Sermon “I Wish All Were Prophets”
Lord, grant us grace to live as vessels of your Gospel, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Bickering. Strife. Envy. The grass is always greener. Do we have to eat that again? We’re not the only people who fall into those traps, are we. The people of Israel did just the same thing as we saw in Numbers chapter 11. Once they got going for a while Moses was at the end of his rope. Coming before the LORD he complained. “What am I supposed to do with these people? I work, slaving away, being God’s servant to deliver them out of Egypt. I follow Your commands, looking to Your promises, and here they are unhappy with the way You are miraculously feeding them! What am I supposed to do?”
Now before we go too far into this sermon, I think I’d better point out two important elements. First, there’s a wonderful resource that we use here called a “lectionary.” It picks out readings for us. The one we use has a three year cycle. I pulled out today’s Scripture readings from that lectionary and they are the passages for today simply because it is today. That’s something I want everyone to know. Second, I’m not preaching this sermon out of frustration with anybody. I’m going to this topic because it is in the passages of the day. It’s one of those topics that you need to preach about when you don’t think you need to and which you don’t dare preach about when you really want to. It’s kind of like righteous discipline of a child. When you really want to discipline that kid it’s probably the wrong time. There are certain trainable times. We need to hear this topic. But I’m not convinced we are in critical trouble due to ignoring the topic. We’ll let that unfold. So this topic is on the table today because of the preaching schedule, not because of my personal opinion.
Back to Moses. “What am I supposed to do? These people are driving me crazy! They don’t believe You and they are taking it out on me!” What is God’s response? He gathers a handful of elders. Looking at the text you might think seventy is a large number, but let’s remember that the people of Israel are at least a half million people. So it’s a relatively small percentage of the people. He gathers the elders of Israel together and pours out His Spirit on them. The result? They prophesy, but they don’t keep doing so. It seems to be limited in its time and scope.
Does anyone else find that difficult to understand? I don’t mean finding the words difficult to understand. We can grasp that just fine. It makes perfect sense, we know what they did. But why is this happening? What is the importance of it? It’s kind of like seeing a person with his hair dyed maroon, carrying a big maroon foam rubber glove with an index finger extended. We could all recognize the situation. We might not understand it unless we knew the local school color was maroon and there was a football game coming up. But what’s happening with these elders? Why do they make prophecies? Why do they stop? Is this a good thing, as Joshua thinks, or is it a bad thing, as Moses thinks? What does it say to us? It seems pretty distant from our time and place.
Why do the elders make prophecies? This is the natural result of the Spirit of the Lord falling upon the people. They are consumed with God’s majesty and glory. What do we do when we are moved, deeply moved? We show that in our lives. Maybe we are struck silent. Maybe we are moved to tears. Maybe we start smiling or laughing. Maybe we become excited. When God comes upon these people they start speaking out in His name. They don’t have any other choice. A post-communion canticle that I’ve been teaching our young people, we sang it here not long ago, says “tell everyone what He has done.” When we know what our Lord is doing our natural reaction should be to tell about it. The people of God, moved upon by the Holy Spirit, start telling about God’s wonderful works. We saw that in the first chapter of Acts. We see it throughout the Bible. When people see God’s glory they tell about it.
So why do the elders stop making prophecies? The Bible doesn’t tell us. We don’t know. But Moses considers it a bad thing. He would like them to keep speaking out boldly as they were. Joshua is uncomfortable with it. That may be a clue to the elders’ actions. You see, when you start doing something, something that may be a very good thing, but people aren’t used to it, it’s easy to start to fear. Many biblical counselors I know would term this “Fear of Man.” I think you know how it works. Let’s take a very unimportant desire. For instance, if I decide I like a particular type of hat and want to wear it. Does anyone here have anything against hats? Nobody finds them offensive? I just want to be clear that putting a hat on is not a problem in our society. Now, what if I want to wear this hat? If I am the person who always wears a silly hat you might not want to be seen with me, at least not until you figure out that I am not otherwise offensive.
The elders of Israel were speaking God’s words, possibly singing his praises, in public. How many of you plan to go down the street this afternoon singing hymns aloud? Is it easier if nobody is present? I know my tendency, and it isn’t on the street. If I’m singing a Matins or a Vespers service on my patio or even in my office and I hear someone coming by I have a tendency to sing under my breath. Why is that? Fear of man. It’s more controversial than a silly hat. Singing God’s praises involves actual content about who God is and what he has done. It involves proclaiming that Jesus has come to bear our sins. That means that God says we have sinned and that we need a savior. It means that we are telling anybody who is around us that Jesus is able to take his perfect life and apply it to us by grace through faith. It means that we are telling everybody that, well, that we are made perfect in Christ. And someone is going to be offended at that. “Do you mean you’re perfect and I’m a sinner?” Of course, you can take it that way if you want, but I’d rather say it means I’m a sinner who has been made perfect in Christ and you are a sinner who needs to be made perfect in Christ. Then we get to go into the whole bit about being a saint and sinner at the same time. And it’s uncomfortable. Most people around us won’t give it the time of day and will shut the conversation down pretty fast.
Yet Moses wishes all the people would be prophets. He wishes all the people would be so transfixed by the Holy Spirit that they would proclaim God’s wonders. I think by this point we see what the passage has to do with us. Think back to the Epistle and Gospel readings. How does Jesus carry on his work in this world? He does it through us. He does it by pouring out His Spirit through the prayers and faithful acts that we engage in. He does it by working to call people to himself, to heal them, to forgive them, to cast out their demons through his Word. And he delivers the Word through us, his messengers. Do we need to be careful? Of course we do. That’s why in our churches we have ministry standards. That’s why we examine candidates for the pastoral office. Those who are placed in the office of dealing with Word and Sacraments in a regular and public manner are responsible for training the next generation of pastors, for guarding their flocks, and for giving them all the right food. It’s a big responsibility, more like that of Moses than of the seventy elders. But Moses has a limited shelf life. I have a limited shelf life. As we pass on the Word of God from generation to generation, though, God’s Spirit will work in one person after another, raising up pastors, teachers, all sorts of Christian workers, bringing that Gospel to every nation, every generation.
We are preparing for a missions weekend. May the Lord send His Spirit to call many of us to be prophets, to proclaim His good works, to proclaim the glory of God through Jesus Christ, to our generation and to the next, as many people as the Lord will bring into contact with us. Amen.