Archives for April 2018

Psalm 49:1–12; Leviticus 7:22–8:17; Mark 2:13–28

Originally published 4/12/2016. Revised and updated 4/12/2018:

 Psalm 49:1–12: If the authors of Ecclesiastes or Proverbs wrote psalms [and perhaps one of them did], it would be this one. The psalmist’s message is for all who will listen to the wisdom he is about to utter and his message is for everyone regardless of economic status
Hear this, all peoples,
hearken, all who dwell in the world.
You human creatures, you sons of man
.
together with the rich and needy. (2, 3).

There is no false modesty here and he will even accompany his sayings with music:
My mouth speaks wisdom,
my heart’s utterance, understanding.

I take up with the lyre my theme.” (4, 5)

His first words are directed at the well off, who have misplaced trust in their wealth, thinking it will be of benefit, especially when it comes to pleasing God:
Who trust in their wealth
and boast of their great riches—
yet they surely will redeem no man,
will not give to God his ransom
. (7,8)

In fact they do not possess that which is required for salvation:
To redeem their lives is too dear,
and one comes to an end forever.
” (9)

This last line is consistent with the Jewish belief that there was no afterlife or heaven, as he asks rhetorically,
Will he yet live forever?
Will he not see the pit?
 (10)

In a verse that seems lifted directly out of Ecclesiastes, he reflects on death being the great equalizer, reminding us that we can’t take it with us:
For he sees the wise die,
both the fool and the stupid man perish,

and they abandon to others their wealth.” (11)

Just to make sure we get his point, he states that no matter how great our reputation or fame may have been in life, we are all equal for all eternity when we are dead:
Their grave is their home forever,
their dwelling for all generations.
though their names had been called upon earth.
 (12)

It is verses like these that remind us that mankind has been reflecting on the seeming pointlessness of life for thousands of years. Each generation matures, thinking it has discovered some new truth, but as the author of Ecclesiastes points out, there is nothing new under the sun—including our insights and wisdom. Only God transcends eternity

Leviticus 7:22–8:17: Clothed within the rites of sacrifice is dietary and hygenic advice: “The fat of an animal that died or was torn by wild animals may be put to any other use, but you must not eat it.” (7:24) And once again everyone is reminded, “You must not eat any blood whatever, either of bird or of animal, in any of your settlements.” (7:26) The penalty for disobedience is banishment: “Any one of you who eats any blood shall be cut off from your kin.” (7:27)

For their priestly efforts, Aaron and his sons receive the breast and thighs of the animals that are sacrificed as “as a perpetual due from the people of Israel.” (7:35) Which is also a not-so-gentle reminder to the people hearing these instructions hundreds of years later that what the priestly class takes as what is essentially a tax.  And it’s been justified by virtue of using the literary device of God speaking to and instructing Moses himself. Who can argue with that?

The authors conclude this section on offerings and sacrifices by listing the various rites about which they’ve given instruction : “This is the ritual of the burnt offering, the grain offering, the sin offering, the guilt offering, the offering of ordination, and the sacrifice of well-being, which the Lord commanded Moses on Mount Sinai.” (7:37) They are now ready to move onto describing (again) the rites of priestly ordination.  In this second turn of describing what priestly ordination, there is a more human touch than the drier instructions given a few chapters back. 

Moses announces to the multitude assembled before the tabernacle:“This is what the Lord has commanded to be done.” (8:5) and it is Moses who brings “Aaron and his sons forward, and washed them with water.” (8:6). Once again we see the direct connection to baptism.

Moses then dresses Aaron in his priestly vestments, including the  ephod with its famous Urim and Thummin. We see traces of this act of dressing in the rite of ordination today as the newly ordained pastor/ priest receives the stole (and in the Catholic church, the chasuble) that represents his office.

We can also trace the act of anointing with oil back to this ceremony as “Moses poured some of the anointing oil on Aaron’s head and anointed him, to consecrate him.” (8:12) Happily, however, we do not follow the rite of a sacrificial bull as a sin offering, which Moses uses as a cleansing agent for the altar.

Notice that Moses’s sacrifice is a sin offering, not an offering of good will. This makes it clear that the primary priestly duty is one of atonement. It is reading about these priestly duties and rites here that helps me realize once again just how significant Jesus’ great act of once-for-all sacrifice has been.

Mark 2:13–28: Jesus chooses his fifth disciple, a certain “Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth,”(14) [whom we come to know as Matthew] with the simple words, “Follow me.” What’s interesting here is that Jesus joins Levi’s colleagues for a party, which offends the Pharisees. I assume that up to now, they had considered this Jesus guy to be one of them, so I think their question—“Why does he eat[f] with tax collectors and sinners?” (16)— is completely natural.

Jesus’ response to this question is the beginning of his estrangement from the religious establishment, which held itself to be better in every respect than the hoi polloi: “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (17) Mark is also telling us that Jesus and his mission on earth is strikingly different from all who have come before. Even John the Baptist’s disciples are puzzled as they ask along with the Pharisees, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” (18)

Their question about the Sabbath is in the same vein. This time, the Pharisees have their turn and assert, “why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” (24) This time Jesus uses Scripture—which the Pharisees surely knew cold—to point out that David ate the bread of the Presence on the sabbath because he and his men were hungry. Jesus concludes, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.” (27)

I think these words identify what is wrong with “religion” right up to the present time. The rites and rules of religious practice too easily become the end in themselves. We forget that these are the means to connect with God, and that Jesus is always  concerned first with our welfare as persons, not with our piety—or lack  thereof.

In the midst of this dialog, Jesus has reiterated the revolutionary nature of his ministry with the metaphor of the coat to be replaired, “No one sews a piece of new cloth on an old cloak;” (21)  and the more famous metaphor of new wine in old wineskins, where “the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.” (22) Mark is making sure that we “get it.” What is going on here is completely unprecedented, breaks all the long-established rules, and as we shall see, will change the world in unimaginable ways.

 

Psalm 48; Leviticus 6:14–7:21; Mark 2:1–12

Originally published 4/11/2016 with additions from 4/11/2014. Revised and updated 4/11/2018:

Psalm 48: We celebrated the king in the previous psalms; this psalm celebrates God residing in Zion, aka Jerusalem:
Great is the Lord and highly praised,
in our God’s town, His holy mountain. 
(2)

Alter notes that he uses “town” rather than “city,” because compared to other great cities of the time, Jerusalem is a relative backwater.  There is indeed today a “Mount Zion” within the city walls of Jerusalem, and our poet sings its praises—not least because that is where God lives:
Lovely in heights, all the earth’s joy,
Mount Zion, far end of Zaphon,
the great king’s city.
God in its bastions
is famed as a fortress. 
(3, 4)

It appears this psalm is celebrating a military victory over God’s enemies, who,
have seen and been so astounded,
were panicked, dismayed.
Shuddering seized them there,
pangs like a woman in labor.
 (6,7)

Even though Jerusalem lies some 35 miles from the Mediterranean coast, it appears a naval enemy was defeated by natural events [although Alter notes that scholars have been unable to link this psalm to a specific military event]:
With the east wind
You smashed the ships of Tarshish
. (8)

The key point here is that God has come to the aid of Zion’s inhabitants to prevail over their enemy:
As we heard, so we see
in the town of the Lord of armies, in the town of our God
.” (9)

The remainder of the psalm continues the celebration, which extends outward to Jerusalem’s suburbs:
Let Mount Zion rejoice,
let Judea’s townlets exult
because of Your judgements.
 (12)

We are encouraged to assess Jerusalem’s impregnability in an image that evokes the famous 7-day walk around Jericho:
Go around  Zion, encircle it.
Count its towers.
Set your mind to its ramparts, scale its bastions
to recount to the last generation
. (13, 14)

The beauty of the psalm is its physicality, for the walls of Jerusalem still stand and Mount Zion still lies within those walls.  It’s a tangible reminder of God’s ever-abiding presence on earth, as the glorious last verse reminds us:
For this is God, our God, forevermore.
He will lead us forever.
 (15)

Leviticus 6:14–7:21: A phrase we see repeated many times in this section of Leviticus is “This is the teaching…” followed by specific instructions of the type of offering to be made and precisely how it is to be made.  This is a reminder that there is much more to the Old Covenant than just the Decalogue.  It’s worth remembering that “Torah” means “teaching,” and nowhere is there more teaching, instruction, and regulations than in this book which has suspended the narrative altogether.  Perhaps this book is better titled, “Rules and Regulations of the Old Covenant.”

