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.

 

Psalm 71:18b-24; Numbers 22:7-41; Mark 15:33-47

 Psalm 71:18b-24   It seems as if no matter where a psalm begins or whether it’s a psalm of supplication, of thanksgiving or any combination (as this psalm is), we end up in the same place: worshipping God: “Till I tell of Your mighty arm to the next generation, to all those who will come,” (18b).  Even though David is now an old man, he can still worship and tell others of God’s great acts.  There is real generational continuity here, as David tells of God’s great wonders (17), God’s power (18) and God’s bounty (19).  “You have done great things, O God, who is like You?” (19)  This is a question that answers itself: no one.

Now that I am older, I realize that a vibrant Christian community must encompass every age: from infants to we gray hairs who sit in the back pews.  And we who have come before have an absolute duty to tell of God’s great wonders and power and bounty to those who follow us.  Even if we can only “murmur Your bounty.” (24)

Through the years we have been “surfeited with great and dire distress.” (20) No one escapes that.  But the next lines say it all: “You will once more give me life, and from earth’s depths once more bring me up.” (20b) Which for me, anyway, operates at two levels.  To be sure God will “bring me up” out of great and dire distress in this life.  As He has done in my journey through cancer.  But equally, this is a resurrection promise: that at the end of history; the Day of the Lord, we will once more have life as we are brought up from the earth’s depths. That is God’s bounty beyond all measure.  No wonder David sings; no wonder we sing too.

Numbers 22:7-41  If we exclude the serpent in Eden, Balaam’s ass is the only talking animal in the Bible. This story is strange on many levels.  First there’s the apparent contradiction where God instructs Balaam to go with the men (22:21).  Yet in the next verse, “God’s wrath flared because he was going with them,” (22) and the “LORD’s messenger stationed himself in the road as an adversary to him.”  Perhaps this story has simply been inserted here by a different editor.

Then there’s the fact that God speaks to a professional hexer.  Which I guess is not surprising, but it certainly makes clear that God is the God of everyone, not just Israel.

In any event, while the overall theme is deadly serious, there are certainly comic elements.  The ass can see the sword-wielding angel; Balaam cannot.  The ass mysteriously halts on the road and then on a very narrow path and Balaam beats the ass three times.  Then, the ass speaks, but this is just not a fairy tale because “the Lord opened the ass’s mouth.”  God is at work here. What’s passingly strange, however, is that this does not seem to surprise Balaam and he replies as if conversations with his ass are completely routine, “Because you have toyed with me. Had I a sword in my hand, by now  I would have killed you.” (30) to which the ass (remember this is the Lord speaking) plaintively replies, “Have I ever done this to you before?” Balaam says “no” and “the Lord unveils his eyes.”

These interjections of “the Lord” causing an animal to speak and then opening Balaam’s yes are crucial, because it raises the story from fairy tale to life lesson.  We, too, are wont to reject messengers from God that come in unexpected forms, as God certainly does here.

Finally, I cannot help but see a “pre-echo” of Paul’s Damascus road conversion here.  Like Balaam, Paul has been busy beating something, the Christians because like Balaam’s ass they can see what Paul cannot, and they do not conform to what he demands.  In an interesting reversal, God veils Paul’s eyes, yet like Balaam, Paul can suddenly see something he had not seen before: this time, though, it is not an angel, but the mind and heart of Jesus.

Mark 15:33-47  After hours of silence,  Jesus finally cries out the opening line of Psalm 22.  But he cries in pure agony; one final gasp and dies.  But Mark makes it clear (in his usual sparse language), that this dying gasp has changed the world in profoundly unimaginable ways.  The curtain temple is torn (Mark does not need an earthquake to do this), signifying the end of the Temple era. Indeed, signifying the end of the Old Covenant.

The centurion says the phrase that turns the old order–for Israel and ultimately, for Rome– upside down: “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (39)  God’s son is not just for Israel, but for Rome and therefore for all gentiles.  

