Psalm 69:13-21; Numbers 15:32-16:27; Mark 14:32-42

Psalm 69:13-21  Completing his inventory of how downtrodden and humiliated he was [“I was the talk of those who sit in the gate, the drunkards’ taunting song.” (12)] David gets down to business and begins praying: “O LORD, come in a favorable hour. God, as befits Your great kindness, answer me with Your steadfast rescue.” (13)  Referring directly to the lines at the beginning of the psalm, David prays for rescue and salvation in an extended watery metaphor: “Save me from the mire, that I not drown. Let me be saved from my foes and from the watery depths.  Let the waters’ current not sweep me away and let not the deep swallow me.” (14,15)

For me, this is the richest, most descriptive metaphor in the psalms about our desperate condition as we reach out our flailing arms, crying for God’s rescue.  Even in his desperation, David does not forget to ask, “Answer me, O Lord” (16) and to remember that above all, God loves him: “for Your kindness is good, in Your great compassion turn to me.”

But perhaps most strikingly, after this wonderful prayer, David returns to reflecting on his straits, which have become so bad they are affecting him emotionally, physically, and psychologically, “Reproach breaks my heart, I grow ill;  I hope for consolation, and there is none,” (21) Is it because God has not answered?  We end today’s reading on the eery note, “and for my thirst they made me drink vinegar,” a foretaste of Christ’s agony on the cross.

But what do we take away here? Yes, we should pray to God very specifically to be rescued when we are drowning.  We know in our heart of hearts that God is kind and does in fact hear us.  But God may not answer us directly or as soon as we want.  What then?  Do we, like David, return to cataloging our woes? His is the most human of all reactions to a silent God.  I do not think I would respond any differently were I in David’s sandals.

Numbers 15:32-16:27 After endless rules and details about sin and sacrifice in Leviticus and the first half of Numbers, we see God’s response to disobedience in action.  First, there’s the “man gathering wood on the sabbath day.” (32)  The narrators don;t tell us if the guy had been warned not to do that, but we have to assume that everyone knew the rules.

The others saw this was a clear violation and brought him to Moses, wondering “what should be done with him.” (34).  It is the Lord Himself, speaking to Moses, who renders judgement: “The man is doomed to die. Let all the community pelt him with stones outside the camp.” (35) and the community carries out the punishment, although I suspect even Moses was surprised at the severity of the punishment.

The key here, I think, is that the man had literally and figuratively gone outside the community.  And it’s notable that it’s the community that carries out the sentence via stoning. As alien and harsh as the punishment seems, out there in the wilderness, community cohesiveness and obedience was essential to survival.  And the man’s example would not be soon forgotten.

Following the little intermezzo describing what has become today’s Jewish prayer shawl, the focus in chapter 16 shifts from the required obedience of the hoi polloi to the leadership. Korah and 249 of his buddies–all of them “community chieftains, persons called up to meeting, men of renown…assembled against Moses and against Aaron and said to them, “You have too much! ” (1-3).  Basically this is an incipient coup d’etat that Moses had better deal with quickly.  Still angry about leaving Egypt (how quickly we become nostalgic even for things that were plain bad!) Korah et al believed that Moses and Aaron had too much power–“why should you raise yourselves up over the LORD’s assembly?” (4) and tehy should have some too.

So, there’s a test: each of the 250 is to bring his incense-filled firepan to the Tabernacle the next day.  God informs Moses that he had better step back since He was about to “put an end to them in an instant.” (21).  Moses begs for mercy, why “should one man offend and against all the community You rage?” (23). But God ignores Moses’ plea opens the earth and swallows the families and possessions of the 250; while the rebels themselves are consumed by fire.

Here we have the mirror image of the earlier wood-gathering incident.  This portion of the community has become corrupted–and God is making it clear that rebellious communities, especially its leadership are responsible for holding the community together, not ripping it apart.

