Pentecost in the Middle of the Mess

  • Numbers 11:24-30
  • Hope CRC

Church, at its best, is supposed to “work” for you no matter what state you show up in. A little something for the joyful, the tearful, the contrite, and the proud. A piece here for the hesitant and there for the hopeful. Prayers for the needy, opportunities for the blessed. All one mixed bag of the Body of Christ, somehow served by the same service.

But in all honesty, there are Christian observances that seem to work better for certain emotional states. Christmas for the whimsically joyful. Easter for the triumphant. Good Friday for the mournful.

And then there’s Pentecost. Suddenly, in early summer/late spring—when plants and flowers are getting their earliest starts at brightness—churches break out the most lavish red and oranges they can find, drape cloth everywhere, light candles, spray bright flowers across the front. Pentecost is the triumphant cherry on top of the Easter-season Sunday. One bright, red victory to crown a season that celebrates the sweet success of God’s plan, the victory that we will ride on the back of all the way to Advent. It’s a great way to go out with a bang before the summer slows us down, Sunday attendance fizzles a bit, and the congregation looks a little wilted around the edges on hot mornings.

On Pentecost you would probably be wise to check any restraint, despondency or lackadaisical attitudes at the door. Bring them to church and you might be accused of stifling the Spirit—something we Reformed folk especially want to avoid being accused of. It is a holiday for the person who is feeling brave and bold, passionate and hopeful. Grumblers and those who are trudging through hard times might be a bit more comfortable back in the cold, hard reality of Lent.

And yet, in our emphasis on the triumphant rush of wind and magnificent flames on the heads of the disciples, we miss the bigger picture. When, exactly, does Pentecost occur? Every major Pentecost text in the Bible has a reminder that Pentecost is not just a crowning triumph, from which we march on to bigger and better things. We tend to edit these texts a bit for the Sunday.

For example, we love to hear from the prophet Joel on Pentecost:

Thus says the Lord:
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions.

But if we keep going:

I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.
The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.
(Joel 2:28-31)

This makes it a little harder to plead for the coming of the Spirit—if that same Spirit of prophecy and gifts also brings on the apocalypse!

And, of course, for the disciples, Pentecost is not a great, easy ending to their Easter drama. A few days earlier, they were left slack-jawed and confused on a mountain when Jesus was suddenly taken back to heaven, and seemingly, any guidance about what to do with him. All he told them was wait. Pentecost may give them guidance and confidence, and comfort in the absence of their friend, but things don’t get any easier. Pentecost opens up the age of the church, which, for the disciples means a life of hardship and persecution.

And then there is the mini-Pentecost of the Israelites in the desert. As we read it, a lovely story in which God gives Israel a little taste of the great Pentecost yet to come.

But the frame for this little Pentecost is not too pretty. The Israelites have been grumbling—the desert is hot, the manna is monotonous, and slavery (slavery?!) in Egypt is starting to look pretty appealing. They are such skilled and persistent grumblers that they even get Moses started.

He all but whines to God—and at one point takes on the persona of the “Desperate Housewife” of the ancient world:
Why have you brought this trouble on your servant?
What have I done to displease you that you have put all the burden of this people on me?
Did I conceive all these people?
Did I give them birth?
Why do you tell me to carry them in my arms as a nurse carries an infant to the land you promised?
I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me.
If this is how you are going to treat me, put me to death right now!
(Numbers 11:11-15)

(This makes me wonder if the Israelites had perhaps learned something about whining from their leader—and also makes me hopeful about how God puts up with our whining since Moses, in spite of his incredibly bold complaining, is described as the prophet who was truly closest to God’s heart.)

God’s answer is two-fold: If the people want something other than manna, he’ll give them what they want: meat, and so much that they will (literally) get sick of it.

And as for Moses’ complaint about the burden of leadership, God asks Moses to gather 70 elders who can bear the burden with him. They gather at the tent, and the Spirit spreads, from Moses to the elders, spreading the burden around. Even the two who don’t make it to the tent get the Spirit in the camp. And Moses is so grateful for the shared leadership that he’s not even jealous.

This is not the end of hardship for Israel. The desert is still rough and dry, the food is boring, and there is still complaining and tragedy.

Here’s the pattern: the Spirit does not arrive in the middle of triumph, only to lead us to greater glory. And that, to me, seems much more true to our experience of life.

Jürgen Moltmann is a German theologian whose own story is similar to these Biblical patterns of when the Spirit arrives. Moltmann served in the German army in WWII. After seeing much of his land destroyed, and friends as well, he wound up in a POW camp in England. On top of coming to terms with war, he describes the horror of coming to terms with what his country had done—seeing, and finally believing pictures of concentration camps. And yet, he remembers that camp fondly, because that is where he first met and struggled with God’s Spirit. The Spirit came as life and identity as he knew it was, apocalyptically, being torn apart.

Moltmann writes of this Spirit who he met as the Spirit of life. But that definition comes out of tragedy. This is the Spirit, after all who “proceeds from the Father and the Son.” And Moltmann pictures the Spirit emerging to descend on believers out of the open tomb—out of the suffering and death of Jesus. And out of the costliness of that tragedy, the Spirit emerges, hand-in-hand with the Son to be God’s presence in the world.

While Moltmann’s experience of the Spirit is probably a bit out of our reach, we have seen today a story of this Spirit walking with us through the world, transforming crisis into victory. Elizabeth, even before she can grasp the theology of it, has met the Spirit. On the face of it, her story starts in tragedy—abandoned by a mother who could not bear the burden of a child, shoved to the side by a society that could not see the value of her life. And yet, even while her situation looked grim on the surface, already the Spirit moved and prepared a place for her, convinced a family to their depths that they were not complete without her.

The beauty of the Spirit is that it arrives where we are—in the middle of the mess of this life. And its arrival does not promise to make everything rosy, but it promises companionship through the rough journey ahead. We ought to arrive at Pentecost, then, in whatever state we are in. The Spirit is sent as our companion for whatever we face.

In baptism, we see God pouring out his Spirit—sometimes as babies, before our tongues are even set to form the words of prophecy. And we are baptized into a body that is held together by this Spirit, so that our burdens are carried not by one, but by the many who are filled with the Spirit.

I like to imagine Moses’ shock at what the words of his prophecy in Numbers have blossomed into. Could he have imagined the weight of what he said when he exclaimed to Joshua: “I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on all of them?” Because here we sit today, more than just the elders, many more than 70, and with many more gathered throughout time and space, and we are all filled with the Spirit. And we are all able to carry each other’s heavy burdens. We can carry the weight of the sick and suffering, the hopeless and the lonely. We carry each other—think how we carried Elizabeth, even before we knew her! And even if we are not headed into an easy story, even if the moon turns to blood and the world turns upside down, even when we grumble against God, we are bound in the Spirit—to the fellowship of each other and to the Trinity.

Come, Spirit, come.
Thanks be to God.