Psalm 76; Numbers 31:48-32:27; Luke 2:21-32

Psalm 76:  We have moved rapidly from God’s silence in Psalm 74 to God as supreme judge in 75 to God as all-conquering warrior and judge in today’s psalm: “…His dwelling in Zion. / There did He shatter the bow’s fiery shafts, / the shield and the sword and the battle.” (4)  Opposing armies are essentially paralyzed because of God’s overwhelming power: “The stout-hearted were despoiled, / they fell into a trance, / and all the men of valor could not lift a hand.” (6)

God not only speaks, His voice terrifies: “By Your roar, O God of Jacob, / chariot and horse were stunned.” This is not the avuncular, white-haired God of popular imagination; this the angry, judging God: “From the heavens You made judgment heard, / the earth was afraid and fell silent,” (9).  But, as we see so often, God cares above all for the poor and lowly, and he judges others who are mightier than those in light of what they have done for–or against–the lowest in society: “God rose up for judgment / to rescue all the lowly of earth.”  Jesus’ disquisition in Matthew 25 is not a radical new thought; it is a restatement of what God has been saying all along: God cares above all for the poor, the dispossessed, the sick.

But as the psalmist reminds us at the end, those who would be great and who fail to remember this should stand in mortal terror: “He plucks the life-breath of princes./ He is fearsome to the kings of the earth.” (13)

Numbers 31:48-32:27:  In this great preparatory battle against the Midianites, the captains of the army report, “ Your servants have counted the heads of the men of war who are in our  hands , and not a man of them is missing.”” (50).  Miraculously, no man in Israel’s army has been killed.  This was definitely a rout.

The officers’ immediate response is, “we would offer up the LORD’s offering, each man what he found of gold ornaments…to atone for our lives before the LORD.” (51)  The soldiers knew that God was definitely on their side.  What’s interesting though, is that the enlisted men did not participate in this offering, as “the men of the ranks had each of them taken booty for himself.”  Not sure what to make of this distinction. Was it because they were poorer than the officer corps?  Or the officers felt they had a higher duty to God?

The Reubeintes and Gadites, being herders of cattle see that the conquered Midianite land is ideal for raising cattle.  They ask Moses if they can settle here and “do not make us cross the Jordan.” (32:6)  Moses sees through this as a fundamentally cowardly attempt to avoid further fighting, “Shall your brothers come to battle and you sit here ?” (7) Worse, seeing these guys sitting there calmly herding cattle would “hinder the heart of the Israelites from crossing into the land that the LORD has given to them?” (13)

How very like us!  We undertake a task and carry it almost to completion.  But a final obstacle remains and we say, Gee, God, this is really good enough, isn’t it?  We’re 90% of the way; surely that will be sufficient.  But it isn’t.  God always asks us to complete the job.

Moses is justifiably angry at these guys: “you have arisen in your fathers’ stead, a breed of offending men, to add still more of the LORD’s flaring wrath against Israel.” (15) The men realize that God (via Moses) is asking them to complete the task for Israel.  They agree that they will fight with the rest of Israel, saying, “We will not return to our homes until the Israelites take possession every man of his estate.” (18)  Moses tells them that if they will go out as the vanguard, he will agree to their proposal to stay on the east side of the Jordan.

The key here is that these men see the error of their ways and repent; they are willing to change their plans.  Not only that, they are willing to be at the vanguard.  Are we willing to change our plans and carry out God’s plans.  Moreover, are we willing to be in the vanguard?

Luke 2:21-32  Luke is careful to explain to his gentile audience the requirements of the Jewish rite of circumcision and naming the child, down to the required sacrifice (two pigeons).

More importantly, Luke makes it clear that the Holy Spirit is deeply involved in this event.  First, he introduces Simeon, stating, “the Holy Spirit rested on him.” Then to make sure we get it about the Holy Spirit as the progenitor of this meeting between the baby Jesus and the old man, Luke tells us, ” It had been revealed to [Simeon] by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah” (26).  Finally, to drive home his point, Luke tells us that Simeon does not show up randomly at the Temple, but has come there, “guided by the Spirit.”

The presence of the Holy Spirit’s presence is crucial because it validates Simeon’s words, especially the last line, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles / and for glory to your people Israel.” (32).  Luke is clearly telling his Gentile readers that this Jewish baby, who is the Jewish Messiah, has been born equally for them as for the Jews.  

This passage is another of Luke’s hints that the Messiah that the Jews are expecting is not the Messiah who has actually come.  And it is through the infusing power of the Holy Spirit that Simeon realizes this and tells us that this little baby will become “a light for revelation to the Gentiles.”  Luke’s story is not about an extraordinary man who came exclusively for the Jews, but that he came for everyone.  

 

Psalm 75; Numbers 31:13-47; Luke 2:1-20

Psalm 75  No question that the editors who compiled the psalms had their wits about them when determining the order of the psalms.  After the psalmist’s unsuccessful efforts in the preceding psalm to cajole God by a variety of appeals into speaking and acting, God most assuredly speaks in Psalm 75.  In fact, we hear God’s voice in about 80% of the psalm.  And looking at in light of the earlier psalm,

In a mild rebuke to those who endeavor to get God to speak on their own terms, He states, “When I seize the appointed time, / I Myself shall judge rightly.” (2) In short, it’s My time, not yours.  And by the way, He reminds us, yes, I’m the Creator, and were it not for Me, you all–and creation itself– would have disappeared some eons ago: “Earth and its dwellers would melt,/  had I not set fast its pillars.” (3)

The wicked may think they are in charge and triumphant, but God advises them, ” I said to the revelers, Do not revel, / and to the wicked, Lift not your horn. / Lift not your horn on high.” (4)  That these men think they are in charge of human affairs is an illusion, because”God is the judge, / it is He Who brings down and lifts up.” (7)  Moreover, the despairing words of the earlier psalm notwithstanding, there will indeed be final judgement on the wicked: “…yes, its dregs they will drain, all the earth’s wicked will drink.” (8)

Despite His silence, and despite the illusion that we believe we are in control of our destiny, it is God who rules and judges.  Current events in the world today certainly underscore the reality that the pride and hubris of those who claim to “know” and those who claim to “lead” are on a fool’s errand.  Our peace comes form only one place: the assurance that God is in charge and that God, not men, will ultimately judge.

