Archives for May 2014

Psalm 66:1-15; Numbers 7:72-8:4; Mark 12:13-17

Psalm 66:1-15  This psalm of praise is rich with imagery and metaphor as the psalmist hymns God in military terms triumphant victor in battle.  All God needs to do is stand up and appear: “Let God arise, let His enemies scatter, and let His foes flee before Him.” (1) The smoke clears and God’s (and David’s) enemies scatter like rats when the light is turned on.  I wonder of Steven Spielberg had this simile in mind when in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Nazis simply melt away at the power of the theophany: “as wax melts before fire, may the wicked perish before God.” (2)

Only the righteous remain and they “rejoice and exult before God, and be gladdened in joy. Sing to God, hymn His name.” (4)  The psalms never let us forget that worship is juxtaposed to every activity of life, including battle.

We are to “Pave the way for the Rider of Clouds,…and exult before Him.” (5)– a memorable image indeed.  But we also must always remember that God is not just the God of the mighty and victorious, but also of the weak: “Father of orphans and widows’ judge, God in His holy abode. God brings the lonely back to their homes, sets free captives in jubilation.”  (6)

It is in this tender mercy for the oppressed is where the God of Israel–our God–is so different from the “small g” gods of David’s time and the “small g” gods of our time.  It is God who cares for the widows and orphans and the weak. The state–the new god we are supposed to trust in, and receive beneficence from, may speak with noble intention, but like all human endeavor it is badly flawed in execution.  Only God in his mercy can truly accomplish both these great and small things.  And our only response is gratitude, singing and worship.

 Numbers 7:72-8:4   The concluding paragraph of this long catalog chapter does not appear to have any connection to what precedes it in chapter 7 nor to what follows in chapter 8.  Rather, it simply describes how God and Moses communicate, although rather mysteriously, it does not actually mention the name of God, so we have to infer God among the thicket of masculine pronouns.

We find out that there is no theophany, only God’s voice: “he [Moses] would hear the voice being spoken to him” and we know where God is speaking from, “from above the covering that is over the Ark of the Covenant , from between the two cherubim,” (89)  A voice is how God usually appears to Moses, be it the burning bush, the long disquisitions on Sinai and now in the Tabernacle.  Only once does Moses actually see God’s glory and then only with his back turned.

There are two instances in Jesus’ ministry where God speaks: at Jesus’ baptism and again on the Mount of Transfiguration.  No wonder Peter wanted to setup a booth for Moses, that Great Communicator with God.

And today, we ask “what is God saying to us?” But will it ever be an actual audible voice of God? I know someone who has heard God speak audibly to him, and I believe him.

Mark 12:13-17  The question about paying taxes is perhaps the most famous of the Pharisee’s trick questions for Jesus.  My own take is that this question was part of a larger plot by the Temple authorities and their hangers-on to take down Jesus by having Rome conveniently remove him from the scene for sedition.

“Aha,” the elders may have said, “This Jesus keeps talking about the Kingdom of God, so let’s force him to commit treason when he obviously states that the Kingdom of God trumps the Roman empire–and that taxes should be withheld from Rome.  He’s already popular with the hoi polloi, that statement will only make him more popular.  Everyone hates to pay taxes.”

So, thinking they have Jesus ensnared by his earlier statements, the officials send off a couple of junior Pharisees to pop the question.  But once again, Jesus says the unexpected thing: the Kingdom of God is not there to replace the Roman Empire.  They somehow exist side by side in a manner that is completely unexpected–not to mention incomprehensible.

And when Mark says, “they were utterly amazed at him.” (17) he means not just astounded, but befuddled and not a little angry that the trap had been sprung and the prey had once again escaped.  Clearly, it was back to the beginning.  A new, more complicated plot now had to be devised.

 

 

Psalm 65:9-13; Numbers 7:1-35; Mark 11:12-26

Psalm 65:9-13  The final verses of this psalm are perhaps the most beautiful description of God’s creation to be found in the Psalms.  God is the ultimate steward of the bounty of the earth: “You pay mind to the earth and soak it. You greatly enrich it. God’s stream is filled with water.” (9)  As here in California and certainly in the Middle East, water plays a central role.  And with water, it is God who creates growth: “You ready their grain, for so You ready it.”

Water is nature’s essence: “Quench the thirst of its furrows, smooth out its hillocks, melt it with showers, its growth You will bless.” (10)  Water, and the fruit that arises from it, comprise the apotheosis of a bountiful harvest: “You crown Your bountiful year, and Your pathways drip ripeness. The wilderness meadows do drip,”  One can hear the drops of water of the just-concluded rain falling from the leaves of green plants.

And finally, the image of beautiful clothing covering the earth–all created by the water and God’s bounty:  “with joy the hills are girded. The pastures are clothed with flocks and the valleys are mantled with grain.”  No wonder “They [all of creation, I think] shout for joy, they even sing.”  As do we when we survey the green hills following a gentle rain.  An image to hold in my head through this drought-stricken, fire-plagued California landscape.

Numbers 7:  Although the Moravians split this chapter in two, I’ll deal with it as a whole.  It much more catalog than a narrative chapter.  The Tabernacle has been set up and the chiefs of the tribes bring the offering of each tribe: “the heads of their  fathers’ houses, they are the chieftains of the tribes , they are the ones who stand over the reckoning.” (2)

The 12 chieftains bring their offering in 6 wagons (one wagon for two tribes), each pulled by 2 oxen.  The wagons and oxen are an immensely useful offering themselves, and “two wagons and the four oxen he gave to the Gershonites, and “four wagons and the eight oxen he gave to the Merarites according to their work.”  But “to the Kohathites he did not give, for the work of the sanctuary was upon them, on the shoulder did they carry.”  (8-10) So the Tabernacle was carried form place to place by wagon and oxen, although the Kohathites didn’t require wagons since the sanctuary furnishings they carried were relatively light.  A reminder that in church building campaigns, pledges built to pay for the invisible items such as the structure and foundation are just as important as the visible furnishings and decoration.

This is also one of those passages where you realize that actual history is described.  A fairy tale would not deal with such mundane but necessary issues as cartage of the Tabernacle.

Then comes what Alter calls an “epic inventory,” a listing of the items that each tribe brought as an offering.  But each offering, described in loving detail, is exactly the same–denoting the equality of each tribe.  And the identical inventory is repeated for each tribe, resulting in twelve verbatim lists occupying this chapter.  But that’s not redundancy by any means: years later, when each tribe looked back  at its history, they could see in writing what their forebears had done.

And we engage in the same practice today, most popularly in lists of donors printed in the appendices of every non-profit’s annual report.  Naming names in writing reminds us that we were there–and that we made a difference.

Mark 11:12-26  I wonder if there’s a PhD thesis or two out there regarding Mark’s juxtapositions?  In today’s reading, Jesus curses the fig tree, then cleanses the Temple, then talks to his disciples about the significance of that same withered fig tree.

Mark’s logic chain really quite simple: Fruitless fig trees are useless and need to be removed from the garden.  (Although Mark tells us figs were not in season, but that apparently didn’t matter to Jesus; he was hungry.)

For Jesus, the commerce at the Temple was just as pointless as the fruitless fig tree–a perversion, if you will, of its original function.  The Temple has but one purpose: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations.” (17)  But instead it has become a “den of robbers.” 

Then, leaving the city, they pass by the now obviously dead fig tree.  And Jesus grasps the teachable moment: “I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” (24).  At first glance, this seems something of a non-sequitir, having little to do with a dead fig tree, until we recall what Jesus said about the Temple being a house of prayer.  

So, we too, absent prayer in our lives, or more specifically, faith that our prayers will be answered, are not much different than a dead fig tree or a moneychanger in the Temple courtyard: pretty useless.  But if we have faith in praying then we, too, will bear great fruit. Especially when we pray to forgive others.

 

Psalm 65:1-8; Numbers 6; Mark 11:1-11

Psalm 65:1-8  As the superscription notes, a song.  And a welcome respite from the sturm und drang of the several preceding psalms.  The opening verse is a touchstone for those of us who are happiest in the rare moments of silence during worship: “To You silence is praise, God, in Zion, and to You a vow will be paid.” (1) In our silence we are paying a vow to God by coming to him in silence, confident in the knowledge that God is listening to our prayer: “O, Listener to prayer, unto You all flesh shall come.” (2)

David knows he is a sinner, but he also knows he is forgiven: “My deeds of mischief are too much for me. Our crimes but You atone.”  (3) He, unlike so many of us, knows that he lacks the strength to carry “my deeds of mischief” by himself, but gives them over to God.  Would that my relationship with God were so strong that I would keep nothing form him, knowing that in my silence He hears everything.

Everything about these first verses moves from sound and fury to silence because that is what God does.  Both aurally and in our hearts: “Who quiets the roar of the seas, the roar of their waves and the tumult of nations.” (7)  Certainly a promise to recall each time we turn on the news.

Numbers 6  Both men and women could become nazirites, which I take as a religious practice somewhat parallel to monks and nuns in the Catholic church.  Unlike those religious who take a lifelong vow, however, someone was a nazirite for a certain period of their life–a few years perhaps–with the purpose of “keep[ing] himself apart for the L ORD,” (3) in a life of contemplation.

Their specific duties are not enumerated beyond keeping a three-fold vow:  (1) abstaining from wine and liquor; (2) never cutting their hair; and (3) avoiding contact with a corpse.

