Sermon 26.9.21 Numbers 11. 4-6, 10-16, 24-29
For a long time in my study I had a coaster on my table with a cartoon of the people of Israel passing between the waters of the Red Sea on their way out of Egypt. Moses is stood off to one side. His arms are outstretched as he raises his staff above the waters. The sea is banked up on either side of the people but there is a clear path on dry ground through the water. And underneath the caption has Moses saying ‘What do you mean, it’s muddy?’
Today’s Old Testament reading is full of complaints and complaining. It seems it was not enough for Moses (under God) to have helped Israel to escape generations of slavery. No. The people turned on him in the desert and expected him to come up with a plan to feed them all. They will complain for the best part of another 40 years as they wander around the Sinai desert before eventually crossing into the Promised Land. The story, as told in those first books of the bible shows us the truth of the saying ‘It took just one night for Israel to get out of Egypt but it took another 40 years for Egypt to get out of Israel’. The people of Israel were culturally unprepared for freedom: they didn’t know what to do with it. And so they complained. This is a story about affecting change: getting from A to B not just physically but in the way a whole people thought about themselves, who they were…and who God was.
Conveniently they forgot what their life had been like back in Egypt. There, they were slaves. Their children were disposable, worthless: for remember: the whole Exodus story begins with Pharaoh deciding that he will have Israelite baby boys killed. They were right at the bottom of the pyramid of power that made up Egyptian society. They were slaves, unable to make their own decisions, brutalised by slave masters, pushed around the place, to do all the work that native born Egyptians would not do. They had nothing: whether they lived or died depended on their masters. And yet all they can remember is the food they were given in Egypt: the fish, the onions, the melons, the leeks and the garlic….’oh Hallelujah, the garlic was great wasn’t it’: back in Egypt we ate like Kings! NOT.
Somehow, years and years of slavery had so worn down the people’s sense of value and worth that they preferred slavery with a bowl of vegetables to freedom with the bread of heaven. They had a craving (we’re told): the rabble (interesting word – uncontrollable, dangerous, menacing) had a craving for meat. You’ll notice that our reading gives us selected verses from Numbers chapter 11: it’s worth looking up what’s been left out because God gives the people meat: so much meat that they make themselves sick eating it. He gives them what they want – they are yet to learn the difference between their wants and their needs.
But they complain. The rabble complain. The families are despairingly hungry. The promised land is just a pipe dream when your child doesn’t have anything to eat. The situation is public: I think that’s what that phrase ‘at the entrances of their tents’ means. Tensions were clearly rising and scapegoats were being sought. Moses was feeling the pressure and the Lord (we’re told) was angry. Something here has to give. If the rabble have their way then there is likely to be a coup, Moses would be overthrown, and the people would descend into the survival of the fittest – civil war in a nation that still had no land.
Moses, at least, knows that he can pray. His prayer is desperate. He’s not up to fighting it out with the people, he can’t carry on, he’s exhausted. Given the choice between fight and flight in this situation of conflict Moses opts for flight: ‘I’ve had enough’, he said. ‘This isn’t the job I thought it was. This is your problem Lord. Now get me out of here…and if that means me dying in the desert then that’s fine by me’.
God’s solution to the problem deserves our attention. The former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks writes about this story as showing us the difference between power and influence. We might think these are the same, but they are not. Power, says Sacks, divides. Influence multiplies. If one person shares their power with 9 others then they are left with a tenth of the power they used to have. If they share their influence it is multiplied over and over again. Given a choice would you choose power or influence? Power dies with you and is passed to someone else: your influence lives on beyond you in your words and in the values you have taught.
There is a story in the Old Testament where Moses is challenged and he must use Power to crush an attempted coup. But that’s not what is happening here. Here God’s Spirit that had anointed Moses is also shared with the 70 elders. The things that Moses knew and experienced of God are shared with 70 others – people who were there, in the camp (allies if you like) waiting to be called upon (perhaps previously overlooked by Moses) to help lead the people.
And perhaps a number of connections are making themselves felt as you read and re-read this story? Don’t you hear echoes of that passage that we lived with just a couple of years ago sounding as we read this passage. Jesus sending out the 70…or was it the 72 disciples in Luke chapter 10? Jesus, entrusting his ministry to others: His way of being, His way of living, His teaching being given to so many others in order to multiply its influence across the Israel of His day. Don’t you sense a connection to what we did the other week on our Patronal Sunday as we prayed for the various ministries that you, as a congregation, perform?
The way forward for Moses, the way forward for Jesus, the way forward for us as a church is to draw deeply on the Presence of God (for notice: Moses gathered the elders at the Tent of Meeting) and then for us all to live out Moses’ wish and Jesus gift of having the Spirit of God poured out upon us. That way Jesus’ influence is multiplied in our community not just by ordained leaders but by the whole people of God.
So it was great the other week to see how the Eco Team have been inspired to organise a Climate Change Fair on Sunday November 7th. And terrific to hear that my appeal last week for someone to help Annette in co-ordinating a Music Festival next year resulted in an immediate response….and to hear from Annette of just how many others beyond this congregation are wishing to be involved. Our challenge, as our Teams get up and running is to ensure that they all pull together and are rooted in God and His influence upon us. Which is why reading scripture together is important…in our Teams: Dwelling in the Word. God is the one who guides and directs us. God is the One who solves this problem within the community, not Moses. It’s the Lord’s influence we seek to multiply in the town, not ours – so listening out for His word must be core to what we do. But I sense something new is about to happen…and I’m quietly excited to see what it might be.