Numbers 31:13-47  So, the captains of Israel take their army and go off and rout the Midianites and bring back lots of booty, including the women and children. Rather than bask in victory, “Moses was furious with the commanders of the force,” (14).  The reason for his anger is indeed disturbing: “You have let every female live!” (15) and he goes on to explain that these women (not to mention the men) were involved in the Balaam affair at Peor that resulted in the scourge that decimated thousands of Israelites.  Seeking what can only be his own vengeance, he orders, “kill every male among the little ones, and every woman who has known a man in lying with a male, kill.” (17)  Only virgin females escape execution.

The only explanation for this that comes to mind seems to be that Moses was adamant in demonstrating the dangers of being seduced by alien women.  Which of course becomes the major issue when Israel conquers Canaan but fails to eradicate the population.

It’s important to not that was Moses who was angry, not God.  And it is Moses who takes vengeance in defiance of God’s command that “vengeance is mine.”  We can treat this incident only as an example of a human leader, who when operating outside the purview of God’s direction sins big time.  That Moses’ own wife was a Midianite only adds to the perverse irony of this incident.

As for this chapter, following the incident of Moses’ anger, the accountants take over and we read a rather compete inventory of what was taken from Midian, including a careful accounting of proportions offered to the army and to the priests..

Luke 2:1-20  Sometimes the OT to NT transitions in the Moravian readings are a bit disconcerting as we move from a massacre of children that pre-figures Herod to the most widely read Gospel verses in our culture today: Luke’s sublime infancy narrative.

To ensure his readers that Luke is not writing a fairy tale, but actual history in real space and time, he makes sure we understand first the time this birth occurs: while Augustus emperor at the time that “Quirinius was governor of Syria.”  Then, Luke carefully establishes place: “Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem,” (2:4)  Finally, he makes it clear why: there was a census going on and Joseph had to go to Bethlehem to register.

They were not yet married, only engaged.  I’m fascinated as to why Luke, unlike Matthew, did not feel it necessary to explain Joseph’s predicament and how an angel came to explain to Joseph what was going on with Mary. My theory is that while Matthew’s Jewish audience would certainly be scandalized by an unmarried woman, Luke’s Roman readers took these sorts of things in more casual stride.  Not too different than between the Victorians and present day with respect to the relationship between pregnancy and marriage…

On the other hand, Luke’s Roman audience required some serious confirmation as to the authenticity, authority, and ultimate kingship of this child born in such an unlikely place. Cue the angels.  What better authentication than an angelic visitation–this time to a crowd of shepherds?

And why shepherds, the lowest order of the hoi polloi, rather than the Bethlehem town leaders, the local Pharisees and scribes, or even King Herod?  Well, not only would that be politically dangerous, but more importantly, I think, the angelic visitation to the shepherds is another of Luke’s clues that there was something definitely unexpected about this Messiah.  That he would turn out to be quite different than what people assumed.

Which of course is Jesus’ entire operating premise: the unexpected.

 

Psalm 74:18-23: Numbers 30:1-31:12; Luke 1:67-80

Psalm 74:18-23  The psalmist has moved into full giving-advice-to-God mode as he asks God, “Remember this: the enemy insulted, / a base people reviled Your name.” (17) And particularly, God, please remember us, Israel, “Do not yield to the beast the life of Your dove, / the band of Your lowly forget not forever.” (18)  (This may be the only place in the Psalms where Israel is referred to as “Your dove” and “band of Your lowly.”)

Then, God, please remember your Covenant because things are going from bad to worse: “Look to the pact, / for the dark places of earth fill with groans of outrage.” (20) And, then, because God is always reminding Israel (and us!) to never forget the poor and lowly, the psalmist turns the idea around on God, asking, if all other appeals fail, to “Let not the poor man turn back disgraced. / Let the lowly and needy praise Your name.” (21)

At this point our psalmist has outlined many different lines of argument that God could/ should take in order to remember Israel and protect them from their enemies.  And in an astounding (to me, anyway) move, he then asks God, “Arise, God, O plead Your cause,” (22a) as if God Himself is the defendant in the dock, or the defense lawyer (or both).  One is tempted to ask, OK, to whom exactly would God, being God, plead his case?  So yes, our psalmist is being hyperbolic.  But it is passionate, straight-from-the-heart hyperbole.

