God in the Ruins (February 9, 2020)
Luke 19: 39-40
God in the Ruins
This past week I went to Israel as part of my continuing education for, at least according to the budget, last year and this year here at the church. I spent the last eight days in Israel. I want to thank you for the opportunity to do that. It is my hope, and certainly in my prayer was that Carolyn would bless you last Sunday, and I hope you were blessed and that you had a wonderful worship experience. I want you to know that we went to the Western Wall on Wednesday and as part of that I took many prayers that I had received from Facebook to the Wall. And one of the prayers that I took to the wall and laid in the wall as a prayer that God would bless this congregation, as well as Bucyrus; that God would bless each and every one of you, as well as bless us with the opportunity to spread his love to new people. And I want to thank you for that opportunity.
It is said that the land upon which the State of Israel resides is the Fifth Gospel. That you have the Gospel of Matthew, and Mark, and Luke, and John; and these Gospels are in black-and-white text. But Israel is the Gospel of Color: this is the one where you get to see it and experience it. You can see the land with your own eyes. Israel itself can teach you. And over the last 10 days, I really had an opportunity to sit down and listen to what the land was trying to teach me, and the lessons that God was saying through the very stones. The Scriptures today remind us that if we are silent, even the stones will cry out to God. And I am here to tell you that I went with the intention of listening for the stones to tell me a story and they did.
These places that we visited were holy places; our guide liked to mention that “if it didn’t happen here, how far away it could possibly have happened?” For instance, we walked into the Church of the Nativity, which is celebrating the place where Jesus was born. There’s a cave with the church of the nativity. It is supposed to be the cave where Jesus was born. Is it the exact place? We don’t know. But how far away could it possibly be? We’re in Bethlehem. But for me, the stones, the cave walls in that case, didn’t just tell the story of what happened two thousand years ago in that cave, or one very nearby. But they told the story of 2000 years of of people coming to worship the baby that was born there. We did devotions in many places, both Clergy and Laity, but one that sticks out in my mind was at the Garden of Gethsemane, where the pastor who was praying there said “imagine the prayers these trees have heard.” Let me tell you: if you sat there and listened, you could hear those prayers reverberating. From the prayer “not my will but thine be done” 2000 years ago, to the same prayer one week ago by me. The prayers these trees, stones, cave walls have heard reverberated. If you stopped and you listened to the stones crying out.
But of course sometimes if you travel 6000 miles across the world, or if you travel two thousand years in time, some things don’t change. I mentioned that the buildings told a story. That’s true for the modern buildings; but is also true for the ancient ones. But one question that came to my mind as we were going through the trip was whose story are they telling? The answer to that question was profound. It was a lesson in and of its own right.
One of the first things we did was go to a town called Caesarea Maritima. This town was built and dedicated to Caesar by Herod the Great. It was built on the Maritime, on the Mediterranean Sea. When Jesus was born, during the time of Herod the Great, the capital of Judea was Jerusalem. But by the time Jesus was an adult, a governor had been installed, and the governor preferred the Roman, Hellenistic city of Caesarea Maritima to the Jewish city of Jerusalem. And so the capital of the day was moved to this town on the Mediterranean sea. This is where Pilate had his headquarters every week except Passover week, where he would come to Jerusalem to make sure that things stayed under control. This is where Paul was kept for two years under house arrest, where he ultimately appealed to Caesar and then headed on his journey toward Rome at the end of the book of Acts. It was a major town that they uncovered from when it was destroyed, likely by an earthquake.
If you go there, what you see is quite interesting to a historical interested person. You have the amphitheater, which used to be a racing track but became an amphitheater after a larger racing track was built. They built a Roman style Colosseum, or half theater where they would’ve had plays and gladiatorial games. There’s a massive Palace of Herod’s that they’ve uncovered. And then the fortress that the Crusaders built around the area is just off to the north. And then everything between the amphitheater and the fortress is uncovered; some store rooms and meeting places. Just up the hill from that is a place where you can sit and watch a video about all the stuff there, and of course of the parking lot and the gift shop.
The second day we went to town called Sepphoris, which would’ve been the capital of Galilee around the time of Jesus‘s birth. The city was destroyed in war, and so the city of Sepphoris was being rebuilt to during the time of Jesus. It’s about a morning‘s walk from the center of Nazareth; so it is believed that Joseph, Jesus‘s father, became a carpenter for the town of Sepphoris as they were rebuilding this large town. So you can walk through there on the trails and you can go to the Crusader fortress that is there, but you also can look around the ruins. And they’ll point out where the ritual baths were, which tell us this was a Jewish city and not a Roman city. And they’ll point out where the worship happened, they have a mural of the Greek god Dyanosis there.
