+ 18th Sunday after Pentecost +Proper 21, Series B: Numbers 11; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50
In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.
Today’s Old Testament reading begins in poverty and ends in abundance. It begins in memory but ends in hope. It begins in physical need but ends in temporal and spiritual blessing. It begins in death and ends with life. And all of this because of a Word, the Spirit-filled, life-giving Word of the Lord. That same Word that came to Moses and the elders of Israel, to Eldad and Medad, the disciples, the unknown exorcist in the Gospel reading.
That’s the advantage we – the New Israel, the Church – have; the veil is lifted. We see YHWH’s promises and fulfilled in Christ. We see the Day of Atonement in Good Friday. We see the Passover blood of the Lamb shed fulfilled in the Lord’s Supper. We see the Red Sea crossing in our Baptism. We see the Promised Land in the new heavens and the new earth.
But all they saw was the wilderness. Eden’s condemnation is palpable in the desert. It’s a place of testing. Suffering. And death. In a way the people were right: “Why have you brought us out of the land of Egypt to die in this wilderness?” YHWH did bring them out to the wilderness to die. But not the death they had in mind. Rather, the death of their foolish pride.“We remember the fish which we ate freely in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our whole being is dried up; there is nothing at all except this manna before our eyes!”
But that fish wasn’t really free. It came at the end of the whip. There were strings attached. Make the bricks. Work hard and you’ll be fed. Don’t work; you die. But the Manna – and later the quail – that was different. That was a gift from YHWH’s gracious hand. No whips or cords attached. Free. Undeserved. Grace. Gift. That’s the way the Lord works. But the people had forgotten that too.
Israel’s memory and YHWH’s memory.
No doubt, you remember Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. On that day, Israel looked in faith upon the Lord’s rescue. They were free. The foe was defeated. And shouts of praise and victory filled the air: “I will sing unto the Lord for He has triumphed gloriously, the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.”
Israel’s memory, however, is different. Israel’s memory is both selective and nostalgic. Her slavery, once recorded in detail, is gone and the food she once ate, remembered in detail, is suddenly free (v. 5). Their memory was twisted. Instead of singing praise, she voices a lament (v. 4–6). Instead of celebrating God’s strength, she cries of her weakness (v. 6). And, when God gives her manna, she looks and laments (v. 6).
Our old sinful nature works the same way: selective memory. We have impeccable memories when it comes to the sins of others: our spouses and children, friends, neighbors and fellow members at church. But we have instant amnesia the moment the finger of the Law gets pointed our direction: “Who me?” It’s a spiritual amnesia – a deadly disease - passed down from Adam. Israel wasn’t the first to forget God’s Word and neither are we.
We have the same sinful flesh that the Israelites did. And that’s who has to die. That little brat Luther called the Old Adam. St. Paul and Jesus call it our sinful flesh. Thankfully, Jesus doesn’t send us out into the wilderness. Instead, He plunges us into his death and resurrection. He drowns our Old Adam in Baptism and raises us to new life, His life, now your life. Death to life. That’s the Lord’s way of doing things for you and for Israel.And that is what Israel had forgotten.
They failed to see God’s present blessing because of their distorted memory of the past. They did not eat meat freely. They were enslaved. Life was not easier in Egypt it was a burden. They didn’t walk out of Egypt’s prison for good behavior; YHWH rescued them. Israel’s sin was a twisted version of the 9th and 10th commandments: coveting. Rather than covet what someone else has in the present, Israel covets what she thought she had in the past. The end result is always the same. God’s present gifts are devalued because of the way one remembers the past. God gives Israel manna, yet she looks on it in sinful blindness and laments.
That’s why when we break the 9th and 10th commandment we also break the first. To covet – whether past or present – is to look upon the Lord’s merciful gifts with disdain. To forget that it was his blessing and deliverance that saved us. To doubt – like Israel did – that the Lord’s Word really can do what he says it will do, even when it comes in feeble forms of water, word, bread and wine. It is to fear, love and trust in our interpretation of the past rather than the reality of God’s saving promises.
For Israel, the past had become their idol. And we’re no different. Today people still fall into this sin. Selective and nostalgic memories of the past may be helpful but they can also cause us to overlook Christ’s actual saving work in both the past and the present. Some memories are personal, others congregational.
And perhaps, as we look ahead to the 50th anniversary of Redeemer, today’s OT reading is a good reminder of whose memory is the best: Christ’s, not ours. We’ve all got memories. Memories of how the church or this board or that activity used to be. Memories of the glory days gone by…but they often hide the glory of Christ present and hidden among us today and ignore the future hope in Christ’s saving work in the years to come. Remembering the past is not a bad thing. Far from it. But when you remember the past who are you remembering? Yourself and all the great things you did? Or the promises and faithfulness of Christ and all the great things he has done and is doing? Whose memory is better? The Good News is that this isn’t your church or my church. It wasn’t Israel’s land or Moses’ people. It’s not your word or my word. It’s Christ’s church, Christ’s people and Christ’s Word. And this congregation – this communion of saints – is a gift.
Moses reminds us that it wasn’t Israel’s memory – or our own - that serve us best. But the Lord’s. Over and over again we hear the Old Testament refrain: “and YHWH remembered his covenant” with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Israel, Redeemer Lutheran, you and me.
Even though Israel had forgotten the Lord; He never forgot them. And he will never forget you either. His promise to Israel – to feed them, to provide for them, to rescue and deliver them, to bring them into his promised land, to be their God and dwell with them in the flesh – that is also His promise to you. A promise he never forgets.
Once again, the Lord fulfilled his promise to dwell with his people. In the center of the camp of Israel stood the tabernacle. The place where YHWH promised to dwell with his people Blessing. Forgiveness. Holiness. Jesus does the same for you today, in a new fleshly temple that of human hands and skin and bones. Every Divine Service is a fulfillment of the promises of YHWH – never will I leave you, never will I forsake you. Here Christ continues to dwell with you, his people.
For the mouth of the Lord that spoke to the prophets is the same mouth of the Lord that cried in Mary’s lap. The mouth of the Lord that cried out in judgment over Israel’s sin is the same mouth that cried out on Good Friday in judgment and payment for Israel’s sins and yours. The mouth of the Lord that filled Moses and the whole camp of Israel with His Spirit is the same Lord who breathed out his Spirit on his disciples in the upper room with the authority to forgive sin and at Pentecost to fill the Church with his crucified and risen presence.
Here is the blessed reversal. So that you may have eternal life and have it abundantly, Jesus is born in poverty and humility for you. So that you stand before the Father in perfect obedience and righteousness, Jesus takes your disobedience and sin upon himself. So that the Holy Spirit is poured out upon you to raise you up to new life, all of our guilt and judgment are poured out Jesus. And through the cross, what began in sinful poverty ends in abundant forgiveness. What began with only a memory of our sin ends with a record of cancelled guilt. You are free. You are forgiven. His death is your life.
God remembers Christ’s death for you when the water is poured out in your Baptism. When the absolution is delivered into your ears. When the body and blood of His son are placed into your mouth. The devil and your sinful flesh have impeccable memories when it comes to your past sin. And they’re always ready to throw it back in your face. But the Father remembers his covenant. He remembers the cross. He remembers the blood. And he remembers your sin no more. Sin, forgotten. Paid for. You are forgiven. And don’t ever forget it.
31 “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah— 32 not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the Lord. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people…I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” (Jeremiah 31)
And that’s a memory worth holding onto.
In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.