Day 4: Galilee, part 2, and Entering Jerusalem

Climbing Mt. Arbel

This morning we began with probably our most strenuous hike of the trip: Mt. Arbel. Mt. Arbel is not mentioned by name in the Bible, but it is the highest point on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, so it is impossible to not imagine that it factored in at least some of stories we have in the gospels. Looking around the region of Galilee over the past few days, it is clear that if Jesus wanted to get to “a deserted place,” as he does so often in the gospels, then he would need to go to a wild and rugged place like Mt. Arbel.

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone… (Matthew 14:22-23)

On the way up the mountain, we stopped half-way to rest, and we overlooked the town of Migdal, or Magdala. This small town is best known for one of its inhabitants: Mary Magdalene.

Our guide asked us what we knew about Mary. The first two responses? 1) She was a disciple of Jesus, and he had removed seven demons from her; and 2) She was a “lady of the night” (there were children present…). Mary Magdalene was indeed a disciple of Jesus, and was a witness of both his crucifixion and resurrection. And Luke 8:1-3 does mention Mary’s history with demons:

The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

Luke also mentions, which none of us remembered, that Mary (along with the other women in this company) was wealthy enough to provide for Jesus and the disciples. How did we miss that?

Mary Magdalene, however, is nowhere named to be “the sinful woman forgiven” from the passage before, nor is she “the woman caught in adultery” in John’s gospel. These unfortunate associations were made by later church fathers (yes, fathers) seeking to downplay Mary Magdalene’s significance.

This conflation of texts was given sanction in the sixth century by Pope Gregory the Great (540–604) in a famous homily in which he holds Mary up as a model of penitence. Pope Gregory positively identified the unnamed anointer and adulteress as Mary, and suggested that the ointment used on Jesus’ feet was once used to scent Mary’s body. The seven demons Jesus cast out of Mary were, according to Gregory, the seven cardinal sins, which include lust. But, wrote Gregory, when Mary threw herself at Jesus’ feet, “she turned the mass of her crimes to virtues, in order to serve God entirely in penance.”

~ from Biblical Archaeology‘s website

The lesson here?  Our words have the power to build up and to tear down. For centuries, one of Jesus’ key disciples has been belittled and maligned as a former prostitute and an unfortunate penitent, simply because a few people wanted to make a certain point in their sermons. Is the same true of us? Do the words we say about others — whether untrue or mistaken — leave a false legacy behind those brothers and sisters in Christ?

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Lord, save us from wicked words. Let the words of our mouths build others up, not tear them down. Help us to create and sustain a world of peace and unity for others with the words we say. And above all, guide us by your Word, and help us to really listen to what you say, so that we might live our lives upon it. Amen.

Sea of Galilee

After looking out over the Sea of Galilee from the heights of Arbel, we came down to sail on the Sea of Galilee in a boat. We made just a short loop here, so there wasn’t enough time to really listen to one of the most famous stories that took place here, but it was in the back of our minds the whole time.

…but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.

And early in the morning [Jesus] came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear.

But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” (Matthew 14:24-27)

Take heart.

It is I.

Do not be afraid.

What comfort! In the midst of life’s storms — which come up suddenly and blow us out to the open waters, off course, without the means to return to the safe and familiar shore — it is often a terrifying surprise to find our Jesus walking calmly to be with us. A surprise, because we were not looking for a friend, only survival. Terrifying, because Jesus comes in unthinkable ways, when and where we least expected him.

My dad pointed out that a lake like the Sea of Galilee in the states would be surrounded by million dollar lake homes and filled with recreational boaters and water sports. But the Sea of Galilee is relatively empty: a few fishers, and a few tour boats offering rides to pilgrims. The waters are a place of business (and then, only by necessity), not pleasure, in Galilee. The sea is closely linked in the ancient Israelite mind, with sheol, “the depths” or “the abyss.” The world below the surface of the waters is dangerous, especially when you understand the world as Genesis 1 describes it. If we really do live in a God-created — God-breathed — dome of air inserted between the waters above and the waters below, then to float precariously on the surface of the waters below is to take your life into your own hands.

