The Gospel According to the Dead Sea
Pray with me, please. Now, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh, God, for You are our rock, and You are our Redeemer. Amen.
Many of you will be aware of the fact that through the years, I have dearly loved having the opportunity to travel extensively in the Holy Land. And it has been my experience through those years that there are some deep and powerful spiritual lessons to be learned from visiting the sites in that holy and wondrous place. And that is why, I suppose, that today, I would like to take you on what I would choose to call a verbal journey, to take you on a journey to at least one part of the Holy Land. I refer to the region surrounding the Dead Sea.
And so in your imagination, will you join me now as we depart from Jerusalem, headed east, beginning a 45-minute drive along a twisting, turning road that descends from the great heights of the city of Jerusalem, all the way down to the northernmost tip of the Dead Sea, a spot, which actually is 1,309 feet below sea level? At that spot there opens up before us a vast and barren valley. And that valley cradles 500 square miles of slate gray water, the Dead Sea. The Israelis call it Yam HaMelach, which means the sea of salt. The Arabs declare that a bird cannot fly from one of its shores to the other without being asphyxiated by the noxious fumes rising from the surface of its waters. And that is the first thing that strikes you when you set foot at the edge of the Dead Sea, the acrid smell that offends the nostrils and leaves an aftertaste in the mouth. The water is still. The air is unmoving. There is no sound to be heard. There is no evidence of life to be seen anywhere. It is quite literally the Dead Sea. Now, there are four particular sites surrounding the Dead Sea, which I wish for us to visit together today.
The first of those sites is a place called Qumran.
The ruins of Qumran are the remains of a community founded during biblical times by people we call today the Essenes. Now, we first learned about the Essenes, ironically enough, in 1947. It seems that in 1947, there was a young shepherd boy tending his flocks out on the barren, craggy hillside surrounding the Dead Sea. And one of his goats wandered off and up into a cave. The shepherd boy picked up a rock and threw it into the cave with the purpose of trying to drive the goat out, but he heard instead the sound of breaking. He then scrambled up to the cave, looked in. There discovered a number of large pottery jars, and those jars contain what we now call the Dead Sea Scrolls. Well, some of those scrolls give us information for the first time about the Essenes who lived so long ago in that spot. The Essenes were a people whose religion was built on a rigid adherence to hundreds of laws.
For example—this will startle you, I suppose—in the Essene community, if you interrupted another person in conversation, you are sentenced to 20 days in solitary confinement. If you told a lie, you are banished out into the wilderness for one year. Well, there were dozens and dozens of these kinds of restrictive laws, and the Essenes insisted on unwavering rigid obedience to all of those laws. As a result, that rather harsh, legalistic lifestyle ultimately destroyed the community, and the Essenes disappeared from the view of humankind until that day in 1947 when a shepherd boy threw a rock up into a cave at the place called Qumran.
I have to tell you that every time I stand amidst the dead and dusty ruins of Qumran, I am reminded of how devastating and excessive legalism can be to a vital living faith. And yet, sad to say, like those Essenes of old, there are actually some Christians today who want to view the Christian faith as more an obligation than an opportunity, more a chore than a challenge, more a burden than a blessing. They tried to turn Christianity into a rigid obedience to a whole laundry list of laws. And as a result, they wind up turning many people away from the faith.
Now, the message, which you and I draw from the pages of the New Testament, is exactly the opposite of that. The message of the New Testament from beginning to end is that when we are gripped by the joyous, uplifting, liberating grace of Jesus Christ, then we begin to grow in our appreciation of the value of the laws God has given us to help us in our living. In fact, I think that’s exactly what Paul was saying here in Acts 20 when Paul wrote, “I commit you to God and to the word of His grace, which can build you up.” Every time I stand amidst the ruins of Qumran, I am reminded of the devastating deadly effect that excessive legalism can have upon a vital living faith in a vital living Christ. And that’s why every time I visit Qumran, I renew my resolve to preach only the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Because when we throw ourselves upon that grace, we discover that that grace is big enough to lift us up, to wrap us around, to fill us with joy, to transform our lives, and to enable us to live more and more in harmony with the laws God has given us for our living. I resolve, therefore, always to preach only the grace of Jesus Christ. I will never ever preach to you a gospel that hammers you to pieces for what you have been or done in life. I will never preach to you a gospel that weighs you down with burdensome, oppressive sins of guilt in life. No. Instead, I will preach to you the amazing, saving, forgiving grace of God in Jesus Christ because it is that grace of Jesus Christ, which builds us up, which draws us away from sin, and which transforms our living into a glorious reflection of what Jesus Christ means for us to be in life. Lesson learned at Qumran.
