The Preponderance of Contrasts
1 PETER 4:12-14; 5:6-11
I have been to the lakeshore of which we sung, the shore of Lake Galilee, near the fishing village of Capernaum. Next year, Rev. Moteo and Warren Shimonishi are leading a trip to the lakeshore—the Holy Land and Jordan, March 9-20. I have had two trips to Israel and I encourage you to go if at all possible. It is an unforgettable experience to see where Jesus walked—in the rolling hills of Galilee, along the lakeshore, and then the long trek through Jericho to Jerusalem where he would meet his death. A vivid impression I gained was the preponderance of contrasts. Israel is a land of contrasts. Jesus experienced contrasts. Life is a contrast. You are a contrast.
Geographically, Israel is a land of contrasts: the fertile fields of reclaimed swamp land in contrast to the Judean desert, a wilderness of rock and sand; the live Sea of Galilee which is really a fresh water lake through which the Jordan River flows, in contrast to the salt filled lifeless Dead Sea; the serene, green Galilee country, in contrast to the rocky, tumultuous, noisy city of Jerusalem; the height of Jerusalem, some 2,500 feet above sea level, in contrast to Jericho, only 12 miles away, and 2,000 feet below sea level; the modern Israeli cities and farms in contrast to the ancient Arab villages and cities—including Bethlehem and Nazareth.
One of the most moving and memorable experiences was the worship service we held on the Sunday after Easter. On that Sunday, the resurrected Christ surprised his disciples by preparing breakfast for them on the shore of Galilee after they had spent the night fishing. After breakfast, Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved him, reminiscent of the three times Peter denied knowing Jesus. We gathered in a small outdoor amphitheater that commemorates the incident. A simple statue depicting Jesus commissioning Peter has been erected on the shore. It was a quiet, sunny, warm Sunday morning when we gathered to celebrate Holy Communion on the very spot and on the very day Jesus broke bread and fried fish for his disciples.
Not only was it special for us to gather there on the actual day, but it was also the day the Israeli nation had set aside to remember the holocaust, when six million Jews were exterminated by the German Nazis. Our guide explained that at 8am people would stop what they were doing and observe two minutes of silence. We decided to incorporate the observance into our worship service. We arrived at the lake shore about fifteen minutes before 8:00. No one else was there except for two boats of fishermen out on the lake, fishing with nets as the disciples had done 2,000 years ago.
Would you believe that exactly at 8:00, we had just confessed our sins and prayed the Lord’s Prayer? We confessed to God that we are part of a world where holocausts can and still do happen. We confessed there is something in all of us called sin that can cause us to mistreat our fellow human beings, even to violence and slaughter. After the Lord’s Prayer, we paused and then heard sirens calling the nation to remember. I shall long remember that peaceful, serene setting on the shore of Galilee. Birds were singing, men were fishing, we sang “Christ the Lord is risen today,” and then stood in silence, listening to faint sirens in the distant city of Tiberias. We bonded with a nation who remembers those ancestors who had been slaughtered in a 20th century crucifixion. The irony of contrast was never more vivid than in those moments: crucifixion/resurrection; peaceful Galilee/Nazi holocaust; birds singing/sirens blowing.
When we arrived in Jerusalem, the holy city, the contrasts continued. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher has been built over the hill of Golgotha or Calvary upon which Jesus was crucified, and over the tomb from which Jesus was resurrected. The hill and the tomb are only a few hundred feet apart. The tomb was originally a cave in a quarry and both the tomb and Calvary were outside the city walls at that time. The church building was built over the sites to honor them and to protect them from destruction and construction. The emperor Constantine, who made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, sent his mother to Jerusalem to find and preserve the sacred sites.
But even in such a sacred spot there are contrasts. Four branches of Christendom share the Church of the Holy Sepulcher—Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian, and the Coptic Church of Egypt. Each has its own altars. But, they can’t agree on the administration of the church, so a Muslim family holds the key to the church! When we stood in line to enter and pray in the shrine built on the site of the tomb, we had to contend with a group of tourists who tried to crash the line. The whole atmosphere was more like a circus than a holy place. The holy sites of the central focus of Christianity—Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection—were seen in contrast to pettiness, bickering, fighting, arguing. The holy becomes trivialized. There is a temptation for all of us to trivialize the sacred.
One of our group asked our lecturer Bob Hamerton-Kelly why there is church strife. Why can’t Christians get along? Why do churches have crises, conflicts and splits? Why even in Jerusalem, the holy city, can’t Christians get along? Bob’s answer was brilliant. When dealing with ultimate issues, when dealing with decisions of life and death, when dealing with the sacred, the best and the worst are brought out of people. In the holiest of places, the forces of evil attack. Violence and strife abound. Bob pointed out that heaven met earth in the resurrection. The world will never again be the same. Yet in that very city, the forces of evil and destruction have never been quiet. In its history the city of Jerusalem has been besieged 50 times, conquered 36 times and destroyed 10 times. The temple was last destroyed in 70 A.D., never to be rebuilt. In 135 A.D. the Roman Army leveled the city and the Jews were expelled to wander throughout the world, until 1948 when a Jewish homeland was created. The 60th anniversary is now being celebrated. In the 8th century A.D., Muslims built a shrine on the site where the temple previously stood.
Sometimes we imagine the biblical period as serene, idyllic, peaceful. We imagine shepherds peacefully watching their sheep and goats, and today there are still shepherds herding their sheep and goats. We imagine farmers peacefully harvesting their olive crops, and olives are still a major industry. There is an olive tree in the Garden of Gethsemane that is 1,400 years old. We imagine fishermen peacefully fishing on the Sea of Galilee, which they still do. But at the same time, there are contrasts. There were and are constant battles, skirmishes, armed conflicts, in Jesus’ day and in our time. The preponderance of contrasts is still present.
Do the forces of evil win? At times they seem to win, but God sent one person and raised him from the dead; not a temple or a building or an army or even a nation, but one person. The final verdict of God’s triumph is in! We live in the hope of actualization and endure the contrasts.
In the Scripture lesson this morning, Peter reminded the early Christians of the fiery ordeal, the persecution prevalent at that time. Peter wrote, “Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith.” And the contrast? “After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.” The contrast of a roaring devil and a conquering Christ.
Can you see the preponderance of contrasts in your own life? You have the capacity for greatness, but often the aspiration for greatness is contrasted by sin and feelings of inferiority, doubt, inadequacy, and even evil. When you attempt to reach greatness, when you attempt to sacrifice for something you know is right, when you commit your life to doing something significant, when you feel closest to God, are you not then attacked by the devil? Do you then begin to doubt your opinion, doubt your ability, doubt the validity of your perspective? Do you begin to trivialize and lose a sense of excitement? Does church become boring, the same old stuff, habit without joy? Look within yourselves and you will see contrast—opposing forces pulling at you.
Don’t be discouraged by contrast! Don’t give in to the forces of temptation and evil. Don’t give up. “Resist evil,” encouraged Peter. Fight the good fight and we shall overcome. Rejoice in the resurrection for there is our power. In spite of the contrasts, believe in victory.
© 2008 Douglas I. Norris