 Mark 14:32-42  Mark’s usual economy of language conveys an urgent anxiety that the more descriptive gospels obscure somewhat: Jesus “began to be distressed and agitated.” (33)  I’m particularly struck by “agitated,” because it suggests that Jesus, supremely self-aware as always, is asking the disciples to stay awake lest he require calming and comforting by them.  Jesus’ physical, emotional and spiritual distress is amplified all the more by the single phrase, ” he threw himself on the ground.” (35)

In the Medieval and Renaissance paintings we usually see of Jesus in Gethsemane, they always seem to portray a beatific Jesus, hands reverently folded, kneeling calmly and looking up to heaven.  Yes, many paintings portray bloody sweat streaming down his forehead, but none of them show what I think Mark is describing here: a distraught Jesus, so stressed and fevered, almost writhing on the ground, feeling so overwhelmed that he feels he is drowning,  that he may be very close to physically passing out.  (Not unlike the state David describes in today’s psalm.)  He’s not just asking his disciples to “hang out” with him.  In his isolated agony, he’s in desperate need of their human company.

And in a foretaste of what happens later; they are not there to be at his fully human side when he needs them more than at any point in the whole time they’ve known him.  Needless to say, we are those disciples, too.  We don’t think about it this way, but I don;t think it’s unreasonable to say that we hurt Jesus when we are not there, when we abandon him.  As I so frequently do.

Psalm 69:1-12; Numbers 15:1-31; Mark 14:12-31

Psalm 69:1-12  David is at his very lowest in the opening verses of what is formally a psalm of supplication, but more appropriately might be called a psalm of utter despair. The opening metaphor reveals not only David’s agony, but how close he feels he is to death as he pleads with God: “Rescue me, God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I have sunk in the slime of the deep, and there is no place to stand.” (2)  Rising waters with no place to stand is a pretty horrific situation, especially since David makes it clear he has been yelling at God, but in vain: “I am exhausted from my calling out. My throat is hoarse.” (3) The image of Jesus dying on the cross, crying out the first verse of Psalm 22 certainly comes to mind here.

All hope seems to be lost in God’s silence: “My eyes fail from hoping for my God.” (4) It’s difficult to conceive a more dire, hopeless state than to feel abandoned by God–especially for David who is the Bible’s exemplar of what it means to be in close communion with God.  His present crisis is completely unexpected and completely unjust in David’s eyes: “What I have not stolen should I then give back?” (5)

David’s innocence, abandonment and unjust punishment are a clear prophecy of Jesus’ suffering to come.  Like David, Jesus is being punished to atone for sins he has not committed. “Because for You I have borne reproach, disgrace has covered my face.” (7)  Unjustly accused and punished for the wrongdoings of others. It’s the cruel injustice of the cross that I often forget: that Jesus, innocent of wrongdoing, should bear the punishment every human justly deserves.

Numbers 15:1-31  Buried in the midst of this detailed description of various sacrifices to be made is, I think, one of the root passages for the enormous controversy in the early church regarding following Jewish law.  The Lord seems quite clear on the point that aliens (Alter uses “sojourners”) residing with the Israelites have the same rights but are subject to the same law as the Israelites themselves: “a perpetual statute for your generations, you and the sojourner alike, shall there be before the LORD. One teaching and one practice shall there be for you and for the sojourner who resides with you.’” (15, 16)

So, it would seem pretty understandable why the Jewish side of “The Way” would insist on circumcision for non-Jews.  Which is what led to Paul’s fevered disquisition in Romans on how Christ came to not only fulfill the Law but to transcend it.  And why the author of Hebrews is careful to point out that Christ is of the Melchizedekian, not the Aaronic priesthood and therefore he (and logically, we who follow Christ) are exempted from the specifics of the sacrificial system.

This chapter also deals with intentional and unintentional (Alter: “errancy”) sin.  The issues around intentional or premeditated sin is clear.  But clearly, Moses is addressing what I’m sure were major protests from those who felt that since they had sinned unintentionally they should be exempted from offering a sacrifice.

But even when we sin unintentionally, atonement is still required: “they have brought…their sin offering before the Lord, for their error.” (25).  Which is true for us, as well.  There are consequences created by even unintentional sin, and we must seek forgiveness.  Certainly forgiveness in the confession-to-God sense, but also forgiveness from the person who was the unintended victim of our sin.

Mark 14:12-31  There is so much packed in here; I wish the Moravians would slow down a bit.

Perhaps of small theological import, but here’s the second incident in a week (the first being the processional donkey) where Jesus  either has impressively specific foreknowledge, or he has somehow made previous arrangements.  It doesn’t matter really; the point is that something has been prepared ahead of time.  This is certainly in keeping with Jesus’ Upper Room Discourse in John, where he notes he is going to prepare a place for us.  Jesus was no Boy Scout, but he absolutely never failed to be prepared–and as he told his disciples on the Mount of Olives, it’s crucial to be alert, as well.

Once again one we encounter one those places where we really wish Mark had recorded the response to what Jesus said.  Here, I wish we knew Judas’ response to Jesus matter-of-fact statement, “It would have been better for that one not to have been born.” (21)  

I don’t think it’s impossible to consider that upon hearing these words, Judas would have experienced regret and shame greater than any he had ever known.  But it was too late. The wheels had been set in motion.  And he was too much a coward to put a halt to what he was about to do.

Or was Judas, as he has become known to history, evil personified and smirked inwardly to himself when he heard these words, thinking Jesus was such a loser and the world would be better off without him?  Obviously, we’ll never know, but somehow in my heart I have to believe that it would be impossible to be around Jesus for 3 years and not somehow be affected positively by what Jesus said.  But we do know that Judas came to regret his actions to the point of suicide.  This certainly indicates tremendous remorse. 

Just one note about Peter’s denial, which “he said vehemently, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.”” was agreed to by all present: “And all of them said the same.” (31)

We do well to remember that Jesus, like David in the psalm, was abandoned not just by Peter, to whom we give such a hard time, but by everyone.  All those people shouting ‘Hosanna’ on the preceding Sunday; all those people in the Temple court, so many that the officials were afraid to take action against Jesus; all those in the Upper Room.  Abandoned by everyone.  And on the cross, abandoned by God himself.  

God is a relational God. That’s why He keeps coming after us even when we run from Him. But to be utterly alone, abandoned by every person and then by God Himself is truly descending into hell.

Psalm 68:28-35; Numbers 14; Mark 14:1-11

Psalm 68:28-35  [This is one of those occasions in the Psalms where I prefer the NRSV to Alter’s translation–perhaps because of its familiarity.]

The psalmist, acting as herald, cries out to God: “Summon your might, O God;/ show your strength, O God, as you have done for us before.” (28)  God, who resides at the Temple in Jerusalem, is king over all the earth.  God demands that troublemakers such as Egypt (“Rebuke the wild animals that live among the reeds,”–“reeds” being a reference to Egypt) must cease its military activities, “Trample under foot those who lust after tribute;/ scatter the peoples who delight in war,” (30b) and come to Jerusalem.

With battles at an end, and all the parties gathered in Jerusalem there is worship rather than war: “Sing to God, O kingdoms of the earth; /sing praises to the Lord,” (32) And as we look heavenward, we see and hear the “rider in the heavens, the ancient heavens;/ listen, he sends out his voice, his mighty voice.” (33) The God of Israel, “whose power is in the skies,” is ascendant over all the weaker powers of the earth.

This is one of those psalms where it becomes clear that God is not just the local god of Israel, but the Creator and has power over all the earth.  This reality is crucial if we are to understand that God indeed loves every person regardless of tribe–and later, that Jesus’ salvific power is extended to earth’s every inhabitant.

Numbers 14  This is the famous chapter where things go (literally) south for the Israelites.  It is not just a few complainers, it is “all the community [that] lifted their voice and put it forth, and the people wept on that night. And all the Israelites complained against Moses and against Aaron.” demanding to return to Egypt, even playing the “women and our little ones will become booty” (3) in appealing to Moses’ and Aaron’s emotions, trying to get them to see the irrefutable logic of their demands.

