Presentation at the Temple: March 18th 2021

Numbers 7:1-65

Moses finished setting up the tabernacle. He anointed and consecrated it along with all its furnishings and the altar. My local church had a replacement altar a few years ago and it was consecrated in a beautiful ceremony by our bishop. The new altar was lovingly anointed with sacred oil (chrism) making it a symbol of Jesus Christ ‘The Anointed One’. Jesus was anointed by the Holy Spirit and became our High Priest so that on the altar of his body he might offer the sacrifice of his life for the salvation of us all.

Incense was burned on the new alter to signify Christ’s sweet sacrifice ascending to God and the people’s prayers rising up to the throne of God. The altar was dressed and adorned as the table of the sacrificial banquet for the memorial of Christ’s death and resurrection. It was lit with candles reminding us of John 8:12, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life’ and today’s reading from Luke (2:32). Jesus is ‘a light of revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel‘.

It was traditional for relics of saints to be cemented inside an altar, which recalls the early Christians meeting secretly in the catacombs, for fear of persecution, and using the tombs of martyrs as their altars. John 6:9, ‘I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained’. https://jasonbermender.wordpress.com/2016/09/30/the-rite-of-consecrating-a-fixed-altar/.

The leaders of Israel donate six covered carts and 12 oxen, which are given to the Levites. These must have made the work at the Tent of Meeting much easier. It’s great to give good quality, practical gifts to the church. Every pastor needs a car – why not give them one if you have spare cash or help them with the running expenses of their one.

Each of the Israelite leaders brought the same comprehensive list of offerings. No-one tried to sneak in an extra lamb to try to gain more favour for their own tribe.

Luke 2:21-40

Jesus was inducted into the Jewish religion on his 8th day by being named and circumcised (v.21). I was baptised into the Christian church when I was a year old. Baptism makes an indelible supernatural stamp on your soul proclaiming you belong to God. Several Christian denominations don’t baptise young children and wait until someone is past the age of reason when they can then declare their own belief in Jesus and desire baptism. Jesus told us the two requirements for receiving eternal life, ‘Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned’ (Mark 16:16). We don’t get into heaven by performing charitable works. We can’t buy our salvation from God, it is priceless. ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent’ (John 6:29).

If we have been baptized as infants, which purified us from all our sins, made us adopted children of God and gave us a new birth in the Holy Spirit (CCC, 1262) I think it is also vitally important as adults to make a heart-felt proclamation of our own faith and belief and ask the Holy Spirit to ignite our faith within us.

Mary and Joseph consecrated Jesus to the Lord according to custom by offering a pair of doves or pigeons (v.24). This demonstrates that they were not particularly wealthy as otherwise they would have offered a lamb, ‘But if she cannot afford a lamb, she is to bring two doves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering’ (Lev. 12:8). So, we as humans gave a token gift of doves and got a priceless lamb back from God in return. Jesus, the spotless lamb of God. God works like that. He multiples whatever we offer him.

A righteous and devout man, Simeon, was moved by the Spirit to visit the temple on the day that baby Jesus visited and through the gift of knowledge announced that Jesus would be our salvation and ‘a light of revelation to the Gentiles’ (v.32).

Simeon put a damper on the day by telling Mary, ‘And a sword will pierce your own soul too’ (v.35). That can be a problem with prophets – they are honest and don’t really care for people’s feelings. Did it do Mary any good to know a sword would pierce her soul? Did she wake up each day wondering if today would be that day? I don’t think so – she just got on with trusting God that he was looking after everyone’s best interests in the long run.

Anna, a prophetess, never left the temple and adds to the excitement speaking ‘to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem’ (v.38). Anna is labelled as a prophetess and Mary is ‘full of grace’. Women are receiving a fair share of supernatural blessings.

The Holy Family returned to live in Nazareth, which fulfilled the prophecy mentioned in Matthew 2:23 ‘So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene’. It’s not exactly sure which Old Testament prophecy this relates to. Most people think it is Isaiah 11:1 – see this link (https://www.gotquestions.org/Matthew-2-23-Jesus-Nazarene.html). People from Nazareth were often discriminated against, ‘Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?’ Nathanael asked’ (Matthew 1:46). I suffer similar discrimination having been brought up in Essex.

It’s amazing that Joseph lived in Nazareth but was called to Bethlehem for the census, just as Jesus was born, neatly fulfilling that our saviour would be born in one place and brought up in the other.