The most famous biblical nazirites were Samson and John the Baptist–and maybe Samuel.

But even more than laying out the rules for nazirites, Numbers 6 is most famous for its blessing, which we hear to day most often as a benediction:

May the LORD bless you and guard you.
May the LORD light up His face to you and grant grace to you;
May the LORD lift up His face to you and give you peace.’

Which means that what we hear every week is the most ancient roots of all.  It’s awesomely sobering to reflect on the fact that those words have been uttered in every language for thousands of years across hundreds of generations–and are perhaps the most tangible link we have with those “clouds of witnesses” that have preceded us.

Mark 11:1-11  Jesus arrives outside the walls of Jerusalem.  MArk doesn’t record any further conversations between Jesus and the disciples prior to arriving in Jerusalem, but as Mark has made clear, the disciples still don’t “get it.”  So, perhaps in their excitement, the disciples thought, “At last! He’s going to claim his rightful place as the Messiah that will rescue Israel from the Romans by riding into the city triumphantly astride a horse, just like the average Roman leader.”

But then Jesus does two things that surely should have raised some doubts about that theory.  First, he instructs his disciples to go borrow am unridden colt. (I don’t know enough about horses to know why this should be the traditional donkey.  Sounds like a young horse to me…)  But the animal Jesus asks for is certainly not a mature stallion so much more appropriate for the grand entrance of a conquering king.

And then perhaps even more distressingly, Jesus makes it clear that he wants only to borrow the animal for just a little while and then it will be returned to its owner.  Would a conquering king do that?  Or is Jesus making some kind of other statement here?  Has anyone figured this out yet?

Finally, I’ve always followed the popular image of a substantial portion of the population of Jerusalem rushing out to greet their conquering hero, paving the street with palm fronds and their coats, and shouting hosannas at him. But I think these people were actually the crowd that along with the disciples, had accumulated as the group accompanying Jesus on his journey over the past days and weeks.  Mark gives us a clue when he says, “Then those who went ahead and those who followed,” (9) which certainly suggests to me that some in Jesus’ crowd took the initiative and ran on ahead to the gate to lay their cloaks and branches in the road, and then stand alongside as Jesus rode into town.  

My own suspicion is that this triumphal entrance consisted mainly of Jesus’ own followers plus a few residents who may have joined when they heard the commotion. But I’m guessing that few Jerusalemites looked up from their Sunday papers, and that this “triumphal entrance” escaped the notice of the Roman guard altogether.  Which was fine with Jesus.

This is not to minimize the importance of this event.  It was the perfect entrance for the Suffering Servant.

Psalm 64; Numbers 5; Mark 10:46-52

Psalm 64  Even though there is no superscription describing David’s circumstances, we know instantly that this is a psalm of supplication spoken in a fairly desperate situation where David is surrounded by men intending him harm: “Hear, God, my voice in my plea.  From fear of the enemy guard my life.” (1)  However, unlike previous psalms, David’s peril seems to be not on the battlefield, but from plotters in the midst of his court.  They are ostensibly his counselors, but are conspiring to overthrow him, “Conceal me from the counsel of evil men, from the hubbub of the wrongdoers” (2).  (I like Alter’s “hubbub of wrongdoers” as over against the NRSV’s “from the scheming of evildoers” since it captures the mumbling and murmuring one would expect in a court rife with plotting and conniving.)

And their weapons are, as so often in the Psalms, words: “who whetted their tongue like a sword,  pulled back their arrow—a bitter word—” (2,3).  They use words to two purposes: first using them “to shoot in concealment the innocent,” and then to plot David’s overthrow, believing their conspiracy will be successful: “They encourage themselves with evil words. They recount how traps should be laid. They say, Who will see them?” (5)

Human nature has not changed a whit in 3000 years: even today, men conspire, like David’s courtiers believing that they will get away with it, saying, “Let them search out foul deeds! We have hidden them from the utmost search, in a man’s inward self, and deep is the heart.” (6)

And sometimes they do.  Except at the end: “But God will shoot an arrow at them. In a flash they will be struck down.”  And their weapon–their tongues–will be turned back against them: “And their tongue will cause them to stumble, all who see them will nod in derision.”  As my father said often, “the chickens will come home to roost.”  Or as we marketers say, “once you start believing your own press releases, the end is near.”

Numbers 5  This uncomfortable chapter begins with a reprise of the rule from Leviticus that those with disease must remain outside the camp lest they defile the others in the camp.  Then it moves to confession of wrongdoing, including the issue of redemption: “if the man should have no redeemer to render back to him for his guilt, what is rendered back shall be the LORD’s” (7), which of course Jesus Christ has taken care of for us.

