Archives for April 2014

Psalm 49:13-20; Leviticus 9:12-10:20; Mark 3:13-19

Psalm 49:13-20   I think it’s impossible to read the latter half of this wisdom psalm during Holy Week without reflecting on the underlying meaning of verse 15: “But God will ransom my life, from the grip of Sheol He will take me.”

Yes, at the top level, the psalmist is speaking of men, who like the Egyptians, believe their wealth will accompany and even protect them after death.  But they are sorely mistaken: “man will not rest in splendor.  He is likened to beasts that are doomed. This way of theirs is their foolishness,” (11,12)  There is no wealth; there is no splendor.  Instead, “Like sheep to Sheol they head— death shepherds them.” (14)  Even Sheol tires of them: “And they wear out their image in Sheol, a habitation for them.” (14b)

But there is one other Sheep, the Lamb of God who headed to Sheol but returned.  It is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that has ransomed us; that has saved all of us from “the grip of Sheol.”  And unlike the deluded wealthy and powerful sheep, who cannot hang onto their worldly wealth and self-image (“Man will not grasp things in splendor. He is likened to beasts that are doomed.” (20)) when death comes, we have been ransomed once and for all.  And we receive a whole new kind of splendor.

 Leviticus 9:12-10:20  After all the various sacrifices and offerings are executed following God’s instructions, Moses and Aaron emerge from the Tabernacle “and they came out and blessed the people, and the glory of  the LORD appeared to all the people.” (9:23).  God’s glory manifested itself dramatically: “And a fire came out from before the LORD and consumed on the altar the burnt offering and the fat, and all the people saw and shouted with joy and fell on their faces.” (9:24)  God’s power can elicit great happiness and joy.

But…God is still God and requires his mandates to be followed precisely.  Two of Aaron’s four sons, Nadab and Abihu, “took each of them his  fire-pan and put fire in it and placed incense upon it and brought forward alien fire before the LORD, which He had not charged them.”  The sons may have thought that these terribly precise instructions were becoming onerous. Perhaps they were taking a shortcut.   But “fire came out from before the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD.” (2).

Somewhat unsympathetically, Moses reminds Aaron what the “the LORD spoke, saying, ‘Through those close to Me shall I be hallowed and in all the people’s presence shall I be honored.’” (3) And in what I think is the saddest verse in this book, “And Aaron was silent,”  knowing that Moses was theologically correct, but he is torn in grief at the loss of his sons.  Moreover, Moses would not allow Aaron and his family to show the normal signs of grief, and since they were anointed priests had to remain inside the Tabernacle.  Moses bans consumption of alcohol in the Tabernacle as well.

Why? To set a clear boundary “between the holy and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean, and to teach the Israelites all the statutes that the LORD spoke to them by the hand of Moses.” (10,11).  That may be so, but it was scant comfort to Eleazar and to Ithamar, Aaron’s remaining sons, who then err by burning, rather than eating, the offense offering in the holy place (18)  Their fear of being struck dead like their brothers seems reasonable to me.  Aaron tells Moses that given the tragic events of the day, none of them could be expected to eat amidst their grief.  And Moses concedes that Aaron is right.  This is one of those places where we see the power of God juxtaposed against human feeling, that brings such poignancy to the story..  Moses may be God’s representative on earth, but Aaron is the representative humanity in all of us.

Not unlike the scene on Golgotha, where Christ is dying and the narrative turns to the women, including jesus’ mother, weeping at the foot of the cross.

Mark 3:13-19  Up to this point, Jesus has numerous adherents who have become camp followers as his healing ministry and popularity have grown. Here, Jesus “called to him those whom he wanted.”  Clearly, he had been observing those among the crowd and saw the essential qualities he required in his followers.  The first quality is response; that “they came to him.” (13).  In an echo of the twelve tribes of Israel, (this is the establishment of the New Covenant, after all) he appoints each man with three distinct aspects of the commission: (1) to be with him; (2) to proclaim the message; (3) the authority to cast out demons.”

The first two make complete sense to our modern brains.  But why the casting out demons bit? I think it was reflective of the times and to make it clear that Jesus was not just a magician with healing powers.  But more importantly, it comes back to that Markan theme: authority.  This is the first instance of Jesus passing along his authority to his followers.  And we, his followers 2000 years later, also have authority.  Perhaps not to cast out demons, but more authority than we (or at least me) tend to think.

The disciples are each named, even Judas.  The naming of names is crucial because that is the essence of our identity.  Not only before other people, but before God.  Names are God-given, albeit through our parents. And another distinctive that sets us apart form the rest of creation.



Psalm 49:1-12; Leviticus 8:18-9:11; Mark 3:1-12

Holy Week.  I wonder what OT connections to Jesus’ Passion we might spot this week?  Plus, we are no where near that final week here in the early chapters of Mark.  Yet, all of Scripture looks forward to this week that changed history forever.