We don’t hear anything else about Jesus’ childhood until he was twelve. Many people say that he didn’t perform any miracles until he started his adult ministry after his baptism, when the Holy Spirit descended onto him. However, the Holy Spirit was always with Jesus. Jesus was conceived of the Holy Spirit ‘his whole life and his whole mission are carried out in total communion with the Holy Spirit whom the Father gives him ‘without measure” (CCC,1286). ‘From his conception, Christ’s humanity is filled with the Holy Spirit, for God gives him the Spirit without measure (CCC,504). Jesus took on a rational, human soul to be incarnated on earth and thus was endowed with a true human knowledge that could not be unlimited (CCC, 472). He had to learn from wisdom, experience and words of knowledge from the Holy Spirit. To become a human, the Son of God emptied himself and ‘made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness (Phil, 2.7). There are infancy gospels describing various miracles that Jesus was alleged to have performed in his childhood. They are non-canonical and thus can’t be trusted. However, we know that Jesus was a bit of a rebel when it came to doing good, as demonstrated by healing people on the Sabbath. I think that if he had come across one of his school friends, who had died in a sudden accident, he wouldn’t walk by on the other side – setting aside his healing power until his adult ministry – I think he would have stepped in when required as he started to exercise his unlimited quantity of gifts from the Holy Spirit.

Psalm 35:1-10

King David calls for God to fight with him and disgrace his enemies. This is rather in contrast to the New Testament where Jesus tells us to bless our enemies. However, our lives are probably a lot easier than King David, who had powerful enemies who wanted to depose and kill him.

King David’s enemies were trying to trap him without cause and he simply asks that they sow what they have reaped; that they are suddenly overtaken by ruin and fall into their own pit. This doesn’t seem unreasonable.

Sometimes we have to pray an aggressive prayer. If you have a boss who is making you miserable at work and trying to unfairly trap you, use your authority in Christ to bind them (in Jesus’ name) and pray for them to be moved on. Also pray for them and their families to be blessed in every way and come to a full measure of faith in Christ.

We can pray both an Old Testament prayer to foil our enemies and a New Testament one to bless them.

Picture: Giovanni Bellini, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/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!

Mary visits Elizabeth: March 15th 2021

Number 2: 10-3:51

The Tent of Meeting (where Moses could talk to God) and the camp of the Levites (who were to take care of the tabernacle) were placed right in the centre of the Israelite camp (2:17) and what an awesome camp it must have been. The census counted 603,440 men over 20 years in age and so adding women and children there must have been over 2 million people in the Israelite camp. I don’t think any modern-day logistics experts could supply provisions to a mobile group this large. No wonder, they had to rely on God’s miraculous daily provision of food (manna) and water.

Aaron and his sons were to serve as priests and were given special access privileges. ‘Anyone else who approaches the sanctuary must be put to death‘ (3:10). We are amazingly blessed today that we can have the Holy Spirit permanently dwelling within us and address God as ‘Father’, after the death of Jesus allowed us all to be God’s adopted children.

God had earlier stipulated that all Israelite first born males belonged to him but he now swaps them for the Levites. He is God, he can change his mind and do what he wants. Unfortunately, there weren’t quite enough Levites (22,000) when compared to 22,273 firstborn males. So 5 shekels (worth 10 dollars at today’s price of silver) had to be paid to redeem each of the additional 273 firstborn. This money was given to the priests. Even in the middle of the desert, hard cash is obviously necessary to keep a religious enterprise going.

Luke 1:39-56

Mary goes to visit her relative Elizabeth. The jury seems to be out on exactly how they were related. Elizabeth may have been Mary’s aunt (due to the age gap) or cousin. If she was a cousin this would have made Elizabeth’s son (John the Baptist) Jesus’ second cousin.

When I first started attending Church weekly, verse (41), ‘When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb‘ absolutely stunned me. The fact that baby John (the Baptist) in the womb (filled from conception with the Holy Spirit) leaped with joy when the foetal Jesus came into the house is stunning. And here we have a second person in the New Testament (Elizabeth) being ‘filled with the Holy Spirit‘. The Spirit didn’t ‘come upon her’ as happened temporarily to prophets in the Old Testament, it actually filled her – as we can be filled today, if we just ask. She instantly displayed one of the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit, a word of knowledge, identifying that both Mary and Jesus were blessed and that Jesus was ‘Lord’. The Holy Spirit gives this supernatural gift to some believers today and it’s a powerful weapon in converting people. When I first visited a Pentecostal church, I was overwhelmed with emotion when a church elder (with his back to me at the front of the church) pinpointed the agony I was currently going through and reassured me that God would deliver me. Which He did. Alleluia.

Elizabeth also recognises Mary’s outstanding level of faith. Mary fully believes that what God has said to her will come true.

The meeting between the two holy foetuses and their mothers is one of the most joyous occasions in the Bible. This is the last time I will use the word ‘foetus’ because I never use the word normally. I use the term ‘unborn child’ or ‘unborn baby’. The word ‘foetus’ has been hijacked by the Devil to sanitise the horrific practice of abortion. Modern society sorts unborn children into either ‘babies’ when they are wanted and ‘foetuses’ when they are to be disposed of. For I believe that someone else was watching this joyous meeting of the unborn. Someone who was intensely interested in the upsurge in activity in the angelic realm and was tracking both Mary and Elizabeth. Satan himself. He would have loved to have murdered Jesus and John in the womb but they were protected by powerful guardian angels. Saint Michael, the Prince of the Angels, had been assigned to permanently guard Jesus during his life on earth. Satan had been defeated by Saint Michael before (Revelation 12:7).

