The Bible Challenge 2015 – Day 55

Numbers 18-20, Psalm 46, Luke 4
Fear is a terrible motivator!

Numbers 18-20
Psalm 46
Luke 4
Key Verses

Numbers 18 – 20

The book of numbers can provoke a lot of interesting thinking about religion and life! If you are reading this book with others or on your own, there is a lot to consider. Chapter 18 begins by reiterating how Aaron and his ancestral house – the Levites – shall bear full responsibility for any offenses connected with the sanctuary. You would think that Aaron and his tribe were guarding a nuclear warhead from how the Bible describes the seriousness of this duty.

We read, “But they must not approach either the utensils of the sanctuary or the altar, otherwise both they and you will die.” (Numbers 18:3) This is really bad religion! This is not the God that Jesus spoke proclaimed. This is an infantile vision of God. Sadly, in every religion around the world there are people who have not developed a profound understanding of faith who use religion as a club to cudgel others.

James Fowler did some remarkable ground-breaking work with his book Stages of Faith. Fowler was a developmental psychologist at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. His work built upon the work of Jean Piaget, Erik Erickson and Lawrence Kohlberg. Fowler defined faith as an activity of trusting, committing and relating to the world based on how one is related to others and to all of life.

  • Stage 0 – is a primal or undifferentiated faith. It is characterized by learning to differentiate between a safe and secure environment versus one of neglect and abuse.
  • Stage 1 – is intuitive-projective faith, where religion is learned through experiences, stories, images and people with whom we come in contact.
  • Stage 2 – is a mystic-literal faith – which is found mostly in school children. It is characterized by a strong sense of justice and reciprocity. Deities are viewed anthropomorphically and metaphors and symbolic language are often misunderstood and taken literally.
  • Stage 3 – is a synthetic-conventional faith – focuses on conformity. This faith is found in adolescence from ages 12 to adulthood. During this stage any conflicts with one’s beliefs are ignored due to the fear of inconsistencies.
  • Stage 4 – is individuative-reflective faith. This is usually found in persons in their mid-twenties to late thirties, who take personal responsibility for their own beliefs and feelings, but there is openness to a new complexity of faith and an awareness of conflicts in one’s belief system.
  • Stage 5 – is conjunctive faith – comes when a person acknowledges and understands paradox, mystery and transcendence and incorporates symbols of inherited religious systems, while understanding multidimensional and interdependent truths that cannot be summarized in sound bites.
  • Stage 6 – is universalizing faith – which we might call enlightenment, is a stage of faith where a person treats all persons with compassion for all people belong to a universal community and should be treated with principles of love and justice.

Throughout much of the Old Testament and some portions of the New Testament, we find early stages of faith that at times an immature or primitive faith. Many offer clear black and white outlooks on life and on God. An underdeveloped human being can find lots in the Bible to justify violence, exclusion, oppression and self-righteousness. We must learn how to read the Bible with the heart and mind of an enlightened human being and in turn let the Bible read us and draw us into a deeper understanding of ultimate reality and God.

What is clear in Numbers is that the priestly duties are very important. I have just attended a beautiful worship service this afternoon at St. Philip’s Cathedral in Atlanta, Georgia, where members of an Episcopal conference and I have been meeting. The worship was outstanding. The beauty of the sanctuary, vestments, flowers, procession, cross, church linens, frontals, hanging, worship leaflets, liturgy, lay reading, music and preaching were exceptional. We Episcopalians know how to worship.

In Numbers 19, the Lord instructs Moses and Aaron that when a priest is offering a sacrifice, the priest “shall take some of its blood with his finger and sprinkle it seven times towards the front of the tent of meeting. Then the heifer shall be burned in his sight; its skin; its flesh, and its blood, with its dung shall be burned.” (Numbers 19:4-5) None of this is relevant to our worship today. What remains relevant, however, is carrying out a form of worship that is so ancient and so new, one that can be dignified and beautiful and which lifts our hearts, minds and souls to God. What we are doing is truly important. When we it well, something happens that words cannot convey, and lives are changed.

