Looking for Shalom

Yesterday we began a series called Shalom.  Shalom is more than a Jewish greeting or  cease-fire. It is a state of wholeness and completeness where everything is as it’s supposed to be.  It is every part of God’s creation living in harmony and mutual benefit. Sin vandalized and shattered the full shalom that was originally present in this world.  But it has not destroyed it. Remnants of shalom are all around us. We see them in natural beauty, in reconciliation between two people, in unconditional love, and in art or music that transports us to a place of Yes! - a place where things are how they’re supposed to be.

One of the best ways to embrace hope and joy is to look for the shalom that remains in this world.  The fragments of shalom are all around us. So I challenge you this week to keep your eyes peeled for glimpses of shalom.  Keep your ear to the ground for the sounds of shalom. It may come on the radio or on the drive home. Shalom might happen as you walk around your neighborhood, read a book, or catch up with a friend.  Look for examples of shalom and be sure to share them with someone. Tell a family member or friend. Share it with a co-worker. You don’t have to call it shalom. You can refer to it as “this cool thing that happened.”  Because that’s what shalom is and more. It is a powerful reminder that God is still present and his creation is still good.


Lessons from Israel: Nazareth

One of the more well-known sayings of the Bible is that “a prophet is without honor only in his hometown.”  Jesus actually said this when he visited his hometown of Nazareth after being away for several years. At first he was welcomed back to Nazareth.  Luke 4 tells us that people spoke well of him. But then something happened. Jesus broke their mold. He stopped being Joseph’s nice boy and started being the Messiah.  It was more than they could handle. The picture below is the cliff at the edge of town. Tradition has it that this is the precipice that they tried to throw Jesus off of.

Most of us have been around Jesus for many years.  In some ways, he’s become familiar to us. We know the stories.  We’re used to being with him at church. He’s familiar to us. And sometimes this prevents us from accepting the new things he wants to do in our lives.  We resist the new work that Jesus wants to do within us. But Jesus continues to break molds. If we will receive him as he is, he will live and move among us.  If we embrace him as he comes to us, we will see miracles.

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Lessons from Israel: Tel Dan

In the Old Testament, when God led his people into the promised land, each tribe of Israel was given a section of land in which to live.  The tribe of Dan was originally given a section of land that extended from the Mediterranean Sea toward Jerusalem. However, they discovered a better area in the north and moved there instead.  It was a fertile land with plenty of water - everything they needed to thrive. Along the way they also discovered some idols. They appointed a priest to serve them as they worshipped these idols.  The disobedience in this sad story is off the charts. They said “no, thanks” to the land God graciously gave them. Then they said “no, thanks” to the God who offered to bless and protect them.

In our world today discontent drives us.  The entire marketing industry is based on discontent.  We are encouraged to trade up any chance we get. And sometimes God is blessing us through these opportunities.  But other times we are trading away the very thing God wants to bless us with and through. For the tribe of Dan, they gained prosperity in the immediate future.  They found only destruction farther down the road. In a world that pushes us to trade up, sometimes the best deal is the one we currently have. Sometimes, that’s the one that God has given to us, and the place where, in the end, his richest blessings are found.

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Lessons from Israel: Caesarea Philippi

One of the most lush and fertile places in all of Palestine is the village of Caesarea Philippi.  Located north of the Sea of Galilee, it is part of the watershed that feeds the Jordan Valley. Water pours out from underground rivers and aquifers.  In a land where water is the most sought after commodity, Caesarea Philippi is a place of abundance. In a society where Ba’al was the god of water and fertility, it was also a capitol for Ba’al worship.  Worshipping this deity involved unmentionable acts of debauchery and sexual immorality. It is interesting and curious that Jesus would take his disciples to this immoral place. Yet in Matthew 16:13-20, in the midst of idolatry and evil, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”  Peter famously confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.

It can be easy enough to make our confession in a church service, a LifeGroup meeting, or with other Christians.  Sometimes God calls us to places where evil and brokenness abound. Sometimes God leads us to places of pain and despair where it seems impossible to see his work or activity.  It is in those places that we can most powerfully confess the lordship of Jesus. He came to be the Lord of everything, not just of church services and Christians. Jesus is Lord in Vegas.  He is Lord in taverns and strip clubs. He is Lord on the streets where junkies and prostitutes live and work. Jesus isn’t afraid of those places. And sometimes he takes us there, shows us the brokenness, and asks us the same question he asked Peter: “Who do you say that I am?”  The next time you encounter despair or immorality or hurt, you can stand with Peter and answer confidently. Jesus is Lord in Caesarea Philippi. He is Lord of all.

