Psalm 68:7-18; 
Numbers 12:1-13:16; Mark 13:14-27

Psalm 68:7-18   This psalm of thanksgiving becomes intensely meteorological at this point, beginning with an earthquake: “The earth shook, the heavens, too, poured down before God, Sinai itself before God, God of Israel.” (8), followed by rain, “A bountiful rain You shed, O God.” (9).  And even, somewhat mystifyingly, snow, which is rare but not unknown in Israel: “When Shaddai scattered the kings there, it snowed on Zalmon.” (14)

Mixed in are geological references, “crooked-ridged mountain, Mount Bashan.” (15) which have become so due to seismic activity, “Why do you leap, O crooked-ridged mountains, the mountain God desired for His dwelling?” (16) as the psalmist looks to the heavens, “The chariots of God are myriads beyond count,”

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.” (19).  God doesn’t just rescue us, but “heaps upon us” our rescues again and again.  We observed at Hubcaps this morning that God’s love is not just conceptual, but active within our lives.  Something this psalmist surely knew and experienced.

Numbers 12:1-13:16  More complaining.  This time, it’s brother Aaron and sister Miriam complaining to God that their older brother Moses had taken a Cushite wife.  (Apparently there’s lots of controversy about who this wife is since Moses’ named wife, Zapporah, is from Midian, not Cush.  There’s even speculation that this wife was black.)  Interesting that Moses did not marry another Israelite.  A hint perhaps that God, who has the closest possible relationship with Moses, is truly the God of every human being, not just the tribal God of Israel.

In addition to the wife problem, Aaron and Moses are jealous of Moses rather exclusive relationship with God, “Is it but through Moses alone that the LORD has spoken? Has He not spoken through us as well?”(2)  Lesson: be careful what you say. God is listening to this complaint and immediately summons the three of them to the Tabernacle and makes his displeasure at Aaron and Miriam known immediately.

It’s a problem of humility.  Moses was “was very humble, more than any person on the face of the earth.” (3) and it’s the lack of humility on Aaron’s and Miriam’s part that angers God: “the LORD’s wrath flared against them, and He went off.” (8) (I like how God basically walks out in a huff.)  But not before Miriam was “blanched as snow.”

Aaron tries to make things right with both God and Moses, and Moses praying a lengthy prayer that among other things, includes stillbirth, that Miriam be spared.  Moses prays only a brief 5-word prayer, ““God, pray, heal her, pray.” (14)  Prayers are answered and a deal is worked out so that Miriam is banished from camp for only a week.

But the question hangs over this: why is Miriam punished but not Aaron?  Weren’t both equally guilty of pride and arrogance?  Is it because Aaron begs forgiveness and Miriam is silent (at least in this narrative).  Or does this have to do the inferior role of women, who are even more guilty than males of the effrontery of complaining to God?

In chapter 13 we come to the famous scouting expedition to Canaan.  I’m struck by the of the quality and representation of the group that will go out and scout: “one man each for his father’s tribe, every one of them a chieftain.” (13:2) As Alter notes, these are different men than those named as tribal chieftains in previous chapters. Nevertheless, these were not mere enlisted men, but senior officers.  And then Moses seems to decide at the last minute to send Joshua. Which as we will see, will have far-reaching consequences.

Mark 13:14-27  I wonder how much ink (gallons? tank cars? oceans?) and more lately, gigabytes, have been spilled speculating on exactly what, where, and when in history Jesus’ Olivet Discourse is describing.  End times aficionados believe these times are yet to come.  Others opine that it all happened when Titus conquered Jerusalem.

But the last two verses of this section, “They will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” (26, 27) seem to speak pretty clearly to an event in history that has not yet occurred: Jesus’ Second Coming, which we affirm on those occasional weeks we say the Creed at worship.  (But which Lutherans and Presbyterians seem pretty loathe to sermonize about.)

Clearly, the NT writers, including Paul, felt the second coming was imminent.  Our feelings at 2000 years are more ambivalent.  This is the “Blessed Hope,” but it is still only a hope, not a reality.  We also need to remember that Jesus spent a lot more time talking about our labor within the Kingdom than he did on describing the end of history.  And thus, that is where our focus should remain.  Although I wouldn’t mind hearing a sermon about this…

Psalm 68:1-6; Numbers 11; Mark 13:1-13

Psalm 68:1-6   [NOTE: I accidentally commented on this psalm on May 19, thinking I was reading Psalm 66.]  Here are my reflections on psalm 68 in the right place this time!

Psalm 68, a song of praise is rich with imagery and metaphor as the psalmist hymns God in military terms triumphant victor in battle.  All God needs to do is stand up and appear: “Let God arise, let His enemies scatter, and let His foes flee before Him.” (1) The smoke clears and God’s (and David’s) enemies scatter like rats when the light is turned on.  I wonder of Steven Spielberg had this simile in mind when in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Nazis simply melt away at the power of the theophany: “as wax melts before fire, may the wicked perish before God.” (2)

Only the righteous remain and they “rejoice and exult before God, and be gladdened in joy. Sing to God, hymn His name.” (4)  The psalms never let us forget that worship is juxtaposed to every activity of life, including battle.

We are to “Pave the way for the Rider of Clouds,…and exult before Him.” (5)– a memorable image indeed.  But we also must always remember that God is not just the God of the mighty and victorious, but also of the weak: “Father of orphans and widows’ judge, God in His holy abode. God brings the lonely back to their homes, sets free captives in jubilation.”  (6)

It is in this tender mercy for the oppressed is where the God of Israel–our God–is so different from the “small g” gods of David’s time and the “small g” gods of our time.  It is God who cares for the widows and orphans and the weak. The state–the new god we are supposed to trust in, and receive beneficence from, may speak with noble intention, but like all human endeavor it is badly flawed in execution.  Only God in his mercy can truly accomplish both these great and small things.  And our only response is gratitude, singing and worship.

Numbers 11  This chapter is packed with complaining.  First, there is general complaining, which God hears and “His wrath flared and the LORD’s fire burned against them and consumed along the edge of the camp.” (1)  Then there is complaining about the boring menu of manna by “the riffraff that was in their midst [who] felt a craving, and the Israelites, too, again wept and said, “Who will feed us meat?” (4) as they list the menu of tasty things they once enjoyed back in Egypt.  In a remarkable burst of selective memory they say, “we used to eat in Egypt for free” (5), forgetting that the “free” food was at the cost of back-breaking slave labor.

Then Moses complains for a while to God about the heavy burden of leadership, whining, “Did I conceive all this people, did I give  birth to them, that You should say to me, ‘Bear them in your lap, as the guardian bears the infant,’” (11-12).

God responds by promising the people that they will receive meat, rather churlishly noting that they will eat meat for “a month of days…till it comes out of your noses and becomes a loathsome thing to you , inasmuch as you have cast aside the LORD Who is in your midst.” (20)

God also responds to Moses by having him gather 70 elders and sharing the spirit of God among them so that they prophesy, too. But just once. (26)

So, what was the upshot of all this whining?  God certainly grants the desires of the people and of Moses.  The people are buried in dead quail, and Moses doubtless saw that 70 men prophesying at once is mere chaos–a fact underscored by Joshua begging Moses to restrain the final two (Eldad and Medad) who were still running around “prophesying,” which Alter notes probably meant mostly ecstatic utterances and dancing.

The upshot?  Be careful what we complain about and what we ask God for.  He may answer our prayers in a way that illustrates the folly of our desires–just as he did for Moses and the “riffraff” of Israel.

 Mark 13:1-13  Awestruck, one of the disciples (clearly on his first trip to Jerusalem) remarks on the enormous size of the 2nd Temple.  Rather than simply agreeing, Jesus turns prophetic, “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” (13:2).  Which of course happened in AD70 at the invasion of Titus.

Obviously his words were more than a little disturbing, and the inner disciples “asked him privately,…when will this be accomplished.”  Jesus answers rather obliquely, ““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).  

My own view is that Jesus is referring to the many “prophets” and zealots that were constantly forecasting Israel’s doom and/or its triumph over the Romans.  All of which is a distraction for the core purpose of the Kingdom of God.  Even wars, rumors of wars and natural and manmade disasters are nothing to be afraid of.  The warning for us is also clear: don’t be distracted by trying to figure out the nature second coming or trying to line up every event in revelation with a historical or future human event.  Or by obsessing on the never-ending wars and rumors of wars continually available to us on the cable news channels.

But then Jesus gets personal: “As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them.” (9), which of course is exactly what happens.

Almost parenthetically, Jesus adds, “And the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations.” (10), which itself has become a distraction as people believe Jesus can’t come agin until that happens.  Who knows? 

What is true is that carrying the message to all the nations involves persecution, “and you will be hated by all because of my name.” (13).  We should not forget that this part is certainly true historically–and even more true today as persecution of Christians is rampant in the Middle East, in Africa and Asia from the less than benevolent Islamic view of Christianity.  Persecution occurs even in the west, in Europe and North America, albeit by more subtle means than kidnapping and burning down churches.

Psalm 67; Numbers 9:15-10:36; Mark 12:35-44

Psalm 67  This psalm is a flat out song of thanksgiving (and just what I needed this morning while feeling somewhat despondent about my latest medical issue.)  It begins with those same lines we read not too long ago in Numbers 6, here as an invocation rather than a benediction: “May God grant us grace and bless us, may He shine His face upon us.”

This is also one of those psalms that reminds us that God is the God of all creation and of all humankind, not just Israel: “To know on the earth Your way,  among all the nations Your rescue.” (2)  There is even a feeling of the final throne room scene in Revelation where “Nations acclaim You, O God, all peoples acclaim You. Nations rejoice in glad song, ” (3,4a)

Just to make his point–the psalmist repeats verse 3 at verse 5: “The nations acclaim you…” In one sense this is a “missionary psalm,” and must certainly have been on Jesus’ mind when he gave the Great Commission.  How could the nations acclaim God if they did not know that it is God who “rule[s] people rightly and nations on earth You lead?” (4)

But it is also a stark reminder that no matter how far the nations have strayed from God–and they have certainly strayed far these days–it is God who will bless us and at some point, “all the ends of earth [will] fear Him.”  (Fear in the sense of awestruck worship.)

