Day 285: Woe to You, Chorazin! (Matthew 11)

Matthew 11:21 (ESV) “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.

I first wrote and posted this the last time I was in Israel, in February 2022. But it goes along with today’s reading, so I’m reposting.

We were touring the ruins of a fourth century synagogue in Chorazin; one of the cities in Galilee which, along with Bethsaida and Capernaum, was cursed by Jesus in Matthew’s gospel.

Scripture doesn’t say why Jesus curses them, other than that they didn’t repent. But there was one detail in the synagogue ruins that gave me a clue, or at least got me thinking.

Among the ruins were several carved images. Which, from a rigid interpretation of Torah, would be a violation of the Second Commandment. But at least they are images of stories from the Bible. Here’s the spies returning from the Promised Land, with the cluster of grapes between them. Pretty standard VBS stuff.

But then, right next to this pillar, there’s a carving of Medusa.

Hold up. Medusa? Like, Greek mythology Medusa? What’s she doing in a Jewish synagogue? It’s one thing to toe the line of the second commandment with carvings of Bible stories. But Medusa???

I asked our guide Yair about it. Our guide, like many in Israel, is a non-observant Jew. One of his favorite jokes is, “I’m not a dedicated Jew, I’m just kind of Jew…ish”.

Yair’s take on it was, “Well, you know every religion evolves. They incorporate aspects of the culture, So it wasn’t that unusual to see elements of Greek mythology in a synagogue by the fourth century.”

I asked, “So, do you think that might have been part of what Jesus was condemning them for?” Yair didn’t think so at all.

“No, no… Jesus was breaking commandments all the time. Jesus condemned the abuse and oppression of people. He wouldn’t have been bothered by this, I don’t think.”

Which is true…ish.

Jesus did condemn the oppression of people. But the commands He “broke” were the additions and man-made interpretations of the Law, especially regarding the Sabbath, I don’t see Jesus shrugging His shoulders at the image of a false god in a building dedicated to the teaching of Torah, and saying “Well, you know, religion evolves.” Nope.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said,

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. (Matthew 5:17-18)

Now again, we do not know from Scripture why Jesus pronounced a curse on Chorazin. What we saw today was from a couple hundred years after Jesus.

What I do know is how easy it is to chip away at the edges of obedience to God’s commands. Maybe in the synagogue it started with the Bible stories. “Yeah, sure… it’s technically breaking the Second Commandment. But it’s for a good cause. It helps us remember the stories. Where’s the harm, right?”

And then— “Yes, we know Medusa is a pagan figure. But it’s just a symbol. And Simeon is such a talented artist. Wouldn’t it be better to have him put his talents to use in our synagogue? And we just had this very wealthy Hellenistic Jew make a large contribution to the synagogue. We don’t want to offend him, do we?”

It’s easy for the church today to make the same small compromises. We are surrounded by a culture to which we do not belong. We make compromises for the sake of the culture all the time. At what point do we dishonor God’s house by the amount of the world we let in?

Evidence suggests that the synagogue, and most of the rest of Chorazin, was leveled by an earthquake sometime around the fourth century. What was once a thriving city is now a ruin. We shouldn’t be surprised. The words of Jesus are true.

Not just true-ish.

Read more about Chorazin here

Day 174: Sacrificing At the Altar of Dan (1 Kings 12-14)

Site of Jeroboam’s Altar, at Tel Dan Archaeological Site
25 Then Jeroboam built Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim and lived there. And 26 And Jeroboam said in his heart, “Now the kingdom will turn back to the house of David. 27 If this people go up to offer sacrifices in the temple of the Lord at Jerusalem, then the heart of this people will turn again to their lord, to Rehoboam king of Judah, and they will kill me and return to Rehoboam king of Judah.” 28 So the king took counsel and made two calves of gold. And he said to the people, “You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” 29 And he set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan.  (1 Kings 12:25-26)

On our last trip to Israel, in February, 2022, we visited the Tel Dan archaeological site in the Golan Heights, at the far northern tip of Israel. This area is about 80 miles or so from Jerusalem, and sits in the middle of what was the Northern Kingdom of Israel.

We journeyed on rocky, uneven ground from the city gate, about a quarter mile or so uphill. Then we came to a clearing , surrounded by ancient stone walls. In the center of the clearing was an aluminum frame, showing the outline of the altar described in today’s reading.

Talk about history coming alive! There was a plaque at the entrance to the clearing, helping us understand what we were looking at.

So let’s talk about why this matters. Jeroboam made a shrewd move politically. He understood that when the united kingdom split north and south, the tribes that allied with him were still deeply religious Jews. But there was a problem. God’s law mandated several trips each year to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices, and Jerusalem was in the Southern kingdom.

What’s the king of a splinter kingdom to do? Build his own altars, of course! Not just one, but two. I guess if you are going to disobey God, you might as well go big. Then, in an eerie echo of the golden calf episode of Exodus, he said to the people, “Behold your gods, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (1 Kings 12:28). Then, in a further nose-thumbing to God’s law, he installed his own (presumably non-Levitical) priests, and came up with a feast day which he “devised from his own heart” (v. 33).

All of these were astute, politically expedient decisions. It would help him hang on to his people, rather than risking defections to the Southern Kingdom with every Passover, Pentecost, and Feast of Tabernacles. And Jerusalem really was a long and dangerous journey in the best of times, let alone when there was a civil war going on. So Jeroboam may have actually thought he was protecting his people by creating a safer and more convenient place to worship. And if the people were truly just there for the party, then it wouldn’t matter if Jeroboam made up his own feasts, just as long as the people were able to celebrate something.

Oh, beloved, guard against civil religion! Guard against making decisions based on convenience. There are lots of little compromises that we can make that over time will make our Christian convictions unrecognizable. Everything from voting for a corrupt politician because you believe he or she will fight for your priorities, to neglecting the command to “not give up meeting together” in Hebrews 10:24-25 because it is just easier to stay at home and watch church on YouTube, we can all find ourselves offering sacrifices at the altar of Dan. And we may never notice that, in God’s eyes, this thing becomes a sin (1 Kings 12:30).

The High Cost of Floating Along

One of the “high points” of a trip to Israel is actually a low point—the Dead Sea. At 1,385 feet below sea level, it is literally the lowest spot on the globe. We had a ball floating in the Dead Sea. Because the Dead Sea has no outlets, all the minerals flowing into it make it, by far, the saltiest body of water in the world. It is 36 times saltier than the ocean. As a result, you can’t sink in the Dead Sea. You just lay back and float.

And as you can see from the picture, it is SUPER relaxing. I think I could have happily floated along in the Dead Sea for an hour or more. That is, until a wave sent water up my nose, and I felt my nostrils burn 36 times worse than they would at Orange Beach. And that’s when I began to think about the fact that we pay a price for floating along so easily. Let me explain in a way that will hopefully give you some things to think about for the church.

First, there’s a reason why it’s called The Dead Sea. One of the reasons I could lay back and relax in this picture is that there is no life in the Dead Sea. Nothing can grow there. That means I never had to worry about sharks or jellyfish.  On the other hand, I would never see dolphins at play, or sandpipers scurrying up and down at the waterline. There are no fishermen. No hermit crabs digging in the sand. It may be peaceful, but I think I would prefer some signs of life.

Lesson: We can have a calm, quiet, peaceful church, or we can have a living church. But if we choose life, then we have to accept some disruption and some chaos.

Second, the Dead Sea is dead because nothing flows out of it. While the Jordan River flows into the Dead Sea, nothing flows from it. It has a multitude of resources coming in, but nothing going out. And without an outflow, the minerals pile up and choke out life.

Lesson: The church must be outward focused to stay alive. We can and do have lots of resources coming in to the church. But if there are no outlets for those resources to bless our community, advance the gospel, invite friends, preach the word, and change lives, all the inflowing resources won’t matter. We will die without outflow.

