Israel Reflections Days 8-9

Note: As much as I wish I was, I’m not back in Israel. The blogs for the second half of the trip in May have been sitting in my drafts folder all summer, waiting for me to have a couple of free days to process through them and add the final details. With less than a week before classes start up again, I finally found those days! Enjoy my reflections on the second week of our incredible trip. 

Day 8: Thursday

Thursday was a busy day, that’s for sure!

We spent the morning at Bet Shean (the largest city to be uncovered within the past 20 years)

Kursi (the location for what is known as the miracle of the swine), Tabgna (the location commemorating the feeding of the 5,000, and the instance when Jesus appeared to his disciples after his resurrection and affirmed Peter’s love for him),

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and finally Capernaum (Jesus’ “hometown” during his ministry)

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The front of the temple in Capernaum — a “Type A” site where we know for a fact that Jesus was here

Each of these sites were fascinating, and there’s so much I could draw from each of them to share with you. But I actually want to focus in on the one that potentially sounds “least important”: Kursi.

Luke 8:26-39:

“They sailed to the region of the Gerasenes, which is across the lake from Galilee. When Jesus stepped ashore, he was met by a demon-possessed man from the town. For a long time this man had not worn clothes or lived in a house, but had lived in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell at his feet, shouting at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!” For Jesus had commanded the impure spirit to come out of the man. Many times it had seized him, and though he was chained hand and foot and kept under guard, he had broken his chains and had been driven by the demon into solitary places.

Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”

“Legion,” he replied, because many demons had gone into him. And they begged Jesus repeatedly not to order them to go into the Abyss.

A large herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside. The demons begged Jesus to let them go into the pigs, and he gave them permission. When the demons came out of the man, they went into the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

 When those tending the pigs saw what had happened, they ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting at Jesus’ feet, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. Those who had seen it told the people how the demon-possessed man had been cured. Then all the people of the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, because they were overcome with fear. So he got into the boat and left.

The man from whom the demons had gone out begged to go with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying,  “Return home and tell how much God has done for you.” So the man went away and told all over town how much Jesus had done for him.”

I’ve always found this account (and the correlating ones in Matthew and Mark) to be interesting, albeit rather on the confusing side of things. However, the pieces that seemed to be missing for me fell into place with a bit more cultural context.

Why pigs? Why did they collectively stampede into a lake? Why did they drown?

Well, pigs were considered unclean animals. And as I’ve alluded to previously, large bodies of water in Jesus’ day were symbolic of chaos, and even often thought of as “the abyss” or entrance to hell.

The Legion of demons being sent out of a man and into that which was unclean, carried straight to the gaping mouth of the abyss, makes a bold, clear, and authoritative statement to the powers of darkness: “You have no place or power here. This is no longer Legion’s kingdom. The Kingdom of God has come! Leave, and wait for the appointed time of your judgement.”

They knew who Jesus was. When they saw Him, the man they were possessing fell to his knees, because they recognized Him clearly. Even a legion of demons has to acknowledge that Jesus is Lord. They had to submit to the authority of the Son of God. Jesus Christ, bringing the Kingdom here, and defeating the devil in His birth, life, death, and resurrection. Every word is one of victory. This is our God.

But the story doesn’t stop there. The man, freed from demon possession and in his right mind, begs to go with Jesus and follow him closely. But instead, Jesus sends him out with the instruction to “tell how much God has done for you”. At it’s core, this story is missional.  The man went and told, and many believed. Those people formed churches. The eventual bishop of that area was one of the authors of the Nicene Creed. And that creed is held to be central by many worldwide church traditions. Gospel transformation is kingdom transformation, friends! What an incredible design our God weaves.

Day 9: Friday

Friday we took a trip back to the Old Testament, to the beautiful Mt. Carmel — the vineyard of God. We climbed over large rocks and through dense shrubbery, and eventually settled in a broad semi-circle overlooking a valley of lush agriculture.

And then, in our minds eye, we went back to a time where the beauty and life around us were dried up, and the people in the surrounding towns were confused about who the true God was, and where syncretism of religions was widely practiced (1 Kings 16-17).

The two “competing” powers were Ba’al, the god of fertility and rain, and YHWH, the God of the Israelites.

So God calls Elijah to announce a drought. No rain. God is stopping the best thing that Ba’al has going for him. And after three years of intense drought and famine, God calls Elijah to make another announcement: the time has come for the people to see who really deserves their worship.

We read the narrative in 1 Kings 18, starting in verse 19, when Elijah is speaking to King Ahab:

 “Now summon the people from all over Israel to meet me on Mount Carmel. And bring the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.”

 So Ahab sent word throughout all Israel and assembled the prophets on Mount Carmel. Elijah went before the people and said, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.”

But the people said nothing.

Then Elijah said to them, “I am the only one of the Lord’s prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets. Get two bulls for us. Let Baal’s prophets choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers by fire—he is God.”

Then all the people said, “What you say is good.”

Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose one of the bulls and prepare it first, since there are so many of you. Call on the name of your god, but do not light the fire.” So they took the bull given them and prepared it.

Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. “Baal, answer us!” they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made.

At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.

Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come here to me.” They came to him, and he repaired the altar of the Lord, which had been torn down. Elijah took twelve stones, one for each of the tribes descended from Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord had come, saying, “Your name shall be Israel.” With the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord, and he dug a trench around it large enough to hold two seahs of seed. He arranged the wood, cut the bull into pieces and laid it on the wood. Then he said to them, “Fill four large jars with water and pour it on the offering and on the wood.”

 “Do it again,” he said, and they did it again.

“Do it a third time,” he ordered, and they did it the third time. The water ran down around the altar and even filled the trench.

At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: “Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”

Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, “The Lord—he is God! The Lord—he is God!”