Numbers 9:15-10:36  Now that it is set up and good order established, the Cloud shows up and hovers over the Tabernacle.  The movement of the cloud/nighttime fire is the commanding signal for the ongoing journey of Israel.  And there is a certain unpredictability as how long the cloud–and therefore Israel–would stay at any one location.  The key point is that Israel followed the Lord’s leading: “By the LORD’s word they would camp and by the LORD’s word they would journey onward.” (9:20)

I’m sure all of us have wished for such a definite sign from God when it comes to the decisions of life: that we would know when to camp and when to move on. But the cloud also reminds us that it is God who should be leading our own lives in terms of the choices we ultimately make.  At a more pragmatic level, though, this passage about the cloud sets up the narrative that will follow the peregrinations of Israel in the remainder of this book.  All is ready for the journey.

In another one of those passages where we are impressed by the level of detail in which God involves Himself, the basic signaling devices–two silver trumpets–are fabricated and then the meaning of various signals is set out.  Again, details that point to the historicity of the wilderness journey.  Mere fiction would not take the time to lay out the precise order of march, including where the groups carrying the pieces of the Tabernacle fit in, nor would the meaning of the various signals sounded on the silver trumpets, including the call to battle, “you shall let out a long blast with the trumpets and be remembered before the LORD your God and be rescued from your enemies.” (10:10)

And a reminder to us that God never forgets, but always remembers us, too.

Israel leaves the foot of Sinai and we hear the Song of the Ark (or as Alter suggests, perhaps only the opening lines of that song):

“as the Ark journeyed on, that Moses would say, “Rise O LORD, and Your enemies scatter, and Your foes flee before You!”

and when it came to rest, he would say,  “Come back O LORD to Israel’s teeming myriads.””

Mark 12:35-44  Although the scribes are afraid to ask him any more questions, Jesus is not finished with them just yet, as he continues to point out their theological errors, this time about the relation between David and the Messiah and that the Messiah cannot possibly be David’s literal son.  Mark records the reaction of the crowd rather than the scribes.  The “large crowd was listening to him with delight.” (37)  

Delight, I imagine, not just at the truths Jesus was revealing but that he was putting these theological know-it-alls, who doubtless lorded their superior knowledge over the hoi polloi, into their rightful place.  

But wait, there’s more.  As Jesus points out their scribal hypocrisy: that somehow their superior knowledge has earned them the right to “walk around in long robes, and be greeted with respect in the marketplace.”  How easy it is for us who know a couple of theological truths to strut in the same practiced superiority. 

Jesus basically seals the deal with the scribes by promising them the “greater condemnation.”  Mark doesn’t need to describe the scribes reaction to this statement.  We know it: barely suppressed outrage.   As we’ve observed before, it’s almost as if Jesus continues to goad officialdom in order to ensure they make good on their threats by the end of this most significant week.

Another one of Mark’s juxtapositions follows:  Immediately following his condemnation of the haughty scribes, he praises the widow with two mites.  As we all learned in Sunday School, two mites trumps “large sums” because while others “contributed out of their abundance,” it is all she possessed.

But there is more here: there is the humility of the widow pitted against the haughtiness and hypocrisy of church officialdom.  As we see frequently in the OT, widows and orphans are always accorded special protection by God–and we all have a duty, which the scribes had clearly forgotten, to protect them.

 

Psalm 66:16-20; Numbers 8:5-9:14; Mark 12:18-34

I’m late today, having had to wait until the hydrocodone wore off following my Monday evening visit to the ER in intense pain that turned out to be a kidney stone.  But I may as well write while waiting for it–and time–to pass…

Psalm 66:16-20 [I have just realized that yesterday I wrote on Psalm 68 rather than 66. Oh, well.  These things happen…  So, I will reflect on the entirety of Psalm 66 psalm here]

This psalm begins with a shout: “Shout out to God, all the earth. Hymn His name’s glory. Make His praise glory,” and invites the listener to “Come and see the acts of God, awesome in works over humankind.” (4)  Good to be reminded of that in this age of technology where we are too easily duped into believing our acts and inventions are greater than God’s works.

God has indeed “turned the sea into dry land” (5) but above all, God has preserved Israel, “Who has kept us in life, and not let our foot stumble.” (8)  But while God preserves the psalmist also knows that they have been put to the test by all manner of trials:

“For You tested us, God,
You refined us as silver refined.
You trapped us in a net,
placed heavy cords round our loins.
You let people ride over us.
We came into fire and water—”  (9-11)

But whether by trial or captivity or natural disaster, “You brought us out to great ease.”  For me, this is the hinge point of the psalm: God brings us out.  There is life and even “ease” on the other side of disaster–as I know well by personal experience over the past five years.

This bringing-out God is the one of whom today I sing with the psalmist, “Come listen and let me recount, all you who fear God, what He did for me.” (16).  Every human has a story to tell, and no matter how sophisticated we think we are it is to other’s stories that we respond best.  Philosophical abstractions have their place, but it is the human story of how God brought us out that is our witness of God’s mercy in the world.

Numbers 8:5-9:14 

All of the offerings have been brought to the Tabernacle; everything is in readiness.  The Levites are to be consecrated to service in the Tabernacle in a very specific manner: “sprinkle on them expiation water and pass a razor over all their flesh and wash their clothes and be purified.” (8)  This is certainly a description of the roots of baptism: that it is a form of purification so that we can come before God.  (Although I’m glad we’ve gotten away from the razor part.)  I also presume that the roots ordination are found here as well.

