Psalm 51:1-6; Leviticus 13:47-14:18; Mark 4:30-41

Last evening’s Tenebrae service was without question among the finest to ever occur at Saint Matthew.  The only thing missing was Don Wagner singing “Were You There?” at the back of the sanctuary in complete darkness.

Today is Holy Saturday.  The day of waiting and reflection and vigil.  How wonderful it is that we know how the story turns out.  I can only imagine the agony, disappointment, and despair of the disciples as they attempted to accept what they thought was going to be the bleak new reality of living without their Rabbi–and hiding from the religious hierarchy.  They saw themselves as dupes of a failed movement that has come to naught.  “Follow me,” indeed!

Psalm 51:1-6  This is one of those rare psalms that describes its exact circumstances of when, for whom, and why: “a David psalm, upon Nathan the prophet’s coming to him when he had come to bed with Bathsheba.”  And it is perhaps the most famous confessional psalm of all.

David wastes no time in preludes, trying to explain or justify to God what he has done.  David knows that God knows the entire story.  But his shame and remorse are so great that he can seek only one thing: God’s grace and mercy.  But David also knows that despite his transgression God still loves him: “Grant me grace, God, as befits Your kindness, with Your great mercy wipe away my crimes.” (1)

But what does it mean when David asks “wipe away my crimes” and then in the next verse, “Thoroughly wash my transgressions away and cleanse me from my offense?” (2)  David is seeking only one thing from God: forgiveness. As he makes clear in the next verse, he is not asking God to forget his crime by saying “wipe away” and “wash.”  Those are verbs of forgiveness but not of forgetting, as David makes immediately clear in the very next verse: “For my crimes I know, and my offense is before me always.”  And as we know, David must live with the consequences of this sin for the remainder of his life.

David also knows he is guilty and deserves harsh judgement: “You alone have I offended,  and what is evil in Your eyes I have done. So You are just when You sentence, You are right when You judge.” (4)  And he recognizes his place before God, a fallen human being: “Look, in transgression was I conceived, 7 and in offense my mother spawned me.” (5).

David has much to teach us: we must acknowledge we have sinned, not try to rationalize it away.  Only God can forgive our sins (and for us through the intervening power of Jesus Christ). We may be fallen human beings, but we are still individually responsible for our sinful actions.  David knows he is guilty and unlike so many today, he does not try to position himself as a victim of circumstances or the actions of others.  Something to bear in mind as our culture seems to be losing the concept of sin and with it, individual responsibility.

Leviticus 13:47-14:18  More good hygiene, this time regarding clothing.  Contaminated clothing needs to be sequestered.  Of course we could look at this section metaphorically.  If the garment  is laundered and the affliction remains, it shall be burned. (13:57).  But if the “affliction disappears [the garment] shall be laundered again and be clean.” (13:59).  Which is exactly what David is seeking in the psalm above: that the affliction of his sin be washed away by a loving God.  We are all afflicted garments.  But by confession, we can indeed be washed clean.

Chapter 14 returns to the person who “struck with skin blanch on the day he becomes clean.” (14:1) and the rather mysterious practice of two birds: one is killed and the living bird is dipped in “in the blood of the slaughtered bird over fresh water.” (14:7) Inasmuch as it is the day after Good Friday, it’s impossible to read these verses without thinking of Jesus’ shed blood and baptism. I don’t think “Washed in the blood of the lamb” is in the Lutheran Book of Worship, but the idea of sinners being washed in the salvific blood reads directly back to this seemingly obscure passage.

And the living bird is dipped in the blood over fresh water.  Is there a better image of how we, too, have been cleansed through the waters of baptism?

Mark 4:30-41  The parable of the mustard seed is less a parable than a simile.  Especially since Jesus says rather directly, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?” (30) But Mark is at pains to explain that in public, Jesus spoke only in parables, but “he explained everything in private to his disciples.” (33).  Why just use the parables in public? Jesus has repeatedly said, “let those with ears hear.”  Based on no personal theological knowledge I can say only that Jesus’ message requires thought and introspection. My father always differentiated between Christianity and various cults by asserting that the cults required one to “leave your brains at the door.”  Jesus’ wants both our hearts and our minds.  I believe the good soil he describes in his first parable is that combination of heart and mind.  We must think through our faith–and keep on thinking it through. For me, that’s why faith also involves doubt. Even when I know truth in my heart, there can be doubt in my mind. And doubt requires study and reflection and seeking greater understanding through the scriptures and prayer.  Absent that dynamic tension, Christianity is a house built on emotional sand, a passing enthusiasm that the grows briefly and then withers and dies.

I don’t think it’s an accident that Mark places the story of Jesus calming the storm immediately after Jesus’ explanation of the use of parables.  This natural event is one of the greatest parables of all.  Like the disciples, our lives are buffeted by crises and storms.  We feel so often that the vicissitudes of life will swamp our little boats and we will drown. Jesus seems to be absent, asleep. Fear begins to trump faith. Peace comes from only one source: Jesus.

Psalm 50:16-23; Leviticus 13:9-46; Mark 4:21-29

God’s Friday.  The darkness before the light.

