The task of sermon preparation is a mixed bag. It can be kind of amazing how the road twists and turns. You set out thinking, “OK, I’m sure this is where I’ll end up or what I’ll be telling everyone this week.” Only to find out that by the end of the week that you are in a totally different place. Sometimes things can be slow going and all you can see is a deadline rapidly approaching and sometimes you find so much interesting stuff that you find yourself having to seriously pare down or end up with the proverbial one hour sermon, which listeners, especially ones sitting in wooden pews or folding chairs seem to love. Sometimes the study can feel kind of dry and academic, but then sometimes, like this week, you find a thread and you follow it. That thread is like a clue and in short order you feel like you are Indiana Jones following clues and seeing things that you convince yourself no one has ever seen before, and it helps when the clues lead to a weird cave, dancing goats, sacrifice and archeology. This week’s Gospel is theologically rich on its surface, and sometimes that fact can get us stuck there without digging deeper and really getting into the time, the place, the culture and the surroundings, and those are the things that make this week’s Gospel so exciting. Jesus and his disciples went up to Caesarea Philippi and that’s where this reading takes place which as it turns out is incredibly important. So, what’s up with Caesarea Philippi. The area is at the base of Mount Hermon, the highest elevation in Israel. In the winter it gets covered with snow which melts in the spring. The water seeped down through limestone and created a deep water filled cave down at the base of the mount. This is one of the major headwaters of the Jordan River. In ancient times there was no way to access how deep the cave was so legends grew up around it. If you were to visit that site today you would find that that cave was believed to be where the god Pan lived. Pan worship was traced to greece where shepherds worshiped and blamed this half goat half human god for good or bad times. If times were bad they would blame and flog the statue. Pan has always been attributed with music, fertility, nature and the like. The area around this cave had other temples and grottoes constructed around it, all which were tied to Pan in some way. The people believed that a sacrifice was required to insure that things went well for them agriculturally so at the appointed time of the year they would go to the village below and buy a goat and bring it near the mouth of the cave. Musicians would be playing music in an area where you were to dance with your goat. You were then to proceed to the mouth of the cave where you were to slaughter the goat and throw it in the water. If it sank they believed that Pan had accepted it if not you repeated the process until your offering sank. Also associated with greek practices at this time was the practice of the Pharmakoi where a male and female that were thought to be ugly, or outcasts, beggars, or those with infirmities were fed a meal, whipped with fig tree branches in order to transfer the sins of the people onto them, then sometimes stoned a bit or all the way by the people and banished to the wilderness, or in serious cases, thrown off a cliff. So some believe that human sacrifice could very well have been a part of this ritual at some point. So pagan activity was in full swing at this location when Jesus and his disciples were there. This location would have also been known to them from their own culture, stories and traditions. There are many ancient scriptural writings that were not accepted into the canon, that is the Bible, that the people of Jesus’ day would have been very familiar with that we do not know or hear very little of. One of those writings was the Book of Enoch. If you have seen the movie “Noah” that came out in 2014, and wondered what all the weird stuff in the beginning with “Watchers” and “Nephilim” among other things was all about or where “that” came from, this is the ancient writing. So much of this area is tied together with this location. In the narrative, there were angels that were cast out of heaven, chief among them being Azazel, whom it was believed was responsible for all sin. Azazel fell upon Mt. Hermon and continued to go against God’s wishes. Other angels came and bound him and cast him into a deep pit to Hell or Hades. In the Book of Leviticus there is a reference to a scapegoat or to Azazel depending on translation where two goats are chosen and one is sacrificed and the other is driven out. Azazel was the personification of uncleanness and in later rabbinic writings was sometimes described as a fallen angel.By the way, Azazel was pictured as, bottom-half goat, top-half human. Also in the second half of the Book of Enoch, the title Son of Man figures prominently. I can’t help but believe that this is more than a coincidental circumstance given the place and the discussion. To me, this is a place filled with blame, fear, bloodshed and people trying desperately for control in a world filled with uncertainty. It was a place of trying to make things right through human control. If I do this and suffer something then that will make things OK and my crops will survive and my animals will have offspring and be OK. The thing is with blame we seem to have a way of shifting it from our own shoulders onto others. Very , very early in the story in the garden of Eden we see blame surface. “It was the snake that caused this.” and “It was the woman that gave it to me.” In the Leviticus passage the scapegoat and Azazel seem to be interchangeable and Azazel was to blame for giving humankind the instruments of war and deceit. So it became Azazel’s fault. You know, you can see how guilt and blame could snowball and how the unrelenting pangs of grief, insecurity, frustration, suffering, and oppression by circumstance or by others would lead to an escalation of the sacrifice. It seems the sacrificial system seems to lead down a dark road of the more innocent the better. But if you look at the example of the pharmakoi, it was the most vulnerable in the society that was selected. Think of these folks, already the culture said that God was against you because of your situation. So let me throw my sins and junk on you and send you off to die in my place. So Jesus brings his disciples to this location for a reason. I think that this is an object lesson about what the kingdom of God is not. This is a pivot point to next week where the very next verses are Jesus announcing his coming suffering and death. But for now the disciples can see this heritage, this tradition and this system of injustice and blame and their minds are inevitably drawn to the similarities in their own culture and traditions. The question about the Son of Man is particularly appropriate at this location. This place would draw their minds to the teaching of their Rabbi’s and readings they had heard. When Jesus does speak of his suffering and death this place will reverberate in their memory. Jesus will make a stand that the innocent, the outcast, the poor have someone that will willingly go. No more snatching and force. No more using others. No more personal suffering in this way. If you need something to suffer and die to make this stop, then let it be me. With this the Keys to the Kingdom are given. With the acknowledgement that Jesus is the Son of the living God essentially hits the top of the escalator. There is no one more innocent and no one more valuable and this will be voluntary. No more scapegoating. This is grace big time because keys do two things. We hear bind and loose, which is another way of saying secure and free, lock and unlock. We are entering the kingdom and the gates of hell, that cave over there, these traditions, the blood, the pain, the sorrow, the selfishness, the oppression can not prevail against it. Jesus visits this dark, foreboding place to show that there is no place that is God-forsaken, no place that is forgotten all the way to the gates of hell. We are then called and propelled to stand with Jesus against these gates. We are called to uplift one another, heal one another, protect one another, and love one another and to fight against injustice, selfishness, those who would sacrifice others. To bring security to the insecure, the needy, the weak, the suffering and to free the oppressed, the downtrodden, the outcasts and the bullied. Fear will not overshadow or overcome us, for we have the keys to the kingdom and firm footing of salvation, Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God.