Psalm 49:1-12  In many ways this psalm sounds more like it belongs in Proverbs with a couple of verses sounding as iff they belong in Ecclesiastes.  The words of this wisdom psalm apply to everyone, regardless of his or her station in life: “Hear this, all peoples, hearken, all who dwell in the world. You human creatures, you sons of man,  together the rich and the needy.” (1, 2)

Like so much wisdom literature, it feels relevant and contemporary because it describes the human condition, which has changed not a whit since this psalm was written: “Why should I fear in evil days, when crime comes round me at my heels?” (5) And as recent shootings and stabbings so amply attest, evil continues to plague humankind, despite all modern attempts to explain it away or redefine it as something else.

Just feeling the stress of people living right here in Walnut Creek underscores the truth of the psalmist’s assertion, “Who trust in their wealth and boast of their great riches— yet they surely will redeem no man,” (6,7)  The wealthy who refuse to give to the poor and who “will not give to God his ransom” will come to exactly the same dark end as the poor they refused to help: “Will he yet live forever? Will he not see the Pit?” (9).  As if lifted right out of Ecclesiastes, we sense the underlying despair of the psalmist as he writes, “For he sees the wise die, both the fool and the stupid man perish, and they abandon to others their wealth.” (10).

Thus our human lot. Rich, poor, wise, foolish.  We all go down to the Pit.  There is only One Way out.

Leviticus 8:18-9:11  Moses applies the sacrificial blood to his brother in seemingly odd places: “and put it on the right earlobe of Aaron and on the thumb of his right hand and on the big toe of his right foot.” (8:24)  And then does the same to Aaron’s sons.  And then “Moses cast the blood on the altar all around.” (8:25) And again, “Moses took from the  anointing oil and from the blood that was on the altar and sprinkled it on Aaron, on his garments, and on his sons and on the garments of his sons, with him, and he consecrated Aaron with his garments and his sons and the garments of his sons, with him.” (8:30)  After which, Aaron and his sons are instructed to remain inside the Tabernacle for seven days. Only then will atonement occur (8:34).

I don’t think it’s an unreasonable stretch to compare this anointing of blood and oil followed by remaining inside the Tabernacle to Jesus shedding his own sacrificial blood and Jesus’ three days inside the tomb to Arron’s time inside the Tabernacle burial.  The New Covenant began as the old: with the shedding of blood and burial.  And only then Jesus’ atonement of our sins with one huge difference: once and for all.

Mark 3:1-12  Even this early in Mark’s account Jesus has gained more than a few enemies: “They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him.” (2)  Knowing their thoughts, Jesus poses the question of Sabbath healing in the starkest terms possible: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” (4) But Jesus’ opponents don’t answer. Why not? Were they afraid of a hostile reaction by the crowd?  Possibly.  Or did the way Jesus posed the question, not as an issue about keeping the Sabbath, but doing “harm on the Sabbath” surprise them and force them to look at their accusation in a wholly new and unexpected light?  Perhaps there was a glimmer of conscience, that maybe this itinerant preacher had a point.  Did their consciences keep them quiet because to speak would have been an admission that Jesus was right and they were wrong?  But it seems their pride could not allow that.   Had their pricked consciences collided with their pride and expressed itself as unbridled hatred?

Mark tells us that Jesus “looked around at them with anger.” (5a)  He was angry at their silence for failing to respond to a question whose answer is blindingly obvious.  Jesus is angry because their hearts have become so hardened against him that any shred of mercy for the man with the withered hand had been forgotten in their quest for theological correctness.  I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume some of these elders were in the room where Jesus claimed the ability to forgive sins and then healed the paralytic. Correct religious practice has truly trumped grace and mercy.  And that is why Jesus is “grieved at their harness of heart.”

They are exactly like the wealthy people who cannot find it in their hearts to give to the poor that the psalmist excoriates above. And their only response was to “go out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.” (6)  The events of the Passion have already been set in motion.

But Jesus is asking exactly the same question of us.  How often are our reactions to bold new thinking that considers grace more important than orthodoxy exactly like that of the Pharisees?

Psalm 48; Leviticus 7:22-8:17; Mark 2:13-28

Psalm 48  Another song of worshipful praise following a military victory.  “Great is the LORD and highly praised in our God’s town, His holy mountain.” (1) “God’s town” would be Jerusalem atop Mount Zion.  It is “the great King’s [David?] city” and “God in its bastions is famed as a fortress.”

So great a God-inhabited fortress that “the [enemy] kings have conspired,  passed onward one and all. It is they who have seen and so been astounded,   were panicked, dismayed. Shuddering seized them there, pangs like a woman in labor.” (4,5,6)  Given all the psalms of supplication where all the conspiring enemies seem far larger and more threatening to David, this psalm certainly delivers a victor’s satisfaction.

The last line of this psalm reminds us that God is outside time and that “this is God, our God, forevermore. He will lead us forever.”  This is the eternal reliability of God in whom we place our trust.  Would that I could be as reliable in return.

