As I studied the scripture for The Day of Pentecost and thought about the gift and power of the Holy Spirit, I was struck by a number of images and emotions that were not necessarily linear. So I wrote a story that came out of my reading of Numbers. I don’t know how much of it happened like this, but I hope that some of it did, anyway. As you listen, it’s probably important for you to know that in the languages in which the Bible was written, Hebrew and Greek, the words for “wind” and “breath” and “spirit” are all the same. So if I said, “The fierce wind took my breath away and sapped my spirit”, I’d be using the same word 3 times in the same sentence. The scriptures for the day can be found in Acts 2:1-13 and Numbers 11.
You’d think it would be the heat. And I’m not going to lie, the heat was simply brutal. But the thing to remember is that the heat had always been brutal. We had lived with the same dry, dusty heat every day while we were in Egypt. When we got out of there and found ourselves in the desert, we were not at all surprised by how hot it could get. Heat we knew.
What caught so many people off-guard, however, was the wind. The howling, driving, constant wind. You know the truth: there were times when that wind was a friend to us as we traveled. I know that we could not have crossed the Red Sea without the power of the wind driving back the waters. And many a night I fell asleep thanking the Lord for the breeze that wafted through my tent.
But often – surprisingly often – the wind was a foe. It was unrelenting in its biting, stinging, blinding onslaught. You felt so vulnerable when you walked into its teeth – and as the sand was flung against you, any exposed skin felt as if you’d just stepped into a beehive.
They have wind in Egypt, of course, but there, we had buildings and quarries to hide in. There was a place to escape its fury. But there in the desert, we were simply exposed, and after a while, you get tired of being so vulnerable.
The early days of freedom were so full and intoxicating, but before long, that vulnerability grated on us like, well, sandpaper. There was grumbling. The manna came, and at first it was magnificent! Can you imagine, eating a miracle for breakfast every morning? But after a couple of years, even that got old. People began to reminisce about the taste of fish from the river. At every meal, someone would say, “You know what would make this manna? A little garlic. That’s all I want.”
So we complained to Moses. And, bless him, he complained to God. And God said that he’d send his wind – his Spirit – to his people. He told Moses to take seventy of the elders to receive the Spirit.
Seventy. You know that created a problem. There are twelve tribes in Israel. If every tribe sent six elders, we’d have seventy-two. Why didn’t the Lord just ask for seventy-two? That would have been easy. But each tribe sent six, and nobody listened when Moses suggested that two of the tribes could withhold a representative voluntarily.
Moses agreed to take all seventy-two outside of camp. He asked me to make a box, and to fill the box with seventy-two lots – slips of papyrus paper. He asked me to mark seventy of them with the word “elder”, and to leave two blank. The plan was that once all the men had left the camp, they’d pull their lots. The two who drew blank lots – the ones whom God did not want – would then return to the camp to wait with the rest of the people.
I made the box, and I filled it with papyrus. I carried it alongside of the leaders until we got to the appointed spot. As we began to prepare to draw lots, someone noticed that there were only seventy elders present. Two were missing. Moses decided that we didn’t need the lots, and we didn’t need the box, and, frankly, they didn’t need me – and so he sent me back to the camp.
When I returned, I met two of the elders there: Eldad and Medad. I probably should not have spoken so boldly to these leaders, but I asked, “Why did you not go? The Lord has promised to send his Spirit!”
It took the men a while, but what eventually came out was that they were afraid to be seen as failures. Both Medad and Eldad confessed that they were not worthy of the Spirit of God. They were nervous about being the ones to pick a blank lot in front of the assembly and being shamed by that. They did not want everyone to know that they were not worthy – that God had no use for people like them. And so they stayed in the camp, tending to the needs of the people who were there.
A couple of hours later, a fierce wind blew through the camp, and I knew that it must have been the signal of the presence of the Spirit of God. I wondered what it would have been like to be out there with Moses and the others, hearing the breath of God in the gathering of those God had called. When the wind was at its fiercest, though, a commotion erupted right outside my tent.
I emerged to discover that Eldad and Medad had been filled with the Spirit of God and were prophesying to the people. They were saying that God intended to bless all of his children, and that we were being saved so that we would be a blessing to others. And then they said something that seemed impossible: they said that we would all have meat to eat that day.
