Psalm 73:21–28; Numbers 26:25–56; Luke 1:26–38

Originally published 6/8/2016. Revised and updated 6/8/2018.

Psalm 73:21–28: We encounter a confession that applies to everyone of us who say we walk with God but then proceed to ignore him when we become resentful of other, seemingly more successful people:
When my heart was embittered,
      and my conscience stabbed with pain,
      I was a dolt and knew nothing,
      like cattle I was with You.” (21, 22)

Wow. How often I am a dolt about God’s faithfulness. I encountered a phrase recently that pretty much perfectly describes my faith: “Winter Christian,” which was defined as one whose faith includes doubt and pain. I cannot be one of those ever-smiling Christians that sees the world through the proverbial God-colored glasses, saying everything as peachy wonderful because they know Jesus. My relationship with God s far more like Jacob’s wrestling with the angel, and the psalmist beautifully captures the realization that the doubt lives within us.

Out of the psalmist’s embittered heart comes a profound insight about God’s faithfulness and guidance in our quotidian lives:
Yet I was always with You,
You grasped my right hand.
You guided me with Your counsel,
and toward glory You took me.
” (23, 24)

It is this relationship with God—and for us Christians, with Jesus—that towers over all else for there is no one else in whom we can trust—least of all the values and mores of the seemingly successful:
Whom else do I have in the heavens,
and beside You whom would I want on earth?
 (25)

We come to the hinge point of the psalm in what I think is one of the most beautiful expressions of faith in the Psalms:
Though my flesh and my heart waste away,
God is my heart’s rock and my portion forever.
” (26)

The metaphor that strikes  home—”my heart’s rock“—boldly states that God os the foundational center of our very being. And it is this foundation whereby our poet can conclude his psalm that began as bitterness and envy. Now he—and we—live and breathe in the sure knowledge that God is close, if only we stop and notice—and let God speak to us:
But I—God’s closeness is good to me,
     I make the Master the Lord my shelter,
     to recount all Your works. (28)

Numbers 26:25–56: The census continues in all its glory. It’s interesting that every tribe is counted in the names of its ancestors, e.g., “The descendants of Manasseh: of Machir, the clan of the Machirites; and Machir was the father of Gilead; of Gilead, the clan of the Gileadites.” (29) This underscores the importance of ancestry in Israel. Inasmuch as they did not believe in an afterlife, it is being ensconced in the recollections and memory of one’s descendants that is the crucial connection across time. The essential duty of men and womenwas procreation—a reflection of God’s good creative act.

That is also why there was such shame attached to women such as Elizabeth, who could not bear children. There being no understanding that men could be as equally culpable in preventing conception, all blame was laid squarely at the woman’s feet.

But there’s no question that in general, Israel was blessed with fecundity. We come to the end of the list and our accountant authors summarize the count of males over the age of 20: “This was the number of the Israelites enrolled: six hundred and one thousand seven hundred thirty.” (51)

Ever the planner, God lays out the rules for how the land of Canaan will be divided. First,”the land shall be apportioned for inheritance according to the number of names.” (53) In other words, “To a large tribe you shall give a large inheritance, and to a small tribe you shall give a small inheritance; every tribe shall be given its inheritance according to its enrollment.” (54).

However, just because a particular tribe is big doesn’t mean it will get the best land, Rather, “the land shall be apportioned by lot.” (55a) And just to make sure everyone gets the point, God repeats himself: “Their inheritance shall be apportioned according to lot between the larger and the smaller.” (56) As usual, our authors make sure that their version of God is focused on precision and yes, fairness.

Luke 1:26–38: Gabriel is one busy angel here in Luke’s opening chapter. Luke makes it clear that Gabriel was not acting on his own, but “was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth,” (26) The gospel writer quickly identifies the main human actors, “a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.” (27) However, Joseph now disappears from the story until the next chapter.

In this visitation, Gabriel must have appeared in human form because he seems to show up at Mary’s door and simply says, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” (28) There is no terror on Mary’s part, only puzzlement at what “favored one” must have meant. Luke tells us early on that Mary is a thoughtful, reflective person: “she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” (29) I’m pretty sure most people would not do much pondering at this strange greeting but instantly ask what Gabriel meant. But Mary thinks instead of speaks.

Gabriel speaks first, telling Mary not to be afraid and then repeats his message: “you have found favor with God.” (30) And with that brief introduction he delivers what had to be the strangest news ever communicated to a mortal: “And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.” (31) Luke uses this opportunity to introduce Jesus to his readers—and us—even before he’s been conceived in Mary’s womb as Gabriel lists Jesus’ qualities and bona fides, “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (32, 33) I think these are crucial sentences because it reminds us that while Mary is the means by which Jesus becomes man, the real story Luke is telling is going to be about Jesus. He is also telling us that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, and that God, via Gabriel, has pronounced him to be so. There can be no greater authenticity than that.

Meanwhile, Mary continues to ponder and when she finally speaks, she asks the very practical question about how this going to happen given her virginity. Gabriel explains the details and in what I think is a fairly intimidating metaphor for the sexual act as the angel tells her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (35a). The outcome of this 100% human/100% Godly union will be unprecedented in all history: “therefore the child to be born  will be holy; he will be called Son of God.” (35b) And here, once again, Luke further establishes Jesus’ bona fides before he’s even born in what must have seemed to be the outrageous claim, “He will be called the son of God.” Of course the entire theme of Luke’s gospel is to demonstrate exactly that.

Gabriel provides a modicum of proof that what he’s saying will actually happen by explaining that Mary’s “relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.” And concludes with the famous assertion, “For nothing will be impossible with God.” (37)

To be sure, nothing is impossible with God, but I think the most astounding statement of all in this entire episode of the Annunciation comes from Mary’s lips,“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (38) Compared to Zechariah’s reaction to the news he would be a father, Mary’s accepting equanimity is an incredible contrast. As Mark did in his eponymous gospel, the juxtaposition of these two stories is not coincidental but makes the important point that how we respond to God’s call makes all the difference in the world.

 

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