Damascus, as you may know, is the capital of Syria and is a major cultural centre of the Levant and the Arab world. Know locally as the “City of Jasmine”, Damascus is home to almost three million people. Carbon dating suggests the site of the city has been occupied since around 6300 BC and the city itself from the second millennium BC. Egyptian records tell us King Biryawaza ruled Damascus in the 14th century BC and, after a war, it fell into the hands of Ramesses II in 1259 BC.
Damascus is first mentioned in the Bible in the Book of Genesis.” During the night Abram divided his men to attack them and he routed them, pursuing them as far as Hobah, north of Damascus.” (Genesis 14:15) Abram, later Abraham, is in the process of rescuing his nephew Lot who has been carried off by Kedorlaomer king of Elam, Tidal king of Goyim, Amraphel king of Shinar and Arioch king of Ellasar who attacked and looted the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah in what is known as the War of the Kings. King Kedorlaomer wanted to show the neighbouring territories his strength; fortunately, Abram was around to defeat him and recover the goods and his family.
The following chapter of Genesis tells us Abram’s servant came from Damascus. “Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus? You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.” (Genesis 15:2-3) There is, however, no mention in the Bible about how Damascus came to exist.
According to the 1st-century AD historian Flavius Josephus, Uz, the great-grandson of Noah, founded Damascus. Of Abraham, Josephus states: "Abraham reigned at Damascus, being a foreigner, who came with an army out of the land above Babylon, called the land of the Chaldeans … Now the name of Abraham is even still famous in the country of Damascus; and there is shown a village named from him, The Habitation of Abraham.”
The next Biblical reference to Damascus is during the reign of King David. “When the Arameans of Damascus came to help Hadadezer king of Zobah, David struck down twenty-two thousand of them. He put garrisons in the Aramean kingdom of Damascus, and the Arameans became subject to him and brought tribute. The Lord gave David victory wherever he went.” (2 Samuel 8:5-6) The Arameans had arrived during the 11th century BC and established one of their kingdoms in Damascus. Their presence prevented the Kingdom of Israel from spreading northwards, which led to a clash and inevitably war.
“When David destroyed Zobah’s army, Rezon gathered a band of men around him and became their leader; they went to Damascus, where they settled and took control.” (1 Kings 11:24) Although David had defeated the Arameans, one man Rezon deserted from King Hadadezer and rose his own army. Throughout the reign of King Solomon, Rezon was an adversary and was constantly hostile towards Israel.
The Book of Kings records the rulers of Judah and Israel but also gives the names of the kings of neighbouring territories. Chapter 15 tells us that Hezion was the king of Aram-Damascus during the reign of King Asa of Judah. In chapter 19, the Lord instructed the prophet Elijah to “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram.” Unfortunately, this did not stop the hostilities against Israel.
Conflicts continued until the 8thcentury BC when Ben-Hadad II was captured by Israel under King Ahab and granted them trading rights in Damascus. “I will return the cities my father took from your father,” Ben-Hadad offered. “You may set up your own market areas in Damascus, as my father did in Samaria.” (1 Kings 20:34)
Following this, Damascus entered a mini Dark Age and very little is known about the period, however, it was soon taken over by the Assyrians. This was encouraged by King Ahaz of Judah. “The king of Assyria complied by attacking Damascus and capturing it.” (2 Kings 16:9) This fits with prophecies written by three people:
· Isaiah 17:1 - “See, Damascus will no longer be a city but will become a heap of ruins.”
· Amos 1:4-5 – “I will send fire on the house of Hazael that will consume the fortresses of Ben-Hadad. I will break down the gate of Damascus”
· Jeremiah 49:24 – “Damascus has become feeble, she has turned to flee and panic has gripped her; anguish and pain have seized her, pain like that of a woman in labour.”
Damascus was conquered by Alexander the Great and was under his rule until his death in 323 BC. Following that, the city was fought over by the Seleucid and Ptolemaic empires, until the Romans came along in 64 BC. Damascus became one of the cities that made up the Decapolis along with Gerasa (Jordan), Scythopolis (Israel), Hippos (Golan Heights), Gadara (Jordan), Pella (Jordan), Philadelphia (Amman, Jordan), Capitolias (Jordan), Canatha (Syria) and Raphana (Jordan).
Much of the historic parts of Damascus resemble the Roman period since much of it had to be rebuilt after the previous wars. When Caesar Augustus gave Herod the Great land in 23 BC, Damascus may have been included. Following his death, the city was given back to Syria. When Paul wrote his letters to the Corinthians, he recorded, “In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me.” (2 Corinthians 11:32) It is not certain when Aretas IV Philopatris of Nabatea gained Damascus, however, he was King of the Nabataeans from 9 BC to 40 AD. Some speculate Emperor Caligula may have gifted it to the king around 37 AD.
The Apostle Paul, or Saul as he was originallynamed, was near Damascus when he underwent his conversion. “As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’” (Acts 9:3-4) Paul was left blind by this initial contact and the Lord called on a disciple called Ananias to come and find him. “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.” (Acts 9:11-12)
Judas of Damascus was a Messianic Jew who gave Saul/Paul lodgings when he was suffering from blindness. It is at his house on Straight Street, now known as Sultany or Queen’s Street that Ananias found Saul. This is the main street of the city. Following his return to full sight, Saul/Paul spent several days with the disciples and began to preach about Jesus. In Acts 22, Paul recounts his story of conversion to the people of Jerusalem and in Acts 26, he told King Agrippa the same in an attempt to persuade him to be a Christian.
