Psalm 59:12-18; Leviticus 27:16-Numbers 1:16; Mark 9:11-29

Originally published 5/6/2014. Revised and updated 5/7/2018

Psalm 59:12-18  The second half of this psalm is a general reflection on the effects of slander.  Once again, words have become the weapons, but weapons that will ultimately boomerang back on those who use words that way:
Through their mouth’s offense, the word of their lips
they will be trapped in their haughtiness,
and through the oaths and the falsehood they utter. (13)

This verse includes the interesting idea that in uttering falsehoods his enemies will become “trapped in their haughtiness.”  In short, they have come to believe their own lies–or in the modern parlance, they believe their own press releases.  This self-deception is almost always a sign that their fall is coming soon.

Our psalmist is quite anxious to haste their fall as he asks God to accelerate their downfall. We sense deep underlying anger here at how much the words have injured David—so much so that he seeks God’s vengeance on them, but with the interesting twist that it be done so that all Israel understands that it is God who is in charge:
Destroy, O destroy in wrath, that they be no more,
and it will be known to the ends of the earth
that God rules over Jacob [Israel].” (14)

In the meantime his enemies “mutter like dogs. /They prowl round the town.” (16).  In stark contrast to this prowling and muttering, David worships God in deep gratitude with his voice (and we presume, his lyre):
But I shall sing of Your strength,
and chant gladly each morning Your kindness.
For You were a fortress to me
a haven when I was in dire straits. (17)

Isn’t this is exactly where we find ourselves today? We are increasingly surrounded by a growing cacophony of “muttering voices” on all sides. But rather than joining in the angry muttering and posting that Facebook riposte we think the mutterer so richly deserves, we can join David and find refuge in the soaring songs and prayers of worship. With the psalmist we sing:
My strength, to You I would hymn,
for God is my fortress,
my steadfast God. (18)

I have a feel that when Martin Luther was besieged on all sides he found refuge in this psalm—and knowing what we do of his personality, he would not have hesitated to ask God to bring calumny down on the heads of his enemies. And perhaps he found inspiration for his famous hymn here in the last verse of this psalm.

Leviticus 27:16-Numbers 1:16  After what seemed like the grand finale of the Covenant in the previous chapter, chapter 27’s collection of miscellaneous laws seems like the editors suddenly uncovered a bunch of scrolls that they meant to add in earlier. Perhaps working against deadline, they’ve added these laws about land-holding, seed amounts, prorated land assessments basically as an appendix. Above all, this chapter makes it clear that when something is dedicated to God there are no take-backs: “Nothing that a person owns that has been devoted to destruction for the Lord, be it human or animal, or inherited landholding, may be sold or redeemed; every devoted thing is most holy to the Lord.” (27:28)

Despite the solemnity of these laws the final line of Leviticus seems to lack gravitas and seems anodyne and flat: “These are the commands that the LORD charged Moses for the Israelites on Mount Sinai.” (27:34)

The book of Numbers opens by placing God and Moses in  a real place in real time, “in the Wilderness of Sinai in the Tent of Meeting on the first of the second month in the second year of their going out from Egypt,” (1)  And, true to its title, God tells Moses to take a census.  There is no randomness to this activity; God sets the sex and age limit, starting with the army: “every male by their heads. From twenty years old and up, everyone who goes out in the army in Israel.” (3) We then get a list of the men—one form each tribe— who will assist Moses and Aaron in what has to be a pretty arduous and thankless task.

The command for a census and the details of who will carry it out is once again a reminder that God is involved in—and cares deeply about— the details.  Something, in our tendency to make God a benevolent abstraction, we too easily forget.

   Jesus puts to rest the apparently popular idea that Elijah would return in triumph to save Israel. Jesus tells them Elijah is a historical figure, not the Messiah. He once lived and his story has already been written. But there’s an intriguing ambiguity here. Is Jesus talking about the historical Elijah or John the Baptist, who indeed has already come, thus making it clear that Jesus himself if the Son of Man?. “I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written about him.” (13) I think Jesus is telling them if you want to read prophecy, then read what Scripture has to say about the Son of Man rather than about Elijah.

Talk about coming down quickly from a mountaintop experience!  After the awe and presence of God on the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus immediately returns to the status quo ante: a big crowd begging for healing and the disciples attempting to heal the little boy. This is one of those times where Jesus’ frustrated humanity shows through clearly: “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” (19).  We can almost hear his heavy sigh.  “Thickheaded disciples,”  he must be thinking, “now this…”

Mark uses this story to remind us that faith in Jesus must be about honest and from the heart. It cannot be feigned belief. Easy words simply affirming belief are insufficient. True belief is deeper and doesn’t come automatically; we must work at it.  We hear Jesus testing the father that way: “If you are able.”  (23) In other words, belief is much, much more than mere acquiescence to a way of thinking or straightforward intellectual assent.  It comes from deep inside, and it arises from the unfettered presence of the Holy Spirit.  That is why along with the father we say, “I believe; help my belief.”  In other words, belief—faith—is a process and often, a struggle—not a static objective. The father’s prayer my be short, but it has been prayed in true belief that Jesus is who he says he is.  It’s a short but terribly effective prayer.  Which is the point Jesus makes at the end of this incident, This kind [of exorcism] can come out only through prayer.” (29) 

All of which brings us back to David’s prayer. His belief was so deep; his connection to God so close, that uttering his desperate words in the framework of true belief that God would indeed  answer his prayer and act instantly. The question is, is our belief, our faith so strong that we really believe that God can answer prayer instantly as he did for David and for the distraught father?

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