Instructions regarding various offerings which we have already read are repeated here, albeit more briefly. The point here seems to be that while the earlier descriptions were effectively the instruction manual, we have a more human connection here because these authors frame it as Moses giving instruction to Aaron and his sons.  The practical “human angle” is reinforced as we also read specific instructions about what parts of each offering may be eaten and which parts may not.

First, “the ritual of the grain offering: [which] The sons of Aaron shall offer it before the Lord, in front of the altar.” (6:14) Happily, the sons get to eat what is left over. It is followed by “the offering that Aaron and his sons shall offer to the Lord on the day when he is anointed.” (6:20) But, “Every grain offering of a priest shall be wholly burned; it shall not be eaten.” (6:23)

Then, the more grisly sin offering, which the “priest who offers it as a sin offering shall eat of it; it shall be eaten in a holy place, in the court of the tent of meeting.” (6:26) More practical instruction follows: “when any of its blood is spattered on a garment, you shall wash the bespattered part in a holy place.” (6:27) Either an earthen or bronze vessel may be used for the washing process. The earthen vessel is disposed of but the bronze one is thoroughly cleaned for reuse.

There were many types of sacrifices, ranging from grain offerings to entire bulls.  And there were many types of sin to be atoned.  Chapter 7 opens with “the teaching of the guilt offering,” (7:1) which is carefully differentiated from “the offense offering like the sin offering, a single teaching do they have.” (7:7).  Which in turn is distinct from “this is the teaching of the communion sacrifice that is brought 12 forward to the LORD.” (7:11,12).  And, oh by the way, the communion sacrifice is about thanksgiving, not atonement. (7:15).

There’s also a nice example of recycling, “the priest who offers anyone’s burnt offering shall keep the skin of the burnt offering that he has offered.” (7:8) Although it’s not clear to me what the priest is supposed to do with burnt skin.

Finally, “the ritual of the sacrifice of the offering of well-being that one may offer to the Lord.” (7:11)  which is accompanied by cakes of leavened (yes, leavened) bread. Both the cakes and any flesh offered as thanksgiving “shall be eaten on the day it is offered; you shall not leave any of it until morning.” (7:15) But woe betide the priest or individual who eats leftovers: “If any of the flesh of your sacrifice of well-being is eaten on the third day, it shall not be acceptable,” (7:18). All of which makes good sense from the standpoint of avoiding food poisoning in the desert where refrigeration had not yet been invented.

In fact, the punishment for disobedience on this eating of food too late or while in an unclean state is quite harsh: “those who eat flesh from the Lord’s sacrifice of well-being while in a state of uncleanness shall be cut off from their kin.” (7:20) From our 21st century perspective, these instructions about sacrifice are not bizarre or arbitrary at all. Rather, they seem designed so that everyone involved practices good hygiene.

Mark 2:1–12: By the time Jesus returns home [presumably to Simon’s house] to Capernaum his fame has spread across Galilee and “so many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them.” (2) But the friends of a paralytic man are not discouraged by Jesus’ apparent inaccessibility. They bring the paralytic up to the roof of the house, remove some roofing tiles and lower the paralytic man down right in front of Jesus. I’ve always loved this story about the men who removed the roof in order to lower their friend down on a pallet because they were not deterred by obstacles, took the initiative and obviously had serious engineering skills.

This famous healing would be all sweetness and light—a touching story of friendship— had Jesus simply told the man that he was healed. But Mark is not one to waste a teachable moment and he writes that Jesus said, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” (5).  This statement offends the scribes, who whisper among themselves that Jesus is guilty of blasphemy.However, Mark is careful to point out that the scribes did not speak up, doubtless grasping that the hoi polloi gathered around Jesus would not take kindly to those who criticized Jesus—especially a charge as serious as blasphemy.

Mark tells us that Jesus did not (or pretends not to) hear them, but rather he “perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves.” (8) Jesus poses the philosophical question to them, “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’?” (9) and promptly tells the paralytic to get up and walk, which of course he does.

Mark’s point here is that while the miracles seem to trump the phrase, “your sins are forgiven,” it is the forgiveness of sins—not the miracles— that is Jesus’ true purpose on earth. Yes, the miracles are impressive, and “they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”’ (12) Miracles may be dramatic, but God’s forgiveness is orders of magnitude more important. Moreover, Mark is telling us, while all of us may not experience a miraculous healing, we all will experience God’s forgiveness through Jesus.  Which is why I feel the church today needs to focus on increasing our awareness of our sinful nature and the reality of Jesus’ forgiveness far more than its more dramatic focus on physical healing.

Psalm 47; Leviticus 5:1–6:13; Mark 1:35–45

Originally published 4/9/2016 with portions published 4/9/2014. Revised and updated 4/10/2018:

Psalm 47: Alter informs us that this psalm forms a central part of the liturgy for the Jewish New Year. Its first half is worship which celebrates God’s kingship. There is neither reticence nor reverent quiet here as the congregation joyfully acclaims:
All peoples, clap hands,
shout out to God with a sound of glad song.
For the Lord is most high and fearsome,
a great king over all the earth.
”  (2, 3)

God is not restricted to being king of over Israel, but in one of the many reminders on the Psalms of God’s universality, he is king “over all the earth.”

This is no effeminate God, but one who is mighty, strong, and conquers militarily and loves Israel above all all other nations:

He crushes people beneath us
and nations beneath our feet.
He chooses us for his estate,
pride of Jacob whom He loves. (4, 5)

But this psalm is also about the rest of us, for we know that through Jesus Christ God has chosen us as well. And like Israel in this psalm, our response can only be glad worship of the God who reigns over all the earth:
Hymn to God, hymn,
hymn to our king, O hymn.
For king of all earth is God,
hymn joyous song.
God reigns over the nations,
and sits on His holy throne.”(7-9)

Notice that worship focuses solely on God. It is not about us nor does it exist to make us feel better. Which means in the end it’s not about worship forms such as “traditional” or “contemporary” or what kind of music or preaching we prefer. Our psalmist does not critique the worship experience as we are wont to do. Rather, it is focused solely in one direction and one direction only: Our response is worship simply because of the reality of God’s kingship over every being on earth.

Leviticus 5:1–6:13: If we read Leviticus carefully we begin to see that it weaves sin and penance into a tightly woven structure. This chapter lays out different types of offenses and the requisite sacrifice of atonement. Here we encounter a fairly comprehensive inventory of sins:
• Failure to testify when one has seen a sin by another. (5:1)
• Touching unclean things such as carcasses. (5:2)
• Touching human uncleanness (and we can certainly imagine what that is…) (5:3)
• “Utter aloud a rash oath for a bad or a good purpose,” (5:44) which pretty much takes swearing off the table.

Even unwitting sins require sacrifice: “if a person offends and does any one of all the commands of the LORD that should not be done and does not know and is guilty, he shall bear his punishment.”  (5:18) We talk about our culture as being “post-Christian.”  Perhaps we should also call it “post-sin.”  “Sin” seems so antiquated in our therapeutic age where victimhood seems to have largely replaced guilt, never mind atonement for guilt.

The first step in restoring one to a state of righteousness is confession—exactly what it is for us as well: “You shall confess the sin that you have committed.” (5:5) As Christians, confession remains our first requirement when we realize we have sinned. But in his epistle, John adds the comforting words, “[God] who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (i John 1:9)

But Leviticus requires much more thaOur Levitical authors then go on to describe the precise sacrificial procedures: “n mere confession. It requires sacrifice: As your penalty for the sin that you have committed, a female from the flock, a sheep or a goat, as a sin offering.” (5: 6). Notice, by the way, that unlike sacrifices for good will, the sacrifices of atonement involve a female sheep or goat.

