Worship Service, August 16, 2020 “Mount Hermon and the Declaration of Messiah”
Join Holy Trinity church members and Pastor Erik
Sunday morning via YouTube
The message for August 16, 2020 by Pastor Erik,
“Mount Hermon and the Declaration of Messiah”
can be heard during HTLC Virtual Worship Service on Sunday.
Mount Hermon and The Declaration of Messiah
All realtors have an unwritten slogan by which they abide. It is a mantra used by those who are trying to sell or rent homes. It is a saying that I had not heard until I came to California. The saying used by realtors when attempting to sell or rent a house is what? Location, location, location.
Jesus knew something about the power of location. He chooses to wait to ask his close followers a couple important questions until they are in a certain city near a mountain. Jesus could have asked the questions at any number of other locations, like the temple in Jerusalem for instance, but he doesn’t. He waits until they have come to this foreign city beyond the region of Galilee, and beyond the territory of the Jews. He waits until they come to Caesarea Phillipi before he asks the disciples, “Who do people say I am?” And then the even more personal question, “Who do you say that I am?” Both are questions having to do with Jesus’ identity and both are perhaps made more difficult to answer given the location in which they are asked.
The city of Caesarea Philippi was situated way in the north of Israel, about 30 miles past the Sea of Galilee. It was located on a terrace at the foot of the southern slope of Mount Hermon. With its peak reaching an altitude of 9,230 feet, Mount Hermon was almost three times the height of any other peak in the territory of ancient Israel. The area is in beautiful setting that is very lush and the streams of water coming off the mountain are one of the main sources of the Jordan River.
At the base of Mount Hermon was Caesarea Philippi which was also a center of worship for the god Pan. In fact the city was once named Paneas. The cave near the city was called the Cave or Grotto of Pan. Not only was it amazing because the waters flowed out of the cave and fed the Jordan River, but there was also a pool inside that contained so much water and was so deep that it could not be measured. The place was so striking that it impressed Alexander the Great, and the Greeks built a sanctuary there.
Natural features not only impressed the Greeks but they believed them to be a dwelling place of the gods, and nothing produced more awe and terror than a place identified with a cave where the god Pan dwelt. He was responsible for the scary noises in the forest and many mysteries were associated with him that brought great fear. In fact, the cave was also considered a gate into Hades, the land of the dead because it seemed to have no bottom.
This is how one artist depicts what the area near this special cave may have looked at the time of Jesus. Not only was there a temple to the god, Pan, but there were also temples dedicated to the worship of Zeus and other minor gods such as Augustus and Nemesis.
This is the location in which Jesus and his disciples were heading when he asks his questions. It is a place filled with gentiles who don’t believe in the one God of Israel, but rather believe in many gods. It is the place of mystery and fear with Hades seemingly close by. Why then would Jesus choose this place of all places to ask, “Who do people say that I am?” and “Who do you say that I am?”
I believe one reason is that Jesus very intentionally wanted to draw a contrast between himself and the pantheon of pagan gods represented in the foreign city. It would have been one thing to raise the question of his identity on a quiet Galilean hillside surrounded by predominantly Jewish villages. It was quite another thing to challenge his followers about who he was on the way to a bustling, cosmopolitan city full of people who either didn’t know about the God of Israel and the story of a Messiah, didn’t care about the story, or didn’t believe either was true. It was a city filled with the descendants of Greeks and Romans representing conquering armies that had ruled over Israel for centuries. It was a location that could have tempted many a Jewish person to wonder about their faith in the face of such other powerful beliefs. It was a location that could have caused the disciples to doubt whether the story of a Messiah could really be true.
Yet this is where Jesus asks them about his identity. Perhaps he wanted to see what they would say when surrounded by such conflicting worldviews. Maybe he wanted to see if his disciples remembered the first commandment, “you shall have no other gods before me.” It could be, Jesus wanted to see if his followers would rise to the occasion in the face of adversity. It could also be that Jesus chose this location in order to make the lines very clear. There was the way of most of the world chasing after multiple gods, living in the unknown of chaos and fear, or there was the path of Jesus, having a relationship with a God who had come in real flesh and blood to bring a message of love and hope. Peter does rise to the occasion and it is in this location that he makes the first confession that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, the chosen one of God.
