Archives for May 2016

Psalm 71:1–8; Numbers 18:25–19:22; Mark 14:66–72

This is my 600th post at this site, since my first post in February 2014…

Psalm 71:1–8: This psalm opens in supplication, albeit a great deal less fraught than the psalm that precedes it. One has the feeling of calm reflection, as our poet opens on “In You, O Lord, I shelter./ Let me never be shamed.” (1) At this point, his supplication is worshipfully abstract, although he is asking God to listen to him, “Through Your bounty save me and free me./ Incline Your ear to me and rescue me.” (2)

We have the sense that this psalmist is older, and has come to God as his rescue and shelter many times in the past. He is confident that God will again “Be for me a fortress-dwelling/ to come into always./ You ordained to rescue me,/ for You are my rock and my bastion.” (3b)

Having established that he is in close relationship with God, he comes to the supplication itself, although this, too, is relatively abstract: “My God, free me from the hand of the wicked,/ from the grip of the wicked and violent.” (4) Again, we sense his confidence that God will indeed protect him as he has done many times in the past: “For You are my hope, master,/ O Lord, my refuge since youth.” (5)

This reflection on his youth reminds him that he has been in a life-long relationship with God: “Upon You I relied from birth,/ From my mother’s womb You brought me out.” (6a) And as he remembers that life-long relationship with God he again can only express worshipful adoration: “To You is praise always.” (6b) In his old age he recalls, “An example I was to the many,/ and You are my sheltering strength.” (7) Notice how he switches from the past tense to the present tense. God was—and is— his (and our) sheltering strength through our entire lives. And this thought brings him to a full expression of worship: “May my mouth be filled with Your praise,/ all daylong Your glory.” (8)

What we take away from this psalm is that supplication to God is done within the framework of a close, long-lasting relationship with God. This is no foxhole prayer by someone in desperate straits nut who has no previous relationship with God seeking  for rescue. This is a prayer that arises within the context of worship—and worship is our expression of not only a long term relationship but based on previous experience, the assurance that God will hear—and act.

Numbers 18:25–19:22: God has given precise instructions that the Levites will receive the first-born (“first fruits”) offering from all the other tribes, but that they will not own any land. However, even though what they receive is essentially gift, there is still a requirement that the Levites in turn make an offering to God in gratitude for what they have received: “you shall set apart an offering from it to the Lord, a tithe of the tithe.” (18:26) Moreover, as the Levites have received the best the other tribes have to offer, they are bound by the same obligation: “Out of all the gifts to you, you shall set apart every offering due to the Lord; the best of all of them is the part to be consecrated.” (18:29)

Nevertheless, the Levites have received these offerings as “your payment for your service in the tent of meeting. You shall incur no guilt by reason of it, when you have offered the best of it.” (31, 32) This is an early command from God that priests shall be paid for their work. Again, this seems to be a not-so-subtle hint by our priestly authors reminding the people that they have an obligation to support those who perform holy duties. And by extension, as Paul notes somewhere in his letters to the Corinthians, pastors and priests are to be paid as well. 

Chapter 19 opens with the odd ceremony of the unblemished red heifer. Rather than sacrificing it on the altar in the tabernacle, “ You shall give it to the priest Eleazar, and it shall be taken outside the camp and slaughtered in his presence.” (19:3) And it is burned completely, “its skin, its flesh, and its blood, with its dung, shall be burned.” (19:5) This ritual renders the participants unclean and even though the “one who burns the heifer shall wash his clothes in water and bathe his body in water; he shall remain unclean until evening.” (19:8) Likewise the person “who gathers the ashes of the heifer shall wash his clothes and be unclean until evening.” (19:10) Our authors are silent on the question as to why is this ceremony performed. Nor is it clear if this ceremony was performed only this one time or if it becomes a “perpetual ritual.” There are no instructions about ritualizing it, so I’m guessing it was performed only this one time.  Perhaps it’s some sort of introduction to the detailed instructions about dealing with corpses that follow immediately.

The problem with dead bodies is that they become instantly unclean upon death. and “Those who touch the dead body of any human being shall be unclean seven days.” (11) Purification is accomplished by water on the 3rd day and the 7th day. Woe to anyone who fails to do this: they “defile the tabernacle of the Lord; such persons shall be cut off from Israel.” (13)

There are rules for people who die in a tent—all the occupants become unclean. And there are rules for the person who comes upon a dead body in the field “and touches one who has been killed by a sword, or who has died naturally,or a human bone, or a grave, shall be unclean seven days.” (19:18)

These elaborate instructions for cleansing must have a hygienic purpose since dead bodies in the desert heat begin to decompose quickly. But the purpose of the sacrifice of the red heifer remains a mystery to me.

Mark 14:66–72: With the exception of Jesus’ betrayal, trial, and crucifixion Peter’s denial is certainly the saddest story in Mark’s gospel. A servant girl “stared at [Peter] and said, “You also were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth.‘”  (67) Peter denies it and “the cock crowed.” (68). Next, the same  annoying servant girl tries to expose Peter publicly as she “began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.”” (69) This time Peter denies it not just to the girl but we assume also in front of the bystanders now gathered around him. A few minutes later, another bystander accuses Peter, “Certainly you are one of them; for you are a Galilean.” (70) I’m guessing that Peter was still wearing rough work clothes associated with what well-dressed Jerusalem sophisticates saw as that worn by country bumpkins from Galilee. This time Peter not only denies—“I do not know this man you are talking about.” (71)—but he curses as well, which must have confirmed the suspicions of his country bumkinness. And with the most famous cock crow in history, Peter remembers what Jesus said, “Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” (72)

How would I have reacted were I Peter? Would I have even remembered what Jesus said the night before? Or would I try to rationalize my actions, thinking that Jesus really didn’t understand how difficult it would be to be standing around that courtyard. Or would I just be in denial that I had really even denied Jesus, thinking that denial is a more arcane philosophical concept than merely saying I didn’t know the man. After all, I’d rationalize, I’m still his disciple and I’ll go back to following him as soon as he extricates himself from the present difficulty. Or perhaps I’d think, he is the Son of God after all. He can bring the angels down form heaven with a single word and set things aright again.

But Peter “broke down and wept.” There was no denial of denial, no philosophical rationalization, no justification. There was only the deepest possible remorse. And it is at this point, I believe, that despite all his bold assurances he’s given so many times before that Peter truly once and for all becomes Jesus’ disciple.

Psalm 70; Numbers 18:1–24; Mark 14:53–65

Psalm 70: This short but powerful David psalm of supplication communicates real urgency, almost as if were uttered while on the run: “God, to save me,/ Lord, to my help, hasten!” Wasting no time in lengthy introductions our out-of-breath psalmist gets right to the issue at hand, asking that his enemies suffer as he has suffered: “May those who seek my life be shamed and reviled./ May they fall back and be disgraced,/ who desire my harm.” (3) We have commented frequently in light of Jesus’ words about loving our enemies about the “appropriateness” of the psalmist to ask for bad things to happen to one’s those who try to do us harm. Again, I suggest that these psalms serve a vital psychological purpose in speaking our darkest desires and secrets—and God is the one with whom we can safely speak with out fear of retribution.

