A sermon for Pentecost Sunday. From Numbers to Acts and beyond, God is still speaking!
So 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. Then 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. Two 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. And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” But 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!” And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.
Good morning, church! I’ve come to you today with a simple message. There will be no complicated theological acrobatics here, no bending over backwards to understand this text or the meaning of this holy day we celebrate, which is called Pentecost. No, today I bring to you a simple message, and the message is twofold, and the message is this: 1) God is still speaking! and 2) Our God is able to use anyone or anything to speak. Did you know this? That the God of all the universe, Creator of all that is and was and ever shall be is able to use anyone or anything to bring a word to us? Or do you know it up here (in your head) but not quite in here (in your heart)? Does this knowledge bear itself out in practice when you meet people you find weird, or strange, or those who don’t fit the “type” of one who should bring the Word of God.
God is still speaking! Even now, even in this day and age, God is not done speaking! Did you know this? That the Almighty God, Creator of heaven and earth, exalted through the ages, did not shut up after the last word was penned in the book of Revelation? Have you understood that the prophetic voice is alive and well, in people like Dorothy Day, Philip and Daniel Berrigan, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, and more recently, the Rev. Dr. William Barber II, Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, author Glennon Doyle Melton – who will be coming to speak in August – and countless others both well-known and forgotten who on a daily basis provide a mouthpiece for the Spirit of God to cry out to a broken world.
And let me tell you the truth of our text today, the story we just heard from Numbers 11 – the Spirit of God can rest on anyone! At any time, and in any place! It cannot be controlled, but that hasn’t stopped others from trying. They tried to control the Spirit of God by gathering all the elders in the tent and limiting their prophetic powers to that one time and place. They tried to control the Spirit of God by shunning and ridiculing the prophets who were less-well-known, who were not already a part of the established elite prophetic class. They tried to control the Spirit of God by crucifying the Lord, Jesus Christ! They tried to control the Spirit of God by restricting access to the Scriptures and setting up Indulgences! They tried to control the Spirit of God by refusing to allow enslaved African Americans to gather for their own worship! They tried to control the Spirit of God by rounding up all the dissenting voices and sending them to the prison cells, the gallows, the firing squads, the gas chambers! Even now, they try to control the Spirit of God through legislation, incarceration, and separation! But Brothers and Sisters, the Spirit of God cannot and will not be controlled! It cannot and will not be silenced! Because it found its way to Eldad and Medad, who were not in the tent, but in the camp, and they brought God’s Word to all the people. Because Amos and the rest of the “unconventional” prophets continued to prophesy and to testify, and that testimony was recorded for all future generations to hear. Because Jesus rose from the grave three days later! Because Martin Luther and John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli and all of the other Reformers stood up and said, “No more!” Because men, women, and children caught in the cruel and unforgiving jaws of American slavery continued to meet and worship in hush harbors anyway! Because they can beat, enslave, lock up, and kill anyone they want, but they cannot silence the Spirit of God! The Spirit of God knows no laws; the Spirit of God knows no prison; the Spirit of God does not understand deportation, because the Spirit of God is everywhere, and you cannot kick it out!
God is still speaking! But make no mistake, God does not always say the same old thing. There are timeless truths, to be sure, but there are times when a new truth must come forward, when there must be a correction to the old way of thinking. This, believe it or not, is also biblical! If you read the text closely enough, you will discover that 1) God changes God’s mind; that 2) people’s understanding of God changes through the ages; and 3) that what is once considered unholy, unacceptable, and unclean behavior can be understood as being perfectly holy, acceptable, and clean at a later point in time. I can think of no better example than the story of Peter’s vision, which comes from Acts 10:9-16, and if you have your Bibles on hand you can look it up and read along. It says: “About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.” What God has made clean, you must not call profane! Oh how this word continues to be spoken even into our own time! The voices of our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters, of our brothers and sisters of color, even now cry out, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane!” Recall that Peter was one of those present on the day of Pentecost, when the Spirit descended like tongues of fire onto all of the apostles, and they began to speak in many different languages so that all could understand them. And after they had all been accused of being drunk, Peter is the one who stands up and proclaims to all of the people gathered there the new thing that God has done in Jesus Christ. Peter has received the Spirit and, as a lowly fisherman, is now fully qualified to speak on behalf of God. Peter, who later comes down from the roof and tells everyone, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane!”, is one of many agents through whom God is still speaking!