One of the really great things in that our authors have recognized economic reality and make provision for it. Not everyone will have the means to sacrifice a relatively expensive sheep or goat, so “if you cannot afford a sheep, you shall bring to the Lord, as your penalty for the sin that you have committed, two turtledoves or two pigeons.” (5:7)  And then, “if you cannot afford two turtledoves or two pigeons, you shall bring as your offering for the sin that you have committed one-tenth of an ephah of choice flour for a sin offering.” (5: 11) In other words, the act of sacrifice was proportionate to one’s wealth. It is details like these that demonstrate that God meets us where we are regardless of our economic circumstances. Too bad that reality was corrupted by the time of the Pharisees—and today a —by the assumption that wealth correlated to righteousness.

Some sins involve taking property and restitution is required. These include “deceiving a neighbor in a matter of a deposit or a pledge, or by robbery, or if you have defrauded a neighbor, or have found something lost and lied about it.” (6: 2,3) And in those cases, “when you realize your guilt” then one is required to “restore what you took by robbery or by fraud or the deposit that was committed to you, or the lost thing that you found.”  (6:4) But restitution comes with a 20% tax—a brilliant disincentive to steal in the first place: “you shall repay the principal amount and shall add one-fifth to it.” (6:5) In addition, the expense of the required sin sacrifice is also required.

We think of these detailed Levitical rules as being almost absurdly constraining.  Yet it’s clear that those same rules, which form the basis of our own laws, are exactly how order was maintained among that “stiff-necked” people wandering in the wilderness.  Without them, chaos would have ensued.  Does a decreasing awareness of sin and its consequences lead to a breakdown of order in our own society?

Mark 1:35–45: Even though we’re still in Mark’s first chapter, no one is sitting still—least of all, Jesus—as Mark continues to show us various aspects of his character. Teaching and healing at Capernaum, is immediately followed by describing Jesus;’ practice of finding a deserted place in order to pray. And he didn’t bother to tell anyone. We can sense Simon’s annoyance when, after hunting and finally finding Jesus, he grumps,“Everyone is searching for you.” (37).

There’s a layered meaning of the disciples’ exclamation, “Everyone is searching for you.”  Yes, the disciples were looking for him in the dark (another double meaning!)  But we are all searching for Jesus (in the dark).  Which we who are reading or hearing this Gospel are doing: we are searching for the real Jesus. Even those who deny they are searching are still searching for the meaning and purpose that only Jesus can bring.

Ever the master of surprise Jesus unexpectedly announces that instead of returning to Capernaum, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” (38)  Mark is also subtly telling us not only is Jesus his own man who relies more on his father than other people, but that he is unpredictable and will keep doing the unexpected. More importantly, in this simple declaration Mark gives us Jesus’ mission statement: to proclaim the good news wherever he can.

The leper follows Jesus and realizes an important truth that is probably not yet obvious to Jesus four disciples, telling Jesus: “If you choose, you can make me clean.”  (40) This tells me that when healing occurs it is not we who have chosen, but Jesus. And not everyone who wishes so will be healed. In the leper’s case, “moved with pity,  Jesus  stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” (41) Mark is telling us that we cannot control Jesus; he makes his own decisions. Yet many of our so-called Christian behaviors such as praying to find a parking place are exactly that: our efforts to control Jesus and make him our personal errand boy. Jesus cannot be corralled to our own ends.

The leper famously disobeys Jesus’ order not to tell anyone about being healed but, “went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word.” (45) We often wonder why Jesus would say this, but I think Mark gives us a very simple explanation that it was simply logistics since “Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.” (45)  I even think there’s a bit of reverse psychology operating here: Jesus is perfectly happy to have word spread. After all, he just said that “I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do. (38)

Psalm 46; Leviticus 4; Mark 1:21–34

Originally published 4/8/2016 with portions published 4/8/2014. Revised and updated 4/9/2018:

Psalm 46: This celebratory psalm gives God the credit for victory and protection of Israel, recognizing that “God is a shelter and a strength for us,/ a help in straits readily found.” (2) In a verse that everyone of us can hold onto when times are chaotic (which they always are), our poet proclaims God’s sheltering protection:
Therefore we fear not when the earth breaks apart,
when mountains collapse in the heart of the seas.
” (3)

It’s easy now—just as it was probably easy then—to believe that everything in the world around us is flying apart metaphorically, if not literally:
Its waters roar and roil,
mountains heave in its surge.
 (4)

But be it natural disaster such as the earthquake and floods implied here; or be it war, revolution, or terrorism God is nearby:
God is in its midst, it will not collapse.
God helps it as morning breaks.
Nations roar and kingdoms collapse,” (6,7)

Nevertheless, God still reigns as, “he sends forth His voice and earth melts.” (7)

Although the psalm employs military imagery, celebrating how “The Lord of armies is with us,/ a fortress for us.” (8) God remains in charge of the affairs of humankind and of all creation, ultimately bringing cessation of hostilities everywhere:
Go, behold the acts of the Lord,
Who made desolations on earth,
caused wars to cease to the end of the earth
.
The bow He has broken and splintered the spear,
and chariots burned in fire.
” (9, 10)

In this psalm, God speaks. He tells us what we must remember that when times seem darkest we need do only one thing: ‘Let go, and know that I am God.” (11)

The eternal question for each person and each nation is, can we ever relinquish our need to attempt to control events? It is this lust for control over others that creates conflict and war. Earthquakes and floods may be natural occurrences, but it is because humankind has forgotten God that we find ourselves in desperate straits as a world, a nation, a culture and as individuals.

We have forgotten that  “The Lord of armies is with us,/ a fortress for is.” (12) believing as we do, that we are the little-g gods greater than God and do not require assistance. But it only requires scanning the headlines to realize how false and misguided this quest for control really is.

Leviticus 4:God is now giving Moses detailed instructions of sacrifices required for different categories of people “when anyone sins unintentionally in any of the Lord’s commandments about things not to be done, and does any one of them: (2)

There are specific sacrificial instructions for different categories of people, “if the anointed priest should offend” (3); for “When a chieftain offends and does one of all the commands of the LORD his God that should not be done” (22); when the people as a group sin: “the whole congregation of Israel errs unintentionally” (13); and for “a single person from the common people should offend errantly in doing one of the LORD’s commands that should not be done, and bear guilt,” (27) These categories provide insight into how the Israelites were organized: priesthood, tribal chieftains and the hoi polloi. 

I think what’s most remarkable here is that these sacrificial acts of justification were required even when the sin was unintentional, i.e., not the result of an evil thought or deed. It seems almost quaint in today’s “anything goes” culture is that the sin occurs and “the matter escapes the notice of the assembly.” (13) Today, the entire idea of sin—whether intentional or unintentional— is fading from the scene, even from churches, and is being replaced by requiring “tolerance” of any act, no matter how sinful, as well as the new moral code of “I can do anything I wish as long as I don’t hurt other people.”

We can view the priest and ruler as a leader and when the leader sins, there are consequences for the “whole congregation,” i.e., society at large. We need only look at how entire nations are suffering today because of corrupt or incompetent leadership in order to see how what’s being described here in Leviticus is still totally relevant today.

Likewise, there are societal sins such as our collective rejection of sexual mores, which are having profound—and mostly negative—consequences, particularly on the most vulnerable among us such as the ongoing collapse of family structure among the poor. Yes, these sins may be unintentional but the entire point here is that they nevertheless have negative consequences. An aspect of our failings that we too often fail to appreciate today.

Mark 1:21–34: Mark’s stylistic terseness creates a sense of action—much like quick cuts in a movie heighten the sense of energy and tension. And Mark’s Jesus is extremely action-oriented. If “immediately” and “follow” are the themes of Jesus establishing his ministry, then here in the synagogue where Jesus commences his public ministry is the theme of how Jesus conducts his ministry: Authority.  “…he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” (22) and “What is this? A new teaching—with authority!” (27).

Capernaum is about as far as you can get from Jerusalem and still be in Israel.  Yet, this is where Jesus began his ministry: in the Israeli outback.  Retrospectively, his strategy is clear: Begin in an obscure place and let the word filter out on its own.  No need to start giving speeches in Jerusalem.  And, unlike the many other prophets and Zealots wandering the countryside at the time, Jesus uses action together with Scripture to establish his authority.  This is far far more than simply the provocative speeches of other would be revolutionaries and rabble rousers.  Jerusalem remains asleep to the idea that a Messiah will soon be in their midst and they do not know what is coming.

Having just caused four disciples to follow him, he enters “the synagogue and taught.” (21) And the results are amazing to the locals at Capernaum: “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” (22) But Jesus’ teaching is just the introduction to more astounding events: “a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” (23, 24).  

Jesus’ very first miracle act in Mark is exorcising the demon rather than physical healing. I think Mark is telling us that Jesus is just as concerned with our mental and emotional well-being as our physical state—something we fail at today in a health care system focused on physical healing but which too often abandons the mentally ill to their fate. And, alas, we have the school shootings to prove this hypothesis.

What’s also remarkable to our 21st century eyes here is Mark’s rather matter-of-fact recounting the words of a demon-possessed man. In that day, demon possession was the explanation for what today we explain as mental illness. However, even though demon possession may have been an everyday occurence in Jesus’ day, it’s clear that curing mentally ill people was not: “They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” (27, 28)

Following this event, Mark describes more “conventional” miracles that take place at Simon Peter’s house: healing the physically ill.  Jesus’ first physical healing in Mark is healing Simon’s mother-in-law. And soon, “at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons.” (32-34)

In just a few verses Mark has given us brief examples of the momentous impact Jesus has brought to the sleepy fishing village of Capernaum. And it’s all about healing—spiritual, emotional, physical. To be sure, Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue was “astounding,” but it’s the healing on which Mark is training his intense narrative spotlight. We are only in the first chapter and Mark has us already out of breath. Which when I think about it, is exactly what the impact of Jesus should be having on our own lives.

 

 

Psalm 45:10–18; Leviticus 2,3; Mark 1:9–20

Originally published 4/7/2016 with portions published 4/7/2014. Revised and updated 4/7/2018:

Psalm 45:10–18: Well, well, well. This turns out to be a psalm celebrating a royal wedding as our poet turns and addresses the princess, whom we assume is the bride of the king celebrated in the first half of the psalm. The poet offers harsh, yet doubtless correct, advice:
Listen, princess, and look, incline your ear,
and forget your people, and your father’s house.
 (11)

As has been the case down through the years, this marriage was doubtless arranged as the physical expression of an alliance between two kingdoms. Even though the marriage is arranged, the poet suggests that she be as alluring as possible to her bridegroom:
And let the king yearn for your beauty,
for he is your master,/ and bow down to him.
 (12)

She may be a princess, but in this patriarchal society he is still her ruler, which is how a patriarchal society has operated down to the present day, especially in the Middle east.

Neverthless, she brings some advantages with her besides her beauty: a dowry:
Daughter of Tyre, with tribute
the people’s wealthy will court your favor.
 (13)

So, beauty and wealth will certainly help ingratiate her with her new family and courtiers. The poet then turns his attention to her wedding attire and her attendants, evoking the beauty and laughter of the bridesmaids as well:
All the princess’s treasure is pearls, filigree of gold her raiment
In embroidered stuff she is led to the king,
maidens in train, her companions.
They are led in rejoicing and gladness,
they enter the palace,
brought to you, king.
” (15, 16)

But our poet understands the princess’s sadness at being taken away from her family—and especially her father whom she loved dearly. Our poet attempts to assuage this sadness by reminding here she will be a mother:
In your father’s stead your sons will be.
You will set them as princes in all the land.
” (17)

The psalm concludes with a little personal PR as the poet reminds us that it is he who has sung this sweet and loving song of a bridegroom and bride:
Let me make your name heard in all generations.
Therefore do peoples acclaim you forevermore. (18)

So, is there theology here? I suppose some might endeavor to position this poem as an allegory for Christ as king and the church as his bride, But I think that’s stretching it too far—and certainly nothing the poet ever envisioned. For me, this psalm is a respite from the despair of the preceding psals and the editors who arranged the order of the psalms were wise in offering this poetic celebration immediately following the anguish of Psalm 44.

Leviticus 2,3: We begin our trek through the Levitical catalog of the vast panoply of various offerings and sacrifices. [And I’m grateful to the Moravians for flying through the book at a fairly high altitude.]

Not every offering is a slaughtered and incinerated animal. The grain offering which is made of “choice flour” may be brought as grain, as a loaf of bread: “When you present a grain offering baked in the oven, it shall be of choice flour: unleavened cakes mixed with oil, or unleavened wafers spread with oil.” (2:4) or even a pancake: “If your offering is grain prepared on a griddle, it shall be of choice flour mixed with oil, unleavened.” (2:5). Who knew these foods were so ancient!

There are two important aspects of a grain offering. First, is like the bread eaten at the Passover festival, it is unleavened: “No grain offering that you bring to the Lord shall be made with leaven, for you must not turn any leaven or honey into smoke as an offering by fire to the Lord.” (2:11) And second, “You shall not omit from your grain offerings the salt of the covenant with your God; with all your offerings you shall offer salt.” (13).

So when Jesus talks about being the “salt of the earth” in the Sermon on the Mount, there is not only a sense of seasoning, but among his audience that is well aware of the sacrificial requirements of the Temple, a requirement of sacrifice as well. I’m sure that everyone who heard him thought of this passage that describes how a grain offering requires salt. It is the salt that makes the bread edible, and that is our role in the world as Christians: to bring the flavor of sweet bread to others.

Leviticus 3 describes an offering of “well-being.” I assume that this is an offering given in gratitude for the blessings God has bestowed on the person making the offering. This sacrifice requires slaughtering the unblemished animal “at the entrance of the tent of meeting.” At which point, “Aaron’s sons the priests shall dash the blood against all sides of the altar.” (3:2) Sheep—male or female—and goats are the animals used in this sacrifice, as detailed instructions are given for what body parts are burned on the altar, which appears to be the fat. As the authors note, “All fat is the Lord’s.” (3:16).  Moreover, the Israelites are enjoined to remember this rule: “It shall be a perpetual statute throughout your generations, in all your settlements: you must not eat any fat or any blood.” (3:17) Sacrificial blood belongs to God as well, which is why Jesus’ blood was shed on our behalf: it was God’s most direct and sacrificial act.

Also, it’s pretty good health advice not to eat fat or blood. Clearly, rib-eye steaks were not on the menu here.

Mark 1:9–20: Where the other Gospel writes give long descriptions of the events that precede Jesus’ ministry, Mark is the paragon of scriptural terseness. In a mere eleven verses Mark describes Jesus baptism, including the descent of the Holy Spirit and God’s vocal approval; the wilderness temptation, the beginning of the ministry in Galilee, and the calling of four disciples (Simon, Andrew, James, John).  But amid all this economy of language, Mark takes the time to repeat what I think is a crucial theme of his Gospel: “And immediately they left their nets and followed him.” (18) and again, “Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.” (20). There is no hesitation, no wasted time in reflection and meditation.

Two words: “immediately” and “followed.” We don’t get the backstory, but Mark emphasizes that we follow, we don’t go “side-by-side;” we don’t “accompany” Jesus; we don’t “join his team.” We do one thing only: we follow.  There is true hierarchy here: Jesus is the leader; we are the followers. Our society obsessed with egalitarianism and equality and equity is uncomfortable with the idea of real leadership, which is what Jesus is all about.

Same goes for the temptation in the desert: just the barest facts and the sense of everything happening with great urgency. “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” (12, 13) Mark never tells us; he only implies that Jesus avoided succumbing to Satan’s temptations.

Mark creates a very clear delineation between the end of John’s ministry—he’s arrested— and the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. As far as Mark is concerned there is no overlap. John was only the opening act. He’s using this first chapter to establish Jesus’ bona fides and wants to get on with the main program.

So, too, disciples are collected equally quickly: “he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen.” (16) And just a bit farther up the road, “he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets.” (19)  Mark tells us nothing at this point about the disciple’s personalities. There is only one thing that matters: it is what the four—Simon, Andrew, James, and John— do immediately and without hesitation—and what we are all to do: follow Jesus without hesitation.

 

Psalm 45:1–10; Exodus 40:24–Leviticus 1:17; Mark 1:1–8

Originally published 4/6/2016. Revised and updated 4/6/2018:

Psalm 45:1–9: Alter informs us that this is the only Psalm designated “as a psalm of love.” It is also the only psalm where the poet gives us a literary selfie, referring to himself with an entire verse of introduction:
My heart is astir with a goodly word.
I speak what I’ve made to the king.
My tongue is the pen of a rapid scribe.
” (2)

This verse informs us that he was a poet in the royal court. And as we read on, this psalm becomes a grand celebration of the king to whom the poet is speaking. He opens his paean with words of almost treacly flattery:
You are the loveliest of the sons of man,
grace flows form your lips.
” (3a)

And in a statement of questionable theology, he asserts that since the king is love;y and graceful, “Therefore has God blessed you forever.” (3b) However, we probably shouldn’t be too hard on our poet since poetic flattery doubtless got him this position as court poet in the first place.

The poem moves quickly to the essential quality of a  king in that region at that time: military prowess and the national military might that he heads:
Gird your sword on your thigh, O warrior,
your glory and your grandeur.
” (4).

But the king also represents God’s justice carried out on earth as our poet lists three essential qualities of a king:
And in your grandeur pass onward,
mount on a word of truth, humility, and justice.
” (5a)

I wonder which king the psalmist is referring to? Solomon seems a likely candidate, although I’m not sure he would have cottoned to this over-the-top obsequiousness that characterizes this section of the psalm. In any event, the king is the central symbol of national military might projected against Israel’s enemies:
and let your right hand shoot forth terrors,
your sharpened arrows—
peoples fall beneath you—
into the heart of the king’s enemies.
” (5b, 6)

There was by definition a special relationship between God and king, specifically that the king is God’s anointed agent mirroring God’s qualities on earth:
Your throne of God is forevermore.
A scepter of right, your kingship’s scepter.
You loved justice and hated evil.
Therefore did God anoint you with oil of joy over your fellows.
” (7,8)

I’m not sure why the Moravians ended the reading here, but this final verse tells us that all the kingly qualification matters are out of the way. The tone of the poem shifts to a more romantic image in anticipation of the theme of the latter half of this psalm:
Myrrh and aloes and cassia/ all your garments
From ivory palaces/ lutes have gladdened you.
” (9)

Exodus 40:24–Leviticus 1:17: It is the Moravian habit to ignore the boundary point between one book’s end the other’s beginning, and today is no exception. Especially since there is no break in the action.

The tabernacle is complete and erected. Each item of furnishing—lampstand, lamps, the golden altar with its fragrant incense, the altar of burnt offering, the basin—are carefully put into place as the authors remind us, after each item: “as the Lord had commanded Moses.” (40: 25, 27,29,32)  In short, the tabernacle is now ready to establish the connection between God and Israel via the priests: Aaron and his sons. The final tent walls are erected and at last, “Moses finished the work.

God approves and “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” (34) But oddly enough after all that work. “Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” (35) The cloud—which is the physical manifestation of the glory of God—is a signaling device. “Whenever the cloud was taken up from the tabernacle, the Israelites would set out on each stage of their journey.” (40:36) and likewise, “if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out until the day that it was taken up.” (40:37) In any event, I think there is great significance here that God has come down from his remote perch on Mt. Sinai to dwell amongst the people. God has moved from distance abstraction to daily presence.

This remarkable book ends as the relationship between God and Israel has now been firmly and quite tangibly established: “For the cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, before the eyes of all the house of Israel at each stage of their journey.” (40:38)

Now that the tabernacle is complete, it becomes the meeting place between God and Moses as the book of Leviticus opens with God giving instructions to Moses regarding exactly what is to go on inside the tabernacle. As in Exodus, Moses is the designated intermediary between God and the people.

It’s worth noting, I think, that ehe authors of the Torah leave Israel with all eyes on God as they suspend the story of the journey in the wilderness with the interregnum that is the book of Leviticus, which is basically unencumbered by any narrative detail at all.  Now ensconced in the Tabernacle, God once again speaks to Moses, ” saying, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them…” (Lev 1:2)  And there follows the almost endless detail of precisely how the sacrifices are to be made.

As Leviticus opens, God gets right to issuing detailed instructions on the burnt offering sacrifices involving livestock: bulls, sheeps, goats. The immutable requirements are: it must be from the herd, not a random animal found wandering alone. It shall be “a male without blemish; you shall bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting, for acceptance in your behalf before the Lord.” (Lev 1:3) Instructions regarding sprinkling of blood and butchering and what parts are burnt and what other parts are washed follow.

Birds—turtledoves and pigeons—also qualify as burnt offerings and the priests are given the rathe unpleasant duty [to me anyway] of twisting off its head. The body is then eviserated and its crop is thrown into the ash heap as the priest “shall tear it open by its wings without severing it.” (1:17)

Ugh.

This chapter ends on a tantalizing sensory note.  The sacrifices are “a fire offering, a fragrant odor to the LORD.” (1:17).  We know God sees and hears us, but here we are reminded that God possesses all the senses we do. And that what we do for God includes acts that God not only sees and hears, but that they also should be “a fragrant odor to the Lord.”

Mark 1:1–8: We arrive at the beginning of the second gospel. Mark’s style is quite different than Matthew’s. His prose is usually terse, almost staccato. If Matthew is a Victorian novel, Mark is a newspaper. Pretty much just the facts without much editorial elaboration. This terseness is one reason why Mark is seen by many scholars as the earliest of the gospels. Some scholars have opined that the gospel is the transcription of an interview by the historical Mark of a much older Peter.

If we continue with the newspaper metaphor, verse one is the headline: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” But Mark’s beginning is certainly not Matthew’s beginning as Mark omits genealogies and the nativity stories. For John, Jesus’ birth or his theological connection to God and the Word is irrelevant.  This book is about what Jesus did and said.  And for Mark, that is evidence enough.

He opens his gospel message by citing Isaiah’s famous verses,

See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
    ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight,’ (2,3)

I think this verse operates at two levels. It establishes John the Baptist’s role, but I think more importantly, it establishes Mark’s role. He is also the messenger and he is going to tell us a story that will indeed prepare our way for a new life that will come from our hearing this story.

The first person to appear in this gospel is John the “baptizer.” Mark reels off John’s mission in a tightly distilled litany. First, his message: “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (4); Then his popularity: “And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” (5) Then his clothing: “camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist” and diet “he ate locusts and wild honey.” (6) These are the essentials. No more description is required.

Mark shows John the Baptist as fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. And a mere seven verses into the story, John is ready to remove himself from the stage because “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.” (7)   Unlike Matthew’s habit of citing the scriptural reference, Mark simply has John announce: “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (8)

For Mark, the details that matter are the ones that will impact his ability to convey Jesus’ acts and Jesus’ message.  Everything else is simply setting the scene.

Psalm 44:18–27; Exodus 39:32–40:23; Matthew 28:1–20

Originally published 4/6/2016 with portions from 4/5/2014. Revised and updated 4/5/2018:

Psalm 44:18–27: Our psalmist turns from shaking Israel’s collective fist at God to a new strategy: reminding God that despite his apparent desertion—and implied betrayal— of them, they have nevertheless remained faithful and obedient despite this awful defeat:
All this befell us, yet we did not forget You,
and we did not betray Your pact.
Our heart has not failed,
nor have our footsteps strayed from Your path.
 (18, 19)

Having thus buttered up God, our poet flings a direct accusation of God’s having used his people malevolently, even to the point of death:
…though You thrust us down to the sea monster’s place
and with death’s darkness covered us over.
 (20).

