Sunday, September 27, 2015

Burdens and the Power of God

[This was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church, Springboro, Ohio, earlier today.]

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
On Friday night, we went to a concert performed by the Emerald City Swing Band and a special guest trumpet soloist, Ed Morrison, who has played with some of the biggest pop acts of the past four decades. The concert was attended by many of our classmates from West High in Columbus. One reason for that is that Ed Morrison is a graduate of our high school alma mater. As is the swing band's director, one of my oldest friends. As is my brother-in-law. As are three other West High grads. So, it wasn't just a concert; it was a reunion.

Rare is the day when I don’t have interaction with at least one of my high school classmates. They remain an important part of my life. But it’s always special when we’re able to see each other and spend some time talking. It was an exuberantly joyful event! 

But in the joy, I learned about the burdens some of my classmates are carrying right now. The father of my best man has suddenly taken seriously ill and his family is scrambling to find care for him. The daughter of two other classmates is battling cancer. And as we walked on High Street in the Short North near the concert venue, we encountered more than a few poor souls asking for money. 

It struck me again, as it does often, how burdened our lives can become. Life can be hard and our burdens can be overwhelming.

Jesus once said that in this world, adversities, like rain, would fall on the righteous and unrighteous alike. A friend once reminded me when I was complaining about my imperfect life: “Mark, you know that this isn’t heaven, right?” My friend’s words put me in mind of something else that Jesus said: “In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

And Jesus has overcome this world, with its sinfulness and the death sentence that hangs over every human being from the moment they are conceived. 

All who turn from their sins and believe in the God we see in Jesus Christ will receive forgiveness and life everlasting with God. 

But until the days when we who believe in Jesus die and we are raised to life again, we live in this world and must, among other issues, face two important questions. 

First, how do we deal with our own burdens? 

Second, how do we help ease the burdens that others bear? 

And the fact is, that if we don't follow Jesus, we may be obsessed with the first question, but we will never even be interested in answering the second. Martin Luther said that one way of understanding sin is that it's a turning in on self, away from God, away from others. The most pathetic and unhappy people I know are people who are turned inward in this way. Relying only on themselves, they're incapable of bearing their own burdens in life and don't even think about helping other people with theirs.

To instruct us and inspire us in dealing with those two questions--how do we deal with our burdens and how do we help others with theirs?--we’ll turn this morning to our first lesson, which hops and skips through Numbers 11, the Bible’s fourth book. 

The incident it recounts takes place just three days into the wilderness journey of God’s Old Testament people, Israel or the Hebrews. God has just freed them from more than four hundred years of slavery in Egypt. Yet already, on the day before the incidents in today’s lesson, the people complained about their hard lives. 

Not their hard lives back in Egypt, but their hard lives since God set them free from Egypt, a place where they had spent their lifetimes doing backbreaking labor and where, their captors had routinely murdered their sons

The Israelites apparently suffer from short memories. 

And how often do we, when faced with adverse circumstances, take a what-have-You-done-for-me-lately attitude toward God? How often do we allow the newest crisis to kill our joy in being saved from sin and death by Christ or to rest in the certainty of Jesus’ promise to be with us always?  

Numbers 11:1-2 says that God’s anger burned so hot against the ungrateful Israelites that they became frightened and ran to Moses for protection. Moses prayed for them and God’s anger abated.

But take a look at what happens next, Numbers 11:4: “The rabble [this was a group of Egyptians who had escaped Egypt with God’s people] with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. [They’re nostalgic for their slave days!] But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!’ [They want filet mignon instead of the food God miraculously gives to them every that’s saving them from starvation.]” 

Why were God’s people whining? Because they were allowing their attitudes and behaviors to be influenced by a rabble from an unbelieving world, rather than being influenced by God Himself

In today’s Church, we find too many Christians doing the same thing. They’re influenced more by the world and their own sinful natures than they are by the Word of God. (If they spent time each day in the Word of God, maybe that would change. As it is, Christians spend way more time watching TV, playing on the Internet, and entertaining themselves than they do studying God’s Word or in praying. If you want to know so much of the world is going to hell in a handbasket, these facts will serve to answer the question more than anything else!)

This past week, I have been deeply moved by the visit of Pope Francis to the United States. I know Francis is just a man and much of the media coverage of him has been fawning. Nonetheless, I am deeply moved and inspired by this humble believer in Christ. 

But during this week, I have also found it dismaying to hear people picking and choosing what parts of the pope’s messages they wanted to hear and what they wanted to ignore. 

Some loved what he said about exercising good stewardship of the planet on which God has placed us, but wanted to ignore him when he said that the murder of babies in the womb as a form of birth control is wrong. 

