Balaam’s Donkey / Building on Rock: 27th March 2021

Numbers 22:21-23:26

Balaam saddled his donkey and went with the princes of Moab. God was very angry, even though He had told Balaam to go with them (22:20). An angel stood in his way to block him, because his path ‘is a reckless one before me’ (v.32). Maybe God thought Balaam was still just pursuing a large payment for his services and can’t be trusted to listen to God’s advice. This reminds me of when God met Moses at a lodging place on the way back to Egypt (Exodus 4:24) and ‘was about to kill him‘ even though God had just told Moses to return to Egypt. Moses is saved by his wife, Zipporah, carrying out an emergency circumcision on their baby boy and furiously flinging the bloody foreskin onto Moses feet, ‘Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me’ (Exod. 4:25). Moses is saved by the spilled blood. This is a very strange story.

Moses had been chosen by God to be the leader of the currently enslaved Israelite nation, yet had failed to carry out the most important act of the Old Testament Blood Covenant – circumcising his son. From his wife’s fury, we can guess that she was the one who had refused to have their son circumcised but Moses had been weak, failing to insist that it must be carried out. Zipporah only relented when Moses was about to be killed. Even more disturbingly, is that if you believe that all actual physical encounters with ‘the Lord’ in the Old Testament are actually with Jesus (known as Christophanies) – as he is the only incarnate person of the Trinity and no-one can see God without dying – this would have been Jesus ‘about to kill Moses’ (4:24), who then lets ‘him alone’ (Exodus 4:26) only after his son’s blood touches Moses’ feet. Moses is spared and forgiven through the shedding of blood, just as we are justified and made righteous through the shedding of Jesus’ precious blood on the cross.

So, in summary we have Jesus arriving as an assassin to kill Moses because he wasn’t fit to the lead the Israelites, having failed to have his son circumcised. However, it is easy to forget about the time travelling abilities of God. God can move around time and knows the past, present and future. So God knew that if Moses was threatened with death, Zipporah would finally relent to having her son circumcised and Moses wouldn’t be killed. God knows the future and the choices people will make under pressure. It just shows how radical God is prepared to get in order to make people obey some foundational rules. We know today that a basic requirement to get into heaven is to be baptized. The indelible supernatural stamp you receive on your soul from baptism is like a passport with a valid visa allowing you entry into a country. If someone has refused to become baptized, when they have been told this fact, God may start doing some radical things in their life to get them to comply.

Amazing stories like this demonstrate the truth of the Bible. People haven’t just included the easy, ‘God is love’ stories. They have included the hard to digest, tough-love stories. Moses wrote the first five books of this Bible and he doesn’t hold being nearly killed by God against Him in any way. So Exodus chapter 4 is basically Moses saying, ‘Yes, God was about to kill me, but he didn’t. I deserved it, because my wife and I failed to respect his covenant. Nothing to see here, let’s move on with the story’.

It’s very similar to Abraham very nearly sacrificing his son Isaac in Genesis 22. These days, if we heard a voice in our heads saying, ‘Sacrifice your family as a burnt offering‘, we can reply, ‘It is written, thou shalt not kill. Get behind me, Satan.’ However, Abraham was sure it was actually God that had given him the instruction to slay his beloved son. Maybe the command had come from Jesus, if God had actually appeared to Abraham in physical form. Abraham was so full of faith that he was actually going to kill Isaac. Yet, God knew he was going to be stopped at the very last minute and no-one was going to die.

God sent an angel to oppose Balaam and it stood in the road. The donkey that Balaam was riding tried to avoid the angel repeatedly – despite being beaten for its troubles – and eventually lay down and refused to move. We then have the fascinating line, ‘The Lord opened the donkey’s mouth’ (v.28) and she started to speak. We learn from this that: animals can potentially talk (however, God has closed their mouths so they normally don’t); they can see angels when we can’t; they can try to save us through their actions; they have a memory, a sense of belonging to someone and a sense of justice, ‘Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?’ (v.30). Presumably God let all the animals in the garden of Eden talk (hence Eve’s conversation with the serpent wasn’t considered unusual) and perhaps they were all still talking on Noah’s ark up until the flood receded and the fear and dread of humans fell upon them (Genesis 9:2). This should make us treat the creatures in our lives with even more respect. If God opens their mouths, what are they going to say about us? I hope the birds in the garden will testify on my behalf, ‘He spent an awful lot on peanuts’.

Eventually, the Lord opens Balaam’s eyes so he can see the angel too (v.31). This means that there is a gift of seeing / discerning spirits that God can turn on and off in us as he pleases. We can pray to the Holy Spirit to be given this gift as it is both useful and fascinating. The evangelist, Ros Powell, https://www.rospowell.com/, told me how she was once at a Christian conference in Blackpool queueing up to receive prayer ministry and she could see a demonic spirit attached to a pretty girl in a line of people parallel to hers. The spirit was giving off clouds of scent / pheromones which made every woman that walked past gravitate towards this girl. Ros said this was fascinating to watch. It wasn’t Ros’s conference so she couldn’t march over and offer to deliver the girl. She left it to the designated prayer leaders. However, later in the week, Ros, accompanied by her husband, decided to go on a trip into town for lunch and this same girl got on the bus (with the same demonic spirit still attached to her). She was, of course, accompanied by a female friend. Ros was ‘on holiday’ but prayed to the Lord ‘If you want me to do something, you will have to show me a sign.‘ Eventually, Ros and her husband reached their destination and got off at the bus stop in the centre of Blackpool only for the demonised girl and her friend to get up and follow them. Ros felt she was directed to go up to the girl in the bus stop, explain what she could see and ask if the girl wanted God to deliver her from it. The girl willingly agreed. She must have sensed that something was amiss which is why she had attended the conference. Ros prayed for deliverance while they were all still standing in the Blackpool bus stop and the spirit detached itself and left. . The gift of spiritual discernment is a powerful weapon for the urban prayer warrior.

The angel was going to kill Balaam if he had continued – and spare the innocent donkey – but Balaam apologises and offer to go back home. The angel confirms he can continues but can only say what he is told to say.

