Psalm 73:13–20; Numbers 26:1–24; Luke 1:5–25

Psalm 73:13–20: Our psalmist looks around at the success of the wicked in despair as he feels having led a pure and God-centered life seems to have come to nothing: “But in vain have I kept my heart pure/ and in innocence washed my palms.” (13) A clean and sober life has yielded nothing but suffering: “For I was afflicted all day long,/ and my chastisement, each new morning.” (14)

Like so many who try to walk the narrow path of morality, he feels trapped: “If I said, Let me talk like them./ Look, Your sons’ band I would have betrayed.” (15) To try to become like the wicked and follow their practices leads only to inner moral torture: “When I thought to know these things,/ it was a torment in my eyes.” (16)

But then, as he reflects on God’s larger plan he begins to realize that although they seem successful now, the wicked will indeed come to a bad end: “Till I came to the sanctuaries of God, / [I] understood what would be their end.” (17)  He realizes that the smug satisfaction of the wealthy and wicked is in reality the smooth path to destruction: “Yes, You set them on slippery ground,/brought them down to destruction.” (18) The wicked will “come to ruin in a moment,/ swept away, taken in terrors!” (19)  Our poet’s revelation is complete when he realizes that God will see it that justice triumphs in the end. It is”Like a dream upon waking, O Master,/ upon rising You despised their image.” (20)

Of course I still wonder if what our poet comes to understand—that the wicked will eventually pay for their sins—is really true all the time. We certainly see the some wicked people eventually met their comeuppance, but it seems like others just come out smelling like a rose. On the other hand, we cannot see inside them to really know their thoughts and fears. One thinks of the wealthy Swiss banker who committed suicide last week. Outward appearances of success and wealth notwithstanding, he was certainly a tormented soul.

Numbers 26:1–24: Several plagues, battles, and sundry other life-threatening events have occurred since the last census of Israel, so God speaks both to Moses and Eleazar (who has taken Aaron’s place as high priest), “Take a census of the whole congregation of the Israelites, from twenty years old and upward, by their ancestral houses, everyone in Israel able to go to war.” (2) The purpose of this census is immediately apparent, especially since it will be “from twenty years old and upward:” it’s crucial to understand Israel’s military strength before it heads into the numerous battles that await it.

The list begins with the tribe of Reuben, including, “The descendants of Eliab: Nemuel, Dathan, and Abiram. These are the same Dathan and Abiram, chosen from the congregation, who rebelled against Moses and Aaron in the company of Korah.” (9)  Even more remarkably, “the sons of Korah did not die” (11). really? I was sure that following the failed coup d’etat, the earth had swallowed Korah’s entire family, which presumably would have included Korah’s sons. But here they are.

The accountants tell us that “the clans of the Reubenites; the number of those enrolled was 43,730.” (7) The count continues:
The descendants of Simeon by their clans” (12):  22,200
 The children of Gad by their clans” (15): 40,500
The sons of Judah:” (19): 76,500
The descendants of Issachar by their clans:” (25): 64,300.

Despite the plagues and battles, there is still a startlingly large number of Israelite men. We could estimate wives and children would easily triple the count. One suspects more census-taking tomorrow.

Luke 1:5–25: Unlike Mark, whose eponymous gospel opens with adult Jesus meeting adult John the Baptist, Luke winds the clock back to before John’s birth with the heartwarming, even humorous, story of John’s father and mother, Zechariah and Elizabeth. Like Abraham and Sarah, they were old but had no children. [My view is that Luke is positioning them as parallels to Abraham and Sarah.]

In the first of many angelic visitations that Luke relates, Gabriel shows up and Zechariah “was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him.” (12) The first words out of the angel’s mouth are “Do not be afraid, Zechariah” (13a), which seem to be the opening words of every angelic visitation. This is a good reminder that Christmas decorations notwithstanding, angels must have been big and intimidating creatures, clearly not of this world. The angel loses no time telling Zecharaiah that “your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.” (13b).  Gabriel then lays down some very specific rules regarding the son, whom is is to name John. This John will be ascetic, but “He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.” (16)

Reminding us of Sarah, who laughed at the news she would have a son, Zechariah famously doubts Gabriel who promptly retaliates, “because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.” (20) Lesson: when there’s an angelic visitation, it’s wise to take them at their word. As we shall see, Mary stands in stark contrast to Zechariah when Gabriel visits her.

A humorous scene follows where the speechless Zechariah uses hand motions to convince the others in the temple that “he had seen a vision in the sanctuary.” (22) Speech was always of the greatest importance in that paperless world, and it’s fun to reflect on exactly what motions Zechariah had to use to convince people he’s been visited by an angel. We should try that sometime when we’re playing charades…

Elizabeth, on the other hand, is no doubter. In sharp contrast to her husband, she gives thanks that she will no longer be an object of shame in her culture: “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” (25) Luke is certainly making it clear to his readers in this introductory story that acceptance of the gospel story he is about to relate is far superior to skepticism. In fact, skeptics should just remain mute.

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