Mark devotes an entire paragraph describing the arrival of the women who “used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.”  Up to this point, it has been all male all the time: the disciples, the betrayal, the priests, Pilate, the mocking soldiers.  But when Jesus dies, the women, who Mark is careful to point out were Jesus’ caregivers, quietly appear.  

Jesus is taken down from the cross and Joseph of Arimathea wraps the body and lays it in the tomb, closing it with the famous rolling stone. But Mark is careful to note that it is the women, “Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses [who] saw where the body was laid.” (47)

After the violence wreaked by the men (except for Joseph of Arimathea), we have this quiet intermezzo as the body is reverently buried. A first hint of something much larger afoot.  And one in which women play a central role.  The old order has been turned upside down here, as well.

Psalm 71:9-18a; Numbers 21:10-22:6; Mark 15:21-32

Psalm 71:9-18a  During the past two weeks of the kidney stone, I’ve been feeling my age since the healing process just seems to take longer and longer. So, the psalmist’s words, “Do not fling me away in old age, as my strength fails, do not forsake me.” (9) really resonate. But at least I do not have enemies “who stalk me” (10) and who assert “God has forsaken him,…Pursue and catch him, for no one will save him.” (11) To be old is one thing; to be vulnerable against actively plotting enemies is quite another.  Yet, this is exactly what David faced basically to his dying day.

But there is always hope, and indeed, he writes that despite ill health and the plotting of enemies, “As for me, I shall always hope and add to all Your praise.” (14)  Even when it seems as if God is not hearing us and our straits are dire, hope persists.  Notice in this line that hope precedes praise.  I cannot imagine honest worship ever occurring without the presence of hope.  All sorts of awful things have happened by and to David by the time he reaches old age, but his deep relationship with God has been there all the time, “You have taught me since my youth,” (17) and hope is permanently instilled in his being.

So, even when he pleads, “even in hoary old age, O God, do not forsake me.” (18a) we sense that even as he cries those words, David knows in his heart of hearts that God, even a silent God, would never abandon him, even in his weakness. I think that behind this cri de coeur, David understands that God seeks a relationship with David as much as David seeks a relationship with God. It is within this unbreakable connectedness that hope always flourishes.

Numbers 21:10-22:6  In Sunday School, I always had the impression that the Israelites wandered aimlessly in the wilderness for those 40 years. And at one point in this chapter wandering is certainly the clear impression: “And from Midbar to Mattanah. And from Mattanah to Nahaliel, and from Nahaliel to Bamoth. And from Bamoth to the valley that is in the steppes of Moab…” (21:19, 20a)

But consequential episodes are also occurring. Once again, the Israelites ask the local king for passage through his lands, this time where the Amorites dwell: “Let me pass through your land. We will not turn off in field or vineyard. We will not drink well water. On the king’s road we will go until we pass through your territory.” (21:22).  Not unexpectedly, the king refuses, preferring to do battle.  This was not a wise choice, as “Israel struck him down by the edge of the sword and seized his land from the Arnon to the Jabbok to the Ammonites.”  Same for King Og (love that name!) of Bashan, who meets the same fate. (33-35).

But none of these lands is Canaan proper; God is keeping his word and they cannot go there. I have to believe that these “pre-battles” are excellent preparation for the much larger war with Canaan that is yet to come.  Just as for us when we become impatient with a situation and want to just get on with dealing with it, God will often delay us.  It’s only when we look back that we realize we weren’t ready for the main battle and required the preparation that God placed in our way.

The neighborhood is not confused about the threat posed by these intruders from Egypt.  The victory over the Amorites strikes fear (and hatred) into the Moabites, who view the Israelites as an invading scourge: “Moab was very terrified of the people, for they were many, and Moab loathed the Israelites.” (22:3)  So, rather than do battle, Balak, king of Moab, decides to call on Balaam, a professional “hexer” who lives “at Pethor, which is on the Euphrates” (22:5) to curse Israel.  Said curse will make a Moabite military victory more straightforward.

As always, things never change.  If real world resources–here the Moabite army– can’t do the job, leaders too often revert to “magical thinking,” as if mere words will do the trick. Needless to say, there are too many current parallels to delusion of relying on empty words.

 Mark 15:21-32  Mark’s spare language pierces our hearts with the horror of Jesus’ crucifixion.  Unlike the other gospel accounts, Jesus, naked on the cross, is completely silent, rejecting the vinegary wine, dying in agony under the taunting placard, “King of the Jews.”

Instead of Jesus, we hear from cynical passers-by tossing Jesus’ own words back at him, “shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!”” (29, 30).  The chief priests and scribes proclaim total victory in their cruel mockery, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.” (32).  In their overweening self-righteousness they believe they have not only preserved their own power, but have patriotically demonstrated to Rome that they are loyal subjects, ridding Rome of a potentially divisive political problem. The Passover plot has worked perfectly.  Good thing they were able to use that stupid Judas to rid themselves of this too-popular rabble-rouser.

Even the dying thieves (and it’s interesting that Mark does not specify a number; there may certainly have been more than two) do not recognize Jesus as anything other than a befuddled dreamer as they join in the taunts.  Nobody’s going to Paradise in Mark’s account of this horrific event.

Mark makes his point dramatically: Unlike in today’s psalm, by the end of verse 32 all hope is indeed lost.

 

Psalm 71:1-8; Numbers 20:1-21:9; Mark 15:1-20

Psalm 71:1-8  This psalm begins with the simple declaration, “In You, O LORD, I shelter. Let me never be shamed.”  And safely in that shelter, our psalmist asks God for four things, three of them having to do with rescue: “Through Your bounty save me and free me. Incline Your ear to me and rescue me.” (2).  The poetic repetition of “save,” “free,” and “rescue” make it crystal clear that God is the only one capable of pulling David (or the psalmist) out of his present circumstance.

What resonates here for me is that the psalmist has surrendered totally; there is nothing at this point he can accomplish on his own, but is wholly dependent on God’s salvific power.  I have been trained and have practiced all my life on being self-reliant.  “If you want to get something done, do it yourself,” still rings in my ears.  In only the most desperate situations have I turned to God and prayed for rescue.  Yet, the psalmist has had a life-long trust that God would rescue him since the very moment of his birth: “Upon You I relied from birth. From my mother’s womb You brought me out.” (6)  Calling on God for rescue is as natural as breathing.

I came to taste a bit of this total dependence last week as I lay prone on a hospital bed following a procedure to remove a kidney stone. Whenever I attempted to sit up, my head began spinning and I knew I could go no further.  This is the kind of loss of control and dependence about which the psalmist speaks.  In the end, no matter how strong, how clever, how resourceful we are, we cannot rescue ourselves.  We lie prone, our head spinning, and can only call upon God to save, to free, to rescue us.  Because we know that as the psalmist says, God has inclined his ear to us.

Numbers 20:1-21:9  The Israelite road trip through the desert continues with four significant events in today’s reading. One would think there would be more discourse by the authors of Numbers at this most significant incident at Meribah. But the drama of the event is heightened by the straightforward narrative. One again, the Israelites are grumbling, (understandably, I think) about no water.  As always, Moses and Aaron fall on their faces seek God’s guidance, which is eminently simple: Speak to the rock and water will gush forth.  But Moses in his impatience strikes the rock, not once but twice.  God delivers on the promise, but Moses’ presumptuousness is punished by being forbidden to enter Canaan.

Yes, we all know the lesson about waiting on God and not taking things into our own hands–and worse, making it look like we rather than God are providing the water. But I think it’s worth reflecting that Moses strikes the rock not because he is impatient with God, but that he is supremely tired of his people and their constant complaining, striking the rock more out of frustration with them than impatience with God.  Regardless, though, disobedience has its consequence.