Third: the Dead Sea is Disappearing. As Israel grows, more and more of the Jordan River is being diverted for irrigation, drinking water, and cultivating crops. Add to that the evaporation that happens when a body of water has no outlets, and you have a shrinking body of water. The Dead Sea actually recedes about 4-6 feet every year. Our group could tell the difference from where we were just four years ago. We were nearly 30 feet further away from the water!

Lesson: An inward-focused church will not be around for the next generation. People tend to stop pouring into a church that isn’t pouring out into the community. God is under no obligation to continue to bless a church that does nothing with the gifts He has already given it. Think about the third servant in the parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30).

In the coming months, our church will be looking at some major changes. Staff realignments. Increased scrutiny on policies and procedures related to the safety of our children. Bold requests for budget allocations to help us move into the future. And we have a choice to make. We can either embrace the disruption and chaos that comes with being alive, or we can relax and float along peacefully.

Just remember: “Rest in Peace” is not a mission statement. It’s an epitaph.

Day 055: “My Father Was a Rabbi, and His Father Before Him…” (Numbers 3-4)

“Take a census of the sons of Kohath from among the sons of Levi, by their clans and their fathers’ houses, from thirty years old up to fifty years old, all who can come on duty, to do the work in the tent of meeting. This is the service of the sons of Kohath in the tent of meeting: the most holy things.”
‭‭Numbers‬ ‭4:2-4‬ ‭ESV‬‬

In our hotel here in Jerusalem, there is a convention of rabbis from New York. I had the privilege of sharing an elevator ride with one of them this evening (I know, it sounds like the beginning of a joke: ‘A pastor and a rabbi get on an elevator…”)

The rabbi was kind and gracious, and we wound up having a wonderful conversation about ministry. The challenge of communicating our faith to the next generation. The expectations of “edutainment”— where you have to be part educator, part entertainer if you want to keep their attention. I guess for us preachers it would be evange-tainment.

Then I asked him, “So when did you know you wanted to be a rabbi?”

He looked puzzled. “What do you mean?”

“You know,” I said. “How old were you when you felt the call?”

“Well, my father was a rabbi. And his father before that. And his father before that. I married the daughter of a rabbi. I don’t know that I answered a call. It’s just who we are in my family.”

It dawned on me as I was reading today’s passage that I was hearing in 2022 what the Lord commanded Moses over four thousand years ago. I didn’t ask the rabbi’s last name, but there are several modern Jewish surnames that have linguistic connections to ancient Levitical names:

  • Cohen: Koath
  • Gershwin: Gershom
  • Meyer: Merari

Our guide told us that if you meet a modern day Cohen, chances are they are either a rabbi, or they were supposed to be.

It’s a different way to look at calling. And, yes, it has some drawbacks. A few days from now in our reading plan, we will meet some Koathites that clearly weren’t happy with their jobs. I’ve sometimes wondered about Levites who didn’t want to be priests. Or Reubenites that did. Could there even be an option?

And for me, I love that I can point to the moment when I knew God was calling me into the ministry. I was in fourth grade. We had career day at our school. I dressed in a three piece, baby blue suit and carried my Bible, because I wanted to be a preacher.

But there’s something beautiful about meeting a man who, pretty much from birth has known what he is going to do. For whom the very idea of “calling” is a little confusing. It’s just who he is. Like his father, and his father’s father, and his father before him.

Oh, and one more beautiful thing about this gathering of rabbis. As I watch them here in the hotel, I see that many of them are here with their sons. Which means that there is another generation coming up after them.

Parents, if you want to know what it takes to lead the next generation to love and serve the Lord, then perhaps we can learn from the Levites: make it so much a part of your family’s identity that your children could not imagine being anything else.

The Church of the Nativity

When I went to Israel in 2018, Bethlehem was not a highlight, if I am being honest. It was packed wall to wall with people. The Church of the Nativity felt like a line at Disney World, only without a ride at the end. Our guide gestured over to the steps you could descend to touch the fourteen pointed silver star in the floor, marking the traditional spot of Jesus’ birth. But it would have been a two hour wait to get down there, for little more than a few seconds.

This year, I almost pulled out of the trip. But what convinced me to hang in there was when the trip coordinator said that because of the pandemic, it would be far less crowded at the sites. And I thought, “I’ll go again, if it means I can spend more time at the church of the Nativity and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

And, oh my God, what a difference. I say that in complete reverence. We walked into the Church, and the feeling of awe and reverence and history and holiness and nearly two millennia of prayers lifted up in this place was very nearly tangible.

I put my hand on the star in the floor. I ran my hand across the rough stone above me. I descended the steps toward the room in which St Jerome first translated the Vulgate from the Greek and Hebrew.

Listen, I know we Protestants are skeptical about whether any of these are the “actual” places where the events took place. And I know it can be hard for a lot of people to cut through the layers of tradition and trappings. And in any other year, I probably would have been ok with skipping Bethlehem altogether.

But when I walked through the tiny, narrow door into a church that was completely empty, my spirit soared to the ceiling.

And Lord Jesus, I believed.

Day 313: In Praise of Saint Incognita (Matthew 26, Mark 14)

The nave of the Church of the Nativity (Orthodox side)
9 And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” (Mark 14:9)

In the Greek Orthodox sanctuary of the Church of the Nativity, there are two rows of ten columns. Each column bears the image of a different saint in the Orthodox Church. Not being Greek Orthodox, I had no idea who any of them were.

Detail from one of the columns

So I was super grateful for this handy guide on the wall as we were exiting.

Some of them I recognized. Stephen. Elijah. John the Evangelist. Others I had no idea who they were. There was a Saint Olaf? The patron saint of Disney voice actors, perhaps. Saint Theodosia? Saint Humphrey? Who knew?

The key also tells you which saint is where. Ingressus is Latin for “entrance” Navis major is the nave, and basilica is where the altar is. So columns 1 and 11 are closest to the door. Columns 10 and 20 are closest to the Cross.

I was about to turn away from the key when one more image caught my eye.

Saint Incognita. The Unknown Saint. Now, full disclosure: I don’t know if Saint Incognita is simply unknown to the guy who made the answer key, or if her name has been lost to history.

I tried Googling Saint Incognita. There is nothing about him or her that I could find on the Internet.

And if Google doesn’t even know who you are, well, it doesn’t get much more incognito than that!

Of course, the original unknown saint is this anonymous woman who anoints Jesus in Matthew 26 and Mark 14. I know John tells a similar story where Mary sister of Lazarus is the one doing the anointing, but I think this woman was Mary’s inspiration (see Day 284: How Many Times Did a Woman Anoint Jesus?). Jesus prophesied that wherever the gospel was proclaimed what she did would be remembered. And two thousand years later, here we are, still talking about her.

Again, I can’t say for sure that this woman is the one on the column in the Church of the Nativity. But I do think that there are Saints Incognita in every church, everywhere. There are, in fact, numberless infinities of unknown saints:

  • St Incognita: the maker of coffee for the Thursday night AA group.
  • St. Incognita: Stocker of Shelves and folder of clothes for the benevolence ministry.
  • St Incognita: Sweeper of Floors.
  • St Incognita, Keeper of the Nursery.
  • St Incognita: Preparer of Casseroles.
  • St Incognita: single mother working two jobs, who still manages to get her kids to church every Sunday.

Our churches are full of unknown saints. They have never preached a sermon. Not at the pulpit anyway. They have never seen their name on an order of service. But they are there every time the doors are open. They are up before the dawn, praying, interceding, lifting up their pastors in prayer.

They are quietly teaching their kids to love Jesus. They are going to their jobs, living lives of integrity in front of their coworkers and neighbors.

When they pass from this world, streets are not likely to be shut down. Business will not close. Flags will not be flown half mast.

But know this, beloved unknown Saint: you are canonized by the miracles you perform every day. You, O Humble Saint, have bent the ear of the King of the Universe by your tireless prayers. You, Saint Incognita, have accomplished the work of Christ through your calloused hands and weary feet.

And in the oldest church in the world, there is a column with your name on it. If you ever come to Bethlehem, it will be easy to find:

It is the one closest to the cross.

Day 174: Altars of Convenience (1 Kings 12)

Entrance to Tel Dan, in the northernmost part of Israel. About 243km from Jerusalem
“And Jeroboam said in his heart, “Now the kingdom will turn back to the house of David. If this people go up to offer sacrifices in the temple of the Lord at Jerusalem, then the heart of this people will turn again to their Lord, to Rehoboam king of Judah, and they will kill me and return to Rehoboam king of Judah.” So the king took counsel and made two calves of gold. And he said to the people, “You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” Then this thing became a sin, for the people went as far as Dan to be before one. He also made temples on high places and appointed priests from among all the people, who were not of the Levites. And Jeroboam appointed a feast on the fifteenth day of the eighth month like the feast that was in Judah, and he offered sacrifices on the altar. So he did in Bethel, sacrificing to the calves that he made. And he placed in Bethel the priests of the high places that he had made. He went up to the altar that he had made in Bethel on the fifteenth day in the eighth month, in the month that he had devised from his own heart. And he instituted a feast for the people of Israel and went up to the altar to make offerings.”
‭‭1 Kings‬ ‭12:26-28, 30-33‬ ‭ESV‬‬

Through the Bible: 1 Kings 12-14

Today we visited Tel Dan, in the northern part of Israel. We walked to the site of Jeroboam’s altar, mentioned in the passage above from 1 Kings 12. They have constructed a metal framework of the altar to give you a sense of the size of the thing. It must have been quite impressive.

Yair, our guide, explaining the Tel Dan site

1 Kings makes it pretty clear what Jeroboam’s motivations were for building an altar. He was afraid that if people continued to go to Jerusalem three times a year for the annual feasts, he would lose control over them (v 26).

So notice how he sells the people on his alternative altar: “You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough” (v 28).

It occurred to me that Jeroboam didn’t make a command. He didn’t forbid people to go to Jerusalem. He just gave them an easier, more convenient alternative.

I can imagine the sales job: “Aren’t you tired of having to pack up your whole family three times a year and going all the way to Jerusalem? It’s a long journey, filled with peril. Wouldn’t you rather stay home? After all, it doesn’t really matter where you are worshiping, so long as your heart is in the right place, right?”

So Jeroboam builds a substitute altar. He appoints substitute priests. He creates a substitute feast week, “after the day he devised in his own heart” (v 33).

He did this not just in one place, but in two. And the people flocked to these altars (see verse 30). They seem to have loved getting six weeks of their lives back. It’s easy for me to imagine them saying, “This is so much easier! I can just stay home and worship. I don’t have to worry about getting the kids ready. I don’t have to fight the traffic. I’m still worshiping, right?

Sound familiar? How many of us have said the exact same things about our own church, ever since we all went online after Covid?

There was just one little problem. Maybe because it was just so convenient, the people didn’t seem to notice…

  • That the priests weren’t Levites, like they were supposed to be (verse 31; see also Numbers 8).
  • That the feast week wasn’t on the fifteenth day of the SEVENTH month, like Leviticus 23:39 specifies. It’s a month later (v 32).
  • That there was a FREAKING GOLDEN CALF on the altar (verse 28). Did they learn NOTHING from their own history (see Exodus 32).

But this is what happens when we decide we can approach God on our own terms. In yesterday’s post, I talked about the temptation of compromise (see Woe to You, Chorazin!). Today, we saw what happens when we yield to the temptation of convenience. We neglect the object of our worship when we start rearranging it because of what is convenient to us.

