Who Do You Say That I Am?

Throughout Lent, I’ll be sharing a weekly devotion that draws on my travels to the middle east. Here is the fourth.

“But you,” Jesus asked them, “who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!”—Matthew 16:15-16

Peter’s profession of faith came as Jesus and the disciples walked from the Sea of Galilee to Caesarea Philippi. The city served as the administrative headquarters of Herod Philip, the Roman-appointed client king who ruled on behalf of the emperor in the region east of Gailee in modern-day northern Israel, Lebanon, and southern Syria. This was largely Gentile territory, with relatively few Jewish subjects. Consequently, Herod Philip pursued a policy of Hellenization. In other words, he encouraged imperial traditions and the worship of a pantheon of gods.

As Jesus and his friends walked, they would have been in the company of pagan pilgrims.  Caesarea Philippi was home to a spectacular white marble shrine, built by Herod the Great in 20BC to honor the emperor. There, those who were loyal to the emperor offered sacrifices and made financial gifts to curry favor with the powers of Rome. 

Caesarea Philippi was also home to an ancient fertility cult. The central source of the Jordan River erupted from the mouth of a cave at a rock formation known as the Gates of Hell. It was believed to be a gateway to the underworld and became the site of an open-air temple. For centuries, farmers seeking abundant harvests or bountiful flocks had come there to sacrifice goats to the god Pan. It is even alleged that the site was a place of child sacrifice.

Walking among travelers who sought the favor of many gods, Peter dared to affirm the one God of Israel and acknowledge Jesus as beloved Son and Lord. It was a bold and courageous proclamation, prophetic and scandalous, even treasonous.

Who do you say that Jesus is?

Please pray with me . . .

Lord Jesus, you are the Son of the one true God. In a world where we are tempted to worship many things—money, power, nation, sports, celebrity, and more—may we know that you alone are God.  May our words and works affirm our trust in you this day.  Amen.

“Sometimes your only available transportation is a leap of faith.” — Margaret Shepard

“Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live, taking the form of a readiness to die.”

G.K. Chesterton

“Man’s mind is like a store of idolatry and superstition; so much so that if a man believes his own mind, it is certain that he will forsake God and forge some idol in his own brain.” — John Calvin

By gugganij – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3992796

View from Masada

The mountaintop fortress of Masada was built by Herod the Great as a winter retreat and refuge, complete with palace, storerooms, cisterns, and impressive fortifications. In the Jewish Revolt against the Roman occupation, Masada was taken by Sicarii rebels in 66CE. When the Romans retook Jerusalem (70CE), pockets of Jewish resistance persisted. The last of these was at Masada. Flavius Silva and a legion of Roman soldiers encamped at the base of the mountain and laid siege. Unable to take the fortress, Silva instructed his men to build an enormous tower and ramp to reach the walls. When the building project neared completion and the fall of Masada was imminent, the rebels killed themselves (April 15, 73CE). Two women and five children, who hid in an empty cistern, survived to tell the story. This photo looks out from the walls of Masada to the plain below. Can you see the remains of the Roman Encampment from the first century siege?

Masada by Isaac Lamdan
“Who are you that come, stepping heavy in silence?
–The remnant.
Alone I remained on the day of great slaughter.
Alone, of father and mother, sisters and brothers.
Saved in an empty cask hid in a courtyard corner.
Huddled, a child in the womb of an anxious mother.
I survived.
Days upon days in fate’s embrace I cried and begged
for mercy:
Thy deed it is, O God, that I remain.
Then answer: Why?
If to bear the shame of man and the world.
To blazon it forever–
Release me! The world unshamed will flaunt this shame
As honor and spotless virtue!
And if to find atonement I survive
Then Answer: Where?
So importuning a silent voice replied:
‘In Masada!’
And I obeyed that voice and so I came.
Silent my steps will raise me to the wall,
Silent as all the steps filled with the dread
Of what will come.
Tall, tall is the wall of Masada.
Deep, deep is the pit at its feet.
And if the silent voice deceived me,
From the high wall to the deep pit
I will fling me.
And let there be no sign remaining,
And let no remnant survive.”

in Isaac Lamdan: A Study in Twentieth-Century Hebrew Poetry, ed. Leon I. Yudkin, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1971.

Yitzhak Lamdan was born in Mlinov, Ukraine in 1899 and received a religious and secular education. During World War I, he was cut off from his family. He wandered through southern Russia with his brother who was later killed in a pogrom. Lamdan became a Communist and volunteered for the Red Army before returning, disillusioned, to Mlinov , where he began to publish Hebrew poetry. He immigrated to Palestine in 1920, and worked as a ḥaluts (Zionist youth), building roads and working on farms. In 1955, Lamdan was awarded the Israel Prize, for literature.