But the centerpiece of the chapter dealing with a woman accused of her husband of adultery feels downright barbaric.  Alter notes that this is the only trial by ordeal described in the Bible.  The husband, on the mere suspicion that his wife has laid with another man, brings her to the priest where she is shamed by the ritual of undoing her hair (18) and required to drink brackish water or what Alter renders as “bitter besetting water.”  If she’s guilty, there are dire physical consequences of drinking the water. If she is innocent, the water has no effect.  (At least there is no death penalty for adultery involved…)

If nothing else, this chapter reminds us of the enormous asymmetry between the sexes in the OT up through Jesus’ time–and the centuries since then.  The husband is free to accuse his wife, even without evidence.  The disturbing last sentence of this disturbing chapter says it all: “and the man shall be clear of guilt, and that woman shall bear her guilt.”  Even if she proves innocent, the husband suffers no consequences.

This is one of those places where we can only say, “noted,” and move on–but always wondering what the inerrantists and literalists have to say about this chapter.

Mark 10:46-52   After all the drama of Jesus’ prediction of events to come at Jerusalem, the dialog of James and John seeking power, and the consequent anger of the other disciples, Mark provides a bit of respite in recounting the healing of blind beggar, Bartimaeus.

We cannot miss the irony of Mark’s juxtaposition of this story with what immediately precedes it. Jesus asks quite directly, “What do you want me to do for you?” and Bartimaeus replies just as directly, “My teacher, let me see again.” (51)  Would that the disciples could ask as simply as Bartimaeus because then they, too, would see what jesus was about.  Not to mention us…

As he often does upon healing someone, Jesus remarks, “your faith has made you well.”  Where the disciples are distracted by confusion mixed with visions of political glory, Bartimaeus is the exemplar of simple faith.  “I’m blind; I’d like to see.” Jesus is asking nothing more of us.  

We must lay aside our desires, our schemes, our  ambitions for power, and as Oswald Chambers would put it, abandon ourselves to Christ.  We must empty ourselves as Bartimaeus surely had, and rely on one simple thing only: faith that Jesus is who he says he is and will do what he promises.

Psalm 63; Numbers 4:15-49; Mark 10:32-45

Psalm 63   The superscription of this psalm, “A David psalm, when he was in the wilderness of Judea” is certainly echoed by the first verse.  Our own throats go dry when we read “God, my God, for You I search. /My throat thirsts for You, /my flesh yearns for You/ in a land waste and parched, with no water.”

In that Mediterranean  climate , water is life and I have to think that when John’s followers were baptized in the desert with water, it had a much more dramatic impact than when we baptize in beautifully crafted baptismal fonts inside the church.

But, as David makes clear, the desert is also where we encounter God: “So, in the sanctum I beheld You, seeing Your strength and Your glory.” (2)  Moses is certainly the exemplar of meeting God in the wilderness.  Our own daily lives tend to be so cluttered with events and schedules that we miss seeing God.  Perhaps we need more desert experience to be able o say with David, “My being clings to You, for Your right hand has sustained me.” (8)

Because in stark contrast to the opening verse, God not only quenches David’s thirst, but his every need as well: “As with ripest repast my being is sated, 6 and with lips of glad song my mouth declares praise.” (5).  This is what God does: not only is our thirst quenched, but we receive more that we can even imagine–to the point of satiety.  But can I say with David that my very being clings to God?

Numbers 4:15-49  This entire chapter deals with the logistic issue peculiar to the Tabernacle.  Unlike temples and other holy places of other cultures of the time, the Tabernacle is portable and must be moved from place to place.  That’s a real problem when only the Levitical priests can touch or even look at the sacred objects, since it’s impractical to have the people responsible for packing and moving the Tabernacle and its furnishings struck dead by merely looking at or touching a sacred object.  So, special provisions are established to solve this problem.

Thus, the Kohathites are designated for covering and packing the sacred objects; the Gershonites and are responsible for picking up and moving the furnishings and the Merarites are responsible for disassembling and reassembling the Tabernacle structure itself.  All of them are exempted from dying when the touch and move these objects.  [Irreverent side note: this chapter reminds me of the logistics involved in setting up and then disassembling a booth at a trade show.]

It’s interesting that the age designated–30 to 50 years old–is when a man is in his prime of life.  Not to mention that this stuff was big and heavy and required great strength.  As well, it suggests that the men involved had not only physical maturity but spiritual maturity as well.

The last verse of the chapter, “By the LORD’s word did he reckon them through the hand of Moses, every man according to his work and according to his carriage,” (49) reads directly to the idea–which we don’t hear very much about these days–of the vocation of work.  That the laypeople who perform work both in and out of the church are as equally called by God as the priesthood of ordained pastors.  (Or as my late friend, Steve Gregoriev, used to put it, “paid holy persons…”)

Mark 10:32-45  This is the third time in Mark that Jesus prophesies his death and resurrection–and in more detail than previously: “the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”  And as we know, everything happened exactly as Jesus predicted.  

