Texts: Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50
One day a preacher in Tennessee decided to make a memorable point with his congregation about hell. He borrowed a skeleton from the local dentist and stood it beside the pulpit. Then he began to describe the shadowy realm of all that is unholy.
The preacher described darkness and the bottomless pit. There was endless falling, the cries of the forsaken, and hounds of hell born every minute. The bones that washed up on the shore of the lake of fire. And at each of these terrible descriptions the preacher would reach over and tap the skeleton’s jaw so that its teeth would click.
Finally came the conclusion. The preacher asked his congregation to imagine how long sinners have to be in that terrible place. “Just imagine,” he said, “a granite mountain five thousand feet high. A dove flies by that mountain once every five hundred years and touches the mountain with the tip of its wing. When that dove has worn that mountain down level with the ground…that in hell, is before breakfast. That’s how long it is.”
A young boy was there that day and was terrified. He fervently promised himself that he would do everything in his power to avoid that awful place. Years on he still remembered that sermon.
That man grew up to become a preacher and teacher. He became a masterful biblical storyteller in his own right, who listened faithfully to God and conveyed God’s Word clearly amid an alluring forest of possible interpretations. A most inspiring teacher and minister.
In that spirit of faith, I worry about how to preach the gospel well today. What is God’s lesson here? It’s hard to not get all hung up on severed body parts and the asbestos fire of Gehenna. Is this what we all need to hear from God? Do we need skeletons and ominous warnings?
But it’s not just the gospel. With Numbers there is the rabble craving a better menu in the desert after too much manna and quail. There’s Moses starting down a road of recriminations against God. Moses was burdened with a community of complainers and weepers. Is this the sermon?
That’s paired with the seventy elders invited to God’s tent of meeting. It’s a great model of leadership. But then there’s the troublesome detail of how some people didn’t show up to the tent at the appointed hour for the spirit’s coming but got the spirit anyway. There’s a sermon!
We could go many directions with James. There’s a dissertation on prayer here. Prayer in joyful songs. Prayer in words. Prayers for healing from sickness and from sin. And especially the prayers of the righteous ones. So effective! But anyone can do it actually, because even Elijah was an ordinary guy who got results with prayer. And the best kind of prayer of all is when you pray someone back from wandering away from God.
All these things are interesting. Some are even instructive for faith. But to attend to the detail is to miss the larger message that comes to us as these lessons mingle together today. Really, it is about the ways we turn our faith into fences, barred gates and stumbling blocks. Today we are to consider a message about not preventing people from knowing God. It seems simple enough. Who would stand in the way of spreading the news about the love, acceptance, abundance, and transcendence and ubiquity of God?
Unfortunately, we do. Our desire for good form, for orthodoxy, for predictability can actually impede our commitment to serving the reign of God. To put it another way, we can ourselves, with all the best intentions, become barriers to God’s grace.
Moses needed help, which God promptly arranged. Seventy elders in the tent were inspired by God’s Spirit who filled them with holy prophesy. But the job could not be fully accomplished without Eldad and Medad, two men who missed the meeting for reasons never explained.
A messenger came to say that the two men didn’t show up at the tent. That upset Joshua the number two in command. It was a breach of propriety for them to miss the meeting and the Spirit. But it turns out that God didn’t so much worry about proper order.
The Spirit filled them anyway, so they could prophesy right where they were – in the village. So the Spirit thwarted the structures of orthodoxy that had already begun to set limits around where God can act or be heard. And Moses gave Joshua a lesson in getting out of God’s way.
James brings a variation on the message. God’s gifts are distributed without limits in the community. And it doesn’t take any special training to pray. Healing is a common gift that joined with faith can work resurrection wonders in our bodies. Confession is something we can - and should – do regularly with one another. It is the source of healing for the soul and mind.
Prayer is most effective and powerful when wielded by righteous people. Yet righteousness is not a special category of human perfection. Elijah’s spiritual gifts all came when he aligned himself with God, offering himself as a humble worker for God’s good purposes. Anyone who is obedient to God’s love is gifted for service.
In Mark’s gospel the disciple John complained about someone outside their group casting out demons in the name of Jesus. Underlying this is internal competition. Who can do God’s work? Jesus answered: let it go. Let it go! Faith can even be drawn from unfaith. Don’t prevent God’s gifts from flowing like water for the thirsty, even from the thirsty.
Fire and salt were offerings to God. They were also forms of purification in the ancient world. Jesus invited his followers to become those offerings. He set them free form their limitations. Gave them the means to be at peace with everyone. To overflow with God’s pure grace.
The Reverend Fred B. Craddock once sat in a Tennessee church trembling for fear of hell. He grew up to be that amazing preacher and teacher. Later in life he said this: “When I was in my late teens, I wanted to be a preacher. When I was in my late twenties, I wanted to be a good preacher. Now that I am older, I want more than anything else to be a Christian. To live simply, to love generously, to speak truthfully, to serve faithfully, and leave everything else to God.”
To which I would add, when we follow Jesus, what else is there to do really?
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.