And I will grant you, O people of God, that listening for the voice of the Spirit is difficult work. It is much more difficult than just reading the Bible and doing what it says. It is much more difficult than listening to your pastor get up every Sunday and tell you where to go, what to do, and what to believe. It is difficult to listen to what the Spirit is saying to the church, because so often what the Spirit is saying, we do not want to hear. Because we have already processed and accepted what God has already told us, and it is so ingrained in us that to hear the new thing that God is speaking to us now is too much. Much like Peter, we are inclined to cry out, “By no means, Lord! I would never!” Or perhaps we mistake the agent of the Spirit as the agent of a demon. We call them a wolf in sheep’s clothing. We remain content with having missed out on what God was saying to us in that moment, because we were so focused on protecting the old words that had been spoken to us. We forget the truth – that God can use anyone or anything to speak!
Did you know this? That God can use even an ass to speak! The story comes to us not a little later on in the book of Numbers, when the Israelites have come to camp in the plains of Moab. The Moabite King, Balak, is frightened, and summons the diviner Balaam to put a curse on the Israelites. Balaam is hesitant because God does not want him to curse the Israelites, but ends up going with King Balak’s messengers after a few days. On his way, an angel comes and stands in the roadway. Balaam cannot see the angel, but his donkey can! Three times his donkey strays from the path or refuses to move forward, and three times Balaam strikes his donkey in anger. And then, it says, “The Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?… Am I not your donkey, which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I been in the habit of treating you this way?”… Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, with his drawn sword in his hand; and he bowed down, falling on his face.”
God can use anyone or anything to speak! God can use a donkey. God can use those who are not in the tent, but in the camp. God can use a rag-tag group of fishermen and sinners, ruffians and rabble-rousers, whose only qualifications were that they hung around that Jesus guy for a few years. God can use the poor, the homeless, the addicted, the prisoners, the estranged, the “impure”. God can use the people we like and the people we don’t like – God doesn’t discriminate when it comes to choosing mouthpieces! And so if you think that someone’s position in life, someone’s social standing or lack thereof, makes what they have to say any more or less important, and you allow that to dictate who you listen to, and who you write off as not worth your time, then I promise you that you will miss out on something very important that God wants to tell you.
I once knew a man named James Michael Harris back when I was living in St. Louis. James was homeless, black, in his 50s. He was also a veteran; he had congestive heart failure, so it was difficult for him to get around. He didn’t speak very well, and he didn’t always smell that great, either. But in the one year that I knew him, James taught me more about being a Christian than I had learned my entire life before meeting him. James had the kind of faith you only dream about. He slept on the bench at the bus stop, rain or shine – even in the fiercest of storms. He told me how, one time, a particularly frightful storm woke him in the middle of the night, and he stood up and shouted at the sky, “My God is bigger than you!” I once saw him give the only dollar he had in his cup to one of his friends, because he knew that he needed it more, and that generosity multiplies; it does not diminish. He almost always had a smile on his face when I saw him, and on Sunday mornings he was the loudest singing voice in church. And I knew it even at the time, but more and more I am convinced that the Spirit of God had come to rest on his shoulders, and he had something so very important to teach me about faith; about friendship; about kindness, and love, and grace.
And so, you see, church, God is still speaking! The Spirit is alive and well; it has not dispersed, and it has not been contained, bound between the mere 2000 pages of a book. God’s voice is much, much bigger than that! As the Gospel-writer tells us, if all of it were written down, the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. So take heart, people of God! The story isn’t over; the Spirit marches on; and even now, God continues to raise up new prophets to bring a healing Word to a broken world!
Where is God speaking in your life? God’s Spirit, indeed, is all around us. Have you felt it? Have you heard its whisper? That still, small voice resonating in the deep chasms of your mind. What is it telling you? What is it saying? And when, O disciples of Christ, will you share it with the rest of the world? Amen.