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

Originally published 3/23/2016. Revised and updated 3/23/2018

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 captures beautifully the hopelessness and 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.

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—not least because illness was associated with contagion but it also connoted a deep moral failing:
My friends and companions stand far off from my plight
and my kinsmen stand far away. 

Even worse, they take advantage of his weakness to plot to undermine him. If we assume the subject of this psalm is David, it is certainly his story:
They lay snares, who seek my life and want my harm.
They speak lies, deceit utter all day long
. (13)

But the intensity of his physical suffering leaves David beyond the ability to do anything about the conspiracy—and perhaps even 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)

This must be what the dark night of the soul feels like.  Physically suffering, emotionally empty, abandoned by everyone, oppressed by those seeking only his destruction.  I’m relieved to write, “this must be what it feels like,” since I have never experienced so deep a darkness or intense enmity.

David has reached the bottom of the pit of suffering and despair. There is only one who still cares for him; 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. 

So when all seems lost in the depths of suffering and abandonment, this psalm offers hope. We  are reminded that we are never completely lost when we recall that God, however silent he may be, is still very close at hand.

Exodus 29:1–30: Now that the tabernacle has been erected; the altar has been built; and the vestments and priestly garments are ready, it is time to ordain Aaron and his sons. The physical requirements for sacrifice 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) As we saw in the detailed instructions for the tabernacle and the priestly vestments, 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 in his priestly robes 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 how the bull is to be sacrificed sacrificing and where its blood is to be placed on the altar. The ceremony begins with Aaron and his sons laying their hands on the bull—a sign of connection to a life that is about to be given. The bull is “slaughter[ed] before the Lord, at the entrance of the tent of meeting (11)  Its entrails 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 demands 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 grotesque detail? There’s an 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 writing in Babylonian exile some hundreds of years after the fact, want to make sure that the temple sacrifices are seen to be well 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 founding story of a nation, not a fiction) that grounds a dispersed Israel in the sacrifices made by its ancestors as it awaits its return to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the temple.

Matthew 26:1–13: Jesus’ Olivet discourse has ended. 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 Matthew 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 the innocent lamb of God.

The plotters, led by Caiaphas, “conspired to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him.” (4) But they also know Jesus’ popularity among the hoi polloi: “But they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.” (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 announced 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. He is popular. In some minds he is about to take over politically. 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 about the same things and I would have been in total denial that anything bad was about to happen. And we have been plotting ever since.  Which is why we should not be surprised when we witness efforts worldwide to suppress Jesus’ message.  ANd more than ever in an American culture that is careening off its moral rails.

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.

Today’s Exodus and Matthew readings enjoy an almost eerie parallel: they are both preparations for a sacrifice that is God-ordained.

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