Numbers 1-3, Psalm 40, Mark 14
True prayer is praying that God’s may be done
Numbers 1 – 3
The fourth book of the Bible gets its name from the two censuses that Moses carries out with the Israelites during their 40-year journey through the wilderness. The title “Numbers” is hardly stimulating, but it accurately depicts a book that is fixated at times on numbers. Readers who are accountants will feel right at home.
The Hebrew name for this same book is “in the desert,” which perhaps better describes the overall book, which is a sort of travelogue as the Israelites make their way toward the Promised Land. The first ten chapters focus on Israel’s preparations to leave Mt. Sinai, where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. Numbers is structured into three sections based on different locations – Mount Sinai, Kadesh-Barnea and the plains of Moab. The three episodes are linked by two travel sections.
The book ends with the Israelites having reached the Plains of Moab. Along the way, the Israelites make life difficult for Moses and also rebel against Aaron. The Israelites fight occasional battles, but because they do not obey God and also meet and mingle with the Moabites, who lead them astray to worship false God, God strikes back and punishes the Israelites.
All told, Numbers features a lot of disobedience and violence as well as severe punishment by God. Reading Numbers is not for the faint of heart, but the book demonstrates the importance of holiness, faithfulness and trust. Scholars believe that part of Numbers was written by Moses during the 38 years that the Israelites wandered through the desert, sometime in the 13th to 11th century B.C. Portions of Numbers, however, were written in the third person. This suggests that the book in its final form was designed to be read by a later audience. Numbers was probably altered over time by the Priestly author, who was focused on matters of ritual and worship. The Yahwistic writer was probably the first to set the material down perhaps in the early Persian period (5th century B.C.)
Today’s reading begins with the words, “The Lord spoke to Moses…,” which will become a mantra throughout Numbers. Moses was in the wilderness of Sinai. Perhaps he was wondering what had become of his life. He spent 40 years in the wilderness serving as a humble shepherd and now he is back for another 40 years in the same wilderness. Instead of being alone with herds of sheep and goats, Moses is now leading an enormous army. Much has changed.
The Lord commands Moses to take a census of every male 20 years of older, who could go to battle. Each tribe is counted individually. The tribe of Judah is the largest and numbers 74,600. We are told there were 603,550 men in the army, not counting the 22,000 Levites, who God set apart to serve the tabernacle and would not allow Moses to count.
Scholars believe that these numbers were exaggerated. They speculate that it would take a population of two million people to generate an army of 600,000 men aged 20 or older. Throughout these early chapters the Israelites did just as God commanded through Moses. God has everything organized. The tribes are to be stationed on the eastern, southern, western and northern side of the tabernacle. Only the Levites under Aaron’s control are to camp near the tabernacle and perform their duties and guard it. God tells Moses that “…any outsider who comes near shall be put to death.” Clearly, God sets clear boundaries!
One of the things that the Bible makes clear is that we are called to testify when God has acted in our lives. When God heals, blesses, saves, strengthens, loves, nurtures, redeems or rescues us, we are called to return the favor by telling others. This is difficult for Episcopalians, who are reticent to make any outward display of their faith. Nonetheless, it is required.
The psalmist speaks from personal experience, telling us,
I waiting patiently for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the desolate pit,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
and put their trust in the Lord. (Ps. 40:1-3)
Years ago, I heard Country Music singer Johnny Cash give his personal testimony. He spoke with a voice so deep that it sounded as though it came from the bottom of the earth. His words were powerful. I was gripped by what he said. It made me think even more highly of God’s ability to rescue us from the mire of life. Few could speak more authentically about “the miry bog” than Johnny Cash.
The purpose of testifying or sharing our encounters with God is not to draw attention to ourselves, but to focus attention on God. That’s where the attention ought to be in the first place. The author notes that God had multiplied “his wonderful deeds” and “thoughts,” and no one can compare to God. When he testifies about God, his testimonies will “be more than can be counted.” (Ps. 40:5) That’s a powerful thought. How many of us could quickly reel off a list of how God has blessed us? What words will trickle off our tongue to share how God has transformed our life?
The psalmist says, “Sacrifice and offering you do not desire…” and “Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required.” (Ps. 40:6) So true! These practices were as contrived as selling indulgences during the Middle Ages. God is not trying to scare us into submission. God wants to win us with love for love’s sake for our names have been already written into the book of life at baptism. God desires that we “delight to do [his] will,” because God’s “law is written in our heart.” (Ps. 40:8)
The psalm holds in tension the author’s willingness to repeatedly share how God has impacted his life with the knowledge that his need for God is not over. There will clearly be more times of need in the years to come. “I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness from the great congregation,” writes the psalmist. How many of us can say the same thing? He adds,
Be pleased, O Lord, to deliver me;
O Lord, make haste to help me. (Ps. 40:13)
Chapter 14 is thick with action – Jesus is anointed for burial, celebrates the Last Supper, predicts Peter’s denial of him, prays in the Garden of Gethsemane, is betrayed by Judas and then is dragged before the Jewish council. We could write a book about this chapter. For our spiritual journey, however, let us just note four things.
First, Jesus transforms the Passover Supper into a meal that will have significance forever. He tells that that the bread will be more than bread and the wine will be more than wine. The former represents his body and the latter represents his blood, which seals the New Covenant of God’s relationship with those who accept and follow Jesus. We are now God’s people, and with this privilege goes the responsibility to obey Jesus’s teachings and share his love with others.
Second, Jesus let Scripture guide him and shed light in the darkness for those around him. “…for it is written,” Jesus said, “’I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’” How well do you know Scripture? If the answer is “not very well,” don’t worry. Over time, as you read the Bible more and discover some “go-to verses” that speak profoundly to you, these words from God will serve as your compass and flashlight in the dark moments when you feel lost and alone.
Third, Jesus prayed. Before or after many of the great events in his ministry, Jesus connected with God. Prayer recharged Jesus’s spiritual battery. It provided clarity, steeled his resolve, softened his heart and boosted his spirit. Jesus knew that with God “all things are possible.” Nonetheless, he prayed the prayer that we often pray, asking for God to rescript the situation. Then he offered the prayer that God longs most to hear, “not what I want, but what you want.” In true prayer, we never bend God’s will to our will. Rather, we submit our will to God’s will. This is the heart of prayer.
Fourth, some spit on Jesus, blindfolded him and beat him. Can you imagine doing this to Jesus? Of course, we cannot see ourselves doing this. Yet, this happens around the world each day as people are beat, blindfolded, spit upon, demeaned, tortured, unfairly incarcerated, abandoned and betrayed. Whatever we do to the least of those around us we do to Jesus, including treating others poorly or with evil intent. Today, people in the Ukraine and the South Sudan are being beaten, shot, raped and unfairly incarcerated. We need to keep them in our prayers and find ways to support them.
[Jesus] said, ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want. (Mark 14:36)
What numbers do you count? What is your testimony? What are some of the great things that God has done in your life? What keep you from telling others? Do you harness the power of prayer before making pivotal decisions or facing great challenges? Do you have a daily practice of prayer so that when you need to turn to God, God is a close friend, not a distant stranger? When you pray, do you exert your will hoping to get God to do what you want, or do you submit your will and ask that God’s will be done?
Gracious God, you have no postal address and do not expect us to write thank you notes each time you send a blessing our way or rescue us from the miry bog. You do, however, ask us to tell others how we have been blessed by you. Help us to discover our own voice so that we might share the Good News of how you have loved us time and time again. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania