Numbers 4-5, Psalm 41, Mark 15
Let us act boldly now while we can
Numbers 4 – 5
The overarching theme of the first five books of the Bible or the Pentateuch or Torah is that God made a promise to the Patriarchs, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, that he would be their God and they would be his people. Three things are promised. First, God told Abraham that his descendants would be innumerable. Second, God created a special bond with his Chosen People that was unique. Third, God gave Israel the land of Canaan.
The divine-human relationship was expressed and held together by a series of covenants initiated by God. A covenant was a legally binding treaty. We encounter them throughout the Pentateuch. The first covenant was given by God to Noah, immediately after the Deluge stopped and the waters began to subside. God created a rainbow as a pledge that the world would never be completely destroyed again.
The next covenant was given to Moses atop Mount Sinai. Finally, the third covenant was established between God and all of Israel at Mount Sinai. With the third covenant God established a set of elaborate laws that are scattered throughout the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers.
Only a fraction of these laws impact Christians today, but there are still some worthy passages for us to note. The author begins by establishing the first “altar guild” in ancient times. From among the Levites, God extracts a sub clan called the Kohathites, who shall be responsible for handling the holy things in the tabernacle. They will spread the liturgical cloth, set the plates, dishes and flagons for drinking wine.
Likewise, the Gershonites will be responsible for carrying and transporting the tabernacle. God knows that he will soon give Moses marching orders; so, God puts things in place to pave the way. The lesson for us is that when God calls us to action, the Holy One equips us. God makes things fall into place. We are not told by God to do things and then abandoned to get them done on our own. God orchestrates events and people around us to help us achieve what God has called us to do. Sometimes it is downright miraculous. Others may call is happenstance, but Christians know that it is Providential.
Our reading concludes with God commanding Moses to give the famous Aaronic blessing:
The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you,
and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you,
and give you peace. (Numbers 6:22-26)
These words find their way into the Christian burial office 3,000 years later as Episcopal priests pronounce them at a graveside internment. I have said them several hundred times. Each time, I look down at a coffin or a box of cremains and say them, I recall how precious life is.
Psalm 41 instructs us to care for the poor and needy. “Happy are those who consider the poor; the Lord delivers them in the day of trouble.” (Ps. 41:1) God has a preferential concern for the poor, because the poor are vulnerable. They must rely on others. We must step up and make a difference in their lives. There is nothing romantic about caring for the poor. It is often frustratingly hard work, but God rewards us for doing it. What we do for the poor, we do for God, and it does not escape God’s attention.
Second, the psalmist holds onto his integrity. It is his second anchor. He cares for the poor, and he holds onto his values and acts ethically. “But you have upheld me because of my integrity, and set me in your presence forever.” (Ps. 41:12) God gives us a sense of blessed assurance when we act with integrity. God honors each effort we make to care for the poor and each time we exercise integrity in a world that makes it easy to do neither of these.
If you ever wonder where God is why you are facing adversity, the answer is crying. God cries each day. The traditional belief that God is all-good, all-knowing and all-powerful does not hold. How, after all, could an all-good, all-knowing and all-powerful God be aware of torture, rape, murder, child abuse and terrorism and not intervene in each case to prevent tragedy from occurring. What is apparent is that God has created a universe where humans exercise freedom and God either cannot or will not intervene in many circumstances. Yet, God must grieve so much of what we humans inflict upon one another.
The story told in the 15th chapter of Mark’s Gospel is one of the most painful chapters of human history. Mark alone notes that Pilate realized that “it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed [Jesus] over.” (Mark 15:10) None of us likes to be shown up by others.
Many years ago, while serving as a newspaper reporter, I interviewed Laotians who had resettled from poverty in Southeast Asia to Nashville, Tennessee. Nashville was the site of the largest resettlement of Laotians in the United States. The resettlement director told me that the Laotians were often held in contempt by their fellow workers, because the Laotians worked so hard and did not want to stop working and take cigarette breaks like their colleagues.
Likewise, the chief priests and high priests held Jesus in contempt. The priests were propping up the husk of religion without any true spirit. This occurs in every religion. There are always those who lack religious imagination and compassion and who strive to prop up institutional rules that have little to do with God. When people of true spirit and religious genius come along, they become a threat to those who are propping up a sham of what true religion is meant to be.
Jesus identified with every aspect of human existence, including alienation from God. He cried out, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?,” meaning “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?” There is nothing that we can endure that Christ has not endured before us. We are never alone. Christ knows our pain. Because of what he has endured, Jesus is in solidarity with us. He grieves with us and for us.
“Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last.” (Mark 15:37) Wow! What can we say? We would be wise just close our eyes and let the weight of these words sink in deeply. God breathed his last. What the Israelites called ruach and the Greeks called pneuma had exited Jesus. That which we read in Genesis 2:7 “and God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” and gave Adam life, was now allowed to exit from Jesus as his earthly life came to an end – for now.
If you have ever been with someone as they breathed their final breathe, you know what a powerful moment this is. It is holy ground. You may have even experienced the spirit leaving the one beside whom you have sat, watched, prayed with and for and loved. Once the breathe is gone, life is over. Ruach or pneuma can be translated as “breathe,” “air” or “spirit.” When the spirit leaves us, only the husk, which was once our body, remains. But for Christians, there is more to come.
“Truly this man was God’s Son!,” noted the centurion. How right he was! Perhaps Joseph of Arimathea realized this as well, if only too late. Mark notes that Joseph was a member of the council, which condemned Jesus. Perhaps Joseph was weak and could not stand against those who were determined to condemn Jesus to death. Perhaps Joseph pleaded to spare Jesus’s life, but none would hear it. Maybe Joseph was ashamed that he did not enough while the best man who ever lived was brutally killed. Now he wanted to atone for it.
Mark says that Joseph was “waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God.” Sadly, he missed his chance to experience it with Jesus. Nonetheless, Joseph “went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.” (Mark 15:43) All of us have stood by while others did things that we knew were wrong. We cannot rewrite these moments. What we can do is to act boldly now to do what should be done.
The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace. (Numbers 6:22-26)
Truly this man was God’s Son! (Mark 15:39)
How has the Lord blessed you and kept you? Can you feel it? Do you tell others about it? How are you caring for the poor and walking with integrity? Do you see religious professionals merely living out the husk of religion with no spirit within it? Do you believe that Jesus is God’s Son as the centurion noted? If so, how does that change the way you lead your life? What is God calling you to do boldly now?
Gracious and Forgiving God, you are always more ready to forgive than we are to be forgiven. Each one of us has failed to do what we knew was right in certain moments. We cannot rescript these moments, but we ask you to help us act boldly now and to do what we should do. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania