And the world didn’t stop

Following the success of the film ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ a poem by W H Auden became very popular. It’s called ‘Stop all the clocks’.

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

Today, the last day of the course with the clergy from Zimbabwe, Southwark and Rochester and my last full day in Jerusalem after these six glorious weeks, we were centring on the passion and death of the Lord.  The visits weren’t going to take place until the afternoon and so the morning began with a briefing about what we would see at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The bell tower of the church as evening fell


The title of that church is interesting to think about.  In the west we call it the ‘Church of the Holy Sepulchre’, in the east they call it the Anastasis, the ‘Church of the Resurrection’. Why is it that in the west we focus on the death, the humanity of Jesus, the sacrifice whereas in the east they focus on the resurrection, the divinity of Jesus? Perhaps it is part of the same reasoning that leads us in the west to celebrate Christmas on 25 December remembering the physical birth whereas the eastern church celebrates it on the 6 January, the Epiphany, when the manifestation of Christ’s divine nature is made known to the world.

The plan of the 4th century church


The church – call it what you will – of course contains both elements in that enshrines Golgotha and the empty tomb.  The church built in the Byzantine period emphasised this dual role in the very architecture and shape of the building, with its basilica and rotunda, separated.  Now pilgrims encounter the jumble of the building from the Crusader period – and what a jumble it was this afternoon.  It was like a living out of the Book of Revelations!

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. (Revelation 7.9)

It was amazing to see so many crowding into this ancient space to meet with the crucified and risen one.

A multitude no one could number


In the briefing this morning as we thought about the crucifixion the point was made that for Jerusalem on that Friday the day went on.  Life didn’t stop.  Jesus was not the only one being crucified.  There were others as well.  In a sense he was nothing special to most people – just another northerner claiming he was the Messiah. Life went on.  There was a festival to get ready for and money to be made and the peace to be kept. So the clocks didn’t stop, the dogs still barked.

A group of us decided to walk the Stations of the Cross. It was an amazing experience as we remembered what happened at each of those stations, as we heard the scriptures and prayed and sang in the streets that were buzzing with activity, as we passed the soldiers eager to keep the peace, as people got ready for whatever was coming up in their lives, in their faith community, as people tried to make some money.

The death that Auden wrote about seemed to bring life to an end.

For nothing now can ever come to any good.

But as we concluded the Stations on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Church of the Resurrection, we knew that all was well, that death was defeated, that life was restored, that the Second Adam restored what the first Adam lost. The world didn’t stop, but something restarted – and that was life.

Jesus, crucified, risen,
my saviour,
my all,
you are my way,
you are my truth,
you are my life.

Dirty water

Every morning as I open my bedroom curtains at the Deanery in Southwark I look out on one of the iconic rivers of the world – the River Thames. William Wordsworth was in London and wrote a sonnet after looking at the river. ‘Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802’ is a beautiful evocation of the river at that time.

Nicholls, Joseph, 1692-1760; View of Westminster Bridge
Westminster Bridge by Joseph Nicholls


Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty;
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

T S Eliot saw it differently in his poem ‘The Wasteland’ written 120 years later.

The river’s tent is broken: the last fingers of leaf
Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind
Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed.
Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.

But the Thames is only one iconic river that has inspired poets and painters and people. The Nile, not just for an Agatha Christi murder, but for the romance of a river so long and rich and lined with history. The Tiber, the Rubicon, the Ganges, the Mississippi – the world is crisscrossed with rivers that are carriers of history.

Today we headed out of Jerusalem and into the beauty of the Judean Wilderness, that stretch of barren and rocky land that marks the descent from the city to the valley in which one of the most important rivers flows – the Jordan.

The severe beauty of the Judean Wilderness


To mention the name brings hymns to mind, characters to mind, Old and New Testament figures and events. It’s a river that forms a modern political boundary between Jordan and Israel, a river that was a boundary in biblical Israel, a fording place for returning exiles, the place of baptism, the place of John the Baptist and Jesus.

