Connection and a sense of belonging. That’s what we all long for as human beings. God understands that because that’s how God created us, and God longs to connect with us too. That’s why when Jesus knew that his time on earth was coming to an end, one of the final things he assured his disciples was that they would never be alone. He would send the Advocate, the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, to help us and be with us forever.
It’s Pentecost Sunday today and Pentecost reminds us about the power and presence of the Holy Spirit — that we will never walk alone even in the darkest and wildest times.
It was at Pentecost that the disciples experienced an outpouring of the Holy Spirit but do you know that’s not the first time in Scripture that we witness an outpouring of the Spirit? In fact, throughout the Old and New Testaments, we see moments when God sends the Spirit to help the people of God. So today, I would like to share some reflections about the outpouring of the Spirit and what God may be calling us to.
1. Outpouring of the Spirit often happens in the midst of a community crisis
Acts 2 & Numbers 11
In these two situations found in Acts 2 and Numbers 11, we see that the people were in some kind of crisis and they were seeking God for answers. In the beginning of Acts, we see that Jesus’ followers had witnessed his ascension into the skies, and they returned to Jerusalem. Gathering together in the upper room, * Luke records that the disciples “all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.” (Acts 1:14) They were seeking God’s leading and direction now that Jesus was no longer physically with them. And it was during one of these times of prayer that the Spirit came upon them like a strong wind and wildfire, enabling them to speak in different languages, proclaiming God’s mighty works. Everyone around them was in awe and many joined them as they created a community that kept growing. That was the beginnings of the Church, and the rest is history, as we like to say.
In Numbers 11, we also see a community in crisis. This was after God had rescued the Israelites from Egypt and they were in the wilderness trying to get to the promised land. I want to focus a little more on the Numbers 11 text today because very often on Pentecost Sunday, we tend to preach from Acts and I thought perhaps there is something new we can learn from an Old Testament text like Numbers, where we see the outpouring of the Holy Spirit even in Moses’ time.
The people were grumbling about their hard life, and the troublemakers among them complained that there was nothing to eat but manna. There was a dark mood over the community. And this kind of dark mood can come over any congregation or organization: complaints about things that are done or not done, unhappiness about the leadership and the decisions made.
Perhaps you’ve experienced it before. Perhaps you’re a leader at your workplace or in church or in your family. Maybe in your own sphere of influence, you’ve been trying your best to help others and make a difference. Sometimes your actions are appreciated, and sometimes they are not. Maybe after months of this Covid-19 situation, you’re feeling tired, drained and anxious about the future. Then maybe you’d identify to some extent with how Moses felt. He was weary and burnt out. He wasn’t sure if he could carry on with his current situation. The feelings of futility and inadequacy of his leadership were surfacing, and Moses was depressed and discouraged.
He vents to God, “I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once” (vv.14-15). Moses was experiencing extreme burnout and he could no longer manage or respond to the demands of the people. It was in this moment of crisis that God responds to Moses’ cry, and it was the needs of the people that lead to the outpouring of the Spirit.
Understanding Moses’ exhaustion, God responds with a solution, “Gather for me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them, and bring them to the tent of meeting, and let them take their stand there with you. And I will come down and talk with you there. And I will take some of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them, and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, so that you may not bear it yourself alone.”
This honest confession by Moses points us to a profound truth and the meaning of Pentecost. If we try to respond to the crying needs of the world by ourselves, we will soon find ourselves in despair. The gift of the Holy Spirit and the Pentecost experience mean that no one needs to carry any burden alone. You are not alone. Whether you are a leader or member, God’s Spirit is always available to guide, always willing to lead, and always present in every circumstance. Oftentimes, this may involve including others and expanding the circle. You don’t have to do it alone.
2. Outpouring of the Spirit often spills over to include people and situations that we don’t expect – challenges our narrow tribal mindsets
The outpouring of the Spirit often involves surprises along the way…sometimes these are surprises we don’t like and they challenge our preferences and prejudices. Like what happened in Numbers 11, the outpouring of the Spirit frequently spills over to include people we don’t expect.
So Moses and the seventy elders he chose followed God’s instructions and gathered at the tent of meeting. The Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to Moses, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But there were two other men, Eldad and Medad, who remained in the camp, and the Spirit overflowed into the camp and rested on them, and they started prophesying too.
So Joshua hears about Eldad and Medad prophesying out at the camp and he tries to squash this uncontrolled fervour of the Spirit. He tries to get Moses to stop them. “How can those two be prophesying when they are not part of the seventy elders gathered here at the tent?” This is reflective of the attitudes of narrowmindedness and possessiveness that we sometimes see: “This is my territory, my ministry, my role. How can they overstep their role and get involved?” Now I want to be clear that it’s important for us to have clear and healthy boundaries, especially when we serve together in ministry. But what I’m talking about here is when we lack the ability to see people and situations through God’s eyes, when we cling onto our standard ways of doing things and we think we are trying to be protective when the Spirit of God is urging us to be more inclusive, more expansive.
