Psalm 78:9-16; Numbers 35:31-Deuteronomy 1:18; Luke 4:1-13

Psalm 78:1-16: This lengthy psalm recounts the history of Israel–a kind of national poem.  The first verse–“Hearken, my people, to my teaching. Lend your ear to the sayings of my mouth.”–evokes the oral tradition, an image of people gathered in remembrance.

This recitation of history dates at least back to Jacob: “He charged to our fathers to make them known to their sons, / so that the last generation might know,  / sons yet to be born / might arise and recount to their sons,” (6)  It is by passing the story down through the generations that creates essential continuity and national identity.  Some 3,000 years later, the Jews continue to demonstrate this identity.

Planted amidst the narrative are warnings to the listeners.  previous generations have sinned and not followed God.  This generation is instructed, “That they be not like their fathers, / a wayward, rebellious generation, / a generation that was not firm of heart,” (8)

God is at the center of the story as the miraculous escape from Egypt and the wanderings in the wilderness are recalled, “He split open the sea and let them pass through, / He made water stand up like a heap. / And He led them with the cloud by day and all night long with the light of fire.” (13,14)

The questions for us at this point in the psalm: Are we listening to God, recalling who we are as God’s people.  Or will we forget like Israel did?  Do we remember what God through Jesus Christ has done for us?  or will we forget that too?

 Numbers 35 -Deuteronomy 1:18:  As befits its mix of  lists and inventories, its statutes and land surveys scattered among the narrative events of Israel wandering through the wilderness and finally arriving at the Jordan, Numbers concludes with important legal issues that will apply to a settled Israel.

Now there are going to be towns and pastures and farms.  God knows that people will continue to bad things, and Moses sets out towns of asylum.  Then the rules applying to various forms of murder are laid out.  Our legal definition of various degrees of manslaughter and murder trace directly back to this chapter.  We even see the beginnings of a jury system: “the community shall judge between him who struck and the blood avenger on these matters of judgment.” (35:24)

Chapter 36 deals with the all-important issues of property, estates, and inheritance, once again centered around the daughters of Zelophehad. The question is, if the daughters of Zelophehad marry into other tribes, who gets the inherited property?  If property shifts among the tribes, the fairness of the system of allocation is corrupted.  A reasonable question and dilemma indeed.  Moses rather cleverly solves the problem by telling the daughters that they must marry within their own tribe, which they do.

The final verse of Numbers weaves regulations and historical narrative together by its precise description of Moses’ location: “These are the commands and the regulations that the LORD charged the Israelites by the hand of Moses in the steppes of Moab by the Jordan across from Jericho.” (36:13)

Alter informs us that the book of Deuteronomy is “the most sustained deployment of rhetoric in the Bible.”  It is Moses’ valedictory address to the people of Israel. Whether Moses ever stood and addressed Israel with the “second law,” may be debatable, but the book opens with a precise description of where [“Moses spoke to all the Israelites across the 1 Jordan in the wilderness in the Arabah opposite Suph between Paran and Tophel and Laban and Hazeroth and Di-Zahab,” (1:1)] and when [the fortieth year in the eleventh month on the first of the month” (1:2)].

Once again, we encounter the precision that plants Moses’ words in real space and real time.  These are not just sayings wafting somewhere in the misty celestial heavens, but words meant to be embraced by real people facing real challenges in real life.  So, too, for us. What God says are not just happy thoughts or something vaguely “spiritual.”  God is the God of Creation.  He gives us instruction in how to live our quotidian lives.  God is in everything we do and say. We do well to remember that reality every morning.

Luke 4:1-13: Luke’s account of Jesus’ wilderness temptation recounts the three temptations Each temptation applies as a lesson for our own lives; they are not just for Jesus alone.

“The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”” (3).  Bread represents our livelihoods and possessions.  They are insufficient for our lives.  As many men on their deathbed discover too late, having all the goods in the world do not bring immortality; they do not build relationships–either with other humans or with Jesus.

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.” (5). This is power.  We need only look at a certain city between Maryland and Virginia to observe the corrupting influence of power on those who seek it and attempt to wield it.  Power does not create relationships.  In fact, its self-centered nature always corrupts rather than builds.

“Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here,”” (9). The Temple location makes Luke’s point: He was asking Jesus to set himself literally and figuratively above God, represented by the Temple.  This is our ego: we see ourselves as the center of the universe, setting ourselves above God because we do not see the need for God in our lives.  We think God is superfluous, unnecessary.

This is the sin of pride, and the examples of the sad outcome of pride abound through the Old Testament–and they abound through history.  When I set myself above God, I am testing God, and as Jesus says, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Psalm 77:16-20; Numbers 34; Luke 3:1-20

Psalm 77:16-20 This section of the psalm begins with the marvelous image of God saving Israel as they cross the sea, the Egyptians in vain pursuit: “You redeemed with Your arm Your people, / the children of Jacob and Joseph.” (16)  The waters become almost anthropomorphic as God’s arm makes a broad sweeping motion and “The waters saw You, O God, / the waters saw You, they trembled, / the depths themselves shuddered.” (17)

Suddenly the psalmist’s camera backs up and the scene widens from the single sea to the image of God’s dominion over all of creation: “The skies sounded with thunder. Your bolts, too, flew about.” (18).  Then, the image of God driving a celestial chariot, making His presence known through thunder and lightening:  “Your thunder’s sound under the wheel— / lightning lit up the world. /  The earth shuddered and shook.”

What a contrast to the God who was silent for so long.  All creation knows that God is God.  This, ladies and gentlemen, is the God of Israel, who leads His people and even the water cannot stand in His way: “In the sea was Your way, / and Your path in the mighty waters, /and Your footsteps left no traces.”

God will lead us through the waters as well.  Like Israel, we must have the corrage to follow Him into the most unexpected places.

Numbers 34: God is now land surveyor, defining to Moses the precise boundaries of the land that Israel is about to conquer.  Once again, God is a God of space and time.  The precision with which the borders are defined indicate a God concerned with the contours of the earth and with the practical realities of the “here and now.”

This is no fairy tale God, wafting vaguely in the heavens.  Nor is God confined to some carved idol somewhere.  As today’s psalm also notes, God is the God over all creation, and as this passage so clearly indicates, He is separate from it.  God is not “in” the land; he is the owner of it and it is His to allocate.

Having defined its boundaries, the next order of business is to appoint the leaders of the 9 1/2 tribes that will actually enter Canaan, for the land is to be divided up among the tribes by lot: “These are the ones whom the LORD charged to share out estates to the Israelites in the land of Canaan.” (34:29)  Note the word “share.” Each tribe is equal before God.

Luke 3:1-20: There is an approximately 18-year gap between the close of chapter 2 and the opening here of chapter 3.  This amount of time, and the shift of focus to John motivates Luke to again rather precisely place these events in both Roman time and place (“the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip rulerof the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene,” (3:1) and Jewish time and place: “during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas,” (2).  (Notice how early Caiaphas is introduced in this gospel.)

Of all the gospel writers, Luke gives us the most detailed portrait of John, focusing especially on what he said, together with the reactions of the crowd.  He claims his authority straight out of Isaiah: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness” (4a) and makes it clear that is is the prelude to the main act yet to come: “‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” (4b).  It would seem that the harsher his accusations and demand for repentance, the more popular he became: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (7)

John asks for more than simple repentance, he demands that people change their lives. His message is the same one we hear throughout the Hebrew scriptures: help the poor, treat others fairly. It is not enough to turn around (repent); we must turn around and act. Repentance is not just an intellectual exercise.

I think Luke is showing us, his readers, that what Jesus asks of them (and us)  later in the gospel is not something new and radical.  The prophets have said it already; John has said it already.

John is clearly a mesmerizing, charismatic speaker. So much so that the people think he’s the Messiah and he’s already been in trouble with the law.

But on this issue of messiahship he could not be clearer: “one who is more powerful than I is coming; …He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (16), but then there’s the next verse that is a good deal less comfortable for John’s listeners–and for us: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (17)  

It’s really quite binary, isn’t: the Jesus who is coming is not completely sweetness and light; he is also coming as judge, and as Jesus himself makes clear in the Olivet Discourse, there will be a great separation at the end of history. We’ve been warned–and Jesus warns us again and again.