Leviticus 7:22-8:17  While the priests are responsible for executing the various sacrifices before the altar, there is one exception: “‘He who brings forward his communion sacrifice to the LORD shall  bring his offering to the LORD from his communion sacrifice. His own hands shall bring the fire offerings of the LORD,” (7:29-30).  For me this statement has two significant implications.  First, an act of communion is between God and the communicant.  The priests assists (7:31), but does not come between God and the person making the offering.  Second, even today we echo the act of coming forward for communion.  Not to the altar of sacrifice, but to the presence of Jesus Christ, who saved us.  (And why coming forward is far more meaningful for me than passing it around in the pews as we did in the church where I grew up.)

In chapter 8 we see the roots of ordination.  Beginning with ritual washing (8:6) –a literal baptism–and then the act of clothing Aaron, item by item, ending with the turban, and “at the front the golden diadem, the holy crown, as the LORD had charged Moses.” (8:13)  Aaron is then anointed with oil and a bull is sacrificed.  Aaron’s ordination notwithstanding, I also see why the author of Hebrews makes such a point about Jesus Christ being of the order of Melchizedek.  Because while Jesus has been ordained our Great High Priest, it is he himself who was sacrificed. The shedding of Jesus’ own blood eliminates once and for all the requirement for the endless ritual sacrifices we read here in Leviticus.

Mark 2:13-28  Jesus makes the same offer to Levi (Matthew) as to the other disciples: “follow me.”  While Peter et al were middle class fishermen, Levi was doubtless quite wealthy, and his act of following meant substantial monetary sacrifice. An interesting contrast to the rich young ruler.  And a party follows…

About which the religious leaders highly disapprove. Just like many religious leaders today.  I’ve always wondered about evangelicals who seem to disapprove of so many things, do with this passage.  Probably skip right over it.

Mark’s theme here and then more directly in Jesus’ answer to the question about fasting make it abundantly clear that Jesus came not to become yet another religious leader, but to go directly to the people, “those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”  Given the Jews long history of the priest as the official intercessor before God, it’s understandable why Jesus going directly to the people may have seemed so revolutionary to the religious leaders.  Not to mention that they were  being cut out of the process.  (Then again, they may have forgotten about the communion sacrifice which allowed a common person to come directly before the altar.)

Jesus is focused only on the end: saving the lost; healing those who need healing.  The Pharisees were focused on the means–the process–which had become the end in itself.  Something to remember when I complain about liturgy or the order of worship or the music, when the singular purpose of worship is to praise God and commune with his Son, who saved us.


Psalm 47; Leviticus 6:14-7:21; Mark 2:1-12

Psalm 47   This is a straight-out psalm of rejoicing for “All peoples, clap hands, shout out to God with a sound of glad song.” (1) Doubtless sung at the celebration of a military victory, the poem gives all credit to God in fairly stark terms, “a great king over all the earth.  He crushes peoples beneath us and nations beneath our feet.” (3)  But at the root of victory is acknowledgement that God “chooses for us our estate, pride of Jacob whom He loves.” (4)

It’s as simple as that: God loves his people. And the people respond in joyous worship,

Hymn to God, hymn,
hymn to our king, O hymn.
For king of all earth is God,
hymn joyous song. (6,7)

We do not require a military victory to sing praises to God.  For me, the gift of each new day is victory enough.  And how grateful I am to know that through Jesus Christ, God’s all-embracing love extends far beyond “the people of Abraham’s God.” (9)

Leviticus 6:14-7:21  A phrase we see repeated many times in this section of Leviticus is “This is the teaching…” followed by specific instructions of the type of offering to be made and precisely how it is to be made.  This is a reminder that there is much more to the Old Covenant than just the Decalogue.  It’s worth remembering that “Torah” means “teaching,” and nowhere is there more teaching, instruction, and regulations than in this book which has suspended the narrative altogether.  Perhaps this book is better titled, “Rules and Regulations of the Old Covenant.”

There were many types of sacrifices, ranging from grain offerings to entire bulls.  And there were many types of sin to be atoned.  Chapter 7 opens with “the teaching of the guilt offering,” (1) which is differentiated from “the offense offering like the sin offering, a single teaching do they have.” (7).  Which is distinct from “this is the teaching of the communion sacrifice that is brought 12 forward to the LORD.” (11,12).  By the way, the communion sacrifice is about thanksgiving, not atonement. (15).

But there’s a strict rule, that “the person who eats flesh from the communion sacrifice 20 which is the LORD’s and his uncleanness is upon him, that person shall be cut off from his kin.”  Wow. One does not just randomly approach the altar without being fully clean.  Which of course is a metaphor for how we are to approach God: fully cleansed.  And thankfully, that has been accomplished by the atoning blood of Jesus Christ.

Mark 2:1-12  Jesus returns to Capernaum from his first road trip, but the word’s out,  and “So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them.” (2)  I’ve always loved this story about the men who removed the roof in order to lower their friend down on a pallet because they were not deterred by obstacles, took the initiative and obviously had serious engineering skills.

