Sunday, June 12, 2011

Prophet Reports -- A Sermon for Penecost

Numbers 11:24-30

The biblical prophets aren’t very appealing characters.  Remember Jeremiah?  He was sent packing to Egypt in a big jar.  And then there’s Elisha who cursed a group of boys who were making fun of him because he was bald, and as a result two bears attacked the boys.  Then there’s Jonah who got upset when God spared the people of Nineveh when they repented.  Those are just a few stories about prophets, who on their best days had a tendency to say things that people didn’t want to hear.   
I expect that when most of us think of prophets we have in mind a “John the Baptist” type, who dresses funny and maybe has a long beard -- unless she’s a she like Huldah -- and makes you feel uncomfortable when they’re around.  So maybe you weren’t all that pleased to hear Moses say that he’d love it if everyone was a prophet!    

Since it’s Pentecost Sunday and we’re supposed to think about the things of the Spirit, it might be good to remember that prophets factor into this story as well.  

Do you remember when the Spirit of God fell on the disciples as they were in the Upper Room?   They’d been waiting for Jesus to fulfill his promise to send the Holy Spirit to them after he left.  Well, it had been ten days, and although they’d gotten some business out of the way, such as filling Judas’s spot in the leadership team, they were just waiting to see what would happen.  If they were like me, they were probably getting a bit impatient and maybe a bit anxious.  You know how it is – after you go to the doctor and have some tests done.  It’s agonizing having to wait for the results.   

But then it happened.  Ten days later, as Jews from around the Mediterranean world descended on Jerusalem to celebrate the festival of Pentecost, the Spirit fell on the people and they start prophesying, apparently doing so in the various languages of the gathering crowd.  It seems they caused quite a commotion, and so Peter decided to take advantage of the situation and do a little preaching, and he decided to base his sermon on the words of the prophet Joel.  After all, every preacher needs a text!  And Peter focused in on Joel’s words about the last days – I hope Harold Camping is paying attention – when the Spirit would fall on the people of God and they would  dream dreams and prophesy – the young and the old, men and women.  Yes, it appears that in the mind of Joel and of Peter, a day would come when everyone would be a prophet, just as Moses had hoped.  So are you ready to take up your prophetic calling? 


Moses’ word about everybody being a prophet has a context.  If you go back a bit in the passage from the Book of Numbers you’ll see that Moses was struggling with his job.  Here he was the leader of his people, called by God from a Burning Bush to go down to Egypt and tell Pharaoh: “Let my People God!”  And he did it.  He had led the people of Israel out of bondage, but now things were getting a bit overwhelming.  With more than 600,000 people to herd across the desert, you can see how things could get a bit overwhelming, especially if you were having to do it all by yourself.  

What Moses needed to do was learn the lessons we had to learn in kindergarten.  Remember kindergarten?  I don’t know what you learned in kindergarten, but I remember learning to  tie my shoes, eat graham crackers, and take naps.  We also learned about sharing, which was part of the broader purpose of learning how to get along with others.  We had to do this because sharing apparently doesn’t come naturally.  And we don’t stop learning how to share in kindergarten – we all seem to need some regularly scheduled continuing education.   In fact, if Mr. Rogers weren’t dead, we could ask him to come and help us learn how to share our toy trucks!

Now Moses had to learn this lesson the hard way.  He was carrying the burdens of the entire community on his back, having to listen day and night to complaints about the food, the lodging, and the length of time it was taking to get across the desert.  It was getting so overwhelming that one day Moses yelled at Go: “If this is the way you're going to treat me, just kill me now and end my miserable life!”  (Numbers 11:15). Now that’s frustration:  kill me now and get it over with, because I’m going to end up with a heart attach anyway!  

And God heard Moses and sent him back to kindergarten for a refresher course in sharing.  God did this by having Moses choose seventy leaders who would help him.  Moses was supposed to have the leaders and the people gather in front of the Tabernacle to await further instructions.  And what happens next?  God descends upon the crowd in a cloud, enshrouds Moses, and takes some of the spirit that resided on him and gives it to these seventy leaders.  After they received this spirit of leadership from Moses, they began to prophesy.   

Could it be that the church, like Moses, might need a refresher course in sharing?  We all know that too often the majority of the load falls on the shoulders of a few people, who tend to burn out and often leave as a result.  And churches can become overly dependent on pastors, who pretend to be omnicompetent and omnipresent, even though we’re neither of these things.   What Moses learned by going back to kindergarten is that none of us can carry the whole load.  As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12, to each is “given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”  


Moses seems to have learned his lesson about sharing, and so he shared some of these leadership duties with this newly formed Board of Elders.  Everything seems to be going like it should.  Everyone has their policies and procedures manuals and their assigned responsibilities.  To one is given the job of coordinating food distribution and to another planning worship and to still another responsibility for packing up the Tabernacle when it’s time to move.  Moses is happy and the people are happy, because the institution is ready to hum!  Except that God is about to throw everyone a curve ball, just to keep them on their toes.  

Remember those two brothers who stayed behind in the camp to guard things while everyone was at church?  Well, even as the Spirit was anointing the seventy elders, these two brothers named Eldad and Medad start prophesying in the camp.  A young man sees what happens and runs to tell Moses that these two brothers are “out of order.”  They’re not operating according to the Constitution, and Joshua, who is Moses’ assistant gets upset and tells Moses to make them stop.  What Joshua didn’t understand, is that God’s vision is often greater than is ours.  We like things done decently and in order.  Everything has its own box and don’t mess it up!  

Of course, God isn’t bound by our boxes, as God has demonstrated time and again.  Remember when women were supposed to keep silent in the church?  Some of you may remember when women not only didn’t preach in Disciples churches, they weren’t allowed at the Table either.  And even as we take to heart the message of 1 Corinthians 12 that to each is given a manifestation of the Spirit, for centuries the “official church” told women they couldn’t preach or teach because in 1 Corinthians 14, Paul tells the women to be silent in the church.  Of course, they didn’t remain silent.  God had a way of touching people and empowering them for service even when the institution said no.  Consider the stories of women like Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avilla, Anne Hutchinson, Phoebe Palmer, and Aimee Semple McPherson.   

Being that I was once part of the Foursquare Gospel Church, which was founded in the 1920s by a woman preacher at a time when few Mainline Protestant churches ordained women, I thought I’d tell the story of Aimee Semple McPherson.  Back in the 1920s and 1930s Sister Aimee was one of the most prominent preachers in America.  She started a denomination and a megachurch in Los Angeles.  She preached all over the world and was one of the first preachers to make effective use of radio.  Of course, her detractors were many.  They reminded her of what Paul said about women speaking in church, but she responded by telling her detractors that she couldn’t stop preaching because God had given her this gift of the Spirit, so how could she say no to God?   Women like these were the forerunners of Sharon Watkins, who in 2005 became the first woman to lead a Mainline Protestant denomination!  

As for those two brothers, when Moses heard about them he responded to Joshua’s demand that he silence them, because they weren’t following the rules, by saying:   “I wish the Lord would give his Spirit to all his people so everyone could be a prophet” (vs. 29 CEV).  

And on the day of Pentecost the Spirit fell upon the people and in fulfillment of the promise of the prophet Joel, they began to prophesy – young and old, male and female – just as Moses had hoped!

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Pentecost Sunday
June 12, 2001

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