Do we rise to the occasion when faced with such a challenge? Does the location we are in influence the way we think or talk about Jesus? How would you respond if a family member asked you who you thought Jesus was? What if you were at work talking to a co-worker? What if you were at school? What if you were at the grocery store, gas station, or a restaurant and someone asked you who do you think Jesus is? How would you respond? What if you were at a homeless shelter or a hospital? Would the location make a difference in your answer?
I don’t know about you, but there are many times I felt like I haven’t risen to the occasion. There have been many times when I thought I should have said something. It’s not easy to speak up in the midst of the hatred and violence of the world. It’s not easy to face people who don’t seem to care and are living in despair. There are many powerful forces out there driving people to chase after all kinds of false gods which can make it seem that much of the world is on the brink of hades. Is it any wonder that it can be difficult to proclaim Jesus as Messiah in the face of such a fearful reality?
Caesarea Philippi at the base of Mount Hermon, may have been a fearful place for Peter and the other disciples, but the Spirit works through Peter in the moment to name that in the midst of such a worldly location, the Messiah is still present. Peter’s confession allows us as the listeners to hear the good the news that even on the way to a location of conflicting belief systems where people worship out of fear at a cave thought to be the gateway to the land of death, the Messiah still shows up. Jesus is present with a different message of letting go of fear and saving our lives by losing them for the sake of the Gospel and its word of forgiveness.
The Messiah continues to show up even today at unexpected locations where one might wonder if a God of love could really be present. Just over a week ago in the city of Beirut, Lebanon, there was a huge explosion of ammonium nitrate at a warehouse it the port district. The blast caused immense devastation throughout the city killing around 110 people, injuring around 4,000 and leaving close to 300,000 people homeless.
Such destruction seems overwhelming and yet even in this location, people are reaching out with Christ-like actions of service. One of those people was the founder of an online platform called ThawraMap. It was originally used for identifying the location of protests, but the creator said in the aftermath of the explosion they wanted to do something to help. The creator took their platform and turned it into a space where people who had lost homes could connect and find shelter with people who could offer an extra room.
Using the hashtag #OurHomesAreOpen in Arabic and English, social media users have freely offered up spare beds and empty properties to victims, providing their names, phone numbers and details on the size and location of the accommodation. The app has been sharing its list of shelters, along with a map of more than 50 locations offered so far, ranging from people with extra beds in their homes to hotels providing up to 40 rooms.
Another location opening its doors is the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary located in the mountains overlooking Beirut. The seminary was spared the worst of the explosion and emanating shockwaves. Having lost its students due to COVID-19, it had already opened its dormitories to frontline health workers. Now, in cooperation with the “Our Home, Your Home” ministry, the seminary is welcoming the people of Beirut who have been displaced from their homes. “It’s terrible, horrible,” said the seminary president. “We won’t let our rooms sit empty when there are people on the streets.”
Our own Lutheran World Relief organization has a team of staff and local partners working to bring a humanitarian response in the Beirut area. Much of their work in Lebanon has centered on assisting refugees from Palestine and from the civil war in Syria. Unfortunately, the explosion created a setback for Lutheran World Relief as three of their 40-foot shipping containers were destroyed which were storing 22,000 quilts and hundreds of school supply kits, as well as personal care and baby care kits. If you would like to be a part of replacing these supplies, you can go to the Lutheran World Relief website at lwr.org to donate or send a gift into Holy Trinity and mark it for Lutheran World Relief.
Just like the Holy Spirit worked in Peter to give witness to God’s presence in the midst of a city full of different belief systems located on the edge of Hades, the Holy Spirit is now working through people to give witness to God’s love in the midst of a city brought to the edge of destruction. We too are called to give such witness and we can do so with a conviction of hope, trusting that no matter what the location, the Messiah can still show up.
-Pastor Erik Goehner
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