Our psalmist continues in the same vein with an arresting metaphor: “Let them turn back on the heels of their shame,/ who say, ‘Hurrah, Hurrah!’” (4). And rather than saying ‘Hurrah,’ and be happy at the plight of the oppressed, we who trust in God will “seek You/ [and] exult and rejoice,/ and may [we] always say ‘God is great!’” (5) Once again, speech is paramount. Will we wish evil on our enemies, sayiing ‘Hurrah’ at their failure? Or will we exult and rejoice, knowing that God is indeed protecting us?

Our poet concludes with the same sense of urgency that opened the psalm, recognizing that we need God’s help urgently: “As for me, I am lowly and needy./ God, O hasten to me!…Lord do not delay.” (6, 7) The question is, do I recognize that I, too, am lowly and needy and cannot accomplish anything without God’s help.

Numbers 18:1–24: Our priestly authors describe the final steps in straightening out who has priestly responsibility and who does not. Interestingly, here God is speaking directly to Aaron rather than via Moses. And God’s command could not be clearer to him: “You and your sons and your ancestral house with you shall bear responsibility for offenses connected with the sanctuary, while you and your sons alone shall bear responsibility for offenses connected with the priesthood.” (1)  Notice that God differentiates between the sanctuary [the tabernacle, and later, the temple] and the priesthood itself.

Now that the issue of Aaron and his sons and successors is cleared up, God commissions the entire tribe of Levi to “serve you while you and your sons with you are in front of the tent of the covenant.” (2) Before now, I have not really noticed the distinction between the priesthood, which is the descendants of Aaron, and the Levites, who “shall perform duties for you and for the whole tent.” (3) God makes it clear that “It is I who now take your brother Levites from among the Israelites; they are now yours as a gift, dedicated to the Lord, to perform the service of the tent of meeting.” (6) Since it’s from God, this is non-negotiable.

But there is more. God announces to Aaron that all of the offerings and sacrifices made in the tabernacle “shall be yours from the most holy things, reserved from the fire: every offering of theirs that they render to me as a most holy thing, whether grain offering, sin offering, or guilt offering, shall belong to you and your sons.” (9)

We can really read between the lines here as the priestly authors of this book make it clear that the privileges they enjoy were ordained by God himself, “I have given to you, together with your sons and daughters, as a perpetual due, whatever is set aside from the gifts of all the elevation offerings of the Israelites; everyone who is clean in your house may eat them.” (11) In fact, it’s even better than that, as “all the best of the oil and all the best of the wine and of the grain, the choice produce that they give to the Lord, I have given to you.” (12)

Moreover, the priests have first claim on all first-born creatures—human and animal—are theirs and theirs alone. Unclean animals may be redeemed to their original owners by paying 5 shekels. But “the firstborn of a cow, or the firstborn of a sheep, or the firstborn of a goat, you shall not redeem; they are holy.” (17) They are sacrificed on the altar with the flesh of the animal going to the priests.

But there’s a quid pro quo here. Priests and Levites may not own land: “You shall have no allotment in their land, nor shall you have any share among them.” (20)

Now that this has been straightened out following the Korah and Co. disaster, “From now on the Israelites shall no longer approach the tent of meeting, or else they will incur guilt and die.” (22) In short, the priests stand in for everyone else. No one can approach the tabernacle, much less God if they are not a Aaronic priest. And it is not until Jesus abrogates the terms of this old covenant between God and Israel that anyone can approach God without going through a priest. But as the author of Hebrews points out, Jesus, being of the order of Melchizedek, outranks and neutralizes the Aaronic priesthood, so that all of us may approach God through Jesus Christ, our Great High Priest.

Mark 14:53–65: Jesus comes before the Sanhedrin: “the high priest; and all the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes were assembled.” (53) Peter, lurking in the background, eavesdrops and becomes the mechanism by which we know what happened at this kangaroo court. [This is also one of the primary reasons why the gospel of Mark is traditionally seen as the testimony of Peter.]  The priests call a bunch of witnesses, but they all give either false or contradictory testimony. There is no “smoking gun” on which they can convict Jesus.

Finally, in frustration, the high priest asks Jesus to testify, demanding, “Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?” (60) Jesus remains silent until the high priest asks the all-important question that is the central theme of this gospel: “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” (61). And at this, Jesus finally speaks the simple two-word answer, “I am.” And then he goes on to prophesy, “‘you will see the Son of Man/ seated at the right hand of the Power,’/and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven.’” This quote from Daniel (7:13) is clearly the frosting on the blasphemy cake as Jesus asserts co-equality with God.

The high priest rips his clothes and shouts, “You have heard his blasphemy! What is your decision?” (64). The others agree enthusiastically and “condemned him as deserving death.” (64) Notice the phrase, “deserving death.” this is because the priests lacked the authority to impose capital punishment. As we will see, this requires the Romans. But in their intense hatred and probably frustration that they could not kill Jesus on the spot, “Some began to spit on him, to blindfold him, and to strike him, saying to him, “Prophesy!”” (65) But as always, the priestly authorities keep their hands clean as it is the temple police who begin to beat Jesus.

Mark’s clear message is that the Jews have rejected their messiah. There’s no question that by the time this gospel was written down, there was widespread belief that it was the Jews who were responsible for Jesus death. This exchange in the Sanhedrin is the proof, although more proof is to follow.

Psalm 69:30–36; Numbers 16:28–17:13; Mark 14:43–52

Psalm 69:30–36: Verse 30 is the turning point of this psalm as our psalmist describes his state but also his confidence that God will act: “But I am lowly and hurting./ Your rescue, O lord, will protect me.” When we are brought low and feel oppressed on all sides, it is this acknowledgement of humility [“lowly”] and pain that strips all pretense from us. We stand metaphorically naked before God, knowing that only he can save and protect us. When it comes to true healing, all the powers and attractions of this world are for naught.

With this realization that God will indeed protect him, our psalmist turns to worship as an expression of his deep gratitude to God: “Let me praise God’s name in song,/ and let me extol Him in thanksgiving.” (31) He then realizes that he is not the only hurting person and that he has joined a worshipping congregation who know that their only hope of rescue is from God: “The lowly have seen and rejoiced,/ those who seek God, let their hearts be strong.” (33)

Thanksgiving transforms into the confidence that God has indeed heard his desperate prayers: “For the Lord listens to the needy,/ and His captives He has not despised.” (34) God does not despise our failed selves; he accepts—and loves—us in our fallen state. And therefore we worship in gratitude: “Let heaven and earth extol Him,/ the seas and all that stirs within them.” (35)

This long psalm ends on a note that Israel will be restored, and that God will rescue not just the psalmist but an entire nation: “For God will rescue Zion/ and rebuild the towns of Judea,/ and they will dwell there and possess it.” (36) And of course we know that through Jesus Christ, God has rescued the entire world. If only we acknowledge that we are lowly and hurting, knowing we cannot rescue ourselves.

Numbers 16:28–17:13: As the families of the three rebels stand before their tents, Moses presents a challenge to tells the doubting Israelites. If the people standing there “die a natural death, or if a natural fate comes on them, then the Lord has not sent me.” (16:29) But “if the Lord creates something new, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up, with all that belongs to them,… then you shall know that these men have despised the Lord.” (30) Which of course is exactly what happens as “the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly.” (33) And by the way, “fire came out from the Lord and consumed the two hundred fifty men offering the incense.” (35) In short, do not question Moses’ authority or try to take over, because then you are acting directly against God, who will efficiently punish you.