I have the feeling that when Moses and Aaron “fell on their faces before all the assembly of the community” and, along with Joshua and Caleb, tore their clothes, it was the expression of the fiercest possible frustration.  Moses tries to persuade the complainers that to do so would be to shame God before the Egyptians–and that God is not about to do that.  He then prays the prayer he prayed on Sinai, recognizing that God is angry, but also has limits, and nevertheless asks for God forgive these people.

Although He forgives, God’s patience is exhausted, noting that these people have “have tried Me ten times over and have not heeded My voice,” and therefore,  “they shall never see the land that I swore to their fathers, and all who despise Me shall not see it.” (23, 24)  A 40-year sentence –one year for each day of the abortive spy mission. The spies themselves die of a scourge; only Caleb and Joshua are exempted.

So the question becomes, how does my own recalcitrance, complaining, and failure to act when God speaks to me try His patience?  I know as a child of the New Covenant that He’s not going to mete the quid pro quo punishment to me that He metes out to Israel. But that does not excuse my behavior. Nor does it avoid the consequences.

When the people realize what God has declared, they suddenly change their minds, pretending that what they said earlier they really didn’t mean, saying, “Here we are, and we shall go up to the place [Canaan] that the L ORD said, for we have offended.” (41).  But it’s too late. Judgement has been rendered. These folks take on the Amalketites and Canaanites unprotected by God.  And they suffer the consequences.  How very much like us.

We say, “Oh, gee, God.  I really didn’t mean to say that or do that.  Let’s just pretend it didn’t happen and get on with life.”  But if there was ever a Bible story that communicates that regardless of being forgiven, our actions still have consequences, this is the one.

Mark 14:1-11  A well known cinematic technique to build tension and a sense we are hurtling toward the main conflict of the movie is to cut rapidly between scenes as the plot develops on several fronts.  Mark understood this long before Hollywood. as we see the priests move from anger to active plotting, realizing pragmatically they can’t kill Jesus “during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.” (9).

Mark’s camera shifts suddenly to Bethany and in contrast to the anger and plotting, we see the woman anointing Jesus’ head with expensive perfume.  Some disciples, who clearly don’t yet get what is about to happen, would rather have spent the money “on the poor.” (Why do we doubt their sincerity?)  What we tend not to notice in this story is that Jesus once again clearly states what’s going to happen to him: “she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial,” (8).  And in one of his sweetest prophecies, Jesus notes, “wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” (9).  And thus it has ever been.  

As usual, Mark doesn’t record the reaction of the disciples, but I’m pretty sure they are frustrated at Jesus who keeps doing and saying things that do not accord with their notion of The Plan they have in mind.  How often do we come before Jesus with our clear idea of what he should do for us?  “Please, Jesus, answer my prayer, but  I would really prefer you answer it in the manner I already have in mind.”  Like the disciples we are unprepared for someone to interrupt, break the alabaster jar and do something that is so impractical, so expensive, so against what we have in mind?

Our gospel writer then shifts to Judas and in the sparest possible language (just 47 words) outlines Judas’ intentions, the reactions of the priest and sets the plot of betrayal in motion.  Mark is not about to waste words on the character behind most heinous deed in history.

 

Psalm 68:19-27; Numbers 13:17-33; Mark 13:28-37

Psalm 68:19-27   The opening verset says it all: “God is to us a rescuing God. The LORD Master possesses the ways out from death.”  While the next verse turns rather gruesome (“Yes, God will smash His enemies’ heads, the hairy pate of those who walk about in their guilt.” (21)) there is no question that God is a rescuing God in every situation.  Not just rescuing us and giving us victory in battle as the psalmist has it here, but through Jesus Christ, God has rescued us all from death–once and for all.