In his letter to the churches in Galatia, Paul reveals he once returned to Damascus. “I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus.” (Galatians 1:17) He remained there for three years before finally moving on to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and James, the brother of Jesus. Although he did not meet the other apostles in Jerusalem, it is believed Thomas may have lived in or near Damascus.
The next big change Damascus saw occurred in 634 AD when it was invaded by Muslim forces. For hundreds of years, various Islamic countries fought each other for land and Damascus was passed from army to army until 1516 when the Ottoman Turks captured the city. For 400 years, the Ottoman’s controlled Damascus, however, they allowed Muslims, Christians and Jews to live amongst each other peacefully. By 1867, approximately 140,000 people lived in the city, 30,000 of which were Christian (mostly Catholic), 10,000 Jews and 100,000 “Mohammedans”.
From the beginning of the 20th century, life in Damascus became more political. During the World Wars, France, who made the city the capital of their League of Nations Mandate for Syria, owned Damascus. Eventually, Damascus was freed from French control in 1946 and Syria became an independent nation.
Today, Sunni Islam is the main religion in Damascus, however, around 20% of the population identify themselves as Christian. There are three Christian districts in the city, each full of churches, including the Chapel of Saint Paul, House of Saint Ananias, Mariamite Cathedral of Damascus and Saint George’s Syriac Orthodox Cathedral.
The main road of the old Roman city, Straight Street, where the conversion of Paul occurred is a key historical tourist attraction. Interestingly, the Grand Mosque of Damascus claims to contain the body of St John the Baptist.
In 2008, Damascus was chosen as the Arab Capital of Culture. It has also been twinned with five cities around the world: Toledo, Spain; Córdoba, Spain; Yerevan, Armenia; São Paulo, Brazil; and Istanbul, Turkey.
Jericho is a city that features in both the Old and New Testament of the Bible. Today, it is a Palestinian city on the Jordan Bank with a population of over 18,000. Believed to be one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, it is also the first known city to have had a protective wall built around it. So far, archaeologists have found evidence of settlements dating back to 9000 BC.
The last Ice Age ended in around 9600 BC and it was shortly after that when humans began to settle in the areas around the Jordan River. Remains of constructions built by these Epipaleolithic people have been unearthed, suggesting there were at least seventy houses. These buildings were built from clay and straw, therefore, little else can be determined other than they were quite small, probably containing only one room.
The Wall of Jericho was constructed around 8000 BC. It was roughly 12 feet high and 2 feet wide with a tower that was 22 steps high. Whilst the tower may have been used for ceremonial purposes, the function of the wall was likely to keep out the floodwaters from the Jordan. By 7000 BC, new houses were being constructed from mud bricks, each consisting of several rooms and a courtyard.
Not much is known about the comings and goings of people during the Bronze Age, however, from the 4th millennium, there is evidence the walls were rebuilt several times. By 2600 BC, Jericho was inhabited by the Amorites, although they seem to disappear around 300 years later. Jericho was taken over in 1900 BC by the Canaanites until an earthquake destroyed the city in 1573 BC. It remained uninhabited until the 9th century BC when it was rebuilt.
In the Book of Numbers, Jericho is used as a reference for the location of the Israelites. For example, “They left the mountains of Abarim and camped on the plains of Moab by the Jordan across from Jericho.” (Numbers 33:48) It is estimated Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt in 1447 BC, therefore Jericho was uninhabited at this time but may have still been known by the people in the vicinity. Alternatively, since the final form of the Book of Numbers was written in the 5th century, the name may have been added then.
The most famous account of Jericho in the Bible is, of course, in the Book of Joshua, which tells us of the Battle of Jericho. Unfortunately, scholars believe the book holds little historical value since there are issues with the dates. The Bible dates the battle as taking place around 1400 BC, however, archaeological evidence suggests the city was uninhabited at the time. The Book of Joshua was first written during the reign of King Josiah (640-609 BC) and revised in around 538 BC, therefore, the dating could be an estimate, an incorrect one at that.
Nevertheless, the Book of Joshua provides a great example of Israel’s obedience to the teachings and the laws set down in the book of Deuteronomy. It also tells us that the Israelites conquered Jericho, a city that had fallen into sin.
“Joshua son of Nun secretly sent two spies from Shittim. ‘Go, look over the land,’ he said, ‘especially Jericho.’ So they went and entered the house of a prostitute named Rahab and stayed there.” (Joshua 2:1) Jericho was the first city of Canaan that the Israelites had decided to conquer. By sending in two spies, Joshua discovered the inhabitants were afraid of the Israelites and God. The prostitute Rahab told them:
“I know that the Lord has given you this land and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed.When we heard of it, our hearts melted in fear and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.” (Joshua 2:9-11)
Following this, she asked the spies to promise that the Lord would show kindness to her for helping the spies. “Give me a sure sign that you will spare the lives of my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them—and that you will save us from death.” (Joshua 2:12-13) With an instruction to tie a scarlet cord in her window so that she and her family could be identified by the Israelites, the spies returned to Joshua.
