Psalm 73:1-12; Numbers 26:1-24; Luke 1:5-25

 Psalm 73:1-12  This is truly one of my favorite psalms because I identify so closely with the psalmist’s thoughts.  Unlike the David psalms, where David is fleeing from or being conspired against by his enemies, and therefore asks God to take them out, this Asaph psalm deals with envy–a much more familiar feeling for me: “For I envied the revelers, / I saw the wicked’s well-being.” (3).

This is possibly one of the most relevant observations in all the Psalms. We have become a completely voyeuristic society, looking on with barely-disguised envy at the celebrity culture–especially their wealth and power.  Which is also why we are perversely happy when something bad happens to them (and why an entire industry of gossip TV shows, tabloids, and recently, social media flourish.)

Is there a more perfect description of the political class than “They mock and speak with malice, / from on high they speak out oppression. / They put their mouth up to the heavens, / and their tongue goes over the earth.” (8-9)  We are the mere hoi polloi, there to lap up their weighty and hypocritical pronouncements. I particularly relish the reptilian image, “Their tongue goes over the earth.”

But for me, the issue is neither wealth nor power.  It is health: “For they are free of the fetters of death, / and their body is healthy.” (4) Even though my cancer is in remission, its reality looms constantly over me.  Susan has multiple sclerosis, and it’s awfully easy to look around and see other healthy couples our age and enviously wonder, why did we get stuck with two chronic diseases that consume energy and resources, and create stress, while all those other folks, including those in our own Christian community continue to enjoy good health?

Underneath the envy I feel the psalmist’s despair at life’s apparent unfairness.  Yes, I know in my heart that this feeling is a delusional snare, but it’s there nonetheless.

Numbers 26:1-24  One of the things that is so striking about the story of Israel is its mind-boggling specificity.  We are almost always given a time (“And it happened after the scourge of the Lord” [1]), and a place (“in the steppes of Moab by the Jordan opposite Jericho” [3]).  This is no fairy tale; it’s reality is as tangible as the beaches of Normandy, even though those world-shaking events happened 70 years ago.  God is a God who operates in our time and our place.  God is not an abstraction, God is a God of numbers.

This book began with a census and here near its end, another census occurs.  Clearly time–perhaps the entire 40 years–has passed and it’s time for a census of the new generation.

In the midst of the headcount, there are traces of the dark history that has occurred during the 40-year wanderings. “Dathan and Abiram, called forth from the community, who incited against Moses and against Aaron in the community of Korah,” (10) and “when the fire consumed two hundred and fifty men and they became a sign.” (11)  There is no “memory hole” for God; the community has been impacted by the consequences of its sins.

Luke 1:5-25  In keeping with his promise of “an orderly account,” Luke is resolutely chronological, and begins his narrative with the parents of John the Baptist.  He’s careful to begin his account with a specific time (“In the days of King Herod of Judea”) and place, the incense altar inside the Temple at Jerusalem.  This physical reality is important because the very first event Luke describes is an angelic visitation–and a fairly scary one at that: “When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him.” (12).  Not just terror, but fear!

The news is fantastic for the barren (and shamed) couple, and therefore for Zechariah, pretty unbelievable.  However, he (and we) learned the lesson that it’s important to accept rather than question angelic news.  (Something Mary does quite well later on.)  I’ve always wondered why Zechariah’s punishment was muteness.  There’s certainly a perfect irony that having received good news, he is unable to communicate the good news to others–at least verbally.

The lesson is pretty clear, though. Speech is the main medium we humans use to communicate with each other–and it was more so in those days when scrolls resided only in the Temple, writing paper was basically unknown (Jesus wrote in the dirt , after all,)  and  except for the letter and boo-writing Romans and Greeks, no modern forms of communication existed in this dusty Roman outpost of Judea.

Word of mouth was everything.  We sit here in the 21st century aware of all the alternative means of communication we possess should we be struck mute, but for Zechariah, there was nothing but frantic hand signals (He kept motioning to them…” (22)

In an odd way it’s almost the “anti-good news” here at the beginning of Luke’s two books (I’m including Acts) that focus so much on communicating the Good News verbally.  The gospel message went solely by word of mouth for a number of years until Paul, the Roman citizen, started writing letters–and Mark, Luke, Matthew and John sat down to write their own accounts.

While Zechariah may not have been able to speak, he certainly retained the crucial ability to have sex with his wife.  Luke discreetly lets us know that “after those days his wife Elizabeth conceived,” (24)  the clear message being that their son John was conceived in the normal manner.


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