And when we are in extremis, as the writer is here, God will not object to being reminded of who He is, what He does for us, and to remember His Covenant with us. We can be as direct and even accusatory as we want.  Surely God values passionate prayers above wimpy ones because they come directly from the heart.  For in reminding God, we are above all reminding ourselves of who we are: God’s children seeking refuge and escape from our enemies, “the din of those against You perpetually rising.” (23b)

 Numbers 30:1-31:12  Once again, the narrative flow is interrupted by an editorial insertion, this time about vows–and the critical importance of keeping them: “Should a man take a vow or make an oath to the LORD, to take upon himself a binding pledge, he shall not profane his word.” (30:3)

Because of their status as essentially chattel, either to her father or to her husband, the rules are different for women.  It is the father or husband who speaks (or doesn’t speak) for the woman. If the male remains silent, the woman’s vows stand, but if the male speaks, the father’s or husband’s vows trump hers, a;though “the LORD will forgive her, for her father restrained her.” (30:6)  (Seems like small solace for the woman…)

The issue of vows–whether uttered by a man or woman–goes to the very heart of civilized society, and that they are spoken (30:13) is crucial.  Like the naming of names and of prayer there is something sacred when words are spoken rather than written.  Spoken vows remain serious business even today–a great connection to civilizations across the millennia– as anyone who has testified in court after saying, “so help me God” can attest.

The narrative picks up again in chapter 31 with the grisly incident (and many more to come) of the God-ordained “vengeance of the Israelites against the Midianites.” (31:1), which will be the final event in Moses’ life–and his penultimate command: “Moses sent them out, a thousand for the tribe to the army— them and Phinehas son of Eleazar the priest, to the army, and the sacred vessels and the trumpets for  blasting were in his hand. And they arrayed against Midian, as the LORD had charged Moses, and they killed every male.” (6-8).

So, Israel is victorious in this dress rehearsal for the battles yet to come in Canaan.  Why, one wonders, is Moses’ last major activity in his life so negative, so bloody–and as we shall see tomorrow–so repulsive?

Luke 1:67-80  Zechariah, his voice unleashed after 9 months, bursts into a psalm/ song of praise and prophecy. Luke is careful to note that “Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit,” so we can take Zechariah’s words as prophetic words from God. 

Zechariah sings about how his son has come from God, a promise of the deliverance of God’s people that will at last be fulfilled.  The song frames John’s arrival in the terms of God’s covenant with Israel: “he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,/ and has remembered his holy covenant, / the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham.” (72-73a).  More crucially, Zechariah understands that his son John is not the Messiah himself, but “will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, / to give knowledge of salvation to his people / by the forgiveness of their sins.” (76-77)  Which of course is exactly what John does.

For me, the concluding lines of this song are sublime in the depth of their benedictory tenderness and understated promise of something unbelievably great to come:

By the tender mercy of our God,
    the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
    to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (78-79)

It is night, but the dawn is coming; it is dark, but the light is coming. Like the overture to a great opera, Luke has set the stage brilliantly in the Holy Spirit-inspired words of this song, preparing us for something astounding yet to happen.  All is silence for a moment. The prelude concludes; the curtain is about to rise on the most astounding event in all history.

Psalm 74:10-17; Numbers 29:7-40; Luke 1:57-66

Psalm 74:10-17  The psalmist continues to appeal to God’s sense of self-honor by asking, “Until when, O God, will the foe insult, / the enemy revile Your name forever?”  Why the the silence and inaction, God, when you are being insulted and reviled by Your enemies? “Why do You draw back Your hand, 11 and Your right hand hold in Your bosom?”

Once again, we are exactly the same 3000 years later: we want God to do something, especially when such rampant injustice is afoot.

So, the appeal to God’s honor doesn’t seem to have worked.  God still remains silent and aloof.  So, now our psalmist appeals to God’s creative power, effectively re-phrasing Genesis 1:

Yours is the day, also Yours the night.
It was You Who founded the light and the sun.
It was You Who laid down all the boundaries of earth,
summer and winter, You fashioned them.  (16-17)

The implicit message is clear:  Come on, God, You created the universe.  A simple flick of that right hand held in His bosom (11) and the enemy will be vanquished.

For me, these verses allow me to be frustrated with God.  Yes, I know intellectually that God’s ways are mysterious and they are certainly not mine.  But there’s no requirement that I just shut up and passively accept it.  Along with the psalmist, I too, can shake my fist at God.

 Numbers 29:7-40  As we have observed so many times, there was nothing random about the sacrificial system.  There were the daily offerings and libations, but the calendar was filled with “sacred assemblies” during which time no work was to be done.  These often occurred over the period of seven days, with the specific nature of the offering defined for each day.

The command is crystalline: “These shall you do for the LORD in your fixed seasons, besides your votive offerings and your donations, as your burnt offerings and your grain offerings and your libations and your communion sacrifices.’” (39) Notice the “besides your votive offerings and donations.”  This is in addition to daily sacrifice.

How different from our culture where labor seems to be prized above rest or festivals.  Even our biggest cultural festival — Christmas–has become a relentless chore rather than a celebration.   God was very serious about this Sabbath business and about the need for festivals where “no work shall you do.”

Over my lifetime Sunday closings have disappeared; we are on the go every minute. We’re proud that we are “productive” (one of my personal obsessions).  Are we better off for all this work?  We Americans deride the Europeans and their long vacations and numerous holidays.  But are we better off as a society because we’re “more productive?” Our personal and societal tensions, which in God’s plan here in Numbers were released by sacrifices and festivals, remain pent up until they explode in so many unhealthy ways: addiction, violence, divorce.  It’s an endless list.

 Luke 1:57-66  The birth of John, who would become the Baptizer, is the nativity story we rarely read.  But it is crucial to Luke’s narrative and his promise of an “orderly account.”  He could hardly write about Zechariah and Elizabeth, the visitation to Zechariah and his consequent muteness, Mary’s visit to Elizabeth and then skip over the child’s birth.  More than just completing a story arc, though, John’s birth is a foreshadowing of even greater things to come.