Perhaps Balaam had started to brag to the Moabite princes about what he was capable to doing to the Israelites and needed clear guidance that he ‘must speak only what God puts in his mouth’ (Numbers 22:38).

Balaam and Balak built seven altars for sacrifices of bulls and rams and twice Balaam met with God and delivered God’s messages back to Balak. Balaam confirms the Israelites cannot be cursed, as God has not cursed them (23:8) and that ‘There is no sorcery against Jacob, no divination against Israel’ (23:23). Balak’s plot has been completely foiled. He has brought Balaam to curse the Israelites who, at Gods command, continues to bless them. Employing Balaam has damaged his plan to defeat the Israelites and now he desperately wants Balaam to shut up before even more blessings are imparted to them, ‘Neither curse them at all nor bless them at all!’ (23:25).

We can all learn the lesson that if we plan evil against righteous people it can harm us more than it harms them.

Luke 6:37-7:10

Here we have important lessons on not judging (or condemning). If we forgive, we will be forgiven (v.37). We should generously give and ‘it will be given back to you’ (v.38). There is the warning against a blind man leading a blind man (v.39-40) and a warning not to be hypocrites (v. 41-42).

Recognise a good tree by it’s good fruit, ‘The Good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart’ (v.45). I pray that this blog is populated by the overflow of good stories and reflections that have built up in my heart as I have attentively listed to dozens of teachers from a multitude of denominations over the years,

We should lay our foundation on rock like the wise builder (6:48). We can take this as basing our lives on the words and commands of Jesus and we have to put his teachings into practice. As Peter (the rock) was the first Pope I base my life on the 2,000 years of sound foundational teaching curated by the Catholic church, which will keep me safe when floods come. I am under the church’s authority, which gives my reflections validity. If the church points out any errors, I will apologise and correct them accordingly. The Centurion recognised, from his own experience of being under authority, the valid power that Jesus possessed.

The gentile Centurion demonstrated great faith, ‘But say the word, and my servant will be healed’ (7:7). The elders pleaded with Jesus asking him to help because the Centurion had given to the Israelites. He loved them and had built a synagogue (v.5). This goes back to 6:38 ‘Give, and it will be given back to you’. The Centurion could not have predicted that when he freely gave to build a synagogue, his generosity would later help persuade the Son of God to give him back the priceless life of his valued servant.

Psalm 37:32-40

‘The wicked lie in wait for the righteous’ (v.32). If you are a Christian in a modern secular workplace, you will be surrounded by wicked people, probably even your own boss, who will be looking for any opportunity to persecute you. However, the Lord will not leave us in their control ‘or let them be condemned when brought to trial(v.33).

Many wicked and ruthless managers get shifted around or promoted from job to job ‘flourishing like a green tree in its native soil (v.35) and so we usually just have to be patient for their future to be cut off, ‘he soon passed away and was no more’ (v.36). ‘All sinners will be destroyed’ (v.38).

God will be our stronghold in times of trouble while we wait for his deliverance, because we take refuge in him. ‘The salvation of the righteous comes from the Lord’ (v.39).

Picture: Miguel Hermoso Cuesta, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Jesus heals a man with leprosy: March 23rd 2021

Numbers 15:1-16:35

But anyone who sins defiantly, blasphemes the Lord, and that person must be cut off from the people‘ (15:30).

It’s wonderful that we can now confess defiant sins to God and receive absolution thanks to the blood of Jesus. However, we do need to stop sinning. Regularly praying in tongues throughout the day (through the Gift of the Holy Spirit) will build us up, edifying, sanctifying and enabling us to resist temptation.

In verses 32-36, the Israelites caught a ‘sabbath breaker’ gathering wood and he was stoned to death. Many Christians still insist that everyone should still ‘keep the Sabbath’ on Saturdays without remembering how stringent this is. To keep the Sabbath properly, no-one can do any work at all. The Sabbath was a stipulation between God and Israel to stop the Israelites working themselves to death. It is virtually impossible, since the advent of electricity, to keep all the strict requirements of the Sabbath. This is because there is a stipulation not to light any fires on the Sabbath – and this means not driving (due to the sparks involved) or turning on any lights or electrical appliances. We couldn’t even open a fridge – because the interior light will go on. It is thus virtually impossible for anyone in the modern world to completely ‘follow the Sabbath’. We would have to live in a tent in the middle of the desert and leave all our mod-cons behind. We would then probably find one of our children had smuggled their mobile phone with them and we would have to theoretically stone them to death.

Christians worship on the Sunday because it’s the ‘Day of the Lord’ when Jesus was resurrected. We must come together as a community to worship and spend time with God but it’s also a day for us to enjoy, eat together, to rest and relax, to help elderly relatives, to spend time on relaxing pastimes and ‘marital relations’. It’s a day to forget the rat race, the pursuit of money and the other ‘lusts of your own hearts and eyes’ (v.39). God wants us to rest one day in seven for our benefit (and also to remember his creation of the earth). Enjoying a worship filled, family-based and charitable Sunday covers the moral obligation to make one day more special than the other 6 working days. And let’s be honest, with offices opening up on Mondays in most of the Western world Sunday is the 7th day of the week according to the vast majority of the population. Jesus nailed the old requirement to ‘obey the (Saturday) Sabbath’ on the cross. We Christians are new creations and no longer slaves to the Old Testament Law. Jesus said, ‘For my yoke is easy and my burden is light’ (Matthew 11:30). Everyone has a right to go with their own conscience and convictions but I find life a lot less exhausting if I am just obedient. If the leaders of all the major churches and 3 billion Christians are celebrating Jesus’s resurrection on a Sunday, I am am not going to rebel and start my own traditions. I am just going to join the party.

