Shabbat Blessings

We had already been to the Western Wall  of the temple area, where devout  Jews pray, however we had another opportunity to go there, this time on  Shabbat, the holy seventh day of the week and an important  hallmark of Jewish observance.

It was a significant weekend in Israel—Jerusalem day, commemorating the re-unification of Jerusalem after the six day war (1967) was the very next day.  The day after that was to be a ceremony marking the historic move of the US embassy to Jerusalem  from Tel Aviv.

At the plaza overlooking the Western Wall, groups of young people dance and sung in circles. Many of the youth wore “Birthright Israel” name tags. The organisation provides Jewish youth from around the world the opportunity to visit the land of Israel.

One large circle, a mixed gender group of about 25, opened their ranks and a young woman turned to Susan and myself. She invited us to join them. This was something. Perhaps, since we are both brunettes with brown eyes, and wearing the requisite long skirts, they mistook us for one of them. Or, in the spirit of Sabbath, they might just be welcoming everyone. She handed us a slip of paper with some Hebrew words and an English translation. I wish I’d kept the paper, but the words had to do with welcoming the Sabbath as a bride. We joined hands with the group, trying our best to learn the tune and words in a foreign tongue.

The thought of welcoming the Sabbath as a bride is a novel idea to me. In our New Testament view, the church is the bride and although I grew up with the ideals of honouring the Sabbath (in our case Sunday), in present day North American Evangelicalism this tradition has fallen by the wayside.“His yoke is easy, his burden light” (Matthew 11:30) and “Jesus is our Sabbath,” (Hebrews 4:9-11) are quoted in defense of the omission. With a few swipes of Scripture, the ideals of marking a Sabbath day (whether Saturday or Sunday) have been swept away as if it had no relevance whatsoever to our modern lives.

Yet here, Sabbath is welcomed as a blessing and a delight. It is a biblical idea (Psalm 1:2) as we are reminded throughout Scripture that God’s law is a blessing. Not a means to salvation of course, but a blessing. After the creation of the world, God gave Sabbath to humanity as a gift. A day of rest from regular labours to contemplate, enjoy his presence and the fellowship of others. I think the weekly rhythms of Sabbath observance could still be a blessing, in our busy lives.

After leaving the circle, I walked down to the women’s section of the wall, where similar celebrations were in order. Since people had come from all over the world, it was evident they each had their own traditional Shabbat songs and dances. Another young woman taught a large group of women the moves to a hora-like dance.  Many joined in, while others continued their vigil at the wall with Hebrew prayer books in hand. I looked on the shelves for a prayer book in English, but to no avail.

Peeking through the lattice to the men’s side I saw men wearing phylacteries and tasselled prayer shawls and wearing a variety of hats which signify the particular branch or denomination of Judaism.  The lattice which screens the women from the men is a reminder that all is not equal here. We were told that the Ultra Orthodox have, on occasion, become so offended at woman carrying Torah scrolls and praying for example, that they threw plastic chairs and water  over to the women’s side. Ahh, the burden of trying to enforce a particular interpretation of the law, and passing its judgement on others.

That is exactly what Jesus was against.

So I will celebrate the ideals of Sabbath, choosing to take rest and fellowship on the first day of the week, but I will not throw chairs at others. Jesus is our Sabbath, the one who brings rest to our striving and peace to our hearts. I look forward to celebrating that together someday with all his people.

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Mysteries and Musings on the Temple Mount

Perhaps I have watched too many Indiana Jones movies, but I wonder about the mysterious location of the Ark of the Covenant. Is it hidden beneath old Jerusalem or somewhere on the Temple Mount?

No-one can say for sure, and finding out is nearly impossible because the Temple Mount is a politically charged place. One can’t just go digging under mosques and shrines that are sacred to others.   Religiously speaking the Temple Mount is a holy site for the three major religions of the world—Islam, Judaism, Christianity.  Outside and below the mount, the Jews are permitted to pray at the Western Wall. The Al-Aqsa mosque faces the iconic Dome of the Rock. Both are the jurisdiction of the Muslims and the rock under the dome is believed to be the place where Mohammed ascended to heaven. It is also thought to be the place where Abraham prepared to sacrifice Issac, and the location of the first temple, built by Solomon. The remains of Herod’s temple are apparent throughout the site and as a significant place in Jesus’ life, a destination for Christian pilgrims.