The religious imagination works overtime as we imagine the Jordan and all it represents in the story of our faith. The African-American Spiritual ‘Deep River’ first mentioned in print in 1876, sung in the movie version of ‘Showboat’, made famous by Paul Robeson, is the archetypal expression of faith and hope connected to this river sung by people looking for their own exodus.

Deep river, my home is over Jordan,
Deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into campground.
Oh, don’t you want to go to that gospel feast,
That promised land where all is peace?
Oh don’t you want to go to that promised land,
That land where all is peace?
Deep river, my home is over Jordan,
Deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into campground.

So when you arrive at the Jordan River east of the ancient city of Jericho it can be a bit of a disappointment.  The river is narrower than in the imagination, shallower, slower and dirtier. This can’t be the river that we have been talking and singing about! But it is!

The water extraction policies of both Israel and Jordan have removed a great deal of water which would naturally flow down the river and feed the now shrinking Dead Sea beyond. But to be honest it has never been an impressive river.

You may have had this one


When I was a child I had a Ladybird Book called ‘Naaman and the Little Maid’.  It told the story of Naaman. It was one of my Sunday School prizes. The story is told in 2 Kings 5. It begins by setting the scene

Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favour with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. (2 Kings 5.1)

His wife’s servant girl (the Little Maid of the Ladybird Book) was an Israelite who had been captured in a raid.  She told her mistress that there was a prophet, Elisha, in Israel who could heal her Master. So Naaman gets permission to go and find the prophet and ask for healing.  The Prophet asks him to bathe seven times in the Jordan.  When Naaman hears this he’s furious.

Naaman became angry and went away, saying, ‘I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?’ (2 Kings 5.11-12)

As we looked into the waters of the river today where we had come to renew our baptismal promises you knew what he meant.  But in the end he was persuaded to do as the prophet said and was healed.  We renewed our promises and some entered the water and were spiritually and physically refreshed.

The Jordan today


Not everything is as we sometimes imagine it to be and we can be disappointed when our religious imagination has run away with itself. But into this water Jesus entered and

‘a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ (Mark 1.11)

God can work through the dirty water of life even through the dirty and often disappointing water of my life and bring me, bring you, to the Promised Land and that perfect river that flows through the city.

Almighty God,
we thank you for our fellowship in the household of faith
with all who have been baptized in your name.
Keep us faithful to our baptism,
and so make us ready for that day
when the whole creation
shall be made perfect in your Son,
our Saviour Jesus Christ.

The Noble Sanctuary

My dad was very good at bricklaying and when we were younger and the family was expanding he would build an extension here and there to the house to make sure that it was big enough to provide a good home for us. I remember him digging the footings and laying the damp course before the cavity wall began to rise and gave shape to whatever it was he was building, an extension to the living room, a utility room, an office, an extra loo. The walls he built helped to create a home.

Today was a very special day.  Earlier in these six weeks I visited the Temple Mount and I again visited it with the Caterham Team Pilgrimage.  On both occasions we entered by the tourist route and through the Morocco Gate. On each occasion it was wonderful and a privilege to be up there. But, as a result of the excellent relationship and the trust that has been built up between St George’s College and the Waqf, the Islamic trust with the care of the holy sites and more besides, today we were to be allowed into the al-Aqsa Mosque, the third most holy site for Muslims, and the Dome of the Rock.

The interior of the dome of the al-Aqsa Mosque


Before the Second Intifada, known as the al-Aqsa Intifada, which began in September 2000, partially provoked by the visit of Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount, pilgrims were allowed to go into both the Mosque and the Dome. Since then we haven’t been able to except by invitation of the Waqf, and that is a rare privilege.

So we entered not by the tourist gate but by the gate for honoured guests which is by the Lion (St Stephen’s) Gate.  The women in our group were modestly dressed and we were all on our very best behaviour as befits guests. Instead of calling it the Temple Mount we called it by its proper name ‘Haram al-Sharif’ which means ‘The Noble Sanctuary’.