Edom refuses clear passage for Israel, even if they stay on the king’s highway and do “not pass through field or vineyard and [do] not drink well water..” (17).  But Edom refuses and plans must be altered  Obvious lesson: even when the way forward seems obvious and clear, it is not necessarily the one we will be able to take.

Aaron is near death and like Moses, “he shall not come into the land that I have given to the Israelites because you both have rebelled against My word at the Waters of Meribah.” (25) There is a careful transition of priestly power as “Moses stripped Aaron of his garments and clothed with them Eleazar his son.” (28) Continuity and good order are the lessons here.  There is nothing random or spontaneous about how God is to be worshiped or about the priestly duties of those who serve Him.

The incident of the serpents and healing caused by looking up at the bronze snake on the pole is of course the central OT symbol of how Jesus Christ saves us, and central to John’s point about how Jesus will be lifted up to save us (John 3:14).  The symbolism of the snakes is obvious because it was by the “Serpent” that we have fallen, and it is by the serpent that, absent looking to Jesus Christ, that our sins will bite us to death.

Mark 15:1-20  What are we to make of Jesus’ silence before Pilate?  He responds to Pilate only once and then cryptically, “You say so.”  Jesus’ silence is an eloquent witness to his innocence.  We can see the many priests, elders and officials all talking over each other, interrupting to pile on more and more accusations, many of them having to do with Jewish theology and Jesus’ blasphemy, about which Pilate was not only ignorant, but could care less.  The only thing Pilate cares about is maintaining order among this Jewish rabble. And only one person in the room displays that order he so fervently wishes for: Jesus.

Pilate knows that this solitary silent “king of the Jews” is no threat to Roman power, but just one pathetic lost soul who has somehow offended the completely incomprehensible theology that so obsesses the Jews. “Pilate asked them, “Why, what evil has he done?”” (14) but it is too late for calm reasoning and judicial disputation. His already shaky governorship cannot withstand a Passover riot.  So, Pilate does what every politician since then has done to quiet the hoi polloi  in the same circumstances: He caves to their demands, “wishing to satisfy the crowd.” (15)  And thus goes down as the most infamous name in Roman history.

Mark’s stark account of Jesus before Pilate distills the essence of the conflict: Jesus in noble silence standing against the hysteria, the political expediency and mockery.  There is no more pathetic sight than human flailing, whining and injustice when contrasted to the serene majesty of Jesus Christ.

 

 

Psalm 70; Numbers 18:25-19:22; Mark 14:66-72

I am writing today out of a post-kidney stone treatment hydrocodone haze, so fair warning: my musings may be more incoherent than usual…

Psalm 70:  This short psalm is pretty much a précis of the much longer one that precedes it.  David opens with an urgent plea for rescue: “God, to save me, LORD, to my help, hasten!”  He then wishes the very worst possible fate for his enemies, which is not death, but that “those who seek my life be shamed and reviled. May they fall back and be disgraced.” (2)  With a special imprecation for those who have mocked him in public, “Let them turn back on the heels of their shame,  who say “Hurrah, hurrah!”(3)

Having dispensed with his prayer request, David moves, as he always does, to worship: “Let all who seek You  exult and rejoice, and may they always say “God is great!” (4), concluding his prayer by repeating its urgency not once, but twice: “God, O hasten to me! My help, the one who frees me You are. LORD, do not delay.” (6)

Two thoughts: First, David completely understand that vengeance is God’s exclusive realm.  Even though he prays for the worst possible outcome for his enemies, he always leaves the action itself up to God.  He never tells God what he, David, will do to his enemies. Above all, David never threatens God with deadlines, a la, “OK, God, if you don;t act on this, I will.”  Think how different history would have been if other leaders had shown David’s restraint in carrying out their own vengeance.

Second, David prays with urgency.  He is not afraid to ask God to hurry things up, even though he well knows that God will do things in God’s own time.  So, it’s certainly OK to ask God to hurry up, but in doing so, we ourselves must wait patiently, and again, not take things into our own hands.

