Make Yourselves Holy

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-34

This was meant to be a fun sermon, the beginning of a Weird Bible series organized by our youth. I'll still preach on the Numbers text, but my perspective changed after yesterday's horrific shooting in El Paso. Christy and I love El Paso; you've heard her speak about her experiences living there and studying at Lydia Patterson Institute, La Lydia, a United Methodist mission school. Then I woke up this morning to news of two  mass shootings last night in Dayton, OH and Chicago.

I don't know much about the Chicago or Ohio shootings yet. In El Paso, 20 died and dozens more are in hospital. The shooter is in police custody. He is a 21 year old white supremacist who lived just south of here in Allen. His hatred of immigrants and fear of an Hispanic takeover of his country compelled him to drive 700 miles across Texas to a city where he was the visitor, to inflict harm on innocents at a WalMart. The same hatred and fear of the other has inspired attacks in recent years on African American churches, synagogues, a predominantly gay bar in Orlando, and a protester in Charlottesville, VA. Prayers for peace are not enough. We must take meaningful action to stop the hateful rhetoric targeting vulnerable communities, easy access to military grade weaponry, and the apathy that compels us to look the other way when we see and hear violent behavior.

The Book of Numbers is one of those Old Testament books people tend to skip over. Usually our approach to the Hebrew Bible goes something like Genesis, Exodus, Psalms.. skip to Jesus in the New Testament! Numbers is a unique book because of its name and its content. Numbers is a sort of re-telling of Exodus, but without all the Egypt stuff; no pharaoh, no plagues, no baby in the basket, no original Passover. It takes place after the people have received the Law from God. The first half of the book shows the Israelites in the wilderness. The second half deals with the plans to enter the Promised Land. It's called Numbers because one of the first tasks Moses is assigned is to count the people. So each of the twelve tribes conducts a census. Total up all of the able-bodied men and there is about 600,000 on the journey. No idea how many women and children. Throughout the book, when God is ready to share a new set of expectations or worship practices, God will say to the people: "Make yourselves holy." It's a ritual of cleansing and readiness.

As they journey, they are eating the famed manna from heaven, a sort of bread like substance after the grain is baked, but it gets old pretty soon. The people are in a dangerous, unknown land. They begin to complain, inspired by a small group referred to in the Common English Bible as "the riffraff." They want meat to eat. They want to return to Egypt, where at least they had edible food. Moses listens to this complaining for about three minutes before he himself begins to complain to God: "I didn't ask for this! I miss my simple shepherd life."

God tries to comfort Moses: gather seventy of the best men, and I will divide the spirit I give to you with them. They will share in your leadership burden for a while. And while I'm at it, I will bless the people with so much meat that it will ooze from their nostrils and ears because they are finding it so rough to be a free people and are missing their former slavery. When the quail arrive, it is an understatement to say they swarm the place. We're told the quail were stacked everywhere three feet deep. Ever seen a quail? They are tiny. Those 600,000 able bodied men are tasked with gathering  them up-- in a 24 hour period. I read a blogpost that worked out the math: The fewest collected by an individual was 10 homers, equivalent to roughly 580 gallons. That would equate to approximately 1900 birds per person, or more than 1 billion quail-- enough to circle the globe five times if laid out beak to tail.

God is upset by the constant whining and complaining, so many people die in this wilderness scene. Reading this is uncomfortable to 21st century eyes, but it is an issue of God's holiness, not God's wrath. Don't dismiss this as antiquated religious rule breaking and punishment. Any attempt to characterize the Old Testament as a bunch of rules and the New Testament as the happy, loving place misses the point of the narrative. For one, there is only one God, so it's hard to say God does this over here and that over there. For another, God is no less disappointed in our attitudes and sin today. The fault in the story is in the character of the people, not God. That's true today as well.

Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy are referred to as Torah, the Law, but not in the sense of irrelevant rules that do not matter. What's happening in the wilderness is the story of a people wandering through scary territory into an unknown future. There literally is no road map. All they have in the guidance of a guy they didn't know a few years earlier. The familiarity of the past, even with its cruelty, draws them backward. It's the covenant with God that compels them forward. As in, the Promise of the Promised Land. They're still trying to figure out what it means to have a covenant relationship with God, and honestly, God is struggling too.

And I wonder if our nation is still trying to find its way through the wilderness. Slavery, genocide against Native People, white supremacy, fear of the other, economic injustice, lack access to, or incredible expense of, healthcare, the list goes on and on. The violence and hate must be stopped. I took my kids back to school shopping the last two Saturdays here in town. Families doing the same thing yesterday in El Paso will never be the same again. It's time to make ourselves holy, so that we may receive the courage and strength from the Holy Spirit to do and say what is right.

Perhaps we are more like the Hebrew people of Numbers than we realize. Maybe as a people we still haven't reached the Promised Land. They called the wilderness place with the quail Kibroth-hattavah, which means "graveyard of cravings." People are remembered by their actions and appetites. If we continue to allow hate-filled speech and violence, plus easy access to the weapons of war in our country, how will we be remembered?

Today is a day to lament the lives stolen, and pray that the God of abundance will super-abundantly bring healing and comfort to those families, the courage and will to act to us, and the continued guidance for our common journey together. After all, there was another census, years later. A second generation of Israelites did arrive at the Promised Land. And the faithful God of the Covenant and Promise never abandoned the people.

I found this prayer on the Discipleship Ministries page:

Concerns and Prayers
by Andrea Murdock

Most Holy God,

We are a people who need you in your fullness
— as Creative Father, Redeeming Son, and Sustaining Spirit.
Our lives have complications and pain,
our world has war and despair.
But we were made in your image, and
your Spirit was breathed into us
that we might experience hope in your goodness.

There are situations that make it hard to be aware of that goodness.
We pray now for those whose lives are affected
by the negativity in these circumstances:

When bombs and terrorist and military attacks kill and injure innocent people around the world . . . (brief silence)

When storms and hurricanes are so strong they destroy even the homes designed to withstand them . . .(brief silence)

When political battles bring out pettiness over issues too important for bickering . . . (brief silence)

When our hearts ache, hurt by broken relationships and unmet expectations . . .
(brief silence)

When we are exhausted emotionally from illnesses in ourselves or those we love . . . (brief silence)

When we are overwhelmed by loneliness and isolation even though you are always with us . . . (brief silence)

Gracious and Merciful Lord,
our church is working to hear the words of your Spirit.
Our desire is to learn what and who you are calling us to be in your world.
We call out to you
that we might have the courage
to give to you whatever burdens we entered with today
so that our hearts and minds can be open to you,
to your Word,
and to your Spirit — your Ruach*
— the same life-giving breath from the first of creation.

Christ challenges us to know you, God,
as one who would search us out if we are lost.
But we must also know that when we are not the "one,"
we are members of the 99 waiting together for your guidance.
So it is together that we use our breath to pray the words Christ taught us:

"Our Father . . ."

Copyright © 2004 Andrea Murdock. Used by permission.

Go now with this blessing, also from the Book of Numbers; it's commonly referred to as the United Methodist Youth benediction:

The Lord bless you and keep you; 
the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; 
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace (Numbers 6:24-26).