Acting on the will of the Lord, Joshua prepared the Israelites to attack the city. When the time came to attack the city, they found the gates closed and the citizens hiding in fear of the approaching attackers. “Then the Lord said to Joshua, ‘See, I have delivered Jericho into your hands, along with its king and its fighting men.’” (Joshua 6:2)
Rather than attempting to force an entry, the Israelites marched around the city walls once a day for six days with the priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant. On the seventh day, they were instructed to march around the city seven times after which the priests blew their horns and the walls of Jericho came tumbling down. Following God’s instruction, the Israelites entered the city and slaughtered every man, woman, child and animal apart from those belonging to the family of Rahab. Joshua then cursed anybody who rebuilt the foundations of the city with the death of the eldest and youngest children. According to the Bible, the city was rebuilt during the reign of King Ahab (871-852 BC), although not by him but by Hiel theBethelite. “In Ahab’s time, Hiel of Bethel rebuilt Jericho. He laid its foundations at the cost of his firstborn son Abiram, and he set up its gates at the cost of his youngest son Segub, in accordance with the word of the Lord spoken by Joshua son of Nun.” (1 Kings 16:34)
Jericho was destroyed once again during the 6th century BC by the Babylonians during their conquest of Judah. The Book of Ezra records the number of people “whom Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had taken captive to Babylon.” (Ezra 2:1) From Jericho alone, there were 345. The Bible, however, provides evidence the city of Jericho was once again flourishing during the 5thcentury BC. It had been rebuilt during the Persian period and during the construction of the walls of Jerusalem, “the men of Jericho built the adjoining section” after the Tower of Hananel.
Alexander the Great captured the region between 336 and 323 BC, making Jericho his private estate. Following this, the city became part of the Hasmonean and Early Roman empires during which time Mark Antony gifted the royal estate to Cleopatra. Following their joint suicide in 30 BC, the city of Jericho was given to Herod the Great (74-4 BC), who was king of Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth. His son Herod Archelaus who ruled for two years succeeded him.
The city of Jericho is mentioned in three of the Gospels as places Jesus passed through. Matthew 20 tells us “as Jesus and his disciples were leaving Jericho” (20:29) two blind men called out to Jesus and asked him to restore their sight, which he did. Mark 10 records Jesus “came to Jericho” where he met “a blind man, Bartimaeus (which means ‘son of Timaeus’)” who he also healed. (10:46) The same story is told in Luke chapter 18.
In Luke 19, Jesus was passing through Jericho once again when he came across a chief tax collector named Zaccheus who had climbed a sycamore-fig tree to get a look at Jesus. Inviting himself to the tax collector’s house, Jesus inspired Zaccheus to repent of his dishonest practices.
Jericho was also mentioned in the parable of the Good Samaritan. “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers.” (10:30)
The city of Jericho began to decline from 70 AD following the fall of Jerusalem to Emperor Vespasian. By 100 AD, it was a small Roman town and by 333 AD it was abandoned altogether. The current city of Jericho lies slightly to the east of the old town and was built during the Byzantine Period (6th– 7th century AD). It was then under Muslim rule until the Crusades when a couple of monasteries were erected, one of which was dedicated to John the Baptist. In 1187, however, the Muslim forces of Saladin evicted the Crusaders. Since then until the 1900s, the growing city was mostly Muslim.
According to a census in 1922, the population of Jericho was over 3000, the majority of which were Muslim, however, there were also 92 Christians and 6 Jews. During the Second World War, Britain built fortresses in Jericho and by 1945 the population of Christians and Jews had risen to 260 and 170 respectively.
During the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Jericho was under the control of Jordan, however, the city continued to grow. By 1961, the population had reached 10,000. Since the Six-Day War of 1967, Jericho has belonged to Israel.
Jericho is situated 846 feet below sea level, making it the lowest city in the world. In 2010, Palestinian tourists ranked Jericho the most popular tourist destination due to its proximity to the Dead Sea. It also receives a lot of tourism from Christian pilgrims. Just for fun, here is a list of notable places in and around Jericho you could visit:
· Mount of Temptation on which a Greek Orthodox monastery sits
· The Spring of Elisha (Ein es-Sultan)
· The Sycamore tree of Zaccheus (for some reason there are two)
· The traditional site of the baptism of Jesus on the River Jordan
· The Monastery of Saint Gerasimos
· The Saint George Monastery
· The Stone, belonging to the Bronze and Iron Age
As President of Trinovante (The Wild Women of Essex) at Western Road URC, Romford, it is my privilege to do two talks a year on subjects of my choice. My most recent talk was about Words and I thought it would be interesting to share a few sections of my talk with you.
The talk covered various word games where I tried to breathe new life into unfamiliar and out-of-fashion words.
Round One: Would you like to be called?
Which of the following words do you think apply to you?
Round Two: Bible, Shakespeare or Dickens?
From where would you find the following words and phrases?
Round 3: Collective Nouns
What are the collective names for the following animals?
Round 4: Anagrams
Here are some prophetic anagrams you may enjoy.
Finally, some interesting facts...
5th January 2020
Readings: Matthew 2:1-12
Let me first concentrate on the "Wise Men". Certain readings go together and so with Matthew, you also need to read:
Nowhere do we have the number of visitors from the east but because there are three gifts, we assume there were three. Nowhere does it say they were kings and nowhere does it say they were wise men because, I believe, magi actually means astrologers. I read that magi is the plural magoi, which in Greek means Zoroastrian Priests. These priests prepared horoscopes.
