Archive for the 'Numbers' Category

For Dec. 28, 2014: Holy Name of Jesus

The Reading                                                            Numbers 6:22-27

The book of Numbers, named for the first census of the Israelites after their departure from Egypt, tells their journey from the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula to the land of Moab on the east side of the Jordan. Here the Lord explains how the priests of Aaron are to bless God’s people: by putting God’s name on them.

The Response                                                           Psalm 8

Psalm 8 responds to God’s activity in Creation with wonder and praise. The God whose Word creates (as one of our Eucharistic prayers puts it) “galaxies, suns, the planets in the courses, and this fragile Earth” is the God who bends low to you and me—and the God who calls us to care just as tenderly for Earth and its resources.

The Epistle                                                               Philippians 2:5-11

Philippians 2:5-11 may be a very ancient hymn of the Church. This luminous passage names Jesus as God and human, humbled and then exalted, with the Name to which every knee shall bow as we saints below join in praise with the saints above, world without end.

The Gospel                                                               Luke 2:15-21

As Luke tells it, angels impart the great good news of the birth of the Savior to shepherds, and these rough outsiders hasten to adore him. Eight days later, in accordance with Jewish law (Genesis 17:9-14), the boy is circumcised and given the name Jesus, as the angel had told Mary in Luke 1:31 (and Joseph in Matthew 1:21).

 

Further thoughts

The feast of the Holy Name of Jesus is celebrated on January 1, eight days after Christmas Day; the timing reflects the practice of circumcising and formally naming a baby Jewish boy on the eighth day of his life in accordance with the Torah. This feast day raises some interesting issues in naming and inclusion.

In both tellings of the Annunciation, the angel tells one of the child’s earthly parents to name him Jesus. Matthew 1:21 adds a bit: the angel says, “You are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” The comment makes sense in Hebrew: the name would be Yeshua, a shortening of Yehoshua, which combines the YHW– element that refers to the Lord with a verb that means ‘deliver, save, rescue’. The name was then rendered into Greek (in which there is no “sh” sound, and the letter y is used solely as a vowel) as Iēsous Ιησουσ, with an –s suffix to make it masculine gender and a long e pronounced as in Spanish. Latin adopted this as Iesus.

As lower-case scripts emerged in Europe, a “swash” form of the letter I, with a curly tail, came into use at the beginning of a word before a vowel, yielding the occasional spelling Jesus. This letter J was not a fully separate letter in English until the 17th century, however, so the first edition of the King James Bible (1611) still spells the name Iesus. By that time, the French shift in pronunciation from “y” to “soft g” before a vowel, in progress as of the beginning of the twelfth century, had become standard in English. All that remained to produce the current pronunciation of Jesus was the Great Vowel Shift that has given English long e the pronunciation it has today.

Jesus has two other titles of interest: Messiah and Christ. We tend to think of Messiah as meaning ‘savior’, but the Aramaic word meshiach, borrowed into Greek and then Roman as messias, means ‘anointed’. It turns out that Christ means the same thing: it comes from Greek khristos ‘anointed one’. Jesus was first called crist (no H, no capitalization) in English no later than 830 AD; speakers of Old English were likelier to call Jesus Hæland ‘savior’ or more literally ‘healer’. Of course, none of those is a name he was given at birth.

Circumcision according to the Torah marks a boy as fully a Jew, a member of the community. It also marks Jesus as fully human and submissive to the Law. The apostle Paul—also a Jew who had been circumcised—concluded that circumcision was not necessary for Gentiles. Instead, what marks a fellow Christian as “ours” is anointing at baptism and at confirmation. The ritual embraces those of us who are not equipped for circumcision as well as all who are not Jews. This shift thus emphasizes the extension of grace through Jesus to all peoples. But what if the shift also stands as a reminder to me to rise to the challenge of being as nearly Christ as I can to all people, seeing each person through Jesus’ eyes and loving each one as “ours”?

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For June 8, 2014: Pentecost, Year A

The Reading            Numbers 11:24-30

The book of Numbers tells of the people of Israel wandering in the wilderness. As the current reading opens, Moses has cried out for help in dealing with the people’s complaints, and the Lord has commanded him to gather seventy elders to manage things. Then something Pentecost-like happens.

The Response            Psalm 104:25-35, 37

Psalm 104 celebrates the power of the Lord, who has only to look at the earth to make it tremble—but it also celebrates the wisdom of the Lord in creating and sustaining quite simply all that there is.

The Second Lesson            Acts 2:1-21

The name Pentecost comes from the phrase pentekoste hemera ‘fiftieth day’, by which Greek-speaking Jews like Luke referred to the feast of Shavuot or First Fruits fifty days after Passover. As Luke tells it, all the nationalities converging on Jerusalem to be Israelite for this Shavuot experience mind-bending phenomena.

The Gospel            John 20:19-23

The Gospel reading takes us back to the evening of the Resurrection. The disciples have heard rumors but can’t entirely believe them—and then, quite unexpectedly, Jesus appears alive among them.

 

Ponderables

The readings for Pentecost all bear on the gift of the Holy Spirit. The psalmist’s account is the most orthodox in reminding us that all life on earth is itself the gift of the Spirit as the Lord chooses. The remaining lessons show human reactions to the gift appearing where it’s not expected. As Numbers tells it, the Spirit that comes on the elders in the wilderness is diverted from Moses and, worse, given to two men who aren’t even at the tent with the other 68; Moses’ assistant Joshua reacts to news of the errant gift with what sounds like jealousy. John 20:19-23 shows us the Spirit as simply Jesus’ breath—but in verse 25 Thomas will declare that, because Jesus didn’t appear to him, it can’t have happened. In the familiar account of Acts 2, the Spirit comes as wind and fire and leads the disciples huddled in Jerusalem to speak in other languages; some onlookers wonder how mere Galilean fisherman could possibly be so gifted while others simply dismiss them as publicly drunk, or at least full of spirits less pure.

As shocking as the flame and languages are, however, Peter’s explanation includes assertions that are even more eye-opening to those in Jerusalem and all the welter of nationalities that have converged on Jerusalem to be Israelite experience two utterly mind-bending phenomena: “God’s people” means absolutely everyone.

How often do we take it upon ourselves to decide where and how and to whom the Spirit ought to be given? And how do we help God help us stop doing that?

For April 14, 2013: Celebration of New Ministry

The Reading            Numbers 11:16-17, 24-25a

The book of Numbers is the account of Israel’s progress out of Egypt to the land that God had promised. Today’s reading opens shortly after God’s own redeemed people have exasperated Moses again, this time by complaining about the menu. God’s prescription also works well for a population that is not fed up with manna.

The Response            Psalm 146

“He sustains the orphan and widow, but frustrates the way of the wicked.”

The Epistle            Ephesians 4:7-8, 11-16m

Scholars disagree on whether the letter to the Ephesians was written by the apostle Paul or even whether it was originally addressed to the church at Ephesus. There is little dispute, however, as to the importance of the teaching in today’s passage: we are called to welcome each other’s gifts and our own as we help build the church in the love of Christ. 

The Gospel            Luke 10:1-2

“‘Ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.’”

 

Further thoughts

The readings for today at St Alban’s Episcopal, El Cajon, depart from the normal course of the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, to celebrate a return to normality: our church is officially inducting a new rector. The event will feature a blessing from the bishop of the diocese and an assortment of gifts to launch the new ministry. Most of the gifts are standard for an event of this type—a Bible and prayer book, vestments, oil for anointing, bread and wine and water. Some, however, are peculiar to our church; a food basket and school book, for our ministry to refugees; a shovel, for the community garden recently launched in conjunction with our near neighbors of First Presbyterian; the soup ladle, for our ministry of feeding the homeless. One final gift is specific to the new man: the Ecclesia cross, for a ministry without walls to the homeless in Boston that our transplanted-Easterner rector means to plant here. 

