Numbers 12:1-9 – Against Racism

American artist Alan Jones depiction of Moses’ wife Zipporah

While they were at Hazeroth, Miriam and Aaron criticized Moses because he had married a Cushite woman. They said, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Hasn’t he spoken through us, too?” But the Lord heard them. (Now Moses was very humble—more humble than any other person on earth.)

So immediately the Lord called to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam and said, “Go out to the Tabernacle, all three of you!” So, the three of them went to the Tabernacle. Then the Lord descended in the pillar of cloud and stood at the entrance of the Tabernacle. “Aaron and Miriam!” he called, and they stepped forward. And the Lord said to them, “Now listen to what I say:

“If there were prophets among you,
    I, the Lord, would reveal myself in visions.
    I would speak to them in dreams.
But not with my servant Moses.
    Of all my house, he is the one I trust.
I speak to him face to face,
    clearly, and not in riddles!
    He sees the Lord as he is.
So why were you not afraid
    to criticize my servant Moses?”

The Lord was very angry with them, and he departed. (NLT)

There are three observations about today’s Old Testament lesson I want to point-out and lift-up, and they are crucial observations for us in our present world.

First, the older siblings of Moses, Miriam the eldest and Aaron the other brother, had a problem with their sister-in-law (whose name was Zipporah). She was a Cushite. Cush was an ancient country which encompassed present day northern Sudan and much of Ethiopia in Africa. In other words, Zipporah was black, and Miriam and Aaron were critical of their little brother for marrying her.

Second, although having a black sister-in-law was the real issue, Miriam and Aaron confronted Moses not about this, but went after him concerning his role as a prophet. In other words, the siblings engaged in the age-old practice of ostensibly presenting a concern which was not really the matter on their hearts.

Third, the omniscient God knew what was happening. God was fully cognizant of Miriam and Aaron’s cloak-and-dagger attack at Zipporah through her husband Moses. In other words, God was incensed with this coup attempt because it was unjust, unfair, ungodly, and frankly, racist. And so, the text states that God, with divine anger aroused, “immediately” addressed the situation.

Racism is insidious. It tends to get expressed most often through the methods used by Miriam and Aaron on the level of criticizing another somewhat related issue. So, I offer the following questions with as much humility from Moses I can muster:

Are we aware of our own inheritance of centuries and even millennia of dominance language which keeps other human beings docile and subservient to another’s authority?

Have we chosen to challenge points of order and procedure in the attempt to marginalize certain persons?

Are we detached from our own needs and, so, unable to listen well?

Is there secret fear in our hearts, believing that we must maintain our hegemony, or else, there will be chaos?

Is the end game using whatever tools available for others to become like us, as if we were the Borg who talk about how resisting us is futile?

Are we willing to do the hard work of pulling out our own roots of racial segregation and injustice?

Do we want cheap diversity or true solidarity?

Will we work toward creating a new liberated humanity, championing equity in all things for all people, instead of attempting to sanitize existing systems?

For far too long, too many have relied upon individualism and anti-structuralism and it has not served us well in addressing our contemporary problems. Individualism sees only individual racist words and actions and is blind to systemic issues. It views social problems as merely a reflection of broken relationships, and, so, again, makes it impossible to see the systemic and nature of our racialized society.

Anti-structuralism, that is, not addressing racism as an organizing structure, is the assumption that racism is only individual racial prejudice and hatred. Thus, the approach in dealing with racism is to always be on the lookout for “bad racists.” This avenue, however, diverts attention from upholding biblical justice, forming policies of liberation, and establishing equitable care and opportunity for the common good of all persons.

As an historian, I tend to view things through historical lenses and, so, I resonate deeply with the late twentieth-century essayist James Baldwin when he said, “White people are still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.”

I want my history to be with Moses and freedom. I want God to show up and put racism to an end. I want to be part of the solution, and not the problem. I want justice and fairness to flow like a river that never runs dry.

Lord, Jesus Christ, you reached across ethnic boundaries between Samaritan, Roman and Jew. In your earthly ministry you offered fresh sight to the blind and freedom to captives. Gracious Savior, help us to break down walls and barriers in our community; enable us to see the reality of racism and bigotry; and free us to challenge and uproot it from ourselves, our faith communities, our society, and our world. Amen.

