Monday, December 15, 2014
By around 320 BC, Alexander the Great had conquered the whole Mediterranean world as well as most of the Middle East. This brought Greek language and culture to Israel and Palestine. When Alexander died, most of the Middle East was divided up between his generals Seleuca and Ptolemy, whose descendants became known as the Seleucids and Ptolemies. One of the Seleucid rulers, Antiochus Epiphanes, wanted everyone in his kingdom to share the same culture and gods. So he began to squash Judaism around 170 BC. Any Jew who would not worship Greek gods was put to death. Their scrolls were burned, their sabbath day became illegal, their temple in Jerusalem was desecrated, and pigs were even sacrificed on their altar.
This really ticked off the Jews at that time, and it began a resistance movement known as the Maccabean Revolt. Led by Judas Maccabeus (the Hammer), the Maccabean Jews took on the Romans equipped only with spears, bows, arrows, and rocks. Although greatly outnumbered, they showed great determination and grit, and somehow were able to take back the temple in Jerusalem in 164 BC. The first thing they did when they entered the temple was to light a makeshift menorah, but they could only find one vial of the pure oil to be used. They used the small amount of oil to light the menorah, and miraculously it stayed lit for 8 days. The retaking of the temple and the miracle of the menorah is what is celebrated on the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah.
The brother of Judas Maccabeus, Simon, later became high priest and ruler of Israel. He was a type of king, but he couldn't really be the king because only someone from the line of David could be king. Simon was from Aaron's line, which was the priestly line. Simon and his descendants became what is known as the Hasmonean Dynasty, which lasted for around one hundred years. King Herod would come later at the end of this dynasty, a ruler of Israel, but not a true king.
The Greeks would give way to the Romans in 63 BC, when the Roman General Pompey took over the city of Jerusalem. This brought Roman administration, Roman law, Roman roads, and Roman peace, the "Pax Romana". A few years later, a young man named Octavion would come to power in Rome, who would later be known as Caesar Augustus.
And with that, the stage was set for the coming of the Messiah, the true King of Israel.
"When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the law" - Galatians 4
"And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed." - Luke 2
Thursday, December 11, 2014
At the time of Jesus birth, Bethlehem was a little town of about 300 people, built onto a hillside on the edge of the Judean wilderness, just 6 miles south of Jerusalem. Bethlehem means House of Bread, and we know that going as far back as the time of Ruth, over 1000 years before Christ, that there were farmers around Bethlehem that grew wheat and barley. They thrashed the grain there, ground it, milled it, and then probably baked bread there which was then taken to be sold in the big city of Jerusalem. Thus ... House of Bread.
So as the House of Bread, we know that Bethlehem was home to farmers, millers, and bakers.
We also know that there were shepherds living around Bethlehem on the surrounding hillsides. David and his father Jesse and his whole family were all shepherds from Bethlehem. Even today, you will find Bedouin shepherds leading their flocks on the hills around the outskirts of Bethlehem. Interestingly, I recently found out that most of the sheep around Bethlehem in Judea were destined for temple sacrifice in Jerusalem. This gives a whole extra level of meaning to the story, and actually connects the Christmas and Easter Story together. We remember the words of John the Baptist - "Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world."
So Bethlehem at that time would have been just a small town built onto a hillside. Today it's basically a suburb of Jerusalem, with 25,000 people living in the town proper, with around 100,000 people living all over the hills and valleys in the area.
As the hometown of King David, Bethlehem was known as the City of David, along with a portion of the old city in Jerusalem where David's palace once stood, which is also known as the "City of David."
And although this is where the Prince of Peace was born, you don't get a real peaceful easy feeling when you enter into Bethlehem today. Now you have to go through a security checkpoint, through a gate in the separation wall, erected to protect the Israelis from Muslim terror threats. Unfortunately the group of people stuck in the middle there are the Palestinian Christians, who are 30% of the population of Bethlehem.