God stipulated blue tassels should be displayed on the corners of everyone’s garments (v.39). Blue is the holy colour (see March 16th). It’s useful to have an object permanently in view to remind us of God’s commands. My wedding ring reminds me not to prostitute myself by going after the lusts of my eyes. People often accuse Catholics as being idol worshippers but pictures and statues in Catholic churches are just reminders – like these blue tassels remind the Jews of God – of the people portrayed in them. Catholics honour a Holy image but the honour rendered to an image passes to the person portrayed in it. If we venerate a picture of Jesus, it’s not the picture itself that is being honoured, the honour passes to Jesus. ‘The honour paid to sacred images is “respectful veneration”, not the adoration due to God alone (CCC, 2132). God stipulated blue tassels on garments to help the Israelites remember him. He also specified a whole collection of Old Testament images from: the staff of Aaron; to the bronze serpent; to the ark of the covenant; the jar of manna within it; the cherubim on top of the ark and a whole host of holy objects. They were to be respected but not adored. Jesus, in becoming incarnate as a visible man, ‘introduced a new “economy” of images (CCC, 2131).

There was then a rebellion. The revels were either swallowed in an earthquake or consumed by fire from the Lord. Moses predicted the earthquake to show that ‘the Lord has sent me to do all these things and that it was not my idea’ (v.28). This is a good lesson in obedience. I am not going to try to overthrow the priesthood and take over. I am going to fully accept and enjoy my layperson role as a spirit-filled evangeliser.

Luke 4:38-5:16

After Jesus had been in the synagogue he ‘went to the home of Simon’ (v.38). Presumably, Simon had been in the synagogue and invited Jesus or did Jesus just turn up, led by the Spirit? I like to think that Simon had listened intently to Jesus in the synagogue, watched him carry out the exorcism and wanted to hear more. When I was a new Christian convert, my wife and I would often invite priests and religious people around for dinner. It is surprising how many Christians shun priests socially. Jesus healed Simon’s (Peter’s) mother-in-law from a high fever. ‘They asked Jesus to help her’ (v.38). So even though Jesus had barely started his ministry, his disciples sensed he could ease suffering. He actually ‘rebuked’ the fever i.e. he spoke to it, which implies that either fevers / bacteria / viruses can hear and respond to authoritative commands or that a demonic spirit was causing the illness. Simon’s mother-in-law instantly recovered from the healing / deliverance and began to wait on them. Jesus didn’t say, ‘ You rest and put your feet up and recover some more’. This lady had been totally healed and so could immediately carry out her full workload to support his ministry. In these day of covid, we would be wary of someone who has just recovered from a high fever serving us. We would want them to stay in a different room or even a different house, while we all wore masks, sanitised all the surfaces and washed our hands. Jesus knew that the problem had entirely gone.

Jesus then healed all who had varied kinds of sickness. He laid hands on them and healed all of them. Some people not only had a sickness, they also had one or more demons in them and so they received both healing and deliverance. Jesus commanded the demons not to speak. It was too early for his cover to be blown and for everyone to know he was the Son of God.

The people in Capernaum don’t want Jesus to leave. He would be a useful insurance in case anyone became ill in the future but he insisted he had to visit other towns as well.

The work of Jesus sounds fantastic and miraculous but, as his death enabled all of us to be filled with the Holy Spirit and become adopted children of God, he is doing nothing we can’t do if we have enough faith. We can teach, heal and deliver through the power of the Holy Spirit, in Jesus’s name for God’s glory.

Simon, James and John made a miraculous catch of fish by showing obedience despite tiredness and world-weary low expectations. God loves to astonish us with a miracle when we have been unsuccessful through our own efforts and are feeling low in confidence.

‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ (v.8) says Simon but this tactic doesn’t work. We are all sinners and so no-one would be converted unless God were persistent. He will always call and invite us to love him in return.

The man with leprosy in verse 12 shows faith in Jesus’ ability to heal but isn’t sure of Jesus’ willingness. God is always willing to heal us both physically and spiritually but he sometimes allows the devil / rogue bacteria or viruses to make us ill because he wants good to come out of it,

Despite Jesus’ fame growing, he still makes time to withdraw to lonely places and pray. We need to spend time alone with God without the distractions of noisy crowds. I seem to get most of my inspiration when I am in the bathroom, one of the few places I can be alone and quiet in a family house.

Psalm 37:1-9

We should just forgive and forget when evil deeds are committed against us. Evil people won’t prosper for ever, they will soon wither. Don’t fret about their temporary successes. Forgiveness enables us to ‘delight ourselves in the Lord’ (v.4) without being bitter and distracted.

We are told to ‘commit your way to the Lord‘ (v.5). It’s a brave prayer to say to God, ‘I don’t know what I should be doing and what path my life should take. Please be absolutely clear God and shut down situations you do not want me to be in and open up new avenues you want me to take, in Jesus name, Amen.’

Expect God to act in a totally unexpected way. For example, God might stop restraining the evil people you work with, who have been champing at the bit for years to persecute a Christian, and you might find yourself engineered out of a company if it’s not where God wants you to be. Don’t fret. Trust God with your future. ‘In all things, God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose’ (Romans 8:28).

If we are patient and trust and hope in the Lord, we will inherit the land and shine like the noonday sun (v.6). God will give us the desires of our heart (v.4) and we can delight in him.

Picture: Cadetgray, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Unfaithful Partners and the Birth of Jesus: 17th March 2021

Numbers 5:11-6:27

In today’s Old Testament reading, there is an unusual ceremony to check if a wife has been unfaithful to her husband. It requires a couple of ‘ingredients’. In 5:17, there is the first mention of ‘holy water’. Holy water is a common sacramental still used today in every Catholic church (https://www.catholicsacramentals.org/holy-water) and this passage is demonstrates that not only is its use biblical but also that it has important properties. Exorcists and saints, such as Theresa of Avila, have repeatedly demonstrated that demons detest holy water (water that has been blessed / exorcised by a prayer) and demons can tell when priests have forgotten to bless the water (MacNutt, 246-247, 2006). People have ‘checked the power of blessed oil, salt and water, comparing them to the elements that have not been blessed. The evil spirits can tell the difference‘. The same effect can be demonstrated with blessed objects. Exorcists have noted that people who are possessed will try to avoid a certain chair or react strongly to it if a blessed object – such as a medal – has been inserted into the chair cushion.