And still, the disciples did not get it.  Jesus’ rather clear statement notwithstanding, James and John apparently still envision a political victory, and they are maneuvering for a leadership role.

Of course, Mark and we his readers know what happens in Jerusalem, so Jesus’ statement, “You do not know what you are asking” is freighted with heavy irony.  Jesus’ next statement, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized;” (39) is a prophecy not just for James and John, but for all of us, as indeed we drink from Jesus’ cup and are baptized along with Jesus in the two Lutheran sacraments.

Jesus describes the essence of true leadership: that a leader is above all a servant to the led.  A principle that holds true through history when we examine great leaders.  And in the case of Jesus, perhaps his clearest statement on why he was coming to Jerusalem to die: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (45)

Did the disciples get it then?  Mark doesn’t tell us, but probably not.  Nor, do I think, would we if were in that space and time.  Clearly stated prophecies notwithstanding, some things can be understood only in the past tense.

Psalm 61; Numbers 3:1-32; Mark 10:1-12

Psalm 61  This psalm of praise, gratitude and supplication sums up many of the psalms that precede it.  The opening is prayerful worship: “Hear, God, my song,  listen close to my prayer.  From the end of the earth I call You.” (1,2)  As usual, worship involves calling and listening, only in this case, it is the psalmist calling, asking God to listen.

Of course God listens to our petitions and to our worship, but in the act ask of using my voice to ask God, we are like a child asking our parent for something.  Kids don;t just think their requests; they say them: the connection becomes all the tighter.

Too often, I just assume God is listening and start out with my prayer in my head.  Yes, God hears my thoughts, but if I vocalize them, asking God to hear me and to listen, I am reminded that this is a real, living relationship and that God is far more than an interesting philosophical concept.

And in the act of asking, and thanking God–“For You have been a shelter to me,  a tower of strength in the face of the foe.” (3)– we,too rest in the psalmist’s assurance that God has  not only heard, but acted: “For You, God, have heard my vows, You have granted the plea of those who fear Your name.” (5).  And then what else can we do, but with the psalmist do this every day: “So let me hymn Your name forever as I pay my vows day after day.” (8)

Numbers 3:1-32  After describing the organization and duties of the other tribes, Moses turns his attention to Aaron’s tribe, the Levites.

First, there is the all-important naming of names, including “Nadab and Abihu died before the LORD when they brought forward unfit fire before the LORD.”  And then, a strikingly sad note, “and the sons they did not have.” (4).  Nadab’s and Abihu’s disobedience not only killed them, but it cut off their subsequent generations.

In that world, there was no act of manhood more important than to have sons.  And in our own world, even though we may have sons and daughters, it is foolhardy to think our sins affect only ourselves; they have impact not only on those near to us, but on those who come after us.

Once again, the Old Testament reminds us that it got there first and that again and again, the events of Jesus’ life echo what came thousands of years before. “I have taken the Levites from the midst of the Israelites in place of every firstborn womb-breach of the Israelites , that the Levites be Mine.” (12, 13).  And, “For Mine is every firstborn.”  Just as the Levites have substituted for the firstborn of every Israelite, so, too, Jesus, God’s firstborn son has substituted for all of us.

Mark 10:1-12  Jesus’ disquisition on marriage and divorce is one of those “hard passages” that many of us would prefer to skim right over.  Even though the Pharisees already know the answer to their question–or think they do–they ask Jesus, ““Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” (2)  Jesus gives them the right answer, but then, as he always does, goes on to add the unexpected: Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.” (5). I’m pretty sure the Pharisees weren’t thinking about their hardness of heart.

Jesus then describes the crucial distinction between God’s perfect creation and the fallen world as it actually is.  God’s plan is clear: “ But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’” (6) And this sexual distinction is how a perfect creation would operate going forward.  Husband and wife are joined together permanently.  To separate them lies outside God’s intended order.  To try and recreate that union again on human terms (divorce then remarriage) is to contravene God’s intention and therefore a sin. 

This is where the Roman Catholic church officially stands on marriage, although its rules about annulment have been stretched pretty thin–especially for wealthy and influential people.

But we live in a fallen world.  Jesus knows this because he has acknowledged that for our “hardness of heart” exceptions exist.  So, we have stretched that exception to cover divorce and remarriage.  As for me, I squirm uncomfortably whenever I come to this passage.  I suspect I’m not alone.

But I wonder, if we have taken God’s perfect intention and stretched it to fit our needs and desires, have we then not set a precedent for other stretching exercises such as gay marriage?  Our sinfulness is the exemplar of that slippery slope.

Psalm 60; Numbers 2; Mark 9:38-50

Psalm 60 Yet another psalm beginning with an angry shout to God: “God, You have abandoned us, breached us.”  But the second verse tells us why: “You were incensed—restore us to life!” (1) One way or the other, David and his army have gone against God’s will.  The psalmist turns retrospective, noting how “You once gave to those who fear You a banner for rallying because of the truth.” (5)  Where are you now, God? is the question at hand.  God once blessed all of Israel, naming its geographical components from north to south, ending in Judah, where Jerusalem lay:

   God once spoke in His holiness:
“Let Me exult and share out Shechem,
and the valley of Sukkoth I shall measure.
Mine is Gilead and Mine Manasseh,
and Ephraim My foremost stronghold,
Judah My scepter. (7-8)

At the same time, the lands near Israel are to be despised:”Moab is My washbasin, upon Edom I fling My sandal, over Philistia I shout exultant.” (9)

Regardless of their complaint, the psalmist acknowledges that God’s help is still the only way in which victory will come: “Give us help against the foe when rescue by man is in vain.” (12) and this psalm ends where they always do: praising God, full of assurance that “Through God we shall gather strength, and He will stamp out our foes.” (13)

Again, no matter how angry at, or abandoned by, God we feel–and we have the absoluter freedom to raise our fist and shout to God–our faith, indeed, our assurance, in God’s power and righteousness remains unquenched.

Numbers 2   This chapter impresses me with the reality of just how ancient military organization really is.  After conducting the census cum military draft in the first chapter, this second chapter covers all 12 tribes, naming the tribal chiefs, the headcount, and marching order, with each tribe marching under its own banner.

Exactly the same arrangement as when I was in US Navy Officer Candidate School: NAVOCS class 6908, November Company, marching under the blue and white checkered flag that means the letter “N” in the US Naval Flag system.

 Mark 9:38-50 Jesus’ statement, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.” (39-140) is incredibly freeing.  Jesus is asking only one thing: that whatever deeds of power we accomplish that they be done in his name.  To me, this means that the incredible variety of Christianity, the multitude of ways we “do church” is not outside of Jesus’ plan.  

Ecumenism may be desirable, but it is not necessary for the church to be effective in the world.  How much energy has been expended in looking inward at each other trying to find common ground when Jesus has already defined that very ground!  But then again, it’s always easier to look inward and talk to (or shot at) each other, rather than doing the difficult work of advancing the kingdom.

Which is exactly Jesus’ point in the passage that follows.  Stay out of the stumbling block business! 

And in what seems to be a clear prophecy of Pentecost–“for everyone will be salted with fire” (49)–Jesus’ final words are “be at peace with one another.”  How greatly the church has sinned through history; we have sinned; I have sinned…

 

Psalm 59:10-17; Numbers 1:17-54; Mark 9:30-37

Psalm 59:10-17  In its second half, the tone of this psalm seems to shift from David’s physical danger from Saul to a reflection on slander.  Again, words have become the weapons: “Through their mouth’s offense, the word of their lips they will be trapped in their haughtiness, and through the oaths and the falsehood they utter.” (12)  This verse includes the interesting idea that in uttering falsehoods his enemies are “trapped in their haughtiness.”  In short, they have come to believe their own lies–or in the modern parlance, they believe their own press releases.  Always a sign that their fall is coming soon.

In the meantime his enemies “mutter like dogs. They prowl round the town.” (14).  In stark contrast, David worships God in deep gratitude with his voice: “I shall sing of Your strength, and chant gladly each morning Your kindness.” (16)  This is exactly where we find ourselves today: surrounding by a growing cacophony of “muttering voices” on all sides, we can find refuge in the soaring song of worship.

God as refuge, “a haven when I was in [dire] straits.”  I think this is one reason why periods of silence and great hymns are such crucial elements on Sunday morning.

 Numbers 1:17-54  True to its title, the numbers of adult men of each tribe “who went out in the army of Israel” (33, 37, 43…)  are listed and recorded in the census.  These are not trivial numbers: the tribe of Reuben: 46,500; the tribe of Simeon: 59,300; the tribe of Gad 45,650 and so on through all twelve tribes, totaling a fairly astounding 603,550 men in the Army.  A number strikingly close to the current size of the Israeli military (629,150 per Wikipedia). 

This number does not include women and children, so we can easily double the population.  So, more than a million people were out wandering in the desert.  No wonder Moses had management troubles!  And no wonder that surrounding tribes were pretty nervous about all those folks out there looking for a homeland.

The Levites are excluded from the census, which is another way of saying they were not eligible to be drafted into the army.  This is a long tradition; as I recall, clergy were not drafted into the US military when the draft was in force.

The Levites have other duties: setting up and taking down the Tabernacle.  And only the Levites can do that since a “stranger,” i.e. a layperson, who “who draws near shall be put to death.” (51).

