You are a city set on a hill

The northern coast of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus preached and healed, is visible on the horizon in this view from ancient Hippos.

Amid pandemic, with national and ecclesial cultures facing up to systemic racism, I hear Jesus speak to the church: Let your example and witness be bold! What will the world see? You cannot hide!

When Jesus told followers that they are a “city set on a hill” (Matthew 5), the only example of such a city visible from the area where he preached was Hippos, eight miles across the Sea of Galilee. Greek-speaking Hippos perched 1150 feet above the Sea of Galilee, atop a pyramid-shaped mountain. At night its blazing lights shimmered across the water to the fishing village of Capernaum.

With its ruins off the beaten track today, Hippos is accessible by a damaged roadway and a bit of hiking. Because the mountain had strategic military value in modern wars, land mines infest adjacent areas. Wise visitors take precautions.

Alone at Hippos except for one other explorer, I hike through ruins from the time of Jesus and from later centuries when Christian faith was well-established. A massive earthquake in AD 749 made Hippos uninhabitable, leaving giant columns from a municipal building all lying in the same direction.

Few of Jesus’ Jewish followers in the first century ever would have visited Hippos because it was a pagan city. But it is possible that a man named Legion, from whom Jesus expelled demons into swine, returned to his home here when healed (Luke 8). Following Jesus’ instructions, the restored man went “proclaiming throughout the city [Hippos?] how much Jesus had done for him.” Mark 5 says Legion also witnessed in the Decapolis—a league of ten Greek cities! A one-man city-set-on-a-hill, Legion could not be hid.

The early church, expanding on Jesus’ urban imagery, described the people of God as a city. Hebrews 11:10 says Abraham “looked forward to the city . . . whose architect and builder is God.” John of Patmos saw the “holy city” coming down out of heaven (Revelation 21). City imagery in the New Testament seems to represent both the future kingdom of God and the church on earth now.

This New Jerusalem city is where followers of Jesus claim primary identity—not in nation, political party, race, ethnicity, or social class. As a community we are a city set on a hill. Let us be bold to profess and model something different from the racism, nationalism, and polarization rampant around us.

By God’s grace, in this church-city we can learn to recognize our own patterns of racism and act decisively to end injustice. Showing love for neighbors, we can wear masks during pandemic, gather online instead of in person, and observe other inconveniences that save lives. In a dangerously divided society, we can listen respectfully and try to understand underlying fears and hopes even of those with whom we disagree.

And when the pandemic recedes, by God’s grace we can open church doors to those who have been pushed to the margins. That will be some city set on a hill, and the world will take note.

© 2020  J. Nelson Kraybill  ************************************                     

Come with me to the Holy Lands! At this point no one knows what travel will be possible in the next year or two. But when the COVID crisis subsides, I would love to have you join me on a pilgrimage to Bible landsIn 2021: 

Bread for the Journey” (Egypt and Jordan, April 9-21, 2021)  See 

“Journey of Hope” (Jordan, Israel and Palestine, September 12-23, 2021) See     

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