God tells Moses to tel Eleazar to take the 250 censers left on the altar and construct a bronze covering for the altar—”a reminder to the Israelites that no outsider, who is not of the descendants of Aaron, shall approach to offer incense before the Lord.” (40) Call me a cynic, but the priestly authors of Numbers, whose ancestor is Aaron,use this horrific story to reassert their authority as the only legitimate priests of Israel/ Judah.

The fates of the three families and the 250 other leaders do not inspire reverence or repentance among the Israelites, and they “rebelled against Moses and against Aaron, saying, “You have killed the people of the Lord.” (41) At this, God is again angry to the point of annihilating Israel, and actually starts killing them off via a plague. Aaron and Moses rush to put incense on the censers and bring them out to the congregation of Israelites “where the plague had already begun among the people. He put on the incense, and made atonement for the people.” (47) Moses was able to stop God’s plague, but only after 14,700 people died.

What are we make of a God who seems more the adolescent while Moses seems to be the adult in the room? My personal sense is that our authors are going to every length to show Moses as the father of their country; the one who held things together, standing between an angry God and a stubborn people. Frankly, I hope this entire story is apocryphal.

The question of authority and who’s in charge still hangs in the air. God instructs Moses to “get twelve staffs from them, one for each ancestral house,…Write each man’s name on his staff, and write Aaron’s name on the staff of Levi.” (16:2,3) God announces that “the staff of the man whom I choose shall sprout; thus I will put a stop to the complaints of the Israelites that they continually make against you.” (5) Moses puts the staffs inside the tabernacle and lo and behold, “on the next day, the staff of Aaron for the house of Levi had sprouted. It put forth buds, produced blossoms, and bore ripe almonds.” (16:8) No surprise here.

Aaron’s priestly authority is clearly established, and God announces to Moses that the staffs are “to be kept as a warning to rebels, so that you may make an end of their complaints against me, or else they will die.” (16:10).

Nevertheless, the complaints did not cease. Not only do the Israelites see themselves lost and perishing in the desert, but they have concluded that “Everyone who approaches the tabernacle of the Lord will die. Are we all to perish?” (16:13) Frankly, that seems to me to be an entirely reasonable question. Were I an Israelite I would certainly feel that the God with whom I’ve cast my fate is capricious and even the holiest place—the tabernacle—has now become a place of death.

Mark 14:43–52: Judas arrives at Gethsemane, backed up by an armed “crowd with swords and clubs.” Mark identifies that they came “from the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders” (43) so we know instantly who’s behind the arrest. Judas, having prearranged the sign, kisses Jesus, who is grabbed and arrested. Mark doesn’t tell us who, but “one of those who stood near drew his sword and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear.” (47). Interestingly, in this earliest of the gospels, Jesus does not appear to heal the victim of the unidentified disciple’s attempt to protect Jesus. Rather, Jesus seems insulted, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit?” (48) and clearly implying the cowardice of this secret arrest, “Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me.” (49). Jesus knows full well why he wasn’t arrested. For me, these statements also make it clear that Jesus is now fully in control of events. The weeping Jesus, who was praying desperately just a short while ago, is no more. He has received his answer from God and knows what he must do and what he is about. And he will do it with head held high.

Then, one of the most tragic verses in the gospel: “All of them deserted him and fled.” (50). Jesus was completely alone.

There’s an intriguing aside not really relevant to the action: “A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.” (51, 52) Tradition holds that this was Mark himself, but the gospel writer Mark wrote some 60 years later. But why was he wearing only a linen cloth? Was he out for a run early in the morning? We will never know, but one thing is clear: the events he witnessed were portentous and the young man gave no thought to his lack of clothing as he ran off naked into the early morning darkness.

Psalm 69:22–29; Numbers 15:32–16:27; Mark 14:32–42

 Psalm 69:22–29: In these verses, we get a glimpse directly into the psalmist’s heart as he spills his innermost thoughts and feelings onto the page. He writes how he has not found comfort. In fact, those who were supposed to be his comfort became his torturers: “They gave for my nourishment wormwood,/ and for my thirst made me drink vinegar.” (22) The latter phrase makes us think of the sponge given to Jesus while he was on the cross. However, I think that’s an over-interpretation of what is being written here. These verses have much more to do with one man’s hurt and anger than some sort of theological prophecy.

Here, feelings of abandonment cause our poet to write with deepest vitriol against his enemies as he curses them, “May their table before them become a trap,/ and their allies a snare.” (23) He prays that they will experience disease and blindness: “May their eyes grow too dark to see,/ make their loins perpetually shake.” (24) And above all, he begs God to act in a most ungodly manner: “Pour out on them Your wrath,/ and Your blazing fury overtake them.” (25) And not only that God will act against these enemies, but that their families and friends be ruined as well: “May their encampment be laid be laid waste,/ and in their tents may no one dwell.” (25) As if this were not enough, he prays that God will destroy them psychologically, “Add guilt upon their guilt” (28a) and then the worst punishment of all, to be separated from God altogether: “…let them have no part in Your bounty./ Let them be wiped from the book of life,/ and among the righteous let them not be written.” (28b, 29)

So what do we do with these verses, which are definitely antithetical to Jesus’ command that we are supposed to love our enemies? My own sense is that the psalmist’s relationship with God is so intense and real that he knows he can say anything to God in his deepest anger, even curses against others. These verses are a primal scream, not deep theology. They also tell me that we can bring our hurts, anger, disappointment, and yes, even our curses before God. God can take it. And having spewed forth our deepest anger in prayer, we are psychologically and emotionally cleansed. How much better it is to curse before God than before our fellow men.

Numbers 15:32–16:27: It’s one thing to read about the harsh commands that God has communicated to Israel; it’s quite another to read of a man being stoned to death because he was gathering sticks on the Sabbath. But there’s no getting around the sentence: “the Lord said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him outside the camp.”  (15:35) This is a manifestation of the OT God that so distresses us. How can a God of mercy command death for something as seemingly trivial as gathering sticks outside the camp? Is it just to maintain order among an unruly crowd of 600,000 people camped in the desert? Or is it to engender unquestioning loyalty to a jealous God? I have no answer here.

In what at first seems almost humorous non sequitur, God commands Moses to “Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations and to put a blue cord on the fringe at each corner.” (15:38) The fringe is a simple memory prompt: “you have the fringe so that, when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them, and not follow the lust of your own heart and your own eyes.” (15:39) But then we realize that the authors have placed this immediately after the story of the man being stoned to death to address the Israelite’s (and our) weakness of intentional or unintentional forgetting the all-consuming importance of God’s commandments. And above all to remember that “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the Lord your God.” (15:41) Notice the repetition of “I am the Lord your God.” This is the framework in which every thought and action of every Israelite must occur.

Well, it had to happen. The Israelites have just been sentenced to 40 more years in the wilderness and now they’ve had to stone someone to death for committing the seemingly trivial act of gathering sticks. Moses is still their leader and it’s clear to some that it’s time for new leadership. Three members of the tribe of Reuben—Korah, Dathan, and Abiram— decide it’s time for a coup d’etat. And they gather a cohort of 250 men, “leaders of the congregation, chosen from the assembly, well-known men,” (16:2) and confront Moses and Aaron.