There is an ironic plaintiveness in the poet’s cry as he asks rhetorically that God certainly would have been alert to their sinfulness had they abandoned God:
Had we forgotten the name of God
and spread out our palms to an alien god,
would not God have fathomed it?
” (21, 22a)

After all, the psalmist argues, even had they been hypocritical in pretending to love and honor God, “He knows the heart’s secrets.” (22b)

Finally, our poet comes right out and says exactly what he’s thinking. Their defeat is God’s fault. Ever faithful, they have fought for God, but God has abandoned them and that is why they have met disaster:
For Your sake we are killed all day long,
we are counted as sheep for slaughter.
” (23)

Surely, he pleads, this awareness of their plight will awaken a slumbering God. And in some of the most mournful, despairing verses in Psalms, the poet asks the question that rings down through the ages right to today:
Awake, why sleep, O Master!
Rouse up, neglect not forever
Why do You hide Your face,
forget our affliction, our oppression?
 (24, 25)

In a world where God seems absent, all seems hopeless in an image of total defeat that has sapped them even of the ability to stand:
For our neck is bowed to the dust,
our belly clings to the ground.
 (26)

Nevertheless, ever-hopeful, this agonized psalm ends with the final plea that it is God’s inherently generous beneficence that he will eventually come to their rescue:
Rise as a help to us
and redeem us for the sake of Your kindness.
 (27).

In the end, we can rely on one thing and one thing only: That God will hear us and will rescue us. But while waiting we can recall this psalm and like the men the psalmist describes, we can shake our fist at God at our desperate plight. We can even accuse God of abandoning us. But underneath it all, hope still flickers. As other psalms remind us, God is listening even in silence.

Exodus 39:32–40:23: The work on the tabernacle is complete and “the Israelites had done everything just as the Lord had commanded Moses.” (39:32) and “the Israelites had done everything just as the Lord had commanded Moses.” (33) This provides the authors the opportunity to summarize in one long paragraph just how extensive and complex this project had been as they review the final inventory of “the tent and all its utensils, its hooks, its frames, its bars, its pillars, and its bases;” (33b) along with the “the ark of the covenant with its poles and the mercy seat” (35) and all the other furnishings.  And not to forget “the finely worked vestments for ministering in the holy place, the sacred vestments for the priest Aaron, and the vestments of his sons to serve as priests.” (41)

As has been their wont, these authors emphasize the human side of this project and repeat the observation that “The Israelites had done all of the work just as the Lord had commanded Moses.” (42) And for their efforts, “When Moses saw that they had done all the work just as the Lord had commanded, he blessed them.” (43) Can there be any better feeling than to have done as God has instructed us to do and to receive a blessing for having done it? However, we must always remember that is not the reason that we do it, but our reward for a job well done.

We don’t hear much these days about the theology of vocation, which I have always considered to be one of the high points of Lutheran theology.  But here it is: the people are not priests, they are workers, and they have crafted a work to the glory of God.  I have to believe this passage was read form time to time during the construction of the great cathedrals of Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries.

If I were writing subsection titles for this part of Exodus, the first part of this final chapter would be headed, “Some assembly required.”  God’s instructions to Moses are quite precise about where the furnishings and drapery of the Tabernacle are to be placed.  (It also reminds me of the little models of the Tabernacle we 5th graders made back in Sunday School at Lake Avenue Congregational Church in Pasadena so many years ago.)

Matthew 28:1-20  Matthew does not linger over post-Resurrection details, as our Gospel writer wraps up the most astounding event in history with his usual economy, almost terseness. Unlike the quiet garden and the empty tomb recounted in Luke, Matthew’s description of the resurrection is truly heaven come down to earth: And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. (2, 3)  WHile the women who had come to the tomb may have been frightened, it is the rough, masculine Roman soldiers who freak out: For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 

Jesus does not reveal himself to the women; rather the angel sends them off to give the good news that he tells them: “He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee.” (6, 7) 

Their faithful and joyful response is rewarded by Jesus appearing to them: “Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him.” (9) As in the other Gospels, it is the women who meet the resurrected Jesus first,

One event, which I think is exclusive to Matthew, is the recounting of how the priests and religious officials bribed the guards to spread the Big Lie, that the disciples had stolen Jesus’ body.  Which theory continues to surface even today.  (I remember a book in the 1970’s about this, and Wikipedia even includes an entry, “the stolen body hypothesis.)

Matthew, with his Jewish perspective writing to a Jewish community, ends the story of Jesus’ interaction with Judaism on this distinctly conspiratorial note with, “And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.” (15)  The tragedy of course, is that Matthew’s words have been at least partly catalytic in the church’s persecution of the Jews over history.  But that is not Matthew’ fault. It is ours.

Matthew’s story ends with Jesus’ famous commissioning.  (And doesn’t even mention the Ascension.)  He has made us witness to Jesus’ mission on earth and the story ends with a call to action—our action. And that is why I think he wrote his Gospel in the first place. Jesus’ time on earth is so much more than the “greatest story ever  told.”  It’s an instruction manual of how to carry out the Great Commission by remembering and then doing the things Jesus did. And Jesus’ final words are his (and God’s) Greatest Promise to us: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (20) May we never ever forget that sublime truth. Our faith is much more than contemplation or acceptance; in the end the Gospel depends on our willingness to share our faith with others.

 

Psalm 44:10–17; Exodus 39:1–31; Matthew 27:57–66

Originally published 4/3/2016. Revised and updated 4/4/2018:

Psalm 44:10–17: While the previous section of this psalm concluded on a note of how faithful the psalmist and his peers have been to God, this section turns darkly accusatory toward God because it seems that God has not reciprocated that faithfulness. We encounter one of the longest passages of complaint against God in the Psalms. As the military language suggests, the psalmist probably writes just following a stinging military defeat of Israel. [Unfortunately, the psalm gives no hint as to what historical battle this might have been,] The psalmist does not hide his anger as he writes:
Yet You neglected and disgraced us
    and did not sally forth in our ranks.
    You turned us back from the foe,
    and our enemies took their plunder. (10, 11)

Worse, God’s inaction has resulted in a greater catastrophe than just a defeat in battle turning the metaphor of God being the good shepherd of Israel on its head:
You made us like sheep to be eaten
and scattered us through the nations.
” (12)

The nation of Israel itself appears to have been destroyed and its population scattered to the four winds—which of course is eventually exactly what happened, be it the Assyrian conquest of Israel, the Babylonian captivity, or Israel’s occupation first by Greeks then by Romans—all leading up to the destruction by Titus of the temple and most of Jerusalem in AD70.

But perhaps the bitterest complaint of all is how God failed to value—much less care for—his people:
You sold Your people for no wealth
and set no high price on them.
You made us a shame to our neighbors,
derision and mockery to those round us. (13, 14)

God’s failure regarding Israel is not just a national tragedy; it has grave personal consequences as the psalmist goes on to remind God—and us—of the shame he (and we presume others) is experiencing:
All day long my disgrace is before me,
and shame covered my face,
from the sound of revilers and cursers,
from the enemy and the avenger.
” (16, 17)

Underneath our poet’s anger and shame is the deepest feeling of all: abandonment. The psalmist’s faith has brought him nothing but shame. Which is exactly what makes these verses so powerful. We often feel that same sense of abandonment in God’s silence and our belief that he has failed to act as we want him to. We ask, ‘Why, God?’ and ‘Where are You, God.’  That is why this psalm is so powerful and so relevant today.

This psalm gives us a model that we can be angry at God. We don’t have to employ false reverence and pretend to like God. We can shake our fists at him. At times like these I’m with the psalmist: that old saw that when we didn’t see God walking beside us because he was carrying us is is a myth. I believe there are times like these described here, when God turns away and does not speak. We are completely, utterly on our own without a hope in the world.

