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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Easter 05/20/2012

You ever wonder about numbers in the Bible?  I don’t mean the Old Testament book of Numbers which most of us would probably agree is not the most interesting book of the Bible.  I mean the apparent importance of certain numbers like seven and twelve and forty that are used in telling the biblical story.  I don’t want to get hung up on this today because I do think there are people who spend way too much time trying to figure out secret numerical codes and such that they think are hidden in the Bible.  But still, it is apparent that certain numbers are used over and over again which makes you think there must be a reason for that, makes you think that these numbers do have significance and a few of them hover around today’s readings.

We celebrated the Ascension last Thursday, 40 days after Easter.  Forty is one of those numbers; in the flood story it rained for 40 days and 40 nights; Moses was on the mountain with the Lord 40 days and 40 nights; the people of Israel wandered for 40 years in the dessert before arriving in the Promised Land; Jesus was 40 days in the wilderness, tempted by the devil.  All of those have to do with testing or trial of some kind, and that’s also where the 40 days of Lent come from.  It doesn’t seem like the forty days between Easter and the Ascension is quite the same unless it’s supposed to represent a test of resurrection faith? 

Next Sunday then, is Pentecost, 50 days after Easter.  I don’t think 50 is quite as prominent as 40 in the Bible but when it shows up it seems to have to do with celebration.  In ancient Israel the 50th year was a year of Jubilee in which I think debts were forgiven, slaves were freed and so forth.  There was also an Old Testament Pentecost festival as 50 days after the offering of the barley sheaf at the beginning of Passover another offering of new grain would be made.  This “Feast of Weeks” as it’s called is one of the three great Jewish feasts.  It’s all in Leviticus if you don’t believe me or if you’d care to find out more.

Moving right along though, in today’s first reading you have the disciples gathered in between the Ascension and Pentecost, in between 40 and 50 and during this in between time the number they are focused on is 12.  With the betrayal and death of Judas, the apostolic contingent is down to 11 and 11’s not 12.  With only 11, the circle of 12 is broken and 12 is another of those numbers, one that seems to represent completeness; 12 tribes of Israel, 12 disciples, the book of Revelation is full of 12’s and multiples of 12 like the 144,000 who supposedly will be the only ones redeemed from the earth, you may have noticed that in today’s first lesson the crowd is numbered at 120, a multiple of 12.

To complete the broken circle and get it back to 12, a replacement for Judas has to be found and that’s what we get in today’s first lesson.  It comes down to a choice between Matthias and Joseph, called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus.  I always think that’s funny as it reminds me of the obituaries up here where they have to list the person’s nickname or else a lot of people might know who died.  In any event, faced with this choice, they draw lots, Matthias is selected, and then both he and Joseph or Barsabbas or Justus, disappear again into biblical obscurity, not much more than an answer to a trivia question, the story being more about the number 12 than it is about them. 

And that brings me to another number, the number 1, which is the number of today’s psalm.  The psalm appointed for each Sunday (in case you didn’t know) is a response to the first lesson; some weeks it’s easier than others to see the connection.  In Psalm 1 you get a black and white distinction made between the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked so one would think that the intent in using it as a response to the lesson about choosing a replacement for Judas would be to raise the question of whether the replacement will be righteous or wicked.  Which path will he take?  Will he be like a tree planted by streams of water or like chaff that the wind blows away?  Again, we don’t know the answer because Matthias is never mentioned again.  According to this psalm though, the choice is clear.  There is no room for ambiguity or shades of gray here.

Since we’re talking about numbers though, my question would be why is this psalm number 1?  You assume that someone had to make that decision.  There are 150 psalms and someone or a committee had to decide what order they would be in, someone had to decide which one would be first.  It could all be random I suppose and with some of them maybe it is, but I have to think that some thought went into it, especially is choosing which of them would be number one.

So why this one?  It really isn’t typical of the psalms mainly because there isn’t much emotion in it and the psalms tend to be quite emotional, emotions ranging from praise and thanksgiving to complaint and lament, all the ups and downs and in betweens of life.  One of the reasons the 23rd Psalm is so meaningful to so many people is because it evokes an emotional response in us, in this case one of comfort and reassurance. 

But Psalm number one really isn’t like that.  It’s pretty matter fact.  This is the way it is, here are your choices, the main choice being are you going to live your life according to the instruction of the Lord or aren’t you?  If you do, things will go well for you, you’ll be happy.  If you don’t you won’t.  It seems so simple; do good things, good things will happen.  It’s My Name is Earl, karma theology if any of you have a slightly warped sense of humor like me and still watch My Name is Earl reruns even though you’ve seen them all many times already.  The trouble is, life isn’t that simple and we all know it.  Do good things, good things will happen doesn’t always work. 

What this psalm does though, and perhaps the reason it is number one, is that it sets up an understanding of happiness that begins with a relationship with God.  It’s God centered and not self-centered.  It really isn’t about legalistic do-goodism and the rewards of such behavior, it’s about orienting life toward God.  It’s that relationship that brings happiness and contentment, a message which is quite contrary to the message of the world that pretty much tells us that happiness has to with enjoying yourself, getting what you want and so forth.   

This psalm though is an invitation into a relationship and the starting point of the relationship is the instruction of the Lord.  From there, despite the black and white nature of the psalm, things can go a lot of different directions and the rest of the psalms are evidence of that, but with this one being number one, even in lament the image of the tree planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season with leaves that do not wither, is in the background, reminding you and God of where you want to be.

It’s a good psalm for this last Sunday of Easter.  On this Sunday we’re in between the Ascension and Pentecost, in between 40 and 50 kind of like Jesus’ followers in the first lesson.  They were in something of a holding pattern, waiting, as Jesus had instructed them to do, but not really sure of what was next.  As the story is told, they hadn’t yet received the gift of the Holy Spirit which will empower them to do things they wouldn’t have thought were possible; they’re waiting. 

What they do have at this point though, is a relationship with the Risen Christ who has appeared to them over those forty days.  It’s a relationship that will sustain them in whatever is to come and what is to come is not all a care free success story.  It’s not for any of us either.  In some ways it can feel like we’re always in between 40 and 50 or whatever, not really feeling the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives, not sure what’s going to come next.  But like those gathered before Pentecost, we’ve got a relationship rooted in Jesus and in the truth of his teaching.  Secure in that relationship, in good times and bad, in praise or complaint, like the psalmists before us, we can take it to Jesus, who is the stream of water that will refresh and renew us, enabling us to again bear fruit. 

In that relationship that begins in the water of baptism, we become one with Jesus and one with each other as we are sent into the world.  In that relationship we are sanctified, we are made holy for the work we are called to do.  One with Jesus and one with each other; of all the numbers we think about, that one is the most important.  As you come up for communion today, as you leave church, touch the water and remember that we are one.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
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welcomes me, and whoever
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