 Mark 9:30-37  Jesus seem to have reached an explanatory impasse with his disciples.  He now tells all his disciples what he told Peter, James and John coming down form the Mount of Transfiguration: “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” (31)  And again, “hey did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” (32).

So, why were they afraid to ask him?  Were they afraid that Jesus would become angry with them? That’s not unreasonable since Jesus has already shown his frustration in various ways, notably telling peter, “Get behind me Satan.” (8:33) and more recently, “How much longer must I put up with you?” (9:19)

Or, perhaps they were afraid of the answer.  Jesus has said repeatedly that the Son of Man must die.  They are not confused that Jesus must be referring to himself.  The disciples were operating in the human frame of reference and Jesus in the Kingdom frame. The disciples felt they were riding a cresting wave that would result in a new order and a politically restored Jerusalem.  Why burst that bubble?

Some questions simply should not be followed up on, and this was one of them.  Besides, what was that three day business all about?  No one could even imagine something as unprecedented as a resurrection.

So the disciples’ follow-up questions remain unasked–and unanswered.  Besides, it was much more fun to speculate about who was going to be “the greatest” when this earthly kingdom was established.  In Jesus’ question, “What were you arguing about on the way?” and the disciples’ silence, we can see the their abashed and embarrassed faces. Never one to waste a teaching moment, Jesus describes the nature of servant leadership: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 

How like the disciples we are! Rank and position inevitably trump servanthood in our minds.  But true leadership is not about “who shall be the greatest.” Would that politcians understood this.

Psalm 59:1-9; Leviticus 27:16-Numbers 1:16; Mark 9:11-29

Psalm 59:1-9  David remains in mortal danger from Saul, who seeks to kill him. Not only does David open this psalm of supplication by getting directly to the point, “Save me from my enemies, my God,  over those who rise against me make me safe.” (1) but there is urgency: “For, look, they lie in wait for my life, the powerful scheme against me.” (2) This is not paranoia as David pleads desperately for his life.  He is innocent: “For no misdeed they rush, aim their bows.”

Having described his situation, David begs God to “Rise toward me and see!” (3) and then demands, “You, LORD, God of armies, God of Israel,  awake to make a reckoning with all the nations.”  The progression in just a few verses from “Save me!” to “Awake” is striking.  David is not being deferential to God, he is pleading, begging, and finally, demanding action.

Then in the second stanza, as if God has already answered his desperate prayer, we see his courage return and with it, the deep connection David has with God as he suddenly begins mocking his enemies, who “mutter like dogs” and “prowl round the town.” (5) His enemies are impotent compared to the greatness of God, who will “laugh at them, You mock the nations.” (7)

Concluding on a note of worship and assurance, “My steadfast God will come to meet me, God will grant me sight of my foes’ defeat.” (9) we see in this shift of tone within in these few verses how David’s prayer is answered as he utters the words.   We always think there’s a time lag between praying and having the prayer answered.  But that’s to assume God is limited by time and space the way we are.  Clearly David did not believe in that constraint–and this psalm is proof that prayer can be answered instantaneously.

Leviticus 27:16-Numbers 1:16  After what seemed like the grand finale of the Covenant in the previous chapter, chapter 27’s collection of miscellaneous laws seems like the editors suddenly uncovered a bunch of laws they meant to add in earlier.  Perhaps working against deadline, they just added them basically as an appendix.  Even the final line of Leviticus, “These are the commands that the LORD charged Moses for the Israelites on Mount Sinai.” (27:34) seems tacked on.

The book of Numbers opens by placing God and Moses in  a real place in real time, “in the Wilderness of Sinai in the Tent of Meeting on the first of the second month in the second year of their going out from Egypt,” (1)  And, true to its title, God tells Moses to take a census.  There is no randomness to this activity; God sets the sex and age limit, starting with the army: “every male by their heads. From twenty years old and up, everyone who goes out in the army in Israel.” (3)

Once again, a reminder that God is indeed in–and cares deeply about– the details.  Something, in our tendency to make God a benevolent abstraction, we too easily forget.

Mark 9:11-29  Jesus puts to rest the apparently popular idea that Elijah would return in triumph to save Israel.  Elijah is a historical figure,not the Messiah.  He has lived and his story has already been written: “I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written about him.” (13)  If you want to read prophecy, Jesus is telling them, then read what Scripture has to say about the Son of Man.