Psalm 50:16-23  In this inventory of wrongdoing, there is one common source: words, voices, that which is spoken.  First there is hypocrisy: “Why do you recount My statutes and bear My pact in your mouth, when you have despised chastisement and flung My words behind you?” (16, 17). Then there is evil speech: “You let loose your mouth in evil” (19a) and falsehood, “and your tongue clings fast to deceit.” (19b).  There is false testimony and outright slander–even to those closest to us: “You sit, against your brother you speak, your mother’s son you slander.” (20)

God hears all this, and because “I was silent,” we wrongdoers assume we will get away with it, “You imagined I could indeed be like you.” (21)  But that is delusion: “Understand this, you who forget God,  lest I tear you apart, with no one to save you.”  God is the roaring lion in the wilderness.  But for the righteous, “who set out on the proper way, I will show him God’s rescue.” (22)

While the image of God tearing evildoers apart seems awfully stark, I think it is fair to read this as there will be bad consequences to these various sins of the mouth.  Again and again, the psalms remind us that what we say is the root of so much evil.  And still, I seem to be unable to learn this simple truth…

Leviticus 13:9-46  The priest/ doctor examines the patient’s skin to observe any number of abnormalities: skin blanch, shiny spots, multiple white shiny spots, multiple white dull spots, lack of black hair, yellow hair, inflammation.  As doctors even today note, keen observation is key to diagnosis, and it is certainly set out in great detail in this hygiene medical manual.  Quarantine (“Unclean!”) in the crowded environment of the wandering Israelites was certainly one effective way that the cohort was able to avoid decimation by disease.   And the sophistication of the instructions here is striking.

Unfortunately, for better or worse, the separation of clean from unclean led directly to the plight of the lepers that Jesus encounters.  But it’s worth noting that Jesus didn’t suggest that their separation was unfair.  He was well aware of the Levitical rules.  It was only after being healed that the lepers were in a position to rejoin the community.

We could take this separation of clean versus unclean in the theological direction of our sinful state before and after Jesus’ work on the cross.  Roger Dill’s image of God taking a hypodermic and withdrawing sin from all of us and injecting it into the Savior on the cross seems especially apt here.  Like the lepers, we have been made clean before God.

Mark 4:21-29  Like the psalmist above, Jesus is making it clear that what we think is secret or hidden will eventually be revealed: “For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light.” (22)

Too often, we read verse 24 (“For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”) while ignoring the crucial verse that precedes it: “Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you.”  First, we must pay attention.  And then we must make a decision about how much we will give while working in the Kingdom.

We give some and then receive that plus a dividend (“still more will be given”).  This is not works righteousness, it is simply God’s economy.  If we give generously and without strings, be it our time, talent or treasure, our lives will be all the richer and we will receive more than we ever dreamed possible. Just ask anyone who works with shut-ins, prisoners, the homeless: They will invariably say they have received far more than they gave.  But if we refuse to work or to give, then it really is nothing. Jesus is simply saying:  “Zero in.  Zero out.”

Finally, Jesus is telling us that there is not necessarily a direct correlation between what we do in the Kingdom and exactly how the Kingdom grows.  It is like a seed sprouting while we sleep.  Too often, we are cause and effect people. We want to see the results of our labor and our gifts.  But Jesus did not say what you gave you will receive.  He says it’s the measure, the amount.  In mathematical terms he’s saying we receive the first derivative of what we have given.  Another reminder that the Kingdom is not about us. It is about Jesus Christ, who is indeed the Measure and who indeed has given us more than we could ever imagine.

Psalm 50:7-15; Leviticus 11:29-13:8; Mark 4:1-20

Maundy Thursday, the first day of the Triduum–the three days preceding Easter–where we reflect on the process that has led to our salvation under the terms of the New Covenant: Last Supper, the agony of Gethsemane, arrest, religious trial, secular trial, torture and crucifixion, burial.  Sunday is surely coming, but first we, like Jesus, must pass through Thursday, Friday, Saturday.

Psalm 50:7-15  The poet writes in God’s voice.  And as we’ve observed before, it is an audible voice, “Hear, O My people, that I may speak, Israel, that I witness to you. God your God I am.” (7)  It is almost as if God is in the dock, identifies himself (“God your God I am”)  and is now giving testimony, “That I may witness.”

At first reading, the topic about which God speaks is odd to us: basically God is saying, “I’m OK with your sacrifices, but it is an act that you are initiating because you worship me, your God.” God is not forcing you to do this as a form of taxation or demand, “I shall not take from your house a bull, nor goats from your pens.” (9)  After all, He continues, “Mine are all beasts of the forest, the herds on the thousand mountains.”  Not only are the animals God’s to begin with, but he has a relationship with them: “I know every bird of the mountains, creatures of the field are with Me.” (11)

This is one of those wonderful places where we see how much God loves his creation, and is tightly interwoven with creation.  But unlike the pantheists, God is extremely clear on one point: He is separate from his creation.  Something to bear in mind in this age where we keep hearing of “Gaia” and even “Mother Nature” as the deity d’jour.

And to differentiate Himself from the local gods, He makes it extremely clear that God does not require sacrifice as sustenance: “Would I eat the flesh of fat bulls, would I drink the blood of goats?” (13)  God is not petty, demanding sacrifice from his oppressed subjects.  Rather, he is amazingly generous: “And call Me on the day of distress— I will free you and you shall revere me.” (15)

And as we now remember in these coming days, it is God who has made the ultimate sacrifice for us.