Satan has been waging war on the unborn ever since in revenge for not managing to kill the greatest prophet and the Son of God in the womb. According to the World Health Organisation, at least 42.6 million unborn children were killed in 2020 (https://www.spuc.org.uk/News/ID/384687/426-million-abortions-in-2020-the-leading-cause-of-death-worldwide). 22% of pregnancies in the USA are aborted and abortion is now the leading cause of death worldwide. The numbers are increasing.

When it comes to supporting abortion, adults tend to be too sophisticated. Very few adults would label themselves as ‘pro-death’ or even ‘pro-abortion’, they try to take a more nuanced approach and come up with the most twisted scenarios to try to convince themselves that sometimes it is a ‘necessary evil’ particularly if babies are conceived in terrible, tragic circumstances. However, God is much more straightforward. In matters of morals, there is no wriggle room. We have to look at the situation through the eyes of a child. I would hope that the vast proportion of children if asked about a baby growing in a mother’s womb would agree that it cannot be killed deliberately under any circumstances. So should we. Killing an unborn child is a grave sin. Of course, God will always forgive and welcome back the perfectly contrite from any circumstances but if people don’t repent and renounce this practice, there are everlasting and terrible consequences for them.

Christians can’t be smug and theoretically disapprove of abortion, while failing to publicly voice this opinion or do anything about it. Lack of action, against a global outrage, is a sin. You don’t have to stand outside an abortion clinic yourself – even though this has saved many lives. At the very least, write to your MP whenever there is a debate about abortion and express your opinion about the universal right to life. Join an organisation like the ‘Society for the Protection of Unborn Children‘ (https://www.spuc.org.uk/). If you don’t do something positive to fight this practice, you are morally complicit in it.

Back to the positive. Mary’s song ‘The Magnificat‘ is beautiful and echoes Hannah’s prayer in (1 Samuel 2:1-10). Trendy theologians – from which you should run a mile – come out with terrible slurs about Mary and ask how could a illiterate, teenager write such a magnificent prayer? Maybe it was written later by someone else? However, I agree with the legend that Mary had been raised in the temple from the age of 3 to at least 12. She had an intimate knowledge of the scriptures and was extremely eloquent and well educated. Who do you think Jesus learnt all his scripture from?

Nicky Gumbel makes the touching observation that half of Jesus’ DNA came from Mary and so he probably looked like her in some ways. Maybe when we look into Jesus’ eyes, we will recognise his mother in them.

I want this song at my funeral (not a morbid thought when you are born again)

Psalm 34:1-10

I was in such a good mood from the Magnificat that I found every single verse of this psalm beautiful.

Those who look to him are radiant‘ (v. 5). I watched a cookery competition the other day, ‘Junior Bake-off‘. The competitors had to bake something to represent their ideal future career. One girl baked a cross as she said her father was a Pastor and she wanted to be one too. We all cheered at home in delighted surprise but looking at her we could have guessed. Her face radiated love, peace and joy. If all the contestants had lined up and we had been asked to choose the really Christian child, we would have selected her. The other contestants were of course beautiful in their own ways but ‘slightly less radiant’.

Moses always had a radiant face after communing with God and had to wear a veil to damp down the brightness. I remember reading at church once from a high pulpit (which is rare in trendy modern churches) and I could feel my face glowing afterwards. You really can tell joyous Christians from their radiant faces. My Pastor says that bitterness and unbelief makes lines on your face. People don’t need to spend money on expensive face-creams (especially if they are made from foetal cells https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2009/nov/3/aborted-fetus-cells-used-in-anti-aging-products/ ) they just have to accept Jesus and the Holy Spirit fully into their lives. They will make us beautiful both internally and externally.

I have been ‘saved out of all my troubles’ (v.6) by the Lord. How many troubles is the poor man saved from? All his troubles! Shout it out loud.

The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them‘. Amazing. Give thanks to your Guardian angel. He is your best friend and protector, leading you and willing you to eternal life. Show him some gratitude.

Those who seek the Lord lack no good thing‘. If you’re seeking the Lord, you probably won’t win the lottery or be given a sportscar but, by definition, these things can’t have been good for you. Because, if they were good for you, you wouldn’t lack them. In contrast: ‘those who fear the Lord lack nothing‘. By the time you have stopped seeking the Lord, found him and now fear him (have awe and respect for him) you have realised that an expensive car will just get scratched, depreciate and rust and winning the lottery would present quite a few difficulties. Your definition of needs and wants will have evolved and worthless consumerist desires will have dropped away. Blessed is the man who takes refuge in the Lord and not in his possessions.

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

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