Living Generously: The Gospels According To The Dead Sea
The great Apostle Paul is on his way to the city of Rome, where he will be put to death for his faith. As he makes that journey, he makes a stop along the way. He stops near the city of Ephesus. And there, he calls to him the elders of the church at Ephesus and delivers to them some final words. Those words are found in the twentieth chapter of the Book of Acts. The words are nothing less than the Word of God.
“Now that I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again, therefore I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God. Guard yourselves and all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. These shepherds of the church of God, which He bought with His own blood, I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number, men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard. Remember that for three years, I never stopped warning each of you, night and day, with tears. Now, I commit you to God, and to the Word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. I have not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing. You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions in everything I did. I showed you that by this kind of hard work, we must help the weak. Remember the words the Lord Jesus himself said. It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
May God bless to us the reading and the hearing of this portion of His holy word.
Pray with me please. Give me Jesus, Lord. Give me Jesus. You can have all the rest. Just give me Jesus. Amen.
Throughout all the years of my ministry, Trisha and I have been much blessed to travel repeatedly and extensively in the Holy Land. And that’s why I’m thrilled that at this moment, members of our MDPC family, led by Dave Stein, are enjoying that very same blessing. It has been my experience in traveling there that there are deep, rich, spiritual lessons to be learned in visiting the sites in that wondrous place. And because that is true, today, I want to do something a bit unusual. I want to take you on a verbal journey to a part of the Holy Land, to the region around the Dead Sea. And therefore, I’m going to ask you now to dip down into your own imagination and join me as we depart from the city of Jerusalem for a 45-minute drive along a twisting, turning road, descending from the heights of Jerusalem, all the way down to the northern end of the Dead Sea, the lowest spot on the face of the earth. 1309 feet below sea level.
There, we confront an enormous, barren valley. Cradling in the midst of it, 500 square miles of slate-gray water. The Dead Sea. The Israelis call it Yām ha-Māvet, 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 by the noxious fumes rising from its surface. And in fact, when you stand at the edge of the Dead Sea, that’s the first thing you notice. The acrid smell, which offends the nostrils and leaves an aftertaste in the mouth. The water is perfectly still, slick, unmoving. The air is oppressive and still. There is not a sound to be heard anywhere. There is no evidence of life to be seen at any place. It is quite literally the Dead Sea.
Now, there are, in fact, four spots around the Dead Sea where I wish to take you now on our brief journey.
The first stop is at a place called Qumran.
The ruins of Qumran, right there at the edge of the Dead Sea are, in fact, the remains of a community of people called the Essenes, a community of people who were actually established during biblical times. But we never heard of them until 1947. For it was then that a shepherd boy, tending his flocks out on the barren, craggy hills around the Dead Sea, had one of his goats wander off and climb a hill and enter a cave. The shepherd boy picked up a rock and threw it through the entrance of the cave in order to try to drive the goat back out. But what he heard was the sound of breaking. Curious! He scrambled up the hill, entered the cave himself, and there discovered a vast number of large pottery vessels. Those pottery vessels contained what we now call the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The Dead Sea Scrolls, which have much impact on the understanding of scripture in our time. But the Dead Sea Scrolls also, in some of the scrolls, tell us about this community of people at Qumran, the people called the Essenes. We learn from those scrolls that their society was built on a whole host of laws. And the obedience to those laws was an absolute requirement. For example, they had hundreds of these laws. For example, if you interrupted someone in conversation, you were then forced to spend 20 days in solitary confinement. If you told a lie, you were banished out into the wilderness for a year. They had hundreds of these kinds of laws, and rigid obedience to those laws was strictly enforced. Well, it doesn’t take much to imagine that that lifestyle of excessive legalism, in time, destroyed the Essene community, destroyed them so completely that we never even knew they existed until 1947, when a shepherd threw a rock up into a cave.