So, why, to the complete consternation of the scribes, does Jesus say, “Son, your sins are forgiven”?  Mark is careful to point out that the scribes did not speak up, doubtless grasping that the hoi polloi gathered around Jesus would not take kindly to those who criticized Jesus–especially a charge as serious as blasphemy.  But Jesus gets it, and poses the all-important question, “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’?” (9)

So, does a miracle trump apparent blasphemy?  Jesus clears up the issue by answering that it is a false dilemma and that both things are true.  First, for the theologians in the audience, “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” But for the paralyzed man it is about more than theology, “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” (10).  Jesus is both spiritual authority, but firmly connected to the physical world as well–and that he cares deeply for our physical woes as much as our spiritual ones.

ANd there’s Mark’s theme word again: “Authority.”  The authority which Jesus claims as the Son of Man is so overwhelming, so absolute, that the crowd’s response (and we presume, the scribe’s) can be only amazement.  But more than just amazement, they “glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”” (12).  It is this authority and recognition–at least among this crowd–that Jesus is who he says he is–that sets him so far apart from all the other itinerant prophets and supposed miracle-workers wandering the countryside at the same time.

Psalm 46; Leviticus 5:1-6:13; Mark 1:35-45

Psalm 46  The psalmist states his theme right in the opening verse: “God is a shelter and strength for us, a help in straits, readily found.” (1) The “God as shelter and strength” meme occurs frequently in the psalms.  The phrase, “readily found” is more provocative because so many psalms are about God who isn’t there and/or doesn’t show up.  Yet, here in this psalm of rejoicing, God is “readily found.”  Could it be that in our despair of an absent God we are simply not looking in the right places?

Because God is near us, “we fear not when the earth breaks apart, when mountains collapse in the heart of the seas.” (2) But even as the “waters roar and roil, mountains heave in its surge,” (3) there is also a peaceful stream, whose “rivulets gladden God’s town [Jerusalem]”(4). But “God is in its midst and it will not collapse” (5) because “God helps it as morning breaks.”   To be sure, God is the God of earthquakes and crashing seas, but also the God of the peaceful stream and the sunrise.  Power and peace are always juxtaposed in God.

So, too, in the affairs of man, which parallel God’s power over nature.  Like the collapsing mountain, God is there as “Nations roar and kingdoms collapse” in military and political turmoil.  God always has the last word, “He sends forth is voice and the earth melts.” (6) God’s power rules over the nations, but God is also a God of peace, who has “caused wars to cease to the end of the earth. The bow He has broken and splintered the spear, and chariots burned in fire.” (9)

No wonder we are so confused by the apparent contradictions of God.  The God who brings hurricanes, earthquakes, and destruction is the same God in the glinting stream and sunrise and in the peace that marks the end of war.

Leviticus 5:1-6:13  Chapter 5 lays out different types of offenses and the requisite sacrifice of atonement.  There is the silent witness, who “has seen or known [of a sin committed by another], if he does not tell, he shall bear his punishment.” (2).  Then there’s the person who swears a vow and doesn’t carry it out (5), as well as a person who betrays a trust. (14)  All must make bring a guilt offering to God.

Even unwitting sins require sacrifice: “if a person offends and does any one of all the commands of the LORD that should not be done and does not know and is guilty, he shall bear his punishment.”  We talk about our culture as being “post-Christian.”  Perhaps we should also call it “post-sin.”  “Sin” seems so antiquated in our therapeutic age where victimhood seems to have largely replaced guilt, never mind atonement for guilt.

We think of these detailed Levitical rules as being almost absurdly constraining.  Yet it’s clear that those same rules, which form the basis of our own laws, are exactly how order was maintained among that “stiff-necked” people wandering in the wilderness.  Without them, chaos would have ensued.  Does a decreasing awareness of sin and its consequences lead to a breakdown of order in our own society?

Mark 1:35-45  I’m always struck by the fact that Jesus prays alone, often early in the morning.  (And the one time he asks a few close companions to pray with him in Gethsemane, they just fall asleep.)  Only after praying does he start his first preaching and healing tour around Galilee.

There’s a layered meaning of the disciples’ exclamation, “Everyone is searching for you.”  Yes, the disciples were looking for him in the dark (another double meaning!)  But we are all searching for Jesus (in the dark).  Even those who deny they are searching are still searching for the meaning and purpose that only Jesus can bring.

Mark frequently points out that following a healing, Jesus implores the persons healed not to tell anyone.  Of course they cannot remain silent.  Their lives have been changed and they can do nothing else but shout that reality from the rooftop.  Jesus, master of human psychology, surely understood that this would happen, so why his pleas to be silent?   I don’t think he was using reverse psychology on these people, it was just a hopeful request.  After all,  his growing popularity had certainly complicated his life “so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly.”   I think the simple reality is that when we are truly healed by Jesus, it’s simply humanly impossible to keep the good news to ourselves.

As well, in Matthew, Jesus implores us to go and preach the Gospel.  What better way than this?

Psalm 45:10-17; Leviticus 4; Mark 1:21-34

 Psalm 45:10-17  The king, who is the object of this encomium, is apparently marrying a foreign princess.  The poet advises her to forget the past and face her new reality: “…look, incline your ear, and forget your people, and your father’s house.  And let the king yearn for your beauty, for he is your master, and bow down to him.” (10,11)  Thus it ever was in a patriarchal society: the princess has the asset of beauty, but the male (here the king) has the asset of power.

The princess is brought before the king in “filigree of gold her raiment”(13), together with her own court, “maidens in train, her companions.”(14).  But neither the king nor the princess are considering the issue of patriarchy.  This is a joyous occasion, even though the princess will never see her family again, “They are led in rejoicing and gladness, they enter the palace,” (15).

The princess and king together will produce progeny, and this will help the princess forget that she has been taken from her home: “In your fathers’ stead your sons will be. You will set them as princes in all the land.” (16)

This psalm is about a king and a royal marriage.  I suppose we could extend it to Christ and the Church as his bride, but I really think that’s stretching it too far.  So, I will enjoy this psalm’s royal imagery as the gorgeous poetry it is.

Leviticus 4  God is now giving Moses detailed instructions of sacrifices required for different categories of people who “offend arrantly in regard to any of the LORD’s commands that should not be done.” (2)

There are specific sacrificial instructions for different categories of people, “if the anointed priest should offend” (3); for “When a chieftain offends and does one of all the commands of the LORD his God that should not be done” (22) and for “a single person from the common people should offend errantly in doing one of the LORD’s commands that should not be done, and bear guilt,” (27) These categories provide isight into how the Israelites were organized: priesthood, tribal chieftains and the hoi polloi. 

And the sinner was guilty even f he committed an offense unknowingly, but “the offense that he committed is made known to him.” (27b).  Which suggests that everyone was looking out for the other’s sins. Here, we can see the judgmental roots of the Pharisees, where were inly to happy to publicly announce another’s sins.

And at the center of all this, when the sacrifice is made, “the priest shall atone for him, for his offense that he committed, and it shall be forgiven him.”  For it is the priest making sacrifices to God that lies at the center of the Old Covenant.  A never-ending process of sin and sacrifice, followed by more sin and more sacrifice.  How grateful we should be for Jesus’ once and for all Atonement.

Mark 1:21-34  If “immediately” and “follow” are the themes of Jesus establishing his ministry, then here in the synagogue where Jesus commences his public ministry is the theme of how Jesus conducts his ministry: Authority.  “…he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” (22) and “What is this? A new teaching—with authority!” (27).

The astonishment of the people about Jesus’ authority with the Scriptures and over the demons of the underworld tells us a lot about the spiritual state of the people and their religious leaders before Jesus arrived on the scene.  It would seem that the scribes read the Scriptures aloud but had little to say, or what they did say was anodyne and, frankly, wimpy.  Like many sermons I’ve heard through the years.  But it’s clear that Jesus is more than just knowledgable about the Scriptures.  The people at the synagogue sense Jesus’ deep, intimate connection with the Scriptures. Almost as if they had come alive in the person of Jesus, and had begun walking and talking among them.  This was an unprecedented experience for them–and for us.

Mark offers ample evidence of Jesus’ authority in action beyond explicating the Scriptures as he writes about healing.  Starting with the specific, Peter’s mother-in-law, and then the general, “he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons.” (34)

Capernaum is about as far as you can get from Jerusalem and still be in Israel.  Yet, this is where Jesus began his ministry: in the Israeli outback.  Retrospectively, his strategy is clear: Begin in an obscure place and let the word filter out on its own.  No need to start giving speeches in Jerusalem.  And, unlike the many other prophets and Zealots wandering the countryside at the time, use actions, along with Scripture to establish his authority.  This is far far more than simply the provocative speeches of other would be revolutionaries and rabble rousers.  Jerusalem is still asleep and they do not know what is coming.

Psalm 45:1-9; Leviticus 2,3; Mark 1:9-20

Psalm 45:1-9  Alter notes that the designation for this psalm, “a song of love,” occurs only here.  It is also the only psalm where the author steps to center stage in the first verse, “My heart is astir with a goodly word. I speak what I’ve made to the king. My tongue is the pen of a rapid scribe.” (1)  The author tells us, he will be reciting this song to the king, who is the subject of the poem.  (He also notes his other scribal skills in passing.)