The rite of blessing said over water by a priest to make it holy contains prayers of exorcism. It can banish demons, heal the sick, and send unwarranted grace upon us—yet most of the time we cross ourselves with this water without even thinking about how holy it really is‘ (https://www.catholiccompany.com/magazine/8-ways-to-use-holy-water-5699).

The second element needed for the ‘unfaithful wife test‘ is ‘dust from the tabernacle floor‘, which no-one can obtain since the destruction of the temple in AD 70.

In verse 24, the mixture of holy water and tabernacle dust (‘the bitter water’) is drunk by the poor wife under suspicion and it ‘brings a curse‘, which can either convict or clear her of guilt. If we were to just read the New Testament, we might forget that the Israelite priests did have some real spiritual authority. In the New Testament, we see them trying to plot against Jesus and eventually engineer his death. We aren’t reminded of their heritage and the important role they played in shepherding the Israelites and settling disputes.

Chapter 6 lists the rules for people who want to make a special vow to the Lord, and temporarily become a ‘Nazirite’. A Nazirite is banned from drinking wine or any other fermented drink. They can’t eat any form of grapes, even raisins, go near a dead body and must not cut their hair. Their long hair is dedicated to the Lord and at the end of a period of separation, once their vow is successfully completed, their hair is cut off and burnt.

In Acts 18:18 Saint Paul ‘had his hair cut off at Cenchreae because of a vow he had taken’. It’s interesting that hair has some special sacrificial significance and can indicate a period of intense devotion to God. Samson was a Nazirite dedicated to God from his mother’s womb but the Lord left him after Delilah treacherously had his hair shaved off (Judges 13-16). Several people I know have ceremonially cut off their hair and sent it to a wig-making charity such as The Little Princess Trust (https://www.littleprincesses.org.uk/). For these kind donors, it was a generous act of charity sometimes prior to starting cancer treatment – perhaps asking for God’s blessing and healing to come upon them – or marked a special turning point in their lives.

In 6:22-26, the Lord tells Moses how the priests should bless the Israelites. The blessing are beautiful and still relevant today. I find it is always a difficult decision how to sign off an email. If I write ‘Regards’ it seems a bit harsh. I am not a great fan of the softer ‘Kind Regards’. I think I will select one of these wonderful phrases in the future to finish off my emails:

May ‘the Lord bless you and keep you’ (v.24)

May ‘the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you (v.25)

May ‘the Lord turn his face towards you and give you peace’ (v.26).

Of course, if we were to do this while working for a company with an evil HR department, it may want to discipline us for ‘forcing’ religion onto people. It would be an interesting industrial tribunal if we were to be disciplined for blessing our workmates.

Luke 2:1-20

Today, we read about the birth of Jesus which feels slightly strange on March 17th (Saint Patrick’s day).

Joseph and Mary travelled to Bethlehem to the town of David for a census. The Romans seem uncharacteristically disorganised by making everyone travel to different towns. They could have quite easily interviewed Joseph in Nazareth, where he lived, and ticked a box to say where his family had originated from. I have to fill in a census form this weekend and I don’t have to travel to Bolton (where my father comes from) to do it. It will all be online and mainly comprise of multiple questions about my sexual orientation and exactly how much Welsh I can understand. However, God has pre-planned this census to exactly coincide with Jesus’ birth. To fulfil yet another Old Testament prophecy, Jesus had to be born in Bethlehem, ‘But you Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times’ (Micah 5:2).

Mary gave birth to Jesus while she was ‘pledged to be married’ (v.5) to Joseph. Mary was an unmarried, teenage mum. Jesus was wrapped in cloths and placed in a manger. Western nativity scenes typically have this manger located in a stable – a small agricultural shed. The Eastern tradition is that Jesus was born in a small cave in the town, over which the Church of the Nativity is now located. (https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1433/#:~:text=Documents-,Birthplace%20of%20Jesus%3A%20Church%20of%20the%20Nativity%20and%20the%20Pilgrimage,Jesus%20since%20the%202nd%20century).

We know from Exodus 1:15-19 that some Hebrew women were midwifes. We would have expected Mary, particularly as a very young mother, to have been attended to during her birth. However, Luke 2:7 says Mary ‘gave birth to her firstborn‘ and she ‘wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger‘ implying that she did this all by herself. The non-canonical ‘The Protoevangelium of James‘ mentions midwives. They turned up too late for the birth because Mary would have delivered Jesus remarkably easily by herself – as she had been conceived free from original sin and thus had not inherited the curse of painful labour that God had given to all other women following Eve’s disobedience (Genesis 3:16) (https://www.catholic.com/magazine/online-edition/was-mary-free-from-labor-pain). One of the midwives has traditionally been identified as Salome, who (as Mary Salome) is believed to be one of the three daughters of Anne and Joachim (Jesus’ grandparents on Mary’s side). All three of their daughters were confusingly called Mary. Salome is also often identified as the wife of Zebedee, the mother of the apostles James and John.

According to the non-canonical legend, Salome had her hand withered by God after having the temerity to question (and check) the other midwife’s observation that Mary’s virginity had remained intact during and after the birth. Salome was then told to hold baby Jesus with her withered hand and was miraculously healed. It would make perfect sense if Salome was the elder sister of Mary because the most likely person to disrespect someone to this extent is a close member of their own family. This same Salome, the ‘believing midwife’ in medieval art, then follows Jesus as a disciple throughout his adult ministry and touchingly brings spices to his tomb intending to anoint his dead body (Mark 16:1). She had remained dedicated to Jesus for the whole of his life. However, ‘The Protoevangelium of James‘ has always been condemned by the church and so we can’t rely on any of it. Presumably no-one wants to officially promote this gynaecological version of the story of doubting Thomas (John 20:24-29).

Some pastors make a big point out of verse 7: ‘there was no room for them in the inn‘. Jesus wasn’t laid in a manger because his parents were poor. They probably had enough money to stay in the inn. However, the inn was full due to the census. There were no hotel booking websites or telephones in those days. It was first come, first accommodated. However, this does not mean that Joseph and Mary were rich or even well-off. Joseph was a carpenter. Mary was unemployed and so they had as much money as an honest elderly carpenter bringing in a single wage. God would have made sure they had all their needs and after the Magi (Wise Men) gave them gold, frankincense and myrrh they had enough funds for a long sojourn in Egypt.