The ways that are motivated to do it is never fear. In Numbers 18:7, we read, “I give your priest as a gift, any outsider who approached shall be put to death.” Fear is the worst of all motivators. From time to time, someone I know who has barely attends church will worship with us. He or she may even joke that lightning might strike if they come two Sundays in a row. Some people sadly feel like this might actually happen. They harbor a primitive view of God as a divine “zapper” who is out to get us. Unfortunately, there are biblical passages to support this view, but we must search for the more enlightened, beautiful and authentic verses that speak a more profound truth, which allots for grace, mercy, hope and forgiveness.

Verse 19:13 is worth pausing to examine. “All who touch a corpse, the body of a human being who has died, and do not purify themselves, defile the tabernacle of the Lord; such persons shall be cut off from Israel.” Luke alone tells the Parable of the Prodigal Son. (Luke 10:25-37) In verse 31, we read, “Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw [the man who had been beaten and robbed, who appeared to be dead], he passed by on the other side.” (Luke 10:31) This priest was traveling to Jerusalem to serve in the Temple. Had he stopped to assist this man and found him to be a corpse, he would have become “unclean.” His trip to Jerusalem would have ended. He was on a rotation. His rotation did not come up often, and he would have missed his turn to serve in the Temple.

This is a classic example of cumbersome religion getting in the way of caring for the poor, serving others, doing justice, offering mercy and loving our neighbor as ourselves. God is found in the Bible and not in Canon Law. Canon Law is needed to run and assert authority and discipline in the Church, but many of the rules of the Church are things that God could care less about.

Times have changed, and most of the ancient Jewish laws are not practiced by Christians. Nonetheless, we must still look carefully to insure that elements of our “religion” do not get in the way of our call to serve the poor and the needy and offer justice and mercy.

We read, “Whatever the unclean person touches shall be unclean, and anyone who touches it shall be unclean until evening.” (Numbers 19:22) This negative approach to religion is sadly still too prevalent. Too many religious leaders and followers focus too much on trying to figure out who is “unclean.” Jesus detested this approach to religion. He told the Parable of the Good Samaritan because it spoke against people who have constructed religious laws and requirements that actually hinder doing God’s work.

Our starting premise in Christianity is that all people are created in the image of God. Not some people. Not the people we like or who share our race, gender, sexual orientation, political party, conservative or liberal outlook, etc., but all people. If we start out with this premise, that everyone is a beautiful person created by God, unless proved otherwise, than we need not waste any energy and time debating or passing church resolutions to determine who is in and who is out, who is “clean” and who is “unclean.” The form of religion that focuses on who is in and who is out is not only unproductive, it is indeed dangerous.

Numbers 20 is a perplexing chapter. Once again, the Israelites complain. There are congregations like this. All they do is bitch, bitch, bitch. There are Christians and people of all faiths, who are like this. They are wearisome. They give religion a bad name and they drain energy from healthy people. It is best to avoid them. We were put on this planet to complain or bitch. There are things that we need to change, but either we work to change them or we are best to be silent.

“Why have you brought us up out of Egypt, to bring us to this wretched place? It is no place for grain, or figs, or vines, or pomegranates; and there is no water to drink,” lament the Israelites. (Numbers 20:5) It’s no wonder the clergy receive the highest amount of psychological counseling of any group in the United States. You work hard, you try your best and attempt to serve God only to have people complain, complain, complain! The Moses and Aaron of this world need lots of therapy to survive!

Then a great paradox occurs. God instructs Moses to take his staff and strike the rock and command it to yield water. Moses draws water from a rock. He follows the Lord’s command. The place is thus called Meribah, which means Quarrel. My wife likes to say, “No good goes unpunished.” Here is a classic example. Moses’s reward for following God’s command is that “the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” (Numbers 20:13)

Thus, Moses will die outside the Promised Land. Why? Because he followed the Lord’s instruction and drew water from the rock to satisfy his people, people who needed water for their livestock and for their families. Truly, this is a head-scratcher!

The chapter concludes with the death of Aaron, Moses’s brother. All of Israel mourned for 30 days. People mourned who had probably complained about Aaron’s leadership. Now, that he has died, however, their hearts soften and they realize what they have lost. Why is it that we must often lose someone before we realize the great gift that we had and cherished it while we had the chance?