It was never supposed to be about what fits our schedules, or which church in our town has the most to offer our family, or what church is most convenient to our neighborhood.

It is about authentic, biblical worship of the sovereign, holy God. And if any other factor is the determining factor for where or whether you attend church, then you are no longer worshiping God. That golden calf up on the altar?

It’s name is convenience.

Shabbat in Tiberias

“Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways, and to love Him; to serve the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and the statues of the Lord, which I am commanding you today for your good.”
Deuteronomy 10:12-13

We ended the first day of our pilgrimage on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and were pulling in to our hotel just as the sun was setting on Friday night.

Which means it is the start of Shabbat, the Jewish sabbath.

I wasn’t sure what it would be like. Would the hotel be graveyard still, while religious Jews everywhere stayed inside, not working, not even pushing buttons on an elevator because of the prohibition against work?

Gentile that I am, I expected a somber mood. Lots of frowns. Lots of serious, observant Jews.

Instead, what I found at this hotel was joy. Families gathered together at the table. The wine flowing freely. I watched one young family as the husband poured the wine into one glass; read a passage from the prayer book, passed the glass to his wife to drink, then she passed it back to him. I watched a family at another table join hands and sing a prayer together with complete abandon.

I watched a father pass the prayer book to a young son learning to read. I watched the son sound out the Hebrew, while the father corrected, encouraged, praised. I watched the mother beaming.

And after the supper, I watched families talking, laughing, enjoying one another. Without a single electronic device to be seen anywhere. The only thing I saw on the table other than the food and the wine was the prayer book.

As I type this, the sounds of singing and laughter ring through the hotel. It is as different from what I expected from Shabbat in Israel as a wedding reception is from a wake.

Oh, how wrong we get the Sabbath! We have made it all about what we aren’t allowed to do. And because of Jesus’ interactions with the Pharisees, I suppose I just assumed Jews would see it the same way.

But the Sabbath is not primarily about what you are kept from doing. It is about what you are enabled to do because you have cleared away everything else. You can invest in your family. You can teach your children what it means to create margin in your life. You can sanctify your bride with a shared glass of wine. You can offer a joyous song of praise to the Master of the Universe, hands joined with those you love.

Beloved, never forget that God’s word tells us the commands He gives us are for our good. I am so humbled watching God’s chosen people truly find the good in keeping the Sabbath.

Shabbat Shalom is the shared greeting here on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Sabbath Peace. May we all find the peace and freedom that comes from keeping His commands.

Pilgrimage: Day 1

Pilgrimage (n): A long journey to a sacred place for a spiritual purpose.

This morning was one of those happy accidents that God seems to coordinate for no other reason than to give us a shared smile. I was reading Trevin Wax’s excellent devotion Psalms in 30 Days, which uses the Christian Standard Bible as its base translation. I got to Psalm 84, one of my favorites. But I’m used to it in the ESV, where verse 5 reads,

“Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.”
‭‭Psalm‬ ‭84:5‬ ‭ESV‬‬

So the different language of the CSB jumped out at me:

“Happy are the people whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.”
Psalms‬ ‭84:5‬ ‭CSB‬‬

A pilgrimage is a long journey, usually taken with a group, to a sacred place, for the purpose of meditation, veneration, and spiritual transformation.

Today, I join 30 other pilgrims from Prattville, Alabama to Israel. We will walk in the footsteps of Jesus, but also the footsteps of Abraham, Moses, David, and Ezekiel.

We will follow the steps of Jesus, but also of Jerome, Augustine, Richard the Lionhearted, Luther, Mark Twain, and TE Lawrence.

We will walk in the footsteps of Christians, Muslims, Jews, and pagans, across the most bitterly contested and bloodstained and real estate on the planet.

Pray for our band of pilgrims. Pray for safety. Pray for times of reflection, enlightenment, worship, and transformation.

Day 1: Prattville to Atlanta, Atlanta to Istanbul.

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