Psalm 63:1-8 – Divine/Human Connection

O God, you are my God; 
    I earnestly search for you. 
My soul thirsts for you; 
    my whole body longs for you 
in this parched and weary land 
    where there is no water. 
I have seen you in your sanctuary 
    and gazed upon your power and glory. 
Your unfailing love is better than life itself; 
    how I praise you! 
I will praise you as long as I live, 
    lifting up my hands to you in prayer. 
You satisfy me more than the richest feast. 
    I will praise you with songs of joy. 

I lie awake thinking of you, 
    meditating on you through the night. 
Because you are my helper, 
    I sing for joy in the shadow of your wings. 
I cling to you; 
    your strong right hand holds me securely. (NLT) 

Regular readers of this blog know I believe the book of Psalms to be a vast resource for devotion, worship, and prayer. In dark or distressing times when we don’t know what to pray, how to lament, or what to say to God; in the joyful and peaceful times when we want to proclaim praise, give thanks, or express our blessings and longings; and, in every season of our lives, the psalms offer us robust theology, human emotion and need in all its vulnerable reality, and a connected path between the two. 

Today’s psalm was originally uttered to God when David was roaming in the wilderness avoiding King Saul’s malevolent and murderous intent. David expressed his yearning desire and hope to connect with God and gain solace and guidance, step by step, by the Lord who sees and satisfies. David praised God within a life-and-death circumstance, longing to be satiated with spiritual food and drink. 

Whatever situation we find ourselves in, and wherever our path takes us, the psalms help form and shape a profound spirituality of deep connection with the God we long to know and experience. 

The psalms are so much more than ancient poems, prayers, and songs; they are words alive with the potential to bridge us to God. I often write my own translations and personally contemporize the psalms which helps me to approach God during my own wilderness experiences. So, here is my take on this psalm: 

O God, you are my God; I am putting all my effort into seeking you. 

            my soul is thirsty for you. 

my body is weak looking for you, 

            like in a desert where there is no water. 

I am no stranger to you because I have seen you work before, 

            and I have gotten a glorious glimpse of your power in the past. 

I have experienced that your steadfast love is better than life itself, 

            and I now bank on those times and praise you despite my trouble. 

I choose to keep on remembering you and blessing your holy name. 

            In the mighty name of Jesus, I will lift my hands in praise, even if it looks weird to others. 

I know that my soul will be satisfied in you, just like when I get a medium rare T-bone steak and corn on the cob. 

            And I will use my mouth to praise you with joy, no matter the circumstances, 

when I remember you on my bed and cannot sleep, 

            and meditate on your wonderful grace as I lie there with my eyes wide open. 

for you have always been my help, 

            and sitting on your lap I will be supremely confident and sing for joy. 

Oh, my soul clings to you through this trial, 

            and your mighty hand upholds me.  Amen. 

O God, You Are My God by Fernando Ortega

Psalm 99 – The Holy Helper

Welcome, friends! Just as we need a strong physical spine for good health, equally necessary is a healthy spiritual spine with good strong theology holding us up. Click the video below and let’s worship the Lord…

And, here is Psalm 99 put to song and performed by the Sons of Korah…

Psalm 99 by the Sons of Korah

May you be strengthened with all power according to God’s glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience. Amen.

Matthew 14:1-12 – Speaking Truth to Power

16th century Russian Orthodox icon of John the Baptist

At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the reports about Jesus, and he said to his attendants, “This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead! That is why miraculous powers are at work in him.”

Now Herod had arrested John and bound him and put him in prison because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, for John had been saying to him: “It is not lawful for you to have her.” Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of the people, because they considered John a prophet.

On Herod’s birthday the daughter of Herodias danced for the guests and pleased Herod so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.” The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted and had John beheaded in the prison. His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who carried it to her mother. John’s disciples came and took his body and buried it. Then they went and told Jesus. (NIV)

John’s murder is a story about our world – a world of power, sex, and intrigue. Times may change, but people across the ages do not change. Humanity is fundamentally the same in every century. And the world is still the world, no matter the historical time. 

The contrast between Herod and John supply us with two types of people who exist throughout every age of humankind, offering us the choice of which way we will go with our lives. The story illustrates for us the reality of living in a fallen world as a devout person.

