Psalm 59:10-17; Numbers 1:17-54; Mark 9:30-37

Psalm 59:10-17  In its second half, the tone of this psalm seems to shift from David’s physical danger from Saul to a reflection on slander.  Again, words have become the weapons: “Through their mouth’s offense, the word of their lips they will be trapped in their haughtiness, and through the oaths and the falsehood they utter.” (12)  This verse includes the interesting idea that in uttering falsehoods his enemies are “trapped in their haughtiness.”  In short, they have come to believe their own lies–or in the modern parlance, they believe their own press releases.  Always a sign that their fall is coming soon.

In the meantime his enemies “mutter like dogs. They prowl round the town.” (14).  In stark contrast, David worships God in deep gratitude with his voice: “I shall sing of Your strength, and chant gladly each morning Your kindness.” (16)  This is exactly where we find ourselves today: surrounding by a growing cacophony of “muttering voices” on all sides, we can find refuge in the soaring song of worship.

God as refuge, “a haven when I was in [dire] straits.”  I think this is one reason why periods of silence and great hymns are such crucial elements on Sunday morning.

 Numbers 1:17-54  True to its title, the numbers of adult men of each tribe “who went out in the army of Israel” (33, 37, 43…)  are listed and recorded in the census.  These are not trivial numbers: the tribe of Reuben: 46,500; the tribe of Simeon: 59,300; the tribe of Gad 45,650 and so on through all twelve tribes, totaling a fairly astounding 603,550 men in the Army.  A number strikingly close to the current size of the Israeli military (629,150 per Wikipedia). 

This number does not include women and children, so we can easily double the population.  So, more than a million people were out wandering in the desert.  No wonder Moses had management troubles!  And no wonder that surrounding tribes were pretty nervous about all those folks out there looking for a homeland.

The Levites are excluded from the census, which is another way of saying they were not eligible to be drafted into the army.  This is a long tradition; as I recall, clergy were not drafted into the US military when the draft was in force.

The Levites have other duties: setting up and taking down the Tabernacle.  And only the Levites can do that since a “stranger,” i.e. a layperson, who “who draws near shall be put to death.” (51).

 Mark 9:30-37  Jesus seem to have reached an explanatory impasse with his disciples.  He now tells all his disciples what he told Peter, James and John coming down form the Mount of Transfiguration: “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” (31)  And again, “hey did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” (32).

So, why were they afraid to ask him?  Were they afraid that Jesus would become angry with them? That’s not unreasonable since Jesus has already shown his frustration in various ways, notably telling peter, “Get behind me Satan.” (8:33) and more recently, “How much longer must I put up with you?” (9:19)

Or, perhaps they were afraid of the answer.  Jesus has said repeatedly that the Son of Man must die.  They are not confused that Jesus must be referring to himself.  The disciples were operating in the human frame of reference and Jesus in the Kingdom frame. The disciples felt they were riding a cresting wave that would result in a new order and a politically restored Jerusalem.  Why burst that bubble?

Some questions simply should not be followed up on, and this was one of them.  Besides, what was that three day business all about?  No one could even imagine something as unprecedented as a resurrection.

So the disciples’ follow-up questions remain unasked–and unanswered.  Besides, it was much more fun to speculate about who was going to be “the greatest” when this earthly kingdom was established.  In Jesus’ question, “What were you arguing about on the way?” and the disciples’ silence, we can see the their abashed and embarrassed faces. Never one to waste a teaching moment, Jesus describes the nature of servant leadership: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 

How like the disciples we are! Rank and position inevitably trump servanthood in our minds.  But true leadership is not about “who shall be the greatest.” Would that politcians understood this.

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