God then makes it clear that He has the indisputable right the firstborn of every species, “For Mine is every firstborn among the Israelites, in man and in beast, on the day I struck down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, I consecrated them to Me.” (17) Notice that God says “I have taken them to me” (16)–it’s not like he’s asking for firstborn volunteers….

And the Levites serve as substitutions of the firstborn: “And I took the Levites instead of every firstborn among the Israelites.”  And God drafts every Levite between the age of 25 and 50; they have no say in the matter.

Unlike the animal sacrifices atoning for Israel’s sins, here we have here the case of one human (Levite) substituting for another human (first born).  A precedent that the author of Hebrews takes up, and that we understand as Jesus Christ’s substitutionary atonement for us (which is a large complicated theology I do not fully grasp…)

The Passover celebration comes next in chapter 9.  Except there’s a problem of two unclean men who have recently touched a corpse as well as the question of what to do if the person is on a journey.  Passover is the primary sign of belonging to Israel (and continued today by non-observant Jews who nevertheless participate at Passover).

And God, ever generous, provides instructions for this situation: “they shall do it, with flatcakes and bitter herbs they shall eat it. They shall leave nothing of it till morning, and no bone shall they break in it. (9:12)  Once again, God deals with every exigency.  He truly cares about the details.

Mark 12:18-34  After dealing with yet another theological trick question, this time about resurrection, but certainly not The Resurrection, Jesus throws some more gasoline on the fire by flat out asserting to the scribes, “you are quite wrong.” (27)

But not all of them. One scribe comes forward and asks Jesus which is the greatest commandment, and we all know how Jesus answers.  But what we don’t talk about very much is the scribe’s courage in acknowledging that what Jesus said is true, “You are right, teacher; you have truly said…” (32) He then responds to Jesus’ answer in his words, “‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ (32-33a). To do that means the scribe has internalized these great truths.

But then the scribe boldly adds the part that his colleagues and church officials would rather not hear: “—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (33b)  And Jesus responds with what I think is the highest compliment he ever gives another person–and a scribe no less: “When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” ” (34). 

Mark is telling us something very important here.  For all the theological confusion about the Kingdom of God, its essence is really very simple. It begins with obedience to the two great commandments.

We keep hearing these days about “Jesus as radical.”  But I’m forced to ask, what’s so radical about loving God and your neighbor?  Other than the simple fact that it means our own egos are third in precedence.

Psalm 66:1-15; Numbers 7:72-8:4; Mark 12:13-17

Psalm 66:1-15  This psalm of praise is rich with imagery and metaphor as the psalmist hymns God in military terms triumphant victor in battle.  All God needs to do is stand up and appear: “Let God arise, let His enemies scatter, and let His foes flee before Him.” (1) The smoke clears and God’s (and David’s) enemies scatter like rats when the light is turned on.  I wonder of Steven Spielberg had this simile in mind when in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Nazis simply melt away at the power of the theophany: “as wax melts before fire, may the wicked perish before God.” (2)

Only the righteous remain and they “rejoice and exult before God, and be gladdened in joy. Sing to God, hymn His name.” (4)  The psalms never let us forget that worship is juxtaposed to every activity of life, including battle.

We are to “Pave the way for the Rider of Clouds,…and exult before Him.” (5)– a memorable image indeed.  But we also must always remember that God is not just the God of the mighty and victorious, but also of the weak: “Father of orphans and widows’ judge, God in His holy abode. God brings the lonely back to their homes, sets free captives in jubilation.”  (6)

It is in this tender mercy for the oppressed is where the God of Israel–our God–is so different from the “small g” gods of David’s time and the “small g” gods of our time.  It is God who cares for the widows and orphans and the weak. The state–the new god we are supposed to trust in, and receive beneficence from, may speak with noble intention, but like all human endeavor it is badly flawed in execution.  Only God in his mercy can truly accomplish both these great and small things.  And our only response is gratitude, singing and worship.

 Numbers 7:72-8:4   The concluding paragraph of this long catalog chapter does not appear to have any connection to what precedes it in chapter 7 nor to what follows in chapter 8.  Rather, it simply describes how God and Moses communicate, although rather mysteriously, it does not actually mention the name of God, so we have to infer God among the thicket of masculine pronouns.

We find out that there is no theophany, only God’s voice: “he [Moses] would hear the voice being spoken to him” and we know where God is speaking from, “from above the covering that is over the Ark of the Covenant , from between the two cherubim,” (89)  A voice is how God usually appears to Moses, be it the burning bush, the long disquisitions on Sinai and now in the Tabernacle.  Only once does Moses actually see God’s glory and then only with his back turned.

There are two instances in Jesus’ ministry where God speaks: at Jesus’ baptism and again on the Mount of Transfiguration.  No wonder Peter wanted to setup a booth for Moses, that Great Communicator with God.

And today, we ask “what is God saying to us?” But will it ever be an actual audible voice of God? I know someone who has heard God speak audibly to him, and I believe him.

