Our summer series continues this week with this vacation in the Holy Land; our exploration of the places that God has done incredible things for his people. Checking out some of the places in the Bible, finding out what they look like, thinking about what it might have been like to actually be there when these things happened. We're revisiting them, taking a closer, deeper look and listening to the command that He gives over and over in His Word to remember what God has done.
Last week, we looked at several places in the Old Testament: Mt. Sinai, Jerusalem, and Nineveh. PICTURES FROM LAST WEEK We saw how God did mighty things for His people, things to protect and defend them, to make them His and show the love that He had for the entire world. The Bible bears witness to this fact, recording the stories that we revisited in order to help us remember, just like God says to do. That's one of the reasons these stories are there; in fact, the culture during the Old and New Testaments was an oral culture—they didn't have books or the written word to help them remember. They memorized things; they remembered things that they had heard. Stories were interwoven into their culture to both entertain them and to help them remember and learn. And not just little things, but big chunks of things. It wasn't uncommon for young Jews to memorize entire books of the Old Testament as they were growing up! Pretty incredible for our modern minds to think about.
Remembering isn't an easy task; it takes work. And this is where I want to take a short break in our vacation around the Holy Land to talk about what is happening there right now. Because there is a lot of confusion and conflict about what is taking place in Israel right now.
Conflict. The Holy Land is no stranger to conflict and we need to remember that.
This little strip of land next to the Mediterranean Sea has been the source of much conflict through human history. The Jewish people have controlled it, the Assyrians have controlled it, the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Ottomans, the Arabs, the list goes on and on. Many groups and nations have ties to this area. Many religions do as well; Jerusalem is home to major historically and theologically significant sites for Jews, Christians and Muslims. And everyone wants this land.
Now, I will do my best to make no political statements and speak as simply as possible about this matter because it is complicated. But basically the conflict between Israel and Gaza boils down to who controls the land that was given to Israel in 1947 to form their new state and the actions taken by Israel, Gaza, and the surrounding countries in the decades since then, for a variety of reasons and under a variety of different motivations.
I will not and cannot speak to what exactly the United States should do; this is neither the time nor the place. I will say that there are no innocent parties in play here and that regardless of intent or justification, all sides have sinned and done terrible things. Terrorism and extremism is the norm and violence rules the day and that is a sad thing. I do not know all of the facts. I do not know why decisions are made. But I know that this conflict in this region of the world is centuries old, fueled by religion and territorialism. Faith has, unfortunately, fueled war and conflict throughout history and this is an example of just that at work. The conflict between Judaism and Islam is readily apparent, as we see them mercilessly attacking each other. We see terrible results of the extremism of faith-fueled hatred, as we see horrible things being done to Christians in this part of the world by extremist groups; we see them threatened, beaten and even in the most recent days, crucified. I pray for peace and an end to persecution, but if it does not come, God has not abandoned us.
John 15:18 - If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.
The world hated Jesus—it may hate us, his followers. But God will always be there at our sides, in our hearts. And I pray for peace.
I will also say that there is confusion among Christians as to the need for the nation of Israel in order for Christ to return. That somehow, unless we humans make sure that the nation of Israel exists, that Jesus will not come again as He promises. This is false. This is not what the Bible teaches. God did not need the help of human hands when He established the nation of Israel the first time; and He doesn't need it now. God will return when He decides and all we can pray as Christians is Come, Lord Jesus. We can pray for Him to come sooner, and hold strong to his promise if it is later. There is nothing we can do to aid or hinder his coming. I don't have time to talk all about the end times prophecies and post-millennial dispensationalism and amillenialism right now, mostly because it would take about 6 hours to dig through the text and explain them all and I don't know about you, but I have lunch plans.
But if you do have questions about this or about what is happening in Israel, let me know. Come and find me after church. Shoot me an email. Stop by my office. I'm happy to talk, to listen, to answer questions. I can't tell you what the answer is, but we can talk about why there is conflict between these groups, about why they are doing the things that they are doing. We need to know what is happening and what has happened in this part of the world because it influences us a people, as citizens and as Christians. And what we believe matters. And part of belief is remembering what God has done for us.
And so let's shift back to our series. Today, I want to remember some other places where God did amazing things. Last week we talked about places in the Old Testament and this week we'll be focusing on New Testament places, three of them as well: Nazareth, Jerusalem and Corinth.
