The Dead Sea And The Living Christ
I managed to be the first one on the bus.
It was just after dawn one day this past July yet even at the early hour one could sense that Jerusalem was in for another blistering hot day. I quickly secured for myself a seat next to the window because I didn’t want to miss anything we would be seeing during that day. Our schedule called for a field trip to four key locations along the shores of the Dead Sea. Jim Martin, our teacher and director, took the microphone at the front of the bus and began to prepare us for what we would see and do. “Our drive to the Dead Sea area will take 45 minutes,” he said, “and we should be going downhill all the way. In fact when we arrive at the northern end of the Dead Sea we shall be 1,309 feet below sea level.”
We quickly moved out of the city and into the desert, the blond, bland brokenness of the earth all about us; beaten into submission by the scorching sun; the only sign of life being an occasional bedouin shepherd watching a few scraggly sheep and goats. Then suddenly, before us there opened up an immense valley with 500 square miles of slate gray water, the Dead Sea. The Israelis call it “Yam Hamelach” which means the “Sea of Salt.” The Arabs swear that a bird cannot fly from one of its shores to the other without being asphyxiated. That’s the first thing I noticed when we got off the bus…the acrid smell which clogged the nostrils and gave a strange taste to the mouth. It was absolutely still, no sound. It smelled and sounded like a place which was altogether dead. No matter where we looked, there was no life. It is the Dead Sea.
Jim Martin began to speak, “Our first stop is Qumran. The ruins you see about you are the remains of a community established by people we now call Essenes. We learned about these people in 1947. A shepherd boy was tending his sheep and goats out there on the barron craggy hills. One of the goats wandered off and into a cave high up on that hill. The shepherd threw a rock up to the cave to drive the goat out. He heard the sound of breaking. He scrambled up, looked into the cave and discovered dozens of large pottery jars. Those jars contained what we now call the Dead Sea Scrolls. From some of those scrolls we learned about the Essenes who lived in Qumran. They were people whose religion was based on the keeping of hundreds of laws and they came to Qumran in order to escape the iniquities and the impurities of the world. They had terribly strict regulations. For example, if you interrupted someone in conversation, you spent 20 days in solitary confinement. If you told a lie, you were banished into the desert for a year. They lived in Qumran for 200 years during the time between the Old and New Testaments, and then they disappeared until that day when the shepherd boy threw his rock into the cave. So look around the ruins for awhile, but you need to be back on the bus in 30 minutes.”
I wandered off by myself. As I walked through the broken stones and dead dustiness of the place, I was struck by the thought that excessive legalism is a problem for some Christians even today. There are Christians in our time who see faith as more an obligation than an opportunity, more chore than a challenge, more a burden than a blessing. They try to turn Christianity into the keeping of an unending list of laws. But you know that the law is as dry as dust. I remember once seeing a law book on which someone had written these words, “In case of flood, stand on this book; it’s the driest thing in town.” Put it this way, if you want to teach a child patriotism would you do it by reading to that child the laws of the land? Of course not. Laws, in and of themselves have no power to convince or inspire. Instead you would tell that child of the grace and freedom which make this nation great, and then the child would begin to understand the value and necessity of the laws. Just so in the Christian faith. When we are gripped by the joyous uplifting grace Of God in Jesus Christ, then we come to appreciate the value of God’s laws for helping us live as He wants us to live. There is no uplifting power to a legalistic religion. That’s why Paul says, “I commend you to the grace of God for it is His grace which is able to build you up.”
As I walked through the broken ruins of Qumran, I kicked over a pile of stones and a startled scorpion skittered away. It reminded me of how deadly to the faith excessive legalism can be. Just before reboarding the bus as I stood looking out over the Dead Sea, I resolved all over again to preach only the grace of the living Christ. We don’t have to have great portions of scripture memorized. We don’t have to have 25 years of perfect attendance at Sunday school. We don’t even have to have 100% compliance to the Ten Commandments. All we have to do is throw ourselves upon the grace of Jesus Christ. That grace is big enough to lift us up and wrap us around and transform our lives and fill us with joy and enable us to live as God wants us to live. I will never preach to you a gospel which hammers you for what you have been or weighs you down with a great burden of guilt. That kind of religion ends up as broken ruins by Dead Seas. I will preach to you only the amazing saving grace of Jesus Christ, our Lord.
As I took my seat, the bus started up and Jim Martin said, “Next we shall stop for a look at Machaerus. We shall travel south down the western shore of the Dead Sea to a point where we can look across the water to the eastern shore to see Machaerus, now nothing more than the ruins of a palace which King Herod built for his own enjoyment. He used to spend time there bathing in the hot springs and covering himself with Dead Sea mud. Supposedly it’s good for your skin. Can’t you just see old King Herod over there at Machaerus enjoying all the pleasures of power?
I thought about those words…”The pleasures of power.” Yes, King Herod loved to exercise the pleasures of his power. He exercised the pleasures of his power by entering into a sinful marriage for which John the Baptist criticized him. He exercised the pleasures of his power by arresting John and killing him as a perverted form of after-dinner entertainment. Herod, you see, sought to find happiness through power. The problem was, and is, that power eventually leads to ruin.