What follows is praise, almost bordering on the obsequious IMO, for the king’s handsomeness (“You are loveliest of the sons of man,”), his elegant and kind speech, (“grace flows from your lips”) as well as his prowess as a warrior, (“Gird your sword on your thigh, O warrior,  your glory and your grandeur.”) (3).  The king is the ideal mix of “truth, humility and justice” but equally capable of battle, “let your right hand shoot forth terrors, your sharpened arrows— peoples fall beneath you.” (4)  At this point we need to remember this is a song, not a theological treatise…

But above all, the is rightly aligned to God, “You loved justice and hated evil.  Therefore did God your God anoint you with oil of joy over your fellows.” (7)  And here is the lesson for us:  We may not sit on a throne holding a scepter of power in our right hands, but the real question is, do we love justice and hate evil, just as God does?  Like the shepherd of Psalm 23, that is how “God [will] anoint you with oil of joy over your fellows.” (9)

Leviticus 2,3  We tend to forget that amidst all the blood of the sacrificial system, there was a grain offering as well–and it is with this that the “sacrificial instruction manual” begins.  I have to assume that grain offerings were acceptable to God because some people were poor and could not afford the greater expense of an animal sacrifice.  And grain offerings could create a “a fragrant odor to the LORD” (2:3) as well as an animal one.  God accommodates all his children!

Here, too, is where we see that God does not demand everything be sacrificed to him (as I presume other pagan sacrificial systems demanded), but only a “token portion,” the remainder, “what is left of the grain offering is for Aaron and for his sons.”  The offering is unleavened bread, reminding all of the Passover bread.  Why no yeast or honey?  It’s hard to say.  God has his reasons; not all of then will be revealed to us.

Interesting that “every offering of your grain you shall season with salt. You shall not leave out the salt of the covenant of your God from your grain offering.” (2:3).  So when Jesus talks about being the “salt of the earth,” there is not only a sense of seasoning, but among his audience that is well aware of the sacrificial requirements of the Temple, a requirement of sacrifice as well.

If God is specific about the nature of the grain offering, he gets even more precise in chapter 3, specifying exactly how the animal is to be disemboweled and what is to be done with each organ. And “all the fat to the LORD.” (3:16)  God knew that too much fat is bad for people camping and hiking in the wilderness…  Just asHe knows what’s right for us.

Mark 1:9-20  In a mere eleven verses Mark describes Jesus baptism, including the decent of the Holy Spirit and God’s vocal approval; the wilderness temptation, the beginning of the ministry in Galilee, and the calling of four disciples (Simon, Andrew, James, John).  But amid all this economy of language, Mark takes the time to repeat what I think is a crucial theme of this Gospel: “And immediately they left their nets and followed him.” (18) and again, “Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.” (20).

Two words: “immediately” and “followed.” We don’t get the backstory, but Mark emphasizes that we follow, we don’t go “side-by-side;” we don’t “accompany” Jesus; we don’t “join his team.” We do one thing only: we follow.  There is true hierarchy here: Jesus is the leader; we are the followers. Our society obsessed with egalitarianism and equality and equity is uncomfortable with the idea of real leadership, which is what Jesus is all about.

The all-important adverb, “immediately” is in the same sentence as “follow.”  There is urgency in the work of the Kingdom.  No careful weighing of options and “I’ll get back to you on that.” As we will see throughout this Gospel, it’s all urgent, right here, right now stuff.  I wonder how many people to whom Jesus said “Follow me. Now or never” that chose the “never” option.  For Mark, it’s all about action, not thoughtful contemplation. Is it for us?  Or do I reflect too much–not because reflection is wrong–but as an excuse for not acting?


Psalm 44:17-26; Exodus 40:24-Leviticus 1:17; Mark 1:1-8

Psalm 44:17-26  This accusatory psalm reminds God that while He has apparently forgotten his people, they have not forgotten Him: “yet we did not forget You, and we did not betray Your pact.” (18) and then to emphasize the point, repeats the assertion of their own faithfulness: “Our heart has not failed, nor have our footsteps strayed from Your path,” (19) even though “You thrust us down to the sea monster’s place.”

Then, in a classic bout of defensiveness, the psalmist states that had they neglected God, God would surely have known it and responded, “Had we forgotten the name of God  and spread out our palms to an alien god, would not God have fathomed it?” (20)  As things stand now, “we are counted as sheep for the slaughter.”  The intense despair of this psalm certainly suggests that the images of slaughtered sheep are not mere metaphors, but the defeat of an actual battle.

How often we cry out in times of trouble, “where are You, God?” And this psalm informs us that we can indeed be angry and cry out in despair.  We do not have to pretend as good little Christians that we love God and that it’s a sin when we are angry with Him or have become convinced that he has deserted us for good.  To be sure, God loves us, God is constant, but there are times in our lives when “our neck is bowed to the dust, our belly clings to the ground.” (25) and God simply doesn’t show up.  We have every right to be angry with the Creator of the universe.

But crucially, even in their despair, there is a final plea: “Rise as a help to us  and redeem us for the sake of Your kindness.” (27)  They have not given up.  Underneath the anger and despair there is the hint of assurance that they know God will eventually show up.  And neither should we reject God altogether in these times of darkness when all seems lost.

 Exodus 40:24-Leviticus 1:17  The Tabernacle (Tent of Meeting, as Alter calls it) is finally complete and assembled.  And God sees that it is good and comes to dwell there.  After the wanderings thus far, where God sort of hovers over the Israelites as a cloud or pillar of fire, God finally has a residence, and “the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting and the glory of the LORD  filled the Tabernacle.  God’s glory was so intense that “Moses could not come into the Tent of Meeting, for the cloud abode upon it and the glory of the LORD filled the Tabernacle”. (35)  I think there is great significance here that God has come down form his remoteness on Mt. Sinai to dwell amongst the people. God has moved from distance abstraction to daily presence.