Understanding this, we see why it was so scary that the disciples’ boat had been pushed “far from the land.” If one must venture out between life and death, one had better stick close to shore.

Understanding this, we see why Jesus’ appearance was so terrifying: he is walking on the water. No boat. No protection. Here is the rabbi we thought we knew, precariously perched between life and death. And he’s telling us, “Do not be afraid”!?

Understanding this, what come next should surprise us even more:

Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

He said, Come.”

So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”

Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:28-31)

Peter — this good Jewish boy (and probably the elder of the young disciples) from Galilee, this veteran fisher of the Sea of Galilee, taught from an early age to regard the waters with a healthy respect and a holy fear — understands that his Rabbi must be master of life and death, to walk between the two like this. Peter’s understanding leads him to make a wholly unexpected request: “Command me to come to you on the water.”

There have been so many interpretations of what happens here that it seems impossible to say something new about Peter walking on (and sinking into) the Sea of Galilee. Whether or not it even happened, whether or not Peter was the fool or the hero, whether or not Jesus was angry with Peter, what matter’s most is that Peter — and all the disciples — begin to understand that their Rabbi from Galilee is more than they first thought.

When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (Matthew 14:32-33)

This Rabbi from Galilee is master of life and death, “the Son of God.”

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Lord, give us faith, but when we fail, give us your hand and help us. Amen.

Beit She’an

As we made our way out of Galilee, we made one last stop: Beit She’an. Again, a city the gospel writers make no specific mention of, and yet we can assume was a significant part of living in Galilee. As small Nazareth must have seemed to the people of Sepphoris, so Sepphoris must have seemed small to the citizens of Beit She’an — better known in Jesus’ day as Scythopolis — one of the Gentile Ten Cities, or Decapolis. Nine of the Ten Cities are located around the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee (or Tiberias, the Gentiles called it), but Scythopolis, or Beit She’an, was on the west of the Jordan River, south of the Sea of Galilee.

~

Here we learned about Roman architecture and civic design, public sanitation, and other wonders that Greece and Rome introduced to the Jews. It is hard not to be impressed, not to wish to see it in its glory during the great Pax Romana. It must have been beautiful. What must the Jews have thought of such a city? What must Jesus’ disciples? Would they have shunned it, or been repulsed by its splendor, because it was “Gentile” and not Jewish?

It is hard to argue that such advances in sanitation and culture were evil because they were made by Gentiles. But don’t we make similar judgments of the medical and cultural innovations made by the “Gentiles” around us? And how can we expect modern medicine or media to have a Christian conscience when we Christians have so isolated ourselves from it? Do we have any right to be shocked or scandalized by our society’s lack of morality (as we judge it) when we insist on withdrawing from it and creating Christian sub-cultures, “holy huddles,” away from society? I wonder.

“How are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard?” (Romans 10:14)

Jerusalem

Temple mount by nightWe finished up our tours in Galilee, and drove south to Jerusalem. Even though we went south, we were going “up” to Jerusalem. This pilgrimage to the city of David is mostly uphill, because Jerusalem is surrounded by mountains. It was during such pilgrimages that the Israelites would sing “the psalms of ascent,” our Psalms 121-134.

On this sabbath evening (Jewish shabbat begins Fridays at sundown and ends Saturdays at sundown), I can’t help but offer up Psalm 121, a pilgrim’s song for ascending to Jerusalem.

Psalm 121, A Song of Ascents.

I lift up my eyes to the hills—

from where will my help come?

My help comes from the Lord,

who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved;

he who keeps you will not slumber.

He who keeps Israel

will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is your keeper;

the Lord is your shade at your right hand.

The sun shall not strike you by day,

nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all evil;

he will keep your life.

The Lord will keep

your going out and your coming in

from this time on and forevermore.

Amen.

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Day 3: Galilee, part 1

Cana

We didn’t stop in Cana this morning, because there isn’t much history to see there (besides a historic Roman Catholic Church on the traditional site of the famous Wedding). As we drove through, however, our tour guide gave us a brief lesson on 1st-century Jewish weddings.