We were modestly dressed


This is a perfect name for this most wonderful place.  We were led by an Islamic guide who told us something that I had never realised, that the whole site is the mosque not just what we call the Mosque.  The whole site is holy, the Dome of the Rock is but one of the domes in the mosque and in fact every where you look there are domes large and small.  And for Friday prayers and other holy days the men pray in the Mosque and around it, the women pray in the Dome and around it but that they are all in the mosque.

The whole place has a nobility that I always find in Islamic architecture. The symmetry, the colours, the harmonious style is calming. There is water and it reminds me of the opening of the poem by Philip Larkin ‘Water’

If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.

In the al-Aqsa there are rich carpets and gilding, fine windows and mosaics. It is the same in the Dome of the Rock.

Yet what is so special for us is the rock beneath the golden dome. We went beneath it into the cave. This rock is the summit of Mount Moriah, the rest of the hill lost in the level platform that was constructed around it by Solomon and then most spectacularly in the 1st century BC by Herod. It is a monumental piece of civil engineering. But the summit of the mount is there, plain rock, for all to see.

Beneath the rock


Here Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac (or Ishmael according to the Quran); here was the threshing floor of Araunah (Ornan) the Jebusite, purchased by David; here the Ark of the Covenant rested; here Solomon built the Temple as we are told in 2 Chronicles

Solomon began to build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah, where the Lord had appeared to his father David, at the place that David had designated, on the threshing-floor of Ornan the Jebusite. (2 Chronicles 3.1)

From here the Israelites left as slaves; to here they returned from exile in Babylon. Here Herod built the Second Temple and to here Jesus came.  He wouldn’t have seen the rock as we did.  That was in the Holy of Holies (so we believe) and only the High Priest could enter that, and only once a year. But into this Noble Sanctuary Jesus walked.

The whole Temple site was destroyed in 70 AD by the Romans and the place remained empty, a dump. But from this rock in around the year 621 the Prophet Muhammed, led by Gabriel, journeyed by night into heaven and was instructed by God, returning to then instruct his followers.

A majestic sight


This rock has a nobility for us all, Jews and Christians and Muslims and as we stood in the cave beneath it the sense of this being a true holy place was tangible.

Later in the day we stood on the steps beneath the south wall of the Temple.  Up these steps from the Ophel the pilgrims would come and Jesus and his disciples came, to enter the sanctuary of God. But if you look from the steps, across the City of David to the village of Silwan and beyond, you see the Israeli Security Barrier, the wall that has been erected to keep the Palestinians out of Israel. Not every wall creates a home, not every wall defines a noble sanctuary. Some walls that we build are an affront to humanity.

Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989
The fall of the Berlin Wall


27 years ago today, 9 November, the wall that had divided Berlin began to come down. Construction of the wall had begun on 13 August 1961 and it took until 1989 for the thawing of the Cold War to result in the breaching of the wall and a new age of freedom to begin. But in Belfast the British Government built a wall, a ‘Peace Line’ in 1969.  It is still there. (It is amazing the names we give to walls to deny they are walls – the Peace Line, the Separation Barrier!)  And on the day when we celebrate the freeing of the people of Berlin a man is elected in the USA promising to build a wall along the Mexican border. Ironic is not the word.  It has no nobility and cannot create sanctuary.

Jesus, you tore down the walls that divided people;
challenge our desires to build walls
that divide and don’t include,
that keep people out not bring them in,
that have no nobility
and create no sanctuary or home.

What do we call Jesus?

We were set an interesting question first thing this morning when, in preparation for the group visiting Bethlehem, we had an introductory lecture on the birth narratives that we find in Matthew and Luke and what the members of the course would find in the city of his birth. The question was not so much how do you reconcile the Matthean and the Lucan accounts of the nativity but how much we actually know about Jesus. ‘If you were asked to fill in a birth or death certificate for Jesus how much do you, do we, actually know?’

Not easy to complete


It was a good question.  First name – Jesus. Surname ….. well, it’s not Christ, uum, not sure … Barjospeh? Well no, that would never do. Barabbas? Well we saw the confusions around that name in a former blog!  Leave it blank.  Mother – Mary.  Father – back to the questions again.  Place of residence of the parents – well Matthew says Bethlehem, Luke says Nazareth.  Place of Birth – we’re back on course, Bethlehem, we all know that.  This form requires two witnesses with home addresses.  Well, some Magi came according to Matthew, but they were strangers and deliberately left no forwarding address so Herod couldn’t trace them.  Luke mentions shepherds but they’re definitely of no fixed abode.  Angels are unreliable witnesses as far as form filling is concerned.  Perhaps old Simeon and Anna will do – and the address for Anna ‘The Temple, Jerusalem’ could not be better, the best postcode in town.

I’m being facetious but only to make the point.  We know few ‘facts’ about Jesus and the facts we do know are disputed and depend on faith. Do I go with Matthew who tells us that the Holy Family lived in Bethlehem or with Luke’s Nazareth based story? Do I go with an annunciation to Joseph in Matthew or to Mary in Luke? Do I go with a story of persecution and slaughter that mirrors the actions of Pharaoh wanting to kill all the Hebrew boys as Matthew tells it or one of welcome in the Temple as Luke tells it?

The whole cast on stage


Of course, in just a few weeks time as we watch children perform nativity plays in our schools and churches, as we go to Nine Lessons and Carols in our cathedrals and parish churches, we know that we deal with the complications by ignoring them and just squashing everything together.  The shepherds will trip over the kings in the crib scene even though their paths never crossed. We cope with it because we know that the story has a deeper message that does not simply involve the ‘facts’ with which a form could be completed.

In fact I didn’t go with the group to Bethlehem and nor did Canon Wendy Robins, the Bishop’s Press Officer for Southwark.  Instead we went into the West Bank to visit two projects, to find out more and see how we might support them.  One, Jeel al Amal in Bethany, I had visited many times before.  The other, Al-Shurooq School for the Blind, in Beit Jala, a village on the edge of Bethlehem, was new to me.

In both of these we saw Jesus at work, in action, through those who believe in his name.  Both schools have Christian foundations but serve the whole community regardless of faith, ethnicity, or gender.  Both serve children who have severe needs – at Jeel children who are orphans or have endured terrible domestic problems; at Al-Shurooq those with no or little sight and some with multiple physical and mental needs. In both tremendous work is being done by Christians for the whole community.

The question they ask at Jeel al Amal


We heard of a little boy, deaf-blind, who was living in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Jericho.  His family didn’t know how to care for him – so they didn’t. He was found wandering, filthy, no shoes and the school was able to take him in.  He is now beginning to communicate and gaining confidence.  He goes back to his family at weekends who are better able to cope with him as a fieldworker is supporting them.  He returns to school, smart and washed and ready for the week.

It says it all


A little boy came to meet me, blind and with some learning difficulties.  He hugged me and smelt me so that he could recognise me again, stroked my arms as Isaac did with Jacob and his brother Esau.  It was so poignant and resonant with the scriptures. By this stage Isaac was blind and when the younger son, Jacob, eager to deceive his father and gain his elder brother’s blessing, dressed his arms in goat skin and himself in his brother’s clothes and approached his father, we’re told that the patriarch’s response was this.

So Jacob went up to his father Isaac, who felt him and said, ‘The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau …Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field that the Lord has blessed. (Genesis 27.22, 27)

The boy tried to say my name.  It was extremely moving.

The fact I know about Jesus is not what his surname was, nor the precise details of his birth, but that those who follow him do the work that he did and bring his light into darkness, his life to where death stalks, his truth where lies are powerful, his justice where injustice stunts lives, his riches where there is poverty. I know Jesus when I see him and I saw him today.

Jesus, my Lord,
bless those who in your name
proclaim good news to the poor
freedom for the prisoners
recovery of sight for the blind
and set the oppressed free.