We'll start in Nazareth: the place where Jesus grew up. Now, he was born in Bethlehem, fled to Egypt as an infant, but eventually, Scripture tells us, Joseph, Mary and Jesus returned to Nazareth, where they had lived before all of this excitement started with the angel appearing to Mary. The city of Nazareth was located about right here in Israel (PICTURE - http://www.bible.ca/maps/maps-palestine-33AD.jpg); actually, calling it a city is a bit generous. Maybe town. Probably village would be better. In Jesus' day, there were maybe as many as 300-500 people who lived in Nazareth, but it may have been as small a number as 80. Nazareth was a backwater place in Israel. This region here is Samaria, home to the Samaritans—the adversaries of the Jewish people for centuries—and squeezed right against the border, the tiny little village called Nazareth.
And this is the place where Jesus grew up. It seems weird, doesn't it? That Jesus would come from a place like this, a place that meant nothing, where nothing happened; well, almost nothing. At the start of Jesus' ministry, people are shocked that anything is happening there.
John 1:43-46 - The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.” Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.
Can anything good come from Nazareth? Nathanael, who had at least heard of this tiny little place on the edge of nowhere, doesn’t expect that anything good could possibly come from there. This is not the place that the Messiah, the one who will save Israel is supposed to come from. And yet, this is the place that Jesus grows up.
Now, we can't possibly be sure of where Jesus' actual home was or what it looked like when he lived there, but it probably looked a lot like this:
This is what houses looked like in New Testament Israel. Built into hillsides and mountains, they were simple homes with a central courtyard area surrounded by walls and small rooms used for sleeping, eating, and storage. These buildings were constructed out of limestone quarried from the surrounding area, the best and squarest stones used for the foundations and corner posts. The walls were held together with practiced skill in fitting the pieces together and a mortar created by mixing together dirt, chalk and straw.
These pictures come from a place called the Nazareth Village, a recreation of some 1st century buildings outside of the modern day city of Nazareth. It's an amazing place; volunteers operate this whole recreation of the first century world, down to the clothes they wear and the food they eat.
This is what the inside of many homes looked like. Storage and animals below, sleeping and eating above. Smaller rooms than we are used to, for sure, and less furniture. Joseph worked with his hands, that's what the Greek word there means, which many Bibles and stories translate as carpenter, which we can understand, but his work was less like woodworking and more like a general contractor. He would have been familiar with many different materials and ways of building and because wood was scarce in this part of the country, stone is probably the thing he worked with most. And Jesus was probably right there with him. As a young boy, he would be tasked with working as soon as he was able, learning his father's trade so that he could help him with the necessary work. The family, Joseph, Mary, Jesus, his four brothers, James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon, and at least two sisters, made their life in the little village of Nazareth on the edge of nowhere, where nothing ever really happened.
But God did do something there. This is where Jesus begins his ministry and starts to bring Gosd's message of freedom and restoration to the world. And even though He starts in the least likely of places, the tiny village of Nazareth, we remember what God did there.
But it doesn't stop there. In fact, it keeps on going until it reaches the capital city of Jerusalem, which is our next stop on our vacation in the Holy Land. Now, I know you're thinking: "Pastor, we did that one last week. What's up? Too lazy to look up something else?"
Here's the thing: Jerusalem when Solomon built his temple and Jerusalem when Jesus walked around are two completely different places. First of all, they are separated by more than 900 years of history, which is 4 times longer than the United States has been a country. Think things changed a bit in that time? They did; the biggest one is that Israel went from being an independent nation to being a minor province of the Roman Empire.
See right there? That's Judea, the province that holds Jerusalem. Notice how far away from everything else in the Roman Empire it is? The Romans didn't care about Judea all that much. Not really all that important to the Empire, so the people didn't really get the benefits that many history books talk about Rome bringing. And not only did they have to answer to and pay taxes to Rome, but they were also ruled by King Herod.
King Herod is an interesting guy. Now, he did a lot of good things for Israel during his reign in the first part of the first century, but he also missed the mark more than the average king. He rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem, that same temple we talked about last week: the one Solomon built and the Babylonians destroyed; Herod rebuilt it bigger and better than before. PICTURE http://monumentalloss.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/ToJ4.jpg I've said this before, but I think it's worth repeating. The entirety of Memorial Stadium could fit right inside this area right here, the Temple Mount. This is a serious temple! Herod also built a number of other things to benefit the people of Judea, improving their quality of life—aqueducts, roads and the like.
