Monday, November 17, 2008

The Feelings of a Frontier Village

I am reading Frederic Farrar's Life of Christ (written in 1870), and reflecting on what I have seen in my recent trip through Israel. One particular village has provoked thought.

We drove by a town in the Palestinian territories that has became a centre of the bomb attacks against Israelis some years ago, leading to the erection of the security wall that now blocks off easy access among the peoples. This same town is mentioned by Farrar as the frontier village of the Samaritans in Jesus' day - the village that refused to welcome Jesus, as St Luke records (Lk. 9:51-56). Why did they refuse Jesus on this journey? Previously he had been welcomed in Samaritan areas. Perhaps it was because of his destination - he was heading to Jerusalem, and was attended now by a crowd of followers. This village (En-gannim in ancient days) was the first Samaritan town on the border with Galilee. Their refusal to welcome Jesus led to his decision to avoid moving through Samaria; he struck east through Perea.

Farrar comments about this same village in his experience circa 1980: "The inhabitants of the village - who to this day are not remarkable for their civility to strangers. . . ". They had a reputation, he was told, of being "fanatical, rude and rebellious." It is interesting to learn that a particular village, in three widely different periods of history and with different cultures and religions, can show such similarity of attitude.

I am sure that there are real grievances behind local animosities and that these comments are generalisations untrue of many people. And of course, I have no personal knowledge in this matter. It is still worth pondering whether local cultural attitudes in districts have an abiding spiritual and moral fixity. What is going on spiritually in areas like these, to produce such a profile?

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

An Most Significant Intersection

This trip to Israel and Jordan has impressed me with the historical significance for Israel of the Jordan river crossing near Jericho. So many crucial Biblical events happened there - the Israelites entering the promised land, the departure of Elijah to heaven, the ministry of John the Baptist, the baptism of Jesus. Today I stood on Mt Nebo and looked down on that very spot as Moses did, before his death and the entry of the tribes into Canaan.

In a sense that is where Israelite history began as a nation, and where eternal events that reconstituted the people of God happened. There, in between the sea that gives life (Galilee) and the sea that is dead (The Dead Sea), the power of God was displayed to save and inaugurate his people.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Where God Dwells

Last night we went down the tunnels along the Western Wall of Temple Mount in Jerusalem. It was moving to see the people above - and some below - who believe that this is the place where God's presence is to be encountered. What a revolution Jesus came to bring - to be the Temple himself, the replacement for places through a relationship with God through himself.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Location, Location

Another surprise for me in Israel. The Qumran community site is not as far away from the beaten track as I had thought. It is quite close to the Jerusalem road junction and near the Dead Sea, so it must have had some passing traffic. For a group that wanted to get away from the Temple and the city, they would have still been visible and in touch with the life of the nation of Israel in their day.

What good is a protest if nobody knows you are making a stand?

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Worship and Places

We were at the Jordan river site of John's baptisms the other day, just outside Jericho. Actually, we were not able to get to the river due to the Israeli security barrier. As we gathered to reflect, we were interrupted by an irate believer who came to complain to us about this restricted access to such a holy site.

It was sad to see someone so devoted being so lacking in the sense of the Lord Jesus's renewal of worship, from places and mountains and rivers, to the new covenant worship in spirit and truth, as Jesus taught the woman of Samaria.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

38 Years

Finally I have seen the Pool of Bethesda with my own eyes - the site of the healing of the paralysed man by Jesus as told by St John (chapter 6?). Everytime I think about that incident - the man had been afflicted for 38 years I think of Suheila, a Palestinian woman in my church who came for healing years ago with a problem. When I asked her how long she had been suffering with it, she told me "38 years". I knew then that the Lord would heal her. Right there a fellow minister had a word of knowledge about her problem, came over and prayed - and Jesus took her pain away from that moment for the rest of her life.

I love it when the Lord Jesus reminds me that he is our contemporary.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Light from God in strange places

I am in Galilee, Israel on a pilgrimage "in the footsteps of Jesus". It is striking to see the geography and closeness of the famous place names of Jesus' Galilean ministry - Capernaum, Tiberias, Magdala (just a few kms up the lakeside from where I am writing). We went up to Caesarea Philippi this afternoon and I kept wondering why Jesus went so far away - surely to get away from the excitement of the Galilean crowds, to think and pray with his disciples.

We had a falafel lunch at Cana yesterday. I had never thought of Cana as a mountain village! We usually think first of the water into wine wedding miracle on John 4, but I recalled the healing (at a distance) of the official's son (Jn. 4:43-54). It is an example of the evidence of answered prayer raised in my earlier post - the timing shows that the "coincidence" of recovery is of the Lord Jesus' making (Jn. 4:51-52).

Galilee must have seemed an unlikely place for the light of God's saving work to dawn - even though Isaiah foresaw it centuries before (Isa. 9:1-2). It would be in Galilee of the Gentiles, the way to the sea, along the Jordan, that the people living in darkness would see a great light. Matthew cites Isaiah to explain the Galilean dawning of the Messiah Jesus' ministry. How God works in strange ways! Not in Jerusalem, not from the big city, not from the theologians or scholars, but in the backblocks, from the unknown corner of Nazareth, in troubled Galilee, does the salvation dawn.

I try to remember to look for the light of God to dawn in unexpected ways and in strange places.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Pilgrims lift up their eyes

Tomorrow I am off on a pilgrimage "in the footsteps of Jesus", to Israel. So I am thinking of Jesus and his land, his people, his times and his impact on history - and my life. Although I've been planning this trip for quite a while, here it is now, and I have been busy with many things, which I can simply leave behind as I set out.
As well as following the Gospel narrative, I have decided to use the Psalms of Ascent (120-133) for meditation during these next few weeks. They are pilgrim songs of Biblical Jewish people going up to Jerusalem. People of faith have found in them a chronicle of the many and varied chances of the fleeting world through which we journey as Christians.
In an interesting and paradoxically helpful way, the pilgrim songs start with renunciation and rejection and alienation (Ps. 120). The pilgrim starts out keenly aware that he is out of step with the world around him. So he turns his face towards the Lord: "I call on the Lord in my distress" (120:1).
The Christian life does not always start out (or re-start) in an easy, calm way; it is often accompanied by dissatisfaction and rejection and leaving.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

When you pray, ask for a receipt

The other day I had a wonderful answer to prayer, for a dying relative. I asked for her pain to taken away on her last day, and for God to reveal himself to her. And that day, to the surprise of her doctor and nurses, she was completely pain-free and lucid as the end came. Just before the end, she slept for a while, and woke up greatly changed in outlook, like a new person.
I don't know what happened while she slept, although another person praying for her at a distance went through a real spiritual struggle of intense feelings and sensations, followed by joy and peace.

When we pray for a particular thing, sometimes I think that God gives us a some tangible sign of his hand accompanying the answer - an outward sign to assure us that the less tangible matter has also been heard. It is like Jesus' response to the paralysed man - to show that the harder, but intangible thing has been given ("your sins are forgiven"), the outward healing is shown ("get up, take up your mat and walk").

The English Puritan Thomas Goodwin knew about this way God answers some prayers: "When God doth a thing in answer to prayers, he often doth it in such a manner, that his hand may be in a more than ordinary manner seen in it. . . .there is often some particular circumstance of providece concurrent with it, which is a token for good, and sealeth to us that it is from God. . ." (The Return of Prayers).

The Lord has sealed this answer for me this week, his Name is wonderful.