Numbers 18:25-19:22  So the Levites, who receive a tithe form the other tribes are themselves to tithe: “a tithe of a tithe.”  Which is certainly clear instructions to pastors and church leaders that they too are obligated to give back to God.  And in the case of Levites, their tithe must consist of “from all the richest of it, the consecrated part of it.”  In short, they are to lead by example, lest the other tribes grumble that they gave, so why not the priests.

While I am fond of saying, “there is no free lunch,” here for the Levites there is: “And you shall eat it in every place, you and your households.”  But as God points out, “for it is wages for you in exchange for your work in the Tent of Meeting.”  Which is reminder to us that we are not to be stingy to the pastors and priests who lead us.  Which I’m afraid churches tend to be famous for doing.

Chapter 19 makes it clear that cleansing and purification are not the same thing.  The unblemished red (an association with the color of blood?) heifer is sacrificed outside the camp and then every part of it is burned to ashes, which are mixed with water and become what Alter translates a “riddance water,” used as purification.  Symbolically, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to view the water used for cleaning as representing baptism, while the red heifer’s ashes represent the purification that was brought to us through the shedding of Jesus’ blood.  We are baptized into the community of saints, but it is only through jesus Christ that our sins are truly forgiven.

The final portion of this chapter deals with rules around handling dead bodies and consequent uncleanness, followed by the complex rites of washing and purification.  Yes, these rules certainly represent good hygiene, but I think there larger purpose is to ensure that unlike the Egyptians, the dead do not become cultic objects of worship.  Israel’s God is a God of the living, not the dead.

 Mark 14:66-72  Peter’s denial must surely have been the greatest tragedy in his life up to that point, and for me anyway, the hinge point in Peter’s ministry to the world.  Up to that cold morning in the courtyard, Peter had his own clear ideas about who Jesus was and what Jesus was going to do.  With Jesus’ betrayal and arrest, his world was shattered.  What he had so confidently said to Jesus about the Messiah was now just a bitter memory. His personal safety was what mattered now, hence the increasing anxiety expressed as anger under each of his subsequent denials. He is in the most psychologically and spiritually vulnerable point in his life.

It is the two cock crows that turn his life around.  For in Peter’s weeping was the realization that he was not who he thought he was.  As Oswald Chambers is fond of pointing out, it is not until we abandon ourselves and our own ideas of how God should work that Jesus is really ready to work through us.  In Peter’s tears lay that final abandonment of ego.

Up to now, I haven’t really appreciated the importance of Jesus’ prophecy that the the cock crowing twice rather than just once.  The first cock crow probably registered subconsciously on Peter, but he was too busy trying to get the servant girl to shut up to pay much attention.  But then the cock crows a second time and the full weight of what Jesus says comes crashing down around his head.

Same for us, I think.  We may hear the still small voice of God a first time, but brush it off as a random thought.  But then the same voice comes a second or a third time–and that makes it difficult to ignore.  The true import of what the voice is saying finally penetrates our brain–and then our heart.  And our world, too, may just come crashing in around us.

Psalm 69:22-29; Numbers 16:28-17:13; Mark 14:43-52

Difficult to believe we’re forty days out form Easter already.  The Moravians do a fine job of managing the liturgical calendar and today is Ascension Day, or as our Catholic friends have it, The Feast of the Ascension.

Psalm 69:22-29  David’s words–basically seeking God’s curse upon his enemies–go beyond mere imprecation and even malediction; they are fundamentally an anti-benediction that descends from the relationships going bad “may their table become a trap and their allies a snare” (23) to being the deserving recipients of God’s anger: “Pour out upon them Your wrath, and Your blazing fury overtake them.” (24).