Zoroaster was Persian, living in the 2nd millennium BC, although there is no concrete evidence on when he lived and was one of the first rulers to follow a single god. This god's name was Ahora Mazda, meaning "wise lord". He believed in one universal god who was all good, uncreated and a supreme deity. Zoroaster was born from a 15-year-old Persian virgin, therefore, miraculously conceived, and started his ministry at 30 after defeating the temptations of Satan. He predicted other virgins would conceive prophets and the Zoroastrian Priests believed they could foretell by reading the stars when these prophets were born; they were star-gazing with a purpose. Matthew's text, therefore, was not only for Jews and Gentiles, because the Magi were Gentiles, but also for the Zoroastrian religion.
As an aside, when I was researching, I wondered who was the first ruler to espouse a monotheistic religion. It was none other than Akhenaten, the father of Tutankhamun, who reigned 1353-1336 BC. Akhenaten was a Pharoah during the 18th dynasty and worshipped the sun god Aten, however, he was disliked and subsequent pharaohs tried to write him out of history and reverted to polytheism. Around the same time, Zoroaster and Akhenaten were looking at the possibility of there only being one god.
The three kings, which we will call them for simplicity's sake, appear to have been given names from a Greek manuscript dating around 500 AD. The more I read, the more confusing the various attributes of the three kings became. Over time, various characteristics and traits have been given. The three kings cover the three ages of men as well as come from three geographic areas, showing they are representatives from the known world at that time. With no sense of certainty, I offer the three kings names and their gifts:
The story of the three kings is said to happen two years after the birth of Jesus, so them coming to the stable is poet license. In Matthew, Jesus is a child and the kings visit a house.
What of the three gifts? King Herod was going to kill all children under the age of two in Bethlehem and so, for the reading of Hosea to come true, the Holy Family goes to Egypt so that they can be called back out. It may well be the money needed to live in Egypt was financed by these three gifts.
My normal caveat to my sermons is that any new information I find, I offer to you in faith for you to take on board or not. I just thought I would let you know these are some of the thoughts that surround the story of the three horologists.
Nazareth, the largest city in the Northern District of Israel was the childhood home of Jesus. Despite being such a well-known place, it is only mentioned in the four Gospels and the book of Acts. Although the city was never mentioned in the Old Testament, it is suggested Nazareth comes from the Hebrew word Netzer, which means branch, and alludes to the prophetic message in Isaiah 11:1 about the “branch of Jesse” that would eventually lead to the birth of Jesus. “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.”
In Biblical times, Nazareth was a town rather than a city, or to be more precise, “a town in Galilee.” (Luke 1:26) In Luke 1, the angel Gabriel visited Mary at her home in Nazareth to inform her that she would have a son. Her fiancé, Joseph, also came from Nazareth but, as we know, Jesus was not born there, but in Bethlehem. “So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.” (Luke 2:4)
Joseph and Mary could not immediately return to Nazareth due to King Herod the Great, who was searching for Jesus with intent to kill. Instead, the family fled to Egypt where they remained in relative safety until, “Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.” (Matthew 2:22-23)
Jesus grew up as a Nazarene and the phrase “Jesus of Nazareth” appears at least seventeen times in the Bible. The Acts of the Apostles tends to refer to Christ as Jesus of Nazareth more than the Gospels, however, the Gospel of Mark tells us an impure spirit cried out, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” (Mark 1:24) The Gospel of John records at Jesus’ crucifixion, “Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” (John 19:19)
When the writers of the Bible introduce new people, they usually reveal where they came from, therefore, hometowns must have been important and used as a way to judge people’s character. Nazareth, being only a town and not yet a city, was not a highly regarded place, evidenced by the future apostle Nathanael’s reaction when he first heard about Jesus. “‘Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?’ Nathanael asked.” (John 1:46) It is not certain why Nazareth was looked down upon, however, when Jesus “went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom,” (Luke 4:16) he was rejected by the crowds who “drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff.” (4:29)
There is very little in the history books about what Nazareth was like during the life of Jesus. There is no archaeological evidence of its existence until the Roman period, during which time Jesus was born. Similarly, although it is mentioned in the New Testament, there are no extant non-biblical references to Nazareth until around 200 AD. To make matters more confusing, the earliest references to Nazareth contain conflicting information, for example, one source said approximately 2000 people living in Nazareth at the time of Jesus, whereas, a different source states it had a population of 400. It was not until 2009 that any archaeological remains were discovered in the area dating to the time of Jesus.
Texts from the 6th century claim pilgrims began travelling to Nazareth to see the Jewish synagogue where Jesus was taught and the freshwater spring, known as Mary’s Well, where the Annunciation reputedly took place. Evidence has been found of a church built on the site believed to be Mary’s house and it is believed the town benefited from the Christian pilgrim trade. Unfortunately, anti-Christian hostility broke out when the Persians invaded in 614 AD. Many Jewish people helped the Persians to persecute and slaughter the Christians until Emperor Heraclius of the Byzantine Empire conquered the land in 630 AD. As punishment for their cruel acts, Heraclius expelled the Jews from Nazareth, turning it an all-Christian town.
As well as the church over Mary’s house, there was also a church where Joseph once lived. This, however, was destroyed during the Arab Muslim period, which lasted from 638 AD until the Crusader Period. In 1099, the Crusader Tancred made himself Prince of Galilee and used Nazareth as his capital. The town remained under Christian control until 1187 when the Muslims reclaimed it. Fortunately, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II managed to negotiate safe passage for Christian pilgrims, although, the Egyptians later destroyed all the Christian buildings when they invaded in 1263.
