Grace Presbyterian Church
February 12, 2023
Numbers 11:24-30; Acts 19:21-41; Matthew 28:19-20
Perhaps it’s appropriate that in order to support this final portion of A Brief Statement of Faith, one gets some unusual and maybe odd scripture accounts, like the readings from Numbers and Acts we juat heard.
It’s a curious story, this reading from Numbers. A little context: the people have (again) complained against God and against Moses for the awful horror that the people haven’t had any meat to eat for a long time. Never mind the miraculously provided manna that has been keeping them alive for s long, they haven’t had meat, and so they’re frankly whining. (Sounds like a bunch of Texans to me.) God has, one might imagine, muttered “oh, you’re gonna have meat, all right” (in verse 20 God promises they will have meat “until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you“) and instructed Moses to gather seventy of the elders of the people and take them to the meeting tent for, well, something special. Those men were gathered and visited with just a little of the spirit that God had put on Moses, just enough to engage in a little bit of prophesying.
Two of the elders of the people, however, somehow missed the memo and didn’t go with the others to the meeting place, staying behind in the camp. That spirit, however, didn’t care that they weren’t with the others; they got the same prophesying impulse that those elders in the meeting place, much to the surprise of those around them in the camp. A youngster runs out to the meeting tent to tell Moses about Eldad and Medad. Moses’s right-hand man Joshua wants to stop them (side note: whyyyy??? what’s the point of that petty idea?), but Moses shuts him down vigorously – “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” Then they go back to the camp.
Strange story, yes, but there is something to learn from it: the Spirit of God is not limited by us in any way. That opening sentence of this section – “We trust in God the Holy Spirit, everywhere the giver and renewer of life” is more than boilerplate talk; it is the vital and characteristic trait of this member of the Trinity. We don’t get to decide where and upon whom the Spirit will move; we don’t get to decide who is and who is not worthy; we don’t dictate.
The organization of this section is thoroughly effective at laying out the work of the Spirit, which draws us in (54-57), prepares and equips us (58-64), and gives us courage to go and do (65–71). And as with all of this statement, there are so many pieces of scripture and references to other statements in the Book of Confessions that one could draw upon (even if the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds don’t give us that much to work with; the latter goes no further than “I believe in the Holy Ghost…“) that one could spend weeks upon weeks on the subject..
Still, I can’t escape one particularly compelling line in this section, perhaps the most striking statement in any document in the Book of Confessions. There in line 69, among those many things we are promised, is that “in a broken and fearful world, the Spirit gives us courage … to unmask idolatries in church and culture.” That’s a heck of a challenge.
There was some difficulty in agreeing on the final form of the line. Originally a version was proposed that started off “to smash idols” or something similar. The harshly violent image of “smashing” idols didn’t necessarily last song, but the challenge is to understand the change from “idols” to “idolatries.” What’s the point of that? Why make that change?
The odd little reading from Acts helps us understand that distinction. So far as we can see Paul is mostly working on travel plans. He directs a couple of his aides to go to Macedonia while he waits a little longer in Asia, maybe to rest, maybe to pray, maybe to plan. The disturbances that break out seem quite disconnected from anything that is happening on the ground. But one silversmith decides that these strangers are a threat to his business, uses the city of Ephesus’s point of pride to stir up his fellow tradesmen with the fear of the loss of their main tourist attraction and economic draw, and suddenly there are riots in the streets.
Note that Paul and his co-workers haven’t done anything to provoke such a reaction. As far as we know they’ve said or done nothing about the temple of Artemis (or Diana); they’ve just been proclaiming their good news, and apparently people have been listening. From this one man has stoked up fear and riled up potential violence. (If this sounds vaguely familiar to you, you’re not alone.)
So what is the problem here? Is it the idol, or is it the idolatry?
As far as we can see those little silver shrines of Artemis haven’t actually done anything. They are nothing but pieces of silver. What can they do? If you remember your story about Elijah’s contest with the Baal prophets at Mt. Carmel, you know that those idols didn’t really do anything because they can’t do anything. Same for these silver shrines. They just sit there.
Those who have wrapped themselves up in the cult of Artemis, however, that’s a different matter. By the time this story concludes we can’t be entirely sure whether the idolatry is centered. Is it being riled up by worshipers of Artemis, or is it being riled up by those who make their living off the worship of Artemis? It looks like the latter, to be honest. Either way, the “idolatry” is fully exposed here, even though all Paul and his colleagues were doing was sharing the good news. But the Spirit uses that witness to reach listeners who heard and responded to the word, and the Spirit also unmasked the real idolatry of the craftsmen of Ephesus. The town clerk has to call them out for their false charges and rebuke them and send them home.
This business of unmasking idolatries isn’t about some kind of crusade against whatever we have decided is the enemy. Like Paul and his colleagues, all we are called to do is bear witness, both in word and deed, and the Spirit moves from there. Do you job and let the Spirit work.
The final lines of this section take us back to the bigger picture. Echoing the Trinitarian formula of the Great Commission and reinforces that last point – serve Christ in our daily work – it continues by charging us to “live holy and joyful lives” and watch for God’s new work. That really is it. It’s not about being a superhero or super-Christian; serve daily, live joyfully, watch faithfully.
It seems appropriate to wrap all this up, this reminder of what our denomination wanted to say when it was first founded, with the next three lines of the Statement:
With believers in every time and place, we rejoice that nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #292, As the Wind Song; #—, We trust in God, the loving Holy Spirit; #688, Spirit of God, Descend upon My Heart
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