I have to tell you that whenever I stand in the dead dustiness of Qumran, I am reminded that excessive legalism can destroy a vital faith. I am aware of the fact that there are some Christians today who take the approach that the faith is more an obligation than an opportunity, more a chore than a challenge, more a burden than a blessing. And sad to say, that approach can actually turn people away from this glorious faith of ours. Ah, but you see the New Testament teaches us something entirely different. The New Testament teaches us that when we are gripped by the joyous, uplifting, liberating love of God and grace of Jesus Christ, then we begin to appreciate the laws of God, not as some oppressive burden, but rather, as an encouragement to live the way God wants us to live. I think that’s a part of what Paul had in mind when he said to the elders at Ephesus, “Now I commit you to God and to the Word of His Grace, which can build you up.”
Yes, the message is that the love of God and the grace of Jesus Christ does not tear us down. It builds us up. And that is one of the reasons that here in this great church, we have four key priorities. The first of those is that we are to be loving God. God’s love, God’s grace in Jesus Christ draws from us the response of love toward God. And therefore, my beloved people, I will never from this pulpit deliver to you a gospel that hammers you to pieces and weighs you down with an oppressive burden of guilt. Oh, I will never, ever deny the reality of sin. Make no mistake about that. However, from this sacred desk, I will preach only the love of God and the amazing, saving, forgiving grace of Jesus Christ. For that is what builds us up. That is what draws us away from sin. That is what transforms our living into a glorious reflection of what Jesus wants us to be. Lesson learned at Qumran.
The second stop I wish for us to make on our journey is at a place called Machaerus.
Today, Machaerus is nothing but a pile of ruins. Once upon a time, however, Machaerus was the magnificently immense palace of King Herod. That palace is built on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea. And it was in that palace, particularly, where King Herod enjoyed the pleasures of his power. Note the phrase, “The pleasures of his power.” He enjoyed exercising the pleasures of his power by entering into a sinful marriage, for which he was severely criticized by John the Baptist. He enjoyed exercising the pleasure of his power by having John arrested, and then having John beheaded as a perverted form of after-dinner entertainment, for heaven’s sake. That tragedy occurred at the palace of Machaerus. King Herod, you see, believed that pleasure was to be found in power, earthly power. The problem was, and the problem still is, earthly power sooner or later leads to ruin like the ruins of the palace at Machaerus.
It’s worth remembering, I think, that when Jesus began His ministry, King Herod remarked that Jesus was maybe John the Baptist come back to life again. Why did he say that? I believe it was because Jesus was saying exactly what John the Baptist had said, that power, earthly power inevitably breaks down. Earthly power, in whatever form it takes, political power or military power or economic power, earthly power, sooner or later leads to ruin.
I believe that was the point of John the Baptist. I believe that that was the point of Jesus. And I believe that was the point of Paul in what he said to the elders at Ephesus. “I have not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing,” he said. Paul did not covet any form of earthly power. He coveted only the power of the living Lord Jesus Christ. And that is why, in this great church, we have four key priorities. And one of them, and actually, it’s always our first order of business, one of those four priorities is that we ought to be proclaiming Christ. Dear friends, understand me please. Like Paul, I covet no power but the power of Jesus Christ. And I commit to you that mine will never be a partisan proclamation. Our gospel is neither Democrat nor Republican. As much as I dearly love this great nation, our gospel is not even an American gospel. Our gospel supersedes and transcends every single form of earthly power. And therefore, from this sacred desk, I shall preach to you that earthly power is destined to dust and ashes. But the power of Jesus Christ is destined to live forever. And furthermore, those who live under the power of the living Lord Jesus Christ, they shall live forever as well. Lesson learned at Machaerus.
The next spot I want you to visit is called Masada.
That enormous, flat, high butte of stone, towering above the dead sea, is the place where in 72 A.D., 967 Jewish men, women, and children sought to escape from the murderous Romans. They believed that if they could take refuge behind the walls, high atop Masada, that there in that elevated isolation, they would be safe. They were wrong. As the Roman army began the process of scaling the heights of Masada, those people under their leader, Eleazar Ben Yair, made the decision that they would rather die by their own hands than be forced to undergo the brutalization and slaughter of the savage Romans. And so, the decision was made that the men would kill the women and the children, and then the men would draw lots and 10 would be chosen to kill the remaining men. And then, once again by lot, one of the remaining 10 would be chosen to kill the other nine, and then take his own life. And thus it was one of history’s most tragic moments. Today, atop Masada, it’s as dead and silent as it must have been that day in 72 AD, when the Romans finally scaled the walls.
But you know, there’s a sense in which that can be true whenever we as human beings try to live our lives behind walls, when we try to cut ourselves off from other people. I believe that the saddest words in all the world are these, “I am all alone.” And yet, you know, it seems to me that there are many people who are trying to live lives of isolation. They say, “I don’t need anything or anyone else. I can go it alone.” Ah, but understand please that those words, spoken with such bravado, “I can go it alone,” in time give way to words spoken with such sadness, “I am all alone now.” And that is why, my dear friends, whenever I stand atop Masada, I always renew my resolve that any church I serve is going to place a priority upon people supporting people, caring for people, loving people. I believe that that is the message of Paul in those words. Listen again, “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.”
Dear friends, do you understand that is why, in this church, we desperately hold onto each other? When we encounter people who are down, we try to lift them up. When we encounter people who are hurting, we try to extend them a helping hand. When we encounter people who are lonely, we try to make them a part of our family. When we encounter people who are lost, we try to help them find their way back home. We’re not perfect, not by a long shot. We fail more times than I care to count. But no one, no one, no one can doubt the intent of our heart. For one of our key priorities is that we shall be engaging all, engaging all people. Yes! Breaking down the walls that separate people one from another. We shall be engaging all and doing it all for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. Lesson learned at Masada.
There is one last stop on our journey. It’s at a place called Har Sodom.
It is down at the southern-most tip of the Dead Sea. The place has a name, but nothing remains there. It is the only place around the Dead Sea where you see some green. Oh, not bright, lively green, no. Dull, slimy green. You see, the waters of the Dead Sea flow down to that southern tip and there, the waters die and create a stinky, slimy, smelly swamp. And it is on that spot where once the city of Sodom stood. You remember from the bible, we are told that the city of Sodom was destroyed. And we tend to think that Sodom was destroyed because of the sins of sexual perversion that existed there. Well, there were sexual sins in Sodom and that engendered God’s displeasure all right. But when you carefully read the story, you discover that what ultimately, actually destroyed the city of Sodom was the sin of greed. When you stand in that spot, you begin to recognize that greed always ends up in stinky, smelly, slimy swamps beside dead seas. But also, when you stand at that spot, you suddenly realize that the bleak barrenness all around you at the Dead Sea stands in stark contrast to the sparkling waters and the lush, green hillsides around the Sea of Galilee, just 60 miles to the north.
Now, how can this be? You see, both the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea are fed by the same water, the water of the River Jordan. Yet, one, the Sea of Galilee, is filled with life. The other, the Dead Sea, is hopelessly dead. Why the difference? Here it is. Everything the Dead Sea receives from the River Jordan, it keeps. It hoards. It holds onto. It refuses to pass on. And as a result, the water becomes stagnant and dead. Everything the Sea of Galilee receives from the Jordan, it passes on. Whatever it gets, it gives. And it is in the giving that it finds its life. I cannot think about that, the contrast between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea, without remembering the words of Paul. “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.” You know that word blessed actually means happiness? Here is what is true. Happiness, true happiness is going to be found always in giving. That is why one of the great priorities of this church is that we are called as a people to be living generously. You see, it is like the Sea of Galilee. It is in giving that we find our life. And therefore, I will continue to hold up before you the joy and the glory that come from sharing what God has given us, and to share it for the sake of Christ’s work in the world. It is in the giving that we find our life. And it is in the giving that we gain the life-giving joy and happiness we long for in Jesus Christ. Lesson learned at Har Sodom, the place where once the city of Sodom stood.
Well, we’ve come to the end of our little journey. I know it’s not quite like being there. But I do hope you will take to heart some of the lessons learned there. And I hope that maybe now you can better 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.