As I stood looking through the haze over the waters of the Dead Sea trying to spot Machaerus on the distant shore, I couldn’t help but recall that when Jesus began His ministry, Herod remarked that Jesus was John the Baptist resurrected. Now why did he say that? Perhaps it was because there was a physical resemblance between Jesus and John. They were cousins so it’s possible. But frankly, I think it was because Jesus was saying the same things John had said…that power, earthly power always breaks down. Political power, military power, economic power…it all ends up the same way; insignificant ruins by Dead Seas.
I squinted my eyes into the haze toward the eastern shore of the Dead Sea; but you know, no matter how hard I looked, I never saw Machaerus. That’s why I resolved that day to continue to preach the power of the living Christ. He possessed no political power, no military power, no economic power. He possessed only the power of God, the power of love. That power only, that power will last forever. As I climbed back on the bus and took my seat I kept remembering the words of Paul, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise. God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” I will preach to you only the power of Jesus Christ, our Lord.
Our journey resumed. Jim Martin said, “Next we shall see Masada. On top of that flat butte of stone high above the desert floor in the Dead Sea in 72 A.D., 967 Jewish men, women and children took refuge from the Roman army behind Masada’s walls. They felt their defense was secure. For nine months it was. But then the strength of the Roman army prevailed and they prepared to scale those walls. At that point, the Jews under Elazar Ben Yair decided to die by their own hands rather than surrender to the Romans. So first the men killed the women and children. And then the men drew lots. Ten men were selected to kill the other men. Again, by lot, one man was selected to kill the nine, and then the one survivor committed suicide. It remains one of history’s most tragic moments.”
With Jim Martin’s words still turning in our hearts, we climbed to the top of Masada. It was silent and dead up there just as it must have been when the Roman army scaled those walls in 72 A.D., but then that’s always the way it is when you live your life behind walls, when you isolate yourself from other people.
I think the saddest words in the world are these: “I am all alone.” I went to a home where a man had lost his sister to death. He said to me, “I’m alone now.” The tragedy was that he was right. He and his sister had lived an isolated life. They made their house into a kind of fortress. They kept everyone else on the outside. They prided themselves on their rugged individualism but now suddenly it wasn’t rugged, it was ragged individualism. So many people live like that; saying “Keep the walls up, I don’t need anything or anyone else. I’m self sufficient; I can go it alone.” Yet so many times the words spoken with such bravado, “I can go it alone” give way to words spoken with such sadness. “I am all alone now.”
After the long climb back down Masada, I returned to my window seat on the bus but suddenly, it dawned on me that the fellow sitting next to me was shorter than I. I said to him, “Would you like to sit next to the window?” Immediately he responded, “Yes, I haven’t been able to see everything.” We traded places. I was taller and could still see. But all day long I had been so wrapped up in myself that I never noticed the needs of the man right next to me. That’s why I resolved that day by the Dead Sea, the ministry of this church for the living Christ would be aimed to supporting and caring for people. When people are down, we try to lift them up; when people are out of work, we try to find them a job; when people are hurting, we extend a helping hand; when people are lonely, we try to be their family. I will keep on calling us to knock down the walls of isolation, to reach out to the people of this city, of this world—and all for Jesus Christ, our Lord.
We had just one last stop. It’s a place called, Har Sodom. Today there is nothing there. The salt buildup in the Dead Sea is so great at that point that the water is shallow, like a swamp. It’s the only place around the Dead Sea where you see any green, not a bright green, but a dull, slimy green. It was on that spot where once stood the city of Sodom. Jim Martin said, “Most of you probably think that what destroyed the city of Sodom were sins of sexual perversion. Not so. The Bible makes it quite clear that it was the sin of greed.” As I looked out at the place where Sodom had been, I got to thinking that that’s where greed always ends. Not in the brightness of life and happiness, but in the slimy swamp beside Dead Seas.
My thoughts were interrupted by Jim Martin’s voice. He said, “It’s time for us to head back to Jerusalem. Don’t forget that we leave early in the morning to go to the Sea of Galilee.” Did he say Galilee? Galilee, tomorrow we go to Galilee? Just 60 miles to the north? It’s fed by the same river Jordan that feeds the Dead Sea? Yet the Sea of Galilee has deep blue water surrounded by lush verdant hills. It’s a fisherman’s paradise with more different kinds of fish and plant life than any other comparable body of water on earth. Think of it. Both the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee are fed by the river Jordan. What’s the difference then between the two? Just this, everything the Dead Sea receives from the Jordan, it keeps. It gives nothing, so the water stagnates and dies. Everything Galilee receives from the Jordan, it passes on; what it gets, it gives, and in the getting and the giving, it lives. That’s the difference between death and life; getting and holding and getting and giving.
Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” The word “blessed” means happiness. This is the truth which came home to me with such force that day by the Dead Sea. Happiness is to be found in giving. That is the secret of a truly, happy life according to our living Lord, Jesus Christ.
The bus returned to Jerusalem. The trip to the Dead Sea was over. But you know, the thoughts I had there that day and the lessons I learned there that day have stayed with me ever since.