Layers of history

There have been few sadness’s for me in spending six weeks in Jerusalem – just a few.  But one of those was missing the final episodes of ‘The Great British Bake Off’, though I hope that I may find some way of catching up with what happened.  Explaining to anyone what is so exciting about watching a tent full of people baking three separate cakes and having them judged is quite difficult.  But I love it – and so did 15.9 million other people who tuned into this year’s final and watched Candice win.  One of the things that I love is seeing some of the spectacular layering of cake that they achieve.  And then the judges, Paul Hollywood and national treasure, Mary Berry, take a slice out of the cake and discover whether or not the layers are of equal depth and balance.

Great British Bake Off
Judging the layers


Today we left Nazareth and made our way back towards Jerusalem but via Megiddo.  I was working it out, I think it is about 30 years since I was last on this archaeological site.  But some of the features that we saw came back to me immediately.

One of the spectacular sights, though one that would be an abomination to modern archaeologists we were told, was a section of the Tel, the archaeological mound that contains the remains of Megiddo, where, some 100 years ago, those working on it took a slice out of it – just like Mary and Paul attacking a mille feuille – and in so doing revealing the layers of history in this place.

The layers of history at Megiddo


Over its long history Megiddo was destroyed 25 timers and rebuilt 24 times and those layers of rebuilding and destruction can be seen in the slicing of the Tel that took place.  It’s like cutting into a tree and counting the rings that give the age.  The layers here tell the story of a place that was on the frontier, on one of the principal trade routes, so strategic a site that whoever held it was in power.  So the Egyptians and the Canaanites and the Assyrians and the Israelites all held the place at one time or another and finally the Persians came and destroyed it so that by the 4th century BC it was uninhabited, never to be inhabited again.  A history lasting more than 3000 years came to an end.

But within those layers are the stories that we know from the Old Testament.  One of the pantomime baddies from the history of the place is King Ahab.  It was under his rule that one of the most memorable features of the place was constructed.  This is the tunnel that took water from the spring which was outside the city walls to a place within the walls where the citizens could access it, even in times of siege. The shaft leading down to the tunnel is 30 metres, the tunnel itself 70 metres in length.  This was a really sophisticated piece of civil engineering and amazing to walk through.

Entering the tunnel



Ahab was the king who was constantly being confronted by the prophet Elijah, the Tishbite (we saw a sign for Tishbe as we travelled along one of the roads – this was his area), who was married to scheming Jezebel, who desired Naboth’s Vineyard. I love that part of the story in 1 Kings 21 when Jezebel finds her husband depressed and sulking because Naboth won’t give up his vineyard.

His wife Jezebel came to him and said, ‘Why are you so depressed that you will not eat?’ He said to her, ‘Because I spoke to Naboth the Jezreelite and said to him, “Give me your vineyard for money; or else, if you prefer, I will give you another vineyard for it”; but he answered, “I will not give you my vineyard.” ’ His wife Jezebel said to him, ‘Do you now govern Israel? Get up, eat some food, and be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.’ (1 Kings 21.5-7)

When the prophet hears of it he comes straight over and confronts him in the vineyard, cursing both King and Queen. Then we see Ahab repenting and the chapter ends with God saying to the prophet.

‘Have you seen how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself before me, I will not bring the disaster in his days; but in his son’s days I will bring the disaster on his house.’ (1 Kings 21.29)

He was a baddie and disaster hit his house and this strategic base but here we also see the sophistication and the wealth of his kingdom, here we literally touch the reality of it.  Here in the mountains above the plain Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal, here in the plain of Megiddo the battles were fought for supremacy.

Standing in a place of history


All those Old Testament readings come alive as you stand on the Tel and realise that the layers you see are the layers of real history.  So in a strange way I was grateful to those who used a now discredited technique because they opened up a rich history to me, a history which we still tell each other, a history of victory and defeat, of power and weakness, of duplicity and honesty, of courage and cowardice and the stones were witnesses to all of this.

God of time and eternity,
through your grace and inspiration,
may I learn from the past,
shape the present
and help build a better future.