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Lessons from Israel: Gamla

Our family trip to Israel was a powerful spiritual experience for many reasons.  We walked where Jesus walked. We saw the very places where the events of the Bible took place.  Those events came alive to us in fresh ways. We gained insight into the world to which Jesus announced the kingdom of God.  These are all the ways that I anticipated growing and learning. But one way that I experienced God that surprised me: I was moved by the beautiful scenery in this part of the world.  Israel is an amazingly beautiful part of God’s creation! Just prior to going to Israel, I spent several days on the Appalachian Trail. I thought that trip would be the scenic highlight of my sabbatical.  Sorry, but even Grayson Highlands on the AT can’t hold a candle to the rugged beauty of Israel.

This is a picture of an ancient town called Gamla.  “Gamla” comes from the Hebrew word for camel. You can see the ridge of this town looks like a camel’s hump.  The view from this town in the Golan Heights is breathtaking. It sits between two plateaus with the Sea of Galilee in the distance.  There was a synagogue in Gamla during Jesus’ time. It’s quite likely that Jesus visited this place. However, it is undeniable that God blessed this place with an amazing beauty.  I experienced him here in the beauty of his creation as much as anywhere on our trip.

Lessons from Israel: Magdala

The Gospels never specifically refer to a small village on the Sea of Galilee called Magdala.  Yet we know Jesus had a great deal of influence there. It’s almost certain he visited this town frequently.  It’s claim to fame is a lady named Mary. You know her as Mary Magdalene - “Mary from Magdala.” Jesus cast seven demons out of her.  She, in turn, supported Jesus and his ministry in practical ways. While modern conspiracy theories have Jesus romantically involved with her, Mary was probably an older lady who was a mother figure to Jesus and his disciples.

Today Magdala is a museum designed to draw our attention to the role of women in the Bible.  As I watched my wife and daughters walk through the ancient village, I thought of how Jesus valued women far beyond the culture in which he lived.  I thought of the way women were created by God to be full participants in his kingdom. Jesus empowered women to join him in unprecedented ways. He understood that God means to do his work just as much through women as men.  Below is a beautiful mural in the chapel at Magdala. It is a depiction of Jesus compassion for a suffering woman. Do you know which story this is?

Lessons from Israel: Mt. Arbel

Of all the knowledge I gained in Israel, one of the most important insights is scale.  We live in a large state in a very large country.  I guess I’ve naturally and subconsciously imagined Israel on the same scale.  When Jesus traveled from one town to another, I assumed that he was going from Grand Rapids to Detroit, or from Grand Haven to Chicago.  The reality is much different. The towns and villages that became the seat of Jesus’ ministry were nearly within shouting distance of each other.  Capernaum, Korazin, and Bethsaida are three villages known as “The Jesus Triangle.” Jesus spent about 90% of his ministry in these three towns. They are all within a five mile radius of each other.  An easy and accurate parallel is to think of our own tri-cities. The top photo below is a picture of the north end of the Sea of Galilee from Mt. Arbel. The second photo is zoomed in on the area where Jesus spent the vast majority of his ministry.

It helps me realize that I don’t have to travel extensively to serve God.  Often it is a sustained and faithful service in one small area that creates the most impact.  When you think about serving God, do you typically imagine going someplace else to do it? Do you believe faithful service involves extensive travel?  While Jesus took a few “mission trips” in his life, he was focused on one small area in God’s vast earth. God has put us where we are for a reason. Be faithful where you’ve been placed and don’t underestimate the impact your life can have there.


Lessons from Israel: En Gedi

En Gedi is an oasis in the desert.  In the midst of a dry and barren land, En Gedi is an explosion of lush green life.  For miles around, the landscape is rugged and brown. The Dead Sea itself sits just a few miles from this oasis.  And yet here, surrounded by rocks and dried up earth, is a spring that flows down a ravine, refreshing this sliver of land and creating life in the most unexpected of places.  David used this as a hideout while being hunted by King Saul. It was a refuge from all his enemies and a beautiful reminder of God’s deliverance and provision.