Due to all the invasions, Nazareth had become a poor village, although a few Arab Christians were determined to remain there. In the 14th century, Franciscan monks returned to Nazareth, however, were evicted in 1584 by the Ottoman Empire. Fortunately, in 1730, the leader of the Galilee, Zahir al-Umar, was more sympathetic to the Christians and allowed a Franciscan Church to be built. Permitting the Greek Orthodox community to build St Gabriel’s Church, which still stands today, followed in 1767.
Nazareth has since been occupied by a variety of people and nationalities, for instance, Napoleon in 1799, Britain in 1917 and Israel in the 1950s. Today, Nazareth still belongs to Israel, however, it receives a lot of trade and visitors from many places across the world, which has helped Nazareth grow into a sizeable city.
Today, Nazareth is home to many religious buildings, the majority of which are Christian, however, there are still plenty of Muslim places of worship. Churches include the Catholic Church of the Annunciation, the Greek Orthodox Church of St Gabriel, the Melkite Synagogue Church, the Roman Catholic St Joseph’s Church, the Mensa Christi Church, and the Basilica of Jesus the Adolescent.
Just for fun, did you know Nazareth is twinned with these cities?
The Christian calendar has many opportunities for self-reflection and self-examination, for example, Lent and Advent. I thought it might be helpful if I gave you some questions to aid the process. There are many in this list, so please choose the ones that fit you personally.
Where is God in my life?
Where do I see God working?
What is Jesus to me?
What is my list of priorities? God, family church?
What delights me?
What is the gift that I can offer to the world?
Am I living or just existing?
What do I think is my purpose?
What good am I doing for myself and others?
What small acts of kindness can I do daily?
What time do I have to just sit and stare?
What cheers me up?
Have I got a special place where I am closest to God?
Am I speaking kindly to myself?
With what treats can I reward myself?
How do I prioritise my time?
Do I really know what is important?
How much am I a doer and how much am I an encourager? Do I energise people or do I drain them of energy?
How do I absorb bad and transform it into good? How do I make lemonade from lemons?
How can I make something happen?
Do I know what rejuvenates me?
Who are my closest friends and why?
Do I have enough exercise?
Where are my favourite walks?
If thoughts lead to actions and actions lead to habits, how can I ensure my thoughts are pure? Do I need to change some of my habits because they are leading down the wrong path?
How can I be someone else's angel? How can I be someone's answer to prayer?
How do I keep perspective in a situation?
Am I creating my own golden memories?
What is shaping my world view?
Am I being shaped into the image God wants and needs?
How am I looking after myself?
What do I value the most and why?
Do I judge people too much?
How do I enjoy the simple pleasures, such as a sunrise?
Am I finding obstacles or stepping stones on my life journey?
Upon what are my worries and anxieties based?
Do I challenge these thoughts?
How much do I trust God?
I am a child of God, therefore, I am valued and precious. How often do I tell myself that?
It is not the stormy water outside a boat that makes it sink, it is the water that gets in. How am I ensuring I am not taking in too much water and how do I ensure I block any leaks?
How do I keep a strong mindset and how do I keep focused on God's love?
Do I have a vision for my life?
How am I helping others?
Am I using other people as role models?
Am I imitating the good traits I see in other people?
Where do I find refreshment of mind, body and soul and where do I find I am growing?
I am a work in progress, where is God working?
Am I spending enough time appreciating the good things that are happening to me?
Do I know what cheers me up? Do I know what drains me of energy?
Do I spend too much time dwelling in the past rather than concentrating on the present and the future?
It only takes one person to make a difference, therefore, how am I making a difference to other people's lives?
How do I keep on learning? How am I using my brain?
Am I allowing experiences to change me positively?
How do I acknowledge the people who support me?
Do I do things out of duty or out of love?
How can I turn enemies into friends?
Am I looking for miracles?
Another year has started, and there is always great hope and expectation. It is marked by New Years Resolutions and I like to have at least 20, so that by the end of January I might have at least kept one! Sadly, I recently looked back over my diaries and realised that many of the New Years Resolutions I made this year I also made for 2019, 2018, 2017 and so on. I, therefore, have two alternatives, either stop making New Years Resolutions because they are a waste of time, or really concentrate and make them work. Perhaps even streamline so that I only have one to remember and follow.
So, I publically declare that my 2020 New Years Resolution will be to actually read books that I buy. I currently have over 600 theological books in my study that I may or may not have read. If I have, I don’t remember.
How will you keep your New Years Resolution or do you think they are not worthwhile?
This year, I am going to begin each newsletter by looking at who or what the month is named after. The God of January is named after Janus who has two faces. One looks back over the past year and one looks forward to the next. So starting a new year, it is useful to reflect upon some of the habits we have accumulated over 2019 and to access whether they are useful and whether they bring us closer to God or whether they are an obstacle. So, as we start the New Year together, let us declutter. Get rid of bad habits. Fully focus on God and ensure all our actions are those that make God happy, namely loving God and loving our neighbour.
Fun Fact: In the King James Version of the Bible, there are 66 books, 1,189 chapters, 31,173 verses, 774,746 words and 3,566,480 letters.
Sidon or Saida is the third-largest city in Lebanon. It lies between the city of Tyre and the Lebanese capital Beirut, which are both approximately 25 miles away. Currently, Sidon has a population of over 80,000, however, it has been inhabited since before records began. Although it is now a city, it began as a fishing town, which is what the name Sidon means in the Phoenician language. Sidon was also the name of Canaan and the grandson of Noah, therefore, it is likely the city was named after him.