This remarkable book of a remarkable escape and journey has been guided by God the whole time.  And it ends by reminding Israel–and us– that God is present, before the eyes of all the house of Israel in all their journeyings.” (38)  We may not have the visual evidence of God that the Israelites had, but that does not make God any less present in our own lives.

The authors of the Torah leave Israel with all eyes on God as they suspend the story of the journey in the wilderness with the interregnum that is the book of Leviticus, which is basically unencumbered by any narrative detail at all.  Now ensconced in the Tabernacle, God once again speaks to Moses, ” saying, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them…” (2)  And there follows the almost endless detail of precisely how the sacrifices are to be made.

We know that sacrifices are offered as propitiation for the people’s sins.  But this chapter ends on a tantalizing sensory note.  The sacrifices are “a fire offering, a fragrant odor to the LORD.” (1:17).  We know God sees and hears us, but here, we are reminded that God possesses all the senses we do. And that what we do for God includes acts that God not only sees and hears, but that should be “a fragrant odor to the Lord.”

Mark 1:1-8  Mark is the Gospel’s journalist and again and again, in this shortest gospel, he reminds us in his spare language that there is no time to wast.  Just the facts please.  And then only the facts that read directly to his opening sentence, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Like John, Mark tells us there was a beginning, but there’s no theological exegesis about Jesus being the Word.  No birth story, no genealogies, no wise men, no Mary or Joseph.

For John, Jesus’ birth or his theological connection to God and the Word is irrelevant.  This book is about what Jesus did and said.  And for Mark, that is evidence enough.

John the Baptist has shown up in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy.  And a mere seven verses into the story, John is ready to remove himself form the stage because “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.” (7)  This introductory paragraph, and John himself are about one thing only: preparation.  Preparation for the one “coming after me,” but also preparation for the manifestation of the Holy Spirit.

The stage is set…

Psalm 44:9-16; Exodus 39:32-40:23; Matthew 28:1-20

Psalm 44:9-16  There is an abrupt shift from praise [“God we praise all day long, and Your name we acclaim for all time.” (8)] to abandonment and shame caused by God’s failure to appear in the next verse: “Yet You neglected and disgraced us 10 and did not sally forth in our ranks.” (9). We marketers have a difficult time with this juxtaposition. Praise one minute, anger the next. This is not how you are supposed to appease and please God, is it?

Yet, the accusations against God continue. His neglect has resulted in a poor outcome in battle “You turned us back from the foe, and our enemies took their plunder.” (10) God, not the enemy, is the one who devalued them:”You sold Your people for no wealth and set no high price upon them.” (12) And in that culture, the worst thing of all: “You made us a shame to our neighbors, derision and mockery to those round us.” (13). The psalmist takes this personally: “All day long my disgrace is before me, and shame has covered my face,” (15)

What are we to make of this? It’s one thing to be angry with God, but to accuse God of neglect desertion, and creating personal shame?  How easily we forget that God is God.  He can take it. He knows the truth, and above all, he knows our deepest feelings.  Especially when our despair is as deep as the psalmist’s.  We do not have to be placid Sunday school children before God; we can be angry, defeated, shamed, despairing warriors as well.  This is what makes the Psalms the ur-text of  every prayer since then: brutal honesty before God, not fawning hypocrisy.  Too bad I forget that so often.  Of course Jesus recognized the very same thing when he compared the prayer of the Pharisee to that of the publican.

Exodus 39:32-40:23  Our author cannot cease writing about the glories of the Tabernacle, the Ark, the furnishings, the vestments, and here he recapitulates the inventory one more time.  Alter captures an almost musical quality with the repeated “its” before each item: “the Tent and all its furnishings, its clasps, its boards, its crossbars, and its posts and its sockets,…” (34)

But even more important than the glories of the inventory is how the people have obeyed God’s instructions down to the letter, “…thus the Israelites did all the work. And Moses saw all the tasks, and, look, they had done it as the LORD had charged, thus they had done it, and Moses blessed them.” (42, 43)

We don’t hear much these days about the theology of vocation, which I have always considered to be one of the high points of Lutheran theology.  But here it is: the people are not priests, they are workers, and they have crafted a work to the glory of God.  I have to believe this passage was read form time to time during the construction of the great cathedrals of Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries.

If I were writing subsection titles for this part f Exodus, the first part of this final chapter would be headed, “Some assembly required.”  God’s instructions to Moses are quite precise about where the furnishings and drapery of the Tabernacle are to be placed.  (It also reminds me of the little models of the Tabernacle we 5th graders made back in Sunday School at Lake Avenue Congregational Church in Pasadena so many years ago.)

