Numbers 9-11, Psalm 43, Luke 1
Be careful of what you pray for
Numbers 9 – 11
A lot of interesting things occur in Numbers, if we take our time to read it carefully. In Numbers 9:14, for example, we are told, “You shall have one statute for both the resident alien and the native.” This kind of thinking was unheard of and what made Israel so ahead of its time as they followed God ethical teachings. This would be a wonderful text for Israelis to wrestle with today, in a society where there are different laws for Jewish citizens and Arab workers.
We learn that God clearly shepherded the Israelites, moving before them with a cloud by day and a fire by night just as God did during the Exodus. There was no mistaking God’s leadership. In Numbers 10, we read more about God’s willingness to defend them from their enemies. “When you go to war in your land against the adversary who oppresses you, you shall sound an alarm with the trumpets, so that you may be remembered before the Lord your God and be saved from your enemies.” (Numbers 10:9) God will defend the Israelites from their oppressors.
T.S Eliot writes in The Little Gidding section of The Four Quartets, “We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” I wonder if Moses felt that way after returning to the land where he met his father-in-law Jethro and married his daughter. In Numbers 10:29, Moses encounters Hobab, son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses’ father-in-law. His father-in-law is also called Jethro. Moses has clearly come full circle.
In Numbers 11, the Israelites continue to complain. God is not happy. Indeed “the fire of the Lord burned against them.” (Numbers 11:3) The minds of the Israelites drift back to Egypt. They visualize the food that they used to eat, even though most of them were slaves and probably ate simple rations.
“We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic…” they lament. (Numbers 11:5) Over the past few days, I have driven with cab drivers from Somalia and Ethiopia while visiting Nashville and Atlanta. I always ask cabbies about their country, religion, family and what brought them to the United Stations. I ask if they miss their home. Inevitably, they say that the miss their family and friends most. Some then speak about how they miss the traditional food of their country. It is clear that the Israelites clearly did.
Moses then rants, attacking God like a malevolent boss. “Why have you treated your servant so badly,” cries Moses, proving once again that a good defense is a strong offense. “Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me?” (Numbers 11:11-12) Moses asks God, “Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, ‘Cary them in your bosom.’” (Numbers 11:11-12)
This is completely different from Jesus’s approach to leadership. In Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus is depicted as a Second Moses, we are told that Jesus had “compassion” (Matt. 14:14, 15:32) for the multitude that followed him. Jesus delegated saying, “you give them something to eat.” (Matt. 14:16) Later, when feeding the four thousand, Jesus merely solicits food from the disciples and multiplies it. Either way, Jesus leads differently than Moses. In Moses’s defense, he has had to care for the massive crowd far longer than Jesus did. On many occasions, I have acted more like Moses than like Jesus.
Numbers 11:16-17, 24-25 mirrors Exodus 18:17-26. In Exodus, Moses’s father-in-law Jethro sees his son-in-law burning himself out as the sole judge of Israel, deciding over each dispute or case that the Israelites bring to him. Jethro councils his son-in-law to select 70 “able men” “who fear God, are trustworthy, and hate dishonest gain” and set them over the Israelites to serve as judges. In Numbers, it is God who takes the initiative and instructs Moses to select 70 “of the elders of Israel” and to disperse some of the burden of leadership upon each of them. (Numbers 11:16-17) Either way, delegation is the only way to survive when we are doing God’s work and leading God’s people. It is a sin not to delegate.
We must, however, be careful of what we pray for. I tell people that had God answered all of my prayers, I would have married a girl named Nancy from my junior high school and starved our family by trying to support them as a professional soccer player with limited skills. God has a shrewd way of not answering some of our prayers for our own good.
After lamenting their lack of food choice and meat, God delivers more food and this time meat to supply the Israelites. “You shall eat not only one day, or two days, or five days, or ten days, or twenty days, but for a whole month – until [meat] comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you,” says God. (Numbers 11:19-20) Who says that God does not have a sense of humor?
God will soon bury the Israelites in piles of quail two cubits deep. Surely, the writer of Numbers has a wonderful sense of humor. There is so much meat supply that much of it rotted. A plague broke out among the people. The place where God’s overabundance and the people’s bitter lament met is called Kibroth-hattaavah or Graves of graving. It is a place that we have all experienced when our bitterest prayers were answered by God. Be careful what you pray for and how you pray for it. It always pays to communicate respectfully with God and God’s people.
While Moses took aside the seventy, two men remained in the Israelite camp – Medad and Eldad. God’s spirit rested upon them, and they prophesized. A young man informed Moses. Then Joshua, Moses’s field commander, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” But Moses uttered famous words, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:29)
In Judaism, a prophet is an individual who claims to have been contacted by God to speak for the divine, serving as an intermediary with humanity. His message is called prophecy. The English word prophet comes from the Greek word profetes meaning “advocate.” The Hebrew word is nevim. Its origins are found in Deuteronomy 18:18-19, where God said, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable.”
The prophet was thus considered the “mouth” of God. The navim were believed to have a hollowness or openness, which allowed them to receive the transcendental wisdom of God. In addition to writing and speaking on God’s behalf, the prophets often acted out prophetic messages to rebuke leaders and the Israelites. Jeremiah was a prime example. For now, it is enough to ponder that God’s message is transmitted by more than just those that the Church narrowly deputizes. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, does not accept the validity of any Anglican or Protestant clergy. Likewise, in the Colonial times, Church of England clergy did not accept the validity of other religious orders and allow them to preach from their pulpits. God is constantly expanding our horizons to allow us to see how the Spirit of God works through the Medads and Eldads of the world.
The most memorable line here is, “O send out your light and your truth; let them lead me.” (Ps. 43:3) Like the Israelites who relied on God’s cloud by day and fire by night to guide them, God’s wisdom is like a light that will guide our steps each day. Grounding ourselves in Scripture each morning is the surest way to take advantage of God’s willingness to lead us. Psalm 43:5 mirrors Psalm 42:5 exactly. A good thought is always worth repeating.
I must confess from the start that Luke is my favorite Gospel. Right from the start, Luke informs us that he has investigated “everything carefully” and is writing “an orderly account” for “Theophilus,” who was either his patron who commissioned the gospel or a name that stands for every seeker of God. The name theophilus literally means “lover of God.” Hence, Luke is a historian. He wants to tell the story of Jesus and tell it as accurately as possible. Luke is writing to all of us who seek to know God’s ways.
Immediately, Luke introduces us to Zechariah, a priest, and his wife, Elizabeth. Both are aged, have lived righteously, and somehow have been punished by being unable to bear children. Normally, this was associated with being disobedient or sinful. When an angel appeared to Zechariah as he was offering incense in the Holy of Holies, Zechariah “was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him.” (Luke 1:12) This is a true theophany or encounter with one of God’s ambassadors.
When a priest was selected to enter the Holy of Holies to offer incense symbolizing the prayers of the people rising to God, a rope was tied to his leg in case he encountered God and was struck dead. He could then be dragged from the Holy of Holies and buried. Priests entered this chamber with fear and trembling for this is where God dwelt.
The angel of the Lord informed Zechariah that he would have a son, and his son would “be filled with the Holy Spirit.” (Luke 1:15) The Holy Spirit will appear constantly throughout Luke’s Gospel. It is the prime mover or lead character in this gospel. Watch for it! “With the spirit and the power of Elijah [John the Baptist] will go before [Jesus], to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:17) Zechariah’s son, John the Baptist, will thus serve like Elijah, the Hebrew prophet, who the Israelites believed would return before the Messiah came. Luke is carefully orchestrating his story.
An angel named Gabriel then appeared to Mary. He informed her that she “will conceive in [her] womb and bear a son” and call him Jesus. “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:31-33)
Mary, like Zechariah, is incredulous. “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” she asks. (Luke 1:34) Whereas Gabriel struck Zechariah mute for his incredulity, the angel is kinder to Mary. He informs her that “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.” (Luke 1:35)
Both unexpected and seemingly impossible pregnancies drive home the same point, which Luke highlights as he notes, “For nothing will be impossible with God.” (Luke 1:37) Whatever challenges you are facing, hold onto this hope.
If Luke’s Gospel were performed on stage, it would be a musical, not a play. Throughout this story, actors break into song. In today’s reading, Mary pauses and offers the Magnificat taken from the first word of the Latin translation, which reads, Magnificat anima mea Dominum…” “My soul magnifies the Lord…” (Luke 1:46) This song is the crown jewel of Anglican choral evensongs. Many of the greatest composers of Church music – Bach, Vivaldi, Bruckner, Rachmaninoff, Rutter, Tallis, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Tavener, Stanford and Howells – have set Mary’s words to music. The Magnificat is one of the eight most ancient hymns of the Church and is perhaps the earliest Marian hymn.
It forms part of the Daily Office for Roman Catholics, Lutherans and Anglicans. It is central for the service of Evening Prayer in The Book of Common Prayer, where it is usually paired with the Nunc Dimittis, which is also taken from Luke’s Gospel. The Eastern Orthodox Church sings it during Matins.
The Magnificat is a revolutionary hymn, which speaks about radical societal change. It is the battle cry of the poor and marginalized. God “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:52-53) God’s preferential concern for the poor, for women and for those who are marginalized by society will resound throughout every chapter of Luke’s Gospel. It is a gospel of liberation.
Zechariah’s turn comes soon after. No longer mute, he opens his mouth and sings, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel…” He offers the Benedictus taken from the first word of the Latin translation. Anglicans sing or say this canticle in Morning Prayer or Matins, after the New Testament lesson. It was uttered on the occasion of the birth of Zechariah’s son, John the Baptist. It is a song of thanksgiving for the messianic hopes of the Jewish nation. The second part of the canticle focuses on Zechariah’s son, who will play a great part in the story of human Redemption by God. John the Baptist will be the last of the great prophets, who will preach remission of sins before the coming of the Messiah. His words echo Isaiah 40:3, which John later applied to his own mission in Luke 3:4.
Earlier, Elizabeth exclaimed in a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” (Luke 1:42) These words are familiar to Roman Catholics who pray the rosary. Was this, too, a song for Luke’s musical, which was cut short? Or was Elizabeth the one who first offered the Benedictus, for this is how her exclamation begins. Were her words later attributed to Zechariah, as the words of Miriam were possibly attributed to Moses following the Exodus? (Exodus 15:1-18; 20-21) We simply do not know.
Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them! (Numbers 11:29)
O send out your light and your truth; let them lead me. (Ps. 43:3)
The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. (Luke 1:35)
For nothing will be impossible with God. (Luke 1:37)
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:52-53)
What prayers have you uttered that God saw wisely not to answer or answer as you had asked? How and when have you ranted at God? In what ways are you committing the sin of failing to delegate to others? How are you allowing God’s light to lead you each day? Is the Holy Spirit the prime mover in your life? If not, why not? Do you believe that with God all things are possible? How are you working to respond to the needs of the poor and the marginalized?
God of Heavenly Disruption, you turn human lives upside down, putting down those who have lorded over others and lifting up the marginalized and oppressed. Help us to partner with you in lifting up those in need and restoring hope to them. Give us the faith to trust that with you all things are possible. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania