Grace Presbyterian Church
May 31, 2020, Pentecost A (livestreaming)
Never Back to Normal
The reading from Numbers today (not a book that crops up that often in the lectionary, by the way) is one of those odd little detours in the narrative of the Hebrew people. It seems out of place somehow, or at least detached from the main story, but once you soak it in for a while it opens up into its own interesting story.
The Hebrew people had been complaining. This was not a new occurrence. In this case they were complaining about having no meat to eat. That manna the Lord had provided was, in their opinion, getting old (at least according to “the rabble among them,” as verse 4 puts it). In this case Moses had had it up to *here* with them <hold hand up over head>, and gave the Lord a piece of his mind, to the point of saying in effect that if this is how you’re gonna do me, Lord, I’d just as soon you put me out of my misery.
The Lord comes up with two answers for Moses. He promises that the people will have meat. Lots of meat Lots of meat, in the form of quail literally falling from the sky. As for Moses’s personal problem, the Lord offered a personnel solution. Moses was to select seventy men from among the group, and those men would be set aside to “bear the burden of the people along with” Moses.
The seventy join Moses and his first lieutenant Joshua outside the camp, gathered around the tent of meeting, and the Lord came down on them and, as the author describes, “took some of the spirit that was on him (Moses) and put it on the seventy elders.” And apparently under the influence of that little bit of spirit, the seventy turned into preachers for a few moments.
So pervasive was this event that even two men left behind in the camp, Eldad and Medad, also got caught up in the prophesying moment. It’s not clear whether they were not among the seventy or were late for the appointment, but they joined in (though not by Zoom in this case). A boy ran and told Moses, which somehow prompted Joshua to offer to shut them up for good (Joshua does not sound like a people person here). Moses allows how he’d frankly prefer that everybody would touched by that spirit, they head back into camp, and this little side-story ends.
There is this odd detail, though; the author feels compelled to make sure to inform us that after this little prophetic outburst, “they did not do so again” (v.25). Presumably they had some extra work for the rest of the Exodus, but otherwise their lives went back to normal.
That’s how we know this isn’t the Pentecost story.
When those “divided tongues, as of fire” appeared among and upon the disciples in that upper room, there wasn’t a soul among them whose life ever went back to normal. Peter, the same disciple who couldn’t put two words together without saying something dumb, ends up giving the eloquent and convincing speech that makes up most of this reading from Acts. These often confused disciples, who just one chapter before were still going on about Jesus restoring the kingdom to Israel, are now speaking to these crowds from all over the world (at least the world as they knew it) proclaiming “God’s deeds of power.” They ended up becoming the unsuspecting leaders of the post-Pentecost community of followers, with their own uncertain leadership to practice and their own need to rely on that Spirit. As best as history and church tradition can piece together, they didn’t get to die peacefully; only John is recorded as not being executed in some way.
Their lives never went back to normal.
That’s not how the Holy Spirit works. It isn’t about “back to normal”; the Holy Spirit is all about what’s next. It disrupts. It ruffles things. It changes the direction of God’s people, if God’s people have enough wit to follow.
How curious that this particular text for this particular occasion should come along at this point in time. We are in an exhausting moment. After months of isolation people are clamoring, maybe even whining for things to get “back to normal” (shades of that “rabble” back in Numbers that was clamoring for meat!). Folks are exercising no caution about resuming their “normal” activities, even as institutions such as schools and, yes, churches (or at least some churches) are approaching with greater caution.
And here we are with this story about the Holy Spirit disrupting the lives of these followers, lives that would never go back to what had been normal. And that may be exactly what we need in this moment.
Let us be blunt for a moment. We have, for a while now, been living in a “normal” that no follower of Christ should ever want to return to. Just to name a couple of examples:
- Do we really want to return to a “normal” in which, for some large number of people in this country, skin color is a perfectly good reason to kill a man?
- Do we really want to return to a “normal” in which 100,000 Americans die who didn’t need to die, and in which actual elected leaders think that means we’re doing a good job?
Or let’s get closer to home for a moment:
- I have noticed that there are people joining us for these online services on Sunday mornings, for several weeks now, who cannot join us when we gather in person in the sanctuary. Do we really want to rush back to a “normal” that leaves these fellow Christ-followers out?
- Alachua County seems to have arrived at a point of a much slower rate of new coronavirus cases being reported, even experiencing some days on which no new cases are reported. Do we really want to rush back to a “normal” that totally undoes that progress?
We might be at a point where being fearful of change might be exactly the “normal” we need to give up. We might be at a point where getting “back to normal” is exactly the thing the Holy Spirit is trying to get us out of. We might be at a point where it’s time to give up our yearning for control and trust the Spirit that is, in the words of the hymn we’ll sing in a few moments, “making worlds that are new, making peace come true, bringing gifts, bringing love to the world,” or to pray in the words of the first hymn we sang, that the Spirit “kindle faith among us in all life’s ebb and flow“:
O give us ears to listen, and tongues aflame with praise,
So folk of every nation glad songs of joy shall raise.
Maybe our call is, in this stressful and even violent time, to lay aside getting “back to normal” and to be ready to go forward in faith.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #289, On Pentecost They Gathered; #292, As the Wind Song