Numbers 15-17, Psalm 45, Luke 3
The first thing that a leader needs to expect is sabotage!
Numbers 15 – 17
Numbers 15 repeats much of what is found in Leviticus 4, regarding how a priest may make atonement for those who have sinned unintentionally. We then read one of the more shocking stories in Bible. We are told that a man was gathering sticks on the Sabbath. I frequently have done this while walking our dogs on a golf course. I used the sticks for kindling in our fire place. I never think twice about doing this on a Sunday. It’s just an almost playful activity for me. Here, however, it cost a man his life.
For devout Jews, however, collecting sticks on the Sabbath violates God’s command to rest from all labor on the seventh day. The stick collector brought him before Moses, as the Law was unclear as to what should be done to such a man. “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him outside the camp.’” (Numbers 15:35) The congregation obeyed God.
At this point, we are readers of Scripture are left with several choices. One choice is to accept this story as true. Another choice is to doubt it. I personally take the latter view and believe that this story is mere human projection onto God and a sad form of barbarism performed across the centuries in eras such as the Spanish Inquisition, which have given a black eye to the Church.
While hosting the former Bishop of Jerusalem at our church several years ago, we discussed issues of human sexuality and the Church. He explained to me that members of the Diocese of Jerusalem still carry out death by stoning of a young woman who is found not to be a virgin at the time of her wedding.
I was shocked. “They actually still do that,” I asked. “Yes,” he said. “Who carries out the punishment,” I inquired. “The family, of course,” the bishop said. “They do it to protect their honor.” How often this occurs, he did not say. Death by stoning, however, is an ancient practice which still exists in some parts of the world. I believe that God would never command such a punishment. As Christians, we must challenge any leader, Moses included, who maintains that God would order such an act.
Rabbi Ed Friedman, author of Generation to Generation, said that the first thing that a leader should expect is sabotage! Moses and the Israelites pose a classic example. Over and over again, God reminds the Israelites that they were once residents in an alien land, and that they are never to forget this or to treat aliens as they themselves were treated in Egypt. We do well to reflect upon this during this time when there is so much talk about illegal immigration. How are Christians to treat resident aliens? Will we take our cues from the Republican or Democratic Party or from Jesus and the Bible?
In chapter 16, four Levites, Korah, Kohath, Dathan and Abirma, whose tribe was responsible for caring for the tabernacle, stage a rebellion and enlist 250 respected Israelite leaders to confronted Moses and Aaron. “All the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. So why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” they ask Moses and Aaron. (Numbers 16:3)
Moses stands his ground. “You Levites have gone too far,” he notes. Moses summons Dathan and Abiram, but they refuse to come. “It is clear that you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, or given us an inheritance of fields and vineyards,” they say. Korah then assembled the congregation to stand in from of the tent of meeting. The scene is like a shootout in a western.
The Lord warns Moses and Aaron that he is going to consume the entire group of malcontents. Moses and Aaron beseech God not to destroy the entire congregation because of one man’s sin. God, however, opens the earth and has it swallow up Korah, Dathan, Abiram and their families. Then God uses fire to consume the 250 rebels who followed the three ring leaders. (Numbers 16:35)
Not content with this, God threatens to destroy the congregation. Moses rushes to make atonement, but it’s too late. God has unleashed a plague. Soon 14,700 Israelites will die. (Numbers 16:49) There is no episode in the New Testament that remotely resembles this, with the exception perhaps of portions of the Book of Revelation, which are apocalyptic literature and need to be read with great care. The nature of God as presented in the New Testament bears no resemblance to this.
So, our choices are: 1) God never said and did this 2) Moses invented this story to justify his own actions or 3) God was actually a wrathful and quick-tempered God in the time of Moses, but over time became a more gentle, loving and patient God. A fourth option is that God never changed, but humans did. Our understanding of God went through a massive shift from projecting our own wrathful tendencies upon our Creator to developing a more accurate concept of our God as the source of all love in the universe.
Finally, chapter 17 again expresses God’s genius for leadership. God commands Moses to produce 12 staffs – one for a leader in each of the ancestral houses of Israel. This will permit each tribe to feel some ownership over and responsibility for the fate of the Israelites. Only Aaron’s staff, however, sprouted forth buds and blossoms. Moses placed this staff in front of the tabernacle to remind the Israelites of God’s covenant and to serve as a warning to the rebels. Symbols are vital for leadership.
This psalm is an ode to a king, one of the classic forms of a psalm. Not all psalms are equal. Some leave us scratching our head and wondering, “What did I get out of that? How does that apply to my life?” We live in an era where few kings are to be found. Kings come and go, but God is here to stay. “Your throne, O God, endures forever and ever,” notes the Psalmist. (Ps. 45:6) He concludes by saying,
I will cause your name to be celebrated in all generations;
therefore the peoples will praise you forever and ever. (Ps. 45:17)
This final sentiment, even if intended originally for the king, can apply to God. As Christians we are called to insure that God’s name will be praised by future generations. Each one of us has it in our power to live a Christ-like life now so that future generations will believe in God because of us.
