Fire from the Lord and the Baptism of Jesus: March 20th 2021

Numbers 9:15-11:3

At God’s command, the Israelites set out and at his command, they encamped. It’s wonderful for whole nation to follow God’s directions on a daily basis. When God indicated it was time to move, they moved. Do we tune into God every morning to find out his plan for our day?

The Israelites never knew when God’s cloud would lift over the Tent of Testimony indicating it was time to leave. So the Israelites could never afford the luxury of getting too comfortable or burdening themselves with too many possessions – even when the cloud stayed over the tent for a whole year. God kept them on their toes ready to become mobile.

God instructed that the priests should sound a blast on the trumpets whenever the Israelites were going into battle (v.9). God would then remember and rescue them. So we need to pray to God, make a loud noise and attract his attention through prayer whenever we are ‘going into battle’. I tried to learn the trumpet recently but didn’t really get to grips with it. I am now learning the saxophone instead, which is endlessly amusing. I must remember to tell God I am not calling on him for assistance whenever I practice the saxophone. I am not actually in distress – it just sounds like I am.

The tabernacle was to be set up before the holy things arrived (v.21). This shows God’s practical love of organisation and good order and the respect that was to be shown to the articles that were dedicated to Him.

Moses pleaded with his father-in-law (Reuel / Jethro) not to leave him and promised him a share of ‘whatever good things the Lord gives us’ (v. 31-32). Reul is valued for his local knowledge of where to camp. Moses wanted him to be ‘their eyes’. Reul is from the land of Midian and is not an Israelite. This looks promising for future harmony between the nations and makes us appreciate our own in-laws. Reul was an important man in Midianite society – both a prince and a priest. The Midianites didn’t worship God alone, which implies we can ask for help from people from other backgrounds / religions. We can work as partners on Godly projects and be grateful for their help and practical assistance Unfortunately, the relationship between the Israelites and the rest of the Midianites completely breaks down by Numbers 31 and there is an enormous battle between the nations.

The Israelites made the Lord angry by complaining and ‘fire from the Lord burned among them‘ (11:1). The Israelites weren’t enjoying unpredictably packing up and trudging through the desert with their belongings. They weren’t enjoying simple obedience even though their needs were all being taken care of. My family aren’t a great fan of camping either. We have a huge tent in the loft, which we have used once and will shortly be selling on eBay. It would have been easier and less burdensome to travel through the desert if an Israelite family had minimised the possessions they were carrying. So if a family had donated all their heavy gold to furnish the Tabernacle, they wouldn’t have to carry it now. The people cry to Moses for help. He intercedes for them and the fire dies down. It is always best not to complain to God. We can remind him of his promises but He is due our gratitude for guiding, protecting and feeding us on a daily basis.

Disciplining the Israelites through terrors such as fire and plagues doesn’t work in the end, Even though the Israelites are often punished for disobedience, it didn’t make them love God. They steadfastly refuse to enter the Promised Land when they get there and God wants to kill them all. Gradually God realises that threats and punishments don’t work. His ultimate goal is for people to love him by their own volition and for this he has to just show them his loving side through the public ministry of Jesus.

God can ‘kill’ anyone he likes because he created us and owns us and when we are ‘killed’ by God, we are just moved from place to place. Our immortal souls are still alive eternally in God’ eyes – for ‘all are alive to God’ (Luke 20:38). There is a striking difference between the behaviour of God, the Father, in the Old Testament (who frequently struck people with lethal floods, plagues and fire) and Jesus, the Son, in the New Testament. We will explore this in a separate post.

Luke 3:1-22

John was inspired to start his ministry, ‘preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (v.2). Luke, with his scientific background, accurately documented when in history this took place. It actually happened. The historical evidence for the gospels makes atheism an untenable position. John the Baptist and Jesus were actual historical figures carrying out their ministry at a defined time. Multiple eye-witnesses and independent historians confirming they existed. Jesus proved he was the Son of God through the miracles he performed – which were witnessed by thousands of people. It is thus completely illogical to deny the existence of God. We clearly see the ‘Spirit of Unbelief’ working in other areas at present. A significant number of people believe that coronavirus / covid 19 is not a thing even though scientists have proven its existence, hundreds of thousands of people have died and new vaccines work against it. Unbelief is a choice but once you have persisted in illogical unbelief for long enough, you give ‘a spirit of unbelief’ a legal right to take up residence making it even harder for you to turn to the truth.