The Hooker test

Today in the Anglican calendar we are remembering Richard Hooker, the apologist of Anglicanism, the one who charted the via media that we attempt to travel, sometimes more successfully than at others. What I always associate with Hooker is that idea of the three-legged stool that Anglicans seek to sit on, the stool of scripture, reason and tradition. All three legs need to be of equal length to produce stability! I was thinking about this as I went out today to do a few things I hadn’t yet done and wanted to do before the Southwark-Zimbabwe course gets underway tomorrow.

I began by walking the southern ramparts.  One the first day I was here I did the northern ramparts but hadn’t got onto the other section which goes from Jaffa Gate to the area close to Dung Gate.  Climbing up on the walls does give you good views, but to be honest if you are going to do one section, and you have to pay separately for both, then the northern, from Jaffa to Herod’s Gate, gives better views over the city.  What the southern section does, however, is to give you views across to Mount Zion and the wonderful Dormition Abbey.

Mount Zion and the Dormition Abbey


So, when I left the walls I went into the Mount Zion area. I hadn’t yet been to David’s Tomb and the Cenacle and that is partly because I’ve been to both on many occasions and also because both of them are questionable in terms of authenticity.

In fact they are both part of the same building which is gothic and dates from the Crusader period.  The tomb, which is on the ground floor, is in fact a Cenotaph; the Upper Room, directly above it, a vaulted space, elegant but clearly not the room in which Jesus ate the Last Supper with his disciples.  So why are Jews downstairs and Christians upstairs and both groups equally entering into the experience?

The Cenacle


I think that we can apply our Anglican understanding to all of this. Take the Cenacle for instance and apply the Hooker test.

Scripture – all the gospels talk about a room in which Jesus shared this final meal with the twelve. (Matthew 26.17-30; Mark 14.12-26; Luke 22.7-39; and John 13.1-17.26). So this is well attested by scripture but no real location is given.

Reason – anyone with a simple knowledge of architecture knows on entering the Upper Room that this couldn’t have been the place, or certainly that this room was not the actual room. So no reasonable person can be expected to believe this to be THE place.

Tradition – archaeologists suggest that this site was special to the Christian community from the 2nd century and may well have been the site of the ‘the little church of God’ as described by Epiphanius of Salamis (315-403) as having been in existence since 130 AD. So there is a well established tradition that this was the site and the early church revered it.

As I sat in the room and tried to think this through I found it helpful in not just rejecting the place out-of-hand. The group who had been in the room when I arrived left and I had the place to myself and its peaceful, prayerful character returned.

On leaving I saw that there was an arrow pointing up some stairs I hadn’t noticed on previous more frantic visits.  The roof above the Cenacle is now accessible and gives some good views over the area.  I was on the quest though for other roofs.

The view from the roof of the Cenacle


One thing I hadn’t done was to find the steps that lead onto a section of the roofs over the souq.  So I set out through the Jewish Quarter and found the right street and the metal steps leading up.  The rooftops are used by Jews who wish to avoid walking too much through the Muslim Quarter.  Children were playing up there, men were talking.  Through grills which let out the heat and some of the exotic spice laden smells from the markets beneath, you can see the activity below. But up there is another world with another perspective on this city.

The Star of David inscribed into the rooftop promenade


Finding fresh perspectives is important and there are so many ways of looking at this amazing, multi-faceted, beautiful and fractured city.  It has been wonderful to have the time to get to know it so much better, but I still don’t understand it.  But being here brings scripture alive, tests the reason, and immerses tourist, pilgrim and questioner in tradition, Jewish, Muslim and Christian. Some may wish to escape the reality of the place by walking across the roofs but actually it is in the streets along which a man dragged a cross that real life is being lived out, daily. I sat in a barbers shop waiting whilst a young barber sculpted the hair of a young man.  ‘Where are you from?’ he asked. ‘London’ I said. ‘Arsenal!’ he replied.  Then he said ‘People are bad here.’ His English wasn’t good enough to take it much further and he went back to the hair cutting.

It’s not that people are bad in this city but from any perspective life here is complicated and at times brutal and that brings out the worst but also, at times, the best in people. By the way, I didn’t get my hair cut.  The complicated sculpting of his customer’s head of hair was just going to take too long, so my ‘buzz cut’ will just have to wait!

