Archives for June 2014

Psalm 71:18b-24; Numbers 22:7-41; Mark 15:33-47

 Psalm 71:18b-24   It seems as if no matter where a psalm begins or whether it’s a psalm of supplication, of thanksgiving or any combination (as this psalm is), we end up in the same place: worshipping God: “Till I tell of Your mighty arm to the next generation, to all those who will come,” (18b).  Even though David is now an old man, he can still worship and tell others of God’s great acts.  There is real generational continuity here, as David tells of God’s great wonders (17), God’s power (18) and God’s bounty (19).  “You have done great things, O God, who is like You?” (19)  This is a question that answers itself: no one.

Now that I am older, I realize that a vibrant Christian community must encompass every age: from infants to we gray hairs who sit in the back pews.  And we who have come before have an absolute duty to tell of God’s great wonders and power and bounty to those who follow us.  Even if we can only “murmur Your bounty.” (24)

Through the years we have been “surfeited with great and dire distress.” (20) No one escapes that.  But the next lines say it all: “You will once more give me life, and from earth’s depths once more bring me up.” (20b) Which for me, anyway, operates at two levels.  To be sure God will “bring me up” out of great and dire distress in this life.  As He has done in my journey through cancer.  But equally, this is a resurrection promise: that at the end of history; the Day of the Lord, we will once more have life as we are brought up from the earth’s depths. That is God’s bounty beyond all measure.  No wonder David sings; no wonder we sing too.

Numbers 22:7-41  If we exclude the serpent in Eden, Balaam’s ass is the only talking animal in the Bible. This story is strange on many levels.  First there’s the apparent contradiction where God instructs Balaam to go with the men (22:21).  Yet in the next verse, “God’s wrath flared because he was going with them,” (22) and the “LORD’s messenger stationed himself in the road as an adversary to him.”  Perhaps this story has simply been inserted here by a different editor.

Then there’s the fact that God speaks to a professional hexer.  Which I guess is not surprising, but it certainly makes clear that God is the God of everyone, not just Israel.

In any event, while the overall theme is deadly serious, there are certainly comic elements.  The ass can see the sword-wielding angel; Balaam cannot.  The ass mysteriously halts on the road and then on a very narrow path and Balaam beats the ass three times.  Then, the ass speaks, but this is just not a fairy tale because “the Lord opened the ass’s mouth.”  God is at work here. What’s passingly strange, however, is that this does not seem to surprise Balaam and he replies as if conversations with his ass are completely routine, “Because you have toyed with me. Had I a sword in my hand, by now  I would have killed you.” (30) to which the ass (remember this is the Lord speaking) plaintively replies, “Have I ever done this to you before?” Balaam says “no” and “the Lord unveils his eyes.”

These interjections of “the Lord” causing an animal to speak and then opening Balaam’s yes are crucial, because it raises the story from fairy tale to life lesson.  We, too, are wont to reject messengers from God that come in unexpected forms, as God certainly does here.

Finally, I cannot help but see a “pre-echo” of Paul’s Damascus road conversion here.  Like Balaam, Paul has been busy beating something, the Christians because like Balaam’s ass they can see what Paul cannot, and they do not conform to what he demands.  In an interesting reversal, God veils Paul’s eyes, yet like Balaam, Paul can suddenly see something he had not seen before: this time, though, it is not an angel, but the mind and heart of Jesus.

Mark 15:33-47  After hours of silence,  Jesus finally cries out the opening line of Psalm 22.  But he cries in pure agony; one final gasp and dies.  But Mark makes it clear (in his usual sparse language), that this dying gasp has changed the world in profoundly unimaginable ways.  The curtain temple is torn (Mark does not need an earthquake to do this), signifying the end of the Temple era. Indeed, signifying the end of the Old Covenant.

The centurion says the phrase that turns the old order–for Israel and ultimately, for Rome– upside down: “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (39)  God’s son is not just for Israel, but for Rome and therefore for all gentiles.  

Mark devotes an entire paragraph describing the arrival of the women who “used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.”  Up to this point, it has been all male all the time: the disciples, the betrayal, the priests, Pilate, the mocking soldiers.  But when Jesus dies, the women, who Mark is careful to point out were Jesus’ caregivers, quietly appear.  

Jesus is taken down from the cross and Joseph of Arimathea wraps the body and lays it in the tomb, closing it with the famous rolling stone. But Mark is careful to note that it is the women, “Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses [who] saw where the body was laid.” (47)

After the violence wreaked by the men (except for Joseph of Arimathea), we have this quiet intermezzo as the body is reverently buried. A first hint of something much larger afoot.  And one in which women play a central role.  The old order has been turned upside down here, as well.

