September 20, 2020
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
BIBLE 101: THE HOLY LAND
The second in a series of six.
If you have never been to the Holy Land, I hope you get that opportunity. And you can relax. This is not a sales pitch. I am not recruiting a group to go with me. But I do want to tell you about the one time I got to go.
There is a Masonic organization called Knights Templar that does something unbelievably generous. They fully fund trips to the Holy Land. Now it’s just for clergy. But all expenses paid. When I heard about this, it sounded too good to be true. But it was true. So in 1992 I got to spend eleven days in the Holy Land. I was there with about 25 other pastors from all over the United States. That trip transformed my ministry. It made the Bible come alive for me.
When I got home, I gave a slide presentation in Boise. Some of you might be old enough to remember slides. In attendance at that gathering was Dale Winch. I had no idea I would one day get to be his pastor. He is one of the Knights Templars who makes it possible for clergy like me to have this amazing, life-changing experience. I will be forever grateful.
They do give preference to younger clergy. And by the way, back in 1992 I was one. They give preference to younger clergy for a couple of reasons. One is that they probably don’t have the money to afford to pay their own way. I certainly did not. Also, younger clergy have more years to be able to share what they experienced with their congregations.
When I gave that slide presentation in Boise, I quoted a Benedictine monk named Bargil Pixner.
Five gospels record the life of Jesus. Four you will find in books and one you will find in the land they call holy. Read the fifth gospel and the world of the four will open to you.
I wish I could take you to “the land they call holy.” But the next best thing is something we’ve been doing a lot of lately. How about going there “virtually”? We’ll get started by showing you some of the places I visited in 1992.
(YouTube: Sacred Wonders of Israel) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1M-3AD6PKzc
This by the way is sermon two in a six-part series. I am calling it Bible 101. This one is basically going to be a geography lesson. We’re going be using maps. I encourage you to have some maps in front of you to help you follow along. Most good Bibles have some good maps. They are usually in the back. In fact, some people say they know the Bible so well, they know it from Genesis to maps.
Here is a modern map of that part of the world (See Featured Image 1).
We call it the Middle East. Most of the countries you see named here are in the news quite a bit, and seldom in a very good way. There’s been a lot of tragedy in this part of the world. It’s the only place where three continents come together – Africa, Europe, and Asia. People have fought over this land since the dawn of time.
We need at least two maps to understand the Bible. One is this big one that covers the entire Middle East. (See Featured Image 2). We have no countries drawn in because borders change over time. The first thing I want to add is the Fertile Crescent (blue arc). It is also called the Cradle of Civilization. This is where Abraham and Sarah lived. In fact, they traveled the entire length of this crescent, from Ur to Haran to Canaan and even into Egypt.
The question is asked, “Where was the Garden of Eden?” The Bible mentions four rivers (Genesis 2:10-14). Two of them are rivers that exist today – the Tigris and the Euphrates – right here (lower right side of arc). This is modern Iraq, but this part of the world is also known as Mesopotamia, which means “the land between rivers.”
It’s called the Fertile Crescent because, surrounded by barren desert, this area gets enough water, either from rainfall or rivers, to sustain agriculture. And therefore people have been able to live there.
I want to just quickly mention the location of the great powers that threatened Israel. The Philistines lived here, next to the Mediterranean Sea. From “Philistine” we get the name “Palestine.” And yes, the Israelis and the Palestinians are still fighting. The Assyrians were here. They were conquered by the Babylonians who were conquered by the Persians. Alexander the Great conquered the entire Middle East. He’s the one who said he ran out of lands to conquer. Then, just before the birth of Jesus, the Romans emerged as a superpower and ruled the world.
Down here is Egypt. Egypt had a strong military and was a constant threat to Israel, but Egypt’s main role in the story of the Bible has to do with Moses who said to Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” and then led the Israelites out of slavery and back into the Promised Land. Here is the Sinai Peninsula where he and his people wandered for forty years.
Israel at the height of her power was not very big. Modern day Israel is barely big enough to be able to see it on this big map. To get some idea of its size, here is Idaho. Israel is the size of the dark blue on the panhandle (See Featured Image 3).
Our scripture this morning comes from the book of Numbers. Moses has led his people out of Egypt, across the Red Sea, and they are on their way to the Promised Land. But it’s taking them awhile. They have been wandering around here on the Sinai Peninsula for four decades. They have some misgivings about entering the land God has given them. Spies have been sent on ahead to check things out and they have returned with reports of giants who lived there. They said they were like grasshoppers compared to these giants (Numbers 13:32-33). So they aren’t so sure they want to go there. Quite a few of them want to go back to Egypt. Slavery is better than death.
But the passage we read has a report from two other spies, Joshua and Caleb who give a more optimistic report.
The land we passed through and explored is exceedingly good. If the Lord is pleased with us, he will lead us into that land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and will give it to us (14:7-8).
Eventually the Israelites get up the courage to trust Joshua and Caleb and, most of all, to trust God and to enter this land “flowing with milk and honey.”
One of the first impressions I got when I visited the Holy Land is how barren and desolate and rugged the country is. This is the kind of land you see in much of modern day Israel. I am used to hiking off trail in wilderness areas. Sometimes it’s pretty rough going. But I cannot imagine crossing country like this. When you think of Jesus in the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights, picture this. But all of the Holy Land is not like this. Joshua and Caleb were not lying when they said the land flowed with milk and honey.
There are also beautiful areas that remind me of the fertile farm land around here. Like here, much of it is irrigated. Since modern-day Israel came into existence in 1948, they take great pride in how they have made the desert bloom. And much of Israel, closer to the Mediterranean Sea is part of the Fertile Crescent and gets plenty of rainfall to raise crops without irrigation. It’s a beautiful land and a land of great variety. Not unlike Idaho. And even more like Oregon, with an ocean coast, fertile valleys, snow-capped mountains, and lots of barren wilderness.
