Archive for July, 2012

Caesarea Philippi

What’s the good word?

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” “Well,” they replied, “some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, and others say Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.” Then he asked them, “But who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “You are blessed, Simon son of John, because my Father in heaven has revealed this to you. You did not learn this from any human being. Now I say to you that you are Peter (which means ‘rock’), and upon this rock I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it. And I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. Whatever you forbid on earth will be forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven.”

Situated 25 miles north of the Sea of Galilee and at the base of Mt. Hermon, Caesarea Philippi is the location of one of the largest springs feeding the Jordan River.  This abundant water supply made the area very fertile and attractive for religious worship.  In fact, numerous temples were built at this city in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Apparently known as Baal Hermon and Baal Gad in the Old Testament period, this site later was named Panias after the Greek god Pan who was worshiped here.  There were numerous temples being built here, one by Herod the great. As you see below, one of the Temples was built right into the side of the hill in the big hole. That hole was thought to be the entrance to the “dark world” and the land of the dead.

(Look at diagram above and you can see these archways and where they were)

Jesus never entered into the city, that we know of, but it this backdrop that Jesus asks the question of his disciples “Who do people say that I am?” Just placing this question in a place really brings the meaning of this part of Matthew’s gospel home. Here Jesus was, at this place with his disciples, a place many were coming to worship the god of Pan, among other deities, a place where animal sacrifice was being performed (below is a place where the goats were killed and placed). It is here that Jesus asks, “OK, so people are worshipping this god Pan, and all sorts of other deities, and here I am, the Son of God, SO…who do people say that I am? Am I just another among so many?” It’s a pretty impressive field trip and lesson that Jesus has these disciples on.

This is a question I believe is still being asked today, “Who do people say that I am? Am I one among many?” Many people would be quick to answer like Peter because we are attuned to what the “correct” answer should be. And may of us would probably say that Jesus isn’t one among many. But a quick observation of our bank accounts and calendars might show a different story. Jesus wanted to be the rabbi, the one person, in these disciples’ lives, and he wants that for us today as well. Peter gave the right answer, and my prayer is that we may be able to do the same as well.

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The Jordan

What’s the good word?

“When Jesus went from Galilee to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. But John tried to talk him out of it. ‘I am the one who needs to be baptized by you,’ he said, ‘so why are you coming to me?’ But Jesus said, ‘It should be done, for we must carry out all that God requires.’ So John agreed to baptize him. After his baptism, as Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and settling on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy.'”

Those words are said every time a person is baptized. God says you are my own, the one I love, the one who brings me great joy. Baptism is from the Greek word that literally means “to dip”, as in “to dip in water.” Water is full of religious significance. Every major religion uses water in some way or another. In the Lutheran faith, Baptism is one of two sacraments. That means, that Baptism is not simply plain water. Instead, it is water used according to God’s command and connected with God’s word. Baptism brings about forgiveness of sins, redeems from death and the devil and gives eternal salvation to all who believe it. Clearly the water does not do it alone, but the Word of God, which is with, in, and among the water. For without the Word of God, the water is plain water and not a baptism. With the Word of God it is a baptism, a grace-filled water of life and a “bath of the new birth in the Holy Spirit.”

Jordan is derived from the Hebrew word pronounced yar-dane, meaning descender. The New Testament Greek word for the Jordan is pronounced ee-or-dan-ace. “Descender” is an appropriate name for the river as it runs its course from the heights of its sources near Mount Hermon to the depths of the Dead Sea. My time at the Jordan was two fold. The first I saw of the Jordan was at its origin in the norther part of Israel. The Jordan is fed from springs and from the mountain snow melt in the mountains to the north. It was clear, clean, so clean one could drink it (I had a sip!). It was easy to picture Jesus getting baptized in this spot. I felt the most at peace though at the spot where the Jordan begins.

Then, a few days later we were at a baptismal spot on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, a more “typical” spot where Jesus would and could have been baptized. Not so clean and clear. As a matter of fact, I really didn’t want to get in. However, here groups of believers from all over the world would come and be baptized in this spot as you can see from the photo below. To me it was too commercial, but for others, they had a profound experience at this place on the Jordan.

