Psalm 69:30–36; Numbers 16:28–17:13; Mark 14:43–52

 Originally published 5/28/2016. Revised and updated 5/29/2018

Psalm 69:30–36: Verse 30 is the turning point of this psalm as our psalmist describes his present state but also his confidence that God will eventually act:
But I am lowly and hurting.
Your rescue, O lord, will protect me.
(30)

When we are brought low and feel oppressed on all sides, it is this honest acknowledgement of humility [“lowly”] and pain that strips away all pretense. We stand metaphorically naked before God, knowing that only he can save and protect us. When it comes to true healing, all the powers and attractions of this world are for naught.

With this realization that God will indeed protect him, our psalmist turns to worship as an expression of his deep gratitude to God. Moreover, this worship must be superior to any sacrifice at the temple:
Let me praise God’s name in song,
and let me extol Him in thanksgiving.

And let it be better to the Lord than oxen
than a horned bull with its hooves. (31, 32)

He then realizes that he is not the only hurting person and that he has joined a worshipping congregation, all of whom know that their only hope of rescue is from God:
The lowly have seen and rejoiced,
those who seek God, let their hearts be strong.
” (33)

Thanksgiving and worship brings with it the confidence that God has indeed heard his—and our— desperate but heartfelt prayers:
For the Lord listens to the needy,
and His captives He has not despised
. (34)

God does not despise our failed selves; he accepts—and loves—us in our fallen state. And therefore we worship in gratitude:
Let heaven and earth extol Him,
the seas and all that stirs within them
. (35)

This long psalm concludes on a note that Israel one day will be restored, and that God will rescue not just the psalmist but an entire nation:
For God will rescue Zion
and rebuild the towns of Judea,
and they will dwell there and possess it.
 (36)

And of course we know that through Jesus Christ, God has rescued the entire world. The reality of Christ’s salvation comes to us only we acknowledge that we are lowly and hurting, knowing we cannot rescue ourselves. Alas, most of the world seems bent on ignoring this wonderful promise as it attempts to rescue itself without God’s help.

Numbers 16:28–17:13: As the families of the three rebels stand before their tents, Moses presents a challenge to tells the doubting Israelites. If the people standing there “die a natural death, or if a natural fate comes on them, then the Lord has not sent me.” (16:29) But “if the Lord creates something new, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up, with all that belongs to them,… then you shall know that these men have despised the Lord.” (30) Which of course is exactly what happens as “the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly.” (33) And, by the way, “fire came out from the Lord and consumed the two hundred fifty men offering the incense.” (35) In short, do not question Moses’ authority or try to take over, because then you are acting directly against God, who will efficiently destroy you.

God tells Moses to tell Eleazar to take the 250 censers left on the altar and construct a bronze covering for the altar—”a reminder to the Israelites that no outsider, who is not of the descendants of Aaron, shall approach to offer incense before the Lord.” (40) Call me a cynic, but I think the priestly authors of Numbers, whose ancestor is Aaron, use this horrific story to reassert their authority as the only legitimate priests of Israel/ Judah.

The fates of the three families and the 250 other leaders do not inspire reverence or repentance among the Israelites, and they “rebelled against Moses and against Aaron, saying, “You have killed the people of the Lord.” (41) At this, God is again angry to the point of annihilating Israel, and actually starts killing them off via a plague. Aaron and Moses rush to put incense on the censers and bring them out to the congregation of Israelites “where the plague had already begun among the people. He put on the incense, and made atonement for the people.” (47) Moses was able to stop God’s plague, but only after 14,700 people died.

What are we make of a God who seems more the adolescent while Moses seems to be the adult in the room? My personal sense is that our authors are going to every length to show Moses as the father of their country; the one who held things together, standing between an angry God and a stubborn people. Frankly, I hope this entire story is apocryphal.

The question of authority and who’s in charge still hangs in the air. God instructs Moses to “get twelve staffs from them, one for each ancestral house,…Write each man’s name on his staff, and write Aaron’s name on the staff of Levi.” (16:2,3) God then announces that “the staff of the man whom I choose shall sprout; thus I will put a stop to the complaints of the Israelites that they continually make against you.” (5) Moses puts the staffs inside the tabernacle and lo and behold, “on the next day, the staff of Aaron for the house of Levi had sprouted. It put forth buds, produced blossoms, and bore ripe almonds.” (16:8) No surprise here.

Aaron’s priestly authority is clearly established, and God announces to Moses that the staffs are “to be kept as a warning to rebels, so that you may make an end of their complaints against me, or else they will die.” (16:10).

Nevertheless, the complaints of the hoi polloi did not cease. Not only do the Israelites see themselves lost and perishing in the desert, but they have concluded that “Everyone who approaches the tabernacle of the Lord will die. Are we all to perish?” (16:13) Frankly, that seems to me to be an entirely reasonable question. Were I an Israelite I would certainly feel that the God with whom I’ve cast my fate is capricious and even the holiest place of worship—the tabernacle—has now become a place of death.

Mark 14:43–52: Judas arrives at Gethsemane, backed up by an armed “crowd with swords and clubs.” Mark identifies that they came “from the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders” (43) so we know instantly who’s behind the arrest. Judas, having prearranged the sign, kisses Jesus, who is grabbed and arrested. Mark doesn’t tell us who, but “one of those who stood near drew his sword and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear.” (47). Interestingly, in this earliest of the gospels, Jesus does not appear to heal the victim of the unidentified disciple’s attempt to protect Jesus. Rather, Jesus seems insulted, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit?” (48) and clearly telling Judas and the temple authorities that this secret arrest is a cowardly act, “Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me.” (49).  Of course Jesus knows full well why he wasn’t arrested. For me, these statements also make it clear that Jesus is now fully in control of events. The weeping Jesus, who was praying desperately just a short while ago, is no more. He has received his answer from God and knows what he must do and what he is about. And he will do it deliberately with head held high.

Then, one of the most tragic verses in the gospel: “All of them deserted him and fled.” (50). Jesus was completely alone.

There’s an intriguing aside not really relevant to the action: “A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.” (51, 52) Tradition holds that this was Mark himself, but the gospel writer Mark wrote some 60 years later. But why was he wearing only a linen cloth? Was he out for a run early in the morning? We will never know, but one thing is clear: the events he witnessed were portentous and the young man gave no thought to his lack of clothing as he ran off naked into the early morning darkness.

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