After the couple gets engaged — which involved the groom talking with the bride’s parents, not necessarily with the bride’s knowledge — the groom gets busy building and making ready their house — which (usually) involved building on an addition to his family’s house, or “insula.” Whenever the groom’s work is finished, he sets off across town to collect his bride and bring her home. The bride has no way of knowing when this will happen, so she must wait expectantly, and be ready at all times. As the groom walks, a parade is formed behind him as family and friends and onlookers join the bridal procession to celebrate the union. By the time the groom reaches the bride, the whole village is involved in the festivities! A feast would follow, and it was just such a feast that Jesus was invited to, with some of his disciples, and it was later on during this feast that his mother asked him — told him? — to somehow produce more wine, so the feast and merriment would continue longer.

This helps us better understand the parable of the ten bridesmaids that Jesus tells. In the parable, 10 bridesmaids wait for the groom to come: five were wise and watchful, keeping extra oil ready for their lamps; the other five were foolish and fickle, and did not bring oil. The five who were ready were welcomed into the feast; the five who had to go out to buy more oil missed out.

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Lord, help us keep watch. Let the oil of your Word and the flame of your Spirit illumine our eyes and stir our hearts to wait expectantly for your return. Amen.

Nazareth Village

This morning we were in Nazareth Village, a reproduction of 1st-century Nazareth on — as close as possible — the actual site of 1st-century Nazareth. It is striking to be standing where Jesus grew up, and I suppose this is what I expected more of this trip to feel like. It helps that this place has been made to look, feel, sound, and smell, like the Nazareth that Jesus (probably maybe) grew up in.

It has also been crafted with great detail, which gave great insights into several of the parables of Jesus. Perhaps the most illuminating for me was the olive press. We were brought to one of the larger buildings, where the freshly harvested olives would have been ground on a donkey-driven mill, and the pulp then scooped into woven baskets and stacked over a vat dug in the ground to collect. Once the pure oil was gravity pressed, the baskets were then taken to the mechanical press and placed under the weight of the long, heavy beam, to be collected again in the vat. The third press is extracted as weights are progressively added to the beam; this oil is riddled with impurities from the olive pulp, and is used mostly for burning in small clay oil lamps.

The connection was made for us that, just like olives are pressed three times, so also Jesus was “pressed” three times in the garden of Gethsemane, on the Mount of Olives.

But he was wounded for our transgressions,

crushed for our iniquities;

upon him was the punishment that made us whole,

and by his bruises we are healed.

~ Isaiah 53:5

Just as the oil from the first press is pure, and used in temple rites of purification; and the oil from the second press is clean, and used in preparing foods and medicines; and the oil from the third press, while impure, is still useful for burning for light and heat, the blood and sweat poured out in the prayers of Jesus are useful and beneficial for our purification, nourishment, and comfort, poured out for us. Thanks be to God!

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This place, and the ministry that manages it, left quite an impression. What an amazing witness in this place!

Sepphoris

Sepphoris, the Greco-Roman capital of the region of Galilee, is only four miles from Nazareth, but for the differences found between these two places, they’re in different worlds. If you’re not familiar with this name, don’t be alarmed. This city is not featured in any New Testament story, which begs the question: “Why study this site?”. While it was not featured, and there is no textual proof that Jesus was here, this city was in Jesus’ backyard growing up. What is more, there is historic proof that new building projects were commissioned during Jesus’ lifetime suggests to scholars that Joseph, recorded to be a carpenter (which scholars read to more likely mean a mason or even a daylaborer, considering the regional abundance of stone and rarity of usable lumber), may have perhaps been involved in some of the construction of Sepphoris. From that extra-textual leap, we can even imagine young Jesus, Joseph’s son and apprentice, tagging along to learn and help with the expansive projects.

~

It is interesting to consider, and imagine, and wonder. I wonder if Jesus, who already had a profound understanding of God’s Law by this time, was asked to work on tile mosaics of bizarre myths of centaurs and amazons and Dionysus. I wonder if Jesus took a break from the work to see one of the Greek tragedies at the theater, and what he would have thought of such portrayals of gods as fickle and vindictive. I wonder if Joseph tried to shield Jesus from the Greek myths and Roman military culture, to preserve some sense of Jewish identity for the boy. I wonder.

