Psalm 38:10–16; Exodus 29:1–30; Matthew 26:1–13

Psalm 38:10–16: Our psalmist describes how David lies ill on his bed and he can think only on the one who can hear him: “O Master, before You is all  my desire/ and my sighs are not hidden from You.” (10) He beautifully captures the sense of hopelessness and a death-like fatigue that accompanies illness: My heart spins around, my strength forsakes me,/ and the light of my eyes, too, is done from me.” (11)

Unlike today, where friends and family are often by our side as we suffer, the depth of David’s suffering intensified because he has been abandoned in his sickness: “My friends and companions stand far off from my plight/ and my kinsmen stand far away.” (12) Even worse, they plot to undermine him, which is certainly David’s story: “They lay snares, who seek my life and want my harm. They speak lies, deceit utter all day long.” (13) But his physical suffering leaves him beyond caring: “But like the deaf I do not hear,/ and like the mute whose mouth will not open. And I become like a man who does not hear/ and has no rebuke in his mouth.” (14, 15)

There is only one who still cares; only one in whom he can find a glimmer of hope; only one in whom he still has assurance: “For in You, O Lord, I have hoped. /You will answer, O Master, my God.” (16). So when all seems lost, we are never completely lost when we recall that God, however silent he may be, is still nearby.

Exodus 29:1–30: Now that the tabernacle is erected; the altar is built; the vestments and priestly garments are ready, it is time to ordain Aaron and his sons. The physical requirements are “one young bull and two rams without blemish, and unleavened bread, unleavened cakes mixed with oil, and unleavened wafers spread with oil.” (1,2) God requires the very best they—and we—have to offer. 

In a foretaste of baptism, “You shall bring Aaron and his sons to the entrance of the tent of meeting, and wash them with water.” (4) Then Moses dresses Aaron and “take[s] the anointing oil, and pour it on his head and anoint him.” (7) Aaron’s sons are also dressed and God reminds us that for the Aaronic line, “the priesthood shall be theirs by a perpetual ordinance.” (9)

Careful instructions follow as to sacrificing the bull and where its blood is placed on the altar. The entrails of the bull are burned, but “the flesh of the bull, and its skin, and its dung, you shall burn with fire outside the camp; it is a sin offering.” (14) Similar instructions regarding the two rams follows. There is the fairly gruesome (to me, anyway) instruction to take various body parts of the ram, along with the bread, place it in the palms of the priests, who raise their hands to God before burning those items.

This carefully composed liturgy of sacrifice is what God expects going forward: “These things shall be a perpetual ordinance for Aaron and his sons from the Israelites, for this is an offering; and it shall be an offering by the Israelites from their sacrifice of offerings of well-being, their offering to the Lord.” (28)

So, why is this liturgy recorded in such occasionally grotesque detail? There’s the obvious answer that when it comes to worship, God requires strict order. God defines worship; not us. And even though our worship today is free of sacrifice—Jesus having accomplished that once and for all—we still owe God respectful order in how we worship. Worship is not informal; it is not casual or ad hoc. Qualities that go missing in too many churches today, IMHO.

I think the other reason is that the authors of this book, while in Babylonian exile some hundreds of years after the fact, want to make sure that the temple sacrifices are seen to be grounded in the very first events of the Covenant. Are they describing an actual historical event that occurred exactly this way? Who knows? But these details are essential to the myth (the word in the sense of a common story, not a fiction) that grounds a dispersed Israel as it awaits its return to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the temple.

Matthew 26:1–13: Matthew now picks up the narrative of the events of the Passion. [I’m pretty sure the Moravians are happy that the readings of the Passion occur this year during the calendrical Passion leading up to Easter. We’ll see how closely the readings track.]

The first thing he relates is that Jesus is fully aware of what is about to occur: “he said to his disciples, “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.” (2). The gospel writer knows it is crucial that even though Jesus is the center of a plot to kill him, that he willingly goes along. Were that not so, Jesus would be seen for all time as innocent victim rather than innocent lamb of God.

The plotters, led by Caiaphas, “conspired to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. But they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.” (4,5) The wheels are set in inexorable motion. 

Meanwhile in Bethany… Jesus is at the house of Simon the leper. [Other gospels have him at the house of Mary and Martha. Perhaps everyone is related…] The woman, whom Matthew does not identify, but we presume to be a wealthy prostitute, pours very expensive lotion on Jesus’ feet. A group of unidentified disciples complain loudly, “Why this waste?” [Other gospels identify the complainer as Judas, but Matthew has his reasons for not exposing Judas just yet.]

Jesus counters the complaint, observing “She has performed a good service for me.” (10) and then in a reference that must have seemed puzzling, he says, “By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial.” (12) I suspect that even though jesus has repeatedly said he will die, denial remains very strong among his disciples. After all, he’s just concluded a very successful speaking tour with the crowds in Jerusalem. What could possibly go wrong?

But we need to be careful not to be too hard on the disciples. I’m pretty sure were I there, I would have complained and I would have been in total denial that anything bad was about to happen.

Matthew reminds us that by her act this unnamed woman becomes famous indeed, as Jesus says, “I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” (13). Which indeed is true whenever we read this. As always, there’s a teachable moment: Jesus is telling his disciples—and us—once again, just as he has finished saying in the preceding sermon about the sheep and goats that it is our sacrifices by which we will be remembered.

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