MarkSeriesTitleSlide1Mark 15

42 And when evening had come, since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath, 43 Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God, took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. 44 Pilate was surprised to hear that he should have already died. And summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he was already dead. 45 And when he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the corpse to Joseph. 46 And Joseph bought a linen shroud, and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud and laid him in a tomb that had been cut out of the rock. And he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. 

Everybody loves enigmatic characters, those characters that have an air of mystery about them. In the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, Joseph of Arimathea—the man who asked for the body of Jesus and who buried Jesus—is one of those enigmatic character. And, as usually happens with enigmatic characters, people’s curiosity gets the better of them and increasingly strange stories grow up around them. This seems to be especially true of Joseph of Arimathea. There are countless legends that have grown up around Joseph, many of them quite old. Undoubtedly this is because we do not know all that we would like to know about Joseph. So people allow their imaginations to fill in the blanks! The BBC has provided a fascinating list of some of these legends.

  • He was the first person to bring Christianity to Britain, having been sent with other disciples by St Philip.
  • He built Britain’s first church (some say this was actually the first church in the world).
  • He was Mary’s uncle, and thus Jesus’ great-uncle.
  • He was a merchant who visited England to buy Cornish tin.
  • He took Jesus with him to England when Jesus was a teenager (local legends say that among the places they visited were St Just in Roseland and St Michael’s Mount).
  • He brought to England two vials containing the blood and sweat of Jesus (or two vials containing the sweat of Jesus).
  • He brought the Holy Grail to England and hid it in a well at Glastonbury, now called the Chalice Well.

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church says of Joseph of Arimathea:

Acc. to the apocryphal “Gospel of Nicodemus” he played an important part in the foundation of the first Christian community at Lyddia. In the “De Antiquitate Glastoniensis Ecclesie,” written by William of Malmesbury between 1129 and 1139, occurs the earliest mention of the story that St. Joseph came to England with the Holy Grail and built the first church in the country at Glastonbury, but the passage relating this incident was added to the book at least a century later.[1]

It is also said of Joseph of Arimathea that he planted his staff in the ground of Glastonbury and it blossomed into a thorn tree. It is said that this where Glastonbury Thorn comes from. All of these legends are fascinating and a bit amusing, but they do point, again, to the mystery surrounding Joseph of Arimathea.

Even so, what is truly intriguing about Joseph of Arimathea is not the legends but rather what we do know, what scripture does tell us about Joseph. All four gospels mention Joseph, a fact that is very important. When all four gospels mention a figure or an episode, attention must be paid.

So who was Joseph and why does that question matter to us? Who was Joseph of Arimathea and, specifically, who was Jesus to Joseph?

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Mark 15:33-39

MarkSeriesTitleSlide1Mark 15

33 And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. 34 And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 35 And some of the bystanders hearing it said, “Behold, he is calling Elijah.” 36 And someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” 37 And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. 38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 39 And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”

In G.K. Chesterton’s amazing book, Orthodoxy, he says something astonishing about what Christianity brings to the table. He writes of Jesus’ “cry of dereliction” on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Here is what Chesterton says:

That a good man may have his back to the wall is no more than we knew already; but that God could have his back to the wall is a boast for all insurgents forever. Christianity is the only religion on earth that has felt that omnipotence made God incomplete. Christianity alone has felt that God, to be wholly God, must have been a rebel as well as a king. Alone of all creeds, Christianity has added courage to the virtues of the Creator. For the only courage worth calling courage must necessarily mean that the soul passes a breaking point—and does not break. In this indeed I approach a matter more dark and awful than it is easy to discuss; and I apologise in advance if any of my phrases fall wrong or seem irreverent touching a matter which the greatest saints and thinkers have justly fear to approach. But in that terrific tale of the Passion there is a distinct emotional suggestion that the author of all things (in some unthinkable way) went not only through agony, but through doubt…When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God. And now let the revolutionists choose a creed from all the creeds and a god from all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of inevitable recurrence and of unalterable power. They will not find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay (the matter grows too difficult for human speech), but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.[1]

I realize that that last phrase makes us wince, but understand what Chesterton was trying to say here. He was saying that, in the cry of dereliction, God cried out wondering where God had gone! In that sense, He “seemed for an instant to be an atheist.”

Whatever one may think of Chesterton’s approach, he certainly gets at the difficulty of this passage and of these words. What was Jesus doing when He cried out asking God why God had forsaken Him? What was happening in that moment? It was, in fact, a critically important step in our own salvation: God crying out and questioning God!

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Exodus 33:12-23

6a00e55043abd088340120a8e619b2970b-320wiExodus 33

12 Moses said to the Lord, “See, you say to me, ‘Bring up this people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ 13 Now therefore, if I have found favor in your sight, please show me now your ways, that I may know you in order to find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” 14 And he said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” 15 And he said to him, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. 16 For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?” 17 And the Lord said to Moses, “This very thing that you have spoken I will do, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” 18 Moses said, “Please show me your glory.” 19 And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. 20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” 21 And the Lord said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, 22 and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.”

I am an unapologetic fan of The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien’s great fantasy epic. I have always thought that one of the most touching parts of the story is when the fellowship (tasked with destroying the one ring of power) passes through the elven forest kingdom of Lothlorien. There they encounter the beautiful and powerful elf ruler Galadriel. As the fellowship departs the woods, Galadriel offers each of them a gift. She finally asks Gimli the dwarf what gift he would like. This exchange intrigues the watching elves since elves and dwarves, Tolkien informs us, do not normally care for one another. But Gimli is smitten by the beauty, power, and grace of Galadriel, so he dares to make a great request.

            “And what gift would a Dwarf ask of the Elves?” said Galadriel, turning to Gimli.

            “None, Lady,” answered Gimli. “It is enough for me to have seen the Lady of the Galadhrim, and to have heard her gentle words.”

            “Hear all ye Elves!” she cried to those about her. “Let none say again that Dwarves are grasping and ungracious! Yet surely, Gimli son of Gloin, you desire something that I could give? Name it, I bid you! You shall not be the only guest without a gift.”

            “There is nothing, Lady Galadriel,” said Gimli, bowing low and stammering. “Nothing, unless it might be—unless it is permitted to ask, nay, to name a single strand of your hair, which surpasses the gold of the earth as the stars surpass the gems of the mine. I do not ask for such a gift. But you commanded me to name my desire.”

            The Elves stirred and murmured with astonishment, and Celeborn gazed at the Dwarf in wonder, but the Lady smiled. “It is said that the skill of the Dwarves is in their hands rather than in their tongues,” she said; “yet that is not true of Gimli. For none have ever made to me a request so bold and yet so courteous. And how shall I refuse, since I commanded him to speak? But tell me, what would you do with such a gift?”

            “Treasure it, Lady,” he answered, “in memory of your words to me at our first meeting. And if ever I return to the smithies of my home, it shall be set in imperishable crystal to be an heirloom of my house, and a pledge of good will between the Mountain and the Wood until the end of days.”

            Then the Lady unbraided one of her long tresses, and cut off three golden hairs, and laid them in Gimli’s hand.[1]

Wonderful! I love the audacity of Gimli’s request. I love his desire to have the great Galadriel with him at all times. I love her gracious willingness to give him strands of her hair.

I thought of this when reading of Moses’ exchange with God at the tent of meeting in the latter half of Exodus 33. Moses dares to make an audacious request of God. Why? Because he wants to know that God is with him, that God has not and will not abandon him, and, indeed, that God is with His people still.

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Mark 15:23-32

MarkSeriesTitleSlide1Mark 15

23 And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. 24 And they crucified him and divided his garments among them, casting lots for them, to decide what each should take. 25 And it was the third hour when they crucified him. 26 And the inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” 27 And with him they crucified two robbers, one on his right and one on his left. [KJV—28 And the scripture was fulfilled, which saith, And he was numbered with the transgressors.] 29 And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, 30 save yourself, and come down from the cross!” 31 So also the chief priests with the scribes mocked him to one another, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. 32 Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also reviled him.

In 1968, an archaeologist named Vassilios Tzaferis was invited to help excavate a Jewish tomb in Jerusalem dating to the 1st century. During this process he discovered an ossuary, a box designed to hold the bones of the deceased. The inscription on the outside of the ossuary revealed that the bones within belonged to a man named Yehohanan. What was truly interesting about these particular bones was that in the ossuary was a heel bone with a nail driven through it. As it turned out, here, in this ossuary, was the first ever archaeological find of crucified remains. While there has never been a question that crucifixion was a commonly used method of execution in the ancient world, no crucified remains had been found before this date. Tzaferis writes:

UnknownThe most dramatic evidence that this young man was crucified was the nail which penetrated his heel bones. But for this nail, we might never have discovered that the young man had died in this way. The nail was preserved only because it hit a hard knot when it was pounded into the olive wood upright of the cross. The olive wood knot was so hard that, as the blows on the nail became heavier, the end of the nail bent and curled. We found a bit of the olive wood (between 1 and 2 cm) on the tip of the nail. This wood had probably been forced out of the knot where the curled nail hooked into it.

When it came time for the dead victim to be removed from the cross, the executioners could not pull out this nail, bent as it was within the cross. The only way to remove the body was to take an ax or hatchet and amputate the feet. Thereafter, the feet, the nail and a plaque of wood that had been fastened between the head of the nail and the feet remained attached to one another as we found them in Ossuary No. 4. Under the head of the nail, the osteological investigators found the remains of this wooden plaque, made of either acacia or pistacia wood. The wood attached to the curled end of the nail that had penetrated the upright of the cross was, by contrast, olive wood.

At first the investigators thought that the bony material penetrated by the nail was only the right heel bone (calcaneum). This assumption initially led them to a mistaken conclusion regarding the victim’s position on the cross. Further investigation disclosed, however, that the nail had penetrated both heel bones. The left ankle bone (sustentaculum tali) was found still attached to the bone mass adjacent to the right ankle bone, which was itself attached to the right heel bone. When first discovered, the two heel bones appeared to be two formless, unequal bony bulges surrounding an iron nail, coated by a thick calcareous crust. But painstaking investigation gradually disclosed the makeup of the bony mass.[1]

Pictures of this crucified heel can now be seen readily online. It is a jarring image that jolts us out of our complacent and easy talk of “crucifixion” and reminds us of the blunt and violent cruelty of the act itself. When we read of the crucifixion of Jesus, then, we are not reading of a hazy religious act bathed in pious hues. Rather, we are turning to something raw, something real, something horrific, something painful. And yet, for the believer, it remains for us something life-altering, something God-honoring, something soul-saving.

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Exodus 33:7-11

maxresdefault 11.12.55 AMExodus 33

7 Now Moses used to take the tent and pitch it outside the camp, far off from the camp, and he called it the tent of meeting. And everyone who sought the Lord would go out to the tent of meeting, which was outside the camp. 8 Whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people would rise up, and each would stand at his tent door, and watch Moses until he had gone into the tent. 9 When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the Lord would speak with Moses. 10 And when all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise up and worship, each at his tent door. 11 Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. When Moses turned again into the camp, his assistant Joshua the son of Nun, a young man, would not depart from the tent.

The Christian musician Michael Card once wrote a song about his relationship with his father that I find haunting.  His father was a good man, Card explains, but he carried a great burden on his shoulders by being a doctor.  In his case, this burden would often create distance between him and his children.  When he would come home, he would walk past his children and shut himself up in his office.  Michael Card, from a very early age, began going to the door of his father’s office and pushing little pictures or notes under the door in an effort to have some kind of connection with his father.  He says that sometimes he would just wiggle his little fingers at his dad beneath the locked door.  Here are the lyrics to the song:

My father was a doctor
Who would come home late at night
With a soul so bruised and bleeding
From his unending, faithful fight
To keep ahold of kindness
In a world that isn’t kind
To hold out the hope of healing
To his hurting humankind
Then he’d flee back to his study
To his bookish, quiet place
With notes and books and journals
To wall in his special space
And then he’d lock the door
From things that cannot be locked out
And his youngest son was starved for what
He’d always do without
But it was meant to make me who I am
And for all these many years
Still the little boy down on his knees
Full of hope and full of fear
Calling underneath the door
“This is me, it’s who I am.”
Cause we love the best by listening
When we try to understand
Desperate stubby fingers
Pushing pictures ‘neath the door
Longing to be listened to
By the man that I adored
Inside someone who needed me
As much as I did him
Unable to unlock the door
That stayed closed inside of him
It’s strange the way we tend to flee
From what we need the most
That a father would lock out a son
When his heart would hold him close
But our wounds are part of who we are
And there is nothing left to chance
And pain’s the pen that writes the songs
And call us forth to dance[1]

As we progress through Exodus 33, I cannot help but think of this song.  Perhaps Israel felt like Michael Card felt.  That is, Israel felt that there was distance between them and God, that He was there but that a door had, in a sense, been shut.  Their great sin in worshipping the golden calf had indeed created distance in their relationship with God, but God was indeed still there and never walked away from His children.  We can see this in the “tent of meeting,” to which we now turn.

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Mark 15:21-22

MarkSeriesTitleSlide1Mark 15

21 And they compelled a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross. 22 And they brought him to the place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull). 

One of the characters that stands out as strangely memorable in the events of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is a man named Simon, the man who was made to carry the cross of Jesus on the way to the hill of Calvary.  That Simon is so memorable is strange in the sense that not a great deal is said about him in the gospels.  Yet there he is, thrust right into the middle of the most important events in all of human history.  He is named and he was there, so we remember.  But Mark gives the fascinating detail that he was a father of two sons, and Mark names his sons.  Furthermore, Mark, as is his custom throughout his gospel, appears to use his words and images very strategically, linking the small episode of Simon of Cyrene with earlier episodes in the life of Jesus in order to make more important points.  Finally, there are tantalizing clues elsewhere in the New Testament about Simon:  what became of him and also even the effects of his carrying the cross of Jesus on his own household.

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Exodus 33:1-6

Amazing LightningExodus 32

1 The Lord said to Moses, “Depart; go up from here, you and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt, to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘To your offspring I will give it.’ I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.” When the people heard this disastrous word, they mourned, and no one put on his ornaments. For the Lord had said to Moses, “Say to the people of Israel, ‘You are a stiff-necked people; if for a single moment I should go up among you, I would consume you. So now take off your ornaments, that I may know what to do with you.’” Therefore the people of Israel stripped themselves of their ornaments, from Mount Horeb onward.

A video has only just gone viral even though it was filmed and posted online last summer.  One article’s description of the video is entitled, “Passengers forced to endure ‘demonic’ child’s screams for eight hours after he throws mega tantrum on flight” and is subtitled, “The child reportedly ran around screaming almost the entire time on the flight from Germany to Newark, New Jersey.”  It reads:

A disgruntled passenger filmed a “nightmare” eight-hour flight where a “demonic” child screamed almost the entire time.

The child can be seen climbing on top of the seats and screeching before the flight has even taken off yet.

But while many might have hoped the young boy may have settled down and watched a film – he doesn’t.

Instead he runs around the aircraft for almost the entire eight-hours while travelling from Germany to Newark, New Jersey.

It is not clear from the video which airline the boy and his family were flying with.

The video was uploaded onto YouTube last summer by Shane Townley who captioned it “demonic child screams and runs through an 8 hour flight”.

He wrote: “Watch as this kid runs and screams throughout the entire flight while the mother does little to nothing to stop him.

“3 years old on a 8 hour flight from Germany to Newark NJ. He never quits!”

In the video the child can be seen climbing on top of the seats while his mother asks him to sit.

The boy then starts his “demonic screams” as the video suggests, which takes over the plane.

Filming the noise from several rows back the screaming can clearly be heard.

