11 shows us a God who is wildly free. The God of this passage is the same God who created all things from nothing with the breath of his Spirit. The God of this passage is the same God who called Abraham and Sarah to leave everything behind and go someplace new. The God of this passage is the same God whose power was so great that Pharaoh had no choice but to let the people go. This God guards the Israelites with a pillar of smoke during the day and a pillar of fire at night. This God, this creative and free and just God, cannot be pinned down, cannot be controlled, cannot be told to do this or that. This God does not and will never bow to human expectations. When God acts, God acts according to God’s will and pleasure and not according to what humans think is best or proper or correct.
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, can any of claim to be unfamiliar with Joshua’s jealousy? Can any of us claim that we are totally OK all the time with the things God is doing in the world around us? Who among us has not been jealous when someone we thought was unworthy or unrighteous took on a position of leadership in the church or in the world? Who among us has not been jealous when we have been passed over and what we deserved was given to someone of lesser ability, lesser knowledge, lesser wisdom? Who among us, who among all of us, has not grapple at least a little with the changing landscape of human thought on human sexuality, relationships, and love? Who among us is totally OK with the man or woman who sits in the seat of authority, at the local, state, or national level? Who among us has not looked at someone leading a seminar, or preaching a sermon, or giving a speech, and based our opinion of them not on what they had to say, but on what they looked like? Who among us can claim expectations that are always pure, always holy, always aligned with the will of God? Who among us can claim, truthfully, any of these things?
In truth—and truth is the highest and holiest calling of Jesus’ followers—none of us can claim these things. We have all been jealous before; we have all wrestled before; we have all fallen into the trap of thinking that God plays by our rules. God does not play by our rules. And this is not bad news; this is not a reason to turn tail and run and find something or someone else to put our faith and trust in. No—this is exceedingly good news, because God is interested in nothing other than life for you and for me, and life that is abundant and joyful. God knows the plans that God has for us, and they are not plans that will harm or hurt us, but plans that will ensure our welfare and our hope. The Lord is our shepherd, and our shepherd will be sure that we never want for anything. The Lord is our rock, our fortress, our deliverer; the Lord if our refuge, our strength, our salvation. When God acts, God acts from all of these. When God acts, God acts for our good, our well-being, our salvation, our life. The agent of all of this, the very inspiration of all that God is and has promised to do for us, is the Spirit of God.
Friends, the calling for us today is clear: we must align our expectations of God with what we know and believe about God, not what we think is best or proper or correct. Sometimes they overlap, but not usually. We cannot and should never expect God to be a quiet cafe with fancy food when Scripture shows us a God who is as wild and unexpected as the Iron Horse Bar. We must align our expectations with the God we know, the God we know in the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. In doing so, we will be free from the jealousy, and ever fear, that Joshua felt when Eldad and Medad spoke God’s word. In doing so, we will be free from the desire to say and think, “Oh, they are filled with new wine.” In doing so, we will be free to wonder and imagine how God is bringing life to each of us and to the world. In doing so, we will be free to see God in the face of every person we meet. In doing so, we will be free from the need to say who is in or who is out, who is righteous and who is not, who can come to the table and who can’t, who is a child of God and who is not—these things are not our calling as followers of Jesus. Our calling is to follow Jesus, to open the eyes of the blind, to unstop the ears of the deaf, to preach good news to the poor, to shelter the widow and care for the orphan, and to proclaim the Lord’s favor on all people. The rest is left in the capable and loving hands of God.
Today is the day of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit has come, dancing down on all of us as doves of peace and flames of fire. The Spirit is moving in and around us. The Spirit of God will do what God desires, and our freedom, the very essence of our life, will come to us when our eyes and hearts and ears are open to it. Veni sancte spiritus-Come, holy Spirit, come. Amen.