The End of the World, A Few Years Early

The Beard Goes Home is an ongoing chronicle of my trip to Israel, Cairo and Rome from November 3-18.  If you want more information on a picture, hover your mouse over it for a pop-up caption.  If you want to see a bigger version of the picture, click on it.

Thomas at the entrance to the ruins of Mt. Megiddo. He looks pretty happy for a guy at the end of the world.

On our way back to Jerusalem, Thomas and I decided to stop off at Mt. Megiddo.  We left Tiberius and drove southwest, passing just a few miles south of Nazareth and through the Valley of Jezreel.  Jezreel was the site of quite a few bloody battles, and most of them did not turn out well for Israel.  By the 7th century BCE, the place had already acquired a pretty awful reputation (God told Hosea to name one of his sons Jezreel; this would be sort of like naming a child today Auschwitz).  It was sometimes known as the Valley of Slaughter.

The round rock formation is the ancient Canaanite altar that has been uncovered. It's about 5,000 years old. That's when you start calling idolatry a legacy, I think.Mt. Megiddo is at one end of the Jezreel Valley, and it was inhabited steadily from about 3,000 BCE until the 4th century BCE or so.  The Canaanites first lived there, and today you can see an ancient Canaanite worship space – archaeologists have identified 17 layers of Canaanite temples.  The Canaanites’ chief god was Ba’al the storm god; Israel often turned away from God to worship Ba’al and his goddess wife, Asherah.

After Israel conquered the Canaanites, Mt. Megiddo was fought over by pretty much everyone.  It’s been ruled over by Egyptians, Israelites and Assyrians.  In fact, the Egyptians killed King Josiah – one of the most faithful of Israel’s kings – at Megiddo.

A shot of the Jezreel Valley from the top of Mt. Megiddo. Looks dangerous, doesn't it?Another of Israel’s kings, Ahab, turned Mt. Megiddo into one of his three major centers of government.  Much like Herod did to Masada, Ahab transformed Mt. Megiddo into a luxurious palace complex complete with stables for hundreds of horses.  He even dug a tunnel through the mountain (which is really more hill-like) to the spring at the foot of Megiddo, so that during a siege the city still had access to water.  Ahab was one of Israel’s most politically successful kings, but the Scriptures judge him as a failure because he openly embraced Ba’al worship thanks to his wife, Jezebel.  Mt. Megiddo’s long history of Ba’al worship The place had an eerie silence about it. Not quite in a creepy way, but it still feels very abandoned.might be part of what drew Ahab there in the first place.

After the Assyrians conquered Israel (including Mt. Megiddo), they fell to the Persians and Mt. Megiddo lay an abandoned ruin at the edge of the Valley of Slaughter.  It had a long history of idol worship and warfare, and was a place of shame and sin in the Hebrew culture.

The Hebrew word for ‘mountain’ is har.  But the New Testament was written in Greek, which doesn’t have an ‘h’ sound, so Har Megiddo became Armegiddo.  Here’s what John saw in the Revelation he received:

I'm at Armageddon, and you'd better believe I brought my game face!I saw three foul spirits like frogs coming from the mouth of the dragon, from the mouth of the beast and from the mouth of the false prophet.  These are demonic spirits, performing signs, who go abroad to the kings of the whole world, to assemble them for battle on the great day of God the Almighty.  And they assembled them at the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon. – Revelation 16:13-16

That’s right, everyone.  I made it to the end of the world.  I just showed up a little bit early (Which was fine with me).  With everything that Mt. Megiddo represented to a person shaped by the Old Testament, is it any wonder that John chose this place as the site where the Unholy Trinity would gather their forces to wage war on the Kingdom of God?

The ruins of Mt. Megiddo, with the Valley of Jezreel spread in the background.

Jesus on Fire and Holy Prayer Grenades

Once I preached at a church on worship.  After my talk, we entered into a period of reflection and prayer, and a couple approached the altar.  The husband moved behind the pulpit, reached under it and pulled out a rock.  He placed it on the altar, then he and his wife knelt near it and prayed; they were quickly joined by other members of the congregation.

Needless to say, I was confused – what was the purpose of the stone?  I thought it was perhaps a sign that a person wanted prayer – put the stone out and it means ‘Come pray with me’; leave it hidden and it means ‘I want to pray alone’.

A good guess, perhaps, but incorrect.  After the gathering was finished, the man came up to me to explain that he was about to attend a prayer gathering at a nearby farm – the same farm from which he’d removed the rock.  He told me that he was going to return the rock “once it was good and prayed up.”  Apparently, the man envisioned the rock as some sort of Christian fetish – a religious term for a physical object believed to have spiritual power.

He believed that in some way the prayers with which he and his congregation had filled the rock would enhance the prayer gathering.

I was reminded of the prayer rock last Monday when we found out that the (in)famous “Touchdown Jesus” in Monroe, OH had been struck by lightning and burned to the ground (check out the YouTube footage of the conflagration in progress).


The statue was built in 2004 in front of the Solid Rock Church; it stands 62-feet tall and was made of plaster and styrofoam around a metal frame.

Reaction to the flames was mixed – in my circles we mostly laughed about it, but a lot of people apparently found the statue inspiring.  One guy even said, “I think it’s a sign of the end of the world.  If lightning is going to strike God, then there’s no hope.”  Probably the most common sentiment I heard is represented best by the guy who asked how God could strike down the Jesus statue while leaving the billboard advertising an adult bookstore that stood across the street standing.

Everyone wanted to know what God is saying by striking down Touchdown Jesus.  This thinking is still essentially fetish-ism.  Solid Rock Church built a 60-foot tall statue with a metal core.  Said metal core was struck by lightning, and since the material surrounding the  metal were flammable, it caught fire.  This is simple laws of physics.

What it is not is God taking a special interest in a five-year old giant Jesus.

My favorite reaction?  A person said, "Thor: 1.  Jesus: 0".

The Scriptures present God as transcendent – above creation and separate from it.  The second commandment (you know, in the big 10) is a prohibition against building idols.  But idols in the ancient world were not things people worship instead of God (the way we usually explain idolatry today) – that prohibition is covered in the first commandment, “I am YHWH your god… You shall have no other gods before me.”

Rather, idols were used to bind gods to physical spaces.  Thus, when the Israelites built the golden calf (Exodus 32), they were not worshiping the calf instead of God.  Rather, they were binding God to the calf – bulls were used as mounts for gods in many Ancient Near Eastern temples.  Thus, telling someone not to value his car more than God, or her romantic relationship more than God is not idolatry; it’s worship of the god of Consumerism or Romance (Mammon or Aphrodite, perhaps?)

God’s prohibition against idols is a command not to bind God to any created form, not to limit God by any physical space.

And in this way, I wonder if the prayer rock and Touchdown Jesus have become idols to some.  They are not essentially idols – we can use physical objects to help us focus or to draw us towards God in our worship.  But the prayer rock was not being charged with prayers to enhance our worship.  He wanted to ensure that God did more, that God was more present at the gathering because of the prayer rock.  The person who questions what message God is sending with a statue-destroying, porn-affirming bolt seems to think God has some sort of obligation to protect images of Godself (ironic, that) while destroying what the person in question considers obscene.

And that is idolatry.  God is not bound to prayer rocks or giant statues of the incarnation.  And God does not make a habit (at least in my knowledge) of breaking the laws of physics in order to protect our ill-advised mistakes.  I wonder, though, if this yearning to have a physical connection with our faith reflects the extent to which our faith has become interior and spiritual to the exclusion of any affirmation of our real world and real bodies.

What do you think?  Is the burning of Touchdown Jesus a sign?  Can you charge rocks up with prayer?  And what do these ideas say about contemporary Evangelical Christianity?  Most importantly, how should Christians engage in this discussion?