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For Land's Sake
April 9, 1995

JOHN 18:28-36

For land's sake was a common expression in my childhood, which I haven't heard said in years. I don't know if you have heard, but I've been on a trip! Probably some of you wish I would go on another one, and quickly! I've been to what we call the Holy Land, where for land's sake has been a recurrent theme for centuries. For the sake of the land, for the ownership of the land, there have been constant struggles, wars, conflicts, skirmishes and treaties. As we hear almost daily in the news, this struggle is not over. In the midst of the sincere desire of level heads to work out a compromise between Jews and Palestinians, hot heads continue to keep the fervor boiling. Why? For land's sake!

Land gets in your blood. There is something reassuring about owning a piece of land. It is the goal of most young couples to put down roots, and buy a piece of land, a bit of the earth--terra firma. Jews have tried to put down roots in many places through the centuries. They have been successful in the United States where they can now buy real estate wherever they want, but it wasn't too many years ago that Jews were prevented from buying land in certain neighborhoods--restricted neighborhoods, we called them. How important it was to European Jews to establish their own nation where they could make the rules, where they could be in charge, where they could own land wherever they wanted to.

We visited Massada. Massada is a desolate, rocky mountain in southern Israel along the Dead Sea. It looks like a butte. It looks like Ayers Rock in Australia. In the middle of a desert plain, suddenly there looms this mound of rock, about 1,500 feet high, over 1/4 mile. About 60 years before the time of Christ, King Herod built a fortress and a palace on Massada. It was an ideal place for a fortress, as it was impossible to send an army up the mountain to attack. All the defenders had to do was roll down rocks, which they did many times. Herod also devised a unique water system which proved absolutely essential in a time of siege.

During and after the time of Jesus, Jewish Zealots led revolts against the Roman army. Finally, Rome had enough. Titus marched to Jerusalem and destroyed it in 70 A.D., including the Temple which has never been rebuilt. Then the Romans turned their attention to Massada, the last remaining Zealot stronghold. 967 men, women, and children lived on top of Massada, and were devoted to its defense. For three years, the Romans attacked Massada, to no avail. The Jews easily rolled down rocks. The Romans, hoping to wait the Jews out, were probably surprised by the resources on Massada, thanks to Herod's reservoirs, and stockpiled food.

Finally, Rome sent Silva to direct the attack. He brought with him 10,000 Roman soldiers, and probably as many Jewish slaves. He put the slaves to work building a ramp of sand and rocks to reach the top of the mountain. You can still part of the ramp. Can you imagine what size of ramp it takes to reach the top of 1,500 feet? It took them seven months to build the ramp. Imagine the consternation and fear of the Jews on top. At long length, Silva and his army ascended the ramp, rushed inside, only to discover no one was there to meet them, except two men and five children who had hidden in a cistern. Rather than submit to Rome, rather than see their beloved Massada defeated, rather than witness the last remnant of Jewish independence destroyed, they committed suicide--over 900 people. Silva found food. Silva found water. He knew they did not kill themselves because of starvation or thirst. They killed themselves to make a statement.

Archaeologists recently uncovered the synagogue from that time, and found scrolls opened to Ezekiel 37, Ezekiel's vision of dry bones. Listen to vs. 11-12,

The Lord said to Ezekiel, "Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, 'our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.' Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God; I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel."

Back to the land, was the hope of Massada. Back to the land was the yearning that brought Jews escaping the holocaust to Israel. There's something about land, a bit of the earth--terra firma. For land's sake.

However, land cannot completely satisfy the longings and yearnings of humankind. In the final analysis, we never quite completely feel at home anywhere. We are restless, dissatisfied, homesick. Within all of us there is a restlessness that drives us searching. Our ancestors followed dreams across this country, constantly moving westward, searching for what? Now, we restlessly wonder what is out there in space. We push out the boundaries, searching for what?

Jesus knew that land, the possession of it, the ownership of it, territorial greed, was not the ultimate answer. On what is now known as Palm Sunday, because the people waved and spread palm branches before him, Jesus entered Jerusalem. He rode on a borrowed donkey, symbolizing poverty. It was a kingly entrance of sorts, but hardly the kind of king the populace wanted. The people wanted a king, a messiah, a savior, who would lead them to victory over the Romans. They wanted someone to save their land, to rout out the foreign invaders. But, Jesus disappointed the Zealots. Jesus disappointed Judas. Jesus disappointed the people.

And, Jesus confused Pilate when he told him, John 18:36, My kingdom is not from this world. Alex Awad, the Palestinian Baptist missionary to Jerusalem who was educated by United Methodists, and is supported by our apportionments to World Service, told our group that one of the differences between Jews and Christians, is that Christians believe God's kingdom is not territorial. God is not in the real estate business. Christ never promised his followers land! Christians believe God's kingdom is where God's people are, and the fellowship--the community--of Christians with one another and with God, transcends land ownership. It transcends this earthly life.

In Hebrews, after talking about Abraham and his descendants, the author wrote (Hebrews 11:13-16)

All of these died in faith without having received the promises...They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they're seeking a homeland...they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.

No wonder we are homesick. No wonder we are restless on this earth, trying to find home, trying to find a land. Our true home is in heaven. Our true home is in Jesus Christ. It is when you wholeheartedly give your life back to God who gave it to you in the first place, that you find your true home. Land is only temporary. Your earthly existence is transitory. What is lasting, what is eternal, is your relationship with God.

It behooves us on the fortieth anniversary of our first worship service on this site and in this building, to remind ourselves that the land is not sacred. Buildings are not sacred, but transitory. Crosses, altars, pulpits, pews, are not sacred. They are merely tools to help us worship. They are functional. They are not sacred relics. As your own home needs refurbishing after 40 years; as it needs remodeling and new furniture, so does God's house. What is important is our relationship with God, and our doing God's work; not how we preserve buildings or turn them into museums. God did not call us to 899 Yosemite Park Way to build a museum of ancient relics for people to view. God called us here to build a church, a community of persons committed to Jesus Christ, who need a building in which and from which to do God's work.

Jesus did not die for the sake of land. Jesus knew that land and buildings cannot satisfy your inner longing for a home. Your true home is in God. Jesus entered Jerusalem as a king of sorts, and died that same week, so that you may understand, and experience deeply within you, My kingdom is not of this world.

© 1995 Douglas I. Norris