First, there is the issue of the name “John,” which as the neighbors point out is a name found nowhere in the family history.  They are unhappy with Elizabeth’s insistence on the name and turn to Zechariah.  In an almost comical scene, we see Zechariah frantically motioning, as he has for the past 9 months, and writing out the name, “John.”  The authorities, who had their own idea of what the child’s name should be, were “amazed,” (which I’ll take as shock and consternation).  This is the first account in this gospel of the authorities being upset about something.  Much more is to come!

The general consternation at this deliberate naming weirdness is quickly forgotten when Zechariah suddenly speaks. And the first thing Zechariah does is praise God, which seems logical on several levels.  But everyone responds in fear rather than rejoicing, and gossip spreads “throughout the entire hill country of Judea.”  How human!  What is so often our initial response when the unexpected, even something good, happens?  We are fearful

John’s “set apart” name bespeaks the “set apartness” he will experience in the wilderness and the repentance he preach about.  In 30 years, the authorities will be just as unhappy about John’s message as they were about his name. The return of Zechariah’s voice foreshadows John’s voice that 30 years hence will become the most widely heard voice in Israel.  But like Zechariah’s voice that created fear in the neighbors, John’s message will be hard and create anxiety, especially in Herod and his court.  But there is no question anyone’s mind: “the hand of the Lord was with him.” (66)

Finally, this birth foreshadows another greater one to come.

Psalm 74:1-9; Numbers 28:1-29:6; Luke 1:46-56

Psalm 74:1-9  When things are at their darkest it seems not only has God abandoned them, but there is no hope–ever: “Why, O God, have You abandoned us forever?” (1a)  God is so absent, that the psalmist even tries to chide Him by suggesting God’s anger has supplanted God’s true duty to Israel: tending His flock: “Your wrath smolders against the flock You should tend.” (1b)  And if that appeal doesn’t work, then try to jog God’s memory: “Remember Your cohort You took up of old, You redeemed the tribe of Your estate,” (2).

This is a pretty thorough description of our own feelings when we think God has deserted us: “It’s been so long since You were with me, it feels like it’s going to go on this way forever.”  Or, “Why are you angry with me God?  You’re supposed to be taking care of my needs.”  Or, “You’ve forgotten me, God.  You once were with me, but now You’ve deserted me.”  Notice who’s at the center of these pleas: me, and how God is supposed to be here for me.

When the real question is, Am I here for God?

Finally, the psalmist appeals to God’s sense of history: that His own dwelling place in Jerusalem–the Temple–has been destroyed by a relentless enemy: “They hacked away…/ with hatchet and pike they pounded.  They set fire to Your sanctuary,/ they profaned on the ground Your name’s dwelling place.” (5,6,7) Now it’s no longer about me or God’s people: this is a direct assault on God Himself.  Why won’t God answer, or even send a prophet?  Alas, all is lost.

Numbers 28:1-29:6  Thus far, Numbers has pretty much told the Israel story in chronological order, and it’s how we expect to read history.  But here, at the very dramatic moment of Moses on the mountain top, the rabbinic editors have suddenly decided to insert a fairly detailed summary of Leviticus’ innumerable sacrificial instructions for Passover, and a bunch of feast days. Especially the celebration of the harvest festival, the week of First Fruits (28:25) and its focus on a “sacred assembly” and not working: “on the seventh day a sacred assembly shall you have, no task of work shall you do.”

Perhaps it has to do with the fact that we are now dealing with the new generation of Israel–the one counted in the just-completed census. This passage may be here to remind them–and us–that even though Moses received all these detailed instructions some 40 years ago, they are just as relevant and important today as in the past.  Which of course is exactly one of the reasons we go worship every week: the repetition ingrains its critical importance into our heads and hearts.  Today’s psalm notwithstanding, it’s not God who forgets us; and in worship it’s impossible to forget God and what He has done for us.

Luke 1:46-56 It’s really remarkable how sometimes in the three daily readings we find remarkable parallels and similarities.  Today, though, we find the starkest possible contrast. Our  psalmist decries God’s seeming abandonment.  But Mary’s Magnificat is one of the greatest poems ever written about God’s goodness and mercy.

It’s critical that Luke has it follow Mary’s visit with Elisabeth, where the angel’s message has been brought down to earth in human terms by Elisabeth and the baby that jumped in her womb.  Only following her visit with the older woman does Mary really grasp the full import of what God has done and why she has been chosen to carry out the most extraordinary duty in human history.

There are no more questions, only rejoicing in what God has chosen to do: “My soul magnifies the Lord, / and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” (47) She focuses on herself only in the first three verses, and her understanding of the import of what she has been chosen explodes across all people and all time as this psalm becomes a praise to God’s wondrous works: “His mercy is for those who fear him / from generation to generation.” (50). 

As happens so often in the psalms, we hear how God will suppress the greed of the wicked and raise up the poor:

“He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
 he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.”  (51-53)

Finally, she expresses the joy that this will bring to Israel.  This is the long-promised Messiah that is in her womb:

“He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
  according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (54-55)

The thing to notice here, especially since we know how the story turns out, is that she is expecting the Jewish Messiah described by the prophets, not John’s radical Word that encompasses–and changes– the entire world.  At this point Mary cannot even imagine how astounding the reality will turn out be.

Psalm 73:21-28; Numbers 26:57-27:23; Luke 1:39-45

 Psalm 73:21-28  After descending into the valley of despair and being almost tempted to follow the way of the wicked, but then being pricked by his conscience and his long relationship with God, our psalmist turns around and ascends. Verses 21 and 22 say it all: “When my heart was embittered, / and my conscience stabbed with pain, /I was a dolt and knew nothing, / like cattle I was with You.”