Psalm 71:9-18a; Numbers 21:10-22:6; Mark 15:21-32

Psalm 71:9-18a  During the past two weeks of the kidney stone, I’ve been feeling my age since the healing process just seems to take longer and longer. So, the psalmist’s words, “Do not fling me away in old age, as my strength fails, do not forsake me.” (9) really resonate. But at least I do not have enemies “who stalk me” (10) and who assert “God has forsaken him,…Pursue and catch him, for no one will save him.” (11) To be old is one thing; to be vulnerable against actively plotting enemies is quite another.  Yet, this is exactly what David faced basically to his dying day.

But there is always hope, and indeed, he writes that despite ill health and the plotting of enemies, “As for me, I shall always hope and add to all Your praise.” (14)  Even when it seems as if God is not hearing us and our straits are dire, hope persists.  Notice in this line that hope precedes praise.  I cannot imagine honest worship ever occurring without the presence of hope.  All sorts of awful things have happened by and to David by the time he reaches old age, but his deep relationship with God has been there all the time, “You have taught me since my youth,” (17) and hope is permanently instilled in his being.

So, even when he pleads, “even in hoary old age, O God, do not forsake me.” (18a) we sense that even as he cries those words, David knows in his heart of hearts that God, even a silent God, would never abandon him, even in his weakness. I think that behind this cri de coeur, David understands that God seeks a relationship with David as much as David seeks a relationship with God. It is within this unbreakable connectedness that hope always flourishes.

Numbers 21:10-22:6  In Sunday School, I always had the impression that the Israelites wandered aimlessly in the wilderness for those 40 years. And at one point in this chapter wandering is certainly the clear impression: “And from Midbar to Mattanah. And from Mattanah to Nahaliel, and from Nahaliel to Bamoth. And from Bamoth to the valley that is in the steppes of Moab…” (21:19, 20a)

But consequential episodes are also occurring. Once again, the Israelites ask the local king for passage through his lands, this time where the Amorites dwell: “Let me pass through your land. We will not turn off in field or vineyard. We will not drink well water. On the king’s road we will go until we pass through your territory.” (21:22).  Not unexpectedly, the king refuses, preferring to do battle.  This was not a wise choice, as “Israel struck him down by the edge of the sword and seized his land from the Arnon to the Jabbok to the Ammonites.”  Same for King Og (love that name!) of Bashan, who meets the same fate. (33-35).

But none of these lands is Canaan proper; God is keeping his word and they cannot go there. I have to believe that these “pre-battles” are excellent preparation for the much larger war with Canaan that is yet to come.  Just as for us when we become impatient with a situation and want to just get on with dealing with it, God will often delay us.  It’s only when we look back that we realize we weren’t ready for the main battle and required the preparation that God placed in our way.

The neighborhood is not confused about the threat posed by these intruders from Egypt.  The victory over the Amorites strikes fear (and hatred) into the Moabites, who view the Israelites as an invading scourge: “Moab was very terrified of the people, for they were many, and Moab loathed the Israelites.” (22:3)  So, rather than do battle, Balak, king of Moab, decides to call on Balaam, a professional “hexer” who lives “at Pethor, which is on the Euphrates” (22:5) to curse Israel.  Said curse will make a Moabite military victory more straightforward.

As always, things never change.  If real world resources–here the Moabite army– can’t do the job, leaders too often revert to “magical thinking,” as if mere words will do the trick. Needless to say, there are too many current parallels to delusion of relying on empty words.

 Mark 15:21-32  Mark’s spare language pierces our hearts with the horror of Jesus’ crucifixion.  Unlike the other gospel accounts, Jesus, naked on the cross, is completely silent, rejecting the vinegary wine, dying in agony under the taunting placard, “King of the Jews.”

Instead of Jesus, we hear from cynical passers-by tossing Jesus’ own words back at him, “shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!”” (29, 30).  The chief priests and scribes proclaim total victory in their cruel mockery, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.” (32).  In their overweening self-righteousness they believe they have not only preserved their own power, but have patriotically demonstrated to Rome that they are loyal subjects, ridding Rome of a potentially divisive political problem. The Passover plot has worked perfectly.  Good thing they were able to use that stupid Judas to rid themselves of this too-popular rabble-rouser.

Even the dying thieves (and it’s interesting that Mark does not specify a number; there may certainly have been more than two) do not recognize Jesus as anything other than a befuddled dreamer as they join in the taunts.  Nobody’s going to Paradise in Mark’s account of this horrific event.

Mark makes his point dramatically: Unlike in today’s psalm, by the end of verse 32 all hope is indeed lost.


Psalm 71:1-8; Numbers 20:1-21:9; Mark 15:1-20

Psalm 71:1-8  This psalm begins with the simple declaration, “In You, O LORD, I shelter. Let me never be shamed.”  And safely in that shelter, our psalmist asks God for four things, three of them having to do with rescue: “Through Your bounty save me and free me. Incline Your ear to me and rescue me.” (2).  The poetic repetition of “save,” “free,” and “rescue” make it crystal clear that God is the only one capable of pulling David (or the psalmist) out of his present circumstance.

What resonates here for me is that the psalmist has surrendered totally; there is nothing at this point he can accomplish on his own, but is wholly dependent on God’s salvific power.  I have been trained and have practiced all my life on being self-reliant.  “If you want to get something done, do it yourself,” still rings in my ears.  In only the most desperate situations have I turned to God and prayed for rescue.  Yet, the psalmist has had a life-long trust that God would rescue him since the very moment of his birth: “Upon You I relied from birth. From my mother’s womb You brought me out.” (6)  Calling on God for rescue is as natural as breathing.

I came to taste a bit of this total dependence last week as I lay prone on a hospital bed following a procedure to remove a kidney stone. Whenever I attempted to sit up, my head began spinning and I knew I could go no further.  This is the kind of loss of control and dependence about which the psalmist speaks.  In the end, no matter how strong, how clever, how resourceful we are, we cannot rescue ourselves.  We lie prone, our head spinning, and can only call upon God to save, to free, to rescue us.  Because we know that as the psalmist says, God has inclined his ear to us.

Numbers 20:1-21:9  The Israelite road trip through the desert continues with four significant events in today’s reading. One would think there would be more discourse by the authors of Numbers at this most significant incident at Meribah. But the drama of the event is heightened by the straightforward narrative. One again, the Israelites are grumbling, (understandably, I think) about no water.  As always, Moses and Aaron fall on their faces seek God’s guidance, which is eminently simple: Speak to the rock and water will gush forth.  But Moses in his impatience strikes the rock, not once but twice.  God delivers on the promise, but Moses’ presumptuousness is punished by being forbidden to enter Canaan.

Yes, we all know the lesson about waiting on God and not taking things into our own hands–and worse, making it look like we rather than God are providing the water. But I think it’s worth reflecting that Moses strikes the rock not because he is impatient with God, but that he is supremely tired of his people and their constant complaining, striking the rock more out of frustration with them than impatience with God.  Regardless, though, disobedience has its consequence.

Edom refuses clear passage for Israel, even if they stay on the king’s highway and do “not pass through field or vineyard and [do] not drink well water..” (17).  But Edom refuses and plans must be altered  Obvious lesson: even when the way forward seems obvious and clear, it is not necessarily the one we will be able to take.

Aaron is near death and like Moses, “he shall not come into the land that I have given to the Israelites because you both have rebelled against My word at the Waters of Meribah.” (25) There is a careful transition of priestly power as “Moses stripped Aaron of his garments and clothed with them Eleazar his son.” (28) Continuity and good order are the lessons here.  There is nothing random or spontaneous about how God is to be worshiped or about the priestly duties of those who serve Him.

The incident of the serpents and healing caused by looking up at the bronze snake on the pole is of course the central OT symbol of how Jesus Christ saves us, and central to John’s point about how Jesus will be lifted up to save us (John 3:14).  The symbolism of the snakes is obvious because it was by the “Serpent” that we have fallen, and it is by the serpent that, absent looking to Jesus Christ, that our sins will bite us to death.

Mark 15:1-20  What are we to make of Jesus’ silence before Pilate?  He responds to Pilate only once and then cryptically, “You say so.”  Jesus’ silence is an eloquent witness to his innocence.  We can see the many priests, elders and officials all talking over each other, interrupting to pile on more and more accusations, many of them having to do with Jewish theology and Jesus’ blasphemy, about which Pilate was not only ignorant, but could care less.  The only thing Pilate cares about is maintaining order among this Jewish rabble. And only one person in the room displays that order he so fervently wishes for: Jesus.

Pilate knows that this solitary silent “king of the Jews” is no threat to Roman power, but just one pathetic lost soul who has somehow offended the completely incomprehensible theology that so obsesses the Jews. “Pilate asked them, “Why, what evil has he done?”” (14) but it is too late for calm reasoning and judicial disputation. His already shaky governorship cannot withstand a Passover riot.  So, Pilate does what every politician since then has done to quiet the hoi polloi  in the same circumstances: He caves to their demands, “wishing to satisfy the crowd.” (15)  And thus goes down as the most infamous name in Roman history.

Mark’s stark account of Jesus before Pilate distills the essence of the conflict: Jesus in noble silence standing against the hysteria, the political expediency and mockery.  There is no more pathetic sight than human flailing, whining and injustice when contrasted to the serene majesty of Jesus Christ.