The second spot I wish for us to visit is Machaerus.
Machaerus today is just ruins. Once it was the splendid palace of King Herod. It is built actually on the cliffs on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea in the country we know today as Jordan. Now, King Herod had many, many splendid palaces but none more splendid, apparently, than the palace at Machaerus. And it was there, especially, I think, that King Herod loved exercising the pleasures of his power. Note the phrase, “The pleasure of power.” And oh, he exercised the pleasures of his power by throwing himself, for example, into a dreadfully sinful marriage. And for that, John the Baptist severely criticized him publicly. And so King Herod exercised the pleasures of his power by killing John the Baptist in what could only be termed a perverted form of after-dinner entertainment. That tragic event took place in the palace at Machaerus. King Herod, you see, believed that happiness in life could be gained by the acquisition of earthly power. The problem was and the problem still is earthly power inevitably leads to ruin like the ruins of the palace at Machaerus.
I find it fascinating to note that when Jesus began His ministry, King Herod actually said that Jesus was John the Baptist come back to life. Now, why in the world would he say that? I believe it was because Jesus was saying exactly the same thing John the Baptist said that earthly power inevitably—political power, military power, economic power, all of it ultimately comes to the same end. It ends up as insignificant ruins by dead seas. I think that’s exactly what Paul had in mind when he wrote in Acts 20, “I have not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing.” Paul understood what earthly power does to us. He did not covet any form of earthly power. He coveted only the power of Jesus Christ.
I have to tell you that every time I stand on the edge of the Dead Sea and look across at the ruins of the palace of Machaerus, I renew my resolve to preach only the power of Jesus Christ. Mine will never be a partisan proclamation. Our gospel is neither Democrat nor Republican. And as much as I love this nation, and oh, I dearly love America, and as much as it is an undeniable fact that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is woven into, around, and through the founding fabric of this nation, nevertheless, our gospel is not simply an American gospel. The Gospel of Jesus Christ transcends and supersedes all forms of earthly power. Remember, please, Jesus had no political power, no military power, no economic power. Jesus had only the power of God and the power of love. Like Paul, I covet only the power of Jesus Christ, and therefore, I shall always preach to you that all earthly power in whatever form it takes is destined for dust and ashes. Only the power of Jesus Christ is destined to live forever. And furthermore, only those who choose to live under the power of Jesus Christ are destined to live forever as well. Lesson learned at Machaerus.
The third spot I wish for us to see at the Dead Sea is Masada.
That huge, flat, butte of stone towering high above the desert floor at the edge of the Dead Sea had a fort built at the top of it. In 72 AD, 967 Jewish men, women, and children, in order to escape the disastrous coming of the Roman legion, took refuge high atop Masada behind the walls of the fort. They believed that by cutting themselves off from all other people, by living in the elevated isolation of Masada that they would be safe and secure. They were wrong. Within nine months of extraordinary effort, the Roman army was poised to scale the walls of the fortress at Masada. It was then that the people huddled there made the decision that they would rather die by their own hand than at the hands of the Roman soldiers. And so it was under their leader, Eleazar ben Yair, they made the decision that the men would proceed to kill all the women and the children. The men then would draw lots. 10 men would be chosen to kill the other men. The remaining 10 would draw lots once more. 1 of them would be chosen to slay the other 9. And then the remaining 1 would take his own life. That’s exactly what happened. And that day remains one of the most tragic in all of the history of humankind. But you know, today, on the top of Masada, it is as silent and dead as it must have been that day in 72 AD when the Roman legions scaled the walls. Ah, but you see, that’s always the way it is whenever you choose to live your life behind man-made walls, whenever you try to live your life in isolation from other people.
I will tell you that I am convinced that the saddest words in the English language are these: I am all alone. And yet, it seems to me that more and more in the time in which we are living that people are trying to say things like this, “I don’t really need anything or anyone else in life. Oh, no. I can go it alone.” And yet, so many times, those words, spoken with such bravado, “I can go it alone,” in time inevitably give way to words spoken with such sadness, “I am all alone.” I think that’s what Paul was driving at in Acts 20 when he said, “Guard yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which He bought with His own blood, for I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock.” Dear friends, that is why in this church, we are committed to holding on to one another. And that is why whenever I stand atop Masada, I renew my resolve that in my ministry, any church I serve will be focused upon supporting and caring for people. That’s why in this church, we hold on to one another. When people are down, we try to lift them up. When people are hurting, we try to extend to them a helping hand. When people are lonely, we try to be their family. We’re not perfect, not by a long shot. We failed more times than I care to count, but no one can ever doubt our intent. That is why I shall always call us as a church to be engaged in breaking down the walls of isolation, the walls that separate people one from another. Yes, here in this church, we shall always, I hope and pray, always reach out to all people, and we shall do it all in the name of our living Lord, Jesus Christ. Lesson learned at Masada.
The fourth spot I wish for you to see is called Har Sedom.
It is down at the southernmost tip of the Dead Sea. It’s actually the only place around the Dead Sea where you see any green, but it’s not a bright, healthy green. It’s a dull, slimy green. You see, the water of the Dead Sea at that point forms a slimy, stagnant swamp. The place has a name. Nothing remains there, but the place has a name, Har Sedom. You see, once on that spot where once the city of Sodom stood. We will remember, I suppose, that in the Bible, we are told that the city of Sodom was completely destroyed. And we tend to believe that it was destroyed because it was consumed by sins of sexual perversion. Well, to be sure, the city of Sodom was indeed consumed by sins of sexual perversion, and that earned the grave displeasure of Almighty God. Absolutely. And yet, when you read the Bible carefully, you discover that actually, ultimately, Sodom was destroyed by the sin of greed. And as you stand at Har Sedom in the midst of that smelly, stinky, slimy swamp, you are reminded that that’s where greed always ends. Not in the brightness of light and happiness but in slimy swamps beside dead seas.
And as you stand there, you cannot help but be struck by the overwhelming difference between the barren deadness of the sea in front of you and the sparkling waters and the lush green hillsides of the Sea of Galilee, just 60 miles to the north. But how is it that this can be the case? One sea is life. The other is dead. Remember, please, both the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee are fed by the same water, the water of the River Jordan. Why the difference? Here it is. The Dead Sea keeps everything it receives from the River Jordan. It holds on to the water, and the water stagnates and dies. The Sea of Galilee, on the other hand, everything it gets from the River Jordan, it passes on. It gets and what it gets, it gives. And it is in the getting and the giving that it is living. I am always struck when I stand at the edge of the Dead Sea by the reality that it is in the giving that there is life. Once again Paul says it in Acts 20, “In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work, we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus Himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.'” That word, blessed, can just as easily be translated happiness. The truth that hits you with overwhelming force at the Dead Sea is that happiness in life is to be found in giving. “The true secret,” Jesus says, “of a truly happy life is in giving that of which you have been given.” And that is why every time I stand at Har Sedom, I renew my resolve to always hold up before you the sheer joy and glory of giving, of sharing what God has given to us for the sake of the work of Jesus Christ in this world. Lesson learned at Har Sedom, the place where once stood the city of Sodom.
Well, our journey for today is over. Certainly, it is not like actually visiting those places, but I do hope and pray that you will take to your own heart some of the lessons to be learned there. And perhaps now, you can understand why I chose to call this sermon, “The Gospel According to the Dead Sea.”
Soli Deo Gloria.
To God alone be the glory.
Amen and amen.