Before the flight has even taken off yet the child’s mother desperately asks the flight attendant to “get the WiFi going so we can get the iPad going”.

She can be heard trying to calm her child down but he continues his screams, ignoring his mother’s pleas.

As the hours pass passengers can even be seen covering their ears as the unruly child runs up and down the aisles while screaming at the top of his lungs.

And it is a scene that continues throughout the majority of the flight.

After leaving the plane to go into the airport another passenger can be heard saying: “What a nightmare, oh my God – eight hours of screaming” as they wheel their suitcase down the ramp.

Commenting on the clip one person said: “Sadly this is happening more and more on flights, unruly kids and babies and exhausted parents.”

“Even noise cancellation headphones would not have drowned out this terror.”

“Total lack of discipline…perhaps crew should have removed said child and parents for violating safety regulations.”

Another person wrote: “If this started before the plane took off, the plane should have taxied back to the terminal and kicked the kid and his parents off. This kind of behaviour is just unacceptable.”

And another suggested: “Call an exorcist.”[1]

The video itself is, I must say, jarring.  Watching it, I simply cannot imagine being on the plane.  The child appears to scream and rage and tantrum for almost eight full hours.  The gentleman videoing it hops from one segment to the next entitled, “Hour 1,” “Hour 2,” “Hour 3,” etc.  In watching the couple of minutes that I watched I kept thinking, “Why didn’t somebody do something?!”  Most of the comments online reflect variations of that sentiment.

The outrage appears to be over the general idea of a long journey in which a unruly child is simply allowed to do whatever he wants with no adult attempts to stop or discipline him.  Very quickly the comments move from, “What is wrong with that child?!” to “What is wrong with that parent?!”

In watching that video, it is hard not to think of Israel’s exodus journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, with this exception:  Israel’s Father was not disconnected, was not lazy, was not helpless before the misbehavior of His children.  Israel’s Father knew exactly what He was doing and, when needed, He meted out discipline so that His child, Israel, could complete its journey and grow into who He wanted them to be.

A case in point of such discipline can be seen in God’s response to Israel’s worship of the golden calf.  Exodus 33 continues with this response.

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Mark 15:15-20

MarkSeriesTitleSlide1Mark 15

15 So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified. 16 And the soldiers led him away inside the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters), and they called together the whole battalion. 17 And they clothed him in a purple cloak, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on him. 18 And they began to salute him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” 19 And they were striking his head with a reed and spitting on him and kneeling down in homage to him. 20 And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. And they led him out to crucify him.

I am intrigued by people who claim to have seen visions.  I am neither wholly dismissive or wholly believing of such claims.  Sometimes accounts of visions sound legitimate.  Sometimes they sound concocted.  Sometimes it is hard to know.  I know this, though:  God has oftentimes spoken to people through dreams and visions.  I do believe that.  He does so in Scripture and I have no basis for thinking He does not do so today.  I also believe that the devil can appear to us in and try to deceive us through visions.

Two historical visions in particular are interesting in this regard.  One appears to have been an instance of satanic deception.  The other appears to have been a word from the Lord.  The first is a vision beheld by Martin of Tours.  The second is a vision beheld by Helena Kowalska.

Martin of Tours was a 4th century Hungarian man who would come to be known as a great Christian leader.  A figure once appeared to Martin in a vision.  The figure said that he was Jesus Christ.  As Martin prepared to worship this figure he noticed that the one who had appeared to him had no scars.  So Martin asked, “Where are your scars?”  And at that the figure disappeared.  Martin had, in fact, been visited by a fallen angel, a demon who was trying to deceive him.  It was the absence of the scars that made this clear.

On the other hand, consider the vision that Helena Kowalska claims to have had.

In 1923 a teenager named Helena Kowalska attended a dance in Lodz, Poland. While she danced that evening, a naked Jesus covered in agonizing wounds appeared at her side. “[H]ow long will you keep putting Me off?” He asked her. The music halted and all the people but Jesus disappeared from sight.[1]

Helena Kowalska felt God calling her to a life of devotion and service that night.  She would eventually come to be known as Saint Faustina.

