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Before they let you climb what used to be called Mt. McKinley, the rangers of Denali National Park sit you down to show you the perils of climbing the highest mountain in North America. The presentation views images of thunderous avalanches, storms that flatten tents, hands, and feet blackened by frost bit, and twisted bodies pulled out of crevasses. The ten-minute video can make even the toughest skin crawl. The purpose of the film is to bring to alert to climbers the hidden dangers involved in the climb. Harmless looking clouds that you see every day could be the front of an approaching blizzard with hurricane power. The cobalt sky and warm sun of a nice day could be enough to let go the unstable snow on the rise above you, and fresh snow in before your feet can hide crevasses that can swallow a bus whole. If you think climbing Mt. McKinley is nothing more than a long walk in the snow then you are probably not going to make it.
Our Lord paints for us graphic pictures of the consequences and dangers involved in our earthly pilgrimage. The Millstone, a giant stone doughnut, hung around the neck and tossed into the sea, hands cut off, eyes gouged, unquenchable fires and flesh-eating worms. Are such urgent and graphic images of sin necessary? Perhaps it is better to ask, who sins in the Bible? The bad guys, right? Actually, it is the good guys.
Take Jacob’s sons. These are Abraham’s great grandkids. They are the ones who will pass on the faith to many generations going forward. Yet, one time they gave into jealousy and sold their youngest brother as a slave in Egypt. David was a good man. God favored him, and he amassed a huge wealth of property and riches. No one expanded the empire as David. Yet, in a weak moment, he took someone else’s wife and killed the husband. The disciples gave up everything to follow Jesus. Peter and his brother left a great fishing business. Matthew was collecting money at a table when he met the lord. Imagine, having a job that easy and productive. Who would not want that employment? Yet he gave it up to follow the lord. Still, in a moment of weakness, they all let the lord when he needed their support the most. If these great biblical heroes failed, what chance do we have?
The best description of hidden danger I ever heard in Scripture comes from the book of Amos. Amos was not a prophet. He did not hang out at the temple his whole life as Isaiah, Samuel, and Jeremiah. Amos was a farmer. He worked in the outdoors, so he knows a thing about wild animals. He gave the illustration of a man who encountered a bear. After he escapes from the bear, he runs into a lion. He runs from the lion until he arrives at his house. He closes the door and leans his hand against the wall, and then a snake bites him. Amos’s message is powerful. Just when you think you are safe, just when you are complacent, that is when you are most in danger. Hidden danger.
Most people like to celebrate the New Years. I am not one of them. I prefer to go to bed early. I can’t because the Cardinal likes to bring in the New Year at our church at midnight. Naturally, there is a reception that follows, so I get no sleep. If you go to the mass on New Year’s day, you will notice that the first reading is from the book of Numbers. When was the last time you read the book? Let me summarize to refresh the memory. Numbers is the second to last book in the Pentateuch. The book begins with a census of all the names of anyone over 20 years old who were living in the desert after God delivered them from Egypt. After forty years, all the people on the census die because of war, poison snakes, and desert conditions. The death of this generation is due to sin and disobedience to God. After forty years there is a second census. Because everyone died, no one on the first census is on the new list except Joshua and Caleb. There is an amazing difference between the two censuses. The first census has the names of all those who died in the desert. In the second census, no one dies in the desert. Even during a battle with the Midianites, no Israelite soldier is killed. There are still poisonous snakes, and dangers in the desert, but no one dies. Everyone enters the Promised Land. How is that possible? God gives the new generation a blessing from Aaron:
May the LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.
That is how God protects us from hidden dangers. When Jesus was born, the Shepherds rejoice because they recognized a blessing. A new generation was born. A blessing means no one dies because of sin. The two censuses in the Book of Numbers recalls what God does when he blesses. And God breaks sin and brings forth a new generation with the birth of a firstborn. That is why we remain faithful to God. We need his blessing.
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