Place Prepared

Once again, human calculations and predictions about the end of the world, the return of Christ, the parousia if you want to sound fancy, have amounted to nothing more than hype and media coverage.

And this Sunday I’m preaching on John 14. How fitting.

Jesus has just dropped a bombshell on the dinner conversation. He’s going to die. He’s going to leave them and they can’t come yet. What’s more, Peter, the confession-giving, water-walking, sword-slinging disciple was just told that he will deny the very Christ he proclaims to defend. If Peter’s faith will fail, what chance do the others have?

But Jesus reassures them. “Don’t let your hearts be troubled; don’t fret; don’t worry; don’t let all this confusion and doubt stand in your way. You believe in God, right? Then believe in me, too. My Father’s house has many room, plenty of dwelling places, and I’m going to prepare a place for you. Yes, you. So if I go and prepare a place for you, I will┬ácome again and take you back with me. That way, where I am there you can be there, too. But until then, you know the way to where I’m going.”

We read that, and it seems like a nice sentiment. It’s heartwarming to know that Jesus has promised to come back and get us one day.

But what impact would this have had on the disciples?

The imagery Jesus uses is actually that of a man and woman who are to be married. In Jewish custom, there is an engagement, a betrothal, and marriage. The engagement is the initial “we’re going to be married one day” phase. Following that is the betrothal. During this time, the bride and groom would be separated for as long as a year while the groom made all the preparations for his future family. This would often be done by adding onto the home of the groom’s parents. Jewish families were very patronistic in that multiple generations would be living under the roof of the father.

After this betrothal period–after all the carpets were installed, all the curtains were hung, all the walls painted–the groom would come again, get his bride, and bring her back into the home. This would begin the official marriage.

Do you notice what Jesus is doing here?

There were some dangers involved in such a long separation period. For instance, the woman, left on her own, could end up falling in love with some other man. This would certainly bring a halt to the impending marriage. On the other hand, the man could never return. In the BC era (before cellphones), someone could get sick or injured without family ever knowing about it. There was the potential risk of something tragic happening to the groom as he is making preparations. If he were not to return, the woman would be left as essentially a husbandless married woman.

But Jesus gives us the reassurance that he WILL come again and bring us home. The ball is in our court. Are we going to remain a faithful bride eagerly awaiting the return of her groom? Or will our eyes begin to stray as we look for other people/places/things to fill our desires or loneliness?

Don’t be afraid or anxious. We will not be left as a widow. Our groom will come again one day. They are now saying this will happen in October. If so, great! But if not, I’ll continue on my journey along the way to where Jesus is.

Salt, part 4

The hodgepodge crowds from around Galilee gathered together along the shoreline of the Sea. They anxiously waited to hear what this teacher would say. The rabbi stood atop the hill, looking down towards the crowds below, full of fishermen, bakers, farmers, and businessmen. A hush fell over the people, and the rabbi said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”

And so begins the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus begins his most famous sermon with blessings. When Jesus blesses the poor in spirit, the meek, those in mourning, those hungering and thirsting for righteousness, people in the crowd new, “Hey, he’s talking about me.” These are the peasants, the outcasts, the beat-down, the lonely, the poor, the broken, and the have-nots. They were not among the spiritually elite. They were ordinary, helpless people who longed to hear some good news from God, because according to their preachers and rabbis, God blesses those who have it all together.

Not according to this rabbi. This rabbi says that God blesses those who are on the down and out. He comes down, meets them where they are, and blesses them.

After finishing the blessings, his next words are, “You are the salt of the earth.”

Who is the salt of the earth? My whole life I heard this verse in the context of Christianity. Those who have been saved by God, those set apart from this world, and those who are perfect example of following Christ — those people are the salt of the earth. Right?

But in context, Jesus is talking directly to these people who are spiritually starved. They are tired, run down, and tossed aside. They don’t have it all together, they don’t have all the answers, and they certainly don’t feel set apart for anything. Yet these people are the salt of the earth.

What are some of the qualities of salt? Most people know that salt is used to season food that is bland, and it can be used as a preservative, like for meats and such. But as we’ve seen over the last few posts, salt can be used to purify and cleanse. It has healing aspects to it. And salt was extremely valuable in ancient times.

So when Jesus says that these people are the salt of the earth, that term is loaded. They bring flavor to the complacent world around them. They are preserving the world from certain ruin. They purify and cleanse the sin that so easily infects mankind. And most of all, they are valuable. They have worth beyond imagine.

That’s good news! This is a blessing within itself.

So be salt for someone — offer healing and cleansing to those in need, and add some flavor to the complacency of life.

And know that you are salt — you have value and worth beyond compare, so let God use you.

Old City Cairo

The Old City part of Cairo, also known as Heliopolis or On, has been around from the time of Joseph and is built on the main road connecting Egypt with Palestine. This is the place where many Jews would have fled in the Babylonian conquest, and logically this is the part of Egypt where Joseph and Mary would have come to flee the wrath of King Herod.

Two of the places we visited in the Old City were the Jewish Synagogue and the Abu Serga Church. The synagogue in the Old City is where the Geniza documents were discovered. They were the oldest copies of the Hebrew Bible until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Abu Serga Church is the oldest (or second oldest) Coptic church in Egypt, and according to the Coptic tradition is built directly over the place where Joseph, Mary, and Jesus lived for a couple years when they fled to Egypt. It is very possible, but I have never been one to put much stock in the place. It was still cool, though, because this is the first place we have visited where Jesus once was.

