For those who want a change from the Gospel
Pentecost – Numbers 11:24-30
Instead of the expected purple passage from Joel 2 for Pentecost, this year our lectionary gives us a less well-known passage from Numbers. At a basic level it’s about the gift of the Spirit for all, but at another level it’s quite different from Joel. He expresses the promise of the pouring out of God’s Holy Spirit on all people: Numbers narrates the pouring out of the Spirit on 70 people, with the hope that everyone else could join in too. So what has this passage to say to us today as we celebrate and pray for Jesus’ gift of the Spirit?
As always, let’s begin by looking at this passage in its wider context. From the moment they left Egypt the people have been grizzling about this that or the other. No water, no food, too much of the same kind of food … They have created the golden calf for worship and debauchery; they have taken a dislike to the colour of Moses’ wife’s skin, they have rebelled against his leadership, and worst of all, they are soon to reject faithlessly God’s gift of the Promised Land, and sentence themselves to death in the desert. And yet right in the middle of all this, God chooses to pour out his Spirit on them. And he even chooses to pour out his Spirit on those who for whatever reason hadn’t been to church.
This is truly a story of inclusion. Many in today’s church feel that the Holy Spirit is for super-Christians, whether ordained or lay. But not for me – I sin sometimes (quite often if I’m honest), so I don’t deserve anything much from God. I’m glad that he somehow puts up with me, because that’s his job, but give me his Spirit? No way! This is a story for you – you have sinned, and you almost certainly will go on sinning, but that doesn’t stop you from receiving the Spirit of God’s power. Of course he would love it if you sinned less: one pastor used to say to his congregation ‘You’re not sinless, but you are sinning less!’ But that of itself does not mean that Pentecost isn’t for you, but only for those really spiritual Christians whom you both admire and possibly find a tiny bit weird too.
This is also a story of welcome. We’re not told why Eldad and Medad had stayed home that day, but clearly the unidentified young man felt it was inappropriate for them to be joining in the fun, and Joshua wanted Moses to shut them down immediately. You can imagine them thinking ‘What if this gets out of hand?’ The Spirit needs controlling, watching over in case He does something unauthorised. But Moses takes a different view – why doesn’t God just pour out his Spirit on everyone and be done with it? It’s the answer to this question, around 1300 years later on, the we’re celebrating today.
Many in today’s church feel that the Holy Spirit is for those who are on the inside, whether leaders in the church or the in-crowd which inevitably develops around them. They may, for a variety of reasons, not always be present in church, even before Corona lockdown. This is a story for you – wherever you are today, whatever you’re doing, however well or not you feel you fit into church: God can still pour out his Spirit on you. Today.
This is also an ongoing story. There’s a fascinating textual variant in the Hebrew at the end of v.25, which could either mean ‘they did not do so again’ or, rather confusingly ‘They did not stop’, continuing to prophesy. You pays your money, although most more modern versions tend to plump for the first reading. But there is something here too, I think, for many Christians today, who may in the past have experienced something of the power of the Holy Spirit, but have not done so again. It may have been a special moment, or it may have been a phase through which you passed, which you now look back on with some embarrassment, like that time you smoked weed at college, and have put behind you. This is a story for you, or at least it is if you read it along with that stuff from the New Testament about eagerly desiring the Spirit’s gifts (1 Cor 14:1) and being filled over and over again with the Spirit (Eph 5:18 – that’s what the Greek means, not just do it once and do not do so again). The author of 2 Timothy tells his young protégé to ‘fan into flame the gift of God’ (2 Tim 1:6-7). Maybe today for some of us is a good day to ask God again to fill us with his Spirit, to rekindle in us love for him and power for service and mission. Sinner, misfit, jaded ex-charismatic – anyone can join in!