The shepherds visited baby Jesus after angels told them about his birth. The shepherd were outsiders ‘living out in the fields near by’ (v.8). The town would have been in busy uproar with everyone turning up for the census and so it is wonderful that people living on the outskirts of society, in the relatively quiet and peaceful fields were included in the celebration. The people in the town were probably so tied up with their own lives, recovering from their journeys to Bethlehem and fighting to get a meal and some wine at the packed inn, they wouldn’t have given our saviour’s birth the respect and wonder it deserved.

I love verse 19, ‘ Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart‘. I love to ponder (to think and to meditate about things carefully) and this blog is an outpouring of my daily pondering. Please join my pondering club and join me in ruminating on the wonderful things in the Word of God.

Proverbs 7:6-20

The temptations of the adulteress. She tempts ‘one who lacks judgement‘ (v.7). Their nefarious liaison takes place ‘as the dark of the night set(s) in‘ (v.9). She is ‘dressed like a prostitute‘ is ‘loud and defiant’ and has ‘crafty intent‘ (v.10). She has a ‘brazen face‘ (v.13). She seduces the one who lacks judgement, while her husband is away on a long journey, ‘let’s enjoy ourselves with love‘, but, as it takes two to tango, they are both as guilty as each other.

Verse 14 shows the hypocrisy of the situation, ‘I have fellowship offerings at home; today I have fulfilled my vows‘. How many times have we come out of church, having had our sins forgiven by God, and almost immediately started to sin again. The lady in this reading was planning to sin even while fulfilling her holy vows (v.14). We can’t expect God to pay any attention to our prayers if we are plotting serious sin in our hearts. As a Catholic. I have heard the devil whispering to me, ‘Plan to go to confession next Saturday and then it doesn’t matter if you fit in a few sins beforehand. It will make it more worthwhile‘. Shocking.

One wonders whether her husband is up to the same sort of shenanigans. ‘He took his purse filled with money’ (v.20). It’s a story of sexual misdeeds that still sounds current to our modern ears apart from the quite romantic, ‘I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes and cinnamon’ (v.17). Today, this might read, ‘I have squirted my bed with ‘Nude’ by ‘Rihanna’ that was on offer by the checkout in the supermarket’.

God takes adultery incredibly seriously and Jesus stresses that we should not even look at others with lust in our minds let alone be dragged off to their scented bed chambers. We shouldn’t go out for a night on the town without our spouse. The best way to beat temptation is to avoid it. God will forgive us if we repent and renounce our behaviour but only if we say sorry out of our love for him and are truly repentant for having offended him.

References

Adoration of the sheperds - Matthias Stomer

Sea Cows and the Birth of John the Baptist: 16th March 2021

Numbers 4:1-5:10

In today’s reading, there is plenty more counting. However, this book is called ‘Numbers’ and so we can hardly sue Moses for false advertising.

In Chapter 4, God specifies exactly how the most holy things and the Tabernacle are to be wrapped and transported. My wife has a virtually fulltime eBay job disposing of unwanted articles from the loft. She carefully wraps items in scraps of bubble wrap and recycled Amazon packaging. However, God wants all of his Holy Things lovingly covered in pristine blue cloth before hides of ‘sea cows’ are laid on top (see also Exodus 26:14). If you want a leather that’s really waterproof, I don’t suppose you can choose anything much better.

Why are the Israelites commanded to use blue cloths?

Blue in iconography represents transcendence, mystery, and the divine. It is the colour of the sky and as a result is viewed as a heavenly colour‘ (https://aleteia.org/2017/06/24/why-is-the-blessed-virgin-mary-always-wearing-blue/). A blue cloth in modern times might sound like a more modest request than a sea cow hide but in Biblical times it might have been even more difficult to procure. Blue dye was extremely rare. It was painstakingly extracted from sea snails. Thousands of the little critters were required to dye a single garment (https://www.latimes.com/world/la-fg-israel-blue-20180910htmlstory.html#:~:text=Wool%20dyed%20in%20various%20colors%20extracted%20from%20the%20Murex%20trunculus%20snail.&text=Forty%2Dnine%20times%20the%20Bible,all%20but%20impossible%20to%20describe).

When it comes to the sea cow hides, why, in the middle of the desert, would God specify such a strange material? ‘The Layman’s Bible‘ came to my rescue: https://laymansbible.wordpress.com/2014/02/26/hides-of-what-now/comment-page-1/#comment-19361

It’s not as if the wandering Israelites could order sea cow hides from Amazon and have them delivered. They couldn’t go to a convenient shop: Costcow or the Cow-Op. We wouldn’t be able to obtain sea cow hides now as they are most likely a protected species. Yet, in the middle of a dry desert, far away a sea cow’s natural habitat, God asks for them.

However, there is no sign that this strange request phased Moses in any way. We can presume that he simply went to the couple of million Israelites camped around him and asked. As the request was circulated, plenty of people had sea cow hides to donate. In fact, they had already been donated, along with all the rest of the materials required for the Tabernacle, after God asked for them in Exodus 25: 1-7. They were so plentiful that Moses had to order the Israelites to stop donating materials (Exodus 36:5-7) because they had more than enough. There was a deluge of sea cow hides from the eager and helpful Israelites.

We might think it would be impossible to find sea cow hides in a desert but God only asks for what He can provide. Some of the Israelites might have carried sea cow hides since they left Egypt and were only too glad for the Levites to carry them instead. Perhaps, the Israelites dispatched hunters to the Persian Gulf to bring back the skins; they could also fetch the sea snails for the blue dye while they were there. Maybe, when God split the Red Sea, a herd of sea cows became stranded in the shallow water and the Israelites harvested them thinking ‘They’ll come in handy!’

The moral of the story is that if God asks for some specific items for a project, He will have already lined up people who can provide them. Our Pastor often says, ‘The money is in the house’. If God tells her to do a project, she just has to believe that her congregation or other contacts have the funds at their disposal and will willingly donate them. God won’t ask you to use any exotic materials that He hasn’t already lined up for you.