When the Tribes of Israel were issued land at the end of the book of Genesis, Sidon was apportioned to the Tribe of Zebulun. “Zebulun will live by the seashore and become a haven for ships; his border will extend toward Sidon.” (Geneses 49:13) Being on the Mediterranean coastline, Sidon became a popular port and rapidly grew from a fishing village to a city in a commercial empire.
The Phoenicians arrived in the city in around the time of Joshua (1355-1245 BC) and Sidon quickly became one of their most important cities, potentially the oldest. Craftsmen in the city were famed for producing glass and purple dies, and women were known for the art of embroidery. Evidence for the Sidonians’ skills can be read in the Bible, for example, “You know that we have no one so skilled in felling timber as the Sidonians.” (1 Kings 5:6)
A group from Sidon spread out to colonise another city, Tyre, taking their trades with them, resulting in much competition between the two cities. In the Bible, Sidon is considered to be the “mother of Tyre” as emphasised in a prophecy against Tyre in Isaiah 23: “No more of your revelling, Virgin Daughter Sidon, now crushed!” (23:12)
Sidon was such a powerful city it oppressed Israel along with “the Egyptians, the Amorites, the Ammonites, the Philistines … the Amalekites and the Maonites” (Judges 10:11-12), however, it was also conquered many times before Christianity came about. Sidon’s conquerors include Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Persians, Greeks and Romans. Evidence for each invasion has been found by archaeologists in the style of buildings, coins and materials from other places. There is also evidence that the Sidonians worshipped the god Ba’al.
One of the ways Sidon infiltrated itself into Israel was through King Solomon who had many foreign wives. Sidon was one of the nations God had told the Israelites “You must not intermarry with them, because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods” (1 Kings 11:2), which is exactly what happened. Solomon’s wives led him astray, convincing him to worship their gods, including Ashtoreth, the goddess of the Sidonians.
King Ahab of Israel was also guilty of being influenced by the Sidonians because he “married Jezebel daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and began to serve Baal and worship him.” (1 Kings 16:31) Elijah, who prophesied during Ahab’s reign, travelled to Sidon at God’s instruction: “Go at once to Zarephath in the region of Sidon and stay there. I have directed a widow there to supply you with food.” (1 Kings 17:9) While he was there, he performed miracles, including bringing the widow’s son back to life.
Other prophets in the Bible frequently wrote about Sidon, for example, Isaiah, who referred to the city concerning the prophecy against Tyre. Jeremiah mentioned Sidon a least three times, the final during a message about the Philistines: “For the day has come to destroy all the Philistines and to remove all survivors who could help Tyre and Sidon.” (Jeremiah 47:4) Ezekiel also mentioned Sidon during a lament over Tyre as well as a prophecy against Sidon:
“‘I am against you, Sidon,
and among you I will display my glory.
You will know that I am the Lord,
when I inflict punishment on you
and within you am proved to be holy.
I will send a plague upon you
and make blood flow in your streets.
The slain will fall within you,
with the sword against you on every side.
Then you will know that I am the Lord.”
The prophet Joel also speaks of Sidon who is judged for their actions against God’s people. Zechariah prophesies a similar judgement.
Despite these prophecies, Sidon continued to prosper as a great city, although under many different hands. At the end of the Persian era in 351 BC, the Egyptian pharaoh Artaxerxes III invaded Sidon, who was shortly followed by Alexander the Great in 333 BC. In the remains of the Necropolis of Sidon, the Alexander Sarcophagus was discovered, which is now on display at the Archaeological Museum of Istanbul. The tomb featured bas-relief carvings of the triumphs of Alexander the Great.
Following Alexander the Great, the city continued to prosper and, even though it eventually fell under Roman dominion, Sidon continued to mint its own silver coins. The Roman’s built a theatre and many monuments in the city and it is believed Herod the Great, who was the king of Galilee when Jesus was born, visited Sidon. Herod was not the only Bible character from the New Testament to visit the city; “Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon” (Matthew 15:21) from Jerusalem. Whilst there, Jesus healed a demon-possessed girl whose mother had such faith in him. Jesus may also have found some of his followers in Sidon as Mark records, “Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the lake, and a large crowd from Galilee followed. When they heard about all he was doing, many people came to him from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon.” (Mark 3:7-8)
The final time Sidon is mentioned in the Bible is in the Acts of the Apostles. Paul, who had been arrested, was being taken to Rome, which was a very long journey. Along the way they “landed at Sidon; and Julius, in kindness to Paul, allowed him to go to his friends so they might provide for his needs.” (Acts 27:3)
After Biblical times, Sidon became part of the Byzantine Empire during which time many of the surrounding cities were destroyed in an earthquake. Sidon, however, continued to thrive until the Arabs conquered it in 636 AD. From then on, Sidon was continuously conquered by foreign powers, particularly during the Crusades when it changed hands between Jerusalem, Norway, Egypt and Germany until the Saracens and Mongols destroyed it. Only the walls of the original city remain visible.
Sidon was rebuilt as a fishing town and blossomed under the Ottoman Empire. After the First World War, Sidon became part of the French Mandate of Lebanon, which changed hands to the British during World War Two. Following the war, hundreds of Palestinian refugees arrived in Sidon, swelling the numbers of inhabitants to over 10,000. By 2000, however, the population had risen to 65,000.