What is your “En Gedi”?  Where do you find refuge when the world is harsh and cruel?  Perhaps it is in a spouse or a friend. Maybe you find God’s presence in a worship service or the promises He makes in His word.  It might be a walk in the woods or time on the beach. In the midst of this broken and hardscrabble world, God is still present. Expressions of His presence are there if we look for them.  Where is your En Gedi? Are you retreating there enough?

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Lessons from Israel: Masada

One of the most popular tourist attractions in Israel is the mountain top fortress of Masada.  Herod the Great turned this mountaintop into a secure stronghold and built two palaces for himself complete with indoor baths and an outdoor swimming pool.  It features sweeping views of the mountains of Moab, the Dead Sea, and the Judean hills. Herod built this fortress as a place of refuge in case of a revolt.  Here he would be safe from attack and able to hold out against any enemy. Years later, Masada became a last resort for a group of Jewish rebels. The Roman Army besieged Masada and built a ramp by which they gained access to the fortress.

Like Herod, we build Masadas in our lives.  We believe that our savings or IRA will be our fortress.  We look to our career as a source of security. Our skills become a stronghold against unemployment.  Good grades become a refuge for us. But just as surely as Masada was defeated, our wealth, skill, and intelligence cannot save us.  The only true refuge, the only unconquerable fortress is the Lord our God. We say with the psalmist “The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. (46:7)”

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Lessons from Israel: Arad

Arad is an ancient site in the desert of southern Israel.  It served as a military and trade outpost and was built on a high hill.  After the original city was destroyed by the Israelites, it was rebuilt and settled by the tribe of Judah.  One of the unique features of the city was a replica of the temple. Apparently the people of Arad used this as a place to worship God.  But archaeology reveals that the Lord isn’t the only one they worshipped. In the most holy place of their replica temple, archaeologists found a sacred stone - a large, flat rock that was a symbol of other gods like Baal and Asherah.  It’s a terrible irony that God’s people would worship other gods in a structure and space that was reserved only for him. 

Take a look into the most holy place of your heart.  What do you see there? That space is reserved for God alone.  But often we find other sacred stones there. Careers, hobbies, sports, even family.  There is certainly a place in your life for these things. Just not in the most holy place.  That space is reserved for God alone. If anything in your life is out of synch, a good first step is looking at what, besides God, is in that space.

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Lessons from Israel: Valley of Elah

The Valley of Elah is the site of one of the most famous battles in history.  Here took place a duel between a massive giant named Goliath and a barely-armed teenager named David.  What we often lose sight of is that this was more than a battle of two nations. It was more than a conflict between two armies.  It was a spiritual battle. Goliath was talking spiritual trash about the God of Israel. David, who had not been subject to weeks of intimidation by Goliath, understood this.  They weren’t just fighting over a piece of land. As David moves in to strike the fatal blow, he says, “For the battle is the Lord's, and he will give you into our hand.”

There is always a spiritual component to the battles we fight in life.  As we struggle with sin or emotional wounds or other challenges, we are settling an age old question: Is our God stronger?  David knew that the Lord was indeed stronger than Goliath and the Philistine army. And so he let God fight the battle for him.  Whatever valley you find yourself fighting in, remember that the battle is the Lord’s. He is stronger than your sin, your pain, your brokenness.  You may not stand a chance against these enemies. But Jesus has conquered the ultimate enemy, death. The victory you seek has already been won in Jesus name.

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Lessons from Israel: Beth Shemesh

Beth Shemesh is an Israelite town about 15 miles west of Jerusalem.  We visited here on our first full day in Israel. I have to admit that prior to this trip I thought of Israel much like Tolkien’s middle earth: a magical, otherworldly place where unlikely things happened.  A place very different from our own. As we stood looking across a valley, our guide casually said, “See that mountainside across the valley? That’s where Samson lived.” He went on to mention that this valley was the one Samson lit on fire using an interesting combination of foxes and torches.

The mighty acts of God are not confined to a specific geography. In the Bible, God did powerful things in a land of rocks and dirt and trees and hills and valleys. He did his mighty acts among people - ordinary people who witnessed God doing extraordinary things. Beth Shemesh taught me that I can expect God to move in powerful ways in West Michigan among ordinary people like us. God’s power may be revealed in different ways and through different resources. But it is the same God and the same power. Keep your eyes peeled!

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