All God’s People Prophets

Photo (c) Katherine Brown*

So Moses went out and told the people the words of the LORD; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent.  Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to him, 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 they did not do so again. 

Numbers 11:24-25; excerpt from 11:24-30; alternate lectionary for Pentecost Sunday, 5.31.20

Sundays I get up and start coffee and check church email early, to learn any changes to the order of worship before we’re all logged on to Zoom.  Last Sunday morning I saw a message that my church and another, about four blocks up Georgia Avenue, planned to line the road on either side for a COVID-appropriately masked and distanced demonstration in support of racial justice.  I read the email and my first reaction was an almost wild frustration:  I already have plans, I don’t have time for this, I have things that I need to do.  My second reaction — nearly coincident with the first save that nanosecond’s difference that requires me to admit the order in which they came — was a deep shame that as a white woman I could choose to avoid dealing with this issue when so many others have no choice in the matter.  That shame came with an accompanying conviction — welling up swiftly, as if in flood, and overwhelming me with its power — that the fact that I can choose to abstain is the very reason why I cannot choose to abstain.   I found a piece of cardboard, and I crayoned on my phrase*, and Sunday evening I joined several hundred standing along both sides of the road, holding up to oncoming traffic the words that had hauled us from our homes and plans and required of us presence, and statement.  The light was clear; the air was mild; the breeze was sweet.

‘When the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied.  But they did not do so again.’  

Numbers 11 had held me already a week by then, as the news turned from a primary focus on the COVID-pandemic to the nation convulsed with a fresh recognition of racism’s horrifically persistent and destructive pervasiveness.  (Periodically we toy with renewing this recognition. When will we move on to true reckoning and transformation?)  I lived that turn through this text.  Reading its telling of 70 elders and the spirit.  Reading news stories of deaths — Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd only the most recently famous — of demonstrations and riot police and photo ops.  Reading text, and reading context, and reading each reading each other the while. 

‘When the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied.  But they did not do so again.’  

The LORD puts spirit on the elders, and they are caught in its power, carried out of themselves and into a frenzy. That’s what it is to prophesy in the Bible:  to be overcome with the power of the LORD (1 Sam 10:5-13).  The encounter knocks you flat then pulls you standing (Ezek 1:26-2:5).  Even when the work is described in terms of speech rather than ecstasy, it is a word that burns and cannot be contained, a flame that must be shouted aloud (Jer 20:8-9).  To prophesy is to be subject to the power of the spirit, to be the word’s servant rather than its master.  One does not grab the word and hold it aloft.  One is grabbed by the word, held by the hair, lifted up and away (Ezek 8:1-4).

‘When the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied.  But they did not do so again.’  

The seventy elders have been gathered for this encounter because the community in the wilderness is convulsed with a fresh set of complaining, ‘strong craving’ and weeping (Num 11:1-9).  Moses himself is ‘displeased’ and angry with God.  I didn’t conceive or bear or birth this people, Moses argues, ‘I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me’ (Num 11:10-15).  God responds and directs Moses to gather seventy elders who will share the work of leading the people through the wilderness.  This is the backdrop to the elders’ experience of the spirit and their however-brief/however-timeless frenzy of possession. 

This context of a people riven by strife and the need for leaders to ‘bear the burden of the people’ (Num 11:16-18) revises my idea of what is what is at stake in the elders’ experience.  What I had thought mattered so that the community would see that these seventy were God’s appointed leaders, I now realize mattered so that the seventy themselves would have had this direct and destabilizing encounter with the LORD.

The LORD who sees and hears and knows the sufferings of the oppressed, who does not stand far off but comes down to deliver (Exod 3:6-10).  ‘The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness’ (Exod 34:6-7).  The LORD who is ‘God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing’ (Deut 10:17-18).  

The elders need to be overwhelmed by that awareness and alignment and commitment so that — initiating prophetic frenzy past — they can lead the people as God wills.  Attuned to the oppressed.  Executing justice for the vulnerable.  Extending love beyond kin, beyond neighbor, until even the ‘stranger’ is fed and clothed and fully folded into the whole.  The elders’ experience of the spirit was necessary not as an end in itself but as a means of giving that glimpse of God’s end for them all.

Last Sunday was a hundred years ago.  Every day since, there has been news of another protest, summons to another rally.  Yesterday (Friday) at 5 p.m. communities of faith lined 16th Street from Dupont Circle in Washington D.C. up until and beyond the district line.  We stood in vigil holding signs near the end of 16th Street, just before 16th curves and joins Georgia Avenue.  Cars and vans and buses passed; many honked or flashed lights in support.  About 5:45, the rain started.  It came down in buckets, soaking through signs and clothes and shoes.  Still we stood, signs held high, heads bowed against the sky’s crashing sobs.  We stood until the lightning and thunder came together, then we fled back to our cars through rainwater rivers running swift down the sides of the streets.