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Psalm 46

This is one of the great psalms of the Bible. Some of the psalms seem to repeat themselves. Many do not stand out. This psalm, however, is a powerhouse of spiritual poetry. Martin Luther based his famous hymn A Mighty Fortress is Our God on this psalm. It has been called the “Battle Hymn of the Reformation.” Luther and his companions sang it as they entered Worms in April of 1521, when Luther had to defend his positions and actions before an intransigent Roman Catholic Church.

A mighty fortress is our God,
A bulwark never failing.
Our helper He amid the flood
of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe
doth seek to work us woe.
His craft and power are great,
and, armed with cruel hate,
on earth is not his equal.

From beginning to end, this psalm paints a portrait of God as our “refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” Hence, we have no need to fear, even if heaven and earth should shake. Even if the mountains quake and the seas churn in uproar, we shall be alright. The psalmist writes,

There is a river whose streams make
glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city;
it shall not be moved… (Ps. 46:4-5)

This is some of the most beautiful poetry found in the Bible. This is a mature vision of a synthesized religious outlook. This will preach. This speaks of God in the midst of the urban setting, but its message transcends any specific location. It speaks to the people of God everywhere and offers hope.

Throughout this psalm, we are told that we can depend on God. This is the mature faith to which each of us aspires. Such faith is a gift. We cannot take credit for it. We can, however, plow the soil so that God may plant and water the seed and help produce a firm faith that produces much fruit.

Reading and memorizing psalms like this is a great way to plow the soil. The imagery in Psalm 46 is powerful, healthy and good. God is neither wimpy nor violent. This is a God who offers shelter to the alien, abandoned, person under trial, facing challenges and turmoil and upheaval in life.

The second verse from the end is well worth pondering and using for our regular prayer. Jim Fenhagen, the former dean of the General Theological Seminary in New York City was a mentor and friend and one of the great leaders in the Episcopal Church and shaper of priests and souls.

Jim taught me and others to use this verse to pray. Begin by praying, “Be still, and know that I am God!” (Ps. 46:10). Pray it quietly to yourself over and over again. Eventually, shorten it and pray, “Be still, and know that I am.” Say it slowly over and over again. Then shorten it and pray, “Be still and know.” Repeat this again and again like a mantra. Then shorten it and pray, “Be still.” After praying many times, shorten it and conclude by praying for a brief while, “Be.” The process of praying like this is very simple, but beautifully transformative. You can pray this in the car or while walking or anywhere.

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Luke 4

For the third time we encounter the story of Jesus’s temptations. If you have time, it is interesting to examine how this story is told in each of the gospels (Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13) Luke gives the longest description of this experience, which inspired the Church to create the season of Lent. Like Matthew, Luke notes that Jesus fasted for 40 days. Forty is a Hebraism, which means a time that seemed to have no end. It does not literally mean 40 days or 40 years.

Luke adds that Jesus “was famished.” (Luke 4:2) Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are the two mandated days of fasting in the Episcopal Church. I suspect that most Episcopal clergy do not mention this to their parishioners. We Episcopalians are good at eating and drinking and perhaps even dieting, but few of us excel at fasting.

Fasting, however, is one of the great spiritual disciplines. It hallows us out and facilitates prayer and discernment. Monks never hold a monastic service of prayer after eating. They pray their monastic offices before eating. Hunger facilitates prayer. Satiation makes prayer more difficult. Fasting also deepens our empathy with the poor.

As I noted earlier, when the devil said, “If you are the Son of God…,” the Greek word for if that is used here is one of two Greek words that can be translated if, but this one means that what follows is true. Hence, the devil is acknowledging that Jesus indeed is the Son of God.

Fr. Basil Pennington was a personal friend and mentor and one of the founders of the Centering Prayer Movement, which has spread around the world. Basil used to say that the temptations of Jesus are similar to those things that we experience in life which “dismantle the false self.” The false self, he said, is the belief that “I am what I do. I am what I have. I am what others think of me.” The journey to self-liberation and freedom is achieved when we are no longer enslaved to thinking that I am what I do, I am what I have and I am what others think of me. If we become free from enslavement to the false self, God can use us in magnificent ways to bless the world and others in it.