Once again Luke the historian tries to ground his story in fact. Chapter three begins with eight historical citations, which allow us to date the proclamation of John the Baptist and know exactly when this story unfolded. “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee…” Luke wants his narrative to be firmly grounded in history.
John the Baptist, Luke notes, came “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins…” (Luke 3:3) John exercised clarity. He knew his mission and carried it out. Luke quotes the prophet Isaiah saying, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” (Luke 3:4) John also built his ministry on a clear scriptural foundation.
Unfortunately, John never read Miss Manners. Had he done so, he would never have said, “You brood of vipers!” This does not warm hearts of converts. “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees,” John notes, adding, “every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:9) This is serious business. God has high expectations for those who follow in Jesus.
The stakes are high! The crowds ask, “What then shall we do?” (Luke 3:10) This is one of the great questions of the Bible. What shall we do this very minute? John the Baptist says, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” (Luke 3:11) Luke admonishes tax collectors to collect no more than is due them and soldiers not to extort money.
Around the world today, corruption is rampant. Roman Catholics, which represent the world’s largest Christian branch, however, rarely speak out about it. Their bishops have a mantra to stop abortion. The vast spread of abortion is very problematic, but there are many concerns that the Church must face. One of these is corruption, which in some countries threatens to destroy the nation. Church leaders must reclaim the power of John the Baptist’s message and speak out against it.
Martin Luther wrote that a Christian’s particular calling, whether it be as a husband, prince, soldier, teacher or student involves being faithful to our vocational obligations. This work is not done for the benefit of God, for God has no need of man’s work. It is done for the sake of our neighbor, who needs our faithful work. In hisCommentary on the Sermon on the Mount, Luther wrote,
If you are a craftsman you will find the Bible placed in your workshop, in your hands, in your heart; it teaches and preaches how you ought to treat your neighbor. Only look at your tools, your needles, your thimble, your beer barrel, your articles of trade, your scales, your measures, and you will this saying written on them. You will not be able to look anywhere where it does not strike your eyes. None of the things with which you deal daily are too trifling to tell you this incessantly, if you are willing to hear it; and there is no lack of such preaching, for you have as many preachers as there are transactions, commodities, tools, and other implements in your house and estate; and they shout this to your face, “My dear, use me toward your neighbor as you would want him to act toward you with that which is his.
The crowd was filled with expectation as to whether or not John the Baptist was the Messiah. John was extremely clear. “I baptize you with water,” he said, “but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worth to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Luke 3:16) Successful Christian leaders model this. They are secure in their own skin, place the focus on God and give credit always to God. They are humble and clear about the focus of their ministry.
Mark and Luke tell a somewhat abbreviated story of Jesus’s baptism. The clear focus is the giving of the Holy Spirit and the hearing of the words spoken by God, “Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22) From 1974 to 1978, there was a television series starring Lee Majors as Steve Austin The Six Million Dollar Man. Austin was a former astronaut with bionic implants working for a fictional government known as OSI. Each episode began with the words, “Gentlemen, we can rebuild him, we have the technology.” The bionic man fought enemy agents, aliens, mad scientists and many other villains, using his enhanced vision provided by an artificial eye and bionic arms and legs.
Likewise, baptism transforms us. We are given the Holy Spirit. It takes an ordinary individual and gives him or her extraordinary capabilities. The key is to hear the words that God constantly whispers each morning in our ear, “You are my son, my daughter, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22) Luke closes this chapter out by tracing Jesus’s lineage. Matthew traced Jesus back to Abraham. Luke goes further. He traces Jesus back to Adam, the son of God. Paul will later make us of this in speaking of Jesus as the Second Adam. Just as the First Adam led us astray, the Second Adam has atoned for it.
I will cause your name to be celebrated in all generations; therefore the peoples will praise you forever and ever. (Ps. 45:17)
I baptize you with water,” he said, “but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worth to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. (Luke 3:16)
And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. (Luke 3:22)
Do you think God is responsible for plagues and natural disasters? Do you believe that humans have projected their own “stuff” onto God in many cases, especially in the Bible? Are you willing to take responsibility for leading a life that will cause future generations to believe in Christianity? Are you clear about the focus of your ministry? What is it in one or two sentences? What are you doing to insure that the world becomes less corrupt and more honest? What difference does your baptism make? Have you received the Holy Spirit? Do you know that you are God’s beloved? If not, why not?
Most Holy and Loving God, you love each one of us as if there is only one of us. Help us to accept your acceptance of us, so that in receiving your love profoundly within us we may experience your joy and extend that acceptance and joy to all of those around us each day. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania