Psalm 56:10–14; Leviticus 23:23–24:9; Mark 7:24–37

Psalm 56:10–14: In its second half, this psalm shifts from standard issue supplication to words that could easily (and perhaps has) been set to music as a song of rejoicing in the assurance of God’s response to prayer: “Then shall my enemies turn back/ on the day I call./ This I know, that God is for me.” (10)

As happens almost always in the Psalms, when prayer is answered, worship ensues. Here it is poetic and lyrical: “In God, Whose word I praise,/ in the Lord Whose word I praise,/ in God I trust, I shall not fear.” (11, 12a) As for me at this moment in time, as I face surgery and an uncertain future, I can claim this marvelous verse as my own, especially its last line: “in God I trust, I shall not fear.”

Writing as David our poet asks one of the most profound questions of all, whose truth becomes increasingly evident as I pause and reflect: “What can man do to me?” (12b) In the near term, when we are feeling threatened by others or by circumstances, this may seem an empty phrase. But when we reflect on what God has done for us in our lives, this simple sentence becomes a touchstone.

There is a further response beyond worship to an answering God, and that is faith: “I take upon me, O God, my vows to You./ I shall pay Thanksgiving offerings to You.” (13) While the immediate reference is to offerings of good will made at the temple in Jerusalem, we all are in a position to make Thanksgiving offerings—both tangible and intangible— to God. After all, he has rescued us. Not just once, but again and again. And of course the greatest rescue of all: sending his son Jesus Christ as the ultimate Atonement.

If we are looking for an untrammeled expression of joy at rescue and at God’s ineffable goodness, it is here as the final verse of this psalm rings out across the centuries:
“For You save me from death,
yes, my foot from slipping,
to walk in God’s presence
in the light of life.” (14)

Ponder if only for a moment how God has been the light of our lives. Even in disease and uncertainty we are blessed beyond measure.

Leviticus 23:23–24:9: As we observed yesterday, God asks for our work and the first fruits of that labor, but equally important, he wisely requires our rest: “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a day of complete rest, a holy convocation commemorated with trumpet blasts.” (23:24) What a great concept! Trumpet blasts announcing the beginning of a holy convocation—a practice which lives on in the musical form of fanfares. [Wow. it would be great to hear a trumpet fanfare announcing worship.] Notice also, that these days of rest are also days of worship. The idea of a day of rest and worship has been utterly lost in our ever-busy, never-resting culture. And we wonder why we are always feeling exhausted and stressed out? I give the Germans high credit for resisting the unceasing demands to stores being open on Sunday.

The Day of Atonement on “the tenth day of the seventh month” is far more serious than a holiday and a simple holy convocation: “anyone who does not practice self-denial during that entire day shall be cut off from the people.” (23:29) It’s not merely a command from God, it’s a threat: “And anyone who does any work during that entire day, such a one I will destroy from the midst of the people.” (23:30). No wonder the pharisees of Jesus’ time took sabbath rules so seriously. In their eyes, Jesus was not only theologically unorthodox, he was fomenting religious revolution when he said that the Sabbath is made for man.

To me, the best celebration is the week-long festival of booths because it sounds like actual fun. Enveloped by a sabbath of complete rest on either side, it’s basically a campout with people living in tents/ booths: “you shall take the fruit of majestic trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days.” (23:40)

This instruction is clearly aimed at Israel long after the wilderness journey and has been established as a nation since the celebration is retrospective: “so that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.” (23:43). Obviously, the folks wandering in the desert were already living in temporary structures which this festival is designed to remember.

Our priestly authors move on to instructions surrounding worship at the tabernacle, and ultimately in the temple itself. Aaron (as always) has the responsibility to ensure the lamps in the tent of meeting are burning continuously. A tradition that lives on in an ever-present flame in sanctuaries (including Saint Matthew) all over the world.

God is always about sustenance, here represented in the bread for the tabernacle. Significantly, there are twelve loaves of bread with frankincense intermingled among the loaves. We of course see an echo of this in the Upper Room where Jesus breaks bread surrounded by twelve disciples. It’s a potent symbolic reminder that Jesus—bread of life—has superseded the bread in the tabernacle/ temple.

Mark 7:24–37: The story of the Syrophoenician woman—a courageous Gentile among the Jews—is my favorite act of healing in Mark.  She knows no fear, but boldly strides into the house where Jesus is basically trying to hide from the crowds. She shows deep respect “and bowed down at his feet.” (25) She does not pussyfoot around, or engage in that annoying habit of beginning a conversation by talking about the weather. She comes directly to the point: “She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.” (26)

Contrary to the image of the laughing, friendly Jesus on that sentimentally annoying painting, he responds bluntly, almost cruelly, pointing out that he’s there for the Jews: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (27). In what I think is the most brilliant comeback in the Gospels, she answers,“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” (28).  Jesus sees her intense faith and heals the daughter, but I really wish Mark had told us what he said after the woman departed. Nevertheless, Mark’s message to his audience is crystalline: Jesus came for the Jews first, but also for everyone else. Gentiles are the “aliens” referred to so often in the OT, and Mark lets us know that Jesus is truly for all humanity.

As we have observed many times, in a pre-literate culture, where only the priests could read the scrolls, speech was the equivalent of communication. To be deaf and mute was to be completely cut off from society and most relationships. Some friends bring the deaf man to Jesus and rather than publicly heal the man, Jesus “took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue.” (33)

What’s unique here is that Jesus makes it clear he is the agent of God: “Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” (34) Mark notes that Jesus sternly orders the people he’s healed not to say a thing, knowing full well that would never happen. In fact, “the more zealously they proclaimed it.” (36). For me, this insight into human psychology underscores the authenticity of the Gospels. A fake gospel would have Jesus overjoyed at the impact he was making. Just as we know that TV evangelists like Benny Hinn, who tout how many people they’ve healed or how big their crowds are, are ersatz evangelists.

Why does Mark tell us Jesus ‘sighed?” It’s certainly a manifestation of the 100% human side of Jesus. Was it exhaustion? Frustration? The feeling no one would leave him alone? Or was it resignation; the realization that people were only there to get what they could out of him rather than understanding that he was there on a mission to invite people into the Kingdom so they could experience a completely new life?

The deaf man and his friends are us. We so often look to Jesus as the Great Dispenser. Of healing, of blessings, of whatever. When that is only a small portion of what jesus really has for us in the Kingdom.

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