Question:  When / How Does the Spirit Speak to the Community of HRBC?  Numbers 11

The scripture lesson for this week, taken alone, will be hard to discuss at any length and then to apply without some further context around the scene. Yet, with some work this scripture is applicable and exciting for us as individuals and as a congregation celebrating our 53rd Heritage Day on Sunday. Stick with me and you will see why:

First, lets understand why the Hebrew people are grumpy. Why are they complaining to God, who delivered them and gave them purpose, identity? From our perspective, why aren’t they grateful?

  • The Hebrew people pulled up roots from a life of slavery under the Egyptians. While we see this delivery as a good thing, this was also a traumatic event in the life of this community. Not only do the people leave the only place they have known as home abruptly but also as their “neighbors” are mourning the death of their first borne and as the Egyptian army begins to pursue them.
  • Deliverance can be hard. Being delivered from even bad situations can be difficult when the bad situation is all you know. “…remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.” Numbers 11:6
  • The gift of freedom, the opportunity to start something wholly new is also hard. The Hebrew people are in a liminal time – a time in between what was and what will be.
  • During liminal time, trust – faith in God – is created in fits and starts accompanied by mistakes, doubts and fear that this new thing will not work out or that the project will fail. It is accompanied by an out of control feeling.
  • In the wilderness, the Hebrew people grasp for something they can control, when everything seems to be out of their control. They complain about the food God miraculously provides and begin to look back toward Egypt with rose colored glasses.

God is using the Hebrew’s time in the wilderness as a time of preparation. It is a time of re-programming their identity as slaves to an identity of a “priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). Their forty years in the wilderness prepares them to create a kingdom on the other side of the wilderness in which God’s values are promoted above and against the values of surrounding society. Dependence and allegiance to a creating and saving God are valued.

Clearly, in our passage, this trust hasn’t been built yet. The people stand at their tents and complain in the face of a generous God who has rescued them and provides for them. Will the Hebrew people ever be able to overcome the strong tug of society in order to live into a new identity that God wants to give them? Perhaps, something outside of them is necessary.

Last week’s study revealed that all creation is imbued with God’s spirit which makes life possible. But a special outpouring – an awareness that God is in this wilderness wandering is needed. The gift of a “portion of the spirit” is provided to leaders among every Hebrew tribe. Will this outpouring help calm the frayed nerves in the camp? Will these leaders, now directed by God’s Spirit, help turn the people away from the pull to go back to Egypt and fully embrace their new, God given identity as a special people of God, to be a light to the nations? Why didn’t the whole camp – every person – receive this portion of the Spirit?

Clearly, the Hebrew people are out of their comfort zone in the wilderness, between what was and what will be. God will continue to ask that his chosen people step further from what they have known and control. The presence of God’s spirit in the camp – among the leaders and found in a couple of people outside the prescribed 70 – is there to help create a new identity for this fledgling nation. The question at hand for the Hebrew people in this scene is: what identity will you choose? One that denies God’s provision and sovereignty or one that embraces a new identity as God’s chosen people? The gift of the Spirit in the camp is to reinforce and guide the people into embracing and living their new identity. The Spirit’s presence to the 70 leaders is, by extension, a presence to the whole community. The spirit is at work teaching and guiding the whole community through Moses and these leaders.

How is this different today? Is the gift of the Holy Spirit only an individual gift or is its presence a guide to a community of believers? In other words, isn’t our identity, who we are and what we will become, dependent on the company we keep? Can God’s purpose and our identity as a child of God be swayed in either direction by the messages we receive on a daily basis? The gift of the Spirit to the leaders in the Hebrew camp was a way of changing the narrative among the people from a story of scarcity and gloom to a story of abundance and gratitude. God is at work – just look at how God delivered us and provides for us every day! Even if the road is hard, God is with us to provide what we need. The hard work will be worth it, since we have been given the identity as God’s people! (This, as opposed to thinking about how “good” they had it in Egypt.)

To help us think about how the Holy Spirit works among a community of people, one theologian’s perspective is helpful:

“Our identity and our vision are both taught and caught from our interaction with others in diverse social groupings. The question is not whether we will be socialized, but what kind of society will have its way with us.”

This lesson is apropos for our Heritage Day celebration.

  • What is our identity as God’s people at HRBC?
  • How has God’s spirit spoken to us and led us in the past?
  • Have we ever spent time (complaining) in the wilderness? How did we emerge out of the wilderness? Was it our doing or God’s?
  • How is God’s Spirit calling us into the future? Is it comfortable? Is it predictable?
  • Are we attentive to God’s spirit in our leaders?
  • How might God’s spirit also be found among the voices of the people?

If we are to embrace our identity as God’s people, then we must also embrace that God works on our behalf even when it feels we are in the wilderness.  Are we always preparing and looking for what God will do next?

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