Exodus 39:1–31: The tabernacle is complete, as are its furnishings. Now it is time to fashion the priestly garments. We assume it is “Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan, engraver, designer, and embroiderer in blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and in fine linen.” (38:23) who leads the project of making “the sacred vestments for Aaron; as the Lord had commanded Moses.” (39:1)

The description of these vestments, including “the ephod of gold, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen.” (2) pretty much follows the earlier description and demonstrates to me, anyway, that both sets of authors were actually looking at the same vestments, which had apparently survived down through Israel’s history—or subsequent replacement garments—to the Babylonian captivity when these authors were writing. The ephod contains the twelve precious stones representing the twelve tribes of Israel and enough gold rings that suggest it must have weighed upwards of 40 or 50 pounds.

However, two things are missing in this description: that is the mysterious urim and thummin. This omission suggests that these two rocks [or whatever they were] did not come to play a large role in actual worship.

In addition to the breastplate and robe, the artisans “also made the tunics, woven of fine linen, for Aaron and his sons, and the turban of fine linen, and the headdresses of fine linen, and the linen undergarments of fine twisted linen.” (27, 28). My suspicion based on no actual knowledge or facts is that these linen undergarments were the inspiration for the Mormon practice of wearing similar garments under their outer clothing.

Once again we are almost overwhelmed by the richness and magnificence of these descriptions. And again, we can only conclude that true worship of God demands the finest creations of human mind and hand [mens et manus—the MIT motto]. Which is one more reason why worship is serious business indeed.

Matthew 27:57–66: Even though the inner twelve disciples had abandoned Jesus, one disciple, who we assume has been following Jesus for some time but has never been mentioned until now, appears and asks for Jesus’ corpse: Joseph, the rich man from Arimathea. Joseph prepares the body and “wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock.” (59, 60). And in a detail I’d never noticed before, it is Joseph who rolls the rock in front of the tomb. His crucial role complete, “he went away” and drops from Biblical history. Almost in passing Matthew notes, “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.” (61) As far as our ospel writer is concerned, Joseph, Mary Magdalene and the “other Mary” are the only ones who have not abandoned Jesus after he dies. I believe these three are the stand-ins for the ordinary worshipper; we lay people. On the day following Good Friday we are all sitting in front of the tomb, lost in our thoughts and in our loss. But unlike those three faithful followers, we know how the story turns out.

Ever the masters of selective memory, the religious officials are well aware of Jesus’ prediction that he will rise again after three days. They hurry to Pilate and say, “Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’” (63) I presume they didn’t want to post their own temple guard at the tomb and appealed to Roman authority on the grounds that dealing with the threat from “this imposter” required official sanction. Pilate must have been frustrated at this request, thinking he had finally gotten the religious leaders off his back with the crucifixion of “this imposter.” Yet, he’s doubtless thinking, here they were again with some cockamamie story about preventing a resurrection. Not wanting to provide any pretext whatsoever for more rioting in Jerusalem he agrees to provide a Roman guard, and instructs the temple officials to “make [the tomb] as secure as you can.” As we will find out shortly, what is secure to humans is not secure for God, who always breaks through the rocks we erect to hide from his relentless pursuit.

Thus it ever has been: no matter how hard subsequent rulers have tried to suppress the Jesus, the stone in front of the grave is always insufficient.  Jesus always surfaces again.  Indeed, “the last deception” has  changed history.  Which is why even in this American culture of “tolerance” where the current crop of cultural Pharisees attempts to define what “tolerable” and what is not (that being most things having to do with “outmoded” religious faith and scruples that go against the received wisdom–sound familiar?), Jesus will always surface.   It is indeed Friday in our culture–and becoming more so–but in the end, “the last deception” always turns out to be the Truth of Sunday.

 

Psalm 44:1–9; Exodus 38; Matthew 27:45–56

Originally published 4/2/2016. Revised and updated 4/3/2018:

Psalm 44:1–9: The first person plural pronouns that open the psalm indicate this is a “group supplication” that suggests the nation has suffered a defeat in battle. They are recalling how God assisted in past victories of Israel, probably the original conquering of Canaan:
God, with our own ears we have heard,
our fathers recounted to us
a deed that You did in their days,
in days of yore.
 (2)

In fact they give God complete credit for that previous victory:
You, Your hand dispossessed nations—and You planted them [Israel].
You smashed peoples [Canaanites] and sent them away.
 (3)

Our poet continues on the theme of how it is God who brings victory and the people and/or the army are only the means by which victory is accomplished:
For not by sword they took hold of the land,
and it was not their right arm that made them victorious
 but Your right hand and Your arm,
and the light of Your face when You favored them.” (4)

In short, Canaan was conquered because God—as he had promised—was on Israel’s side.  The poet then moves on to point out how the present nation/army can conquer the present enemy of God would be on their side now if they but acknowledge God as their true leader:
You are my king, O God.
Ordain the victories of Jacob [Israel].
 (5)

Then we encounter the uncomfortable implications of human war conflated with God:
Through You we gore our foes,
through Your name we trample those against us.
 (6)

This verse makes it clear to me anyway that wishing God’s assistance in battle exposes a side of God that I’d rather not think about. Does God really help armies eviscerate their foes. It seems an outright contradiction to our mage of a loving God. But perhaps we need to be reminded that God possess many qualities. Or is this psalm just completely off base in asking God to gore one’s enemies? I think when we examine the words more closely, that is not what the psalmist is saying at all.  When we say “God is on our side,” we are in effect saying that God is assisting us in our quest for victory. “Nice to have you along with us, God, now please deliver exactly that victory we have in mind.”  Rather, here, whatever victory that has been achieved has been done though human beings acting as God’s agents. Our poet emphasizes that it is neither he nor his tools of war that accomplish victory, but God himself who receives the all the credit:
For not in my bow do I trust,
and my sword will not make me victorious. 
(7)

The deep faith of the psalmist—and we presume the entire army— is what ultimately will lead them to victory:
God we praise all day long,
and Your name we acclaim for all time.
 (9)

The lesson seems clear: We need to place our trust in God, who then uses our gifts, skills, tools to carry out the task at hand.  When we fully trust  God, we are not asking God to be our aide de camp (to continue the military metaphor), but exactly the opposite.  Of course, as the psalmist acknowledges, that means not only admitting that we need to let go, but to actually relinquish our desire to control.  Easier said than done…

Exodus 38: Bezalel’s skills continue to be on display as he builds the large (7.5 feet square, 4.5 feet high) altar of burnt offering also built of acacia wood. He builds not only the altar itself, but all its tools and accessories as well: “all the utensils of the altar, the pots, the shovels, the basins, the forks, and the firepans: all its utensils he made of bronze.” (3) plus the grating—and moreover, it’s built for portability. But we should also give credit to the women who gave up their mirrors so he could fabricate “the basin of bronze with its stand of bronze.” (8)

Even though our authors persist in using the third person singular pronoun, “he,” indicating, I presume Bezalel, one has to assume that many talented hands were involved in the actual construction of the furnishings and the tabernacle itself. This is not dissimilar to today’s practice of giving the architect credit for the entire building as e.g. “Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall.” even though its design and construction involved the labor of thousands of people.

We have observed previously that our authors are sticklers for detail and nowhere is that more evident than in the final inventory: “These are the records of the tabernacle, the tabernacle of the covenant, which were drawn up at the commandment of Moses.” (21) Which goes on to account for the overseers of the project: Aaron’s son Ithamar, as well as Bezalel and Oholiab. Then the materials list:

• “gold from the offering, was twenty-nine talents and seven hundred thirty shekels, “(24)
•  “silver from those of the congregation who were counted was one hundred talents and one thousand seven hundred seventy-five shekels.” (25) which came from the head tax on everyone “from twenty years old and upward, for six hundred three thousand, five hundred fifty men.” (27)
• “The bronze that was contributed was seventy talents, and two thousand four hundred shekels.” (29)

So why all this detail, which we will encounter later in the OT when it comes to building Solomon’s temple? I believe the detail lends historical authenticity to the fact that the tabernacle was doubtless a physical—and therefore a historical—reality. It is also a vivid demonstration of the idea that “God is in the details”— a theme that Jesus took up when he spoke of the lilies in the field and God knowing the number of hairs on our head. This makes God much more real, a God who operates in real space and real time. Which has implications for us today: God is assuredly not the dreamy abstraction we would prefer him to be. God cannot be pushed aside. He is real and he is here.

