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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