But even God’s wrath is apparently insufficient. David asks that their encampment and the ground they inhabit “be laid waste” and then, “Add guilt upon guilt.” (28) But then David asks God to grant the greatest punishment of all: eternal separation from God:

“…let them have no part in Your bounty.  Let them be wiped out from the book of life, and among the righteous let them not be written.” (29)

No matter what earthly tragedy we could wish God to visit upon our enemies there is none greater than eternal separation and isolation from God.  Paul mentions the Book of Life in Philippians, but mostly we encounter it again and again in Revelation.  Where David’s request is fully carried out: “everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slaughtered.” (Rev 13:8)

For David, to be his enemy was to be the enemy of God. For us, to be excluded from the book of life would be a dreadful end indeed.

Numbers 16:28-17:13  At God’s direction, the 250 rebels have been swallowed by the earth, but interestingly, their fire pans remain.  Not only do they remain, but “they have become holy—the fire-pans of these offenders at the cost of their lives.” (17:3)  Not just holy, but God commands that they have a new function as well: “And they shall make of them hammered sheets as plating for the altar, for they brought them forward before the LORD and they have become holy.” (4)  [Aside: so I guess if were were looking for a biblical justification for recycling, it would be right here…]

God, never wasteful, also uses the re-plated altar as a teaching moment.  It is to be a “remembrance for the Israelites, so that no stranger, who was not of the seed of Aaron, should come forward to burn incense before the LORD, and none should be like Korah and his community.” (5)

Teaching moment or not, the rest of the Israelites are upset to say the least, angrily accusing Moses and Aaron, “You, you have put to death the LORD’s people.” (6). Which assuredly does not please God, who tells Moses and Aaron to get out of the way, and “I will put an end to them in an instant.” (9).  Moses and Aaron once again plead before and angry God and manage to placate Him so that God brings only a “scourge.” Moses and Aaron quickly intercede to keep the scourge “held back” but not fast enough, and “those who died by the scourge came to fourteen thousand and seven hundred, besides those who died  because of Korah.” (14).

What are we to make of this hot-tempered God, who seems to have all the patience of an adolescent?  Well, we certainly know by now that God is capable of striking sinners dead, which of course is what David asks for in the psalm.  As Bruce McLaren notes, the OT gradually reveals God’s various qualities, including His unbounded love.  But here in the wilderness, it still seems that Moses and Aaron are the ones of greater mercy as this book continues to record the words and actions of this very angry, impatient God of Israel.  But perhaps the greater the anger, the greater the mercy.

Mark 14:43-52  One of the pleasures, well, not exactly a pleasure, rather a sobering but profound experience, is to read all four gospel accounts of the Passion in a single year (which makes for a relatively drama-free second year of NT reading in the epistles).

As always, Mark’s account of the betrayal and arrest of Jesus is stark and for me, cinematic.  Jesus has barely recovered from the agony of Gethsemane when Mark tells us that Judas interrupts him “while he was still speaking.” (43).  Judas arrives with a “crowd with swords and clubs from the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders.”  (43b).  Mark identifies exactly who was behind the arrest; there is no mystery here about who is behind the conspiracy.

I have never before reflected on the fact that the betrayal is a kiss–that most intimate of greetings between friends in the Middle East–amplifying the magnitude of the betrayal. Judas could have just pointed at Jesus and say, “There he is?” But he kisses him. What were Judas’ thoughts as he performed that act?  How often have I betrayed Jesus while simultaneously profession great affection for him?

Jesus’ last statement must have struck to the heart of all present, making them realize the extreme cowardice of this act: “Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me.”  Hypocrisy, betrayal, cowardice: A combination all too easy to fall prey to ourselves.

And then those sad, sad words: “All of them deserted him and fled.”  Which I’m quite sure I would have done as well.

This section ends with the two of the most intriguing autobiographical verses in all the gospels. Mark must have been there the entire time in Gethsemane.  But why only the loincloth?  Had he planned to go to the gym?  This is again one of the places where we know that no writer of fiction could have possibly inserted such a detail since it does nothing to advance the story.

Rather, I think it is there because it is Mark’s own confession: “he ran off naked.”  I can only imagine the shame and regret the author felt as he wrote those words.