Aaron and his sons were the only people permitted to cover the holy articles with blue cloth prior to transportation. Other Levites couldn’t ‘go in to look at the holy things, even for a moment, or they will die’ (4:20). People would have died either because they were disrespecting God or the holy things may have retained some of the awesome power of God that would overwhelm non-ordained people. This reminds me of 2 Kings 13:31 when a dead man was placed in the tomb of the deceased prophet Elisha. The dead man came back to life when he touched Elisha’s bones. Some of the healing power of God had remained stored in the prophet’s bones.

It is fascinating that the actual Ark of the Covenant is now said to reside in the Ethiopian city of Aksum, having been carried back by Menelik, the illegitimate son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/keepers-of-the-lost-ark-179998820/ ). The Ark is guarded by a single virgin monk who prays, lights incense and pays tribute to God day and night and who can never leave the compound until he dies. God allowed the Ark to be relocated without destroying Menelik’s retinue and He now permits an individual to guard it without lethal consequences. It must be afforded the proper level of respect.

Numbers 8:48 reminds us not to try to do everything ourselves and to help out in our church and community. Many hands make light work. It must have been intimating to think of transporting the heavy Tabernacle, the Ark of the Covenant and all the tent materials and coverings. However, there were 8,580 people to do it, which would have made it very bearable. ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light’ (Matthew 11:30).

Numbers 5: 1-4 specifies that anyone with an infectious skin disease or who is ceremonially unclean must leave the camp, away from where God dwells. This is in contrast to Matthew 4:23-24 ‘people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases …. and he healed them.’ Only a very few ordained priests could approach God in the Israelite camp. In contrast in the New Testament, all people could come to Jesus to have their sicknesses healed. God’s awesome power flowing through a man (Jesus) becomes approachable and healing, just as the remnant of God’s power in Elisha’s bones was still able to raise the dead.

God sets out the law for confession in 5:5-8. If someone wrongs another they are also unfaithful to God and are guilty. They must confess the sin and make full financial restitution (plus a fifth extra) to the person they have wronged. This is a sound practice we can carry on with today.

Luke 1:57-60

Elizabeth’s neighbours and relatives shared her joy after God had blessed her and removed ‘her disgrace’ of not having a child. Some people will turn up for a party only when things are finally going well having failed to reassure us that we were valued and loved when we were facing emotional challenges.

Elizabeth wanted to call her baby son John but no-one listened to her. Similarly, no-one believed Mary Magdalene when she reported that Jesus had risen from the dead (Mark 16:11).

Zechariah confirmed that their son would be called John which means ‘God is Gracious’. I was christened ‘Jonathan’, which is another great biblical name that means ‘Gift of God’. I recommend that all babies are given biblical names or, at the very least, the name of a saint. However, if a child is given a secular name, they can have the ambition, through the grace of God, to be the very first saint with that name. Maybe Elon Musk’s little boy will grow up to be the first ever Saint X Æ A-12.

In verses 67 – 70, we have the magnificent song of Zechariah, known as ‘The Benedictus’. Zechariah, like John and Elizabeth, is ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’. He predicts John’s role as a prophet preparing the way for Jesus and predicts that Jesus will rescue us and bring salvation. We will be able to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness. No-one predicted how he would become our saviour (through his death on the cross) and how his blood would make us justified and righteous before God.

We are all called to shine our light on those living in darkness and quaking in the shadow of death (v.79).

Psalm 34:11-22

Don’t tell lies, do good, seek and pursue peace.

(v.17). The Lord hears the righteous and delivers them from all their troubles. How many troubles does he deliver them from? Yes, correct. All their troubles.

(v.18) ‘The Lord is close to the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit’. The last time I was crushed in Spirit, the Lord inspired me to walk down the High Street on a Saturday morning. Here I found a small choir from the local Pentecostal Church singing in public – as they do once a month. It was perfect timing – engineered by the Lord. They took me in and enabled God to un-crush my Spirit and heal my broken heart. (v.19) ‘A righteous man may have many troubles, but the Lord delivers them from them all.’

Through his precious blood, Jesus has redeemed us. (v.22) ‘No-one will be condemned who takes refuge in him‘.

Praise the Lord!

The Angel Gabriel visits Mary: 14th March 2021

Numbers 1:1-2:9

At first glance, today’s Old Testament reading looks like a dull list of numbers we can scan through quickly before getting on with breakfast. However, there are a few interesting points.

A census is taking place of who can fight in the Israelite army and the total number of men comes to 603,550. This is a pretty impressive fighting force. We need to take a count sometimes of who can fight alongside us. At 06:00 this morning, my fighting force appeared to comprise of just me and my dog but later my wife joined me for breakfast to discuss today’s New Testament reading – which is outstanding. However, it is important that we Christians are always part of a vibrant church community. There can be no lone-rangers in Christianity. We all need back-up. Just as we should never be impertinent to a single police officer because they represent the entire law enforcement community and can call on backup from the army if necessary, I know that all my Pentecostal friends are there for me during any personal or spiritual crisis and, as I am also a member of the Catholic Church, I can call on thousands of my brethren all the way up to the Pope if needed. All practicing Christians, who are active members of a parish community, have an impressive army backing us up twenty-four hours a day.

It’s fascinating that the census of fighting men in Numbers 1 is God’s idea even though He would already precisely know how many fighting men there were. The data is for Moses’ information. However, later in 1 Chronicles 1: ‘Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel‘ and David gets in major trouble with God as a result, culminating in 70,000 men falling dead with a plague. It’s a puzzle as to why carrying out the census in Numbers is ok but the later one is not. The first point is that we shouldn’t do anything that Satan incites us to do but it can be difficult to discern whether something was our idea or whether it came from an outside influence. The general consensus about why the census in Chronicles was a bad idea is that David was starting to rely on his own resources and power rather than God’s. He wanted to count his people so that he knew he could launch an attack on enemy forces and win – without needing to ask God for help. He wanted reassurance that he had enough assets to be independent from God. I often get the temptation to check how much money is in my pension fund – to see if there is enough for my whole retirement. However, I should just relax and know that God will make sure I have sufficient provision – as he has done for my entire life – when the time comes.