Korah’s complaint  to Moses seems straightforward: “why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” (3) Moses sends for Dathan and Abiram, who refuse to come, sending him a message, “Is it too little that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the wilderness, that you must also lord it over us?” (13)

Moses is angry and calls their bluff, telling them to take lit censers put incense on them and stand in front of the tabernacle. So 250 men do this.  God is displeased and issues his usual edict, saying to Moses and Aaron: “Separate yourselves from this congregation, so that I may consume them in a moment.” (21) And once again, Moses intercedes, using the logic that “shall one person sin and you become angry with the whole congregation?” (22) God appears to relent, but tells everyone to “get away from the dwellings of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.” (24). The reading closes with the families of the three standing “at the entrance of their tents, together with their wives, their children, and their little ones.” (27). One is left withy the feeling that something bad is about to happen…

Mark 14:32–42: The disciples and Jesus repair to Gethsemane. Jesus instructs the inner three—James, John and Peter— to come with him. And here, for the first time in the gospels, we see Jesus “distressed and agitated” (33) rather than his usual aura of serene equanimity. He tells the three, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.” (34), bearing in mind that just before the Passover dinner he has told his disciples to remain alert and awake and then has told them he will be betrayed. Why of all times in the three years an what is the culmination of his ministry do the disciples fall asleep now? Was it the wine at dinner? Or is something deeper going on here?

In just a few words, we sense Jesus’ great distress and realize that he is indeed 100% human as “he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him.” (35). He prays as fervently as we have ever heard him, calling his father the diminutive and familiar, “Abba.” We hear Jesus’ prayer, but as usual, do not hear God’s response. Nevertheless, Jesus must have found some succor and he returns from praying only to find the disciples asleep.

But Jesus does not chastise them beyond asking Peter rhetorically, “Could you not keep awake one hour?” (37) Jesus suggests that they remain awake but also acknowledges, “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (38). This is one of those places where we realize that Jesus knows us all too well. Our hearts and minds may be in the right place, but sometimes we simply cannot follow Jesus as well as we would like or intend. This same thing happens two more times: Jesus goes to pray and returns to find the disciples asleep.  Finally, we hear his exasperation, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough!” (41) Jesus tells them to wake up because “the hour has come.” And Jesus knows too well what is abut to happen. But I suspect he also knows that the disciples remain in denial. They cannot possibly believe he is about to be betrayed.

Of course Mark knows that his community—and us—remain in denial about many aspects of Jesus as well. But we have fallen asleep.

Psalm 69:14–22; Numbers 15:1–31; Mark 14:12–31

Psalm 69:14–22: As he is being harassed and taunted on every side, our psalmist turns to God in an almost peaceful supplication: “O Lord, come in a favorable hour./ God, as befits Your great kindness,/ answer me with Your steadfast rescue.” (14) This is a beautiful prayer for any of us who find us bogged down, whether by opponents or even the diseases and weaknesses of our own bodies.

He returns to the metaphor of drowning, this time appealing to God, “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.” (15, 16) The metaphor addresses two awful states: one, that we are stuck in the mire and two, that we not be swept away by the current. For me, the mire represents being stuck in our own sinfulness, while the current means succumbing to the temptation to give in and join the culture as it hurtles toward its inevitable doom. Only God can rescue us from both.

Our psalmist now turns fully to God, throwing himself completely on God’s kindness and compassion, but also that God will respond quickly, “Hide not Your face from Your servant,/ for I am in straits. Hurry, answer me.” (18) Yes, like the psalmist, we are completely free to ask God to act in our time not just his. Of course, we have no guarantee that God will do so.

God is the only possible escape from his enemies: “Come near me, redeem me./ because of my enemies, ransom me.” (19). God—and for us Christians, Jesus—is our only possible salvation. We cannot find it in other people, nor in the culture at large. But with the psalmist, the first step is recognizing exactly who we are, and recognizing that God knows who we are even better than we, and what we have done as well: “It is You who know my reproach,/ and my shame and disgrace before all my foes.” (20)

It is crucial that we realize how sin has brought us down and is destroying our life and we cannot find comfort, much less redemption outside of God: “Reproach breaks my heart, I grow ill; / I hope for consolation, and there is none,/ and for comforters, and do not find them.”

Numbers 15:1–31: Here, we encounter an odd intermezzo in the dramatic action that has resulted in the Israelites being consigned to the desert for the next forty years. It feels almost like a non sequitur: a lengthy disquisition on the types of sacrifices they are to offer when they finally arrive in Canaan some forty years hence: “When you come into the land you are to inhabit, which I am giving you, and you make an offering by fire to the Lord from the herd or from the flock—whether a burnt offering or a sacrifice, to fulfill a vow or as a freewill offering or at your appointed festivals—to make a pleasing odor for the Lord.” (2, 3) In that case, then “whoever presents such an offering to the Lord shall present also a grain offering, one-tenth of an ephah of choice flour, mixed with one-fourth of a hin of oil.” (4)

These commands regarding sacrifices apply to every Israelite: “Every native Israelite shall do these things in this way, in presenting an offering by fire, a pleasing odor to the Lord.” (13) But perhaps more interestingly, and what I believe is a clear indication that while God is has a specific covenant Israel, he is also the God of all humankind, “there shall be for both you and the resident alien a single statute, a perpetual statute throughout your generations; you and the alien shall be alike before the Lord.” (15). As Peter notes many centuries later in his eponymous letter, we Christians are all aliens in the land. To make his stance perfectly clear, God even repeats himself: “You and the alien who resides with you shall have the same law and the same ordinance.” (16)

The focus then shifts to the rules regarding unintentional sin and again, once the proper sacrifices are made, “All the congregation of the Israelites shall be forgiven, as well as the aliens residing among them, because the whole people was involved in the error.” (26)

Humility is also required—both before God and among each other: “But whoever acts high-handedly, whether a native or an alien, affronts theLord, and shall be cut off from among the people.” (30).

The tragedy of course is that once Israel occupies Canaan, it is the aliens among them that corrupt Israel rather than God’s chosen people causing the non-Israelites to come and worship Israel’s God.

Mark 14:12–31: Mark packs grand theology and drama into these terse verses. A disciple asks where they’re going for Passover and Jesus replies, Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’” (13, 14). So, how did Jesus know all this? Is it prescience, or had he somehow made prior arrangements? The business with the jar-carrying man certainly suggests something supernatural is going on since in that culture women did the water-carrying, so the sight of a man would be unusual indeed.

Seated at dinner and while everyone was still eating, Jesus drops the bomb: “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” (18), which basically ruins the rest of the dinner as the disciples “began to be distressed and to say to him one after another, “Surely, not I?” (19). So why choose this time to announce it? Because it is “one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me.” (20) And here Mark, unlike the other gospel writers, does not tell us what happened next or if Judas leaves. Jesus simply remarks cryptically, “woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.” (21) Was Judas in the room to hear that pronouncement of not?

