Jesus brings a child back to life: April 1st 2021

Numbers 31:25-32:42

The spoils from the battle with the Midianites were divided between the soldiers and community. Tributes from each portion were given to the Lord. It’s amazing how frequently God gave detailed advice to Moses to help rule the fledgling nation. Not a single Israelite soldier had been lost in the battle (v.49). The commanders of the army were so amazed by this that they donated the gold they had acquired to Moses and Eleazer (the priest) ‘to make atonement’ for themselves (v.50).

The Reubenites and Gadites wanted to stay in the newly conquered territory, Gilead – on the wrong side of the Jordan river, with their livestock and not cross to the promised land. Moses wasn’t impressed with this idea and reminded them about the last forty years wandering in the desert after the spies had discouraged the Israelites from crossing the Jordan. The Reubenites and Gadites negotiated and promised to help the rest of the Israelites conquer the promised land first before they then returned to their wives and children. Before helping, they wanted to ‘build pens here for their livestock and cities for our woman and children (v.16). This sounds like quite a long endeavour but Moses allowed this compromise. They could obviously build cities in less than the time it would take us to get planning permission. However, there were already cities in the area that they had conquered (v.33) and so it was more of a refurbishment / fortification project rather than a completely new build (v.34-38).

Luke 8:40-9:9

Jesus felt power go out of him (v.46) as the woman with the haemorrhage touched him. This lady demonstrated the difference between belief and faith. Many people believed that Jesus could heal people. But this lady’s faith was a blend of belief with action. Her faith told her that if she touched the edge of Jesus’ cloak, she would be healed. Faith often involves the risk of looking foolish if nothing happens. We have to step out and take the risk. If she hadn’t been healed, she would have fought to touch his cloak for no result. God responds to faith, ‘Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace’ (v.48).

There is a classic joke that illustrates the difference between belief and faith:

A man falls off a very high cliff. Halfway down, he manages to grab a branch sticking out from the cliff and is left swinging there. He has temporarily saved himself from certain death but needs to be rescued.

He thinks to himself: ‘I believe in God. I will pray to him to rescue me.’

He prays and God immediately responds.

A loud voice comes from heaven, ‘Let go of the branch and I will catch you. Have faith’.

The man responds, ‘Is anyone else there?’

To demonstrate faith, we actually have to step out and do something that could put us at risk. We can’t just sit back expecting God to do all the work for us. We have to participate.

‘For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved’ (Romans 10:10).

Jesus felt something physical when the lady’s healing occurred. When we pray over someone for healing, it is wonderful when we feel something ourselves – perhaps a supernatural sensation of warmth. However, all prayers to God are answered in time and so we don’t actually need a physical manifestation to confirm that some type of healing has or will occur.

Jesus healed Jairus’ daughter. He only took three close disciples and the little girl’s parents into the room with him as witnesses to her resurrection. He had already faced ridicule from the crowd by declaring she was only asleep and so Jesus had publicly ‘put his money where his mouth is’. If the little girl didn’t come back to life, Jesus’ ministry would have been disgraced but he had total faith in the Father and the Holy Spirit and knew the miracle would take place. Jesus gives the command and ‘her spirit returned’ (v.55). Just as Jesus will give the command at the end of time and our spirits will return to our bodies to instantly animate our glorified, resurrected bodies.

Jesus sent out the Twelve on a preaching / healing and deliverance mission (9:2) This would have included Judas. It’s shocking that someone so close to Jesus, trusted with power and authority and successfully carrying miracles in his name could still betray him. It took faith to head out with no bag, spare clothes, money or food. Just being close to Jesus and carrying out his work does not mean we are saved. We have to allow God to place a new faithful heart inside us and accept Jesus fully into our lives as our Lord and Saviour, once we have renounced and repented of our sins

Psalm 40:1-8

God has often ‘lifted me out of the slimy pit’ (v.2). From the slimy pit of unbelief to the slimy pit of unfulfilling secular work, I have been rescued ‘out of the mud and the mire’ (v.2). ‘He set my feet on a rock (Jesus) and gave me a firm place to stand (v.2).

It’s my ambition for many to ‘see and fear and put their trust in the Lord (v.3).

I do have a new song of praise in my mouth (v.3) particularly when I sing in the Spirit.

We can’t trust proud secular leaders puffed up with their own importance, ‘those who turn away to false Gods (v.4). We are blessed by trusting in the Lord.

He doesn’t want sacrifice or offerings from us. Jesus has already given Him the ultimate sacrifice, once and for all. God just wants our love and for us to to ‘desire to do your will’ (v.8). God has written his law within all our hearts, which is why non-believers still do great acts of justice and charity, even though they refuse to acknowledge where their inbuilt social conscience has come from.

God has planned many wonderful things for us to do in this lifetime. We just have to listen to him and then cooperate.

Picture: Eduard Bendemann, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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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