‘When the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied.  But they did not do so again.’   The nation continues to convulse.  I pray it is a birth, not another false labor.  I pray that our encounter with the spirit’s compulsion persists even after the frenzy of protests and rallies and vigils is past.  It should pass.  The summons to protest is not an end in itself but a necessary stage along the way.  May this spell of God-sight guide us into and through the spiritual and social and legislative work of reckoning, repentance, and reconciliation.  

‘Would that all the LORD’S people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!’ (Num 11:29).

*My daughter pointed out that the Bible verses written in ink on my sign would not be legible to passing traffic. I replied that the verses were written there for me; these were the words that required me to get up and go. The sign made for Sunday was soaked through by Friday’s rain. The crayon letters remain on the now-dried and oddly twisted cardboard but the ink was washed away. No matter. The words remain written in this image and remain written in my heart.

Re-minded to Joy

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.  Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? … in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”  But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” 

Acts 2:1-18, 11-13; text for Pentecost, June 9, 2019

Our house backs up to an elementary school playground.  The children file out for recess and stand in line until dismissed to play.  Immediately, then, they run and shriek.  When I am home on a school day, I am amazed at the volume of the sound and the violence of its coming.   There was a set of schoolchildren in tidy rows.  Now — suddenly — there is a chaotic dispersion, pounding across the pavement, scrambling up the climbing equipment, skirmishing for balls.  As I watch, some order emerges — whether the emergence is in their play or my observation, I do not know.  There is one game over here, and another over there, and these few children squatted on their haunches at the edge of the pavement are probably poking at the hole in the blacktop that has been expanded over several school years’ worth of recesses.  The expenditure of energy and the intensity of focus touch my heart.

I watch the children and wonder.  When was the last time I effervesced in such a manner?  

A few times in college, my friend and I went onto the green after dark.  We ran and laughed and collapsed on the grass and all without benefit of alcohol.  Who needs beer, we scoffed, when there is play.  There was something intoxicating about abandoning the appearance of sense, making ourselves ridiculous for joy.  A delight I feel still when singing aloud as I walk through the city.  Tipping back my head and throwing my arms wide as if to embrace the wind on a gusty day.  Grinning with excitement, and rising to tip-toes on the Metro platform when a train rumbles past and blows its horn.  (I do not entirely forget myself, I admit; I do not wave at the train driver, tempted though I am.)

Why am I thinking about play, about being so intensely present as to risk ridiculousness?  As if this text is about intoxication.  Drunkenness is the claim is raised by those who don’t understand, who sneer at what they hear as noise.  Peter rebuts the charge.  Yet Peter’s rebuttal does not entirely dismiss the issue.  Peter does not argue that the scoffers have mischaracterized the behavior but asserts that they have misunderstood its source.

This is not new wine imbibed, Peter asserts.  This is God’s Spirit ‘poured out’ (Acts 2:14-17).  Listen to what is being said and shouted and sung.  Hear the order that emerges.  This seemingly frantic babble, heard and understood in so many tongues, is all about God.  It is praise for the Lord whose ‘word is very near … in your mouth and in your heart’ (Deut 30:14).  It is wonder that they have lived into God’s promised days of visions and dreams (Joel 2:28; Acts 2:17).  This is not passing gladness.  This is rock-founded.  This is not new wine.  This is joy in the Lord.

Reading Pentecost I wonder.  When was the last time I was that aware of joy?  

Joy as effervescence, burbling forth forth like a spring, foaming over rocks as it tumbles out and down.  Joy welling up as if I am a cup, brimful — I hold a moment quivering still, amazed at its presence, living water in me, joy’s meniscus curved slightly above the edge of my lip — and then I cannot but grin, cannot but wonder, cannot but tell.  Did you see?  Did you hear?  Did you feel?

The Spirit’s spark that Pentecost was not stubborn resolve or impassioned argument or faithful duty.  The Spirit’s spark was joy.  The people flared bright with it, spoke flames with it.  The Spirit lit a fire whose dancing tongues amazed and perplexed and confounded and transformed.

I watch the children.  I read the text.  I need to be reminded of joy.  I need to be re-minded to joy.  Wait and watch, sticks and kindling dutifully arranged in expectation of the spark.  Realize, then, that the tinder is already aglow.  I don’t need to wait for some coming but to see what has already come.  Blow gently and increase the flame.   Sustain it; be sustained by it.  Dip my bucket into the well, trusting to draw it forth brimful and shining. Drink deeply and find myself intoxicated with its urgency.  Catch someone else’s eye.  Grin and gesture to the very well I drew from, look to see joy spark across.

Make myself ridiculous in the expectation.  Make myself ridiculous in the experience.

That’s how it began.  That is how it begins again.

Risk joy.  Pray for it.  Prophesy it.  Live it.  Tell it.