We met quite a number of these Christians when we stayed in Bethlehem, and they are really warm and wonderful people. When most people hear Palestinian they think Muslim - but that's not necessarily the case. There are plenty of Palestinian Christians around, but they don't get many of the headlines. With Jewish and Christian and Muslim populations all vying for the same land, there is trouble and turmoil always simmering below the surface, and it sometimes spills out into the streets.
You can almost hear the echo of Jesus words as He looks out and mourns over the city before He enters it on Palm Sunday, "O Jerusalem Jerusalem ..."
King Herod, or Herod the Great, was the king at the time of Jesus birth in Bethlehem. He had been the king for about 30 years. He really liked being the king - it's good to be the king when you are King Herod. But no matter how big he became, he always seemed to have an inferiority complex about him. He wanted people to like him - he wanted a bigger kingdom - he wanted to be a king like David - he wanted to be remembered for doing great things. Well, he got his wish in a sense - since he's now known as Herod the Great. But he is called that because of all of his many impressive building projects - not because of his great character or sparkling personality. He is also known today for his great cruelty and paranoia. He had wives, sons, and so called friends put to death when there was even an inkling that they were out to get his throne. He had more enemies than Saddam Hussein did back in the day! He knew this, of course, and he also knew that no one would mourn his death, so he ordered his men to kill 100 of Israel's priests on the day that he died, just so that there would be mourning in the streets that day. He was a madman - a brilliant builder and politician - but a madman nonetheless.
What a stark contrast between King Herod the Great in Jerusalem, and the tiny little baby born in Bethlehem. This young prince was born in a cattle stall and placed in a manger filled with straw by his peasant parents. There was no room for his family in the inn or the guest house, so the birth of this prince took place in a humble sheep pen. And yet, for all of His apparent humility and weakness, this little baby boy was actually the king of the universe.
This king wasn't born in the house of royalty, riches, or celebrity. He was not born in Jerusalem, in Rome, in Athens or Alexandria. He was not born in a politically or socially significant city of the day. When the Old Testament prophet Micah foretold the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, he emphasized its lack of significance to the world. "But you, Bethlehem Ephratha, though you be small among the clans of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth one that is to be ruler in Israel: one who is from old, from ancient times." (Micah 5:2)
The birth of the Son of God was to plain peasant parents and took place in a lowly stable. It was announced to shepherds, common men, working folks, not to King Herod or Caesar Augustus or any other dignitaries. This king has come to us. This king has come for us. There is no one so poor and lowly as to be outside the reach of God's love in Jesus Christ.
Jesus was born in Bethlehem, "The House of Bread", to satisfy the spiritual hunger of the world. Just as God through the prophet Moses fed the children of Israel with manna in the wilderness, so now God feeds his people through the greater Moses, Jesus Christ the Lord.
"I am the Bread of Life; he who come to me will never hunger, and he who believes in me will never thirst." - John 6
Thursday, December 4, 2014
If you were living in the 1st century and had a big plan to do something really great and important in the world, and were looking at all the cities and towns in the Middle East to use as your base of operations, the last place you would think of using was the village of Nazareth in Galilee.
Nazareth was a tiny village of no account at that time with probably only around a hundred people living in it. Nothing much was going on there. But just 5 miles away was the brand new Roman city of Sepphoris. Sepphoris had a population of 30,00 people, and had a Roman temple, Roman baths, paved streets, beautiful mosaics, and an amphitheater. Sepphoris was the place to be in Galilee. Nazareth was probably just a bedroom community to Sepphoris with all of its great opportunities for employment, commerce, culture, education, and recreation. Actually, it's quite possible that Joseph and a young Jesus would have worked in Sepphoris at some point. For they were tektons you see. Not just carpenters, but builders, who would have used wood and stone in their work. With a new city like Sepphoris being built, you can bet there would have been many opportunities for tektons - builders like Joseph and Jesus.
They have found remains of large homes and villas in Sepphoris that had marble pillars and beautiful mosaic floors. One of these floors has the wonderfully preserved image of a beautiful woman - it is called the Mona Lisa of the Galilee. In Nazareth on the other hand, most of the people who lived there had very small houses, and some of them even lived in caves. Some Bedouin shepherds still today live in caves during portions of the year, using them to guard and protect their sheep.
