Numbers 11:16-17, Luke 10:1-12
September 8, 2013
Numbers are important to people. A few years ago we celebrated 125 years of ministry at Eddington Church. That’s a good milestone! Next year Patty and I have a 40th year High School reunion. And the year after that, our 10th wedding anniversary. Those are important kinds of numbers, aren’t they? One anniversary I’ll never forget was the amazing experience I had in 1996, when I ran in the 100th running of the Boston Marathon – me and about 50 thousand other crazy people!
We like those kinds of numbers, don’t we? 10 years of something, 100 years of something. We like “good round numbers” like that as we mark the years of our lives. Such major milestones are meaningful to us. We might say, for instance, “I’ll be 49 this year.” But to say “I’ll be 50!” carries a greater weight of meaning, doesn’t it?
In the Bible there are other numbers that are important. The number 3, for instance, for the trinity, the number 7 for the days of creation, 10 for the Ten Commandments, 12 for the 12 Apostles, 40 for the days and nights of rain in the flood of Noah, and the days Jesus was in the wilderness. Those numbers are repeated often in the Bible, and they are very important.
Well, there’s another number like that, which I haven’t thought about as much, and it’s the number 70. (7 is an important number, and 10 times that number seems equally important.) Well, I found the number 70 several times in the Law of Moses. And in this case I mean, not the Ten Commandments – not that Law, but the books of the Law, which are also called by the same name, the Torah. I hope that word is familiar to you. In the larger sense, the Torah is also the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures. And each time I found that number there, it was in reference to the Elders of Israel. When the Israelites left Egypt, throughout their wanderings, and as they prepared to enter the promised land, the 70 elders of the people are mentioned again and again.
So, as we think about those 70 Elders of Israel, the first thing I want to say about that, is that it was God who designed that “system – that structure.” He called Moses and set him up as the leader of Israel. But he wanted him to have others with him to share the responsibilities of leadership. In the book of Numbers, when the people were going through a particularly difficult time, (and they were doing a lot of complaining!) the Lord said to Moses, “Gather for me 70 of the elders of Israel… and I will take some of the spirit which is upon you and put it upon them… and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, that you may not bear it yourself alone.” (Numbers 11:16-17)
That’s the idea! From the earliest days, God wanted his people to have a “shared” leadership. All the responsibility and burden were not to be on just one person, but on a group of people. Well, we Presby’s have preserved that understanding. To be Presbyterian is to be part of a system of church governance which is shared by elders or “Presbyters.” The idea is that we work together! And the burden of leadership is shared! Just like with Moses! And that happens at all levels of the Church! And we participate in that today!
So then, thinking forward from the time of Moses, I think its very interesting that, in our reading from Luke, Jesus chose that same number of people – 70. And I’m sure that was intentional! He was thinking back to the time of Moses! He could have sent out 60 or 80 or 100. But he chose 70! And do you think those people would have recognized the significance of that number? You’d better believe it! They knew their Torah! And in Luke, just like in the passage we read from Numbers, God put his spirit on those 70! And they did the same things that Jesus did!
I think that’s amazing! The same number of people as were called in the time of Moses were sent out to do the work of the new Kingdom of Jesus. There were thousands of years between those two passages, and yet the same principle held true. The nature of that leadership is a shared leadership. And to this day, the same understanding of leadership is preserved in a long procession, and it comes down to us!
We are part of this. It comes down to us! And I know we don’t have 70 elders. Holy Cow, Session meetings are long enough! But, I the ones we do have, the ones who are called in our church today – Elders, Deacons, and Trustees – they are like those elders of Israel, and like the 70 called by Jesus. They are part of that shared leadership style that’s been around for several millennia now!
Thats what I want you to think about today. Long ago, God placed his spirit in those he called to be leaders. And I think he places the same spirit in us today! And like it was from the earliest times, we share the burden of leadership. No one person does it all. We share it all together! We are called to work together like that!
And what is our call? This is the last part of what I want to say today. And I hope we all hear this and remember this. We who are leaders in the church are called to be “servant leaders!” As we share the burden of leadership together, we do so in the same role Jesus gave us by his own example! In Matthew 20:26 Jesus tells his disciples this. “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them… But it shall not be so among you. Whoever would be great among you must be your servant even as the Son of Man (him!) came not to be served but to serve.”
There it is. That’s our call. As we recognize those called to leadership today, we know that it is incumbent upon them to live that example of servant ministry. And may God’s blessings be on all of you! May you feel the spirit he puts on you, just like he put on the elders of Israel and the 70 sent by Jesus! But let me also say that it is incumbent on the rest of us to follow that example! May we too, participate in and together live, that servant ministry! And may we all pray for and encourage, those called to service at this time. (And remember, your time may be coming!)
So let us all remember that we are followers of him who came, not to be served, but to serve. And he calls us to do the same! So let us pray for God’s guidance, his spirit, and his blessing!
Eternal God, help us to follow that difficult example of being servants of one another, the example taught and lived by Jesus himself. Grant us that spirit of humility and devotion by which he lived. Help us to know his peace, to live in his love, and to rejoice in his kingdom. These things we pray in his name, Amen.