This passage is a handy list of the tribes of Israel. It’s a good mental challenge to try to memorise the names of the 12 tribes – just like trying to remember the names of the twelve apostles. I find the names of the 12 tribes somewhat elusive because there are still 12 names in this list of potential soldiers, even though the Levites are excluded (as they are going to look after the tabernacle rather than fight) which makes 13 tribes. How can this be when Jacob ‘only’ had 12 sons by 4 different women (sounds exhausting)? The answer, if you look closely, is that Joseph had two sons: Ephraim and Manasseh – and the descendants of these two are counted separately.

(v.51) states that anyone, other than a Levite, who goes near the tabernacle shall be put to death. This is a long way from being able to come into God’s presence today and address him as ‘Abba (Daddy), Father’ thanks to the sacrifice of Jesus.

Luke 1:26-28

This is the first time we hear about Mary in the Nativity story and what an amazing introduction it is.

Mary and I go back a long way. I was brought up as a typically slack Church of England Christian. My parents might have attended church twice a year at the most. My primary school was actually called St. Mary’s and I remember, at the age of seven, reading out Luke’s nativity story in the neighbouring St. Mary’s church as part of a carol concert. Even at this young age, I was impressed by the role of Mary and didn’t quite understand how throughout my entire Anglican school education little thought or reflection was dedicated to the Holy Family: Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus.

When I became a Catholic, there was a lot more attention given to Mary. I even found myself carrying a statue of her through the rainy streets of Holywell on a pilgrimage while a bystander with a megaphone shouted at us that we were all ‘idol worshippers’. I am not a big fan of huge statues and parading in public but the fact is that it is harmless. I think a proper parade in a devoutly Catholic country like Spain would be awesome. The simple fact is that Catholics, exactly like Protestants, worship God alone. They do not worship idols and they do not worship Mary. A statue or a painting of Mary is used in exactly the same way that we might refer to a photograph of a member of our family. It’s just a reminder of what they look like. None of us will worship the painting that advertises today’s blog.

Anglicans seem to warming up a little towards how incredible a disciple Mary was: ‘In the greatest and most decisive act of faith in history she offered herself to God as a clean page on which he could write what he wanted’ (Nicky Gumbel (153)).

There are several doctrines about Mary that need to be carefully considered. Having spent 40 years as an Anglican, 14 years as a Catholic and the last 2 years mixing with Pentecostals, here is my view:

God sent the angel Gabriel ‘to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph (Luke 1:27). Don’t be confused that this was going to be a normal kind of marriage, that they were going to settle down and have children, this was something completely different. When the gospel says the angel was sent ‘to a virgin’, Mary’s virginity wasn’t a temporary biological state. Being a virgin was her job! Her vocation was to be a virgin. In verse 34, after she is told she is to have a son Mary says ‘How will this be since I am a virgin?’ (v.34). This is her stating that her job is to be a professional virgin for ever. She is never going to have sexual relations with anyone ever. She was dedicated to God as a young child and is His bride already. Instead of punishing her, as the same angel punished Zechariah in yesterday’s reading for being impertinent, the angel could have said at this stage: ‘Good point!”.

Books like the non-canonical ‘The Protevangelium of James‘ give some tantalising glimpses into Mary’s infancy leading up to these events, with Mary being dedicated to God at the age of 3 by her parents and brought up in the temple, but as this book was condemned by Pope Innocent I in 405, we can’t take anything from it as the ‘gospel truth’ even though details like the names of Mary’s parents, Anne and Joachim, have been accepted by the church.

When discussing Mary’s perpetual virginity, many people point out that the Bible mentions that Jesus had ‘brothers’. However, these didn’t have to have come from Mary. The Eastern Church tradition is that Joseph was an old man when he agreed to be Mary’s guardian / ‘husband’ as she needed to be removed from her home in the the temple before she reached puberty. Joseph had already had children by a previous wife and was now a widower and so Jesus had older ‘step-half-brothers’, who had neither Mary as their mother nor the Holy Spirit as their father. The Roman church states that ‘James and Joseph’ are the sons of ‘the other Mary’ referred to in Matthew 28:1. Half-brothers and brothers are often rolled together in the Bible. For example, Joseph had 11 ‘brothers’ but only one of these, Benjamin, had the same mother as his. It doesn’t really matter. Even if Mary had become a normal wife and mother after having Jesus, any children she produced wouldn’t have had the Holy Spirit as their father and so they would have been half-brothers at best. We can all agree to disagree, but I know that if was a very old man and had witnessed my very young wife give birth to the son of God, with angels and visits from the Magi – I would want to just be her friend and protector.

It is difficult not to be slightly irritated by modern translations of Luke 1:28. I long to see the traditional ‘Douay-Rheims’ version from Saint Jerome’s fourth century Latin translation: ‘Hail Mary, full of grace‘. Virtually every modern Bible switches to a variety of ‘highly favoured’. Even my Catholic Bible has ‘Rejoice, you who enjoy God’s favour‘ which is horrible in comparison. There is a hymn called ‘The Angel Gabriel from heaven came‘ which has the final lines: ‘Most highly favoured lady! Gloria!‘. A priest gleefully pointed out that many people sing: ‘Most highly flavoured gravy‘, which I can never un-hear. I am sorry if I have just ruined your life as well. ‘Hail Mary, full of grace‘ exactly implies that Mary is exactly the right person, predestined by God before she was conceived, to be the mother of Jesus. All creation paused in silence, waiting for her to give her perfect free-will consent.

Mary’s pregnancy must have been awesome – to have her own blood separated by just a thin placental wall from the perfect blood of Jesus for 40 weeks. She provided life support to God. There is also a good chance at the time of delivery that some of a baby’s blood cells will enter the mother’s bloodstream. How awesome is that?

Psalm 33:12-22

God is always keeping a loving, close eye on us to rescue us and keep us alive if we have a holy reverence and love for him.

‘But the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him, on those whose hope is in his unfailing love (v.18).