How like a dolt I have been.  Extending the psalmist’s phrase, perhaps “cattle-brained” would work.  I have far too often believed that the world had much on offer that I desired. Possessions and positions and power that seemingly rendered God irrelevant.  But looking back, I see how empty that desire has been.

It’s like the old cliche about feeling abandoned by God, and when asked why only one set of footsteps were in the sand, God replies, “because I was was carrying you.”  Here, our psalmist realizes that God was indeed there all the time: “Yet I was always with You, / You grasped my right hand.” (23).  And not merely present, but God is actively intervening: “You guided me with Your counsel, / and toward glory You took me.”  Even when we may feel alone, God is still there–that still small voice of the Holy Spirit–guiding and counseling us.

We ask with the psalmist, “…and beside You whom would I want upon earth? (25)  The wealth and power of the wicked is a chimera, and “those far from You perish,” (27).  We have something far, far greater: God’s immediate and unfailing proximity that both counsels and protects: “But I—God’s closeness is good to me, I make the Master the LORD my shelter.” (28a)

Numbers 26:57-27:23  Even though Israel knew it, and we, the reader, know it, there is an emptiness, almost despair at the end of chapter 26 when this second census is completed: “there was not a man from the reckonings of Moses and Aaron the priest, who reckoned [counted] the Israelites in the Wilderness of Sinai.” (64).  Every person counted this second time was not of the first generation, “For the LORD had said of them, “They are doomed to die in the wilderness.'” (65a).

Except two: the courageous spies who delivered the minority report about their foray into Canaan so many years ago: “And no man was left of them save Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun.” (65b)  As always, God has made good on his word.

Even though the daughters of Zelophedad were included in the census, the males would deny them their inheritance.The daughters plea eloquently for justice: “Why should our father’s name be withdrawn from the midst of his clan because he had no son ?” (4)

Moses takes this issue to God who clarifies in great detail the rights of inheritance when a man has no sons, the daughters inherit.  (While He’s at it, the entire line of inheritance is defined.)  Once again, a clear indication for God–and now codified in the Law– women were human beings, not chattel.  How sad that so many generations have forgotten these very clear instructions.  Under God, patriarchy may not give women pride of place, but it certainly does not exclude them; they are just as valuable in God’s order of creation.  Which I think is what Paul was getting at in Ephesians 5.

God calls Moses to the top of Mount Abarim for a final look at the Promised Land, reminding Moses that for his sin at Meribah, he could not enter. There is an orderly transition of power as God identifies Joshua [“a man who has spirit within him” (27:19)] as the next leader of Israel. (Which was probably not a big surprise to Moses.) God commands Moses, “and you shall charge him before their eyes. And you shall set something of your grandeur upon him in order that all the Israelite community will heed.” (20).  We Americans tend to think we invented the orderly transition of political power.  Not really.

Joshua may Moses’ successor as leader of Israel, but he only has “something of your [Moses’] grandeur.”  And rather than speaking directly with God as Moses did, Joshua must use the high priest as an intermediary. (21)  There could only be one Moses.

 Luke 1:39-45  In one of the sweetest scenes in the Gospels, Mary visits Elizabeth.  Zecharaiah seems to be nowhere around. Luke is casting this encounter strictly as a meeting between two mothers and in a brilliant foreshadowing of events 30 years down the road, the second, if you will, meeting between John the Baptist and Jesus.

The center of this encounter is that the Holy Spirit and Jesus both present–for the first time. Spirit-filled Elizabeth exclaims those words that echo down through the centuries: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” (42). Elizabeth is the first person in the Gospels to acknowledge who Mary’s son really is–the long-promised Messiah: “And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” (43)

Luke’s inspired brilliance as an author is so obvious here.  In just a few words, we see Elizabeth infused with the Holy Spirit and her house suffused with joy. And a blessing on Mary because (unlike Zechariah!) she “believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” (45)

These words work at a second level, as well.  Luke is telling us through this meeting between old Elizabeth and young Mary that this is a connection between the past and the future.  Mary, if you will, is the human bridge between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant.  God is fulfilling that long-ago promise to Isaiah and to Jerimaiah: “Behold, I am doing a new thing.”

Psalm 73:13-20; Numbers 26:25-56; Luke 1:26-38

Psalm 73:13-20:  The psalmist’s utter despair culminates here in verse 13 because all his efforts to be righteous seem to have amounted to nothing: “But in vain have I kept my heart pure / and in innocence washed my palms.” What’s the point?  Here “innocence” is basically stupidity.  The ways of the world are infinitely more wicked that he ever thought.  The only outcome of his effort is that “I was afflicted all day long, and my chastisement, each new morning.”

So, maybe, let’s try to think and behave like the wicked.  They’re winning, why not be on the winning side, he thinks.  But that doesn’t work: “If I said, Let me talk like them…/ When I thought to know these things, / it was a torment in my eyes.” (15-16)  That he is repulsed by his attempt at wickedness brings a fresh new insight out of despair.  Why, yes, he’s saying, they will get their just reward in the end: “You set them on slippery ground, / brought them down to destruction.  / How they come to ruin in a moment, / swept away, taken in terrors!” (18-19)

This is the the gift of walking with God.  Even when all hope seems to be lost and evil seems triumphant, a small flame remains burning inside.  Trying to join the other side brings torment, not satisfaction. A reminder that all that time with God has had its impact.  We cannot join the other side.