God also rescues us on a day-to-day basis by forgiving us our multitude of transgressions against others–and from the self-inflicted wounds we make on ourselves.  So often, I’m tempted to say “woe is me” (especially on days like today when this persistent kidney stone has drained me of energy), but then I read that God is my rescuer, making me realize that he is the center of the universe, not my personal problems.

Then, having been rescued and forgiven, I can join the marvelous victory parade–a dynamic form of worship– that is comprised God’s rescued people: “my God’s processions, my King in holiness. The singers came first and then the musicians in the midst of young women beating their drums.” (24, 25)  And we can join in the singing, “In choruses bless God.” (26)  Worship is so much better than sitting around feeling sorry for myself.

Numbers 13:17-33  The spies undertake a 40 day mission into Canaan (40 being the usual symbol for a time of testing, which this assuredly was).  Our writer provides numerous geographical details which certainly underscores the fact they made a thorough exploration.  They come back with a bunch of grapes, as well as pomegranates and dates–all proof of the fecundity of the land, abut which they report, “it’s actually flowing with milk and honey, and this is its fruit.” (27)

That was the good news; then the big However: “But mighty is the people that dwells in the land, and the towns are fortified and very big, and also the offspring of the giant we saw there.”  It’s almost as if they added in the business about the offspring of the giant Amalek (Goliath’s ancestor?) to make sure Moses got the point.

Caleb then presents the minority-of-one report: “We will surely go up and take hold of it, for we will surely prevail over it.” (31) But the majority prevails, reiterating the warrior people, fortified cities and giants (“we were in our own eyes like grasshoppers” (33), and then adding ominously, it “is a land that consumes those who dwell in it.”  Clear meaning: if we go there we will die.

If ever we needed a biblical illustration of the clear choice between risk taking and huddling in safety, this is it.  And we will see the consequences of Israel’s choice in the next chapter.  But what of the consequences for us?  How many times have I chickened out, preferring to say nothing when there was a clear opportunity to speak up or act on Jesus’ behalf?  Who or what comprise the scary giants in my life?  Why am I so afraid that the land–or the act–will consume me?

There is unintentional irony in the victory procession in today’s psalm and the spies who would rather remain the wilderness.  Great things cannot be accomplished by staying in camp and staying silent.

Mark 13:28-37  Jesus becomes more specific than ever regarding the timing of these apocalyptic events: “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” (30)   Which leads to my own interpretation that Jesus is referring to the destruction of the Temple in AD70–a cataclysmic event which certainly must have seemed to the inhabitants of Jerusalem that heaven and earth had surely ended.  But which Jesus’ words have most assuredly survived. 

In the end, though, Jesus’ point is not about the exact nature of the event or its timing; it’s about staying awake and aware: “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.” (33).  

This is one of those Jesus sayings that operates at several levels: It’s first a remarkable prophecy about the disciples who prove his point in Gethsemane in just a few days.  It’s also a prophecy of the remarkable events of the Resurrection about to engulf them all.  And it’s a prophecy for the early church and for us regarding Jesus’ eventual return.  

Above all, we don’t have to try to figure all this out; we have only one duty, which Jesus says twice to make sure we get his point: “Keep awake.”  Which turns out to be harder than it might appear at first glance.

 

 

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

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

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

So what does all this have to do with thanksgiving? I think this is a hymn to the glory, majesty and dynamic power of God’s creation.  God did not just create heaven and earth and then leave town.  He continues to create through the movement of the earth, the seasons, the weather, and as we have recently discovered, through the evolving, ever-changing stars, his “myriad chariots.”

God is still very much involved: not only in his larger creation, but as the psalmist observes, in our lives as lives as well: “Blessed be the Master day after day. God heaps upon us our rescue.” (19).  God doesn’t just rescue us, but “heaps upon us” our rescues again and again.  We observed at Hubcaps this morning that God’s love is not just conceptual, but active within our lives.  Something this psalmist surely knew and experienced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obviously his words were more than a little disturbing, and the inner disciples “asked him privately,…when will this be accomplished.”  Jesus answers rather obliquely, ““Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.” (5-6).  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Numbers 8:5-9:14 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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