Psalm 68:7–18; Numbers 11; Mark 13:1–13

Originally published 5/22/2016. Revised and updated 5/22/2018

Psalm 68:7-18   Following the themes of jubilation and a reflection on God’s mercy, our psalmist  reminds Israel that God has been among them since the wandering in the desert:
God, when You sallied forth before Your people,
when You strode through the desert. (8)

God among his people is no small matter and our psalmist describes a theophany beginning with an earthquake:
The earth shook,
the heavens, too, poured down before God,
Sinai itself before God, God of Israel. (9),

Rain follows the earthquake as the land is restored:
A bountiful rain You shed, O God.
Your estate that had languished You made firm. (10).

And even, somewhat mystifyingly there is snow, which is rare but not unknown in Israel:
When Shaddai scattered the kings there, it snowed on Zalmon. (15)

Mixed into the poem are specific geological references, “crooked-ridged mountain, Mount Bashan.” (16) which have become so due to seismic activity
Why do you leap, O crooked-ridged mountains,
the mountain God desired for His dwelling? (17)

And as the psalmist looks to the heavens, where God also dwells:
The chariots of God are myriads beyond count,
thousands of thousands
The Master among them
—O, Sinai in holiness! (18)

So what does all this have to do with thanksgiving? I think this is a hymn to the glory, majesty and dynamic power of God’s creation.  God did not just create heaven and earth and then leave town.  He continues to create through the movement of the earth, the seasons, the weather, and as we have recently discovered, through the evolving, ever-changing stars, his “myriad chariots.

God is still very much involved: not only in his larger creation, but as the psalmist observes, in our lives as lives as well: “Blessed be the Master day after day. God heaps upon us our rescue.” (20).  God doesn’t just rescue us, but “heaps upon us” our rescues again and again.  God’s love is not just conceptual, but active within our lives.  Something this psalmist surely knew and had experienced.

Numbers 11: The Israelites, tired of being stuck out in the desert begin to complain “about their misfortunes, [and] the Lord heard it and his anger was kindled.” (1) This fire of anger is more than metaphorical and in fact “consumed some outlying parts of the camp.” (2)

Unsurprisingly, the complaints are about the food. Manna is boring compared to “the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic;” (5) Frankly, I’m rather sympathetic here, but clearly the Israelites had forgotten that they were in the desert and without manna they would have perished a long time ago.

Even Moses is angry, telling God that he’s had it up to here managing these complaining people, wondering once again why God appointed him as leader: ““Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me?” (11) In fact, Moses once again pleads his managerial limitations, telling God, “I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me.” (14). Then, in living proof that Moses was as human as the rest of us, he threatens God, telling him, “If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once—if I have found favor in your sight—and do not let me see my misery.”(15).  Anyone who has had to lead people for any length of time knows just how Moses felt.

The authors of Numbers assert that establishing the council of 70 elders was God’s idea: “the Lord said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tent of meeting, and have them take their place there with you.” (16) Personally, I prefer the story in Exodus where it was Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law who set up the council. But we have to remember that our authors are members of the priestly class and all things that happen are directly attributable to God and God’s intervention.

In the meantime, Moses goes to the people, telling them, “the Lord will give you meat, and you shall eat.” But it comes at a substantial cost. They will have meat alright, but for “a whole month—until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you—because you have rejected the Lord who is among you, and have wailed before him, saying, ‘Why did we ever leave Egypt?’” (20).  The disaster of the quails follows shortly.

If ever we needed an example of the importance of being careful what you wish—or pray—for, it is right here.

Mark 13:1–13: Mark is tersely dramatic as he records the dialog between Jesus and an unnamed disciple. Being from the country, the disciple expresses amazement at “what large stones and what large buildings!” (1) And if you’ve ever been to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, you’ll understand why the disciple was impressed. But I can see the consternation on that man’s face when Jesus announces, “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” (2). Most interpreters take this as a direct prophecy of the temple’s destruction by Titus in CE70. But I’m not sure. Writing near CE90, Mark would certainly be aware of this event. Nevertheless, my own sense is that Jesus is speaking more apocalyptically about the end of history as all the great works of humankind meet their doom.

The inner circle—Peter, James, John, and Andrew—pick up on this dire prophecy and are naturally curious, asking, “when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” (4) As is his wont, Jesus doesn’t answer the question directly, but speaks of the times leading up to the end, warning them (and us) first not to be duped. “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.” (5,6) I suspect that by the time Mark was writing, there were doubtless many variants of orthodox Christianity being preached throughout the Roman world, including perhaps even at Mark’s own community.

But it’s not just false religious leaders that threaten, but “wars and rumors of wars,” (7), and unceasing battle as “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom;” (8a) We need look only at history and weep at the battles fought,  the lives lost  right on down to the present time to know the veracity of Jesus’ statement. But Jesus also predicts that nature itself will rise up against humankind, and “there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines.” (8b) And also all true down through the centuries to today.

Jesus then gets personal, warning his disciples of persecutions to come, including the dissolution of entire families: “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death.” (12) Of all the prophecies here, that is perhaps the most depressing because as Mark wrote, it was doubtless true. The Good News does not alwys produce good consequences within families.

Jesus gives them sage advice of what to do when they are brought before the authorities: “When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit.” (11)

My own take here is that Mark is writing for a community that is increasingly under fire for its Christianity, including individuals in their midst who had been disowned by their families for this cultic belief. This group has suffered, or is about to suffer for its beliefs that reject the Roman rules about worshipping Caesar and are about to have the iron fist of Rome come down on them. Jesus’ words give strength and courage and the fact that “the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (13)

But above all we must be careful not to set those words as applying only to people almost 2000 years ago. The Olivet Discourse feels even more relevant today as we move into a post-Christian culture, not all that unlike the culture within which Mark wrote.

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