Leviticus 11:29-13:8  As the categorization of what is clean and unclean continues, there are some basic hygienic principles around dealing with carcasses and dead bodies established that doubtless allowed the Israelites to survive and prosper in the wilderness and then in Canaan.  These rules doubtless provided nutritional and thereby physical advantage that other tribes in the area did not enjoy.  The young David is a prime example of healthy youth able to defeat apparently insurmountable odds.

The lesson is clear theologically, as well: “For I am the LORD Who has brought you up from the land of Egypt to be for you a God, and you shall be holy, for I  am holy.” (11:45).  As God is set apart form all those small-g gods, so too, Israel is set apart from all the other tribes and nations.  As God of Genesis, divided creation, light from darkness, earth from sea, and so forth, these rules are a reflection of this division: clean from unclean.

Chapter 12, which deals with the impurity associated with childbirth, reflects the limited understanding of physiology in that era.  (Alter notes that the idea of ritual impurity due to menstruation and childbirth was widespread in the ancient world.)  I think it’s important to note that is the perceived uncleanness of the blood itself, not an offense committed by the woman herself, that she is required to sacrifice. Unfortunately, too many men have read this passage to their convenience to view themselves as being more righteous than women for the simple reason they don’t menstruate.

Issues of hygiene and disease occupy chapter 13. Again, more proof that God cares deeply about his people at the most intimate and specific level, and that the health of those whom God loves is of concern to God.  As fact in which I take personal comfort.  (We also see that it is the priest who makes medical observations and decision.  Maybe this passage is the justification many doctors have used to see themselves as god-like!)

Mark 4:1-20  This first parable in Mark’s gospel, the sower whose seed is spread on various surfaces–path, rocky ground, thorns and good soil–sets the stage of every parable to follow.  Even though Jesus advises, “Let anyone with ears listen” (9) Jesus is well aware that most ears will simply not “get it.”  A reality underscored by the requirement for Jesus to explain the parable to his closest followers.

I think Mark is placing this particular parable first in his account because it is a metaphor for the rest of his Gospel story.  The issue is not simply that lots of people will not understand the parables themselves, but that this parable is the “ur-message” describing  Jesus’ ministry and its consequences on earth itself.  As Mark amply demonstrates, there are numerous examples of people not “getting it,” ( There’s the rich young ruler who is subject to “the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things ” (19) ) And there are certainly the enthusiastic followers who fall away, including even his own disciples at the moment of crisis.

Then there is the religious establishment which attempts to come steal all the seeds and kill the sower himself. I think Mark is editorializing here that they are the agents of “Satan [who] immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them.”

But above all, there is the good soil.  Mark is telling his readers–and us–that Jesus’ word will be accepted by many and that it will grow and bear fruit.  And so it has borne fruit thirty and sixty and a hundredfold such that 2000 years later we celebrate along with millions of others the great gift of God’s Word–Jesus Christ–sown among us.

 

Psalm 50:1-6; Leviticus 11:1-28; Mark 3:20-35

Psalm 50:1-6  Wow.  Here we are, one third of the way through the Psalms already (although the lengthy sojourn at 119 still looms ahead).  This psalm opens reminding us of God the Creator: “He spoke and called to the earth from the sun’s rising-place to its setting.” The Mormons who named that area of Utah “Zion,” must have sure had this second verse in mind:  “From Zion, the zenith of beauty God shone forth.” (2)  But God is not all sweetness and light, “Before Him fire consumes, and round about Him—great storming.” (3)  (Yesterday’s passage in Leviticus certainly reminds us about God as “fire [who] consumes…)

The  thread through these verses is that God speaks.  “He spoke and called to the earth” and the psalmists asks, “Let our God come and not be silent” (3a).  And then, “Let Him call to the heavens above and to the earth to judge his people.”  God never acts in conspiratorial silence.  His acts always involve his voice.  Which is why we feel such pathos in those psalms of supplication that beg for a too-silent God to speak.

And here, God speaks to Israel,”‘Gather to Me My faithful, who with sacrifice seal My pact.’ And let the heavens tell His justice, for God, He is judge.” (5,6)  God is reminding Israel of the terms of His covenant.  And later this week, we will remember the time when God was deathly silent.  So silent that His son cries out in the agony of sheer abandonment.  Such was the commencement of the New Covenant.

And had God spoken, perhaps he would have said something like this: Gather to Me My faithful, for whom I have sacrificed everything, even my own Son, to seal My pact.”

 Leviticus 11:1-28  Now that the Tabernacle is established and the ordinances involving sacrifice have been established, God now speaks to both Moses and Aaron, laying out very specific definitions of what is clean and what is unclean in the animal kingdom.  I’m struck by two aspects of this highly detailed passage.

First, is the sheer variety of animal life–in the air, on the ground, in the sea–that constitutes God’s creation.  OF course, in our modern era we know many more phyla and species than are listed here, but the completeness of this list that tells how many species were know at the time is striking.  It also tells us that the land was fecund and not just the middle eastern desert of our imaginations.  Which was one of the things that stuck me when I visited Israel: a far richer, more productive place that I had thought.