And then we went to the town of Capernaum, where Jesus spent most of his time. There’s three city blocks you can see. The furthest toward the sea of Galilee is an entire city block that’s a church. The modern church that is on top of a Crusader church, that was around a Byzantine church, that was around one single home believed to be the home of Peter‘s mother-in-law, where Jesus would’ve stayed with his disciples and Peter during his stay in Capernaum. Next to that that is a city block of the ruins of a of a typical complex where many poorer families would have stayed and possibly where Jesus stayed if he settled in himself. And then the next block is the synagogue, which was built after the time of Jesus but likely over the original. The rest of the area is either pathways you can walk up and see these things, or they leave pile rubble in the open. The message is there’s nothing to see, nothing really important, no need to talk about that.
By the end of the second day I began to notice a pattern. Did you notice it? Whose stories were being told? It’s the story of the rich or the famous. We don’t seem to care about the poor houses that are also probably there, we care about the ritual baths that tell us something about the kind of important people who are there: was this the the dignitaries of Rome or the priests of Judea? We care about where Jesus slept, where Jesus walked within the synagogue, and the only reason that there’s a city block with poor people is to a show us how Jesus lived because he’s famous. It happened to be between the two those poor got lucky. At Caesarea we’ve uncovered and will display the theater, the race track or amphitheater, the palace, the crusader fortress; and then the poor people’s homes will just have dirt poured on them so you can drive your bus up right next to it and get close to the gift shop. Even in death, the stories we’re learning are the stories are important: the rich and powerful and famous. I wonder if Spring Hill were to be destroyed, and in 2000 years someone digs up Spring Hill, what buildings are they going to display and what buildings are they going to put the dirt parking lot on? The question is do we cover up the stories of the lowly in more than just archaeological digs? Do we bury the people scraping by and barely feeding their families because we have to know who the latest Kardashian is dating? This is the question, and the lesson, the stones had for me as we walked around Israel.
Bethlehem is about a 30 minute drive from Jerusalem. As the crow flies, if you had highway to go directly from the Temple to the Bethlehem, it’d probably be a 5 to 6 minute drive, but Jerusalem is full of valleys and things, so you have to wind around to get there. But also you can’t just walk there. Because they’ve built a wall in the way, a wall that separates. The residents of Bethlehem are not citizens of any country. They are not allowed to drive that 30 minutes to come to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and celebrate Easter (they’re Christians in Bethlehem). They’re not allowed to drive there. They can drive to the wall, but then they need to go to the checkpoint and walk through the wall to get into Jerusalem, where they have to find a ride. And they can’t spend the night, they have to be back on their side of the wall by the end of the night.
If you go to Jerusalem you’ll see water containers on the roof of every house. On Jewish houses you’ll see just a white water tank. This is the solar heating system, where the sunlight is gathered by a solar panel, and that heats the water in the tank to provide hot water for the whole house for the whole day. But an Arab house will also have a black water tank on top. That is a larger tank, and it is a water storage tank. Why did the Arab houses have the water storage tank and the Jewish houses don’t? Because the government gives Jewish citizens water seven days a week, but Arab citizens water one day a week.
When the news tells the story of Jerusalem, what story did they tell? If Jerusalem were covered with dirt today, and 2000 years from now someone is going to dig it up, what buildings are they going to show and what buildings are they going to put the parking lot on?
Our God is a God who came to a poor family of a teenager and a carpenter. Our God is a God who said the last shall be first and the first should be last and to be great you must be a servant of all. Make sure when you tell the stories that you’re not covering up the poor and the lowly. It’s fine to tell the stories of the kings and the rich and the famous, but don’t do so at the expense of the poor.
Lastly, it’s not just the buildings of Jerusalem that tell a story. If you’re quiet long enough, you can hear it anywhere. It’s not just the Church of the Nativity or the Garden of Gethsemane where ancient prayers reverberate. Listen. (silence) Each of the names on these windows are present. These people have prayed in this space. Your parents have prayed in this space. You have prayed in this space. If you come to the space and you’re quiet; if you listen, you can still hear the prayers reverberating off the walls. This building tells the story of God as well. This is the story of the Methodist movement in Spring Hill. You don’t have to go to Jerusalem to see the Gospel in color. You don’t have to go to Jerusalem to see the work of God in every day life. It might be easier there, but you can see it here. Listen; for the place where you are standing is holy. Let God speak here. Amen.