Mark 12:13-17  The question about paying taxes is perhaps the most famous of the Pharisee’s trick questions for Jesus.  My own take is that this question was part of a larger plot by the Temple authorities and their hangers-on to take down Jesus by having Rome conveniently remove him from the scene for sedition.

“Aha,” the elders may have said, “This Jesus keeps talking about the Kingdom of God, so let’s force him to commit treason when he obviously states that the Kingdom of God trumps the Roman empire–and that taxes should be withheld from Rome.  He’s already popular with the hoi polloi, that statement will only make him more popular.  Everyone hates to pay taxes.”

So, thinking they have Jesus ensnared by his earlier statements, the officials send off a couple of junior Pharisees to pop the question.  But once again, Jesus says the unexpected thing: the Kingdom of God is not there to replace the Roman Empire.  They somehow exist side by side in a manner that is completely unexpected–not to mention incomprehensible.

And when Mark says, “they were utterly amazed at him.” (17) he means not just astounded, but befuddled and not a little angry that the trap had been sprung and the prey had once again escaped.  Clearly, it was back to the beginning.  A new, more complicated plot now had to be devised.

 

 

Psalm 65:9-13; Numbers 7:1-35; Mark 11:12-26

Psalm 65:9-13  The final verses of this psalm are perhaps the most beautiful description of God’s creation to be found in the Psalms.  God is the ultimate steward of the bounty of the earth: “You pay mind to the earth and soak it. You greatly enrich it. God’s stream is filled with water.” (9)  As here in California and certainly in the Middle East, water plays a central role.  And with water, it is God who creates growth: “You ready their grain, for so You ready it.”

Water is nature’s essence: “Quench the thirst of its furrows, smooth out its hillocks, melt it with showers, its growth You will bless.” (10)  Water, and the fruit that arises from it, comprise the apotheosis of a bountiful harvest: “You crown Your bountiful year, and Your pathways drip ripeness. The wilderness meadows do drip,”  One can hear the drops of water of the just-concluded rain falling from the leaves of green plants.

And finally, the image of beautiful clothing covering the earth–all created by the water and God’s bounty:  “with joy the hills are girded. The pastures are clothed with flocks and the valleys are mantled with grain.”  No wonder “They [all of creation, I think] shout for joy, they even sing.”  As do we when we survey the green hills following a gentle rain.  An image to hold in my head through this drought-stricken, fire-plagued California landscape.

Numbers 7:  Although the Moravians split this chapter in two, I’ll deal with it as a whole.  It much more catalog than a narrative chapter.  The Tabernacle has been set up and the chiefs of the tribes bring the offering of each tribe: “the heads of their  fathers’ houses, they are the chieftains of the tribes , they are the ones who stand over the reckoning.” (2)

The 12 chieftains bring their offering in 6 wagons (one wagon for two tribes), each pulled by 2 oxen.  The wagons and oxen are an immensely useful offering themselves, and “two wagons and the four oxen he gave to the Gershonites, and “four wagons and the eight oxen he gave to the Merarites according to their work.”  But “to the Kohathites he did not give, for the work of the sanctuary was upon them, on the shoulder did they carry.”  (8-10) So the Tabernacle was carried form place to place by wagon and oxen, although the Kohathites didn’t require wagons since the sanctuary furnishings they carried were relatively light.  A reminder that in church building campaigns, pledges built to pay for the invisible items such as the structure and foundation are just as important as the visible furnishings and decoration.

This is also one of those passages where you realize that actual history is described.  A fairy tale would not deal with such mundane but necessary issues as cartage of the Tabernacle.

Then comes what Alter calls an “epic inventory,” a listing of the items that each tribe brought as an offering.  But each offering, described in loving detail, is exactly the same–denoting the equality of each tribe.  And the identical inventory is repeated for each tribe, resulting in twelve verbatim lists occupying this chapter.  But that’s not redundancy by any means: years later, when each tribe looked back  at its history, they could see in writing what their forebears had done.

And we engage in the same practice today, most popularly in lists of donors printed in the appendices of every non-profit’s annual report.  Naming names in writing reminds us that we were there–and that we made a difference.

Mark 11:12-26  I wonder if there’s a PhD thesis or two out there regarding Mark’s juxtapositions?  In today’s reading, Jesus curses the fig tree, then cleanses the Temple, then talks to his disciples about the significance of that same withered fig tree.

Mark’s logic chain really quite simple: Fruitless fig trees are useless and need to be removed from the garden.  (Although Mark tells us figs were not in season, but that apparently didn’t matter to Jesus; he was hungry.)

For Jesus, the commerce at the Temple was just as pointless as the fruitless fig tree–a perversion, if you will, of its original function.  The Temple has but one purpose: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations.” (17)  But instead it has become a “den of robbers.” 

Then, leaving the city, they pass by the now obviously dead fig tree.  And Jesus grasps the teachable moment: “I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” (24).  At first glance, this seems something of a non-sequitir, having little to do with a dead fig tree, until we recall what Jesus said about the Temple being a house of prayer.  

So, we too, absent prayer in our lives, or more specifically, faith that our prayers will be answered, are not much different than a dead fig tree or a moneychanger in the Temple courtyard: pretty useless.  But if we have faith in praying then we, too, will bear great fruit. Especially when we pray to forgive others.