Lord, you have revealed yourself to us through the eyes and words of your disciples, sent to go and tell the good news that the kingdom of God is near. Through the stories handed down to us, we know you in your sufferings, and in your triumphal resurrection. Whatever else happened while you were on earth is a question mark, but we pray to you and put our trust in you as our Lord and Savior. Thank you. Amen.

Mount of the Beatitudes

What a hot, dusty, sunny place to listen to a sermon. No shade, no soft grass, no cool sea breezes. In a sweaty instant, I have had to completely re-imagine this story. We were tasked to go with our families to read Matthew 5-7, the Sermon on the Mount, and hear it in the place it was spoken. It’s hard work to listen in the heat on the hard ground.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

~ The Beatitudes, Matthew 5:3-12

A strange opening to a sermon. Strange to hear blessings on a barren hilltop. Strange to hear who is blessed in this upside-down kingdom: the poor, the mourners, the meek, the hungry, the merciful, the pure, the peacemakers, the persecuted. Not who we usually consider blessed. But Jesus welcomes and invites and blesses precisely those people who would be sitting on this hill.

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Lord, train my eyes to see the outcast, and my lips to bless them. Embrace me in your arms of love, that I may do the same to those whom society considers of no value, so that they may discover their ultimate worth in your kingdom. Amen.

Church of the Multiplication

This is the traditional site (pretty accurate, but no real proof) of a very familiar story:

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

~ Matthew 14:13-21

Whether you believe that five loaves and two fish could — by the providential power of God — fed five thousand people, or that somehow this first offering was matched by everyone else’s picnic baskets, or whatever happened, is not the point. Our group did not fixate on the historicity of this story, but on its theological significance for God’s people. A small meal became a superabundant feast in Jesus’ hands, as he took and blessed and broke and gave. Every time we celebrate communion, the same thing happens. The bread and cup are taken, blessed, broken/poured, and given, and a small meal (snack, really) becomes a spiritual feast.

This connection was made for us at the church’s altar. Below the simple communion table, there is a tile mosaic of two fish, and a basket or plate with four loaves. We were asked, “Where is the fifth loaf?”. The fifth loaf is the bread for communion each Sunday, and the miracle is reenacted for the people of God.

Peter’s Primacy

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” (John 21:15)

This is the traditional site for the post-resurrection breakfast on the beach in John 21, where Peter is reinstated after denying Jesus three times. Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?”. Jesus gives Peter an opportunity to be reconciled and restored.

And [Peter] said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” (John 21:17b)

But to be in right relationship with Jesus means that Peter — and we, too — has work to do.

Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.

If we love Jesus, we love those he loves. This is not easy work. What Jesus says next is sometimes read during the ordinations of pastors as they are robed:

“Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (John 21:18)

If we love Jesus, and we love those he loved, then we will go to new and uncomfortable — even dangerous — places in his name. If this is daunting, and scary, the next words of Jesus should be a comfort.

After this he said to him, “Follow me.” (John 21:19)

We are never asked to go to these places without Jesus. Even in the so-called “Great Commission”, Jesus tells the disciples, “I am with you always.” By the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, our Lord still leads us yet. May we have ears to hear his voice, and eyes to see him leading us on.

Capernaum

Our next stop, just down the road, is Peter’s hometown, Capernaum. We arrived moments before the site was closing, which was unfortunate, but we were able to walk around the preserved ruins of the synagogue, and see the foundations of the insula, the houses of families. There is a fascinating glass-floored church built over the foundations of an early church, that was built over the foundations of what is traditionally thought to be Peter’s house. Not much time here, and no really new information, but very exciting to see nonetheless. Capernaum is featured in several gospel stories. It was here that Jesus taught in the synagogue and cast out evil spirits, healed Peter’s mother-in-law, and healed and freed many others; it was here that the four men lowered their paralytic friend through the roof to be healed while Jesus was teaching; it was here that Jesus began his ministry!