Two visions.  One a deceptive lie.  One a powerful word from God.  In both the scars of Jesus made the difference.  The absence of the scars revealed the first vision to be a lie.  The presence of the scars revealed that the second was authentic.

The scars of Jesus are important to Christians.  Why?  Because He was wounded for us, struck for us, crucified for us.  As we progress through Mark 15 we come now to Christ’s scourging, His beating, His wounding.  We must come to His wounding before we come to His piercing.

We are not yet to the wounds of the crucifixion, but these wounds have their role to play.  They, too, reveal to us the character and nature of God.

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Exodus 32:15-35

Rembrandt_MosesExodus 32

15 Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand, tablets that were written on both sides; on the front and on the back they were written. 16 The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets. 17 When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, “There is a noise of war in the camp.” 18 But he said, “It is not the sound of shouting for victory, or the sound of the cry of defeat, but the sound of singing that I hear.” 19 And as soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. 20 He took the calf that they had made and burned it with fire and ground it to powder and scattered it on the water and made the people of Israel drink it. 21 And Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you that you have brought such a great sin upon them?” 22 And Aaron said, “Let not the anger of my lord burn hot. You know the people, that they are set on evil. 23 For they said to me, ‘Make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ 24 So I said to them, ‘Let any who have gold take it off.’ So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf.” 25 And when Moses saw that the people had broken loose (for Aaron had let them break loose, to the derision of their enemies), 26 then Moses stood in the gate of the camp and said, “Who is on the Lord’s side? Come to me.” And all the sons of Levi gathered around him. 27 And he said to them, “Thus says the Lord God of Israel, ‘Put your sword on your side each of you, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill his brother and his companion and his neighbor.’” 28 And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses. And that day about three thousand men of the people fell. 29 And Moses said, “Today you have been ordained for the service of the Lord, each one at the cost of his son and of his brother, so that he might bestow a blessing upon you this day.” 30 The next day Moses said to the people, “You have sinned a great sin. And now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” 31 So Moses returned to the Lord and said, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin. They have made for themselves gods of gold. 32 But now, if you will forgive their sin—but if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written.” 33 But the Lord said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot out of my book. 34 But now go, lead the people to the place about which I have spoken to you; behold, my angel shall go before you. Nevertheless, in the day when I visit, I will visit their sin upon them.” 35 Then the Lord sent a plague on the people, because they made the calf, the one that Aaron made.

Michael Linton has written an opera review entitled, “Moses at the Met.”  It an interesting look at an operatic performance of the life of Moses and, particularly of the scenes in the opera from Exodus 32.  He praises the opera’s artistry and beauty, yet he calls it a “theological failure that testifies to the difficulties of creating religious art outside a religious community.”

This centrality of religious issues to modern composers was dramatically highlighted last spring by the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Arnold Schoenberg’s rarely performed  Moses und Aron. Although he did not live to hear a performance (it was first staged in Zurich in 1957, six years after his death), Schoenberg regarded the opera as his most important composition…For Schoenberg, “God” is pure idea who can be experienced only internally. Act One begins at the burning bush….Act Two opens in the wilderness, the Hebrews growing restless as they wait for Moses to return from meeting with God. They suspect that the new deity has killed Moses and abandoned them. They become violent, and Aaron agrees to give the mob an image of God they can comprehend. He makes the golden calf (a stuffed disemboweled ox in the Met production). The people bring it offerings and sacrifices. They become drunk, murderous, and orgiastic.
As their orgy collapses into stupor, Moses returns with the stone tables of the law. Outraged by what he sees, he commands that the idol be destroyed and calls Aaron to account. Aaron justifies himself by describing the people’s fears and telling Moses that he “heeded the voice from within” when he gave the people an image of God they could comprehend. Moses may love his pure idea of God, but Aaron claims that he loves the people. God may be timeless, but such timelessness is shown by the endurance of Israel, and Israel proves its faithfulness by its “feeling.” Nothing truly encompasses the totality of God, Aaron argues, and the stone tablets no less than the golden calf are but a partial revelation “and thus a distortion” of the pure God “idea so important to Moses.”
Recognizing the validity of Aaron’s point, Moses smashes the tablets in disgust. Chiding Moses, Aaron says that by making Moses’ idea comprehensible to the common man, he sustains it. A pillar of fire appears to lead the Israelites, but Moses distrusts it as yet another physical distortion of the metaphysical truth. Aaron joins the people as they begin to follow the pillar, while Moses remains rooted in despair. Aaron has perverted Moses’ pure perception of God, and the act closes with Moses crying hopelessly, “Oh word, word that I lack!”[1]