Matthew 27:45–56: Matthew’s Jesus utters only one sentence the entire time he hangs on the cross and that only moments before he dies: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (46) This is the first line of Psalm 22, and yet another demonstration of how Matthew connects Jesus to the fulfillment of Scripture.

Matthew’s description of the crucifixion is dark, but more importantly, he shows how the crucifixion of Jesus was an earth-shattering event which changed the course of history: “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split.” (51)

But then he writes what I believe to be the most mysterious sentence surrounding the events of Jesus’ death: “The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.” (52, 53) OK, but if this actually happened why do none of the other Gospel writers describe what has to be a mysteriously profound event? Or did Matthew just make this up as further demonstration of the profundity of what just happened: an event so enormous that not only was earth itself affected, but under the earth and in heaven as well? 

Matthew does not record the reactions of the Jews to these extraordinary events.  Only the Roman centurion speaks, “(54)   And it is the realization of the Gentile soldier that makes Matthew’s key point about the crucifixion—and a point that has been made many time in the Hebrew scriptures, but Jews of Jesus’ time tended to forget:.  God is not the exclusive domain of the Jews; God, through Jesus Christ, is for every man and woman in creation.  The old order has passed away; the new order has begun.  Right here on Good Friday.  Which is one more reason why Sunday cannot really be celebrated without Friday in mind.

Finally, in a passage that is often overlooked on Good Friday, Matthew tells us, “ Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him.” (55) Notice the all-important phrase, they “had provided for him.” It is the women who have sustained Jesus’ physical needs throughout his ministry up to the point of his betrayal. And as we will learn, it is the women who will first learn the news of the Resurrection.  If we needed a clearer message of the important role of women in Jesus’ life and therefore their co-equal role in the life church, it is surely here. Alas, patriarchy has lived on too long in the church.

Psalm 43; Exodus 37; Matthew 27:32-44

Originally published 4/1/2016 with excerpts from April 2, 2014. Revised and updated 4/2/2018:

Psalm 43: This psalm seems a direct follow-on to the conclusion of the preceding psalm, where the last lines express the poet’s “Hope in God” and “His rescuing presence.” [Alter suggests that Psalm 42 and 43 were one longer psalm which was broken into two by the editors fro some unknown reason.] Armed with that hope, the opening line of this psalm begins with a veritable shout appealing to God for justice on both a national dn individual level:
Grant me justice, O God.
take up my case against a faithless nation,
from a man of deceit and wrong free me.
 (1)

I wonder how many times has this verse been uttered in desperation and hope down through the ages where a single brave individual stands against both a particular enemy as well as an entire society arrayed against him?

It’s clear that he feels abandoned by God as he is facing his enemies utterly alone and begging almost plaintively:
For You, O God, my stronghold,
why should You neglect me?

Why should I go in gloom, pressed by the foe? (2)

We see that not only is he facing an enemy but that he must be in exile far from Jerusalem as he asks God to come to this unfamiliar territory:
Send forth Your light and Your truth.
It is they that will guide me.
They will bring me to Your holy mountain
And to Your dwelling place.
” (3)

His prayer is not only that he makes it back to Jerusalem, but that he might once again come before God, who dwells in the temple (or tabernacle) there. And once there, he will bow down in worship:
And let me come to God’s altar,
to God, my keenest joy.
and let me acclaim You with the lyre,
O God, my God.
 (4)

Like the journey itself, the psalm ascends from the depths of seeming abandonment directly into the presence of God, where almost ecstatic joy replaces gloom ending on the same theme as Psalm 42:
Hope in God, for yet will I acclaim Him
His rescuing presence and my God. (5)

In just these few verses, our psalmist has taken a spiritual journey from the depths of despair to worshipful joy atop the mountain.

And that is our journey too.  Not just once in our lives, but again and again.  Because movement is the very nature of prayer. Prayer is not idle contemplation; it is a journey, it is dynamic; its bias is to action.

When I contemplate what a material, God-denying life must be like, I realize how flat that journey would be.  Having rejected God, I would be trapped in emptiness, and there would be no reason other than self-motivation to ascend.  But self-actualization (to be Maslovian about it) is always insufficient.  Because in the end, we find nothing but ourselves at the mountaintop.  No wonder the therapeutic industry is so vast.

Exodus 37: This chapter is a continuation of the details around constructing the Tabernacle and focuses on the details that go into its furnishings. Above all: the Ark of the Covenant. Then the table for the Bread of the Presence, the lampstand, and the Altar of Incense. All of these objects appear to have been crafted by Bezalel, although I suspect that like Michelangelo, he oversaw other workers in his studio.

As with the tabernacle itself, these descriptions are much more compact than the descriptions we’ve encountered in earlier chapters. These authors also continue to emphasize the connection between the objects and their builder as we read the opening words of virtually every sentence: “He made.” There’s no question that our scribes want to reassure us that these items are not “magic,” or somehow just appeared out of nothing. Rather they have been crafted assiduously by human hands. Unlike other religions of the time, none of these items pretends to be an image of God—an idol. They exist exclusively as the means to allow priests to come before the living God in proper and highly defined modes of worship.

That there is no idolatry here is emphasized by the Ark of the Covenant. It is not an object to represent God; rather it is a place where God’s presence can dwell giving Israel a direct and tangible connection to God.

Israel’s God is immanent. And despite the words of today’s psalm, God is not far away. It is this immanence that, for me anyway, explains why the construction of these objects is described in such almost excruciating detail. The authors want to make sure we understand that only the best materials were used by the finest and most skilled craftsmen. God deserves the absolute best we can offer him. Which frankly, I fail to do. Too often we are satisfied giving God only what we have left over.

Our authors conclude] with a detailed accounting of capital expenditures, ” All the gold that was fashioned for the task in every task of the sanctuary, the elevation-offering gold was twenty-nine talents…And the silver reckoned from the community was a hundred talents…” (24, 25)  We also learn that both a freewill offering and a tax are the income sources.  The tax is also a way of taking a census.

So, once again: precision, exactitude, accounting.  When Jesus talks about God knowing the number of hairs on our head, he is speaking out of this longstanding precision–another proof that there is nothing random about God or His creation.  This exactitude of course underlays all biology in our genes and DNA, as well as physics, as you can discover in any book about quantum physics at one end of magnitude and astrophysics at the other end.  More proof for me, anyway, that God is hardly an abstract spirit, but a builder and Creator–and he expects the same attention to detail from us.

Matthew 27:32-44: Matthew’s description of Jesus’ crucifixion is terse but vividly communicates the darkness and evil of the act. We meet Simon of Cyrene, and “they compelled this man to carry his cross.” (32) I’m sure Matthew inserts this detail to remind us that it was not just the Jews and Romans who are the means of Jesus’ execution. It is all of us.

Matthew omits many of the gruesome details of the act of crucifixion itself that we find in other gospels, simply stating that when offered a drink of wine and gall, Jesus refuses. Something we never see in visual depictions, but Jesus is doubtless stripped naked—the final humiliation— suggested by the fact that “they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots.” (35). Matthew emphasizes how Jesus has become the object of mockery and scorn with the visible sign on which “they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.’” (37).

This theme of mockery is amplified further as Matthew writes, “Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”” (39, 40)  Unlike the description in Luke, the “bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way.” (44) There is no last minute repentance on the part of one of the thieves, nor reassuring words from Jesus that the thief will be joining him in Paradise. There is only darkness, scorn, and mockery. In fact, up to this point, Matthew’s Jesus has not uttered a word.

Once again, I think all of us who read these words must confront Matthew’s clearly implied challenge. We can either believe Jesus is who he said who he is or we are reduced to mockery. There can no middle ground. The sign above his head is either true or it is an object of derision. Matthew is telling us in his dark words here that when we come to the cross we are forced to choose to believe or to mock.