Jordan River

Our last stop for the day was at the banks of the Jordan River. I did not take very attractive pictures here, sorry. The Jordan River is featured in both Old and New Testaments, but we stopped here to remember Jesus’ baptism.

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.

And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

~ Matthew 3:13-17

Here at this place, the river where Jesus was baptized, we remembered our own baptisms into our Lord Jesus Christ, lowered into his death and raised into his life. Thanks be to God for his grace and mercy!

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Phew! A big post for a big day. Enjoy!

Day 2: Golan Heights

Gamla

This is one of the sites of the Jewish revolt and holdout against Rome’s invasion. This site left an impression on the group, as we walked down rocky paths and up the hill to Gamla, through the ruins of the wall, and into the small village’s foundations. The valley’s silence was expansive as we walked, and listened.

The crux of our time here was in the synagogue. Before entering the synagogue, we stopped at the miqveh, the ceremonial bath at the entrance to the synagogue. Before entering the sacred place, and hearing the holy Word of God, Jews entered the miqveh, washed, and exited in order to be cleansed. The temple in Jerusalem was the only authorized place of sacrifice, where the stain of sin was dramatically removed from the people of God, but these miqvehs were the way that Jews rehearsed that cleansing in their local communities before entering worship together.

We sat together in what would have been Gamla’s synagogue. There are no New Testament stories that take place in Gamla, but we were reminded of Mark 1:39, which says, “[Jesus] went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.” It is possible that Jesus was here, but what is more certain is that Jesus, as a Jew, would have participated in synagogue worship with his people. We listened together to Luke 4:16-30, prayed, and then spent some time exploring the ruins of Gamla.

Caesarea Philippi, or Banias

Peter’s Confession, Matthew 16:13-28

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.
And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”
But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

Caesarea Philippi was the site of the temple of Pan — in Greek mythology, the satyr (half-man, half-goat) god of shepherds and flocks — and other gods. Pan was, according to the myths, a lusty and frolicking deity, always making music and playing, and usually to be found chasing nymphs in the woods (the strange sounds of which would frighten shepherds at night, hence the word “panic”); the cultic worship of Pan, it can be assumed, was much the same. The resulting revelry and debauchery would have shocked the disciples of Jesus, good Jewish boys from backwoods Galilee. They must have known where they were headed, and I’m sure they were increasingly uncomfortable.

And then Jesus asks this strange question: Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” In a place known for the grotesque worship of a grotesque god, Jesus asks how he is perceived.

Jesus wants more than public opinion, though. “But who do you say that I am?” Quick-Draw Peter gets it: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” A strange confession to make of your Rabbi, that he is “the Son of the Living God.” The mythological Pan was the son of Hermes, the Greek messenger god; the other deities carved in stone standing in the niches at Caesarea Philippi all had similar genealogies. But none of these gods or goddesses or nymphs were living, and none had any power to provide or protect the people frantically worshiping them below. Here, in this bizarre setting, Peter is shown the true identity of the one he follows.

Our group reflected on what Jesus meant when he told Peter, And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.Which rock? What keys? How do we bind and loosen?

In a place of shocking paganism, Jesus reveals his identity and calls his church to stand. As the passage continues, Jesus instructs his followers how he is to be worshiped: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” The character of the god determines the character of the worship to that god. We follow a Lord and Savior who laid down his life, took up his cross, and demonstrated self-sacrificial love; we worship by doing the same, often in places where such worship looks particularly foolish.

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Lord, give us the strength and courage to take up our crosses and follow you, especially in places where it seems foolish or bizarre to do so.

Tel Dan

After looking at the pagan worship center at Banias, we walked the short trail to Tel Dan, a historic Jewish worship center. After King Solomon’s death, the nation of Israel was split, North from South. The Northern Kingdom, still called “Israel,” was ruled by Jeroboam, Solomon’s rebellious servant; the Southern Kingdom, now called “Judah,” was ruled by Rehoboam, Solomon’s impetuous son. Jerusalem, and therefore the temple, was part of Judah, so Jeroboam built two worship centers in the Northern Kingdom to cement their religious independence from the Southern Kingdom. One of these centers was here, in Dan.