Though temple pilgrims of the past took ritual baths and brought animal sacrifices, our preparations for access to the Temple Mount are quite simple: dress modestly, so as not to offend the powers-that-be, and submit to a security check. We have been instructed not to bring Bibles or devotional books with us.

My experience of being at this site was different than I thought. Desolation is the word that comes to mind. It feels eerie to see how the false religion of Islam has taken over this spot with its own narrative.  As a Christian and Jewish sympathiser, I admit to feeling a bit angry about this.

But God does not need my defense.

Here is what I saw on the dome of the rock. The green, blue and yellow mosaic below the golden dome is an intriguing work of craftsmanship, but as I stare at it, a pattern emerges. A pattern that doesn’t fit. Are my eyes deceiving me? First, a Star of David.

Around the side of the building, another “easter egg” hidden in the mosaic—a Jerusalem cross.

I have no idea why these symbols of Judaism and Christianity appear in plain sight on an Islamic shrine. They are old symbols whose meanings have changed across the centuries and I smile at the irony of what they now represent.  I am reminded of the TV tower in Berlin. The Fernsehturm which rises above the city, was built by atheistic communists in the days of the GDR in 1965, but on a sunny day the stainless steel globe reflects a cross shining out to every direction across the city.

God’s sense of humour is evident and he always has the last word.

I have to ask myself what is here at the Temple Mount that is so important? The dome is impressive and the history of this site even more so. But God is no more present here than anywhere else. Even if the Ark was found and the temple rebuilt, so what? God does not dwell in a temple made by human hands. (Acts 7:48) The most holy spot on earth is actually no more holy than the place where the Spirit dwells. (1 Corinthians 3:16) Here in me, here in you. May we take his light and love to the world.

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A smorgasbord of gods: Who do you say that I am?

 

People of the ancient world came here to Caesarea, Philippi to worship and appease their gods. Even in ruins, the site is impressive. 

The focal point  is a large grotto in a wall of reddish rock where a spring once tumbled out. Pan, a god who was half-goat and half-human was said to have lived here.

On the surface, Pan might appear to be attractive. He is unique, albeit a little creepy.  Unlike us and yet partly like us. But Pan is capricious. If he doesn’t like your offering of a goat, he might spit it out of the mouth of the spring.  One has no way of knowing what sacrifice will satisfy his appetite.  Pan appears in the guise of a shepherd, but he is not a good shepherd.

Next to the grotto cave, are empty man-made niches, once housing images of other Greek and Roman gods: Hermes (Pan’s father,) Zeus and Nemesis, a Roman goddess of justice and vengeance. So many gods to choose from, but the selection is really a delusion.  All of them are divinities made in man’s image, unknowable and with nothing to offer their worshippers.

Surrounded by a smorgasbord of deities, Jesus asks the question about his true identity. “Who do people say that I am?” (Matthew 16:13)  Perhaps his disciples squirmed as they sat in front of these pagan shrines and idols that were aberrations to devout Jews. Skirting the issue of Jesus’ deity, they suggested people thought he was a prophet, like Elijah, Jeremiah or John the Baptist. Jesus asks again, only this time he is asking them. “But what about you? Who do you say I am?” (16:15)

Caesarea, Philippi 2018

Only Simon Peter, the brashest of the disciples, dares to speak the correct answer. “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” (16:16).

Jesus, the Son of the Living God, cannot be lifted in or out of a niche in a rock. Jesus, the creator of the universe can’t fit in your back pocket.

And yet, as Karen, our teacher for this session, reminds us, Jesus invites us to know him and He has made it possible. He has revealed himself as a human being. In this beautiful nature reserve, he reveals himself in creation and he continues to speak through his Word and Spirit to those who seek him.

Unlike Pan, God has spelled out the kind of sacrifice he required. Better yet, he provided it when we could not. Because of that sacrifice, he will never reject those who come to him.

Who do I say Jesus is? The only Deity worth knowing, the Good Shepherd and the perfect sacrifice accepted on our behalf. I am privileged to know him.

How about you, who do you say Jesus is?