God you enter our reality
and bring a new perspective.
Bless the people of Jerusalem
and may your peace be their reality.


Out in West Jerusalem in the district where the Knesset is located, there are a collection of museums including the Israel Museum with the famous Shrine of the Book housing the Dead Sea Scrolls and nearby, the Bible Lands Museum. The latter is devoted to looking at the context of the Old Testament and especially the nations and ethnic groups that helped to form the Bible stories as we know them.  So there’s a lot of artefacts from Egypt and Babylon, from the Philistines and elsewhere.

‘David slaying Goliath’ by Peter Paul Rubens

The special exhibition being displayed by the museum at the present time is called ‘In the valley of David and Goliath’ which is a presentation of finds from the excavations at Khirbet Qeiyafa. The excitement that surrounds the finds is that they relate to a passage in 1 Samuel.

Now the Philistines gathered their armies for battle; they were gathered at Socoh, which belongs to Judah, and encamped between Socoh and Azekah, in Ephes-dammim. Saul and the Israelites gathered and encamped in the valley of Elah, and formed ranks against the Philistines. (1 Samuel 17.1-2)

What has been found is what some believe to be the biblical city of Shaaraim (1 Samuel 17.52) which was in the vicinity of the battle.  Its distinguishing feature and the source of its name was ‘Two Gates’ and the walls of the city that has been discovered in the last ten years is a city with walls that have two gates – unusual, because the more gates you have the weaker the walls, your defences are.

The archaeological site

So all this was very interesting but what was more intriguing was the debate that it revealed between archaeologists and historians about the person of David.  Nothing much has been found about him that would suggest that he is in fact an historical figure and, if he is accepted as historical rather than mythological, then how large in fact was his kingdom. Our Guide in the museum described it as a minimalist and a maximalist perspective.  Was David a tribal chief who had his capital in Jerusalem but it was small and overblown in the Biblical telling, or was he the king of a nation that stretched from ‘Dan to Beersheba’?  Its interesting to note that that evocative phrase was used in the discussions that led to the establishment of the British Mandate in Palestine post WWI when it was agreed that the area would be “defined in accordance with its ancient boundaries of Dan to Beersheba”. History is important because it can colour and, literally, shape the present!

The archaeologists working on the dig that produced the finds in this exhibition believe that the settlement was Judean and dated from the Davidic period and, therefore, a priori, it is evidence that the Davidic kingdom stretched further than Jerusalem.

Does this all matter? Well, it does if your national self-understanding depends upon Israel being a  great and powerful nation under God.  That gives you a ‘legitimate’ claim over the land in some ways of thinking. So visiting the museum was interesting to see how in a country whose politics are always on the knife-edge archaeological ‘proof’ can be utilised to armour its legitimacy.

David the icon


And for us?  David is one of those great iconic figures of the faith.  Jesus is ‘born of David’s line’ as we will be singing at Christmas.  The whole Bethlehem story is only necessary to link Jesus in with the king who gathered the nation into one. David’s story is inspirational – the victory of the small guy over the giant. It is a vocational story – he’s chosen by God in preference to others who on many readings of suitability – age, stature, maturity – should have ben chosen ahead of him. It’s a story of vulnerability, of the susceptibility of power to corruption – seeing Bathsheba bathing, knowing that as king he could have what he wanted, then having to live with the consequences of his actions. It’s a story of disappointed ambition – arriving at the ultimate place of victory, Jerusalem and being unable to build the Temple he so desired to build as the House of God in the midst of the people but having to leave that honour to his son.

David is a very flawed, human figure; the Bible doesn’t tell the story with mythological whitewash.  That is why I would come down on the side of him being an historical figure – we just haven’t found sufficient evidence, yet. But as to whether his kingdom needed to be vast or local, well, that doesn’t bother me.  But then, my sense of national identity doesn’t rest on it.

So, the lesson of today, old stones are often used to build modern edifices.

God of the past,
of the present,
of the future,
may I learn from the past,
live in the present,
and seek to build a better future.