“When the devil had finished every test, he decided to depart from [Jesus] until an opportune time.” (4:13) The devil we always be involved in the life of a dynamic Christian. There are forces that will work against us when we commit ourselves to serving Jesus. Sometimes these forces arise from within ourselves. Other times they come through a second party. Sometimes they come as temptation in the form of drink, greed, power, pornography, lust, fame, ego needs, etc. Spiritual combat is real. Those who do not experience it are probably not working very hard to following Christ. People who are coasting as Christians cause the devil no trouble. They are already where the devil wants them to be.

Matthew, Mark and Luke then all tell of Jesus’s return to his hometown in Nazareth, where he preached in the synagogue. If you have ever returned to your hometown to participate in an event or accept an award, you know what that feels like. Only Luke tells us the text that Jesus used for his sermon. Jesus unrolled the scrolls (there were no Bibles then, only scrolls of various books of the Bible) and read from the book of Isaiah, “where it was written:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19)

What makes this so significant is that this was Jesus’s personal mission statement. It was in Isaiah and the Psalms that Jesus discovered his theology, his mission and his identity. These words guided, sustained and inspired him. We are wise to ponder these words from Isaiah 58:6 and 61:1-2 or to read the slightly longer passages of 58:6-9 and 61:1-6, which are two of the most powerful passages that inspire outreach in our churches. Sadly, many Episcopalians who do outreach cannot offer biblical or theological reasons for doing it. Isaiah 58:6-9 and 61:1-6 help us to connect our beautiful acts of service with God’s call to us to serve.

All who listened to Jesus were impressed. Jesus spoke well. He was passionate. But then he tangled with his audience, citing the time when a famine struck Israel for three and a half years and the prophet Elijah was sent to no one in Israel. Instead, Elijah helped the widow at Zarephath in Sidon, who was a Gentile. Likewise, the prophet Elisha, who followed after Elijah, did not heal lepers in Israel, but went instead to heal Naaman the Syrian, who actually came to Elisha and all but refused to bathe and be cleansed as Elisha instructed him. He, too, was a Gentile.

Hearing these stories told about God moving powerfully in the lives of Gentiles infuriated Jesus’s listeners. They marched him to the brow of the hill and attempted to hurl him off the cliff. Those who love us can later betray us or turn against us. Doing God work is rarely simple business.

The crowds “were astounded at [Jesus’s] teaching, “because he spoke with authority.” (4:32) Jesus often quoted the Bible. What he quoted, he lived. What he lived, he learned and he integrated. What he proclaimed was Scripture integrated through his own life’s experiences and deeply internalized and tested. This gave Jesus his authenticity, power and authority. It is the same formula that works in Christian leadership today. Spending time each day in silent prayer and prayerful reading of the Bible is the well from which profound ministry comes.

Jesus lived his mission statement found in 4:18-19, which included providing “recovery of sight to the blind…” After teaching in the synagogue, Jesus cleansed a man with an unclean spirit. (Luke 4:33-37) Today, we might call this mental illness. Then Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law. As the sun set, Jesus healed one sick persons after another. Demons were also driven out of man.

Luke was allegedly a physician. He used the most complex Greek found in the New Testament. He used specific Greek medical terms that no other evangelist used. Luke offered a pastoral voice throughout his gospel. Most importantly, there are many stories of physical, emotional and mental healings in Luke’s Gospel. Truly, Luke’s vocation as a physician allowed him to see and appreciate Jesus’s great gift for healing. Luke is the patron of physicians.

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Key Verses

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. (Ps. 46:1)

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. (Ps. 46:4)

He makes wars to cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire. (Ps. 46:9)

Be still, and know that I am God! (Ps. 46:10)

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19)

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Does anyone around you use fear to motivate? Where are you on the stages of faith development? Is God your rock and your refuge? Can you entrust that no matter how much your world rocks, God will be your sure foundation? What temptations do you face? How does the devil test you? What is your personal mission statement? When and where are you best able to speak as one with authority?

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Holy and healing God, your deepest desire is to heal each one of us and restore us to wholeness and holiness. Grant that we may not be self-focused but focused on others. Give us eyes to see and ears to hear so that we might help those around us who long for your presence, your support and your healing touch. Guide us to be with them as they journey through their trials. 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