Second, I’m astounded by the careful division of everything into the two categories: clean and unclean.  The writers here seem almost obsessed with the issue of purity.  And I’m aware of the explanations that clean animals were healthier for human consumption. But at its base, the issue is more theological than nutritional.  The classification is completely binary: clean or unclean.  No middle ground; no fine gradations; no gray.  Which is exactly our relationship with God.  We are not “sort of redeemed.”  God’s act through Jesus Christ changes our lives from lost to found, from darkness to light.  It is we ourselves who bring ambiguity to God’s binary act of grace.

Mark 3:20-35  Jesus’s activities–especially his predilection to cast out demons– and his growing popularity have panicked his family.  Their good name is being besmirched by his acts and they, with no little help from the religious leaders who would be happy to be rid of him,  have convinced themselves that Jesus himself is demon-possessed.   Jesus uses both a logical argument and a theological argument to make the point that the claims of demon possession are impossible.  Logically, how can a demon-possessed man expunge demons?  But theologically, to claim Jesus has “an unclean spirit” (30) is to accuse Jesus of the unforgivable sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

What I had never noticed before about this somewhat puzzling claim of the “unforgivable sin” is that Jesus is speaking of himself.  To accuse him, who is fully possessed of the Holy Spirit that is the driving force of his powers,  of “an unclean spirit” is to accuse the Holy Spirit herself of being unclean, which is truly blasphemous.  The Holy Spirit is sufficiently well-known and understood in the Hebrew Scripture that the religious people who made the accusation know exactly what Jesus is saying.  He has turned the tables and is accusing his accusers of blasphemy.

We tend to read Jesus’ break with his family as a sad event, but let’s remember what they were saying about him.  Mark speaks of “his mother and brothers.”   Notice, too, how Jesus divides the world into “outside” (where his mother and brothers were standing) and “in here.”  Even for Jesus’ own family there is no middle ground, no gray.  But did Jesus truly reject his mother and his brothers at this point, and break off all contact? I don’t think so.

I think Mark is telling us that this is Jesus’ own invitation to his mother and brothers to come join him “inside here.”  He does not explicitly reject them or cut them off.  Jesus is a man of invitation–“follow me”–never of rejection.  All we need do to be a relative of Jesus is to follow God’s will.  I’d like to think that his brothers and especially his mother did in fact join him.

 

Psalm 49:13-20; Leviticus 9:12-10:20; Mark 3:13-19

Psalm 49:13-20   I think it’s impossible to read the latter half of this wisdom psalm during Holy Week without reflecting on the underlying meaning of verse 15: “But God will ransom my life, from the grip of Sheol He will take me.”

Yes, at the top level, the psalmist is speaking of men, who like the Egyptians, believe their wealth will accompany and even protect them after death.  But they are sorely mistaken: “man will not rest in splendor.  He is likened to beasts that are doomed. This way of theirs is their foolishness,” (11,12)  There is no wealth; there is no splendor.  Instead, “Like sheep to Sheol they head— death shepherds them.” (14)  Even Sheol tires of them: “And they wear out their image in Sheol, a habitation for them.” (14b)

But there is one other Sheep, the Lamb of God who headed to Sheol but returned.  It is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that has ransomed us; that has saved all of us from “the grip of Sheol.”  And unlike the deluded wealthy and powerful sheep, who cannot hang onto their worldly wealth and self-image (“Man will not grasp things in splendor. He is likened to beasts that are doomed.” (20)) when death comes, we have been ransomed once and for all.  And we receive a whole new kind of splendor.

 Leviticus 9:12-10:20  After all the various sacrifices and offerings are executed following God’s instructions, Moses and Aaron emerge from the Tabernacle “and they came out and blessed the people, and the glory of  the LORD appeared to all the people.” (9:23).  God’s glory manifested itself dramatically: “And a fire came out from before the LORD and consumed on the altar the burnt offering and the fat, and all the people saw and shouted with joy and fell on their faces.” (9:24)  God’s power can elicit great happiness and joy.

But…God is still God and requires his mandates to be followed precisely.  Two of Aaron’s four sons, Nadab and Abihu, “took each of them his  fire-pan and put fire in it and placed incense upon it and brought forward alien fire before the LORD, which He had not charged them.”  The sons may have thought that these terribly precise instructions were becoming onerous. Perhaps they were taking a shortcut.   But “fire came out from before the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD.” (2).

Somewhat unsympathetically, Moses reminds Aaron what the “the LORD spoke, saying, ‘Through those close to Me shall I be hallowed and in all the people’s presence shall I be honored.’” (3) And in what I think is the saddest verse in this book, “And Aaron was silent,”  knowing that Moses was theologically correct, but he is torn in grief at the loss of his sons.  Moreover, Moses would not allow Aaron and his family to show the normal signs of grief, and since they were anointed priests had to remain inside the Tabernacle.  Moses bans consumption of alcohol in the Tabernacle as well.