We learned some of the basic understandings of sacrifice. This is an area of theology that fascinated me in seminary, particularly because it’s a word we throw around outside of church. We hear people talk about a “sacrifice” being made for family, or career, or personal happiness, and we have to ask, “what is a sacrifice?”

The Old Testament has in view 4 distinct types of animal sacrifice:

If you click through to the passages of Leviticus that describe these sacrifices, you’ll see that there are distinct reasons and orders for each sacrifice, but they have a common purpose: these sacrificial rituals were clear moments of communion with God.

The common understanding of “sacrifice,” I think, fixates on exchange: what is lost, and what is gained. It can be tempting to read the levitical instructions in the same way. An animal (which represents wealth, food, and even status, in the nomadic Israelite culture) is given in exchange for God’s forgiveness. But when we consider the larger purpose of the sacrifice, we discover that exchange is the means, not the end. The purpose of sacrifice is fellowship, communion, unity with God.

Why is it important for us Christians to understand sacrifice? Because we often talk about what Christ did on the cross as a sacrifice for our sins. If he was the sacrifice, and the priest, we should understand what we believe happened there.

We can, and certainly should, talk about the exchange. Jesus took on all our sin, and gave us all of his purity and forgiveness. This is an orthodox understanding of atonement. But what if the exchange is simply the means to an end? What if the point wasn’t the exchange, but the unity gained and enjoyed? Wouldn’t that change how we understand salvation?

Of course, it must be stated why sacrifice is necessary for unity. This was the chief insight of today: sin is not merely actions. Our sins (the actions) leave a real, physical substance that marks us. This sin (the condition, like a stain or disease) clings to us long after the individual sinful acts, and begins to color and form us. Both Old and New Testaments describe this stain, and the formation it works on us, as death. This death, the turning away from God (who is life) and in upon ourselves, leaves us incapable of unity with God. So animal sacrifice is prescribed. As early as Genesis 9, the Bible understands that blood is the substance of life itself, and therefore a sort of antidote against the stain of death that marks us. Sacrifice often features blood as a purifier, and it can be gruesome to read all of the objects and people and garments to be marked by blood during the rituals. But when we understand that blood is life, new meaning is found.

In all of this, we can better understand Jesus’ death on the cross, and we also better understand his continuing work in heaven, to which he ascended.

But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God! (Hebrews 9:11-14)

This is all getting a bit complex, but the point is this: Christ’s death was the once-for-all sacrifice to make us clean, and he is still working as our Great High Priest, offering his own blood to wash away the stain of our sins so that we can enjoy the fellowship of God the Father through the presence of the Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God for his lavish mercy!

City Gates

A “tel” is the artificial mound created by layers and layers of civilization built on top of each other. These are particularly interesting archeological excavations, because it is possible to expose several different layers at a time, and learn about the same place in different periods of its history.

As we wrapped up in Tel Dan, we followed the park’s path through to another excavation, this one much older. We came upon the Canaanite Gate, also called “Abraham’s Gate,” which is thought to have been built during the Bronze Age, old enough to be around when Abraham came to Dan to rescue his nephew Lot. There is also a much older gate nearby, and we stopped here to talk about the social significance of city gates.

City gates are more than just the door into the city, but a miniature maze of chambers and plazas, where much of the economic and social life of a village took place. The chambers of the city gates might have been used as storehouses or markets in times of peace, and then filled with rubble or stone as added defense in times of war. Elders would have sat together in the plazas and little alcoves in the gates to discuss social issues, and arbitrate disputes, and conduct business. This is why, in Ruth 4, Boaz goes to the city gates to wait for his kinsman to “redeem” Ruth in the company of the elders.

What are the “city gates” in our own culture? There aren’t many left, and there has been some interesting discussions about the loss of the civic arena, of public squares. Town hall meetings are a quaint memory; civic organizations more and more abdicate their work to professional services. These are still more present in small towns and rural communities, of course, because they need them. Interestingly enough, the sense of community and the possibility for forum left to most of us is increasingly relegated to the internet. How are we as Christians present in these few remaining “city gates?” These are questions we need to think long and hard about.