I’m going to assume that Judas left before Jesus said that because the next thing he does is institute the Eucharist. Mark hints at the sacrifice to come when Jesus says, “This is my blood of the  covenant, which is poured out for many.” (24) As indeed his death on the cross is a sacrifice for all of us down through history. He reinforces the connection between the Eucharist and his death and resurrection with the words, “I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” (25). Of course there’s no way the disciples would have understood the implications of this statement. Only those of us living post-Resurrection can make the connection. And now every Sunday we drink that new wine. But the question remains, are we working in the Kingdom with Jesus?

I always thought that Jesus told only Peter that the disciple would deny his Lord, but Mark makes it clear that Jesus was being inclusive: “And Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters.” (27) Which is of course exactly what happened. Nevertheless, Peter fervently denies this possibility, “Even though all become deserters, I will not.” (29). Jesus tells Peter about the cock crowing, but Peter persists,“Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” (31a) And again, Mark is inclusive, noting that “All of them said the same.” (31b)

Of course “all of them” includes us. The nobility of my intentions notwithstanding, I deny Jesus again and again. We all do. Mark will not let us forget that.

Psalm 69:1–13; Numbers 14; Mark 14:1–11

Psalm 69:1–12: Even though it’s a metaphor, this psalm of supplication opens with a harrowing description of what it must be like to be drowning and rescue has not yet come:
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.
     I have entered the watery depths,
     and the current has swept me away. (2,3)

We can hear his shouts and “I am exhausted from my calling out./ My throat is hoarse./ My eyes fail/ from hoping for my God.” (4) These verses capture the sense of being abandoned by God right when things are most desperate. While I have not felt like a drowning man, I know what it feels like to wonder where God is. We seem to be most aware of God’s apparent absence when times are bad. When things are going well, God seems nearby.

Our psalmist, still waiting to hear back from God, goes on to describe the reason for his predicament: his enemies are “more numerous than the hairs on my head,” (5a) And he believes he has done nothing to provoke them and that he has been accused unjustly, apparently of theft as he asks ironically, “What have I not stolen/ should I then give back?” (5b)

He asserts that God is well aware of his shortcomings, “You know my folly,/ and my guilt is not hidden from You.” (6) But the things that distresses him most is the sense that he is bringing shame on his community: “Let not those who hope for You be shamed through me.” (7) It is this shame that makes this psalm so relevant to us today about how we feel tied down by our shame.

However, this shame seems to arise from the psalmist’s belief in God, and it is God’s fault that “Because for You I have borne reproach,/ disgrace has covered my face.” (8) In an eerie presaging of what Jesus said about family relationships and who is our mother or our brothers, our psalmist laments that “Estranged I have been from my brothers,/ and an alien from my mother’s sons.” (9) The reason for the estrangement is simple. He has devoted his all to God’s work: “For the zeal of Your house has consumed me,/ the reproach of Your reproachers has fallen on me.” (10)

As a result he is reduced to a shadow of his former being: “And in fasting I wept for my being—/ it became a reproach for me.” (11) And now he is alone, the object of derision: “I was the talk of those who sit in the gate,/ the drunkards’ taunting song.” (13) Can there be any more dire straits than to feel unjustly accused, abandoned by our family, the subject of taunting, and overarching all this, feeling abandoned by a God who remains resolutely silent? This psalm is a touchstone for all who fee depressed and abandoned.

Numbers 14: On hearing the news from the spies that Canaan is occupied by giants and fierce armies, the Israelites can only “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness!” (2). So, they decide “would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” (3) and actually decide to act on that question: “So they said to one another, “Let us choose a captain, and go back to Egypt.” (4) Clearly, that captain will not be Moses or Aaron.

Joshua and Caleb remonstrate, telling the people that The land that we went through as spies is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey.” (7,8) But to accomplish this, the people cannot “rebel against the Lord.” (9) This is not the message they want to hear and “the whole congregation threatened to stone them.” (10)

God is understandably angry at this mob and threatens to disinherit the lot and, interestingly, start all over again with Moses: “I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they.” (12) Moses again intercedes on these behalf of these stubborn people, reminding God that he should “let the power of the Lord be great in the way that you promised when you spoke, saying,

‘The Lord is slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love,
forgiving iniquity and transgression. (17, 18a)

God relents and forgives them, but adds, “ none of the people who have seen my glory and the signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have tested me these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their ancestors; none of those who despised me shall see it.” (22, 23). Their fate is settled; they will wander in the wilderness until the present generation dies off.

God’s sentence is long and harsh: “According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, for every day a year, you shall bear your iniquity, forty years, and you shall know my displeasure.” (34) With but two exceptions: “Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun.” (30) As for the ten spies who brought back the negative report, “ the men who brought an unfavorable report about the land died by a plague before the Lord.” (37)

A small faction decides to ignore God’s judgement and invade Canaan. Moses advises, “That will not succeed. Do not go up, for the Lord is not with you; do not let yourselves be struck down before your enemies.” (42, 43)  As Moses predicted, things do not turn out well and “the Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived in that hill country came down and defeated them, pursuing them as far as Hormah.”

The lesson here is crystalline: even the best of intentions, including a show of courage, will not succeed where God has forbidden the action. This is why discernment is so crucial. Acting on emotional impulse alone—as this group did here—is the easy path to disaster.

Mark 14:1–11: By Wednesday of Holy Week, the machinery to rid themselves of this blasphemous Jesus sets into motion as “the chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him.”  (1). But stealth does not work well when the city is full of Passover-goers and knowing Jesus’ popularity among the hoi polloi, the priests hold off, knowing “there may be a riot among the people.” (2)

Meanwhile, Jesus is in the safety of Bethany, staying at the house of Simon the leper. An unnamed woman (the other gospel writers do in fact name her) suddenly appears, opens the very expensive alabaster jar of nard and pours it on Jesus’ head. Unlike the other gospel writers, Mark doesn’t tell us who complained, “ in anger, [asking] “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” (4b, 5) Jesus rebukes them and reminds us, “you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me.” (7) We need to be careful: Jesus is not telling them—or us—to ignore the poor, but not every gift we bring to Jesus has to be sent back out for welfare.  In short, just as God required the first born and first fruits, our greatest gifts belong to Jesus.

I’m intrigued by Jesus’ next statement, “She has done what she could” (8a) with an action that in effect prepares his body for burial. I think Jesus is telling us that we are to do what we can. If we truly love him, then by definition we will do what we can for Jesus—whether it’s an extravagant gift or ongoing help for the poor and homeless. Jesus values whatever we can give.

And of course, as Jesus predicts, what this unnamed woman did for him has indeed been told and retold down through the centuries in remembrance of her.

In stark contrast while the woman extravagantly gives Jesus all she has, Judas goes to the priests and says he’ll betray Jesus. The priests are “greatly pleased, and promised to give him money.” (11) The juxtaposition is brutal. Both good and evil simultaneously exist in our fallen world. We cannot ask why God allows evil to exist without asking why God allows good to exist.

Psalm 68:28–36; Numbers 13:17–33; Mark 13:28–37

Psalm 68:28–36: Our poet comes down a level of abstraction from “Israel” to name several tribes: “There little Benjamin holds sway over them,/ Judah’s princes in their raiment,/ Zebulon’s princes, Napthali’s princes.” (28) Benjamin, Zebulon, and Napthali are the tribes mentioned in Judges 5 as the the ones that joined the battle against the Canaanites and that may be why they’re mentioned here. Judah is the house of David, Solomon and the subsequent kings of the south, so that’s probably why it’s included too.