Psalm 77:10-15; Numbers 33:10-56; Luke 2:41-52

Psalm 77:10-15: The psalmists asks rhetorically, “Has God forgotten to show grace, / has He closed off in wrath His compassion?” (10) Rhetorical, because the poet takes responsibility for being separated from God: “And I said, it is my failing, / that the High One’s right hand has changed.”  How likely am I to acknowledge that it is my actions, not God’s, that result in separating myself from Him.  Of course, “sin” means separation and that is why I so strongly believe that hell is simply eternal separation form God.

For the psalmist, the way back to God is memory: “I recite all your works, / Your acts I rehearse.” (13) And comparison with the alternative (small ‘g’) gods: “Who is a great god like God? / You are the god working wonders. / You made known among peoples Your strength.” (15)  With the poet, it is always wise to reflect on God; to use our God-given gift of memory to recall the times we have been close to Him.  But unlike the psalmist, we also have Jesus Christ in whom we place our trust.  Jesus is the great Intermediary between God and ourselves.  And when we trust Jesus, God will, by definition, always be close at hand.  Like the psalmist, it is our action–or failure to act–that separates us.

Numbers 33:10-56: Our editors provide a useful summary of all the places to which the Israelites wandered during their 40-year sojourn in the desert. There was certainly a lot of putting up and taking down of the Tabernacle.

The editors reveal their priestly nature by recording one event in greater detail in this summary. It  is not Moses sojourn to Mount Sinai , which most of us would take to be the centerpiece of the wanderings.  In fact, the mountain is not even mentioned in the inventory.  Rather it is Aaron, the great high priest, whose death is memorialized right down to the precise date and Aaron’s age when he died: “in the fortieth year of the Israelite’s going out from Egypt, in the fifth month on the first of the month. And Aaron was one hundred twenty-three years old when he died.” (33:39)

The chapter ends on its most significant note: that Israel must wipe out the Canaanites.  Moses warns the people, “if you do not dispossess the inhabitants of the land from before you, it will come about that those of them you leave will become stings in your eyes and thorns in your sides,” (55)  Which of course, is exactly what happened.  The Canaanite idols and mores became the defining corruption of Israel down through the subsequent centuries.

One can sympathize with Israel in failing to carry out this command.  But the price was exceedingly high.  Because of human stubbornness God’s vision of His people in the Promised Land was never fully realized.  How myriad the ways in which we fall short and fail to keep even the simple commands of God.

 Luke 2:41-52:  Of all the Gospels, only Luke provides this single, tantalizing glimpse of the boy Jesus in the years between his birth and his baptism.  When I first heard this story in Sunday School I came away with the impression that it was Jesus who was teaching the elders, but that is not the case.  Rather than merely sermonizing, Jesus was “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” (46)

There’s no question that being the son of God, Jesus had a natural advantage when it came to understanding theology and the ways and words of God.  But Jesus did not arrive on earth with  magical powers and insights.  He arrived as a baby like everyone else.  He was educated by listening and asking questions and answering other questions: a classic educational process. (Since Luke is quite precise about Jesus’ age–12 years–I wonder if Jesus was in the Temple preparing for his bar-mitzvah at age 13.  Even today, Jewish boys study the scriptures at the age of twelve.)

Obviously, Jesus was quite unlike other boys that age–a star student, who left “all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.” (47).  Luke thereby makes it clear that Jesus’ great wisdom and understanding arose from hard work, not from magic.  Again and again, beginning with the infancy narrative, Luke continues to emphasize Jesus’s 100% human nature.

Mary may not have understood (or appreciated) Jesus’ rather impertinent reply, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (49b), but being the God-bearer, she knew upon reflection that this was one more quality of her extraordinary child.  And again, Luke uses that sweet yet most profound phrase: “His mother treasured all these things in her heart.” (51)

Luke brings down the curtain on Jesus early years with the simple statement, “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.”  Notice the concatenation of “divine” and “human.” Once again, Luke frames Jesus as 100% human and 100% God.  Above all, Luke wants to make it abundantly clear that Jesus was no magician.  Jesus worked and studied hard to become who he was.