Of course, we have the wonderful advantage of the Holy Spirit residing constantly within us, so even in those darkest moments, even in despair and loss, the still small voice of the Holy Spirit reminds us, as it did the psalmist, that we have not been abandoned.

Numbers 26:25-56  The census adds up to a formidable number: 601,730. (51)  The fascinating aspect of this lengthy passage is yes, there are numbers, but there are names.  Names of sons and their clans.  More than a hundred names, each heading a clan of several thousand.  And if there aren’t sons, then the daughters are counted: “Zelophehad son of Hepher had no sons but daughters.” (32) Our cliched image of this patriarchal culture is that census would skip right over poor Zelophehad, but in the absence of sons, the names of the daughters–are given equal position as the sons: “the names of the daughters of Zelophehad were Mahlah and Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah.” (33)

Again, God is in the details, demanding accuracy in every detail.  But this chapter reminds us that God is not just a God of numbers, but of names.  It is names, along with numbers that are recorded here.  Just as names are recorded in the Book of Life.  This is proof that God sees each of us as the unique human being that we are–and that He seeks a relationship with us as individuals.

The reason for this census becomes clear at the end: “the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “To these shall the land be apportioned as an estate by the number of names.” (52, 53) But as for the land itself, “But by lot shall the land be apportioned, by the names of their fathers’ tribes shall they inherit.” (55).  There were probably a lot of men in the crowd that had been eagerly fathering sons, confident that the more they had, the more land their family would acquire. But as usual, God had different plan in mind.

Luke 1:26-38  We’re still in chapter 1 and this is already the second angelic visitation by a very busy Gabriel.  And the differences couldn’t be greater.   Zechariah, an old man, “was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him.” (12), while Mary, barely a teenager, is preternaturally calm. Yes, she’s perplexed, but rather than fear and terror, Mary “pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” (29) Pondering is a word that coveys thoughtful reflection, not fear and terror.  Gabriel nonetheless tells Mary not to be afraid and then delivers the most incredible message ever delivered to any human being without further preamble.

Gabriel’s message is chock-a-block with Messianic phrases: her son “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).  Mary may have been young, but as her will Magnificat reveal, she was wise and insightful beyond her years.  (Certainly more than Zechariah!)  I’m pretty sure she figured out fast that she had been chosen to be the mother of Israel’s long-awaited Messiah.

But there was this one problem.  She was a virgin, engaged to the village carpenter.  Messiahs did not have these sorts of roots.  Like Zechariah, she too asks a question.  But unlike Zechariah, she doesn’t explain to Gabriel how this couldn’t happen. Instead, she asks how this could happen.  And therein lies all the differnece.  How frequently we try to explain to God why something can’t happen or something can’t be done.  When God is perfectly happy to answer our question of how it can be done when we have faith that what God wants is perfectly feasible.

The idea of the virgin birth is wild enough, but what is perhaps just as equally unbelievable is Mary’s trusting faith, out of which grows this incomprehensible calm acceptance: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  God had chosen well and wisely.  Because it’s difficult to imagine any human accepting this insane news with such equanimity.  No wonder the Catholic church venerates Mary with such fervor and enthusiasm.  (Although I can’t buy that she was sinless…)

 

Psalm 73:1-12; Numbers 26:1-24; Luke 1:5-25

 Psalm 73:1-12  This is truly one of my favorite psalms because I identify so closely with the psalmist’s thoughts.  Unlike the David psalms, where David is fleeing from or being conspired against by his enemies, and therefore asks God to take them out, this Asaph psalm deals with envy–a much more familiar feeling for me: “For I envied the revelers, / I saw the wicked’s well-being.” (3).

This is possibly one of the most relevant observations in all the Psalms. We have become a completely voyeuristic society, looking on with barely-disguised envy at the celebrity culture–especially their wealth and power.  Which is also why we are perversely happy when something bad happens to them (and why an entire industry of gossip TV shows, tabloids, and recently, social media flourish.)

Is there a more perfect description of the political class than “They mock and speak with malice, / from on high they speak out oppression. / They put their mouth up to the heavens, / and their tongue goes over the earth.” (8-9)  We are the mere hoi polloi, there to lap up their weighty and hypocritical pronouncements. I particularly relish the reptilian image, “Their tongue goes over the earth.”

But for me, the issue is neither wealth nor power.  It is health: “For they are free of the fetters of death, / and their body is healthy.” (4) Even though my cancer is in remission, its reality looms constantly over me.  Susan has multiple sclerosis, and it’s awfully easy to look around and see other healthy couples our age and enviously wonder, why did we get stuck with two chronic diseases that consume energy and resources, and create stress, while all those other folks, including those in our own Christian community continue to enjoy good health?

Underneath the envy I feel the psalmist’s despair at life’s apparent unfairness.  Yes, I know in my heart that this feeling is a delusional snare, but it’s there nonetheless.

Numbers 26:1-24  One of the things that is so striking about the story of Israel is its mind-boggling specificity.  We are almost always given a time (“And it happened after the scourge of the Lord” [1]), and a place (“in the steppes of Moab by the Jordan opposite Jericho” [3]).  This is no fairy tale; it’s reality is as tangible as the beaches of Normandy, even though those world-shaking events happened 70 years ago.  God is a God who operates in our time and our place.  God is not an abstraction, God is a God of numbers.

This book began with a census and here near its end, another census occurs.  Clearly time–perhaps the entire 40 years–has passed and it’s time for a census of the new generation.