When my professor finished reading, he looked up and asked “Can you say that? The LORD is God Alone. The LORD is my God! Is that your answer too? Do not waver between two opinions. Not here on this physical mountain, not at home in your metaphorical valleys. Be faithful. Know that The Lord — he is God.”

Amen, and amen.

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All Things New: Israel Reflections Days 5-7

Day 5: Monday

Monday morning started bright and early with breakfast at our Kibbutz on the Sea of Galilee and a ride to Gamla. When there, we hiked down to the ruins of a well-preserved synogogue and held a worship service, following the design of a service in Jesus’ day. The shofar was sounded, we washed in the mikvah, we entered voicing our prayers aloud, proclaimed the shemah, recited the amidah, celebrated the entrance of  the Torah, and participated in the deresha. Experiencing each step and being able and to commemorate and celebrate brought so much new insight and meaning, both to my perspective of worship throughout history and my understanding of what would have been routine for Jesus to participate in. 

Following the time of worship, some of us hiked up to the “camel’s nose” of Gamla, where, sadly, many zealots committed suicide by jumping off instead of being captured by the Romans after being betrayed by Josephus. 

Later in the day, we went to Ceasarea Philippi and sat on the same stones where so many others had sat, stood and worshipped…. except their worship was to false gods. In fact, it was demonic. Ceasarea Philippi was the site of the worship of the Greek god Pan — the god of water and fertility. Pan was depicted as a goat from the waist down and a human from the waist up, and his worship was nothing but evil: sexual relations between humans and animals, temple mistresses called nymphs, and a huge cave gushing with water, in which it was believed that Pan retreated to the underworld in order to bring fertility and prosperity to the people. 

It was here, to this place of perversion, that Jesus brought his disciples. Standing there, surrounded by so much darkness and filth, Jesus asked “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 

But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 

 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 16)

Jesus chose to bring his disciples to one of the most disgusting places of idolatrous worship of his time, so that God could reveal the true identity of Jesus and proclaim, on that very spot, I AM. The Messiah has come, and he is here.

In the mess, in the brokenness, in the raw, repulsive, rampant kingdom of evil….there the declaration of the new Kingdom was made. The declaration that all things were being made new, that the strongholds of demonic perversion would lose their power, that the church would be established and rise up in truth — the Messiah has come, and everything is about to change. 

Standing directly next to the entrance to the underworld, hearing the rushing water pour from it’s gaping mouth, and most likely observing the misplaced worship of it, Jesus says, “…I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Matt 16:18)

Jesus challenges the very heart of the evil worldview. He made a declaration into the evil culture, and established his church to replace the sickness and filth. 

As the church, do we? 

Let us not compromise our purpose, friends. Let’s love rightly, proclaim truth boldly, and flee temptation faithfully. 

The Messiah has come, and he is making all things new. 

Day 6: Tuesday

“Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house, and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed” (Mark 1:35).

“Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him the Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray” (Mark 6:45-46). 

Tuesday morning began with a hike up Mt. Arbel and a clear view of the Sea of Galilee and the valley which Jesus walked through regularly during his ministry years. Here we gathered in the cool breeze and participated in Lectio Divina on Psalm 63, soaking in the word of God. 

Naturally, the question was raised, “Was Jesus here?” While we can’t know for sure, we do know that even if Mt. Arbel was not frequented by Jesus, there is mountainside nearby that was. 

This was his “solitary place”. His place of prayer, intercession, and refreshment. His place of personal communion with his Father, and encouragement for his soul. 

How often do I go to a mountainside alone to pray? And what am I missing when I don’t?

Day 7: Wednesday

Friends, Wednesday was a good day.  

We spent the morning overlooking Nazareth and the Jezreel Valley, being reminded of how Jesus grew up in what Dr. Kroeze calls “shoot-ville” — a tiny podunk town that literally means “shoot”, which was despised and looked on with condescension by other Jewish communities. However, the people were devout Torah-followers, and they knew the prophecy of a “shoot coming from the stump of Jesse”. They were actually expectant that the Messiah would come from among them. But when Jesus, after growing up with them, came back and took his place in the rotation of synogogue readings, proclaiming that the prophecy had been fulfilled, and that their expectations for the Messiah were met in him…. their response was not joy or celebration. Jesus called them out on their lack of faith, and Luke 4 tells us that instead they were livid and tried to throw him off a nearby cliff. 

Jesus knows rejection. Even his own did not believe. 

Later in the afternoon, we spent some time lingering​ on the banks of the Jordan River. Meditating on the baptism of Jesus, we were gifted with the opportunity to see with less western eyes and grasp a bit more of the depth and power of what this action truly was. 

We may not immediately catch it, but to Jewish eyes in Jesus’ day, witnessing his baptism paralleled​ strongly​ to the creation of the world. While we do see the dove as a symbol the of Spirit’s presence, eastern eyes would have immediately seen the “flashback” of the Spirit of God “hovering over the waters”. And while we hear God’s words over his son as an approval and a commissioning, they would have immediately heard the echoes of God’s expression of “very good” at the dawn of creation. 

Because in his baptism, what is Jesus doing? Inaugurating a new order

Jesus went down into the water, the symbol of chaos, and emerged with a new order in place. A new creation. A new way of living. A new hope for eternity. A new restoration for the brokenness of right now.  Takun Olam — to fix everything

Woah. 

We then were invited to go down into that same water — not as a re-baptism, although indeed remembering the dying and rising with Christ of our baptisms — in a commitment to identity with Jesus’ mission to be ambassadors of a new order, partnering with him in the work of restoration, fixing everything

Such an overflow of grace poured out. So humbled. So thankful. So amazed by my Savior. 

A new order. Takun Olam. Amen.