Today, the majority of Sidon’s population belong to the Sunni Muslim faith, however, there are a few thousand Christians in the city: Armenian Catholic (0.1%), Greek Melkite Catholic (3.7%), Lebanese Maronite Christians (3.3%), Greek Orthodox (0.7%), Armenian Orthodox (0.6%), Evangelicals (0.4%), Roman Latin Catholic (0.2%), Chaldean Catholic (>0%), Syriac Orthodox (>0%), Syriac Catholic (>0%), Assyrian Church of the East (>0%) and Copts (>0%).
Just for fun, here is a list of the main attractions in Sidon, should you ever find yourself in the area:
· Sidon Sea Castle, built by the Crusaders in the 13th century
· Sidon Soap Museum
· Caravanserai of the French, a 17th-century roadside inn
· Debbane Palace, soon to be opened as the History Museum of Sidon
· The Castle of Saint Louis, built by the Crusaders in the 13th century
· Eshmun Temple, dedicated to the Phoenician god of healing
Nineveh was once the capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire located in Upper Mesopotamia on the Eastern bank of the River Tigris. The land on which the city once stood now belongs to Mosul, a major city in Iraq. Until 612 BC, it was the largest city in the world, however, after civil war and invasions, Nineveh was reduced to rubble.
In the Bible, Nineveh is first mentioned in Genesis 10, which says, “From that land he went to Assyria, where he built Nineveh, Rehoboth Ir, Calah and Resen, which is between Nineveh and Calah—which is the great city.” (10:11-12) In this verse, “he” is Nimrod, the son of Cush, the grandson of Ham, and the great-grandson of Noah. Older translations of the Bible mention Ashur instead, the second son of Shem, however, it is now generally agreed Nimrod was the founder of Nineveh. According to tradition, Nimrod was also the leader of those who built to Tower of Babel.
Nineveh eventually became the capital of the Assyrian empire and the home of the king, Sennacherib (c.740-681 BC). “So Sennacherib king of Assyria broke camp and withdrew. He returned to Nineveh and stayed there.” (2 Kings 19:36 and Isaiah 37:37) The king of Judah at the time was King Hezekiah (c.739-c.687 BC), during whose reign the prophets Isaiah and Micah prophesied. During Sennacherib’s reign, he aroused fear in the neighbouring kingdoms, including Judah, however, Jerusalem was delivered from Sennacherib after his sons assassinated him.
The prophet Nahum the Elkoshite predicted the destruction of Nineveh, a city with which God was angry. “From you, Nineveh, has one come forth who plots evil against the Lord and devises wicked plans.” (Nahum 1:11) Nahum revealed God’s commands concerning the city:
“You will have no descendants to bear your name.
I will destroy the images and idols
that are in the temple of your gods.
I will prepare your grave,
for you are vile.” (Nahum 1:14)
In the second book of Nahum, the prophet described the attackers, who would cause Nineveh’s fall, including details about their red uniforms and metal chariots. In Nahum 3, the prophet foretells the city’s sad fate. “Nineveh is in ruins—who will mourn for her?” (Nahum 3:7) Nineveh’s end was sudden and tragic, going from the biggest city in the world, to desolation. “He will stretch out his hand against the north and destroy Assyria, leaving Nineveh utterly desolate and dry as the desert.” (Zephaniah 2:13)
God, however, allowed Nineveh the opportunity to repent. The familiar story, which lacks some credibility (but that’s another story), tells of Jonah son of Amittai who God commanded to “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” (Jonah 1:2) As we know, Jonah was afraid and attempted to flee to Tarshish by boat. Whilst he was at sea, a huge storm arose, which threatened to destroy the ship. Knowing the storm was caused by God, Jonah insisted to be thrown overboard to end the storm, where a big fish swallowed him. Jonah is eventually saved and God commanded him a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” (Jonah 3:2)
Jonah obeyed God the second time and travelled to Nineveh, which was “a very large city; it took three days to go through it.” (Jonah 3:3) Jonah proclaimed to the Ninevites, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown” (3:4) and they believed him, putting on sackcloth and showing their repentance by fasting. Even the king of Nineveh did the same. God, therefore, “saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.” (3:10)
The fourth book of Jonah tells us there were more than 120,000 people in Nineveh, all of whom were wicked until Jonah’s visit. “The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here.” (Matthew 12:41 and Luke 11:32) Jesus referred to the salvation of Nineveh during his preaching, explaining that the Son of God has been sent to earth to achieve what Jonah did on a much wider scale.
Unfortunately, although the Ninevites had been saved, the physical city was still reduced to rubble in 612 BC. It is estimated the area was first inhabited as early as 6000 BC and by 3000 BC was an important religious centre for the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar. It is not certain when Nineveh was established as a city, however, it was mentioned in texts relating to the reign of Shamshi-Adad I in about 1800 BC. Archaeological evidence reveals Nineveh was extensively built upon during the late 3rd and 2nd millenniums BC, however, it was not until the reign of Sennacherib that the city became truly magnificent. Sennacherib built a “palace without a rival” which was comprised of about 80 rooms. Some believe the palace contained the original Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
Sennacherib’s son Esarhaddon (713-669 BC) continued to develop and found new palaces and temples, as did his successor, Ashurbanipal (d.627 or 631 BC). Unfortunately, Nineveh’s status as the greatest city in the world was short-lived after Ashurbanipal’s death. Several claimants to the throne provoked a civil war and countries under Assyria’s control began to rebel, including the Babylonians and Persians. By 612 BC, Nineveh had been sacked and razed to the ground.