Psalm 77:1-9; Numbers 32:28-33:9; Luke 2:33-40

Psalm 77:1-9:  God seems to be silent once again as the psalmist calls out in distress: “My voice to God—let me cry out. My voice to God—and hearken to me.” (2) He is distraught beyond measure; tears flow freely: My eye flows at night, it will not stop. I refused to be consoled.” (3) and there is no consolation.  God’s absence has robbed him of sleep: “You held open my eyelids. I throbbed and could not speak.” (5)

Memory provides scant comfort as “I ponder the days of yore, 6 the years long gone. I call to mind my song in the night.” (6) For there is no greater woe than to feel we have been abandoned by God: “Will the Master forever abandon me, 8 and never again look with favor?” (7) Then the accusations, “Has God forgotten to show grace, has He closed off in wrath His compassion?” (10) 

When we are in close relationship with God; when, as Oswald Chambers insists, we have abandoned ourselves to Christ, we feel separated and alone, there is no greater sorrow.  There is little question in my mind, and it is communicated again and again in the Psalms, that hell is not eternal punishment; it is eternal separation from God.  The psalmist evokes the agony of separation in these first verses.  Tears do not console; memory does not console.  Abandonment seems to be the only fate.  Can we be brought any lower?

Numbers 32:28-33:9:  The Reubenites and Gadites want to setts east of Jordan in the most desperate way.  And Moses promises that if they join the rest of Israel in crossing the Jordan and fight to conquer the Canaanites, that territory will be their reward.  But if not, ”they shall find holdings in your midst in the land of Canaan.” (32:31)

The Reubenites and Gadites eagerly comply and before crossing they feverishly embark on a substantial building campaign: sheep enclosures and entire towns. In addition, the sons of Machir, son of Manasseh “went to the Gilead and captured it and dispossessed the Amorite who was in it.” (32:39).  Then other sons of Manasseh capture other towns.  The towns are renamed, presumably because their names were pagan, although the authors drily note that  one of them, Nobah, actually names a town after himself.  

These all seem to be a dress rehearsal for the Canaanite battles to come.  While Numbers does not record it, we assume that the former inhabitants of these towns were wiped out completely.

Continuing its role as the enumerator of statistics and facts, Numbers lists all the stopping places of Israel during their 40-year peregrinations in the wilderness.  One wonders why this is important to the story. I think that the place names again emphasize this is actual historical record, not a fairy tale—since a million or so people wandering in the desert for 40 years could otherwise stretch credulity.  Also, it demonstrates how God is firmly entrenched in history, in real places and real times.  Unlike the pagans that surrounded them who viewed history (if they viewed it at all) as cyclical, Israel’s story—and God’s story—unrolls linearly across time.  There is a beginning and there will be an end.

God may exist outside of time, but the arrow of time is one of God’s great gifts to us: that we live in the present, in the here and now.  Yesterday is but an unalterable memory; tomorrow is no more than an estimation. Yet, we try too often to live in both when today is what life is all about. For those of us who have started our mortality in the face, today is God’s great gift.

Luke 2:33-40:  Simeon’s song has a significant effect on Mary and Joseph because this is the first time they’ve heard another human being tell them the same thing the angel said: “And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.” (33).  But Simeon also delivers less-than-wonderful news: their son would “be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”  His ministry—especially his dialogs with the Pharisees— was the exemplar of Jesus’ knowing and understanding what the Pharisees and other leaders were really thinking behind their words.  But not many of us, and certainly not the Pharisees, are always happy about having our inner thoughts revealed.  What secrets we want to preserve in our hearts.  Jesus knows all of them and yet we are still loved!

Simeon’s last words to Mary point directly to the cross. Anna, permanent Temple resident, also recognizes Jesus’ unique nature and I’m sure she was great succor to Mary, especially after hearing Simeon’s final words. 

Luke, in his brief summary of Jesus’ early boyhood, “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.” (40), at once says everything but omits so many tantalizing details we would love to know.  Luke, in his authorial wisdom, leaves out the details that could too easily be a distraction from his message of Jesus’ adult ministry.  It is sufficient that we know Jesus grew both physically and in wisdom. We must be satisfied with the little he tells us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, this birth foreshadows another greater one to come.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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