Friday, September 18, 2015

Exercising Holy Imagination

Mission:  Imaginable
NW MN Synod Theology for Ministry Conference
Fair Hills Resort, Detroit Lakes (September 22, 2015)
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-14, 24-29

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Does it ever seem as though the church is missing something, lacking something?  

Do you ever find yourself thinking:   if only our church had just a little more--_________(something!) we could serve God’s mission better?

When I ponder that question I find myself saying things like: If only our church had some more money…..or some more members….or some more fervently praying members….or some more faithful, courageous leaders…..or some more something!

In my most recent musings on this question, I’ve been wondering whether what the church really needs right now is more imagination.

We could have all the money in the world….along with scads of faithful, courageous leaders…..but we’d still be dead in the water if we were bereft of imagination!

Albert Einstein famously observed that “imagination is more important than knowledge.”  

In an age when the Internet has dumped a veritable mountain of information upon us, we pine for, we cast about for a vision to shape what we’ll do with all that knowledge.

Thankfully, we are not left alone, staring dumbly at this Mt Everest of knowledge-- including the biblical and theological knowledge we cherish so deeply.

Fortunately God loves to mess with this huge mountain of knowledge.  God loves to jar us loose from our “paralysis of analysis.”  God keeps inspiring us to exercise one of God’s most godlike gifts to us:  our imaginations.

Here in Numbers 11, we observe such stirrings of holy imagination unfolding right before our eyes. 

Moses had led the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt.  Under God’s guiding hand Moses had defeated Pharaoh and orchestrated the Hebrews’ great escape, across the Red Sea and into the wilderness of Sinai.

But after wandering in that wilderness for a good, long while, the burden of leadership had grown heavy on Moses’s shoulders.   The Hebrews (600,000 of them!) turned out to be a bunch of whiners, always griping, always craving artisanal Egyptian delicacies, cool clear water, or a dose of reassurance. 

As the pressure on Moses mounts, he seems to lose his capacity for creativity.   He becomes brittle, loses his patience, seems desperate for a quick solution—but Moses can’t come up with any new ideas.

In fact, Moses gets so stressed out that he actually begs God to kill him rather than make him keep leading these crabby, cantankerous Hebrews.

But Moses is not alone here.  This untenable situation stirs up God’s imagination, so that God offers Moses some ingenious relief.

He orders Moses to muster out 70 of the elders of the people—trusted, mature leaders whose hair either was thinning or gray--and God commands Moses to share his burdensome responsibilities with these 70 men.

Sounds like a plan:  If you’ve got too much on your own plate, figure out a way to delegate some of your responsibilities to others.  (I wonder why Moses couldn’t come up with that on his own?)

So Moses calls out these 70 leaders for a meeting by his Tent, outside the camp of the Hebrews.   And when they’re all assembled, God “came down in the cloud and spoke to [Moses], and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders.” (Numbers 11:25)

When God did that—when God divvied up the Spirit among these new assistants to Moses—all of a sudden these 70 men prophesied.   God’s Spirit took control of them and opening their mouths to praise God and speak boldly about God.

Imagine that!   Seventy wizened Hebrews, pot-belled, long in tooth, all of them eligible for Medicare—imagine 70 Hebrew elders all beside themselves, all glory-hallelujah-ing because they were filled to the brim with God’s Spirit!

God’s imagination pierces through Moses’ paralysis and opens up a path, a rather novel path, we notice… God moves beyond God’s previous “Moses only” solution to the Hebrews’ crisis of leadership.

But this plan, when we think it through, is pretty messy, isn’t it?

It starts with a mess:  600,000 grumbling Hebrews and their leader ready to fall on his own sword…..

….and things continue to be messy, because even with the divvying up of a portion of Moses’ spirit among them….we’re still talking 70 different personalities, each with their own flaws and failings, their own limitations and possibilities….and we wonder:  “Isn’t that just inviting trouble, God?”

But God is never deterred by the messiness of any situation…..and gradually, it seems, Moses starts to be restored and begins to catch on to the wideness of God’s vision.  

Moses, it seems is infused with new eyes to see the fresh new thing God is doing.

So God’s imagination stirs Moses to find 70 lieutenants whom God fills with a portion of the Spirit that had been concentrated in Moses only.

Wait a minute though.  It wasn’t exactly 70 Hebrew elders.  Make that 68 elders instead.

For two of the old guys Moses invited out to his tent were late for the meeting.   I think of them as “Dad” brothers, El and Me. 

Eldad and Medad were still in the camp of the Hebrews when God’s Spirit fell down from heaven.   So, Eldad and Medad started whooping it up right in the middle of the Hebrew camp.   Even though they miss the meeting Moses called, they still get a dose of God’s Spirit.

And that’s when Moses’s right hand man, Joshua, gets his undies in a bunch.   Joshua was a West Point graduate.  He had his policies and procedures manual memorized.   Joshua was a man after my own heart—he liked things neat and orderly--all planned out.

When Joshua hears about Eldad and Medad making a Holy Spirit ruckus in the camp, he immediately tries to put the kabosh on it.   “My lord Moses, stop them!” Joshua frets.  (Num.11:28)

But this time Moses doesn’t act out of his anxiety.   Moses, who moments before had become brittle to the point of breaking—Moses now starts to catch on, to get into the flow of God’s own holy imagination.

Are you jealous for my sake?” Moses responded.   “Joshua—do you think it bothers me that Eldad and Medad got the Spirit even though they missed the meeting?   Not on your life!  Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!"  (Num 11:29)

As God leads Moses out of his own paralysis of analysis, it dawns on him that Joshua was missing something crucial: that the Spirit of God is wild and free and works behinds the scenes in all sorts of messes all the time….and his same Holy Spirit keeps showing up “whenever and wherever God pleases.” (Article V, Augsburg Confession)

The Holy Spirit will not be strait-jacketed by any of our timetables or “to do” lists.  

The Spirit isn’t at our beck and call.  

We don’t manage God’s Holy Spirit.  Rather:  God’s  Holy Spirit leads, forms, shapes and even drives us!

Oh, and by the way—the Spirit can and usually does do that in the midst of chaos, when things aren’t neat as a pin, when we have a “mell of a hess” on our hands!   And that’s about the best news I can imagine this morning!

Exercising holy imagination is more than God’s hobby or sideline.  It is what God does best.

God excels at observing our messes, entering into our messes, transforming our messes, and moving us beyond our messes.  God’s imagination is always cooking—for our good and for the redemption of all that God has made!

Isn’t that just like God—in a great feat of imagination--to free us from our “wouldas, couldas, shouldas”…to see the stuckness of our sin—and to resolve to forgive it, whatever it takes, even if it means the death of God’s beloved Son on a horrendous hill outside Jerusalem.

Isn’t that just like God—in an astounding burst of holy imagination--to undo death by dying, entering the grave with us and for us---loosening forever death’s stranglehold on us, wiping away the gruesome hold death has on us?

Isn’t it just like God—in a breathtaking exercise of holy imagination--to throw open the doors to a future that often seems so foreboding….to step gaily out of the grave on Easter morning, out into the future with us, for us, always ahead of us?

I could never cook up all that stuff—and neither could you.

But God imagines such things, easy as pie.  

And, thank God, praise God--God never tires of inviting us into God’s holy imaginings. 

Just when the latest mess seems most overwhelming, leaving us brittle and unsure and ready to call it quits…..just then God thinks a new thought and shares that new thought with us, usually when we least expect it.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

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