Thankfully, Moses had a very inclusive and expansive view. He rejected Joshua’s idea and said, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put God’s spirit on them!” (v. 29) Not only was he saying it’s okay that Eldad and Medad were filled with the Spirit and prophesying, Moses was saying that he wished all of God’s people were prophets!
The gift of the Spirit can be compared to a gift like wisdom. When a person shares wisdom with another, this act does not diminish the wisdom of the giver. Rather, it is like using a candle to light other candles. The candle does not lose its light because it is shared with others. Rather, the light becomes even brighter when shared.
So there is nothing to be jealous or protective about. When we see the gifts and power of the Spirit shared amongst us, the value to the church and community grows exponentially. When people share their skills, gifts and resources through mentoring and empowering others, God’s Spirit is multiplied.
Sometimes we hesitate because we’re unsure of what skills and gifts we have to offer God and others. We are also well aware that we have limited time, energy and resources, and we want to offer our skills, gifts and resources wisely. This is true but one question that God poses to Moses has been ringing in my mind.
God asked Moses: Is the LORD’s power limited? (v.23)
And I think this is a question God is asking you and me: Is the Lord’s power limited? Perhaps you think you don’t have much to offer others but God is asking you: is my power limited? Maybe you’ve been overwhelmed by the needs and demands around you, and like Moses, you’re wondering how you can carry on, and God is asking you: is my power limited? I’m not asking you to push yourself beyond your limits and not take care of yourself. I’m asking you to listen to the wind of the Spirit and hear what God is saying to you. Is the Lord’s power limited in your life? Perhaps it’s time for us to come back to the heart of Pentecost and allow the Spirit of God to rest on us and empower us.
“Empower us to do what?” you might ask. Empower us to be prophets! Like Moses said, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put God’s spirit on them!”
3. Outpouring of the Spirit always results in drawing the circle wider through the empowerment of God’s people – so that we can make a difference in the world
You see, the outpouring of the Spirit, whether in Acts 2 or Numbers 11 or in modern day, always results in drawing the circle wider through the empowerment of God’s people. So that we can make a difference in the world!
So what does it mean to be a modern day prophet?
Walter Brueggemann says there are three urgent prophetic tasks that the church is called to fulfill:
“The prophetic tasks of the church are to tell the truth in a society that lives in illusion, grieve in a society that practices denial, and express hope in a society that lives in despair.”
-Walter Brueggemann, Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks
Prophecy is not so much about foretelling the future. Prophecy is about forth telling — telling the truth when it’s difficult and hard to hear. But it’s not just about telling the truth, it’s more than that. It’s also about grieving with those who are grieving, and grieving in a society that refuses to hear the truth. But that is not all. The third prophetic task is to express hope in a society that lives in despair. As the people of God, we refuse to give up and we embody the hope that the Spirit gives. And that is exactly what Jesus did.
Jesus told the truth by confronting the political powers of his time, both in the world and in the religious community. He pointed out hypocrisy and errors even by those who claimed to be holy.
It is also our task to live into this naming of truth. We advocate for the hungry and homeless, and tell the truth of the belovedness of lgbtq people. We continue to speak up for fair treatment of our migrant workers. What would it look like for us to live into “telling the truth” more?
Scripture tells us that Jesus grieved. Not only at the death of his friend Lazarus but also how the Church of his day refused to listen to the prophets in its midst. I remember visiting the Mount of Olives in Israel and we spent some time at the spot where it was said Jesus wept while looking out at Jerusalem. And I wonder if we grieve like Jesus grieved.
This past week, I saw many of my friends in the US protest and grieve the killing of George Flyod, and the many others who died purely because of the color of their skin. And my heart grieves with them. I grieve the brokenness of our society and the blindness of our people. Racism is not just a problem in the US. It is a problem here too. I grieve how we have been blind to the needs and conditions of our migrant workers here in Singapore. What do you grieve?
It is important for us to grieve with those who are grieving, and to grieve over the state of our society. But we don’t just stop there. We are also called to live in hope and to express hope in a society that lives in despair.
Like Jesus, we tell the truth, we grieve, we express hope…we embody hope, with God’s Spirit empowering and accompanying us every step of the way.
We are able to live in hope and express hope in a world that is filled with despair because of Christ. We carry within us the Easter hope that death doesn’t have the last word, that despair is not the end game. That is the prophetic task entrusted to us. Through Christ and the power of the Spirit, we will tell the truth, we will grieve, and we will carry hope in a society that desperately needs it.
To truly be able to embody hope is to do all of the above: to tell the truth, grieve with one another, and remember the story of resurrection hope. A story that knew no restrictions and that flung open the doors to new life for us all.
So today, as we celebrate Pentecost, remember that you will never walk alone even in the darkest and wildest times. It is often in times of crisis that we experience the outpouring of the Spirit. And God’s power is never limited. It wasn’t at the cross. It is not limited now. The Spirit of God is always surprising us and drawing the circle wider. So with the power of God’s Spirit, go and fulfill the urgent tasks of telling the truth, grieving with those who grieve, and embodying hope wherever the Spirit of God leads you. Amen.