Today’s readings quite properly remind us that the sharing of gifts with our rector does not and must not stop today. To be sure, Fr. Dave faces rather fewer people than did Moses—it is easy to forget that the two censuses in the book of Numbers each counted over 600,000 Israelite men of fighting age, not counting the women, children, and Levites; seventy assistants to help with the Israelites’ fractiousness and grumbling doesn’t sound like much, until one realizes that Moses just acquired seventy times the help he’d had before. In any case, “seventy” tends to be Bible-ese for “a whole lot”, and perhaps this makes slightly better sense of the fact that the quantity of help that Yahweh orders in for Moses tallies with the quantity of help that Luke tells us Jesus ordered out to serve as his advance troops.

Whoever really did write the book of Ephesians sheds light on what we could call the Numbers numbers game. The larger the number of individuals who stand ready to offer their gifts, and the more willing they are to foster and recognize both their own gifts and those of others, the likelier it is that a gift that is suited to a specific need can be found. The ladle and book and basket and shovel are gifts not just from us but for us, and not just for us but through us to God’s world—and all the evidence indicates that it will take every one of us doing things we weren’t sure we could do in God’s grace to help this world live into “Thy Kingdom come.”

For Sept. 30, 2102: Proper 21, Year B

The Reading            Numbers 11:4-6,10-16,24-29

The book of Numbers is named that because it begins and ends with a census or enumeration of God’s people en route from Egypt to the land of Canaan. In Hebrew it is called (רבדמב) Bemidbar, ‘in the wilderness’. In today’s reading the people’s bitter complaint—instead of manna, they want meat—frustrates Moses profoundly. The lectionary selection omits part of God’s response, which is to send so much quail as to make the Israelites literally sick of it. The rest of God’s response is echoed in today’s epistle and gospel.

The Response            Psalm 19:7-14

The Epistle            James 5:13-20

When Moses bemoaned the burden of bearing the Israelites, God responded by creating a committee to share the ministry and the spirit. It is hard not to be skeptical of groups as solutions, especially groups that we regard as “not us”—but the letter of James, which we finish today, is emphatic: healing and forgiveness come in community.

The Gospel            Mark 9:38-50

Further thoughts

“It is in the shelter of each other that people live.” –Irish proverb

It’s fairly easy, given the vivid language in today’s Old Testament reading and gospel, to get distracted by the distance we may perceive between us and the people in them. When the people of Israel bellyache about the cuisine on their march through the wilderness, it’s hard not to smirk a little, and the masterwork of kvetching by Moses emphasizes our sense that these Israelites have just plain got it all wrong. Likewise, when John proudly announces that the disciples tried to stop someone who wasn’t one of them from casting out demons, only to have Jesus tell him that was uncalled-for, we roll our eyes a little; the brimstone-scented hyperbole Jesus employs to drive the point home, following as it does on the heels of that little disagreement about who was greatest, reinforces the impression that John and the disciples were rather silly.

Let’s hesitate before condemning or sneering, however, because the behavior of the Israelites, the disciples, and the contentious ones that James addresses is simply human. They—we—respond to change and stress in entirely human ways: by complaining, by critiquing, by working out pecking orders, and by seeking to identify and exclude those who don’t belong.

God’s remedy for human obtuseness and sin is, surprisingly, more humanity, laced with the Holy Spirit. Moses and the Israelites get not a miracle but a support group made up of humans—including two guys who weren’t even at the tent. In James’s community, those who are in the old Book of Common Prayer’s “trouble, sorrow, need, sickness, or any other adversity” obtain comfort through the prayer of fellow humans. Jesus takes on humanity to save us, and welcomes the good done even by those who are not part of the in group.

In telling me to have salt in myself Jesus means me, I think, to focus my zeal for purity and high standards firmly on my own small and sinful self; what I am called to extend to and solicit on behalf of the rest of God’s children—all of them—is grace, aid, and peace. To live into this requires that I work consciously to create a space in which others can safely disagree, be different, and confess to brokenness and need. Creating that space for any of us creates it for all, and that is the space in which the Kingdom of God comes and is.