For those who want a change from the Gospel
Trinity 17 – Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29 (Related)
This cycle of stories, about Moses’ leadership of the people during the wilderness wanderings, is one of my favourite books of the OT, and, I very much hope, the subject of a book I hope to write before too long. The odd selection of verses which our lectionary gives us provides rich pickings, and there are loads of ways in which we might approach it. We could talk about grumbling; the way it spreads from ‘the rabble’ to everyone else, the way it uses false nostalgia to make slavery in Egypt seem a better option than freedom, and the way in which it almost destroys the leadership. Or we could come at it from Moses’ point of view; the leader trying to do his best but being beaten down at every turn by his ungrateful congregation, but praying for them anyway.
But the linking of this passage with the Gospel reading for today clearly intends us to concentrate on what was probably a separate narrative which has become interwoven, that of the anointing of the 70 elders. The hinge point is Moses’ despair at having to deal with all these infantile manifestations among the people to whom God has sent him. The burden is just too much for him, and he wants to commit divine suicide: like a few other OT characters he asks God to kill him rather than make him carry on with the torture of having to deal with his people.
I once helped to run a clergy training day on stress, with a colleague who came from an engineering background. He brought some really useful insights about how, in the world of civil engineering, you cope with stress. You either lighten the load, strengthen the material it is made from, or share the load between several different places. It is the latter approach which God takes for Moses here. Exodus 18 and Moses’ meeting with Jethro notwithstanding, the implication here is that he is carrying the weight alone – at least that’s what it feels like to him. So the Spirit of God, who helps him in his leadership role, is to be received by another 70 leaders. The two elders who didn’t turn up but received the Spirit nevertheless are included in the story because they allow Moses to say that he wished that all God’s people could be Spirit-filled prophets, a verse much used in certain sections of the Church today.
Whether or not the elders got much choice about their anointing we are not told. But it does run counter to many in the Church today, who are happy merely to be led by others, and to moan about it when things don’t all go their way. I can remember taking a service as holiday cover for a friend deep in the Welsh Valleys, where I was expected to swing incense, genuflect in odd places and so on. I arrived early, and was coached in my rustiness by a very helpful verger. ‘You really know your stuff, don’t you?’ I commented. She told me she’d been verger here for 50 odd years, and again I told her how brilliant she was in her tutoring of me. ‘You wouldn’t like to preach the sermon as well, would you?’ I asked. Her face dropped, and almost in terror, she replied ‘Oh no, Father. I know my place!’ Sadly too many Christians ‘know their place’ under the benign dictatorship of the clergy: Moses at least would love them all to be Spirit-filled ministers.
This passage is one of the few mass fillings with the Holy Spirit in the OT: usually he comes upon individuals at specific times for specific tasks. But other passages look forward to the fulfilment of Moses’ wishes, notably Joel chapter 2, where the prophet looks forward to the time when everyone, men and women, young and old, rich and poor, will be filled with the Spirit. The Apostles gathered on the Day of Pentecost saw that event as the fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy, but then so did the early pioneers of Pentecostalism and charismatic renewal , begging the question about how the Church which had seen a universal outpouring of the Spirit had lost the plot so badly that it needed another one! And how today do we live in so many churches where spirit-filled leaders are struggling against grumbling congregations.
I wonder how many in our churches ever stop to ask themselves how they make their leaders feel. Maybe some of us need a new experience of the Holy Spirit to run our moaning into joyful praise, and maybe some of our leaders need to run the risk of handing over some power to everyone.