But Herod was a cruel ruler. The temple and the other things he built were paid for by high taxes on the people of Judea. He lavished gifts on his closest friends and only did things for the people when he needed something from them in return. The Jews hated Herod. In fact, their hatred of Herod was a major factor in the revolt that happened almost 70 years after his death. Imagine that! That would be like people today protesting in the streets because of the way that FDR ran the country.
The second temple was an incredible place, much like the first one. And just like the first one, it too was destroyed. This is all that's left today:
This wall and these steps are what remains of the temple destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. They destroyed it in order to quell a revolt in Judea and took the plunder back to Rome, where it was sold to pay for the Coliseum. The Jews were left without a place for the glory of God to dwell, a place for them to worship, but they no longer needed it—even if they didn't realize it. Because the glory of God had already come to dwell among them, almost 40 years earlier, to walk among them as a man—as Jesus Christ.
Jesus had come to close the gap between God and humanity. And he did that with His death on the cross. In fact, Scripture tells us that at the moment of Jesus' death, something incredible happened at the temple.
Matthew 27:50-51, 54 - And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.
At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split…When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!”
The curtain in the temple, the curtain that divided the Holy of Holies, the place where God's glory dwelled, from the rest of the temple, the thing that separated people from the holiness of God, was torn in two. Completely, from top to bottom.
The curtain was torn because there was no longer anything between us and God. Jesus' death on the cross paid the price for the sin that did that. Through Him, we are restored. And we remember that fact here when we watch people being brought into the kingdom of God through baptism, when we celebrate communion together as the people of God. We are forgiven in the sacrifice of Christ and remembering what Jesus did on the cross and God did in the temple gives us a reminder of what that means for us.
But God's forgiveness didn't just stop there in Jerusalem. It went out from there into all the world, reaching all across Judea and Samaria and on and on. In fact, it spread out all across the ancient world, eventually making its way all the way to Rome. But I want to make one other stop on this vacation around the Holy Land, a stop in the city of Corinth.
This is the area where the former city of Corinth stood. It stands along the coast of two different seas in Greece, making it a powerful city in trade and commerce. It was also a city known for its religious devotion, which sounds like a good thing—until you hear the whole story. The religion that the Corinthians were so devoted to was the Greek pantheon of gods. They had temples to dozens of gods, the largest of which was Apollo, god of the sun. And his temple was served by hundreds of priestesses, whose main purpose was prostitution with followers of Apollo.
This is the devotion the Corinthians are known for; well, this and their love for debauchery. Saying that a person was from Corinth in Greek culture was code for saying they were a drunk. Corinthians were like the ancient Greek version of the stereotypical frat brother in a comedy; they were there for one thing: to party. And they did party. The feasts held at the temple of Apollo PICTURE: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e3/Apollon_Tempel_im_antiken_Korinth.jpg were days long and home to any number of distasteful things.
But this is where God sends his servant Paul. This is where God moves the hearts of people to believe the Gospel, to trust in Christ instead of Apollo. First, the Jews who lived there in the city, but soon, the church grew. But with growth came problems. The Corinthian Christians had a hard time shaking old habits, had trouble living their new lives as Christians. Which is why Paul wrote them letters. Most of the New Testament is made up of Paul's letters actually. Which is pretty cool, I think.
I don't know about you, but sometimes I get in this rut where I just think about the Bible as kind of separate and sterile. You know, something else. But when I force myself to break out of that mindset, it helps me see the words on the page in a new way.
The book of 1 Corinthians isn't just Paul sitting down to write a book of the Bible. It's a letter written to friends, people that he knows and cares about. People with problems that he knows about, problems that he wants to help them with. And he knows that Jesus can help them. That His teachings can change their lives, can help them to leave behind their old lives and make them new.
2 Corinthians 5:17 - Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!
This is the message the Corinthians need to hear. This is the message that we need to hear. That we need to remember. Remembering is a huge part of our faith, a huge part of our identity in Christ—remembering what he has done for us.
And we're gathered here to remember what God has done for us, to be reminded through the Word and the Holy Spirit of what Jesus has done for us. And that is an incredible thing, something worth celebrating. So let's stand.