Excavations of the ancient city of Nineveh began in the 19th century and the young British diplomat Austen Henry Layard (1817-94) discovered the remains of the lost palace of Sennacherib in 1849. The majority of the surviving elements of the palace have been moved to museums around the world and all that remains of Nineveh is the remnants of the city walls and two mounts, one of which is known in English as “Prophet Jonah”.
The city walls were once 12km in length and contained several gateways. Archaeologists have explored only five to any extent and a little information has been revealed about their purpose. Just for fun, here is a snippet of what they have discovered:
To learn more about the fall of Nineveh read the blog I Am Ashurbanipal
Whilst researching for Advent and Christmas services, I attempted to find all the prophecies in the Old Testament that place the traditional characters in the Nativity, including a few that do not get mentioned in the Gospels. Below is a list of all the Old Testament prophecies with the relevant verses from the New Testament. I have also included a rough date as to when the prophecies were written.
"But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times." - Micah 5:2 (742-687 BC)
"So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them." - Luke 2:4-7
"Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel." - Isaiah 7:14 (740-681 BC)
"God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.” - Luke 1:26-28
"The sceptre will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, until he to whom it belongs shall come and the obedience of the nations shall be his." - Genesis 49:10 (Moses 1445 BC)
"A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit." - Isaiah 1:11
"The days are coming," declares the LORD, "when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land." - Jeremiah 23:5 (627-586 BC)
“Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” - Matthew 1:20-21
Joseph was a direct descendant of King David, whose father was Jesse, which is evidenced by the genealogy in the first chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. If Mary had not married Joseph and married someone else, then the whole thing would fall apart. She had to marry someone of David's line, therefore, the two of them coming together could not have been by chance.
"The ox knows its master, the donkey its owner's manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand." - Isaiah 1:3
“Then I Myself will gather the remnant of My flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and bring them back to their pasture, and they will be fruitful and multiply. “I will also raise up shepherds over them and they will tend them; and they will not be afraid any longer, nor be terrified, nor will any be missing,” declares the LORD.
“Behold, the days are coming,” declares the LORD,
“When I will raise up for David a righteous Branch;
"And He will reign as king and act wisely
"And do justice and righteousness in the land.
“In His days Judah will be saved,
"And Israel will dwell securely;
"And this is His name by which He will be called,
"‘The LORD our righteousness.’" - Jeremiah 23:3-6
"And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night." - Luke 2:8
"The LORD is my shepherd..." - Psalm 23
See Luke 2:8
"I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a sceptre will rise out of Israel." - Numbers 24:7 (Moses 1445 BC)
"The people who walk in darkness
"Will see a great light;
"Those who live in a dark land,
"The light will shine on them." - Isaiah 9:2
"We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him." - Matthew 2:2
"For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us;
"And the government will rest on His shoulders;
"And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
"Eternal Father, Prince of Peace." - Isaiah 9:6
"I called him out of Egypt..." Hosea 11:1 (753-715 BC)
The Holy Family fled to Egypt to escape to hide from Herod the Great who wanted to kill Jesus. When the king had died, God sent an angel to tell Joseph it was safe to bring his family out of Egypt.
"Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord." Luke 2:11
"Let the kings of Tarshish and of the islands bring presents;
The kings of Sheba and Seba offer gifts." - Psalm 72:10 (c.1000 BC)
"After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route." - Matthew 2:9-12
The number of kings is not mentioned in the Bible, nor indeed that they were kings. Tradition has put three names as bearers of three gifts, principally because of Psalm 72:8-17. The names of the kings or magi are Melchior, who is often cited as coming from Arabia, Caspar, who is often cited as coming from Sheba or Turkey, and Balthasar, who is sited as coming from Egypt, Ethiopia or Yemen. Three kings, coming from the three known continents at that time is symbolic of the world coming to the Christ child. "People have seen a great light..." Isaiah 9:2-7
"This is what the LORD says: 'A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.'" - Jeremiah 31:15
In this verse, Rachel is the wife of Jacob and the children are her descendants, the babies killed by Herod after Jesus' birth.
"After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?" Matthew 2:1-2
John the Baptist
"I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come," says the LORD Almighty." - Malachi 3:1 (430 BC)
"Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” - Luke 1:13-17
The nativity that we enjoy today is based upon Luke and Matthew but it is also based upon many of the Old Testament prophets. The nativity shows the prophecies of the Old Testament coming into fulfilment. He HAD to come from Bethlehem. He HAD to be of David's line. There HAD to be a star. He HAD to come from a Virgin. He HAD to be called out of Egypt. There HAD to be shepherds. And to show that the whole world would worship him, there HAD to be the kings. Plus a lovely touch in Isaiah, which reminds us that the ox and the ass know their masters but the people of Israel do not. So, when we look at a simple Christmas card featuring the nativity, there is so much more to be said.
So far, so good. Fairly easy and straightforward. However, Luke provides a different genealogy to Matthew. In essence, Mary has also come from the line of David, but instead of it being Solomon's line, it is from one of David's other sons called Nathan. It is from this line that Luke traces Mary's right to come from the Line of David. So, Jesus was Mary's son, descended from Nathan. Both Mary and Joseph have that David link but from different forefathers. The reason this is important is that King Jechonias, called Coniah in Jeremiah 22:24-30, was so evil God cursed him and his decedents and wanted him known as being childless (1 Chronicles 3:17). If that is true, that clouds Joseph’s direct descent but to be honest, that is another sermon.
We are happy for you to use any material found here, however, please acknowledge the source: www.gantshillurc.co.uk
Rev'd Martin Wheadon