In the midst of the headcount, there are traces of the dark history that has occurred during the 40-year wanderings. “Dathan and Abiram, called forth from the community, who incited against Moses and against Aaron in the community of Korah,” (10) and “when the fire consumed two hundred and fifty men and they became a sign.” (11)  There is no “memory hole” for God; the community has been impacted by the consequences of its sins.

Luke 1:5-25  In keeping with his promise of “an orderly account,” Luke is resolutely chronological, and begins his narrative with the parents of John the Baptist.  He’s careful to begin his account with a specific time (“In the days of King Herod of Judea”) and place, the incense altar inside the Temple at Jerusalem.  This physical reality is important because the very first event Luke describes is an angelic visitation–and a fairly scary one at that: “When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him.” (12).  Not just terror, but fear!

The news is fantastic for the barren (and shamed) couple, and therefore for Zechariah, pretty unbelievable.  However, he (and we) learned the lesson that it’s important to accept rather than question angelic news.  (Something Mary does quite well later on.)  I’ve always wondered why Zechariah’s punishment was muteness.  There’s certainly a perfect irony that having received good news, he is unable to communicate the good news to others–at least verbally.

The lesson is pretty clear, though. Speech is the main medium we humans use to communicate with each other–and it was more so in those days when scrolls resided only in the Temple, writing paper was basically unknown (Jesus wrote in the dirt , after all,)  and  except for the letter and boo-writing Romans and Greeks, no modern forms of communication existed in this dusty Roman outpost of Judea.

Word of mouth was everything.  We sit here in the 21st century aware of all the alternative means of communication we possess should we be struck mute, but for Zechariah, there was nothing but frantic hand signals (He kept motioning to them…” (22)

In an odd way it’s almost the “anti-good news” here at the beginning of Luke’s two books (I’m including Acts) that focus so much on communicating the Good News verbally.  The gospel message went solely by word of mouth for a number of years until Paul, the Roman citizen, started writing letters–and Mark, Luke, Matthew and John sat down to write their own accounts.

While Zechariah may not have been able to speak, he certainly retained the crucial ability to have sex with his wife.  Luke discreetly lets us know that “after those days his wife Elizabeth conceived,” (24)  the clear message being that their son John was conceived in the normal manner.

 

Psalm 72:12-20; Numbers 24,25; Mark 16:14-Luke 1:4

Psalm 72:12-20  For a psalm celebrating the ascension of King Solomon to the throne, it devotes an extraordinary proportion of its content to the king’s obligations to his most destitute and needy subjects:

For he saves the needy man pleading,
and the lowly who has none to help him.

He pities the poor and the needy,
and the lives of the needy he rescues,

from scheming and outrage redeems them,
and their blood is dear in his sight.
(12-14)

What the king is asked in these verses in  terms of serving his subjects is strikingly close to what David asks for from God in many of his psalms:  That the man who is alone and without recourse will be helped (12) and rescued (13) and that he be protected from those who would scheme against and exploit the poor.

As we are reminded again and again in the OT, and as Jesus speaks and acts, it is to the poor and oppressed that not only kingly duty applies, but it is ours as well. And while Solomon is celebrated for those qualities, alas for the kings of Israel and Judah that followed him, and alas for the innumerable kings and rulers since then who have failed to heed these words.

The central affirmation of this poem, “Long may he live” (15) and “May his name be forever” (17) have certainly been fulfilled since this king from 3000 years ago remains justly celebrated.

And as for us, we can sing the very same psalm regarding our savior, Jesus Christ.

Numbers 24,25  At first glance, Balaam’s third prophetic speech (“oracle”) at the behest of King Balak seems similar to the two that preceded it.  But there is a striking difference: Balaam now looks out over the encampment of Israel and while in the two previous pronouncements, “God put a word in Balaam’s mouth” here “the spirit of God was upon him.” (24:3).  Balaam is no longer just a mouthpiece, but God has completely infiltrated him. And there is nothing ambiguous about what he has to say about Israel: “He consumes nations, his foes, and their bones he does crush and smashes his loins.” (8b).

King Balak will have no more of this–“To hex my enemies did I call you, and, look, you  have done nothing but bless now three times” (11), but Balaam again replies, “That which the LORD speaks to me, it alone can I speak.” (13b).  And then, apparently to make sure Balak gets the point, promptly repeats almost verbatim what he just told the Moabite king, adding some specific prophecies–and he departs.

What to make of Balaam, a professional (to use Alter’s term) hexer?  Proof that God can use any person to carry out his will (and his voice!) and that regardless of what that person’s background or role may be, once the Holy Spirit has rested on him or her, they are truly transformed as it appears Balaam was.

Chapter 25 turns the camera back on Israel, and things are not going well.  In effectively what is a preview of coming attractions, as “the people began to go whoring 1 with the daughters of Moab.” (25:1), not to mention that “the [Israelite] people ate and bowed down to their gods.” (2).  God gives Moses the grisly order to “impale [the chiefs of the people] before the sun” (4), although it doesn’t seem as if this order was carried out.

Instead, Aaron’s grandson, Phineas, spears an Israelite man and Midianite woman while they were having intercourse in “the alcove.”  (Didn’t study this story in Sunday School…)  That limited the punishing scourge afflicting Israel, due we presume, to their whoring and false idol worship, to a mere 20,000.  God decrees to Moses, “Be foes to the Midianites and strike them. For they have been foes to you through their wiles that they practiced upon you.” (18)  Once again we encounter an angry God because Israel has wandered so egregiously from Him.  Alas, much more to come.

