Psalm 66:16-20; Numbers 8:5-9:14; Mark 12:18-34

I’m late today, having had to wait until the hydrocodone wore off following my Monday evening visit to the ER in intense pain that turned out to be a kidney stone.  But I may as well write while waiting for it–and time–to pass…

Psalm 66:16-20 [I have just realized that yesterday I wrote on Psalm 68 rather than 66. Oh, well.  These things happen…  So, I will reflect on the entirety of Psalm 66 psalm here]

This psalm begins with a shout: “Shout out to God, all the earth. Hymn His name’s glory. Make His praise glory,” and invites the listener to “Come and see the acts of God, awesome in works over humankind.” (4)  Good to be reminded of that in this age of technology where we are too easily duped into believing our acts and inventions are greater than God’s works.

God has indeed “turned the sea into dry land” (5) but above all, God has preserved Israel, “Who has kept us in life, and not let our foot stumble.” (8)  But while God preserves the psalmist also knows that they have been put to the test by all manner of trials:

“For You tested us, God,
You refined us as silver refined.
You trapped us in a net,
placed heavy cords round our loins.
You let people ride over us.
We came into fire and water—”  (9-11)

But whether by trial or captivity or natural disaster, “You brought us out to great ease.”  For me, this is the hinge point of the psalm: God brings us out.  There is life and even “ease” on the other side of disaster–as I know well by personal experience over the past five years.

This bringing-out God is the one of whom today I sing with the psalmist, “Come listen and let me recount, all you who fear God, what He did for me.” (16).  Every human has a story to tell, and no matter how sophisticated we think we are it is to other’s stories that we respond best.  Philosophical abstractions have their place, but it is the human story of how God brought us out that is our witness of God’s mercy in the world.

Numbers 8:5-9:14 

All of the offerings have been brought to the Tabernacle; everything is in readiness.  The Levites are to be consecrated to service in the Tabernacle in a very specific manner: “sprinkle on them expiation water and pass a razor over all their flesh and wash their clothes and be purified.” (8)  This is certainly a description of the roots of baptism: that it is a form of purification so that we can come before God.  (Although I’m glad we’ve gotten away from the razor part.)  I also presume that the roots ordination are found here as well.

God then makes it clear that He has the indisputable right the firstborn of every species, “For Mine is every firstborn among the Israelites, in man and in beast, on the day I struck down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, I consecrated them to Me.” (17) Notice that God says “I have taken them to me” (16)–it’s not like he’s asking for firstborn volunteers….

And the Levites serve as substitutions of the firstborn: “And I took the Levites instead of every firstborn among the Israelites.”  And God drafts every Levite between the age of 25 and 50; they have no say in the matter.

Unlike the animal sacrifices atoning for Israel’s sins, here we have here the case of one human (Levite) substituting for another human (first born).  A precedent that the author of Hebrews takes up, and that we understand as Jesus Christ’s substitutionary atonement for us (which is a large complicated theology I do not fully grasp…)

The Passover celebration comes next in chapter 9.  Except there’s a problem of two unclean men who have recently touched a corpse as well as the question of what to do if the person is on a journey.  Passover is the primary sign of belonging to Israel (and continued today by non-observant Jews who nevertheless participate at Passover).

And God, ever generous, provides instructions for this situation: “they shall do it, with flatcakes and bitter herbs they shall eat it. They shall leave nothing of it till morning, and no bone shall they break in it. (9:12)  Once again, God deals with every exigency.  He truly cares about the details.

Mark 12:18-34  After dealing with yet another theological trick question, this time about resurrection, but certainly not The Resurrection, Jesus throws some more gasoline on the fire by flat out asserting to the scribes, “you are quite wrong.” (27)

But not all of them. One scribe comes forward and asks Jesus which is the greatest commandment, and we all know how Jesus answers.  But what we don’t talk about very much is the scribe’s courage in acknowledging that what Jesus said is true, “You are right, teacher; you have truly said…” (32) He then responds to Jesus’ answer in his words, “‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ (32-33a). To do that means the scribe has internalized these great truths.

But then the scribe boldly adds the part that his colleagues and church officials would rather not hear: “—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (33b)  And Jesus responds with what I think is the highest compliment he ever gives another person–and a scribe no less: “When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” ” (34). 

Mark is telling us something very important here.  For all the theological confusion about the Kingdom of God, its essence is really very simple. It begins with obedience to the two great commandments.

We keep hearing these days about “Jesus as radical.”  But I’m forced to ask, what’s so radical about loving God and your neighbor?  Other than the simple fact that it means our own egos are third in precedence.

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