 What I was stuck at was the dunking. In my denomination we sprinkle. Somehow I felt a new sense of appreciation for the immersion method. If you think about it, as a person is lowered into the water there is an imagery of dying to one’s old self, only to come back up resurrected in a new life after being washed clean. There are all sorts of debates out there as to what is the right or wrong way to baptize (submersion, sprinkling, or pouring), regardless, to me it is the words of God “You are mine, and I find great joy in you!” that matter the most.  But regardless, the Jordan had a profound impact on me and my thoughts on baptism.
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July 5, 2012 2 comments

What’s the good word? “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” Those words from Luke’s Gospel evoke certain emotions in all of us regarding the birth of Christ. Isolation, harshness, difficulty for the young couple and child. Images of cold, windswept, winter hills in Bethlehem, overcrowded inns, and a futile attempt to find housing in a strange city paint a bleak picture of the first Christmas. With this being the first blog post in regards to my trip to Israel, I’d like to focus on my time in Bethlehem to begin.

Bethlehem lies within Palestinian controlled walls, so we had to get another guide on the other side of the wall to be our guide while in Bethlehem, as our Jewish guide Ronnie, who was with us the whole time, still did not have permission to cross into Bethlehem. We were greeted by  Palestinian Christian who would be our guide for our time in Bethlehem. It was a short visit. We only did some shopping at a Christian gift shop, went to The Church of the Nativity, had lunch, and then crossed back to Israeli controlled territory.

What to think of our time at The Church of the Nativity? I was excited to be able to go to the “supposed” birth site of Jesus. While we don’t know for certain whether or not the church stands on the “actual spot” he was born, the church does stand on what used to be Bethlehem at the time of Jesus. That was enough for me. I really didn’t need to be in the exact spot. As we approached the church (below) my heart was racing and I was eager to get into the church and have a “holy moment”.

Then I got in. The actual “place” where you go is down in a cave. Remember, this place has been built on top of what used to be Bethlehem, so you had to go down into a cave to reach “the spot”. My first reaction in going into the place was, “You’ve got to be kidding!” There was so much “stuff” in the place, it was hard to concentrate on one thing (see picture below). People were everywhere, and we had to wait in line an hour and a half in order to get to this small door to the cave, which only one person at a time could go into. People would push and try to get to the front of the line. I was tired from standing, I was hungry, I was hot, and my patience was wearing thin. The place that was supposed to be the most holy of places for me wasn’t turning out to be that at all.

We finally made it to the cave. There you could place your hand in a hole where you could feel rock from old time Bethlehem, and you could see the manger (see pic below). Now I know what you are thinking in regards to the manger “I thought it was wood.” That’s what many of us think. But Israel isn’t a “wood” nation, it’s a rock nation, and most things were made and carved out of rock. Not only that, but let’s look at the story of the birth of Jesus from a historical perspective. Remember, the Gospel writers weren’t interested in writing history, they were interested in writing the good news!

The architecture of a family home both today and in antiquity made provision for the occasional guest. The most common dwelling was the courtyard home which was multileveled. A lower room or cellar was used as a storeroom. In the hilly areas, like Bethlehem, a cave adjacent to the courtyard might often be adapted for this purpose. Here the family’s prized or more vulnerable animals could be fed and sheltered at night, protected from the dangers of the outside world. In Luke 2:7 the Greek kataluma can be translated either ‘inn’ or the more common use for the word ‘guest room,’ and may have referred to this room in the family home. For Joseph, when he arrived with Mary for the census, the most likely place for him to go is straight to his paternal home, seeking the help and protection of his relatives currently living there, and receiving help for Mary, who is pregnant. Jewish custom would demand such a response. Bethlehem, and this family’s guest room, were full of relatives and no private place existed for her to deliver her baby. No private place, that is, until someone had the bright idea and compassionate idea to suggest the storeroom and animal’s shelter below the house. It doesn’t affect the story one bit. Jesus is still born in “the city of David” and is still among cattle and sheep, and is still laid in a manger (although one carved out of the bed of rock which the house sat on). It is entirely plausible. Look at what we find in Matthew, when the Magi come to see Jesus, it says that “upon entering the house…”. No mention of a stable. Just a side note here in regards to the “Wise Men”. The Church of the Nativity was spared destruction by the Persians during their conquest of the holy land. Why? As they looked up at the church they saw a painting of three persian kings giving gifts to a baby. (If you don’t get it here’s a hint: The “wise men” were persian kings!)

This is getting long, so I would conclude with this: If we look at the story through new eyes, through what could have been more possible, the story is not one of abandonment and isolation, but one of compassion and protection and of the order of family life in traditional Jewish society in the first century. Again, this is not meant to ruin your view of how the story “went down” but to give you a historical perspective on the birth of Christ. It doesn’t change anything. Why do we get a slightly different perspective in the gospels? Because, again, they weren’t interested in writing history, they were interested in spreading the good news of Jesus Christ. There’s a difference.

More to come about my trip! And that’s the good word for today!


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