Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Jerusalem: The Holy City

One of the most amazing cities in the world is Jerusalem. Excitement builds on a tour in Israel until it reaches its crescendo when the tour leader announces, "Today, we go up to Jerusalem!" It is almost as if we were being drawn by a large magnet. Finally, with the strains of that great classic "The Holy City" still emanating from the CD player on the bus, one catches his/her first glimpse of the city itself. Slowly the bus winds through the crowded streets and climbs to the summit of Mount Scopus. There a person captures his first glimpse of the Old City. The golden Dome of the Rock glistens in the waining sunshine. The City now has your complete undivided attention. You almost feel like you are home. It feels right!

As you gaze upon the city, the tour leaders opens his Bible and begins to read these words from Psalm 122: "Jerusalem is built like a city that is closely compacted together. That is where the tribes go up, the tribes of the LORD, to praise the name of the LORD according the statue given to Israel. There the thrones for judgment stand, the thrones of the house of David. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: 'May those who love you be secure. May there be peace within your walls and security within your citadels.' For the sake of my brothers and friends, I will say, 'Peace be within you.' For the sake of the house of the LORD our God, I will seek your prosperity."

Jerusalem is such a diverse city. On the one hand there is the modern city, much of it being built since the days of the War of Independence in 1948. The white Jerusalem stones which adorns every building within the city shine brilliantly in the sunlight. The shops along Ben Yehuda street are reminiscent of store fronts along the Nicollet Mall here in Minneapolis; only the prices are in shekels rather than dollars. On the other hand there is the Old City surrounded by its famous wall with its seven gates. As one enters it is almost as if one is stepping back into time. The Arab souks have changed little over the years. There you can literally purchase everything from soup to nuts. Your senses wrestle with the sights, sounds, and smells as you walk down the crowded streets. And you begin to picture in your mind what Jerusalem might have looked like during the days of Jesus.

Then questions enter into your mind as to what Jerusalem might look like when the King reigns enthroned within the temple on the temple mount. Will the streets be even more congested? Will language continue being a barrier to the people who do commerce within its shops? We know that there will no longer be the ever-present military and police presence as there is today for the Prince of Peace will be reigning upon the throne. The security fence that borders Jerusalem will also be gone. As I walked through those streets, the electricity grew within as I realized once again that this city is an eternal city - the city where God has chosen to share His name.

Friends, as you read earlier, the Scriptures encourage us - yea, they command us - to pray for the peace of Jerusalem. Are we doing this faithfully? Is Jerusalem in your thoughts every day? As you pray for its peace you are in essence praying that the Prince of Peace will come, for only then will Jerusalem truly know peace.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Chag Pesach Sameach

I want to begin by wishing you a Chag Pesach Sameach - a joyous Passover Holiday. This important Jewish celebration actually began at sunset this past Monday and will conclude at sunset next Monday. Passover, itself, is actually one day, with the Seder meal being observed the first night of the eight-day holiday. The remaining days are known from the Bible as the Feast of Unleavened Bread.

You remember the story of the very first Passover. It is found in the book of Exodus. After forty years of exile in the wilderness of Midian, Moses has returned to Egypt with a message from God to Pharaoh: "Let my people, the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, go into the wilderness to worship me." And, as you also remember, Pharaoh, in no uncertain terms, said "No way that is going to happen!" So, God sent one plague after another upon the Egyptians - each plague is carefully recalled during the Passover Seder. Still there was reluctance on the past of Pharaoh. Finally God told Moses that He would strike the firstborn of all living things in Egypt with death; but, how to spare the children of Israel?

Here was God's plan. Each Hebrew family was to carefully select one lamb - one without anyspot or blemish - in other words, it was perfect. This lamb was then to be killed and its blood was to be drained into a basin. Then carefully, using a branch of hyssop, the blood was to be painted on the mantel and the door frames at each house. As the angel of death went through the land that evening, he would pass over each of the houses where the blood had been applied.

Meanwhile, the Israelites were to roast the lamb, eating it with unleavened bread - they did not have time for the yeast to take affect in a normal loaf of bread - and with vegetables. They were to be dressed for leaving. It was not a meal to be lingered over, but to be eaten in haste because the time for the exodus had arrived.

Today's Passover Seder is a retelling of that story so that the participants do not forget God's great deliverance of Israel from Egypt some 3400 years ago. It is a meal that focuses upon family, with both parents and children participating during the evening. It is a meal that is not eaten with haste, but lingered over as the story becomes embedded in the memory once again.

As Christians we associate the Passover with the last meal that Jesus had with His disciples just before His betrayal and His death. It is from this meal that the elements of our Communion are taken.

If you have never had the opportunity of participating in a Passover Seder, I would trust that you would have that opportunity soon. The biblical account of the Exodus story will become more real to you. You will also connect with Jewish friends around the world. And you will begin to have a deeper understanding of your own participation in the Communion services held in your local church.

So, again I wish you a Chag Pesach Semeach. And I also wish you a Blessed Easter. He is risen...He is risen, indeed!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Israel: Back from the Land

I am just returned from two weeks leading a tour group to Israel. What an incredible experience God provided for us in that place! Allow me to just share with you a couple of highlights that blessed my own heart. First, the hillsides of Galilee were alive with a palette of colors. From the deep crimson of the anemones (we might call them poppies) to the bright yellow of the mustard, and from the pure whites and passionate pinks of the wild cyclamens to the fading blues of the remaining lupines the hillsides spoke powerfully of their Creator. As we drove through the hillsides of both the Upper and Lower Galilee Mountains, my heart was drawn to that passage in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says these words to His followers: "And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these" (Matthew 6:28-29). I am convinced that Jesus gave this Sermon in the spring of the year when the wild flowers were sharing their beauty before their Lord. Israel is truly magnificent in the spring of the year. Second, it was a bright, nearly haze-free morning when we boarded the boat that would take us onto the Sea of Galilee. Excitement ran high as we anticipated the experience of being on the Sea. Something happened early on that ride that profoundly touched many of us. As is customary, the American flag is hoisted and our national anthem is played. It is an amazing feeling to be singing our anthem in a foreign setting. But, then we listened as the Israeli national anthem was played. As the words of that anthem - expressing the hope of the people of Israel - were being sung, the two flags - one from the United States and one from Israel - seemed to embrace as one. I noticed tears in the eyes of many. Oh that our nation would embrace the people of Israel as those two flags did on that sun-kissed boat. Jerusalem was a sea of people, at times you literally could not fall down. The walk up the Via Dolorosa from the Antonia Fortress to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was an arduous one. At times you felt like you were hemmed in on every side with little breathing room. Then I thought of that Good Friday when Jesus, weak from a sleepless night and from the horrific beatings He had experienced, was forced to carry His cross through a similar mob scene. I think I received a new appreciation for all that He endured for me. People asked if I felt safe. The answer is a strong yes. While we were in the Negev we heard the Israeli planes flying over head. In one place, we were told that we could not take pictures focusing in a certain direction because secret military exercises were being done in the area. And while in Jerusalem, we witnessed many young recruits who were being initiated into their particular military field. Friends, I would strongly encourage you to consider taking a journey to His Land. It will bring the Scriptures into a sharper focus for you, as well as instill within you a sense of what God is presently doing in His Land. A journey to Israel is one way in which we can share with the world that we are standing with its people.