Wow!  Now that is a unique take on Exodus 32!  In Schoenberg’s opera, Moses smashes the tablets of the ten commandments because Aaron persuades him that the tablets are deficient, are partial revelation, and that the mind and heart of God cannot be known through such physical means.  Thus, Aaron is seen to be wise for following his inner impulses in making the golden calf and Moses is seen to be a fool for thinking that the stone tablets could truly tell him anything about God or that the golden calf could really offend God.  Moses’ pitiful words at the end of the act are most tragic of all:  “Oh word, word that I lack!”

What is amazing about this is the fact that Schoenberg manages in his opera to communicate the exact opposite point that Exodus 32 makes.  Far from coming to see the commandments as insufficient, Moses realized that on these tablets is the true law of God communicating the true heart of God.  Far from being persuaded by Aaron’s sin, Moses was stunned that Aaron could sin so greatly against God!  Far from trusting God less, Moses’ actions reveal that he realized that the Lord who met him on the mountain was Israel’s only hope.  Far from seeing the golden calf as a largely irrelevant object, Moses called down judgement before Moses cried out for mercy.  And far from staying behind in a fit of nihilistic despair while Aaron and the children of Israel went ahead, Moses called on the people to repent and to decide whether or not they would follow the Lord God in truth.

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Mark 15:1-15

MarkSeriesTitleSlide1Mark 15

1 And as soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. And they bound Jesus and led him away and delivered him over to Pilate. 2 And Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And he answered him, “You have said so.” 3 And the chief priests accused him of many things. 4 And Pilate again asked him, “Have you no answer to make? See how many charges they bring against you.” 5 But Jesus made no further answer, so that Pilate was amazed. 6 Now at the feast he used to release for them one prisoner for whom they asked. 7 And among the rebels in prison, who had committed murder in the insurrection, there was a man called Barabbas. 8 And the crowd came up and began to ask Pilate to do as he usually did for them. 9 And he answered them, saying, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” 10 For he perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests had delivered him up. 11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release for them Barabbas instead. 12 And Pilate again said to them, “Then what shall I do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” 13 And they cried out again, “Crucify him.” 14 And Pilate said to them, “Why? What evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him.” 15 So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified.

In 1975 Bob Dylan wrote his song “Hurricane.”  The song is about Rubin Carter, a boxer who was convicted in 1966 of murder.  (You may recall Denzel Washington playing Carter in the 1999 film, “The Hurricane.”)  Dylan’s song was a protest song against the widely-perceived injustice of Carter’s case.  Ten years after it was written, in 1985, a New Jersey Circuit Court judge granted a writ of habeas corpus and Rubin Carter was set free.

The song is a blistering indictment of the perceived injustices of our justice system, an opinion that many believe was finally confirmed by Carter’s release.  In the song, Dylan lays out the evidence for Carter’s innocence and, in general, lampoons the courts for convicting Carter of a crime he did not commit.  Dylan sings:

How can the life of such a man
Be in the palm of some fool’s hand?
To see him obviously framed
Couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land
Where justice is a game[1]

Those are powerful words and stinging words!  A land where justice is a game.

In truth, those words are a phenomenally apt description of the “court” proceedings recorded in the gospels in which Jesus was ultimately condemned to death.  Furthermore, these proceedings are cautionary tales that reveal lasting traits about the nature of man.

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