The Spirit in the Wilderness (6-11-17 Formations) - Word&Way

The Spirit in the Wilderness (6-11-17 Formations)

Download commentaryThe Spirit in the Wilderness
Formations: June 11, 2017
Scripture: Numbers 11:10-11, 16-17, 24-29


Michael K OlmstedMichael K OlmstedThere are days when I easily identify with Moses. No, I am making no claim to Moses’ kind of fame or power, or even a comparable intimacy with God we see portrayed in the Old Testament. The comparison occurs when I turn on the television at breakfast and hear the relentless political haranguing, the petty accusations, the self-serving political rants and the blatant misuse of the word “Christian” to describe anything about this sideshow. Moses must have had tremendous willpower and faith to just step out of his tent every morning, knowing what he would hear.

After witnessing the ten plagues of Egypt, the miraculous parting of the Red Sea and God’s presence day and night through a pillar of cloud and fire, you would think that mob of former slaves would be happy just to be free! Those desert wanderers remind me of the guy who won the lottery and within two years had spent it all, lost the fancy new house and SUV, and couldn’t pay his bills. Freedom does not work without responsibility. Our lesson today is about a people who needed to learn what it means to be loved and blessed by God, how important it is to live as children of God and to cultivate trust in the God who is faithful in all circumstances.

Do not be surprised that God’s Spirit appears early in the saga of Israel, for God is not only a high and lifted up power figure on an eternal throne. God is the Deliverer of his enslaved people, the Companion on their pilgrimage to his promises and the Savior who will die on a cross and rise again. God does not change. We change as we accept his love and learn to live in his grace. What was happening to Israel in the wilderness is not unlike what we experience in our journey through life.

Now, back to Moses as he throws back the tent flap and hears the incessant complaints of his people. They seemed never to be satisfied, always wanting bread, meat and anything else they didn’t have! Moses was suffering from occupational fatigue, like any of us. It happens to a mother with small children, a manager with production quotas to meet, a minister with demanding people and also with a huge crowd of former slaves who were used to a set pattern of work, a steady diet and days that seldom changed. So they did what was natural: they complained. If you hear them clearly they were not upset with Moses, they were upset with God! Read Exodus 16:1-3 for a clear example of Israel’s complaints. This situation is God’s fault. Moses is infected by the attitude of the people and confronts God: “Why have you treated your servant so badly? And why haven’t I found favor in your eyes, for you have placed the burden of all these people on me” (v. 11)?

God’s response is shaped by grace. Instead of pointing out Moses’ frustration and the immaturity of the people, God is about to come into their lives and their world in a way that we often think of as “New Testament.” God directs Moses to gather seventy elders, respected or known leaders, at “the meeting tent,” where God’s presence dwells in the midst of the people” (v. 25). In that sacred place, God will come into their midst as he came to Moses in the burning bush. The seventy, empowered by God’s Spirit, will share the burden of leadership with Moses. Although God does send his Spirit to individuals, the fullness of the Spirit is not a sign of individual greatness or singular power over the multitude. There is a lesson here about shared leadership and responsibilities, a reminder that there are many gifts within the fellowship of God’s people for the good of all. Consider this idea in the Apostle Paul’s description of the church as the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12:1-30. Slowly, this tribe of nomads will become Israel, the people of God through whom the nations will find the Savior.

So, Moses and the elders gather at “the meeting tent” where God meets them in a cloud and the Spirit is poured out on those chosen to lead (v. 24-25). The text is very specific: “When the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied, but only this once” (v. 25). The Spirit will not come to stay with God’s people until the Pentecost after Jesus’ ascension (Acts 2:1-21). Two of the seventy elders, Eldad and Midad, are not with the others, but are found out in the camp prophesying (v. 26). Joshua, “Moses’ servant since his youth,” protests the prophesying of the two. Moses brushes this aside as possible jealousy on Joshua’s part, with a powerful comment: “If only all the Lord’s people were prophets with the Lord placing his Spirit on them” (v. 29). This “outpouring” seems to be more an excited celebration of praise than a preaching experience. There is a similar event recorded in 1 Samuel 10.

This is certainly a significant event for Israel early on their migration to the Promised Land. They are learning some hard lessons. Moses is not alone in his leadership and others will follow as they learn what it means to be God’s people.

We are still on that journey of learning and growing as God’s people. My life is marked by God’s presence in some very stressful times: financial disaster, professional stress, health crisis, personal conflicts, church turmoil and denominational wars. There have been times when, like Moses, I told God I could not keep going. God never failed me, even when I failed. His responses were not always predictable. Life can present some powerful obstacles, but none are greater than God’s faithfulness and grace.

Pentecostal friends through the years have argued with me about the “filling of the Holy Spirit” and I have tried to explain that Pentecost is not the experience we should seek, but the abiding presence of God’s Spirit every day. Moses needed the affirmation that he was not alone, that God was with him in every challenge. The people needed that same assurance. So do we.

When we are overwhelmed by the world, when the answers are not easy or complete, when we are too weary to go on … hear the promise of God. As Moses came to the end of his life he reminded Israel: “Be strong and courageous, do not be afraid or tremble at them, for the Lord your God is the one who goes with you. He will not fail you or forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6). The Spirit is with you in the wilderness!

Retired after 46 years in pastoral ministry, Michael K. Olmsted enjoys family, supply preaching and interim work, literature, history, the arts and antiques.

Formations is a curriculum series from Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc. through NextSunday Resources.

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