Sermon September 26 Numbers 11: Enough Already Rev. Betsy Hogan
Have you ever just had enough? Everybody, in that passage from the book of Numbers that we just heard, everybody has just had enough.
The Israelites have had enough of wandering in the wilderness – YES they’re grateful to God and to Moses for freeing them from slavery, and YES they know intellectually at least that wandering in the wilderness is actually technically better than being slaves –
But sometimes people have just had enough, and today the Israelites have just had enough. They’re exhausted. They’re tired of the wandering, they’re tired of the wilderness, they’re tired of the instability and the packing and the moving and the walking, and above all?
They’re tired of the MANNA. The manna from heaven, the gift from God, their food for the journey, they will not go hungry. But it’s manna for breakfast and manna for lunch and manna for dinner and manna for a midnight snack, and let us all briefly pause to be reminded that the Bible describes manna as being a sort of flakey bread-like substance –
And should we really be surprised that they’re sick of it? And starting to daydream of onions and melons and garlic and cucumbers?
They’ve just had enough. It’s not that they’re petty, it’s not that they’re not grateful, it’s not even that they’re whiny. They’re just tired. And they’re tired of manna. Sometimes people have just had enough.
And in this moment, with all their frustrations pouring out, Moses too has suddenly had enough.
Because he’s also tired. Of wandering in the wilderness. Of jollying them along. Of listening, endlessly, to all the ways he’s letting them down, and all the ways he’s just not good enough, and all the things they wish he could do better. Because he knows – of course he knows – all the ways he could do better. But he’s tired.
And so if they’ve had enough? He’s also had enough. He’s tried to be their leader, their caregiver, their guide, but he’s at the end of his rope.
So he stomps off apart from the people a little ways, Moses does, and he says to God, “I’m SORRY, but I cannot do this any more. Not alone. I’m completely wiped out, I have nothing left to give, I’m just done. And right now I’m so tired in fact that if this is how this is going to be from here on in? I’d rather you just kill me now.”
But that is not what God does. Because God understands, in fact, that sometimes people have had enough. And they really can’t keep it up anymore. And if anything they probably kept it up longer than they should have, because for the most part that’s what people are like. People really ARE that generous of spirit. And people really DO go the second mile and the third. And tire themselves out.
God’s seen it. God knows it. So when God hears Moses say he’s had enough? God knows that he really has had enough. And he really can’t do this leadership alone anymore. Through the wilderness, the endless wandering. And the daily depletion of the spirit of trying to manage a population that themselves are just way beyond it. The equally tired Israelites with their endless meals of equally tiresome manna.
Everybody’s had enough. And God understands. So God has a solution. The leadership of this community wandering in the wilderness needs to be shared. Visibly obviously shared. So that Moses won’t be in this alone, and so that more of the Israelites will be carrying the burden of what is absolutely a really tiresome situation.
Yes, they’ve escaped slavery in Egypt. But arrival in the land of milk and honey has not yet been achieved, and in the interim tiresomeness? The leadership has to be shared.
So God rigs up with Moses a plan. In which seventy of the wise elders of Israel are corralled into a circle around the tent, and God sends God’s spirit into their midst and God fills all of them with God’s spirit, and now they too will share the leadership with Moses.
It’s an absolutely beautiful plan. Moses is relieved, the people feel like God’s been responsive to what they’ve been going through, all of them have been refreshed and uplifted by God’s spirit – it’s an absolutely beautiful plan.
Except for one tiny issue. Because it transpires, as it happens, that God’s Spirit hasn’t been quite as… in control… as it might have been…
And so while it‘s surrounding and filling and inspiring the seventy very wise elders that Moses has gathered into that circle around the tent, it apparently also goes rogue.
And swing outs randomly, willy nilly into the camp – and ALSO surrounds and fills and inspires…. two other guys. Eldad and Medad. About whom we know nothing. Other than the fact that when Moses rounds up the seventy wisest men in the camp? These two gentlemen are regrettably not among them.
Which obviously doesn’t necessarily mean they’re dreadful or something… but it does mean they’re not top-tier. God’s Spirit’s gone rogue, been a bit over-enthusiastic, been a little out-of-control – and now instead of seventy wise elders with whom Moses can share the leadership of the Israelites, he has seventy wise elders… and two other guys.
And so, as the passage from the Book of Numbers continues, now there’s a whole ‘nother crisis that has to be dealt with. Because seventy wise elders… and two other guys... is not exactly what the Israelites thought they were signing up for. So now what are they going to do?
I suspect, though we don’t actually know, that before their reactions were neatly and tidily distilled into the two-line conversation we receive at the end of chapter eleven of the book of Numbers… I suspect that they actually argued about this problem for quite a little while.
And probably with no small amount of passion and even anger. Because what they wanted, the people of Israel, was seventy wise elders filled with God’s Spirit to share the authority and the leadership of Moses – their prophet. Their first prophet. Who led them out of slavery and into freedom.
And instead of seventy wise elders, their future is now going to be in the hands of seventy wise elders and two other guys who – who knows??! Are they going to be good leaders? Maybe… After all they HAVE been filled with God’s Spirit, which is a good argument in their favour.
But who really knows? Joshua is Moses’ right hand man, and he’s seriously alarmed. And so he’s the one who finally comes to Moses, distilling into one sentence what I do suspect was a fairly significantly passionate argument, and he says to Moses, “You can’t allow this. You have to stop them. You have to stop Eldad and Medad from prophesying. From speaking officially to the people and expecting to be listened to, as anointed by God. You can’t allow this to continue. It’s a mockery of the real leadership of you, of me, of the seventy wise elders of our people.”
And Moses has to take him seriously, Joshua. Because he's got a point!
Except that at the same time… Moses also can't help but notice that God doesn't seem to be correcting this weird spirit-going-rogue thing, so maybe God's also trying to make a point. Which probably ALSO has to be taken seriously.
It’s quite a conundrum. And while there are whole entire sermons that can be preached about the nature of leadership, and the quality and accountability of authority, and what is or isn't most useful or important at any given moment in the life of a community....
What it seems to come down to for Moses in this fraught situation is quite simple.
He can't do this alone. Not anymore. He can't do it even just with the help of Joshua. Not anymore. God's provision of seventy wise elders to help him – what a gift he's been offered and he happily accepts –
And if Eldad and Medad got thrown in there to by virtue of God's spirit going rogue? For Moses, it's all good. He can't do this alone. Two extra people to help? Bring it on. He'd welcome it if every single ONE of the Israelites had gotten that rogue spirit and been able to help too.
He can't do it alone. And all the help there is, he accepts.
It's a grace-filled moment of Moses letting go of the weight of responsibility he's been carrying for so long. Not just that this journey through the wilderness be accomplished, but that it be accomplished well, and properly, and carefully, as he'd planned and arranged and overseen.
No more. He can't do it alone. And all the help there is, he accepts.
Because all of it, he recognizes, has been provided by God. The obvious help of the seventy wisest elders – and the very much not-at-all obvious help of those two other guys who got filled with the Spirit when the Spirit went rogue.
All of it, provided by God. It's a grace-filled moment we can look at and learn from. Not JUST that we get to say "I've had enough, I can't do this alone" and not JUST that God understands that and sends to us the help we need –
But also that if some of it isn't the help we expected? It's still the help God's sent. And there's grace in letting go of whatever those expectations were, and saying yes.
Not "I can't do it alone" but "I don't have to do it alone". So "bring it on" as Moses says, "and thank you."
And God says, "I'm glad you said yes." May it be so for us too, when we've had enough. Amen.