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Magdala and Her story

The recently discovered site of Magdala, a port on the Sea of Galilee, is about as authentic as Biblical sites get. I loved this site for its story. Jesus almost certainly would have taught in the synagogue here and Mary of Magdala, identified by this town, would have heard his teaching here—perhaps in this very synagogue.

mosiac floor of first century synagogue

Less authentically, Jesus’ most colourful female follower, has been accused in ancient rumour of various disgrace: being a prostitute, a temptress, even, heretically, the wife of Jesus. Scripture makes no mention of these, but what we do know for sure is that Mary Magdelene was a devoted follower. No wonder, as she had been dramatically redeemed from spiritual enemy forces and personally knew Jesus’ love and forgiveness (Luke 8:2). Along with other women disciples, she accompanied Jesus and provided for his needs. (Matthew 27:55) Most significantly she stayed by him during his suffering (Matthew 27:56) and was chosen to be the first person to bear witness to his resurrection.

I don’t believe it is any accident that this first century synagogue and townsite was recently unearthed. Mary of Magdala was a real person but it is also easy to see her as representative of women followers of Jesus throughout history: often misunderstood and likely to be found caring for the needs of others. Not perfect by any means, but desiring a close relationship with the Saviour and taking joy in serving.

The church on the site is modern and elegant.  Eight pillars stand in the atrium, seven of which are a testament to Jesus’ female disciples with names inscribed on them. The eighth is in honour of those who follow Jesus across the centuries. The women in our group are invited by our guide to air-write our own names upon it. It is an “us too” moment, for those who have not always been treated kindly or inclusively by the patriarchy of the church.

“Encounter” by Daniel Cariola

Downstairs in a large meeting area, we are  reminded of another woman’s story. A mural on the wall titled “Encounter,” depicts a life-altering moment for a woman who had suffered the shame of bleeding for 12 long years. Under Mosiac regulations she was unclean (Leviticus 15:25)—isolated from her community, family, friends. In her desperation to be restored to health and community life, she reaches out in the crowd to touch the hem of Jesus’ robe and it is this moment that is depicted on the canvas by artist Daniel Cariola.  Our young guide, Conner, put it something like this. Under normal circumstances, when she touched Jesus, he would have been made unclean, but instead of her impurity affecting him, his purity was so great it made her whole and clean. What a beautiful picture of the righteousness He gives, when we reach out to take it. He breaks down the barriers that separate. His love so great, his embrace so full he accepts us fully, allowing us to reach out in our sin and disgrace. He did this for Mary Magdelene, the haemorrhaging woman and anyone else who reaches for him. We are so loved.

 

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On Jordan’s muddy banks I sit.

As several people in our group prep for a baptism in the Jordan River, I remove my shoes and dip my toes in.  A few feet away is a sign stating “Border Ahead.” The other side of the river is only a few metres away. One could probably just wade on over to Jordan, the country, if one had a mind to. The mud is soft and soothing on my feet, but I’m not keen on actually getting in.

As a metaphor, we are familiar with the Jordan River; songs of slaves crossing to freedom in the Promised Land, and the site of Jesus’ baptism. But the physical reality is not as impressive as for instance, the Fraser River. The comparison, ends at the mud– and the Jordan wins that contest.

My mind wanders to the story of Naaman (2 Kings 5). Naaman was an important fellow, a commander in the army, who had earned the respect of his king, but none of that mattered. Leprosy* is no respecter of persons and Naaman had the dreaded disease.

In contrast, a nameless Israelite slave girl, likely the least important person in the household, suggested to Naaman’s wife, that he visit God’s prophet, Elisha.

Naaman was desperate enough to pay attention, but didn’t get the memo quite right. Instead, he decided to go to Israel’s king, with a lot of costly gifts. Unfortunately, the king misread Naaman’s attempt at diplomacy and thought his enemies were trying to pick a fight.  Elisha got wind of it and told Naaman to stop by his house, as perhaps he should have done in the first place. Naaman pulled up in his chariot, but instead of Elisha coming out to meet him,  a messenger met Naaman and told him to go wash in the Jordan. Not just once, but seven times.

Sitting at the edge of this river, opaque with sediment, I get Naaman’s reluctance to follow these strange instructions. Who would think they could be cleansed by dipping into brown water? Why did he have to go dunk himself in the Jordan seven times when there were nicer rivers on his side of the border? And, given his stature as an army commander, why couldn’t Elisha come out and meet him personally?

At the water’s edge, the baptismal candidates in our group are robed in white and ready for their dip in the Jordan.

We pause to sing an old hymn.

All to Jesus I surrender,
All to him I freely give.
I will ever love and trust him,
in his presence daily live.

I surrender all,
I surrender all.
All to Thee, my blessed Savior,
I surrender all.