In any event they are part of ceremonial procession to the temple, thanking God for bringing them victory, “Your strength,/ strength, O God, that You showed for us.” (29) The conquered nations also bring tribute to victorious Israel and “To You the kings [of other nations] bring gifts.” (30b) The first nation mentioned is shown symbolically as “the beast of the marsh,/…cringing with offerings of silver,” (31) Which we presume to be Egypt. The following verse clarifies this: “Let notables come from Egypt,/ Cush raise its hands to God.” (32)

Now that all the nations are gathered, they worship in unison: “Kingdoms of earth, sing to God,/ hymn to the Master.” (33) Once again, a psalmist reminds us that God is the God of all nations and the God whom all nations must must acknowledge: “To the Rider in the utmost heavens of yore. Look, He makes His voice ring, the voice of strength.” (34). We assume God’s ringing voice is heard as thunder.

But Israel is certainly the nation that is primus inter pares here: “Acclaim strength to God,/ over Israel is His pride/ and His strength in the skies.” (35) And it is Israel that ends the worship—and this psalm—as it circles back to acknowledging the favor God has bestowed on Israel: “Awesome, O God, from Your sanctuaries!/ Israel’s God—He gives strength and might to His people./ Blessed is God.” (36)

As a theocracy, Israel’s every victory becomes God’s victory. The question for me is, have I acknowledged and worshipped God in the victories he has brought to my own life?

Numbers 13:17–33: Moses gives the twelve leaders, who he now acknowledges as spies, some very specific instructions when they arrive in Canaan. He instructs them to evaluate the land, the people and the cities:  “see what the land is like, and whether the people who live in it are strong or weak, whether they are few or many, and whether the land they live in is good or bad, and whether the towns that they live in are unwalled or fortified.” (18, 19)

This being Numbers, our authors report every detail, noting that the spies covered Canaan quite thoroughly: “they went up and spied out the land from the wilderness of Zin to Rehob, near Lebo-hamath. They went up into the Negeb, and came to Hebron; and Ahiman, Sheshai, and Talmai, the Anakites, were there.” (21, 22) When they arrive at the “Wadi Eshcol, [they] cut down from there a branch with a single cluster of grapes, and they carried it on a pole between two of them. They also brought some pomegranates and figs.” (23). In other words they are bringing evidence that Canaan is truly a promised land, far better than the wilderness in which the Israelites are camped.

Which is exactly what the spies report back to Moses: “[Canaan] flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit.” (27) referring to the grapes on the pole. However, the spies report that there is a big problem and eleven of them give the majority report: “the people who live in the land are strong, and the towns are fortified and very large; and besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there.” (28) They go on to state that every corner of Canaan is already occupied by someone: “the Amalekites live in the land of the Negeb; the Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites live in the hill country; and the Canaanites live by the sea, and along the Jordan.” (29)

Caleb gives the minority report, and “quieted the people before Moses, and said, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.” (30). But the other eleven are adamant that “We are not able to go up against this people, for they are stronger than we.” (31) And to prove their point: “we saw the Nephilim (the Anakites come from the Nephilim); and to ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.” (33) These would be the giants of whom we will meet again as the Philistines that Saul and David confront many years hence.

Thus it ever is. Only Caleb is willing to risk fighting in Canaan, but his voice is drowned out by eleven other [probably louder] voices. Why is Caleb willing to risk all? Because I presume he understands that Israel has God on its side and God will aid Israel, just as he has so far on this journey out of Egypt. But the other eleven look only at their worldly strength, which pales in comparison to the occupants of Canaan.

For me, this passage is all about understanding exactly what we confront, but also trusting God that we can take the risk and go for it.

Mark 13:28–37: Jesus closes his apocalyptic pronouncements with the lesson of the fig tree:  From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.” (28) And he proceeds to put what has turned out to be a very controversial timeframe on when these events will occur: “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” (30)

If we go with the conventional interpretation that Jesus is referring to the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in CE70, this statement makes sense. We also need to remember that this gospel was written after CE70, so Mark may simply be making Jesus appear to be prophetic about an event that has already occurred.

But at the same time, Jesus may be referring to the end of history, as he seems to indicate in his next statement: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” (31) To me, this means that Jesus and his words transcend history. And of course it is John the gospel writer who picks up on this theme of Jesus’ words, expanding the idea to Jesus being the Word himself.

Jesus, being the psychological master that he is, doesn’t just predict the end of the ages and stop. Rather, he gives very clear instructions as to what his disciples—and all of us—are supposed to do in the meantime: “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.” (33) We are like the slaves of the household and we are to keep working in the Kingdom while the Master is away: “each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.” (34) Jesus is blunt: “Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn.” (35)

In fact I think this is Jesus next-to-greatest commandment: that we keep on working and remain awake and alert. He’s also clearly implying, ‘don’t waste your time speculating about the end of history.’ But of course there’s a entire cottage industry out there that specializes in reading Jesus’ Olivet discourse and the symbols of Revelation in a never-ending attempt to predict jesus’ return. While Jesus’ words may be obscure on when history will end, he is extremely clear about what we’re supposed to be doing in the meantime: stay alert!


Psalm 68:19–27; Numbers 12:1–13:16; Mark 13:14–27

Psalm 68:19–27: Our psalmist realizes that God holds the key to life and death, and that when we are in peril, only he can save us: “God is to us a rescuing God./ The Lord Master possesses the ways out from death.” (21)

This is all well and good, but then we encounter some of the most disturbing images in the Psalms: “Yes, God will smash His enemies heads,/ the hairy pate of those who walk about in their guilt.” (22) This is a well known theme that the enemies of Israel will be defeated, but then the poet seems to pile on in imagery as we read, “That your foot may wade in blood,/ the tongues of your dogs lick the enemies.” (24) Who is “your” and “you?” It is certainly not God, so it must be the collective Israel, who will be triumphant over its enemies in bloody battle. The psalmist tells us nothing of God’s response to these assertions; God seems to remain silent throughout all of this.

The scene shifts quickly from the gore of the battle to a triumphal victory parade that appears to have God at its head and is apparently witnessed by Israel’s enemies. These enemies must surely be the “they” in “They saw Your processions, O God,/ my God’s processions, my king in holiness.” (25) as the scene somehow transmogrifies from military victory parade to a procession that is worshipping God. Our psalmist, being a musician and poet, reminds us that “The singers came first and then the musicians/ in the midst of young women beating their drums.” (26) Women beating their drums in a victory procession? Wow. There is an image that sticks in my mind. Victory has become worship and the singers “In choruses bless God,/ the Lord, from the fountain of Israel.” (27) Our poet doesn’t tell us what the “fountain of Israel” is, but it must have been known to those who heard this psalm.

These verses are disturbing to me. Does God countenance smashing our enemies heads? We know that Jesus certainly did not. In his poetic enthusiasm has our psalmist made assumptions about God and God’s character that are simply not true? I think that is where I come down on this disturbing stanza.

Numbers 12:1–13:16: We have complained frequently about the authors of Numbers being dry accountants, But as these chapters demonstrate, they are capable of writing excellent drama as well. First of all, we learn that Moses has married a non-Isrealite woman, a Cushite. This fact and the fact that God seems to speak only through Moses inflames Aaron’s and Miriam’s jealousy as they rather petulantly ask, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” (12:2). Our authors are quick to point out that this accusation is unwarranted as “the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth.” (12:3). God calls a meeting in front of the tabernacle of the three and tells them (in verse, no less) that Moses is his man and the only human with whom he speaks directly. In fact, Moses “is entrusted with all my house./With him I speak face to face— clearly, not in riddles;/ and he beholds the form of the Lord.” (12:8) On short, God is simply saying that he speaks only through Moses. It may seem unfair, but there it is…

God stomps away angrily and “Aaron turned towards Miriam and saw that she was leprous.” (12:10) Realizing their folly, Aaron begs Moses, “do not punish us for a sin that we have so foolishly committed.” (12: 11) Moses, knowing better than Aaron that it is not he who heals, but God who heals, importunes God, “O God, please heal her.” (12:13) God responds that had she disrespected her own father by spitting in his face, “would she not bear her shame for seven days?” (12:14) So, God commands that the leprous Miriam be shut out of the camp for seven days. Which given what God might have done in his anger, is pretty light punishment indeed.

But what really bothers me here is that Aaron, equally guilty as Miriam escapes punishment altogether. Was it because he was the chief priest? Or because he was Moses’ brother and Miriam simply his sister? Or because Israel was a patriarchy? Probably all those things. And we need to be careful to read this story by removing our own cultural filters. It seems that for the magnitude of their sin, the lesson we take from this story is that by and large, God showed great mercy toward them.

Today’s reading includes the beginning of the story of the twelve spies to be sent into Canaan, one form each tribe, and “every one a leader among them.” (13:2) All twelve are named and as we shall see, that with the exception of “Caleb son of Jephunneh” from the tribe of Judah, all those leaders will go down in infamy.

Mark 13:14–27: Jesus continues his grim Olivet discourse by calling on apocalyptic language that hearkens back to Daniel, as he seems to be describing something that could be near term or may even not have happened yet: “But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains.” (14) We tend to think of the “desolating sacrilege” as the episode where Antiochus Epiphanes installed a pig in the Holy of Holies at the time of the Maccabees. But Jesus is clearly forecasting an event (or events) yet to come. Perhaps it is again the destruction of the temple in CE70. Or perhaps its a warning to all of us of the chaos that will come at the end of history.

Whatever this awful event is, we cannot escape it— be we on the rooftop of our house, out in the field or a nursing mother. Clearly no one is exempt from “those days [when] there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, no, and never will be.” (19). Only those working in the Kingdom will be saved: “but for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he has cut short those days.” (20).

Jesus then describes his own dramatic Parousia, when “the stars will be falling from heaven,/and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” (25)  At that time the elect “will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.” (26)

So, who are the ‘elect?’ Calvinists believe this is the group of Christians predestined to believe in Christ. But I’m less sure. Mark’s Jesus speaks in apocalyptic language that does not yield easily to a single interpretation. All I can do is go with the Creed. I believe in “the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” And with Jesus’ command, “But be alert; I have already told you everything.” (23) And I must leave it at that. 

Psalm 68:1–18; Numbers 11; Mark 13:1–13

Psalm 68:1–18: The imagery of the psalm and its soaring language make we wish I could hear it as music. God’s enemies scatter “as smoke disperses” and “wax melts before fire,” ending on the usual wish, “may the wicked perish before God.“(3) With the wicked taken care of, the focus of the psalm shifts to the righteous to “rejoice and exult/ before God, and be gladdened in joy.” (4)

This joy of the righteous expresses itself in a song that celebrates God’s incredible majesty and power in some of the most powerful language in all the Psalms: “Pave the way for the Rider of Clouds,/ for Yah is His name, and exult before Him.” (5) The reasons for this exultation are not only because of God’s omnipotent greatness, but equally for his mercy: “Father of orphans, and widows’ judge/…God brings the lonely back to their homes,/ sets free captives in jubilation.” (7)

In addition to jubilation, there is memory as the psalmist recounts God’s appearance before Israel in the desert: “God, when You sallied forth before Your people,/ when You strode through the desert./ The earth shook,/ the heavens, too, poured down before God.” (8,9) God is the bringer of restorative gifts, as well: “A bountiful rain You shed, O God./ Your estate that had languished You made firm.” (10) As I am writing this from the north coast of California a gentle rain outside creates a wonderful resonance with these verses.

It is at verse 14 where we encounter one of the most beautiful images in the Psalms: “The wings of the dove are inlaid with silver,/ and her pinions with precious gold.” (14) There is no need to theologize here; it is simply a pleasure to linger on these words and reflect on the immense skill of the psalmist to evoke images that come as close as anything ever written to describing God’s awesome majesty.

Numbers 11: The Israelites, tired of being stuck out in the desert begin to complain “about their misfortunes, [and] the Lord heard it and his anger was kindled.” (1) This fire of anger is more than metaphorical and in fact “consumed some outlying parts of the camp.” (2)

Unsurprisingly, the complaints are about the food. Manna is boring compared to “the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic;” (5) Frankly, I’m rather sympathetic here, but clearly the Israelites had forgotten that they were in the desert and without manna they would have perished a long time ago.

Even Moses is angry, telling God that he’s had it up to here managing these complaining people, wondering once again why God appointed him as leader: ““Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me?” (11) In fact, Moses once again pleads his managerial limitations, telling God, “I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me.” (14). And then in living proof that Moses was as human as the rest of us, he threatens God, telling him, “If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once—if I have found favor in your sight—and do not let me see my misery.”(15).  Anyone who has had to lead people for any length of time knows just how Moses felt.

The authors of Numbers assert that establishing the council of 70 elders was God’s idea: “the Lord said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tent of meeting, and have them take their place there with you.” (16) Personally, I prefer the story in Exodus where it was Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law who set up the council. But we have to remember that our authors are members of the priestly class and all things that happen are directly attributable to God and God’s intervention.

IN the meantime, Moses goes to the people, telling them, “the Lord will give you meat, and you shall eat.” But it comes at a substantial cost. They will have meat alright, but for “a whole month—until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you—because you have rejected the Lord who is among you, and have wailed before him, saying, ‘Why did we ever leave Egypt?’” (20).  The disaster of the quails follows shortly.

If ever we needed an example of the importance of being careful what you wish—or pray—for, it is right here.

Mark 13:1–13: Mark is tersely dramatic as he records the dialog between Jesus and an unnamed disciple. Being from the country, the disciple expresses amazement at “what large stones and what large buildings!” (1) And if you’ve ever been to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, you’ll understand why the disciple was impressed. But I can see the consternation on that man’s face when Jesus announces, “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” (2). Most interpreters take this as a direct prophecy of the temple’s destruction by Titus in CE70. But I’m not sure. Writing near CE90, Mark would certainly be aware of this event. Nevertheless, my own sense is that Jesus is speaking more apocalyptically about the end of history as all the great works of humankind meet their doom.

The inner circle—Peter, James, John, and Andrew—pick up on this dire prophecy and are naturally curious, asking, “when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” (4) As is his wont, Jesus doesn’t answer the question directly, but speaks of the times leading up to the end, warning them (and us) first not to be duped. “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) I suspect that by the time Mark was writing, there were doubtless many variants of orthodox Christianity being preached throughout the Roman world, including perhaps even at Mark’s own community.