People sensed that they needed what John was offering even though he was a colourful character and spoke his mind, ‘You brood of vipers!’ (v. 7). I am sure he said this in a loving way but it isn’t the way we treat new visitors to a church these days.

John the Baptist gave some simple practical advice on how to live a virtuous life: share your possessions and food; don’t defraud people; don’t be a false witness or extort money and be content with what you have without lusting for more.

Just being descended from a great friend of God, Abraham, would not help the people unless they repented through faith and produced ‘fruit in keeping with repentance‘ v.8). We should act honestly, be generous and live contentedly. Jesus would come to ‘baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire(v.16).

Speaking the truth can make powerful people your enemies. John’s ministry was cut short by Herod after John rebuked him for his adultery and for ‘all the other evil things he had done’ (v.19).

Jesus was baptized – ‘and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove‘ (v.22). Baptism is necessary for Christians to enter heaven. It gives us a supernatural life as an adopted child of God. We receive an indelible stamp on our soul from being baptized that shows we are part of the family of God. It’s strange that Protestants can be much more strict and ‘religious’ about baptism that Catholics. Many denominations insist that a baptism has to involve full immersion under the water to be ‘valid’ when of course, the desire to be baptised and the ‘Spirit’ by which it is carried out are the important elements. It’s great if a baptism can be full immersion but it’s not always practical. Even when people aim for full immersion they often use baths in people’s houses and there are always elbows or knees sticking out of the water. Not even the most litigious demon is going to stand at the gate of heaven and argue that someone can’t go in because their elbow didn’t go under the water. All Christian baptisms – even those with just a sprinkling of water are fully valid as long as the person carrying out the baptism pronounces the words: ‘I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’. When it comes to eternal life, I am not taking any chances and so I have enthusiastically embraced baptism, confirmation, ‘baptism in the spirit’ and faithfully prayed the ‘sinner prayer’ to be ‘born again’. I feel that the Holy Spirit only really started to work within me to cut unholy things out of my life after I started to spend longer periods ‘praying in the Spirit’. Allowing the Holy Spirit more access to my life, allowed him to progress with His work of sanctification (making me holier ready for heaven). Baptism is a massive topic, which we concentrate on in a separate article

God confirmed that Jesus was his Son, with whom he was well pleased. I love the Hillsong Worship song, which allows us, due to Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross and our own baptism to shout: ‘I’m a child of God. Yes I am!‘.

Psalms 35:19-28

People often devise false accusations against those who live quietly (v.20). They can actively gossip and plot against people who are minding their own business. We should always avoid gossip.

People either make up slanderous stories or look out for wrong and delight when they think they have found it, ‘Aha! Aha! With our own eyes we have seen it’ (v.21) Tragically, there is a lot of accusatory behaviour amongst Christians. I have read blogs where writers heavily criticise other Christians for practicing in a different way from them, using a different Bible translation from them or even enjoying their lives and making jokes. Pope Francis calls us all to be ‘joy-filled evangelists’ and that does include a healthy sense of humour. Anyone who is a Christian is our sister and brother. A sign of the Holy Spirit is being ‘ecumenical’ (delighting in the company and teaching of all other Christians). Evil spirits delight in trying to split Christians into different factions and there are evil spirits named ‘anti-Catholicism’ or ‘Sectarianism’. If you have an aversion to any other Christian denomination, you need to bind up the spirit that might be contributing to your feelings in Jesus’ name and pray for God’s forgiveness, renouncing and repenting your behaviour, ‘for whoever is not against us is for us’ (Mark 9:40).

Jesus taught us to pray for blessings for our enemies. Interesting that David, a man after God’s own heart, often prayed for harm to come to his enemies; that they may be ‘put to shame and confusion’ or ‘clothed with shame and disgrace’ (v.26).

We can leave righteous justice to the Lord and proclaim to the world everyday how great and good He is.

Awake, and rise to my defence. Contend for me, O Lord

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

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!

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