So Nazareth was a village of no account - literally. When Josephus, the great Jewish Roman Historian made a list of all the towns in Galilee, he didn't even mention Nazareth. And he was from Galillee! When the Hebrew Talmud listed 63 towns in the region of Galilee, it did not list Nazareth. This is an insignificant town of no account.
And you know what? That's just how God likes it. He loves to make something out of nothing. He loves to make alive those things that are dead.
That's why God sent the Angel Gabriel to the village of Nazareth, and not the big city of Sepphoris. To a poor young peasant girl named Mary, and a common blue collar laborer like Joseph.
So now, as we read the account of Jesus' birth in the Gospel of Luke - it begins with Nazareth. Sepphoris isn't even mentioned. It doesn't need to be. In Gods economy, the important places are the little podunk places like Nazareth, Bethlehem, Cana, Capernaum, Bethany, and Emmaus. Those are the famous places now. Sepphoris is dead and gone. Only now are they beginning to excavate there, finding remnants of this formerly great and grand city. But most people have never heard of it. Nazareth is the important town in the region now. And all because of what God chose to do there - in sending His own Son to be conceived of a virgin named Mary, betrothed to a carpenter, a tekton, a builder named Joseph.
The root word for Nazareth is netzer - It means branch, root, or shoot. Isaiah and Jeremiah and Zechariah all used this word netzer as a symbol for Israel. When the Assyrians and later the Babylonians came to destroy Israel, they cut the nation of Israel down like a tree is cut down at the stump. But God promised through the prophets that a shoot from that old stump would grow back, and that Israel would be reborn.
That was the Hope of Israel - even in the tiny little village of Netzer-eth. Little did the people who first named the town know that the very Branch that was foretold by the prophets would grow up right underneath their very noses - right there in their own little town. He would grow up to be the Great King, not just the King of Israel, but the King of the whole universe.
Nazareth? How could anything good come out of Nazareth? Because it was God who did it. And it was something good alright - something really good. Something (and Someone) greater and grander than they could have ever imagined.
Monday, December 1, 2014
It has been exactly one month since we have returned home from Israel. In that time I have had the privilege of sharing my experiences and showing my pictures to several different groups in a variety of settings that include church, school, family, friends. But I have yet to blog much about it - other than just posting a few pictures here and there. So after having time to ponder and reflect on all that I was blessed to encounter during the last two weeks of October, I think I'm finally ready to get some of this out of my head and onto my blog.
What a great blessing it was to experience this trip with my dad. He turned 77 years young the day that we landed in Tel Aviv, and that evening we were able to have a nice party for him at our hotel. Many who were along with us on the tour marveled at his health and stamina - especially after the 8 miles we hiked at Petra! He did very well and was really engaged with everything during the trip.
We were able to share some very special and memorable experiences together, and for that I am very grateful.
"It all really happened. It's all really true. And it all really happened for me and for you."
That's how I started my chapel message at Calvary Lutheran High in Jeff City two days after I got back. There were so many things swirling around in my head that I wanted to share with the students, but the most important thing was that it was all true. Everything their pastor had preached about, everything their teachers had taught them, everything they learned about Jesus and the Bible in Sunday School - it was all true. It really happened. The stones do still cry out - and they're just waiting there in the Holy Land to be discovered by all those who have ears to hear. The land of Israel is a living, breathing testimony to the truth found in the words of Holy Scripture. We don't need it to prove that our faith is sure or that the Bible is true - but it sure is nice to have.
My trip to Israel was even better than I expected. And believe me - I was expecting a lot. It made me realize how little I actually know, even after being a pastor for 10 years and a church worker for more than 20. There is just SO much to learn. And this trip has instilled in me an even greater desire to "read, mark, and inwardly digest" the words of Holy Scripture, and delve deeper into the people, places, and cultures we were privileged to visit.
As we enter into the Advent season, I will be sharing some thoughts about Nazareth and Bethlehem that coincide with our Advent/Christmas theme this year at church. Our theme is "From Nazareth to Bethlehem - The Journey from Advent to Christmas."