Why? To set a clear boundary “between the holy and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean, and to teach the Israelites all the statutes that the LORD spoke to them by the hand of Moses.” (10,11).  That may be so, but it was scant comfort to Eleazar and to Ithamar, Aaron’s remaining sons, who then err by burning, rather than eating, the offense offering in the holy place (18)  Their fear of being struck dead like their brothers seems reasonable to me.  Aaron tells Moses that given the tragic events of the day, none of them could be expected to eat amidst their grief.  And Moses concedes that Aaron is right.  This is one of those places where we see the power of God juxtaposed against human feeling, that brings such poignancy to the story..  Moses may be God’s representative on earth, but Aaron is the representative humanity in all of us.

Not unlike the scene on Golgotha, where Christ is dying and the narrative turns to the women, including jesus’ mother, weeping at the foot of the cross.

Mark 3:13-19  Up to this point, Jesus has numerous adherents who have become camp followers as his healing ministry and popularity have grown. Here, Jesus “called to him those whom he wanted.”  Clearly, he had been observing those among the crowd and saw the essential qualities he required in his followers.  The first quality is response; that “they came to him.” (13).  In an echo of the twelve tribes of Israel, (this is the establishment of the New Covenant, after all) he appoints each man with three distinct aspects of the commission: (1) to be with him; (2) to proclaim the message; (3) the authority to cast out demons.”

The first two make complete sense to our modern brains.  But why the casting out demons bit? I think it was reflective of the times and to make it clear that Jesus was not just a magician with healing powers.  But more importantly, it comes back to that Markan theme: authority.  This is the first instance of Jesus passing along his authority to his followers.  And we, his followers 2000 years later, also have authority.  Perhaps not to cast out demons, but more authority than we (or at least me) tend to think.

The disciples are each named, even Judas.  The naming of names is crucial because that is the essence of our identity.  Not only before other people, but before God.  Names are God-given, albeit through our parents. And another distinctive that sets us apart form the rest of creation.

 

 

Psalm 49:1-12; Leviticus 8:18-9:11; Mark 3:1-12

Holy Week.  I wonder what OT connections to Jesus’ Passion we might spot this week?  Plus, we are no where near that final week here in the early chapters of Mark.  Yet, all of Scripture looks forward to this week that changed history forever.

Psalm 49:1-12  In many ways this psalm sounds more like it belongs in Proverbs with a couple of verses sounding as iff they belong in Ecclesiastes.  The words of this wisdom psalm apply to everyone, regardless of his or her station in life: “Hear this, all peoples, hearken, all who dwell in the world. You human creatures, you sons of man,  together the rich and the needy.” (1, 2)

Like so much wisdom literature, it feels relevant and contemporary because it describes the human condition, which has changed not a whit since this psalm was written: “Why should I fear in evil days, when crime comes round me at my heels?” (5) And as recent shootings and stabbings so amply attest, evil continues to plague humankind, despite all modern attempts to explain it away or redefine it as something else.

Just feeling the stress of people living right here in Walnut Creek underscores the truth of the psalmist’s assertion, “Who trust in their wealth and boast of their great riches— yet they surely will redeem no man,” (6,7)  The wealthy who refuse to give to the poor and who “will not give to God his ransom” will come to exactly the same dark end as the poor they refused to help: “Will he yet live forever? Will he not see the Pit?” (9).  As if lifted right out of Ecclesiastes, we sense the underlying despair of the psalmist as he writes, “For he sees the wise die, both the fool and the stupid man perish, and they abandon to others their wealth.” (10).

Thus our human lot. Rich, poor, wise, foolish.  We all go down to the Pit.  There is only One Way out.

Leviticus 8:18-9:11  Moses applies the sacrificial blood to his brother in seemingly odd places: “and put it on the right earlobe of Aaron and on the thumb of his right hand and on the big toe of his right foot.” (8:24)  And then does the same to Aaron’s sons.  And then “Moses cast the blood on the altar all around.” (8:25) And again, “Moses took from the  anointing oil and from the blood that was on the altar and sprinkled it on Aaron, on his garments, and on his sons and on the garments of his sons, with him, and he consecrated Aaron with his garments and his sons and the garments of his sons, with him.” (8:30)  After which, Aaron and his sons are instructed to remain inside the Tabernacle for seven days. Only then will atonement occur (8:34).

I don’t think it’s an unreasonable stretch to compare this anointing of blood and oil followed by remaining inside the Tabernacle to Jesus shedding his own sacrificial blood and Jesus’ three days inside the tomb to Arron’s time inside the Tabernacle burial.  The New Covenant began as the old: with the shedding of blood and burial.  And only then Jesus’ atonement of our sins with one huge difference: once and for all.

Mark 3:1-12  Even this early in Mark’s account Jesus has gained more than a few enemies: “They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him.” (2)  Knowing their thoughts, Jesus poses the question of Sabbath healing in the starkest terms possible: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” (4) But Jesus’ opponents don’t answer. Why not? Were they afraid of a hostile reaction by the crowd?  Possibly.  Or did the way Jesus posed the question, not as an issue about keeping the Sabbath, but doing “harm on the Sabbath” surprise them and force them to look at their accusation in a wholly new and unexpected light?  Perhaps there was a glimmer of conscience, that maybe this itinerant preacher had a point.  Did their consciences keep them quiet because to speak would have been an admission that Jesus was right and they were wrong?  But it seems their pride could not allow that.   Had their pricked consciences collided with their pride and expressed itself as unbridled hatred?

Mark tells us that Jesus “looked around at them with anger.” (5a)  He was angry at their silence for failing to respond to a question whose answer is blindingly obvious.  Jesus is angry because their hearts have become so hardened against him that any shred of mercy for the man with the withered hand had been forgotten in their quest for theological correctness.  I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume some of these elders were in the room where Jesus claimed the ability to forgive sins and then healed the paralytic. Correct religious practice has truly trumped grace and mercy.  And that is why Jesus is “grieved at their harness of heart.”

They are exactly like the wealthy people who cannot find it in their hearts to give to the poor that the psalmist excoriates above. And their only response was to “go out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.” (6)  The events of the Passion have already been set in motion.

But Jesus is asking exactly the same question of us.  How often are our reactions to bold new thinking that considers grace more important than orthodoxy exactly like that of the Pharisees?

Psalm 48; Leviticus 7:22-8:17; Mark 2:13-28

Psalm 48  Another song of worshipful praise following a military victory.  “Great is the LORD and highly praised in our God’s town, His holy mountain.” (1) “God’s town” would be Jerusalem atop Mount Zion.  It is “the great King’s [David?] city” and “God in its bastions is famed as a fortress.”

So great a God-inhabited fortress that “the [enemy] kings have conspired,  passed onward one and all. It is they who have seen and so been astounded,   were panicked, dismayed. Shuddering seized them there, pangs like a woman in labor.” (4,5,6)  Given all the psalms of supplication where all the conspiring enemies seem far larger and more threatening to David, this psalm certainly delivers a victor’s satisfaction.

The last line of this psalm reminds us that God is outside time and that “this is God, our God, forevermore. He will lead us forever.”  This is the eternal reliability of God in whom we place our trust.  Would that I could be as reliable in return.

Leviticus 7:22-8:17  While the priests are responsible for executing the various sacrifices before the altar, there is one exception: “‘He who brings forward his communion sacrifice to the LORD shall  bring his offering to the LORD from his communion sacrifice. His own hands shall bring the fire offerings of the LORD,” (7:29-30).  For me this statement has two significant implications.  First, an act of communion is between God and the communicant.  The priests assists (7:31), but does not come between God and the person making the offering.  Second, even today we echo the act of coming forward for communion.  Not to the altar of sacrifice, but to the presence of Jesus Christ, who saved us.  (And why coming forward is far more meaningful for me than passing it around in the pews as we did in the church where I grew up.)

In chapter 8 we see the roots of ordination.  Beginning with ritual washing (8:6) –a literal baptism–and then the act of clothing Aaron, item by item, ending with the turban, and “at the front the golden diadem, the holy crown, as the LORD had charged Moses.” (8:13)  Aaron is then anointed with oil and a bull is sacrificed.  Aaron’s ordination notwithstanding, I also see why the author of Hebrews makes such a point about Jesus Christ being of the order of Melchizedek.  Because while Jesus has been ordained our Great High Priest, it is he himself who was sacrificed. The shedding of Jesus’ own blood eliminates once and for all the requirement for the endless ritual sacrifices we read here in Leviticus.

Mark 2:13-28  Jesus makes the same offer to Levi (Matthew) as to the other disciples: “follow me.”  While Peter et al were middle class fishermen, Levi was doubtless quite wealthy, and his act of following meant substantial monetary sacrifice. An interesting contrast to the rich young ruler.  And a party follows…

About which the religious leaders highly disapprove. Just like many religious leaders today.  I’ve always wondered about evangelicals who seem to disapprove of so many things, do with this passage.  Probably skip right over it.

Mark’s theme here and then more directly in Jesus’ answer to the question about fasting make it abundantly clear that Jesus came not to become yet another religious leader, but to go directly to the people, “those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”  Given the Jews long history of the priest as the official intercessor before God, it’s understandable why Jesus going directly to the people may have seemed so revolutionary to the religious leaders.  Not to mention that they were  being cut out of the process.  (Then again, they may have forgotten about the communion sacrifice which allowed a common person to come directly before the altar.)

Jesus is focused only on the end: saving the lost; healing those who need healing.  The Pharisees were focused on the means–the process–which had become the end in itself.  Something to remember when I complain about liturgy or the order of worship or the music, when the singular purpose of worship is to praise God and commune with his Son, who saved us.

 

Psalm 47; Leviticus 6:14-7:21; Mark 2:1-12

Psalm 47   This is a straight-out psalm of rejoicing for “All peoples, clap hands, shout out to God with a sound of glad song.” (1) Doubtless sung at the celebration of a military victory, the poem gives all credit to God in fairly stark terms, “a great king over all the earth.  He crushes peoples beneath us and nations beneath our feet.” (3)  But at the root of victory is acknowledgement that God “chooses for us our estate, pride of Jacob whom He loves.” (4)

It’s as simple as that: God loves his people. And the people respond in joyous worship,

Hymn to God, hymn,
hymn to our king, O hymn.
For king of all earth is God,
hymn joyous song. (6,7)

We do not require a military victory to sing praises to God.  For me, the gift of each new day is victory enough.  And how grateful I am to know that through Jesus Christ, God’s all-embracing love extends far beyond “the people of Abraham’s God.” (9)

Leviticus 6:14-7:21  A phrase we see repeated many times in this section of Leviticus is “This is the teaching…” followed by specific instructions of the type of offering to be made and precisely how it is to be made.  This is a reminder that there is much more to the Old Covenant than just the Decalogue.  It’s worth remembering that “Torah” means “teaching,” and nowhere is there more teaching, instruction, and regulations than in this book which has suspended the narrative altogether.  Perhaps this book is better titled, “Rules and Regulations of the Old Covenant.”

There were many types of sacrifices, ranging from grain offerings to entire bulls.  And there were many types of sin to be atoned.  Chapter 7 opens with “the teaching of the guilt offering,” (1) which is differentiated from “the offense offering like the sin offering, a single teaching do they have.” (7).  Which is distinct from “this is the teaching of the communion sacrifice that is brought 12 forward to the LORD.” (11,12).  By the way, the communion sacrifice is about thanksgiving, not atonement. (15).

But there’s a strict rule, that “the person who eats flesh from the communion sacrifice 20 which is the LORD’s and his uncleanness is upon him, that person shall be cut off from his kin.”  Wow. One does not just randomly approach the altar without being fully clean.  Which of course is a metaphor for how we are to approach God: fully cleansed.  And thankfully, that has been accomplished by the atoning blood of Jesus Christ.

Mark 2:1-12  Jesus returns to Capernaum from his first road trip, but the word’s out,  and “So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them.” (2)  I’ve always loved this story about the men who removed the roof in order to lower their friend down on a pallet because they were not deterred by obstacles, took the initiative and obviously had serious engineering skills.

So, why, to the complete consternation of the scribes, does Jesus say, “Son, your sins are forgiven”?  Mark is careful to point out that the scribes did not speak up, doubtless grasping that the hoi polloi gathered around Jesus would not take kindly to those who criticized Jesus–especially a charge as serious as blasphemy.  But Jesus gets it, and poses the all-important question, “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’?” (9)

So, does a miracle trump apparent blasphemy?  Jesus clears up the issue by answering that it is a false dilemma and that both things are true.  First, for the theologians in the audience, “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” But for the paralyzed man it is about more than theology, “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” (10).  Jesus is both spiritual authority, but firmly connected to the physical world as well–and that he cares deeply for our physical woes as much as our spiritual ones.

ANd there’s Mark’s theme word again: “Authority.”  The authority which Jesus claims as the Son of Man is so overwhelming, so absolute, that the crowd’s response (and we presume, the scribe’s) can be only amazement.  But more than just amazement, they “glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”” (12).  It is this authority and recognition–at least among this crowd–that Jesus is who he says he is–that sets him so far apart from all the other itinerant prophets and supposed miracle-workers wandering the countryside at the same time.

Psalm 46; Leviticus 5:1-6:13; Mark 1:35-45

Psalm 46  The psalmist states his theme right in the opening verse: “God is a shelter and strength for us, a help in straits, readily found.” (1) The “God as shelter and strength” meme occurs frequently in the psalms.  The phrase, “readily found” is more provocative because so many psalms are about God who isn’t there and/or doesn’t show up.  Yet, here in this psalm of rejoicing, God is “readily found.”  Could it be that in our despair of an absent God we are simply not looking in the right places?

Because God is near us, “we fear not when the earth breaks apart, when mountains collapse in the heart of the seas.” (2) But even as the “waters roar and roil, mountains heave in its surge,” (3) there is also a peaceful stream, whose “rivulets gladden God’s town [Jerusalem]”(4). But “God is in its midst and it will not collapse” (5) because “God helps it as morning breaks.”   To be sure, God is the God of earthquakes and crashing seas, but also the God of the peaceful stream and the sunrise.  Power and peace are always juxtaposed in God.

So, too, in the affairs of man, which parallel God’s power over nature.  Like the collapsing mountain, God is there as “Nations roar and kingdoms collapse” in military and political turmoil.  God always has the last word, “He sends forth is voice and the earth melts.” (6) God’s power rules over the nations, but God is also a God of peace, who has “caused wars to cease to the end of the earth. The bow He has broken and splintered the spear, and chariots burned in fire.” (9)

No wonder we are so confused by the apparent contradictions of God.  The God who brings hurricanes, earthquakes, and destruction is the same God in the glinting stream and sunrise and in the peace that marks the end of war.

Leviticus 5:1-6:13  Chapter 5 lays out different types of offenses and the requisite sacrifice of atonement.  There is the silent witness, who “has seen or known [of a sin committed by another], if he does not tell, he shall bear his punishment.” (2).  Then there’s the person who swears a vow and doesn’t carry it out (5), as well as a person who betrays a trust. (14)  All must make bring a guilt offering to God.

Even unwitting sins require sacrifice: “if a person offends and does any one of all the commands of the LORD that should not be done and does not know and is guilty, he shall bear his punishment.”  We talk about our culture as being “post-Christian.”  Perhaps we should also call it “post-sin.”  “Sin” seems so antiquated in our therapeutic age where victimhood seems to have largely replaced guilt, never mind atonement for guilt.

We think of these detailed Levitical rules as being almost absurdly constraining.  Yet it’s clear that those same rules, which form the basis of our own laws, are exactly how order was maintained among that “stiff-necked” people wandering in the wilderness.  Without them, chaos would have ensued.  Does a decreasing awareness of sin and its consequences lead to a breakdown of order in our own society?

Mark 1:35-45  I’m always struck by the fact that Jesus prays alone, often early in the morning.  (And the one time he asks a few close companions to pray with him in Gethsemane, they just fall asleep.)  Only after praying does he start his first preaching and healing tour around Galilee.

There’s a layered meaning of the disciples’ exclamation, “Everyone is searching for you.”  Yes, the disciples were looking for him in the dark (another double meaning!)  But we are all searching for Jesus (in the dark).  Even those who deny they are searching are still searching for the meaning and purpose that only Jesus can bring.

Mark frequently points out that following a healing, Jesus implores the persons healed not to tell anyone.  Of course they cannot remain silent.  Their lives have been changed and they can do nothing else but shout that reality from the rooftop.  Jesus, master of human psychology, surely understood that this would happen, so why his pleas to be silent?   I don’t think he was using reverse psychology on these people, it was just a hopeful request.  After all,  his growing popularity had certainly complicated his life “so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly.”   I think the simple reality is that when we are truly healed by Jesus, it’s simply humanly impossible to keep the good news to ourselves.

As well, in Matthew, Jesus implores us to go and preach the Gospel.  What better way than this?

Psalm 45:10-17; Leviticus 4; Mark 1:21-34

 Psalm 45:10-17  The king, who is the object of this encomium, is apparently marrying a foreign princess.  The poet advises her to forget the past and face her new reality: “…look, incline your ear, and forget your people, and your father’s house.  And let the king yearn for your beauty, for he is your master, and bow down to him.” (10,11)  Thus it ever was in a patriarchal society: the princess has the asset of beauty, but the male (here the king) has the asset of power.

The princess is brought before the king in “filigree of gold her raiment”(13), together with her own court, “maidens in train, her companions.”(14).  But neither the king nor the princess are considering the issue of patriarchy.  This is a joyous occasion, even though the princess will never see her family again, “They are led in rejoicing and gladness, they enter the palace,” (15).

The princess and king together will produce progeny, and this will help the princess forget that she has been taken from her home: “In your fathers’ stead your sons will be. You will set them as princes in all the land.” (16)

This psalm is about a king and a royal marriage.  I suppose we could extend it to Christ and the Church as his bride, but I really think that’s stretching it too far.  So, I will enjoy this psalm’s royal imagery as the gorgeous poetry it is.

Leviticus 4  God is now giving Moses detailed instructions of sacrifices required for different categories of people who “offend arrantly in regard to any of the LORD’s commands that should not be done.” (2)

There are specific sacrificial instructions for different categories of people, “if the anointed priest should offend” (3); for “When a chieftain offends and does one of all the commands of the LORD his God that should not be done” (22) and for “a single person from the common people should offend errantly in doing one of the LORD’s commands that should not be done, and bear guilt,” (27) These categories provide isight into how the Israelites were organized: priesthood, tribal chieftains and the hoi polloi. 

And the sinner was guilty even f he committed an offense unknowingly, but “the offense that he committed is made known to him.” (27b).  Which suggests that everyone was looking out for the other’s sins. Here, we can see the judgmental roots of the Pharisees, where were inly to happy to publicly announce another’s sins.

And at the center of all this, when the sacrifice is made, “the priest shall atone for him, for his offense that he committed, and it shall be forgiven him.”  For it is the priest making sacrifices to God that lies at the center of the Old Covenant.  A never-ending process of sin and sacrifice, followed by more sin and more sacrifice.  How grateful we should be for Jesus’ once and for all Atonement.

Mark 1:21-34  If “immediately” and “follow” are the themes of Jesus establishing his ministry, then here in the synagogue where Jesus commences his public ministry is the theme of how Jesus conducts his ministry: Authority.  “…he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” (22) and “What is this? A new teaching—with authority!” (27).

The astonishment of the people about Jesus’ authority with the Scriptures and over the demons of the underworld tells us a lot about the spiritual state of the people and their religious leaders before Jesus arrived on the scene.  It would seem that the scribes read the Scriptures aloud but had little to say, or what they did say was anodyne and, frankly, wimpy.  Like many sermons I’ve heard through the years.  But it’s clear that Jesus is more than just knowledgable about the Scriptures.  The people at the synagogue sense Jesus’ deep, intimate connection with the Scriptures. Almost as if they had come alive in the person of Jesus, and had begun walking and talking among them.  This was an unprecedented experience for them–and for us.

Mark offers ample evidence of Jesus’ authority in action beyond explicating the Scriptures as he writes about healing.  Starting with the specific, Peter’s mother-in-law, and then the general, “he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons.” (34)

Capernaum is about as far as you can get from Jerusalem and still be in Israel.  Yet, this is where Jesus began his ministry: in the Israeli outback.  Retrospectively, his strategy is clear: Begin in an obscure place and let the word filter out on its own.  No need to start giving speeches in Jerusalem.  And, unlike the many other prophets and Zealots wandering the countryside at the time, use actions, along with Scripture to establish his authority.  This is far far more than simply the provocative speeches of other would be revolutionaries and rabble rousers.  Jerusalem is still asleep and they do not know what is coming.