I wonder if Jesus was actually old enough to remember seeing the Pyramids…

Of Boats and Falcons

Edfu Temple:
I doubt you have ever heard of this temple before, yet it is one of the best-preserved of the ancient world’s temple. The temple is dedicated to the falcon-headed god Horus, who is the god of protection and healing. According to Egyptian mythology, Horus battled with Set, the evil brother of Osiris, (the name for “Satan” was derived from “Set”). During this epic grudge match, Set gouged out one of Horus’ eyes, and since then (for some reason), the “Eye of Horus” has been a symbol of protection and healing. Displaying the Eye was believed to safegaurd against evil spirits and the like. This temple is also home to one of the best-preserved statues of Horus in falcon form.

One of the most intriguing things about this temple is that archaeologists discovered the remains of an ancient Egyptian ark. There are also reliefs on the wall depicting the priests of Horus carrying the Ark in the same manner as the Levitical Priests were commanded: poles slid through rings on the sides of the ark, carried over the shoulders. This ark (and presumably all Egyptian gods had an ark) was designed like one of the Egyptian sun-boats, only scaled down. Its long, slender hull carried a shrine in the middle in which would be placed an idol of the god along with a set of the 14 Egyptian commandments (and possibly other “relics” of sorts). It would not be too far-fetched to assume that when God told Moses to build him an Ark of the Covenant for him and the 10 Commandments that Moses would have built something very similar to the Egyptian ark (and not some sort of box or treasure chest).

We also learned at Edfu that the Egytians believed the ground to be holy wherever their gods were. No one was alowed to wear sandals inside the temple, and the priests would transport the ark barefoot. The only exception to this was in times of war, when everyone needed to be prepared for fight or flight. This Egyptian practice manifests itself in the stories in Exodus as well. First, God told Moses to remove his sandals for he was standing on Holy Ground. Second, God commanded the Hebrews to partake of the Passover (a holy feast) with their sandals strapped so they would be ready to flee.

It was about this point in the trip that the entire story of Joseph through Moses started to really click. I began to realize just how much of a connection the Hebrews would have had to the culture and religion of Egypt. Regardless of this, God used what they knew in order to establish his covenant with them. He had no problem taking something from one culture and using it to his glory. This is one reason I know that God is awesome.

Faith building in the land of Egypt

It’s incredible how much can happen in 8 days. The land of Egypt is so rich, so saturated with history and stories that it would be nearly impossible to take it all in, even with decades of study. Our tour guide, Osman, (who is one of the best men I have ever met) is by far also one of the best tour guides in all of Egypt. He is professional Egyptologist, tour guide, hieroglyphics teacher, and Biblical historian. Not only did he take us around to all the famous sites, but at each one he did his best to tie in all the geography, temples, etc. to the stories in the Bible. I never realized just how much Egypt had to do with the development of Judaism and ultimately Christianity.

I would like to start my summary of our trip by recording some of the things I learned that my Sunday school teachers never knew:

– The pyramids were seen by Abraham, Joseph (and his entire family), Moses, and Jesus

– There is technically more than one Temple. When Judea was overrun and many Jews taken captive and Solomon’s Temple was destroyed, many Jews escaped to Egypt and built a full-scale replica of the Temple, complete with priests and a sacrificial altar. In fact, a second full-scale replica was built on an island in the Nile called Elephantine Island (which archeologists are excavating right now). What’s more, the Egyptians built a temple of their own called the Temple of Philae which is based off of those other two replicas of Solomon’s Temple.

– The Ark of the Covenant probably wasn’t a big box. It would have been shaped like a small boat with a shrine area in the middle and two cheribum on either end. (I will post a picture later) How do we know this? Because in the Egyptian temples (which included a “Holy of Holies” where the god was and only the high priest could enter) the god was kept in an “Ark” which was a small boat with two long poles on either side which the priests used to carry the ark. Also, the 14 Commandments of Egypt were kept on display inside the ark. Moses, growing up around the main temple complex in Luxor, would have seen this ark taken out of the temple on many occasions.

– When the Israelites were encamped around Sinai and built a golden calf, it was most likely a representation of the goddess Hathor, one of the main goddesses worshiped in the time of their enslavement.

– The Egyptians had a god in their pantheon named Set, who was the god of chaos, evil, and the wilderness. From the name of Set, the Jews derived the name for Satan.

– The Egyptian priests made a practice of removing their sandals when they were inside the Temple, which was considered “holy ground”. God told Moses to remove his sandals, for he was standing on holy ground.

– The only exception to this practice of removing their sandals was during a time of war, when every man had to be prepared for fight of flight. God told the Israelites on the night of the Passover to keep their sandals on as they ate the meal, for they were getting ready to run. Paul told Christians in Ephesians 6 to keep our shoes on, which is the preparation of the gospel of peace, during a time of spiritual warfare.

– Early Christians made it a practice to use pagan symbols as their own symbols of the faith. For instance, they ancient Egyptians used a symbol called an ankh, which was the “key of life” carried by all the god, representing the Nile river. It looks like a cross with a circle on the top. Early Christians in Egypt used this symbol as their own to represent the life which we have in Christ.

OK, I’ll stop here for now. There’s more I could talk about, but I’ll leave that until the actual trip summary. I wanted to go ahead and write this stuff down before I forgot about it. All of this goes to show that God, in His infinite wisdom, has no problem with reaching people on their level. He used the things which the Israelites knew. He met them where they were and showed them the way to himself. Our God truly is an awesome God.