Moses would want to know that this was going on. This had never happened before. I ran – I ran as fast as I could outside the camp. Right before I got to the group, Joshua came running to meet me and asked what the problem was. I told him what I had seen, and he grew white as a sheet.
Moses was sitting with the other men, they all looked as though they were taking a rest – as if they’d just been through some sort of strenuous workout. I stood where I was, afraid to do anything, but Joshua hustled over to the old man and told him what had gone on back in the camp. You could tell Joshua was furious, wondering who these men thought that they were to try to speak for God without Moses around! In fact, Joshua (no spring chicken himself) offered to run back to camp and personally stop the prophesying.
Well, even before Joshua finished speaking, I could see Moses’ head tilting back and he was laughing – a deep and rich laughter, as if God had just pulled a joke on him or something. And then, when Moses saw how upset Joshua was, he grew very serious and said, “No, no, no, Joshua. Don’t stop them. Don’t stop anyone who is touched by the Spirit of God. One day you will understand how deeply I long for everyone to be filled with that Spirit.”
We remained in the spot for a few more moments, but it was apparent that the wind had stopped blowing and the elders would not prophesy again. Moses was eager to return to camp, and when we got back he went straight for Medad and Eldad.
I’ll tell you the truth: when they saw Moses coming towards them, it was their turn to be pale with fear, but he kissed them both on the cheek and they sat and spoke quietly for an hour or so.
I don’t have any idea what they said, but I know this: as dusk approached, the wind kicked up again. It was a fierce, howling wind that drove us all into our tents for shelter. It sounded like the raging of a storm outside for forty-five minutes. And suddenly, it grew quiet. There was nothing to hear. I was afraid I had gone deaf.
And then, the laughter. I heard laughter. I walked outside the tent and looked around and as far as I could see, the ground was covered in quail. Heaps and heaps of birds, just laying there!
Moses was there, with Medad and Eldad, encouraging people to go ahead and eat. Some of the people were greedy and making a scene, but many were unsure. Moses again encouraged us to gather and prepare the food. He told me I should save some to dry out for later, and he asked me if I had something to put the birds in.
He saw the box I’d made and filled with papyrus, and walked toward it. I tried to get there before him, but he was surprisingly quick. When he went to open the box that he’d asked me to make for him, he discovered my secret.
I had made the box exactly as he’d asked me to. I had gotten seventy-two papyri, exactly as he’d asked me to. And each of those ballots was still inside the box. None of that was a secret. Yet I feared his reaction when he discovered that not a single one of those papyri was marked with the symbol for “elder”. There were, in fact, seventy-two blank ballots there.
He looked at me with a question in his eyes, and I said,
“My lord, Moses. Forgive me for disobeying, but I could not mark those ballots. No one is worthy of God’s Spirit. I had to leave them all blank.”
“You have grasped a great truth, my son,” the man of God replied. “No one – not even one – is worthy to receive what is Holy. And yet see what has happened this day: God pours out his spirit, his breath, his wind on us all anyway. God’s Spirit came to those outside the camp, and to our brothers Eldad and Medad inside the camp, and now to the entire people – none of whom are worthy. Yet all of whom are blessed.”
As I remember that day, I know that if I try to tell you how hot it is in this wilderness, you might not believe me. I know that not everywhere is hot, and not every wilderness is the same. Maybe you have never felt heat such as that through which we walked those years in the desert. I can accept that.
But I cannot believe that you do not know the wind, because I know that the wind is everywhere. And listen to me, people: today, as you move through your world, be it desert or forest, take note of the wind.
I know that at times the wind is biting and furious. The wind can send a painful trial to even the most patient of men.
And yet I also know that sometimes, the things that appear to be most difficult to endure can lead you to a place where you can discover the very breath of God.
You might not have been among those who were called to go outside the camp on that day, selected as a prophet by God. But that doesn’t mean that God does not want you. It is true – in and of ourselves, none of us are worthy to carry the Breath of God.
But the Spirit/Wind/Breath of God blows anyway. The Spirit/Wind/Breath of God is God’s gift to and through people like Eldad and Medad; people like you and me.
Listen for that wind. Don’t be afraid to walk in it. And don’t forget to look for the quail.