All to Jesus I surrender,
Humbly at His feet I bow,
Worldly pleasures all forsaken;
Take me, Jesus, take me now.

Judson W. Van DeVenter, public domain

Like Naaman, I find surrender difficult. God doesn’t tend to work in the ways that I decide are fitting and appropriate, especially when my pride is a factor. Surrender to his plan is about as appealing as swimming in that river,  but maybe when the decision to surrender is made, I’ll realise how close the other side really is.

Naaman had to ignore his own self-importance and humble himself. First he had listened to a slave girl and now he was expected to do as the prophet’s messenger instructed. And then, when he got home, his own servants were on his case to follow Elisha’s instructions.

At last he realised that surrender was the only way. Seven dips and he was healed.  It was a joyous moment I’m sure, not unlike today as I watch a number of our group take the plunge.

*could refer to a number of skin conditions

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Bethlehem: Good news for All People

 

Bethlehem does not resemble the Christmas cards. We pass through a security checkpoint before we are allowed to enter this Palestinian authority area. As we walk down the street, a combination of shabby and gaudy greets us. Merchants hawk carved nativities and rosary beads as we walk by. We are told that Christians — and there are several ancient strains of Christianity resident in this town, are a minority, prone to persecution. At the same time, the tourist income brought in by Christians is a major economic factor in this Palestinian Arab enclave.

The Shepherd’s fields, close to town, are dotted with shrubs, trees and rocks. The area is still used mostly for grazing animals and later in the day we see Bedouin shepherds with their flocks, much as they would have looked 2000 years ago. At the Shepherd’s fields We sit on benches and listen to a reading of the Nativity story.  We try to imagine angels from heaven entering this humble landscape.

Up the hill is a cupola-topped chapel.

An angel, with wings unfurled hovers over the doorway.  Inside, as we look around at mosaic depictions of the nativity, a large group of South Asian tourists enter the space. Women dressed in colourful skirts and scarves perform rituals of devotion at each alcove. Initially I am astonished. It is not that I have never seen people from that part of the world before. In fact, my home city has one of the largest populations of South Asians anywhere in North America. But apparently my  Caucasian-Evangelical-centred bias has caught me off guard. Of course, there are South Asian believers, plenty of them, who would want to visit Bethlehem and geographically, India is much closer to Bethlehem than Canada is. We are the ones who have come the longest way.

The leader of the group, an older man with pure white hair, stops below the cupola and sings. We don’t understand the words, but his voice and the eastern melody he intones is haunting and beautiful. I am touched by their presence here and by their worship.

2000 years ago, God sent angels to a group of shepherds, one of the lowliest professions of the time, here to this rocky outpost in a politically and ethnically charged atmosphere to announce good news. When I think about it, that must have been really astonishing to those present. “But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.  Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” Luke 2:10-11

I am reminded today that this news was for ALL the people. It is fitting that all of us, worship our Saviour, wherever we come from.

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Arrival in the Holy Land

 
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Intermittently, I gaze out of the window of the plane, but all I can see is bright clouds. The aircraft shudders as it passes through on the slow descent to Tel Aviv.

I wonder, what will I see? What will strike me? It has been a stressful few months and I  hope this ancient land and its spiritual connections will help me feel alive in my faith and closer to God.

The plane dips below the bright clouds into darker, low lying billows. Rain. That is not what I expected. Coming from the West Coast I’ve had enough of that this Spring.

Below, Tel Aviv appears, a sprawling city of skyscrapers but somewhere I know the Biblical land of Israel awaits my exploration and contemplation.

Weary from two long flights, our group piles onto the buses for the final leg of our journey to our hotel in Jerusalem. Our guide, Harrison, explains that from every direction one ascends to Jerusalem, both literally and in a spiritual sense. The strains of a song I haven’t heard in years fill the bus. “Jerusalem” heralds our arrival. The enthusiasm on our bus is palpable as we sing along.

Last night I lay a-sleeping, there came a dream so fair
I stood in old Jerusalem beside the temple there
I heard the children singing and ever as they sang
me thought the voice of angels from heaven in answer rang
me thought the voice of angels from heaven in answer rang
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, lift up your gates and sing
Hosanna, in the highest, hosanna to the king.
(John Stallin)

Psalm 24:3 states “Who is allowed to ascend the mount of the Lord? Who may go up to his holy dwelling place?”

At this moment in time, we can and will. Both literally and figuratively.

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