In the Camp

By Paul Koch

God had delivered His people Israel from the house of slavery in Egypt. He had led them through the Red Sea on dry ground and brought them to the foot of Mt. Sinai. On the mountain Moses received from the Lord His 10 Commandments, and after some setbacks with a golden calf they constructed there the Tabernacle, the tent of meeting in which rested the Ark of the Covenant and the mercy seat. God who had dwelt on high now dwells right in their midst. This is huge. The location of God presence wasn’t something they just dreamed about, they now knew exactly where to find Him. And yet, as they finally move on from that mountain, as they begin to make their journey towards the Promised Land, the people of God begin to complain.

In a demonstration of how short the memory of man can be, they begin to complain about their lot in life, about their food and how they ate so much better back in Egypt. Remember the fish and the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic? Remember the variety, the flavor of it all? Yeah, do you remember that little thing called slavery? Remember when you were beaten and abused building the great cities of the Egyptians? Now, Moses can’t handle any more of this. He cries out to the Lord saying, “Why do you hate me so much that you have placed the burden of these ungrateful people on my lap?” It’s just too much for Moses. He’s at his wits end. So much so that he actually says to God, “If you will treat me like this, kill me at once. If I find favor in your sight, that I may not see my wretchedness.” If this care for the complaining and whining people, if this constant dealing with the ungrateful who forget the great things you’ve done for them is my lot in life, he says, then just kill me now.

Now, it would be nice to think that dealing with people who forget the great blessings of God is just an issue that Moses had. We would love to believe today those who know of God’s deliverance celebrate and demonstrate their gratefulness each day. But, well, I think there is still a lot of work to be done on that front. But look how God goes about given help to his faithful servant. He has him select 70 men from the elders of the tribes and bring them to the tent of meeting. Once they were there the Lord came down upon Moses and took some of the Spirit that was upon him and put it upon the others. These men then began to prophecy. They began to take some of the burden that was placed solely on Moses and disperse it among themselves. They spoke the Word of the Lord to the people of God.

Now, two guys apparently missed their wakeup call. As everyone else gathered around the tent of meeting, the location of God in their presence, old Eldad and Medad were still hanging around the camp. Though they were among the 70 men called to be there, for some reason they remained behind. But it turns out that just because you don’t show up for the big moment doesn’t mean you don’t participate in the blessing. They began to prophecy just like all the others. Right there amongst all the people of God. Not at the tabernacle, not where the Holy of Holies was located, not near the Ark and the lampstand and the bowl of incense, not at the place sacrifice and atonement, but in the camp. And so, someone runs to tell Moses and then Joshua gets all riled up and says to Moses, “Stop them, stop them from prophesying.” I mean, who are they to be doing this separated from Moses and the tent of meeting? Who are they to go around speaking the Word of the Lord without the direct oversight of Moses?

Now look, here’s the thing. They’re not exactly wrong in their worry. Part of the gift and strength of being a chosen child of God is that they knew exactly where to find him. God’s gift was that He could be found. The reason that the Tabernacle was called the tent of meeting is that God actually met His people there. It was a place where they could approach His holiness through their sacrifices and worship. It was sacred ground and the proper place to hear His Word and receive His blessings. If God was located there, then how could they be sure He was speaking through Eldad and Medad in the camp? That would have been scandalous, not to mention more than a little confusing.

What began as Moses pleading for help to deal with the people of God has become a problem about the location of God among His people. Is He everywhere? Is He nowhere? Is He in the tent of meeting or in the camp or with Moses or the 70 elders? Where do you find God? How would we answer that today? Is He in the mountains the streams of the High Sierras? Is He in the beautiful sunsets over the ocean or the laughter of a child? Is God located in the church? If so, is He in every church? We confess that He is in the Word and Sacrament, but what about the people of God? Is He found in their hearts? See, the location of God is a gift of assurance and blessing. You need to know where to find Him so that you might be sure of His work in your life. If you say He is simply everywhere, why then He isn’t really anywhere for you? But something happens once he locates himself, once you find him where He promises to be.  You immediately see it as one final opportunity to control the uncontrollable.

Joshua was appalled that men were prophesying in the camp. Our desires are perhaps a little more refined, but they still flow from the hope that you can have the final say on the working of God in your midst. In your effort to control God, you seek to control how and when He can be present. It’s not just that the Word is rightly preached and the sacraments faithfully administered. No, it becomes how those things are carried out, where they are done, and by whom. Instead of celebrating the preached Word you complain about how it sounds on the ear. Will you sing your favorite hymns and go through the motions of a liturgy that you were raised in? Because that would be faithful, that would be right, that would be proper. Doubt is cast on anything that does not fit your own understanding of how God ought to come into your midst, and when it shows up you cry out, “Make them stop!”

That Tabernacle in the wilderness becomes the model for the Temple in Jerusalem. It was the place where the glory of God dwelt for his people. It became a machine of sacrifice and atonement, the land upon which it stood was sacred for God was there. But then the Son of God stands in its courts and declares, “Tear down this temple and I will raise it in three days.” And we are told that he was talking about his own body. The location of God is found then in the location of the Son. Where he went, the active rule and reign of the God himself went. When John the Baptist said, “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” He was actually saying there it is. There is the kingdom, in that man: our Lord Jesus Christ.

He was beyond the control of the Pharisees and religious leaders. He was beyond the walls of the Temple. He was beyond the fears and threats of the governmental powers and authority. And where did he go? Where could he be found? In the camp. Out with the shepherds and the fishermen, among the tax collectors and sinners. The presence of God is not ours to command but to receive.

Jesus pours out his gifts for you and with them comes the Spirit of God. He gives his gifts where he has promised to be, in his Word and sacraments. But they do not end there. See, we come to church, not because God has to show up here, not because the liturgy of the church or the structure of the building or the types of hymns we sing are the only way to get the gifts. No, we come here because he has promised you that he would be here in the preaching of the Word and the giving of the sacraments. And having received such gifts, we then head off into the camp, into your homes and your jobs and your relationships.

Moses’ desire that “all the Lord’s people were prophets” and that “the Lord would put his Spirit on them” is fulfilled in the gifts of Christ. The Spirit of God is washed over you in the waters of Holy Baptism. It takes up residence within you in and is fueled by participation in the Supper and the hearing of the Word. As you have your sins forgiven, over and over again, so you are sent out into the camp. Not of your own strength and merit but by the gifts of Christ alone. So that you might speak them. That’s right. When you embrace your wayward children, when you love your spouse, when you turn the other cheek and pray for your persecutors, when you love the unlovable and forgive – yes, forgive the unforgiven – you are the prophet of God.

So, what are you waiting for?