Matthew 28:1-20  Like Matthew himself, the Moravians do not linger over post-Resurrection details, as our Gospel writer wraps up the most astounding event in history with his usual economy, almost terseness.  One event, which I think is exclusive to Matthew, is the recounting of how the priests and religious officials bribed the guards to spread the Big Lie, that the disciples had stolen Jesus’ body.  Which theory continues to surface even today.  (I remember a book in the 1970’s about this, and Wikipedia even includes an entry, “the stolen body hypothesis.)

Matthew, with his Jewish perspective writing to a Jewish community, ends the story of Jesus’ interaction with Judaism on this distinctly conspiratorial note with, “And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.” (15)  The tragedy of course, is that Matthew’s words have been at least partly catalytic in the church’s persecution of the Jews over history.  But that is not Matthew’ fault.  It is ours.

Matthew’s story ends with Jesus’ famous commissioning.  (And doesn’t even mention the Ascension.)  And that is why I think he wrote his Gospel in the first place.  It’s so much more than the “greatest story ever told.”  It’s an instruction manual of how to carry out the Great Commission.  And Jesus’ final words are his (and God’s) Greatest Promise to us: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  May we never ever forget that sublime truth.


Psalm 44:1-8; Exodus 39:1-31; Matthew 27:57-66

Psalm 44:1-8   This psalm of praise acknowledges what this secular age would greet with incredulity: that it is not humankind but God  whose “hand dispossessed nations—and You planted them. You smashed peoples and sent them away.” (2)  The poet further claims, “For not by their sword they took hold of the land, and it was not their arm that made them victorious but Your right hand and Your arm, and the light of Your face when You favored them.” (3,4).

This does not seem very far from “God is on our side” kind of thinking.  But when we examine the words more closely, that is not what the psalmist is saying at all.  When we say “God is on our side,” we are in effect saying that God is assisting us in our quest for victory. “Nice to have you along with us, God, now please deliver that victory we have in mind.”  Rather, here, whatever victory that has been achieved has been done though human beings acting as God’s agents, “For not in my bow do I trust, and my sword will not make me victorious.” (6)  In the end, it is God who “rescued us from our foes, and our enemies You put to shame.” Not us.

We can grasp this truth not on the battlefield but in everyday life.  We do not place our trust in our own gifts, skills, or tools, but we place our trust in God, who then uses our gifts, skills, tools to carry out the task at hand.  When we fully place our trust in God, we are not asking God to be our aide de camp (to continue the military metaphor), but exactly the opposite.  Of course, as the psalmist acknowledges, that means not only admitting that we need to let go, but to actually relinquish control.  Easier said than done…

Exodus 39:1-31  Another chapter of lovingly detailed description of what was made for the Tabernacle.  This time the priestly garments and the breastplate that goes atop the robes.  Twelve stones in four rows of precious stones on the breastplate, representing the twelve tribes.  And my favorite detail, “the hem of the robe all around, within the pomegranates. A bell and a pomegranate, a bell and 26 a pomegranate on the hem of the robe all around, to serve, as the LORD had charged Moses.” (25, 26).  The phrase, “as the LORD had charged Moses” is repeated, reminding us that all this was not something Moses, Aaron, or anyone else made up, but that it was God-specified.  This is at the heart of the Old Covenant: that the one chosen priest, who comes before God in the Holy of Holies is dressed in the finest garment imaginable.  Because to come before God is no casual affair.

I’m struck by the juxtaposition of what we read here in Exodus with Matthew’s description of Jesus’ crucifixion: that he was stripped of all his clothing and what little he had was gambled away at the foot of the cross.  How different our High Priest of the New Covenant: stripped naked, hanging on a cross. And yet, Jesus comes before God in a manner inconceivable to Caiaphas, the high priest, who surely wore a priestly garment not unlike the one described here in Exodus.

Matthew 27:57-66  As Jesus is brought down from the cross, we are reminded that Jesus had many followers besides the Twelve (now Eleven).  Unlike the unnamed disciple who lent Jesus the Upper Room, Joseph, the “rich man form Arimathea” gets to go down in history.  But he appears on the stage only briefly.  His last recorded act is he “rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away.”  (Hadn’t noticed before that it is Jospeh of A. that places the stone in front of the tomb, not the Romans or the Jews.)

Ever the masters of selective memory, “the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’” (62, 63)  I wonder exactly when it was that after having successfully killed off the man who would upset the status quo ante, it occurred to them that he was still a threat.  And an even bigger threat dead than alive such that “the last deception would be worse than the first.” (64).

Thus it ever has been: no matter how hard subsequent rulers have tried to suppress the Jesus, the stone in front of the grave is always insufficient.  Jesus always surfaces again.  Indeed, “the last deception” has  changed history.  Which is why even in this American culture of “tolerance” where the current crop of cultural Pharisees attempts to define what “tolerable” and what is not (that being most things having to do with “outmoded” religious faith and scruples that go against the received wisdom–sound familiar?), Jesus will always surface.   It is indeed Friday in our culture–and becoming more so–but in the end, “the last deception” always turns out to be the Truth of Sunday.