 

Psalm 65:1-8; Numbers 6; Mark 11:1-11

Psalm 65:1-8  As the superscription notes, a song.  And a welcome respite from the sturm und drang of the several preceding psalms.  The opening verse is a touchstone for those of us who are happiest in the rare moments of silence during worship: “To You silence is praise, God, in Zion, and to You a vow will be paid.” (1) In our silence we are paying a vow to God by coming to him in silence, confident in the knowledge that God is listening to our prayer: “O, Listener to prayer, unto You all flesh shall come.” (2)

David knows he is a sinner, but he also knows he is forgiven: “My deeds of mischief are too much for me. Our crimes but You atone.”  (3) He, unlike so many of us, knows that he lacks the strength to carry “my deeds of mischief” by himself, but gives them over to God.  Would that my relationship with God were so strong that I would keep nothing form him, knowing that in my silence He hears everything.

Everything about these first verses moves from sound and fury to silence because that is what God does.  Both aurally and in our hearts: “Who quiets the roar of the seas, the roar of their waves and the tumult of nations.” (7)  Certainly a promise to recall each time we turn on the news.

Numbers 6  Both men and women could become nazirites, which I take as a religious practice somewhat parallel to monks and nuns in the Catholic church.  Unlike those religious who take a lifelong vow, however, someone was a nazirite for a certain period of their life–a few years perhaps–with the purpose of “keep[ing] himself apart for the L ORD,” (3) in a life of contemplation.

Their specific duties are not enumerated beyond keeping a three-fold vow:  (1) abstaining from wine and liquor; (2) never cutting their hair; and (3) avoiding contact with a corpse.

The most famous biblical nazirites were Samson and John the Baptist–and maybe Samuel.

But even more than laying out the rules for nazirites, Numbers 6 is most famous for its blessing, which we hear to day most often as a benediction:

May the LORD bless you and guard you.
May the LORD light up His face to you and grant grace to you;
May the LORD lift up His face to you and give you peace.’

Which means that what we hear every week is the most ancient roots of all.  It’s awesomely sobering to reflect on the fact that those words have been uttered in every language for thousands of years across hundreds of generations–and are perhaps the most tangible link we have with those “clouds of witnesses” that have preceded us.

Mark 11:1-11  Jesus arrives outside the walls of Jerusalem.  MArk doesn’t record any further conversations between Jesus and the disciples prior to arriving in Jerusalem, but as Mark has made clear, the disciples still don’t “get it.”  So, perhaps in their excitement, the disciples thought, “At last! He’s going to claim his rightful place as the Messiah that will rescue Israel from the Romans by riding into the city triumphantly astride a horse, just like the average Roman leader.”

But then Jesus does two things that surely should have raised some doubts about that theory.  First, he instructs his disciples to go borrow am unridden colt. (I don’t know enough about horses to know why this should be the traditional donkey.  Sounds like a young horse to me…)  But the animal Jesus asks for is certainly not a mature stallion so much more appropriate for the grand entrance of a conquering king.

And then perhaps even more distressingly, Jesus makes it clear that he wants only to borrow the animal for just a little while and then it will be returned to its owner.  Would a conquering king do that?  Or is Jesus making some kind of other statement here?  Has anyone figured this out yet?

Finally, I’ve always followed the popular image of a substantial portion of the population of Jerusalem rushing out to greet their conquering hero, paving the street with palm fronds and their coats, and shouting hosannas at him. But I think these people were actually the crowd that along with the disciples, had accumulated as the group accompanying Jesus on his journey over the past days and weeks.  Mark gives us a clue when he says, “Then those who went ahead and those who followed,” (9) which certainly suggests to me that some in Jesus’ crowd took the initiative and ran on ahead to the gate to lay their cloaks and branches in the road, and then stand alongside as Jesus rode into town.  

My own suspicion is that this triumphal entrance consisted mainly of Jesus’ own followers plus a few residents who may have joined when they heard the commotion. But I’m guessing that few Jerusalemites looked up from their Sunday papers, and that this “triumphal entrance” escaped the notice of the Roman guard altogether.  Which was fine with Jesus.

This is not to minimize the importance of this event.  It was the perfect entrance for the Suffering Servant.

Psalm 64; Numbers 5; Mark 10:46-52

Psalm 64  Even though there is no superscription describing David’s circumstances, we know instantly that this is a psalm of supplication spoken in a fairly desperate situation where David is surrounded by men intending him harm: “Hear, God, my voice in my plea.  From fear of the enemy guard my life.” (1)  However, unlike previous psalms, David’s peril seems to be not on the battlefield, but from plotters in the midst of his court.  They are ostensibly his counselors, but are conspiring to overthrow him, “Conceal me from the counsel of evil men, from the hubbub of the wrongdoers” (2).  (I like Alter’s “hubbub of wrongdoers” as over against the NRSV’s “from the scheming of evildoers” since it captures the mumbling and murmuring one would expect in a court rife with plotting and conniving.)