But it’s not just false religious leaders that threaten, but “wars and rumors of wars,” (7), and unceasing battle as “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom;” (8a)We need look only at history and weep at the battles fought,  the lives lost  right on down to the present time to know the veracity of Jesus’ statement. But Jesus also predicts that nature itself will rise up against humankind, and “there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines.” (8b) And also all true down through the centuries to today.

Jesus then gets personal, warning his disciples of persecutions to come, including the dissolution of entire families: “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death.” (12) Of all the prophecies here, that is perhaps the most depressing because as Mark wrote, it was doubtless true.

Jesus gives them sage advice of what to do when they are brought before the authorities: “When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit.” (11)

My own take here is that Mark is writing for a community that is increasingly under fire for its Christianity. This group has suffered, or is about to suffer for its beliefs that reject the Roman rules about worshipping Caesar and are about to have the iron fist of Rome come down on them. Jesus’ words give strength and courage and the fact that “the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (13)

But above all we must be careful not to set those words as applying only to people almost 2000 years ago. The Olivet Discourse feels even more relevant today as we move into a post-Christian culture, not all that unlike Rome when mark wrote.

Psalm 67; Numbers 8:5–9:14; Mark 12:18–34

Psalm 67: Although this psalm opens with a benedictory phrase—”May God grant us grace and bless us,/ may He shine His face upon us.” (2)—it quickly becomes a psalm of thanksgiving that’s not only worship by Israel, but that all the world should “know on the earth Your way,/ among all the nations Your rescue.” (3)

This is one of those places where it’s clear that God is the God of all who live on the earth, and the wonderful possibility that all will worship him: “Nations acclaim You, O God,/ all peoples acclaim You, O God./ Nations rejoice in glad song” (4, 5a) The reason that all nations worship God is because they have come to realize that “You rule all peoples rightly,/ and nations on earth You lead.” (5b). At this point, we pause and reflect on what the world would truly be like if all people and all nations truly worshipped God. What a different place it would be! Alas, while the psalm can wish for this wonderful state, we live in a world where this wonderful possibility does not yet exist.

But that reality should never discourage us from singing our praise to God, and acknowledging God’s sovereignty over all the earth and all its inhabitants. The psalmist emphasizes the possibility of this wonderful state by opening his second stanza with the same words that concluded the first: “Nations acclaim You, O God,/ all peoples acclaim You.” (6) Moreover, we worship because God has blessed us with rich bounty: “The earth gives its yield./ May God our God bless us.” (7) The psalm ends on this highest of high notes by repeating the prayer that opens the psalm: “May God bless us,/ and all the ends of the earth fear Him.” (8)

This psalm is proof that we are to pray for even those things that seem to be impossible: that all nations would fear God.

Numbers 8:5–9:14: All twelve “secular” tribes have now brought their offerings and sacrifices to Aaron and Moses before the tabernacle. Our priestly authors now turn to the description of the consecration or ordination of the priestly class: the Levites. In a sign that continues to this day in the service of ordination, God commands, “you bring the Levites before the Lord, the Israelites shall lay their hands on the Levites. ” (8:10) And in so doing, “Aaron shall present the Levites before the Lord as an elevation offering from the Israelites, that they may do the service of the Lord.” (8:11). I have to admit the image of all Israel laying their hands on the Levites, who in turn, “shall lay their hands on the heads of the bulls” (12) is a striking one, although laying hands on a bull evokes a humorous quality. These must have been pretty docile bulls…

God asserts that the Levites have thus been separated “from among the other Israelites, and the Levites shall be mine.”  (14) as symbolic of the first born, who always belong to God. The Levites are the substitution for the first born and God turns them over “as a gift to Aaron and his sons from among the Israelites, to do the service for the Israelites at the tent of meeting, and to make atonement for the Israelites.” (19) Our authors are making sure that all Israel understands that the appointment of the Levites as priests is a direct order from God himself.

The Levites “purified themselves from sin and washed their clothes; then Aaron presented them as an elevation offering before the Lord, and Aaron made atonement for them to cleanse them.” (21) And now they are ready for their priestly duties. This being the book of Numbers, we also find out that there is a well-defined period of service as a priest that begins at age 25 and ends at age 50. A defined retirement age is definitely not a new concept!

In chapter nine, the scene shifts back in time as the “Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the first month of the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt.” (9:1) God’s instruction is clear indeed: “the Israelites keep the passover at its appointed time.” (9:2) Which is exactly what Israel did there at the foot of Sinai.

But as usual, there are technical difficulties; this time concerning persons, who have become unclean by touching a corpse, being able to celebrate Passover. These folks come to Moses with their question and Moses replies, “Wait, so that I may hear what the Lord will command concerning you.” (8). God responds generously, “Anyone of you or your descendants who is unclean through touching a corpse, or is away on a journey, shall still keep the passover to the Lord.” (10). In short, Passover is more important than the state of one’s body. However, other forms of uncleanness such as a menstruating woman are not addressed here.

And just to make sure everyone gets the message, God reminds Moses, “anyone who is clean and is not on a journey, and yet refrains from keeping the passover, shall be cut off from the people for not presenting theLord’s offering at its appointed time.” (13) Passover is not a festival as much as it is a required rite. We need to never forget that God has expectations of us.

Mark 12:18–34: The topic of conversation turns from trick questions and Jesus’ answer on rendering to Caesar to theology (although I suspect the Sadducees were equally interested as the other parties in tripping up Jesus. Inasmuch as they do not believe in resurrection they pose the hypothetical of a man married sequentially to seven wives, and ask, “In the resurrection whose wife will she be? For the seven had married her.” (23).  Jesus’ answer is instructive and as usual, refers to Scripture: Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” (24, 25)

As for the question of resurrection itself, Jesus points out that in the incident of the burning bush, God uses the present tense when referring to Abraham, Issac, and Jacob: “He is God not of the dead, but of the living.”  (26) Jesus’ clear implication is that the patriarchs are indeed living, not dead. And he makes sure the Sadducees know, “you are quite wrong,” i.e. to not believe in the resurrection. Which truth they will be confronting soon enough when Jesus’ own resurrection turns the world upside down in just a few days.

A scribe then asks Jesus what I believe to be the first honest question anyone has asked him, free of hidden agendas and malice: “Which commandment is the first of all?” (28) Jesus gives what I take to be the standard answer from the Torah, The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’” (29, 30). But then uninvited, he adds, “The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (31)  The scribe has asked an honest question without malice in his heart.

The scribe responds with what I think is the most profound answer of the entire dialog that Jesus has with the temple leadership, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the other scribes, “You are right, Teacher…—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (32, 33). And Jesus replies, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” (34). These are enormously encouraging words, and the lesson to us is that of we ask honestly, we will be answered honestly.

Even though we cannot address Jesus directly as the scribe was able to, I think that if we pray with an honest heart or if we search the Scriptures with an honest heart, as I believe the scribe did, we will receive and honest—and loving—answer. Mark tells us that “After that no one dared to ask him any question.” Honesty begets honesty. The crowd saw that there were no trick questions which would cause Jesus to stumble. Only honest questions mattered. I think the same goes for us.