Sermon, January 15, 2017
The city of Jerusalem sits on a hill – the proverbial city on a hill–that’s the reason it was chosen to become a city all those centuries ago – because high elevation is easy to defend. The entire area is filled with hills and ridges – in fact on our first day in Israel, mostly on foot, many of us thought we were going to die trudging up and down these hills. It’s quite a change for flatlanders like us to have hills like that on our walk to the market or the tourist spot or to grandma’s house.
In the ancient and modern city of Jerusalem, there are 8 gates of entry – some of which are merely 500 years old, but built on top of the gate that was 1000 and 2000 years old. The Eastern Gate is one such gate. We saw it on our second day there, the day on our tour that I nicknamed “Spiritual Jerusalem”. We started the day at the Mount of Olives, a ridge across a valley that looks upon the Eastern Gate.
The ridge is called the Mount of Olives because it was once covered in olive trees, but now it’s covered in graves and tombs. Jews from all over the world and all of history are buried on the Mount of Olives because scripture says resurrection will begin from the hilltop east of Jerusalem. When the messiah comes, he is to come down the Mount of Olives to enter Jerusalem through the Eastern Gate – all those closest to the top will be the first to be resurrected. This gate, which is also known as the Golden Gate, Gate of Eternal Life, and Gate of Mercy, is thought to be the same gate through which Jesus entered the city on Palm Sunday.
And it’s not only Jews who are buried here. On the opposite ridge you can see a Muslim cemetery, and there’s a much-neglected Christian cemetery in the valley between. The valley is named the Kidron Valley, but it’s known as the Yehoshevatz Valley – or, in Hebrew, “God will Judge” valley.
The interesting thing is that this gate on the other side of the valley has been completely sealed up. There have been many versions of the wall and the gate throughout the centuries, and we know it was closed and opened in certain times, over and over again in history. For instance, it was re-opened during the Christian Crusades in the 1200’s, and then destroyed by the next army, and then rebuilt in the 1500’s… and then sealed again. So there’s no one using the Eastern, Golden Gate of Eternal Life or Mercy and there hasn’t been since the 1600’s, when Suleiman the Magnificent, one of the Turkish rulers, last had it sealed. (hint: this will be covered in class 3…)
We really have no idea whether there’s anything special or Messianic about that gate or not… just like most things in Jerusalem, there’s a lot of lore and mythology surrounding this place. But it’s interesting for two reasons. First, how the three religions – Jews who believe the Messiah hasn’t come, Christians who await the second coming, and Muslims who don’t expect any Messiah but do have some end-of-world teaching about crossing a valley of judgment on a bridge of 7 arches to stand in God’s judgment in God’s home – all of these narratives have intermingled, and are all centered on this one geographical place in the city on a hill.
The other thing that I in particular find fascinating is the religious politics and apocalyptic strategery at work here; legend has it that Suleiman placed the Muslim cemetery in front of the gate because in Judaism, the Messiah will be preceded by the Messenger Elijah. That should sound familiar, because today we just had our scripture reading about John the Baptist – who is considered the messenger by the early Jewish followers of Jesus. In some places he is referred to metaphorically as Elijah.
But – if you are Jewish and don’t believe the Messiah has come yet, then you are still waiting for the Messenger and the Messiah. And, maybe this Messenger would be a clergy person, like a high priest who lives a life of purity. And, maybe this purity, as explained in Dueteronomy – includes a ban against being near dead bodies… Some say Suleiman blocked the gate and chose to place a cemetery there so that the Messenger would be unable to walk through it… and therefore the Messiah will not come.
I just find it hilarious that some King or Ruler thinks they will thwart God with a cemetery or a blocked gate. I mean – if God is coming… appearing on earth from nowhere…bringing judgment for the living and the dead… raising people from graves with every step and being followed by a wake of saints – this guy really expected some bricks or concerns about cleanliness to be an obstacle?
It reminds me of the smallness of the human imagination.
The prophet Isaiah was not short on imagination. In these past weeks we’ve heard him paint a picture of a ruler who will war righteousness and faithfulness like a belt, who will establish justice for the nations without raising his voice or breaking a reed; who will cause the deserts to bloom and water to spring forth; and the blind will see, and the deaf will hear, and the lame shall leap, and the mute will sing with newfound tongues.
Today Isaiah changes his tone slightly. This is one of his servant songs, where he appeals to his audience to become like the servant. He speaks of himself, and of Israel, as servants of God. Isaiah lived through many hard times, when Israel was forced out of their city on the hill, and then returned, and then were forced out again. These words were directed at a people who have been scattered to the ends of the earth themselves. They have been greatly traumatized by the unbridled display of imperial power when the mighty Babylonian army destroyed their homes and holy place, and forcefully removed thousands of people from their city, taking them into chains to Babylon. The community he’s speaking to is traumatized, and scarred, and feels weak and vulnerable.
And yet, they have no imagination for what they can do.
Even weak, even traumatized, this community has the power to be like a city on a hill – even when they are not IN their city on a hill. Isaiah gives a newfound goal to this community; to care for others near and far. Isaiah provides them with a new purpose in life, looking beyond their own self-interest and seeing their role as being of service to the many foreigners whom crossed their paths on a daily basis. They can still show what it means to serve and belong to the God of Israel – to embrace justice, offer compassion and demonstrate hospitality, in the midst of their challenges.
Isaiah says, Sure, God calls us to be obedient, but we are thinking too small. But now, he’s calling us to do greater things than before! God says, "It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth." It’s like God said, “You and your small thinking. You aren’t thinking big enough. I have much more in mind for you.”
This week some members of our church told me about Sharon Field, and the Fund established in her name. Sharon Field was an esteemed member of this church, and from what I’ve heard, one who always kept our congregation looking outward. It is so easy in times of challenge, especially financial challenge, to become overly obsessed with one’s own struggle for survival. But when the church received a financial gift, it was Sharon’s insistence that we look beyond ourselves and our own wellbeing to share these gifts with others – and specifically others far away in other nations. Sharon helped us prioritize that we are servants of the God who welcomes the stranger and cares for the poor – from all nations.
We are called to be a light to all the nations. A light to the nations, who, like a lighthouse, shows the way. Because, truly, the purpose of light is to see clearly – turning on the light opens eyes to something previously not perceived. To shine in the darkness is to let people see God’s love, God’s justice, and God’s Mercy in us. The power of being the obedient servant is to reveal God’s love through our service.
Blocking the gate might have been a way of making a political statement saying ‘your messiah is not going to come in here…but we know, just like with the tiny infant king, God finds a way. God is larger than our small human imaginations, and when God reveals a path, that way will always lighted by his obedient servants.