And their weapons are, as so often in the Psalms, words: “who whetted their tongue like a sword,  pulled back their arrow—a bitter word—” (2,3).  They use words to two purposes: first using them “to shoot in concealment the innocent,” and then to plot David’s overthrow, believing their conspiracy will be successful: “They encourage themselves with evil words. They recount how traps should be laid. They say, Who will see them?” (5)

Human nature has not changed a whit in 3000 years: even today, men conspire, like David’s courtiers believing that they will get away with it, saying, “Let them search out foul deeds! We have hidden them from the utmost search, in a man’s inward self, and deep is the heart.” (6)

And sometimes they do.  Except at the end: “But God will shoot an arrow at them. In a flash they will be struck down.”  And their weapon–their tongues–will be turned back against them: “And their tongue will cause them to stumble, all who see them will nod in derision.”  As my father said often, “the chickens will come home to roost.”  Or as we marketers say, “once you start believing your own press releases, the end is near.”

Numbers 5  This uncomfortable chapter begins with a reprise of the rule from Leviticus that those with disease must remain outside the camp lest they defile the others in the camp.  Then it moves to confession of wrongdoing, including the issue of redemption: “if the man should have no redeemer to render back to him for his guilt, what is rendered back shall be the LORD’s” (7), which of course Jesus Christ has taken care of for us.

But the centerpiece of the chapter dealing with a woman accused of her husband of adultery feels downright barbaric.  Alter notes that this is the only trial by ordeal described in the Bible.  The husband, on the mere suspicion that his wife has laid with another man, brings her to the priest where she is shamed by the ritual of undoing her hair (18) and required to drink brackish water or what Alter renders as “bitter besetting water.”  If she’s guilty, there are dire physical consequences of drinking the water. If she is innocent, the water has no effect.  (At least there is no death penalty for adultery involved…)

If nothing else, this chapter reminds us of the enormous asymmetry between the sexes in the OT up through Jesus’ time–and the centuries since then.  The husband is free to accuse his wife, even without evidence.  The disturbing last sentence of this disturbing chapter says it all: “and the man shall be clear of guilt, and that woman shall bear her guilt.”  Even if she proves innocent, the husband suffers no consequences.

This is one of those places where we can only say, “noted,” and move on–but always wondering what the inerrantists and literalists have to say about this chapter.

Mark 10:46-52   After all the drama of Jesus’ prediction of events to come at Jerusalem, the dialog of James and John seeking power, and the consequent anger of the other disciples, Mark provides a bit of respite in recounting the healing of blind beggar, Bartimaeus.

We cannot miss the irony of Mark’s juxtaposition of this story with what immediately precedes it. Jesus asks quite directly, “What do you want me to do for you?” and Bartimaeus replies just as directly, “My teacher, let me see again.” (51)  Would that the disciples could ask as simply as Bartimaeus because then they, too, would see what jesus was about.  Not to mention us…

As he often does upon healing someone, Jesus remarks, “your faith has made you well.”  Where the disciples are distracted by confusion mixed with visions of political glory, Bartimaeus is the exemplar of simple faith.  “I’m blind; I’d like to see.” Jesus is asking nothing more of us.  

We must lay aside our desires, our schemes, our  ambitions for power, and as Oswald Chambers would put it, abandon ourselves to Christ.  We must empty ourselves as Bartimaeus surely had, and rely on one simple thing only: faith that Jesus is who he says he is and will do what he promises.

Psalm 63; Numbers 4:15-49; Mark 10:32-45

Psalm 63   The superscription of this psalm, “A David psalm, when he was in the wilderness of Judea” is certainly echoed by the first verse.  Our own throats go dry when we read “God, my God, for You I search. /My throat thirsts for You, /my flesh yearns for You/ in a land waste and parched, with no water.”

In that Mediterranean  climate , water is life and I have to think that when John’s followers were baptized in the desert with water, it had a much more dramatic impact than when we baptize in beautifully crafted baptismal fonts inside the church.

But, as David makes clear, the desert is also where we encounter God: “So, in the sanctum I beheld You, seeing Your strength and Your glory.” (2)  Moses is certainly the exemplar of meeting God in the wilderness.  Our own daily lives tend to be so cluttered with events and schedules that we miss seeing God.  Perhaps we need more desert experience to be able o say with David, “My being clings to You, for Your right hand has sustained me.” (8)

Because in stark contrast to the opening verse, God not only quenches David’s thirst, but his every need as well: “As with ripest repast my being is sated, 6 and with lips of glad song my mouth declares praise.” (5).  This is what God does: not only is our thirst quenched, but we receive more that we can even imagine–to the point of satiety.  But can I say with David that my very being clings to God?

Numbers 4:15-49  This entire chapter deals with the logistic issue peculiar to the Tabernacle.  Unlike temples and other holy places of other cultures of the time, the Tabernacle is portable and must be moved from place to place.  That’s a real problem when only the Levitical priests can touch or even look at the sacred objects, since it’s impractical to have the people responsible for packing and moving the Tabernacle and its furnishings struck dead by merely looking at or touching a sacred object.  So, special provisions are established to solve this problem.

Thus, the Kohathites are designated for covering and packing the sacred objects; the Gershonites and are responsible for picking up and moving the furnishings and the Merarites are responsible for disassembling and reassembling the Tabernacle structure itself.  All of them are exempted from dying when the touch and move these objects.  [Irreverent side note: this chapter reminds me of the logistics involved in setting up and then disassembling a booth at a trade show.]