Talk about coming down quickly from a mountaintop experience!  After the awe and presence of God on the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus returns to the status quo ante: a big crowd begging for healing and the disciples attempting to heal the little boy. This is one of those times where Jesus’ frustrated humanity shows through clearly: “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” (19).  We can almost hear his heavy sigh.  “Thickheaded disciples,”  he must be thinking, “now this…”

Mark uses this story to remind us that it’s about honest, from-the-heart belief, not feigned belief.  Words simply affirming belief are insufficient.  Real belief is deeper and doesn’t come automatically; we must work at it.  We hear Jesus testing the father that way: “If you are able.”  (23) In other words, belief is much, much more than mere acquiescence to a way of thinking or straightforward intellectual assent.  It comes from deep inside, and it comes from the Spirit.  That is why the father desperately says, “Help my belief.”  A short but terribly effective prayer.  Which is the point Jesus makes at the end of this incident, ““This kind can come out only through prayer.” (29) 

Which brings us back to David’s prayer. His belief was so deep; his connection to God so close, that uttering his desperate words in the framework of real belief that God would act instantly answered his prayer.

Psalm 58; Leviticus 26:36-27:15; Mark 9:1-10

Psalm 58  Alter warns us “that the Hebrew text of this psalm, from this verse to the end, with the sole exception of verses 7 and 11, is badly mangled.”  So, we should probably not read deep theology into this rather ferocious psalm about the “wicked [who] backslide from the very womb, the lie-mongers go astray from birth.” (3) and then asks God to “smash their teeth in their mouth. The jaws of the lions shatter, O LORD.” (6)

The psalmist’s anger at wickedness is so great that after the smashing, the wicked should “melt away, like water run off.” (7) and then as triple punishment, “Let Him pull back His arrows so they be cut down.” (7)  But that’s still not enough, in the striking simile the wicked are “Like a snail that moves in its slime.” (8)

And he will enjoy the downfall of the wicked, “The just man rejoices when vengeance he sees, his feet he will bathe in the wicked one’s blood.” (10) Notice, however, that the psalmist is observing God’s vengeance on the wicked; he is not taking vengeance himself because he knows that “man will say, “Yes, there is fruit for the just.” (11).

This psalm makes it abundantly clear that righteous anger is no sin.  We can certainly be angry at the wicked, and angry at God. But in the end there is the bedrock assurance that the wicked will fail and then fall.  Because God is “judging the earth.” (11)

Leviticus 26:36-27:15  Although it’s in the penultimate chapter, God seems to wrap up the seemingly endless list of laws and rules by reiterating his covenant with Israel by naming the “founding fathers” with whom God sealed the covenant originally: “And I will remember My covenant with Jacob and also My covenant with Isaac and also My covenant with Abraham I will  remember,” (26:42)  The naming of names makes it clear that in God’s eyes, this covenant is no abstraction; it is based on his promises made to real people in real space in real time.

Then, after naming the patriarchs, God adds a surprising (to me, anyway) fourth aspect of the covenant: “and the land I will remember.”  The land itself is part of the Covenant. The land is God’s creation, and this part of creation he has granted to Israel–as long as they keep their side of the deal.

Notice also, how God frames the Covenant: each aspect is prefaced by the phrase, “I will remember.”  God never forgets.  And it is this phrase that convinces me that a fundamental aspect of humans being created imago deo is that God has given us the gift of memory.  And that is why it is so tragic when people suffering from diseases like Alzheimers are robbed of memory.  For to lose memory is to break a relationship.  And nowhere can a relationship be broken more severely than for Israel to forget God.  Or for us to forget God.  Both as individuals and collectively as a culture rushing as fast as it can away from God. Yet, God always remembers us.

Mark 9:1-10 I have always assumed that Jesus prophecy, “I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power” (1) referred to a future event, such as Pentecost or Paul’s glimpse of heaven.  But here in Mark it is the introductory verse to the Transfiguration, so the prophecy is fulfilled immediately–at least for Peter, James and John.  For what else can the Transfiguration be but a glimpse of the Kingdom and its power?

Peter seems to be one of those people who is uncomfortable with awed silence (or in this case a terrifying event) and deal with their terror by filling the air with speech. So Peter states the obvious, “it is good for us to be here,” (5) and talks about building “dwellings” or “booths.”  Mark’s laconic editorial remark following Peter’s statement, “He did not know what to say, for they were terrified” makes it clear that Peter spoke just to help ameliorate his fear.  

This is one of those places where the Gospels reveal their authenticity: a fictional document would never succeed in making the disciples so real and so human.  And so like us.

Once again, Jesus orders the disciples who have had this glimpse into the Kingdom not to talk about it, presumably including the other disciples.  The conversation during the hike down the mountain includes Jesus talking about rising from the dead. At this point the disciples’ heads must have been ready to explode.  By juxtaposing the terrifying yet awe-striking event atop the mountain followed immediately Jesus’ puzzling comments about resurrection Mark again underscores the disciples’ humanity.  “They kept the matter to themselves,” including not bugging Jesus with any more silly questions right at the moment.  Pretty sure that at this point I would have kept my mouth shut, too.