Psalm 73:13-20; Numbers 26:25-56; Luke 1:26-38

Psalm 73:13-20:  The psalmist’s utter despair culminates here in verse 13 because all his efforts to be righteous seem to have amounted to nothing: “But in vain have I kept my heart pure / and in innocence washed my palms.” What’s the point?  Here “innocence” is basically stupidity.  The ways of the world are infinitely more wicked that he ever thought.  The only outcome of his effort is that “I was afflicted all day long, and my chastisement, each new morning.”

So, maybe, let’s try to think and behave like the wicked.  They’re winning, why not be on the winning side, he thinks.  But that doesn’t work: “If I said, Let me talk like them…/ When I thought to know these things, / it was a torment in my eyes.” (15-16)  That he is repulsed by his attempt at wickedness brings a fresh new insight out of despair.  Why, yes, he’s saying, they will get their just reward in the end: “You set them on slippery ground, / brought them down to destruction.  / How they come to ruin in a moment, / swept away, taken in terrors!” (18-19)

This is the the gift of walking with God.  Even when all hope seems to be lost and evil seems triumphant, a small flame remains burning inside.  Trying to join the other side brings torment, not satisfaction. A reminder that all that time with God has had its impact.  We cannot join the other side.

Of course, we have the wonderful advantage of the Holy Spirit residing constantly within us, so even in those darkest moments, even in despair and loss, the still small voice of the Holy Spirit reminds us, as it did the psalmist, that we have not been abandoned.

Numbers 26:25-56  The census adds up to a formidable number: 601,730. (51)  The fascinating aspect of this lengthy passage is yes, there are numbers, but there are names.  Names of sons and their clans.  More than a hundred names, each heading a clan of several thousand.  And if there aren’t sons, then the daughters are counted: “Zelophehad son of Hepher had no sons but daughters.” (32) Our cliched image of this patriarchal culture is that census would skip right over poor Zelophehad, but in the absence of sons, the names of the daughters–are given equal position as the sons: “the names of the daughters of Zelophehad were Mahlah and Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah.” (33)

Again, God is in the details, demanding accuracy in every detail.  But this chapter reminds us that God is not just a God of numbers, but of names.  It is names, along with numbers that are recorded here.  Just as names are recorded in the Book of Life.  This is proof that God sees each of us as the unique human being that we are–and that He seeks a relationship with us as individuals.

The reason for this census becomes clear at the end: “the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “To these shall the land be apportioned as an estate by the number of names.” (52, 53) But as for the land itself, “But by lot shall the land be apportioned, by the names of their fathers’ tribes shall they inherit.” (55).  There were probably a lot of men in the crowd that had been eagerly fathering sons, confident that the more they had, the more land their family would acquire. But as usual, God had different plan in mind.

Luke 1:26-38  We’re still in chapter 1 and this is already the second angelic visitation by a very busy Gabriel.  And the differences couldn’t be greater.   Zechariah, an old man, “was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him.” (12), while Mary, barely a teenager, is preternaturally calm. Yes, she’s perplexed, but rather than fear and terror, Mary “pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” (29) Pondering is a word that coveys thoughtful reflection, not fear and terror.  Gabriel nonetheless tells Mary not to be afraid and then delivers the most incredible message ever delivered to any human being without further preamble.

Gabriel’s message is chock-a-block with Messianic phrases: her son “will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (32-33).  Mary may have been young, but as her will Magnificat reveal, she was wise and insightful beyond her years.  (Certainly more than Zechariah!)  I’m pretty sure she figured out fast that she had been chosen to be the mother of Israel’s long-awaited Messiah.

But there was this one problem.  She was a virgin, engaged to the village carpenter.  Messiahs did not have these sorts of roots.  Like Zechariah, she too asks a question.  But unlike Zechariah, she doesn’t explain to Gabriel how this couldn’t happen. Instead, she asks how this could happen.  And therein lies all the differnece.  How frequently we try to explain to God why something can’t happen or something can’t be done.  When God is perfectly happy to answer our question of how it can be done when we have faith that what God wants is perfectly feasible.

The idea of the virgin birth is wild enough, but what is perhaps just as equally unbelievable is Mary’s trusting faith, out of which grows this incomprehensible calm acceptance: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  God had chosen well and wisely.  Because it’s difficult to imagine any human accepting this insane news with such equanimity.  No wonder the Catholic church venerates Mary with such fervor and enthusiasm.  (Although I can’t buy that she was sinless…)


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