The Bible Challenge 2015 – Day 39

Leviticus 7-9, Psalm 33, Mark 6
God loves all nations, not just ours

Leviticus 7-9
Psalm 33
Mark 6
Key Verses

Leviticus 7 – 9

A member of our church participated in The Bible Challenge two years ago. During a conversation about the Book of Leviticus, he said, “I laughed my way through it.” I had never heard anyone say that, but it makes sense. Much of what we read in Leviticus almost appears comical nearly 3,000 years after it was written. You may find yourself scratching your heard and wondering, “Did anyone really believe this? Did anyone really practice these forms of sacrifice?” My hunch is that not all of it was practiced.

I read recently about a Lutheran pastor who entered Stockholm’s cathedral and saw a huge 17th century painting of the Last Judgment that depicts falling bodies of the damned. He only glanced at the painting. A longer look might have revealed some beauty and features of interest, but he found himself wishing that the painting was not there. He did not want visitors associating his faith with something violent and judgmental. Fortunately, the painting was in a location where tourists could easily miss seeing it.

I suppose many Christians feel the same way about the Book of Leviticus. Thank God, we do not read this in church each Sunday! What can we glean from these almost comical writings about carving up animals and splashing their blood against the altar? It’s sometimes hard to tell.

A famous surgeon in Tennessee, who pioneered a new form of gallbladder surgery, taught hundreds of physicians how to perform this surgery using pigs. “There is probably not a pig within 100 miles of Nashville with a gallbladder left in it,” he told me. After reading Leviticus, we have to wonder whether there were any animals left within a 100 miles of Jerusalem. It reads like one bloody animal slaughter.

Chapters 7–10 describe the consecration by Moses of Aaron and his sons as the first priests. The purpose is to underline the character of those priests empowered to offer sacrifices to God as an Aaronite or Levitical privilege, and the restrictions and responsibilities that go with this position.

Leviticus tells us about ritual, sacrifice, the priesthood, uncleanliness, purity, atonement and holiness. The first seven chapters spell out the laws of sacrifice. In the first six chapters, there is a focus on instructions for the laity regarding bringing of offerings to God. In today’s readings, we learn about guilt offerings, well-being offerings, burnt offerings, grain offerings, sin offerings and ordination offerings.

In the guilt offering, the blood of the animal is dashed against the altar, but the two kidneys from the animal are removed. The priest cooks the kidneys until they dissolve into smoke. This gives a whole new meaning to smoked meat.

God is once anthropomorphized as he was when walking through the Garden of Eden and seeing Adam and Eve naked. We read, “This was an ordination offering for a pleasing odor, an offering by fire to the Lord,” (Lev. 8:28) as if God’s large nostrils enjoy the smell of roasted bar-b-cue.

Later in the Old Testament, we shall read the prophet Isaiah’s blistering attack on the Jewish sacrificial system. The prophet writes to the people of Israel that your “bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me… Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates, I am weary of bearing them…Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean…cease to do evil, learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” (Is. 1:13-14, 16-17) The latter is true religion.

In today’s readings from Leviticus, we realize that religion has come a long way. Primitive people used primitive means to connect with God. We no longer have to do this. Christians must assist each new generation of believers and seekers who turn to the Bible and come to church and wonder, “Can I find what I am looking for here?” Our task is to show them Jesus.

Many come with “religious baggage,” after reading texts like this and experiencing religious practices that seem out of touch with today’s world. It is helpful for them to hear us acknowledge that there are things in the Bible which are not of the same significance as the teachings of Jesus, and some may even merit a good laugh. Meanwhile, the Bible on the whole remains a font of eternal wisdom.

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Psalm 33

In the HBO series The Newsroom, Keith Olbermann plays a bully-like news anchor named Will McAvoy, who is a moderate Republican who has returned to journalism to tell the truth. McAvoy participates in a panel that is asked by college students to say why America “is the greatest country in the world.”

A liberal panelist says, “Diversity and opportunity.” A conservative says, “Freedom and freedom, so let’s keep it that way.” McAvoy spots his ex-girlfriend in the audience, who has always inspired him to tell the truth, despite the cost. She holds up signs, which read, “It’s not” and “But it could be.”

McAvoy then barks out that the United States is number one in only three categories: incarcerated citizens per capita, defense spending and the number of adults who believe that angels are real.” “We used to be great,” McAvoy says. “We stood for what was right. We fought for moral reasons, passed laws, struck down laws for moral reasons. We waged war on poverty, not poor people. We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbors and we never beat our chests. We built great big things, made ungodly technological advances, we cured diseases, explored the universe, we cultivated the world’s greatest artists and the world’s economy. We aspired to intelligence, it didn’t make us feel inferior… and we didn’t scare so easy. We were able to do these things because we were informed.”

In today’s psalm we read,

Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord,
the people whom he has chosen as his heritage. (Ps. 33:12)

At its best, America is a beacon of light and hope to other nations. At its worst, we are self-serving, saying one thing but doing another. We do best when we are humble and focus on what we can do to help those in need, whether they are close at home or far away. We do best when we follow Jesus.

The more that we live into a Christian spirit of generosity, sacrifice, service, simplicity, kindness, patience, compassion, being slow to anger and exercising self-control, the more the world will have reason to admire us and the more others will seek to emulate us. Again the psalmist writes,

Truly the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him,
on those who hope in his steadfast love,
to deliver their soul from death,
and to keep them alive in famine. (Ps. 33:18-19)

I suspect that God loves all nations, even those we label as being part of the “Evil Empire.” God may disdain many of the actions of evil leaders, and some of the actions by our own leaders and people. God, however, sees all humans as God’s children, hoping that all will respond to God’s steadfast love.

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Mark 6

In chapter 6, Jesus transforms his disciples into pilgrims who travel lightly, carrying a staff like St. James the Greater or “Santiago” as he is known in Spain, no bread, no bag, no money and no extra tunic. By traveling lightly, pilgrims learn the value of simplicity and depend on God and the goodwill of others whom they meet. They learn to take one day at a time, and not obsess about the future.

Jesus instructs the disciples to proclaim God’s Word and call people to “repent” or change direction if they are sinning and erring on life’s way, to cast out demons and to heal the sick and ill. They do so obediently. Truly, this is a pilgrim army on the move and focused on serving others.

Upon their return, Jesus offers one of the most beautiful invitations in the Bible. “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” (Mark 6:31) We read, “For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.” Oddly, this is the only time in the entire Bible that the word “leisure” is mentioned, and it is not a positive one. The disciples had no leisure. Sound familiar?

So, the disciples and Jesus have a respite, but it is soon disturbed by legions of people who come looking for Jesus. Jesus has “compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” (Mark 6:34) When it comes time for supper, Jesus insists that the disciples provide dinner. Using what seems barely enough to feed a handful of people, Jesus provides an ample meal. This is the only miracle told in all four of the gospels. It must therefore be very significant.

It reminds us that we live in a world with ample resources to meet the basic needs of everyone. While this is true, we humans experience famine, injustice, starvation and malnutrition, because we, like people in ancient times, continue to struggle with sharing our resources. We are not a Christian until we have begun to share richly of our resources and taken serious steps to give sacrificially to God so that the Church and the other institutions may help meet the deep needs of the world.

Note that after performing this powerful miracle, Jesus bids farewell and dismisses the crowd and then, “went up on the mountain to pray.” (Mark 6:46) This verse could easily be missed. However, it is the secret to Jesus’s power. Before or after almost all of his major acts of ministry, Jesus prayed. Spending time in silence and solitude with God replenished Jesus’s spiritual resources and equipped him to serve and respond to the needs of others. This is a great model for each of us to emulate.

Jesus later came walking on the water in the early hours of the mourning. We are told that the disciples “were utterly astounded.” (Mark 6:51) This is what all of us should be when we experience God’s presence. We never meet as equals. We are not God’s buddies. We are God’s creation. God is awesome beyond our imagination. It is for this reason that no matter how difficult the situation that we face, we have a right to be hopeful. God is able to take the most challenging situation on earth and reduce it to nothing. If we are wise, we will turn to God to help shoulders our burdens.

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Key Verses

Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while. (Mark 6:31)

As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. (Mark 6:34)

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Do you believe that it is alright to laugh at some parts of the Bible and of our religion? How do you help others comprehend difficult parts of the Bible and Christianity? Do you think that God loves the United States more than other countries? What does God expect of our nation? In what ways do you see yourself as a pilgrim? Are you sharing your resources sacrificially with God? Could you benefit from living more simply, focusing on today alone and depending more on God to meet your daily needs? Do you have a steady time of prayer each day?

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Gracious and Life-Giving God, you call us as your pilgrim people to journey with you. You invite us to depend on you and to make our way joyfully through each day. You ask us to give thanks for life’s little surprises, taking time to appreciate and savor each meal, every conversation, our health, our family and friends and companions along the journey. Help us to focus on today alone and let the future take care of itself. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.

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© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania