“Claim the Voice, Share Your Gift”
Numbers 11:24-30 and Acts 2:1-13
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
24So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. 25Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again.
26Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. 27And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.”
28And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!”
29But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them. (Numbers 11:24-29 – NRSV)
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.7Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”
12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” (Acts 2:1-13 – NRSV)
The stories we just read from Numbers and Acts are stories of God’s people in crisis. They show us the Hebrews wandering in the Sinai wilderness and the very first Christians in Jerusalem hiding from Roman guards who take delight in unrestricted brutality. Both groups find themselves at critical cross roads. They’re displaced and struggling to discern their identity and purpose. The particular leaders involved—Moses in the wilderness and the Apostles in Jerusalem—come to God confessing their emptiness and vulnerability. As faithful, diligent, and creative as they may be, they know that, on their own, they cannot overcome their predicaments. They need help.
Leadership in any human community can be an intensely demanding responsibility. It requires gifts of discernment, courage, and decisiveness. And because leadership is fundamentally an act of service, it also requires mature sensibilities of empathy, humility, and justice. Perhaps most challenging for individualistic and competitive cultures like ours, effective leadership requires a commitment to the well-being of others before one’s own well-being.
Without these attributes, leaders may become like Pharaoh, for whom neither slavery nor genocide is too high a price to guard power and wealth; or like the sons of Eli who are spoiled, selfish, and deaf to wisdom and holiness; or like King Saul who, lacking any gift for leadership, goes insane before everyone’s eyes.
All of these so-called leaders face crises, and all of them, ignoring higher virtues, seek the guidance of flatterers and the illusion of security-through-violence. Their stories live on in scripture, and we read them and heed them as cautionary tales.
Moses and the Apostles face their crises differently.
In Numbers, the Israelites are newly-freed slaves. They’re on their own, on the run, and complaining about how tired and hungry they are. Their escape from Egypt has become a desert pilgrimage that seems crueler and more terrifying than Pharaoh’s slave drivers. Israel’s story illustrates that when something gets the best of us, only the worst remains. And when it all becomes too much, the Hebrews project all their fear and anxiety onto Moses. Did you bring us out here to kill us?! We were better off in Egypt! That same despair and craving for control would lead them to try to replace Yahweh with a golden calf.
In Acts, the disciples feel all alone in the world. They had expected Jesus to do to Rome what Rome had been doing to Israel, and the rest of the known world. After the crucifixion, though, the disciples had to have wondered if Jesus had been the kind of person Hosea warned about: “They shall be like the morning mist, or the dew that goes away early.” (Hosea 13:3a) Was Jesus just that? Humidity? Even after the resurrection, the disciples find themselves mired in a kind of static wandering. What do we do now? they ask.
While Moses and the Apostles often prove flawed and fumbling, they’re still servants of God. During their crises, for all their frustration and helplessness, they begin to find themselves opened by and opening to something mysterious and moving—a pulsating Holiness, a Spirit who comes not to resolve every crisis, but to help shoulder the burden of leading God’s people through the uncertainties and complexities of crisis. Having said that, the Spirit reveals itself as a gift being offered not simply to people like Moses and the Apostles. The Spirit proves to be a gift made available to all people through the likes of Moses, Joshua, Peter, and Paul. True leaders, in the household of faith and elsewhere, are those who embrace their own giftedness and who seek to recognize, nurture, and give voice to the giftedness of others.
Remember Moses’ story: Some of Moses’ spirit leaks out beyond the designated seventy to a couple of nobodies named Eldad and Medad. When they prophesy, Joshua says, Moses, stop them!
And Moses, who is learning more by the moment, scolds his reactionary assistant, saying, “Are you jealous for my sake?” I wish God’s Spirit would fall on every one of you! The Spirit makes prophets of all of us!
Remember what happens in Jerusalem, too. “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?” Luke goes on to name sixteen different nationalities and ethnicities who hear the gospel being proclaimed in their own languages.
Those who watch all of this happen are bewildered. And who wouldn’t be? To see it demonstrated that God’s dwells inherently and intentionally in all people (Genesis 1:26a), that God’s Word really is written on human hearts (Jeremiah 31:33), and that no one and no thing lies beyond the loving desire and redeeming reach of God (Acts 9:1-19a)—such revelations challenge the comfortable but mistaken notions of redemptive violence and any kind of cultural supremacy.
In both Sinai and Jerusalem, God’s Spirit is present through the outpouring of prophetic speech, through gracious words uttered by folks who are ordinary, fallible, hesitant human beings.
Many voices in our world claim holy authority. And many of those voices are diametrically opposed to each other. And some seem diametrically opposed to Jesus. While we’re not called to judge, we are called, as individuals and as communities, to discern.
When I hear a voice claiming prophetic status, I listen for accents of love, peacemaking, forgiveness, compassion, and grateful openness to all of God’s Creation. To me, such things declare the presence of the Holy Spirit. By contrast, when a voice claiming prophetic authority provokes fear, division, and vengeance, when it creates barriers to relationship and healing, I don’t trust that voice.
It seems to me that many of the voices screaming at the extremes right now are, effectively, one voice. At the poles, the voices of groups like white supremacists, who are on record as wanting to incite a race war1, and Antifa, who is on record advocating eye-for-an-eye violence against the increasingly visible far right2, tear equally at the wounded, fragile body of Creation. And here’s the hard part: When we hear voices spread ignorance and fear, when we hear them confuse insults and judgment with analysis and critique, when we hear the Church declare that the God of Abraham and Jesus can be bought and satisfied with blood, within and around all of that, the Holy Spirit is calling us into the fray to bear prophetic witness to something entirely new and different, yet entirely ancient and archetypal. We’re being called to proclaim the God of Spirit and Truth, the God of deliverance and restorative justice.
Brothers and sisters, today many people feel like wanderers in deserts of pandemic, racism, unleashed fury, and burning cities. Let’s remember, though, we are disciples. We follow a resurrected Christ whose Spirit is with us and calling us to claim our prophetic voice. As the Church, we are gathered in the power of the Holy Spirit who fills us and sends out to speak so confidently of God’s redeeming love and reunifying Shalom that we sound drunk to those who live in fear and loathing of their neighbors and the future.
This is our Pentecostal gift—to live as ones who lead the way through death-shadowed valleys and storm-tossed seas toward the wholeness and hope of God’s resurrecting grace.