Lectionary 25B, September 30, 2018
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29, Psalm 19:7-14, James 5:13-20, Mark 9:38-50
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
“John said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’” John—one of Jesus’ disciples, one of the Twelve—saw someone casting out demons and thought to himself, “how terrible!” This is one of many places in the Bible where faithful followers of God get upset that other people are doing things in God’s name. Another example is in our first lesson from Numbers. Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp, out and among the general people instead of where Moses and the other Israelite leaders were gathered. The Holy Spirit was with them, speaking in and through them! And Joshua ask Moses to stop them!
When I was a kid, I thought stories like these were incredibly unbelievable. Not the casting out demons and the prophesying; I had total faith that if demons existed God could give the power to cast them out, and that God could give people the spirit enough to speak in God’s name. No, the thing that was unbelievable to me was the response people had to such demonstrations of God’s power. Demons were being cast out, and they thought it was a bad thing? The Holy Spirit was being poured out on people, and they thought it was a bad thing? They wanted to stop it? Come on, that is TOTALLY unbelievable. It was obvious that the power of God was working! Surely, God’s faithful people would never try and stop the Holy Spirit!
I don’t find it unbelievable any longer. I’ve seen it too many times among God’s faithful people. I’ve even done it myself! There are a lot of reasons, but far too often we as God’s people see God at work in the world and try to shut it down. Oh, we don’t say that’s what we’re doing, even to ourselves. We find all sorts of justifications, ways to explain how it wasn’t really God at work, it wasn’t really good, and so we were right to try and shut it down. Unfortunately, sometimes we succeed. We shut down God’s work in and among us and in the larger society, and then we wonder where God is.
Joshua wanted to stop Eldad and Medad because he was jealous. God’s Spirit had been given to the elders, to the in-crowd, to the ones who supported Moses. That was exactly where Joshua wanted that power: with those he approved of, those he followed. Joshua was Moses’ right-hand man, and he knew all the stuff Moses had had to put up with, and here are two guys who refused to join Moses who are prophesying! Obviously, it’s bad, Joshua thought. Moses is God’s chosen leader. Therefore, the Spirit of God can only come to those who follow Moses, those who are part of our party. So no matter what it looks like, they can’t really have the Spirit of God. Because if it was really the Spirit, they would have come and joined Moses. Therefore, Eldad and Medad must be stopped.
The thing is, God’s power doesn’t work like that. God’s Holy Spirit is not stingy. It doesn’t measure out wisdom and power by the teaspoonful in the appropriate places. The Holy Spirit is a bonfire, or a raging flood, or a rushing wind. It overflows, it goes where it wills, it is not confined, it cannot be controlled. It’s not bound by Human rules or conventions or traditions, but by the will of God. The world would be a much better place if everyone were open to the Spirit, and followed where it led. Sometimes the Holy Spirit is with the leadership, the in group. Sometimes the Holy Spirit is with the people on the outside, the people who have no power or leadership role. Sometimes the Holy Spirit is in both places at once, with insiders and outsiders, the people we agree with and the people we don’t agree with. Even when we are truly following God’s guidance, that doesn’t mean that other people aren’t following God’s guidance as well. Joshua had to learn that, and so do we. The way we think God should organize things is not necessarily the way God chooses to organize things. And when it comes down to a choice between our will and God’s will, the only faithful thing to do is choose to follow God.
Then there are the disciples. They, too, were jealous. There was a man casting out demons in Jesus’ name—publicly showing Jesus’ power, and taking tangible part of that power as well—and he wasn’t one of them! Our Gospel reading this week is a continuation of last week’s Gospel, it’s the same day. They’ve been arguing about which of them is the greatest, and Jesus told them they were missing the point. He took a child and told them that they should be like children, that the Christian life is about service and sacrifice, not power and glory. And they learned nothing from his words. They’re still focused on power. They don’t want to talk about sacrifice, or responsibility, or taking care of children and other vulnerable people. They want power to be concentrated with them, in their little group. Not with this random outsider who is doing more impressive things in Jesus’ name than they are. They don’t care how much good this other guy does; he’s not one of them, he’s not doing the things they think he should be doing, so he needs to be stopped. The love Jesus’ power, but only when they benefit, only when they’re at the center. Their wants, needs, fears, and comfort level are more important than any of the people this other guy is helping. And so they want him stopped. They don’t care how many people are suffering. All they care about is themselves.
It’s no wonder Jesus is so harsh with them. They are not listening to him! He’s trying to tell them to put love first, to care about others in word and deed, to put more attention into serving those in need than into their own power and comfort levels. And how do they respond? By doubling down on their selfish jealousy! They are letting their own pride and selfishness become a stumbling block to following Jesus, and in the process they themselves are being stumbling blocks to others. They are trying to shut down someone who is saving people from evil. They are trying to stop people from getting help they desperately need. They are trying to keep those who need Jesus most from receiving healing in his name. They, who claim to be Jesus’ most devoted followers, are trying to stop Jesus’ power from working in the world, and all because it’s not happening in ways they approve of. And it’s dangerous, and it’s wrong, and it’s hurting people. All their self-righteous justifications are a great big millstone dragging them down and keeping them from understanding Jesus; and worse, they’re preventing others from following Jesus, too.
And we Christians today do the same thing. When God is at work among us, when God’s Holy Spirit is giving wisdom or healing, all too often we try to shut it down. Sometimes it’s because of jealousy, or because it’s coming from outside our comfortable circle. A lot of the times we try to shut it down because it’s leading us places we don’t want to go, or trying to make us deal with people we don’t want to deal with. People who have demons, literal or metaphorical. People who don’t look like us, or sound like us. People who are different. Or sometimes we shut God’s Spirit down because it requires us to change. Given a choice between our traditions and following Jesus, most Christians will take their traditions every time … and then claim that they’re being faithful. God called us to do a particular thing long ago, and it was good, and we’re comfortable with it, and therefore we tell ourselves that God can’t ask us to do something new or different. We place our trust in our traditions and rules and comfort level, instead of in the Holy Spirit of God. And in so doing, we become stumbling blocks. We get in the way of God’s work in the world. We create a culture of saying no to everything. We lose our saltiness. We work against God’s will, and all the while claim we’re being faithful.
I like traditions, myself. I get in a rut very easily, and I like my well-worn patterns. But God keeps calling us to do new things. And God keeps calling us to love and serve all people, not just the ones we like, but even the ones we don’t like. So here’s my challenge for us: to open ourselves to how God is calling us here, and now. And not just to the ideas that are comfortable, or that we’ve done before. What is God calling us to do that might make us uncomfortable? What is God calling us to do that we’ve never done before? What is God calling us to do that we would rather not do? How is God calling us to love and serve our neighbors that aren’t like us? What would it be like to actually follow the Spirit wherever it led?
Let us pray. Holy Spirit, living Word of God, breathe new life into us. Break our fears and help us avoid the temptation to close our hearts and minds to you. Stir up in us a passion for your will that will lead us out into the community to speak your word and act as God’s hands and feet in the world.