It’s interesting that the age designated–30 to 50 years old–is when a man is in his prime of life.  Not to mention that this stuff was big and heavy and required great strength.  As well, it suggests that the men involved had not only physical maturity but spiritual maturity as well.

The last verse of the chapter, “By the LORD’s word did he reckon them through the hand of Moses, every man according to his work and according to his carriage,” (49) reads directly to the idea–which we don’t hear very much about these days–of the vocation of work.  That the laypeople who perform work both in and out of the church are as equally called by God as the priesthood of ordained pastors.  (Or as my late friend, Steve Gregoriev, used to put it, “paid holy persons…”)

Mark 10:32-45  This is the third time in Mark that Jesus prophesies his death and resurrection–and in more detail than previously: “the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”  And as we know, everything happened exactly as Jesus predicted.  

And still, the disciples did not get it.  Jesus’ rather clear statement notwithstanding, James and John apparently still envision a political victory, and they are maneuvering for a leadership role.

Of course, Mark and we his readers know what happens in Jerusalem, so Jesus’ statement, “You do not know what you are asking” is freighted with heavy irony.  Jesus’ next statement, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized;” (39) is a prophecy not just for James and John, but for all of us, as indeed we drink from Jesus’ cup and are baptized along with Jesus in the two Lutheran sacraments.

Jesus describes the essence of true leadership: that a leader is above all a servant to the led.  A principle that holds true through history when we examine great leaders.  And in the case of Jesus, perhaps his clearest statement on why he was coming to Jerusalem to die: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (45)

Did the disciples get it then?  Mark doesn’t tell us, but probably not.  Nor, do I think, would we if were in that space and time.  Clearly stated prophecies notwithstanding, some things can be understood only in the past tense.

Psalm 61; Numbers 3:1-32; Mark 10:1-12

Psalm 61  This psalm of praise, gratitude and supplication sums up many of the psalms that precede it.  The opening is prayerful worship: “Hear, God, my song,  listen close to my prayer.  From the end of the earth I call You.” (1,2)  As usual, worship involves calling and listening, only in this case, it is the psalmist calling, asking God to listen.

Of course God listens to our petitions and to our worship, but in the act ask of using my voice to ask God, we are like a child asking our parent for something.  Kids don;t just think their requests; they say them: the connection becomes all the tighter.

Too often, I just assume God is listening and start out with my prayer in my head.  Yes, God hears my thoughts, but if I vocalize them, asking God to hear me and to listen, I am reminded that this is a real, living relationship and that God is far more than an interesting philosophical concept.

And in the act of asking, and thanking God–“For You have been a shelter to me,  a tower of strength in the face of the foe.” (3)– we,too rest in the psalmist’s assurance that God has  not only heard, but acted: “For You, God, have heard my vows, You have granted the plea of those who fear Your name.” (5).  And then what else can we do, but with the psalmist do this every day: “So let me hymn Your name forever as I pay my vows day after day.” (8)

Numbers 3:1-32  After describing the organization and duties of the other tribes, Moses turns his attention to Aaron’s tribe, the Levites.

First, there is the all-important naming of names, including “Nadab and Abihu died before the LORD when they brought forward unfit fire before the LORD.”  And then, a strikingly sad note, “and the sons they did not have.” (4).  Nadab’s and Abihu’s disobedience not only killed them, but it cut off their subsequent generations.

In that world, there was no act of manhood more important than to have sons.  And in our own world, even though we may have sons and daughters, it is foolhardy to think our sins affect only ourselves; they have impact not only on those near to us, but on those who come after us.

Once again, the Old Testament reminds us that it got there first and that again and again, the events of Jesus’ life echo what came thousands of years before. “I have taken the Levites from the midst of the Israelites in place of every firstborn womb-breach of the Israelites , that the Levites be Mine.” (12, 13).  And, “For Mine is every firstborn.”  Just as the Levites have substituted for the firstborn of every Israelite, so, too, Jesus, God’s firstborn son has substituted for all of us.

Mark 10:1-12  Jesus’ disquisition on marriage and divorce is one of those “hard passages” that many of us would prefer to skim right over.  Even though the Pharisees already know the answer to their question–or think they do–they ask Jesus, ““Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” (2)  Jesus gives them the right answer, but then, as he always does, goes on to add the unexpected: Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.” (5). I’m pretty sure the Pharisees weren’t thinking about their hardness of heart.

Jesus then describes the crucial distinction between God’s perfect creation and the fallen world as it actually is.  God’s plan is clear: “ But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’” (6) And this sexual distinction is how a perfect creation would operate going forward.  Husband and wife are joined together permanently.  To separate them lies outside God’s intended order.  To try and recreate that union again on human terms (divorce then remarriage) is to contravene God’s intention and therefore a sin. 

This is where the Roman Catholic church officially stands on marriage, although its rules about annulment have been stretched pretty thin–especially for wealthy and influential people.

But we live in a fallen world.  Jesus knows this because he has acknowledged that for our “hardness of heart” exceptions exist.  So, we have stretched that exception to cover divorce and remarriage.  As for me, I squirm uncomfortably whenever I come to this passage.  I suspect I’m not alone.

But I wonder, if we have taken God’s perfect intention and stretched it to fit our needs and desires, have we then not set a precedent for other stretching exercises such as gay marriage?  Our sinfulness is the exemplar of that slippery slope.