Some of you didn’t know Israel has a snow-capped mountain. Mt. Hermon is 9,200 feet above sea level. It has snow on it year-round. And when our bus entered Jerusalem, February 26, 1992, there were eight inches of fresh snow on the ground. That was unusual – the latitude of Jerusalem is about the same as the latitude of Tucson, Arizona – but what a beautiful first impression of the city!
I told you we need at least two maps to understand the Bible. Here is the second. (See Featured Image 4) Here is a very rough map of the New Testament world. Here is the coast and the Mediterranean Sea. Here is the Sea of Galilee. Here is the Dead Sea. Here is the Jordan River that connects the two. Here is Jerusalem, just west of the top of the Dead Sea. Here is Nazareth, just west of the bottom of the Sea of Galilee. And here is Mt. Hermon, way up north. The snow melt from Mt. Hermon feeds the Sea of Galilee. The Sea of Galilee feeds the Dead Sea. But the Dead Sea has no outlet. That’s why it is called “dead.” It has a salt concentration of 30%, about the same as the Great Salt Lake.
And here is another fact about the Dead Sea. It is 1,412 feet below sea level. This is the lowest elevation on our planet. Our first day in Jerusalem we were scheduled to tour the city. But there was deep snow everywhere. So we went instead to the Dead Sea. No snow there. Ever.
The elevation of Jerusalem is 2,500 feet, same as the elevation of Nampa. So you descend about 4,000 feet when you go to the Dead Sea. For comparison, you descend about 3,000 feet when you drive from Bogus Basin into Boise. It is a curvy 18 mile drive, about the same distance as from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea.
The Dead Sea does not figure at all into the story of Jesus, but the Sea of Galilee does. It is a beautiful fresh water lake. It’s about five times bigger than Lake Lowell. The home base for the ministry of Jesus was Capernaum, on the western shore of the lake. And the hometown of Jesus, Nazareth, is about 20 miles away. (See Featured Image 4)
If you pay attention at all to the scripture we read every Christmas, you know that Mary and Joseph travelled from Nazareth (Upper red dot) to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born. Bethlehem is just south of Jerusalem (Lower red dot), only about five miles away. The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem would have been about 70 miles. Quite a distance when you are nine months pregnant and riding on a donkey.
Most of us have done a fair amount of travelling in the course of our lives. It’s not uncommon for people today to travel all over the world. Jesus was never more than 100 miles from his home.
The person in the Bible who really got around was Paul the Apostle. We’ll talk about him in a future sermon in this series. I would need a third map to show you all the places he visited and started churches. But I thought two maps might be enough for today.
Here’s what the Holy Land looks like from space. (See Featured Image 5) As you can see, there is no mistaking the Dead Sea (lower) and the Sea of Galilee (upper).
If you are interested in going further in learning about the geography of the Holy Land, there is a series on the internet that I thought was especially good. It’s called Satellite Bible Atlas. It will pop right up on YouTube, just like these online services. There are 13 separate lessons. They vary in length, but the average is about ten minutes. So in about two hours you will learn way more about the land of the Bible than I could ever teach you. Even if I had two hours, which I don’t.
I want to conclude by talking about Jerusalem. You will not often see a snowman there, as I did. And by the way, all that snow and then all the water when it melted caused a retaining wall to give way and a roof to collapse on an Arab cafe in east Jerusalem. 38 lives were lost.
I want to talk about Jerusalem because this is the one place more than any other that for most people is the Holy Land. It is a holy city for three religions. For Jews, this is Mount Moriah where God saved Isaac from his father Abraham’s knife. This is where the Temple was built, destroyed, re-built, and destroyed again. For Christians, this is where Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead. For Muslims, 13 centuries ago their golden Dome of the Rock was built where the Jewish Temple once stood. They believe this is where Mohammed was standing when he ascended to heaven.
I got to go inside. I was surprised. I had to remove my shoes and there was no photography, but those were the only requirements.
Jerusalem means “city of peace.” Which of course is ironic, because this place has been anything but a city of peace.
One random memory of my short time in Jerusalem. We had a free morning one day, so I decided I would go for a longer than usual run. I found a quarter mile track. As I began, I noticed a teenage boy sitting and reading. He was reading the Quran. I did 40 laps, ten miles. When I was done, as I walked back to my hotel room exhausted, there was that same boy, still reading from his holy book. I thought, he takes his faith as seriously as I take my running. That may be a scary thought, in the context of Muslim terrorism. That may be a scary thought, because the Quran is not the right holy book as far as Christians are concerned.
But what if we really got into the Bible? What if we not only learned it but lived it? What if stopped asking, “What would Jesus do?” and started doing what Jesus did? What if we stopped seeing that teenage boy as a threat and started seeing him as a brother?
Jesus looked over the city of Jerusalem and wept. He said: Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.
And then he rode into that city, not as a conqueror on a white stallion, but as a servant on a common donkey. And five days later he died. He died for you and for me and for that teenage boy reading the Quran, because he loves us all just the same.
I usually close these sermons with a prayer of my own. Today I want to close with a prayer written by a man named Mitch Randall. I like this prayer a lot. I hope it speaks to you.
Lord, forgive us when humanity continues our pursuit to control Jerusalem and use that control as a force for power and oppression. Lord, forgive us when we witness more death and destruction conducted behind the disguises of selfish desires and political rhetoric. Lord, forgive us when more Jewish, Christian, and Muslim children die because we so-called adults choose earthly powers over an eternal love. Lord, we pray for shalom, we pray for peace, and we pray for salaam. Lord, may Abraham’s children listen to the call of Jesus, as we will find room for everyone under his long wingspan of faith, hope, and love. Amen.