 Mark 16:14-Luke 1:4  One of the Moravian puzzles: we read the disputed longer ending of Mark with the introductory verses to Mark.  Seems to suggest that the Gospel story should be told over and over.

Jesus ascends into heaven, and Mark’s concluding verse is the crucial instruction at what is not the end, but the beginning of the story: “And they went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it.”  Notice the all-important phrase: “the Lord worked with them.” This certainly suggests a post-Pentecost instruction.  

For me, these five words also say that we do not work for God as employees, as it were, in the Kingdom, but that the Holy Spirit works with us. But for that to be effective, we must abandon our egos and self-centered plans at the entrance.

Luke is the only gospel with a formal dedicatory preface that also tells us for whom the letter is intended: the wonderfully-named Theophilus–“God-lover.”

As an engineer and writer, the phrase “orderly account” resonates strongly.  As I know from previous experience and now for the book I am currently writing, taking a story and rendering it as an “orderly account” is difficult work.  For the Gospel story–a story as significant, as detailed, as fraught with multiple levels of meaning, numerous sub-texts, and its all-important overriding theme and message, mere human agency, even if the writer were a genius, could not cause this to happen. (Shakespeare and Tolstoy look like pikers compared to Luke, especially when we realize his writings include Acts.)  This book could have been written only by the active participation of the Holy Spirit. That is what “inspired by the Holy Spirit” means to me.

And perhaps, this is why the Moravians have us bridge the end of Mark with the beginning of Luke: The Lord, though the Holy Spirit, indeed worked with Luke.

 

Psalm 72:1-11; Numbers 23; Mark 16:1-13

Psalm 72:1-11  While it’s tempting to read this as a messianic psalm, it seems pretty specifically aimed at a specific time and place: a magisterial invocation to Solomon’s ascension to the throne, taking the kingly reins from his father, David. God is the source of kingly power, , who is asked to “grant Your judgments to the king and Your righteousness to the king’s son.” (1)

The king’s preeminent duty is judgment and discernment in meting out justice: “May he judge Your people righteously and Your lowly ones in justice.” (2), which is of course what Solomon, among all the kings of Israel, is most famous for.  After justice, peace: “May the mountains bear peace to the people.” (3) For this psalmist, God-ordained, justice, and peace are the three great qualities of kingly leadership.

As happens so often in the OT, the psalmist then makes it clear that the king’s first duty is to the lowly and the poor: “May he bring justice to the lowly of the people, may he rescue the sons of the needy.” (4)  Only after this all-important assertion, does the psalmist begin his magnificent geographical sweep beginning with the sun and the moon (5) to the seas and the River at the ends of the earth (capital R, which usually means the Euphrates) to deserts (8) and Tarshish and the islands beyond (9) there is the assertion that this kingdom is above all others: “may all kings bow to him, all nations serve him.” (10)

But even then, we circle back to that very first kingly duty: “For he saves the needy man pleading, and the lowly who has none to help him.” (11)  Above all the majesty and glory there is this simple quality–a quality that Jesus describes many times: servant leadership.

Numbers 23  As a professional shaman, Balaam appears to have a set method to pronounce a blessing or a curse: set up seven altars and sacrifice a bull on each one.  (Balaam’s services are obviously expensive.)  During the first go, Balaam winds up pronouncing a blessing on Israel instead of a curse: “Who has numbered the dust of Jacob, who counted the issue of Israel? Let me but die the death of the upright,” (23:10)  King Balak is seriously upset, but Balaam reminds him the deal was that, “that which the LORD puts in my mouth, only that do I keep to speak.” (13).

Say what we might about this “pagan,” he is actually one of the wiser, more honest men we encounter in the OT: he will speak only what God has said to him.  Quite a contrast to the complaining Israelites–and of course to us, who would rather follow our own agendas about what we think God should have said, rather than what He did say.

Balak implores Balaam to try a second time: same results: “He blessed, so I will not reverse it. He has beheld no harm in Jacob,” (21)  Still robbed of the curse he wants–and is paying big money for–Balak tells Balaam to try a third time (of which more tomorrow).  We are Balak: no matter what God has told us, if we do not like it, we will keep trying again and again until we get what we want. And like Balak, we never quite “get” the foolhardiness, the wasted time and, often, the expense of not accepting God at His word.  Jonah is certainly the other person who comes to mind here.  We can keep trying, but we need to remember that God always wins out in the end.

Mark 16:1-13  For Mark, the fact of Jesus’ Resurrection is sufficient.  There’s no need for post-resurrection stories, like sweet reunions between Mary and Jesus, an Upper Room confrontation with Thomas, conversations on the walk to Emmaus or sea-side breakfasts.  The last thing that happens at the tomb is “terror and amazement”–and fear.  What most scholars contend to be the “authentic Mark” ends abruptly.

If we go with the shorter ending of Mark, the writer basically adds what we could call a “Great Commission postscript:”Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.”  End of discussion.

The less reliable longer ending underscores the theme of skepticism.  Mary Magdalene has zero credibility.  In  an oblique reference to the two men on the road to Emmaus, the two men believe they met Jesus, but when “they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them.”  Which seems right to me.  An event this enormous and unprecedented would be greeted with skepticism by those who did not actually talk to Jesus.  Just as the Resurrection is greeted by the majority today. 

But skepticism is OK; Mark does not see the need for neat ribbon-tying at the end of his narrative.  He is telling us: the Resurrection is a fact.  Yes, it’s unbelievable and you may want to be skeptical.  But you’ll see: this story will not just die out.  Instead, “from east to west, [it is] the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.”  Imperishable. As it remains today.