Some wanted to applaud him when he upheld the teachings of the Bible and of Jesus that marriage is a covenant between God, a woman, and a man, but chose to turn a deaf ear when he said that we who have more of this world’s goods should share with those who, like Jesus and His family, are poor or homeless or refugees. 

But the God Who hates murder and loves marriage is also the God Who made us managers and stewards of this planet and has told us that we serve Him when we heed the needs of the poor, the marginalized, the homeless, the refugees. God will not be divided! 

There are too many Christians today who want to take just enough of Jesus and of the Word of God to make them feel good, but not enough of Jesus to let Him be the Lord of their lives. They whine at the notion of being faithful, self-sacrificing disciples submissive to the Lordship of Jesus, all the while touting that they are members in good standing of the Church. I can be as guilty as anyone else, I confess! 

And don't be confused, I have no interest in these matters as political issues. I'm only talking about them as they relate to you and me in the Church and how we live our everyday lives. They force us to ask ourselves about the level of our obedience to the One we confess to be our God and Lord. They force us to ask whether we're committed to following Jesus only as long as it suits us.

The simple fact of the matter, is that we will never be able to deal with the burdens of everyday living if we take our cues from the values of this world or if we allow Jesus’ message or Lordship to be divided. We will only be able to deal with them as we let the God we know in Jesus Christ be the absolute King of our lives. Period.

When we let Jesus be our Lord, God will give us the power not only to endure our own burdens, but also to lighten the burdens of others and so, to more fully experience what it means to be God’s children

In Numbers 11:10-15, Israel’s earthly leader Moses does a little bellyaching of his own. 

He asks God what God has done to him. He asks how he’s supposed to find food for all these ingrates. He asks God to just kill him if He insists on subjecting him to such ill treatment by forcing him to lead these people. 

For now, God ignores the fact that Moses has fallen into the trap of thinking that he, Moses, and not God, is really leading these people. 

Instead, God moves to ease Moses’ burden. In verse 16, he tells Moses to gather the seventy elders

Then, in a section of Numbers 11 that isn’t part of our lesson, God tells the elders that he’s going to fill them with the same Holy Spirit He has given to Moses so that they will be empowered to speak God’s words to the people and to provide servant leadership to them. 

God also says that He’s going to give meat to these whiny people every day for the next month, so much meat that in the end, the people will be sick of it, vomiting it out through their noses. I guess the lesson there is to be careful what you whine for (Numbers 11:20)! 

But the big takeaway is that Moses had gone to God with his burden and God had lightened it by empowering seventy others to bear it with Moses

In Numbers 11:24-29, Moses tells the people what God has said and the Holy Spirit descended to the elders. As would happen more than a millennium later with the followers of Jesus on the first Christian Pentecost fifty days after Jesus rose from the dead, the elders began speaking the Word of God. Today, God gives His Holy Spirit to every baptized believer in Jesus Christ. 

The Spirit empowers us to rest in the comfort of knowing that God helps us with our burdens and makes us part of the Church, where we lighten each other’s burdens and seek to lighten the burdens of others by sharing the Good News of Jesus, praying for others, and undertaking acts of service for those outside the fellowship of the Church in Jesus’ name.

Near the end of today’s lesson, we’re told that two of the elders, Eldad and Medad, somehow didn’t make the meeting. (Maybe they were Lutherans and just running late.) 

Yet the Holy Spirit finds them and in the power of the Spirit, they begin to prophesy. They spoke the Word of God. 

Joshua, Moses’ assistant, is upset by this. The other elders had stopped prophesying, but these guys just kept going. Was that authorized? Had that been cleared by Moses. 

Moses asks Joshua: “Are you jealous for my sake?” 

We in the Church shouldn’t be jealous when God empowers others to do things to God’s glory that we aren’t doing or can’t do. 

The Holy Spirit can empower each of us to do that work in God’s Kingdom each of us is called to do

When each of us lives in the power of the Spirit at home, on the job, at school, and even with the Church, the work of God gets done, lives are changed, the homeless and the refugees are housed, the babies are born, the women are uplifted, marriage is honored, God’s earth is cared for, eternal life comes to those who previously didn’t know Christ, and God--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit--is glorified. 

We also then lighten each other’s burdens and God sends someone alongside of us to lighten ours. 

Moses says to Joshua at the end of our lesson, “I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” 

The tragedy of the contemporary Church is that while every baptized person has the Holy Spirit, Who can lighten their loads and use them to lighten the loads of others, has, in many ways, lost touch with God

This should not be so, my dear sisters and brothers. I urge you to take time each day to study God’s Word, to pray, and to ask God, “Lord, today how can I lighten the burdens of the world?” 

Then, go and do what the Lord tells you to do. Amen

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