The author of Matthew let us know early in this Gospel that Jesus has come to bring in the reign of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 4:17). In the following 3 chapters (5-7) the reader gets a glimpse at what this kingdom looks like.
The instructions to be salt and light are directed to the disciples, for the world or God’s creation. In the time and context of this writing, salt would have had layers of meaning for the people hearing. Salt connoted sacrifice, loyalty, a close relationship, seasoning, and preservative.
Having traveled to the Holy Land, I can attest to the beauty of the Mount of Beatitudes, where Jesus delivered the Sermon (or sermons) on the Mount. It is a serene and lush hillside above the Sea of Galilea. Biblical scholar Peter Walker wrote this about the area,
It is not possible for me to prepare you for the beauty you encounter upon arriving at the Mount of Beatitudes. The hillside where Jesus shared the Sermon on the Mount, which we find in Matthew chapter 5 - chapter 7, is filled with an expansive and beautiful garden as well as a small chapel that features the Beatitudes that we find in Matthew 5:1-12.
Jesus began his ministry by going into the wilderness. He didn’t head off to start preaching and healing, though we can assume he was ready, he was 30 years old, baptized, and well-studied. But the Spirit led him to go into the wilderness.
In the first century, purification through ceremonial self-immersion in the water of a mikveh (a ritual bath constructed in such a way that a person could step down into it and be fully immersed) was required for all Jews in order to preserve the state of purity required. This was especially important to enter the Temple in Jerusalem and participate in services during major festivals.
The author of this text tells us that Naaman is a great man, a General, loved by his soldiers and the people of Aram (modern Syria), highly favored by the king. But despite his fame and glory, he suffers from a terrible skin disease. He was considered unclean, unable to be in certain public spaces, and could occasionally be quarantined.
Throughout scripture, the Jordan River was seen as a barrier to cross. In Joshua 3, the crossing was only something that God “the Lord of the earth” could accomplish, particularly since this event occurred in the spring, when the Jordan swells and floods, irrigating the land around it.
This week on our “Trip of a Lifetime”, we will travel to the Jordan River. Throughout history, the Jordan was seen as a significant landmark. In the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), the Jordan River served as a boundary, both real and symbolic. Early in the biblical narrative, Lot discovered that the plain of the Jordan was “well watered, like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt” (Genesis 13:10) and decided to settle there.
This weekend we will visit the Jordan River which is the natural eastern border of modern-day Israel. Located beyond the northern tip of Israel is Mount Hermon which is 9,232 feet above sea level. Snowmelt from this place feeds into the northern shores of Sea of Galilee and empties into the Jordan River on the south side of the sea.
“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” You can almost hear the tone of voice and the easy dismissal by Nathanael. We can sense the superiority. Perhaps it was a legitimate response to Philip’s claim that Jesus was the one who Moses and the prophets wrote about. Nazareth was not mentioned in Hebrew Scriptures. And there was nothing in the Jewish tradition that would lead one to conclude that the Messiah would come from a place that’s unmentioned in Hebrew scripture, a small village, (probably 300-400 inhabitants), and mostly poor people.
Jesus went home, but it didn’t feel like home. Despite his powerful teaching, his family and hometown friends met him with skepticism. In the first century, status was static, meaning one did not move from one social class to another easily or frequently. Whatever social status one was born into was where one stayed, and a person’s worth was measured by their place in society. Jesus had clearly overstepped his social status bounds. He came from a carpenter’s family. He was a carpenter in his early adult years. Carpenters had a lowly reputation and little respect.
This is the only passage in the Bible that tells of Jesus’ boyhood. Jews celebrated both Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and the Festival of Unleavened Bread at Passover. It also symbolized the start of a new year. After the festival, which typically lasted 8 days, the “group” (probably most of the families from the village) began the journey back to Nazareth.
Jesus grew up in Nazareth, nestled in Galilee, with the Jezreel Valley in its back yard. From the Gospel accounts, we know only a handful of details about Jesus’ early life. We know that after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, his family fled to Egypt, and returned to Nazareth (Matthew 2, Luke 2).
As we enter into the season of Lent, let us prepare our hearts for the journey ahead. In our Lenten sermon series, we will be taking a trip of sorts. We will venture through the Holy Land, visiting the same spaces Jesus, lived, walked, taught and healed.