The Herod in today’s Gospel lesson was a son of Herod the Great, the one who killed all the male babies when Jesus was born in order to try and get rid of any rival king (Matthew 2:1-18). King Herod is displayed in the narrative as a tragic and pathetic figure who is ruled by his own lusts. He seems too proud and wimpy to admit he made a rash promise and killed a man just to save face with his guests at a party.

Talk about a Jerry Springer worthy family drama, here it is: The Herod family was rich, proud, and downright violent. They tended to marry within their own clan to hold their power and possessions for themselves. Herodias married her uncle Herod Philip; Salome was their daughter. Later, Salome married Philip the tetrarch, half-brother to Herod Philip. Through marriage, Salome became both aunt and sister-in-law to her mother. Then the Herod in our story married Herodias, who had been married to Herod’s half-brother, Herod Philip. Having fallen in love with Herod Antipas, Herodias divorced Herod Philip to marry Herod Antipas. Sheesh, nothing like complicated family drama.

St. John the Baptist Rebuking Herod by Italian artist Giovanni Fattori (1825-1908)

Into this violation of Old Testament marriage laws (the Herod’s were Jewish) came John who made no bones about the fact this was not right (Leviticus 18:16, 20:21). Herodias nursed a grudge against John for speaking out against her and Herod’s choices. Hell, hath no fury like a woman’s scorn, and when Herodias found an opportunity to get rid of John, she coached her daughter into asking for John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Herod, too insecure to take back his ridiculous promise and look like a fool, consented to the execution of John.

In contrast to all this tragic theater is John the Baptist. John was a messenger of God and a preacher of repentance. As one who was preparing the way for Jesus, his message was simple and to the point: Repent, for the kingdom of God is near. John got into trouble and lost his life because he spoke truth to power by meddling in the life of King Herod and his family. The Herod’s were the political establishment of the day, and John did not temper his words when dealing with them.

There is a refreshing integrity about John. He was always the same no matter where he was, and no matter who the people were around him. In contrast to Herod, John was bold, courageous, confident, unafraid, and secure enough in his relationship with God to engage in ministry without thought to the consequences.  He was unconcerned for what others might think of him if he proclaimed truth in the public square, and it did end up costing him his life.

The story of John the Baptist’s death speaks about the hostility of this world. And it prefigured and foreshadowed the death of Jesus. Like John, Jesus was executed by the civil authorities. Herod, like Pilate after him, hesitated to execute and was swayed by the crowd. Herodias, like the chief priests toward Jesus, finally got her way through scheming and manipulation. John’s disciples came and took his body and buried it, just like Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus did for Jesus.

These stories, on the surface of things, appear to be only gloom and doom. Yet, there is a message of hope and joy. The absurd is working out itself in deliverance from sin, death, and hell. Through death, Jesus conquered death. We now have no fear of death; its sting has been taken away. Without fear of death, we have no reason to fear life with its troubles and tribulations.

The fork in the road is between the way of John or Herod. It is a values-based decision. If worth is derived from what we do, what we have, and/or other’s opinion of us, we will likely identify more with Herod and his choices. If there is a preoccupation with hoarding power and control, this is the path of Herod. 

Conversely, if the ultimate value is in knowing Christ crucified and the power of his resurrection, then we identify with John as our spiritual ancestor. If security and worth is derived from being in Christ, then there is boldness to speak truth to power and give grace to the powerless.

Herod saw no further than his immediate needs and safety; he failed to discern his own heart. Because of his spiritual blindness, Herod did not look away from himself and look to God. Faith in Jesus comes when persons look away from themselves and look to Christ who holds the power to free all from spiritual bondage.

Let us look to the example of John the Baptist who consistently sought to do the will of God as best as he understood it. Together with all God’s people past and present, we declare that God is with us, the kingdom of God is near, and the love of Christ brings faith and hope.

Almighty God, through your providence John the Baptist was wonderfully born and was sent to prepare the way of your Son, our Savior by the preaching of repentance. Lead us to repent according to his preaching and, after his example, constantly to speak the truth, boldly to rebuke vice, and patiently to suffer for truth’s sake; through Jesus Christ your Son, our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.