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Standing Between the Living and the Dead
Reflecting on the Seventh Sunday of Easter: Two Days after Sunday (Year A)
Psalter: Psalm 99
Old Testament: Numbers 16:41-50
Epistle: 1 Peter 4:7-11
Living God, long ago, faithful women proclaimed the good news of Jesus' resurrection, and the world was changed forever. Teach us to keep faith with them, that our witness may be as bold, our love as deep, and our faith as true. Amen.
Then Moses said to Aaron, “Take your censer and put incense in it, along with burning coals from the altar, and hurry to the assembly to make atonement for them. Wrath has come out from the Lord; the plague has started.” So Aaron did as Moses said, and ran into the midst of the assembly. The plague had already started among the people, but Aaron offered the incense and made atonement for them. He stood between the living and the dead, and the plague stopped. But 14,700 people died from the plague, in addition to those who had died because of Korah. Then Aaron returned to Moses at the entrance to the tent of meeting, for the plague had stopped (Numbers 16:46-50).
In Numbers 16:48 we are told that Aaron stood between the living and the dead and the plague stopped. Israel had a sin problem from the beginning of their travels in the wilderness toward Canaan. They had spent centuries in slavery under the Pharaohs of Egypt. Living in that context they struggled to trust authority. This is not uncommon even today. When people are abused by pastors of churches or by other leaders in organizations or companies where the boss is an autocrat and is unfeeling toward the needs and cares of the people, it is difficult to trust even when moral, good, and decent people are in authority. The former slaves in Egypt have a kind of PTSD that makes it difficult not to see Moses as just another Pharaoh.
Here in the book of Numbers, a plague has come upon the people on account of their sin; and yet atonement is possible. What is atonement? Atonement is a bringing together. It is literally an at-one-ment. In the sacrificial system of Israel, the priest played the role of mediator between God and the people. We see this in the annual festival of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when the high priest entered the Holy of Holies once a year to make atonement on behalf of the people before God. Numbers is a foreshadowing of the Christian belief that Jesus is the once and for all Mediator between God and humanity.
Aaron and Moses offer incense. Incense would have offered a pleasing aroma for all those who were within reach of its odor. Perhaps today we might think about essential oils, burning scented candles or incense as a way to calm our spirits. The incense serves as a calming effect. It is a reminder that serving God is indeed a pleasant thing in even in the midst of catastrophe.
In the Revelation of Saint John, the incense in the heavenly Temple represents the prayers of God’s people. As in Numbers, the prayers of the people are represented by incense. In the New Testament, Christ is the Mediator. Christ is the High Priest in God’s heavenly Temple; but this Jesus as Mediator is different from Aaron who died. Mediator Jesus is alive and continues to make intercession. Because of his work of death and resurrection, Jesus is making atonement on behalf of the people as no other Mediator is necessary. Incense and sacrifice are no longer required.
It is often misunderstood that the job of the mediator is to change God’s mind toward the people, as if God is ready to pour out his wrath upon the people—that the mediator in offering atonement gives to God a change of heart. This is not true. God’s mind does not have to be changed. God has loved his people all along, so much so that God himself becomes flesh in Jesus to do the work for us. Christ’s sacrifice makes it possible for God to be both the one who is just and the one who justifies and the one who acts on behalf of the people who have faith in Jesus Christ.
Christ as a Mediator is also an Advocate for sinners. Jesus doesn’t just go through the required rituals. Jesus actually sides with the people. Jesus Christ is our Mediator and the one who offers his once for all sacrifice on our behalf. In other words, God himself pays the price. Only God can achieve that salvation. We now live in confidence of God’s love and of God’s mercy. Justice through the death of Christ has been served.
PRAYER: O God, your Son remained with his disciples after his resurrection, teaching them to love all people as neighbors. As his disciples in this age, we offer our prayers on behalf of the universe in which we are privileged to live and our neighbors with whom we share it.
Open our hearts to your power moving around us and between us and within us, until your glory is revealed in our love of both friend and enemy, in communities transformed by justice and compassion, and in the healing of all that is broken. Amen.
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