Bibliography:

The Protevangelium of James

https://amzn.to/3uxjxeI

Picture by: Luca Giordano, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Plague / John the Baptist: March 13th 2021

Leviticus 26:14-27:34

(v.14) “But if you will not listen to me and carry out all these commands”

(v. 16) “I will bring upon you sudden terror, wasting diseases and fever that will destroy your sight and drain away your life.”

(V.25) “When you withdraw into your cities, I will send a plague among you.”

Oh dear, this all sounds a bit familiar while facing at least another 3 weeks of Covid lockdowns.

NG (p. 151) comments that the reference to making the ‘sky like iron’ (v.19) could mean that prayers don’t get through to God while our relationship with him is broken. I think a remedy is ‘Praying in tongues (other languages)’. If we have asked the Holy Spirit to dwell fully in us and allow Him to pray to God for us, through our Spirit, than our prayers will get through.

Invite the Holy Spirit fully into your life so that He can pray through you:

“Come Holy Spirit and fill my heart. I invite you fully into my life. Give me a full measure of all of your gifts – particularly the gift of Praying in Tongues. Enkindle in me the power of your love. Send forth your Spirit and let me be recreated, so that you will renew the face of the earth.”

JM (p.199) states that we all must attempt to do what God instructs us to do – to keep his commandments.

However, the extraordinary list of diverse laws in the Old Testament meant that the Israelites were doomed to failure. We are all law breakers. Sometimes we don’t even know what all the laws are. I was nearly run down by somebody recently riding a silent electric scooter down the middle of the road. I knew it was illegal for him to ride it, because I had read this in a newspaper. I don’t know if the rider knew this or just didn’t care. The point being is that nobody can fully comply with an ever-increasing list of laws. We needed Jesus to become sin for us and ransom us by means of his blood, so that our sin (non-compliance with the law) could be forgiven and we could have a childlike relationship with God our father.

Thanks to Jesus, the ‘sky like iron’ has changed to a glorious sunny day.

Luke 1: 1-25

Who wrote the most pages in the New Testament ?

Most people would say Saint Paul. But looking in my NIV, the New Testament is around 286 pages long. Paul wrote 57 pages of these but Luke wrote 72 pages.

Doctor Luke, the only Gentile writer, compiled the largest chunk of the New Testament (the Gospel bearing his name and the Book of Acts) having carried out meticulous research using eye-witness accounts (v.1).

The first puzzle in this passage is who is the mysterious ‘Theophilus’ that Paul is writing this account for. There are plenty of theories: maybe he was the High Priest, perhaps he was a lawyer or a historian?

In verse 5, Luke stresses what a respectable family John the Baptist comes from. Not only was his father a priest but his mother was also descended from the first High Priest, Aaron brother of Moses.

The next puzzle regards alcohol. (v.15) ‘He (John the Baptist) is never to take wine or other fermented drink’. Why can’t someone especially dedicated to God drink fermented drink ? Is it something to do with the yeast? I drink apple cider vinegar every morning so I would be disqualified. Many people point back to Numbers 6:3 to interpret this reading and propose that John the Baptist was some kind of Nazirite – like Samson (perhaps they are confused by his long hair). However, I prefer Leviticus 10:8-10 when the Lord said to Aaron: ‘You and your sons are not to drink wine or other fermented drink whenever you go into the tent of meeting, or you will die’. John the Baptist was a Levite, the Israelite tribe from which all the priests came, and his role was to make the people ready for the Lord. According to Leviticus 10-11, wine can inhibit someone from ‘distinguishing between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean’ and from teaching effectively.

Maybe John the Baptist could enter into some kind of ‘Tent of Meeting’ in the wilderness with God to receive assistance and guidance?

In verse 17, Luke states that John will ‘go on before the Lord, in the Spirit and power of Elijah‘ (see Malachi 3:1 and 4:5). John denied that he was actually ‘Elijah’ (John 1:21) even though Jesus said he was (Matthew 11:14) ‘And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come‘ but he fulfilled Malachi’s prophecy in a spiritual sense. Jesus implies that there can be several different ‘Elijahs’ with John being this specific one. Of course, the original Elijah is still alive (to God) because ‘He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive (Luke 20:38) and turns up in Luke 9:30 at the Transfiguration: ‘Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendour, talking with Jesus.’

In verses 18-20, Zechariah unwisely doubts the Archangel Gabriel and is struck dumb. It is never wise to be rude to an Archangel. There is an interesting contrast between his disrespectful question: ‘How can I be sure of this?‘ and Mary’s question tomorrow: ‘How will this be since I am a virgin?‘ – to which Gabriel could well have answered: ‘Good point!’

Proverbs 7:1-5

Wisdom will keep you away from the adulteress.

Adultery is amazingly common these days – with divorce and remarriage common.

It’s an unpopular fact that if you or your spouse have been married more than once than you are living in a permanent state of adultery, unless it has been proved that any previous marriages were not valid or any previous spouses have died. This can be difficult and painful to unravel but, if people are willing and they speak to a qualified priest about their relationships, it can be sorted out: ‘For with God nothing [is or ever] shall be impossible’ [Luke 1:37].

Of course, God forgives all our sins but we also have to make a conscious effort to turn away from sin and not live in the same sinful way on a daily basis.

After the woman caught in adultery was not stoned (John 8: 3-11) we read: ‘Then neither do I condemn you,’ Jesus declared. ‘Go and leave your life of sin.’

Of course, it’s easy for me to say this as I have been happily married for nearly 30 years (thank God) but the world can tempt us with ‘adultery’ even when we are in our own homes doing something innocent. I wanted to read the world news today and clicked on a well known popular news site. The news stories all seemed well researched and informative. However, down the right hand side of the screen, there were dozens of gossipy celebrity news stories involving scantily clad celebrities. It’s common online that some useful information can be set up as bait to allow dubious material to infiltrate our lives. I had to swap to BBC News, which has some other pitfalls but at least it ensures that all its subjects are modestly dressed. That was the wise thing to do.

For ‘The Bible in One Year’ and recommended commentaries use:

https://amzn.to/2P2Pg77

https://amzn.to/37LapcJ

https://amzn.to/3kh88Lo

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