So the Lord said to Moses, ‘Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tent of meeting, and have them take their place there with you. I will come down and talk with you there; and I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself.
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!’ (Numbers 11:16-17, 24-29)
I was recently talking to a fellow priest, who serves as Rector of a parish right next to Joshua Tree National Park in southern California. He was telling me about his idea for a Lenten Retreat. Those going on the retreat would spend most of one day in the near perfect and complete silence of Joshua Tree. After spending a day in the desert in pilgrimage and prayer, everyone would return to the nearby church and break the silence with Vespers. “If you can’t pray in the desert,” he told me, “…then you just can’t pray.”
His words have stuck with me over the past couple weeks, both on literal and metaphorical levels. The Desert – the wilderness – after all, is a powerful place in the imagination of the Church. After their deliverance from armies of Pharaoh at the Red Sea, Moses and the children of Israel moved into the desert, where they travelled for forty years. It is the place where they first celebrated their freedom, but also the place where they would later groan and wish to be back in bondage in Egypt. Isaiah’s prophecies speak of the barren desert rejoicing and blossoming, with water breaking forth in the wilderness when the people of Israel return from their exile in Babylon. The desert is where people flocked to hear the message of John the Baptist, drawn out from the safety of their shelters in the cities and on the river and lakeshores to receive a baptism of repentance, and to hear the kingdom of God was drawing near. After his baptism by John, the scripture tells us, the spirit sent Jesus into the wilderness where he both prayed and was tempted.
The desert is at once a place of trial and blessing – a place where the people of God are go to pray, and find themselves both tested and transformed. And so my mind wanders back to what my friend told me: “If you can’t pray in that place… if you can’t pray in the desert… you just can’t pray.” Sometimes the prayers of the desert are for deliverance; sometimes they are for perseverance; sometimes the prayers of the Desert are that we might feel God’s presence more closely, and sometimes, I suspect, they are that we might have God’s presence disturb us just a little bit less.
Our first reading today came in the midst of the desert experience of Moses and of Israel. The people are complaining, and in pain, and struggling with the place they lie, and are looking back at their time in Egypt with fondness – “If only we had meat to eat!” they say, “We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” It must be a particular talent of the people of God to look at a blessing – like the manna God provided for his people in their journey through the barren desert – and still be picturing all the things they could have had instead. And it is most certainly a sign of the goodness of God that in the midst of the people’s confusion and complaint, God becomes present and visible to them anyway.
God tells Moses to bring seventy elders of the people into the tent of meeting – the moving tent where the people of Israel, wandering in the desert, would go to meet the Divine Presence among them – and there they receive and share the spirit that was upon Moses, and they speak prophecy. Yet God also does something unexpected in that moment. Two men – Eldad and Medad, were outside of the seventy, and outside of the tent. Perhaps they were just going about their daily business in the wilderness. Yet the spirit of God comes to rest on them as well, and they speak prophecy as well – and, as the scripture suggests – they continue to do so. They speak so much that others become jealous of their abilities, and their gifts – because Eldad and Medad, they aren’t among the seventy known to be elders of the people or officers over them. But when these are reported to Moses, he speaks a word of wisdom we should hold with us this day, and every day: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”
Would that all the Lord’s People were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them. All the Lord’s people – not just priests, or bishops, or deacons – but all of the people of God – would that each of them would be a prophet, dwelling in the fullness and in the spirit of God, and presenting that spirit out into the world. Would that each one of us would speak the word of God to a world that is so desperate to hear it. Would that each one of us would bear witness to the ongoing blessings and presence of God in the middle of the deserts of this life.
Through our baptism, we belong to a Lord who transforms our experience of the desert wilderness. In fact, our lesson today reminds us that all the Lord’s people are called to be prophets, and that the Lord put his spirit upon them. We hear the word “prophet” tossed around often in the church today. We hear it used to describe some of our leaders who make bold and difficult statements, to describe the crusaders who push for justice and peace. But ultimately, the call to prophecy is nothing more than the call to speak the word of God to the world around us – to enter into the labor of those who have come before us – and that call is not just given to the visionaries, the ideologues, and to the bold – but also to you and to me. To the people of God, sitting just outside of the tent of meeting, who Jesus happens to choose in this time and place to speak to the world around us.
Saint John’s – if you think I’m building up a grand analogy, to build to some great crescendo where I tell you that this Church has been living in the desert for the past ten years, and that we are now moving into the promised land – I’m afraid I will disappoint you. Because you see, as Christians, we are a pilgrim people, following after the footsteps of our Lord, always travelling, always pressing on, always moving toward the place where Jesus would have us and all of the world go. If you’re hoping that our decision to boldly move forward into a new chapter of our ministry will carry us across the Jordan River, out of the desert, and into the promised land – I’m afraid I will also disappoint you. Because while the kingdom of God is at hand, as Paul writes in his letter today, we are always building – building on the foundation that has been laid in Jesus Christ, and we will continue building for many years to come. We keep moving through the desert, ever onward, ever forward, ever following after our Lord, ever seeking to find the place he wants and needs us to go. We keep building, keep seeking, keep serving, keep praying.
But the promise of our scriptures today is that in this desert experience, we will meet God. And when we meet God, we will be changed, blessed, made into to prophets and witnesses of the work of Jesus Christ in the world around us. And not just some of us – all of us. All God’s people. And as we are changed, we will change the world around us. We will see the desert blossom and become a place of springs. We will build on the foundation that has been laid; we will enter into the Lord’s harvest.
Saint John’s, as we leave our ministry here to move to a new place, I know that today feels like we are wandering out into the desert without water – from a place of plenty into an empty and dry land. But the promise of the Gospel is that as Jesus died and rose again, we are raised too. The promise given to us today is that as we wander into the desert, God will meet us there – that the fiery, cloudy pillar will lead us all our journey through.
As we move out into the world, Jesus will meet us here, even in the deserts of this life, and there will pour out his spirit into our very souls, that we may be prophets – speaking the word of God to a world that so longs to hear it.
And so the challenge is given to us, as it has been given to all the saints before us and the saints still to come: to enter into the harvest, to build on the foundation that has been laid, to speak the word of God to a wanting world.
And so, Sisters and Brothers: Let us press onward, for the sake of our Lord, for there is yet work to be done. The desert beckons, longing to be transformed into a place of springs. And right here, in our own hands, we have all we need to make it blossom. Amen.