Jesus Journey: 40 Days in the Footsteps of Christ

Day 2

The Mountain and Mary

Read Luke 1:26–55

I can see it all the way from our hotel on the other side of the Dead Sea. From here, it looks like the silhouette of a massive volcano. Its slopes rise 2,500 feet above the surrounding valleys.

But this wasn’t always a cone-shaped mountain. And it wasn’t always this tall. This strange place is largely man-made. And it’s over two thousand years old.

It’s called the Herodium.

One of our best sources outside the New Testament for descriptions of the Holy Land in the time of Christ is the ancient Jewish writer Josephus, who lived at the end of the first century.

He described this place as “a hill raised to the height of a mountain by the hand of man.” He says that thousands of slaves reshaped the slopes and added hundreds of feet of elevation by using dirt shaved off a neighboring summit.

At the top today: The ruins of a pleasure palace and military fortress. Among other wonders, in the time of Christ it had a huge swimming bath twice the size of a modern Olympic pool. An aqueduct brought water from springs four miles away. Using mirrors to reflect the sun and send coded messages, the castle staff kept its inhabitants up-to-date with the latest news from Jerusalem. 1


The man who built it was the powerful and paranoid Herod the Great, who ruled Judea as Rome’s representative from 37 to 4 BC.

Excavations in 2007 unearthed Herod’s long-lost tomb on the side of the mountain, and in 2010 a 450-seat theater that had apparently been built exclusively for use during Herod’s funeral was discovered.

But what’s particularly interesting is the tiny village that this mountainous fortress overshadowed — literally.

The little town of Bethlehem.

For centuries it had been just a wide spot in the road, known primarily as King David’s birthplace, after which it receded again into obscurity. It was called “the least of the cities of Judah” (Micah 5:2). In Joshua 15 there’s a list of Judean cities, and Bethlehem isn’t even mentioned.

After the Herodium rose to dominate the horizon, this little cluster of poorly constructed homes and shepherds’ caves shrank even further by comparison. The Herodium was a statement of power and importance, a destination for the elite who had earned the king’s favor, a glittering crown jewel in King Herod’s collection of palaces. Bethlehem was like the famous description of Oakland, California: “There’s no there, there.”

What’s worse, the volcano-like silhouette of Herod’s massive fortress would have been a grinding daily reminder for beleaguered Bethlehem residents of the threat of violent eruptions from their temperamental king.


Herod clung to power against any and all challengers. Ancient sources say he had two of his own sons strangled, later executed his favorite wife, and on his deathbed ordered another son beheaded, all for suspicion of treason.

The contrast between the fortress mountain and the tiny village was much like the difference between the power-mad Herod and the meek mother of Christ, Mary.

A young teenager when visited by the angel, Mary had no aspirations of glory, no hunger for power.

She was not a pampered princess, she had no expectations of giving birth to a King.

She hadn’t even been praying for a message from God.

But she got one. “You have found favor with God,” says the angel. “You will bear… the Son of God.” (Luke 1:30–31, 35 ESV)

Mary’s response? Simply awe and thanksgiving at what God was doing by his grace.

“My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1:46–47) she sings, inspired by the Spirit as she reacts to God’s awesome favor. The Father sent the Son through the Spirit in the life of Mary.


And the Mary miracle continues: Although of course Mary holds a unique and honored place as the mother of Jesus, this is exactly the way God works in you and in me today.

“You have found favor with God.” Those are words you and I also hear. The word for “favor” there is the word for grace, which God pours on us before we’ve done anything to deserve it.

Just as he did for Mary, God is always the One who initiates, acting unilaterally, without any advance contribution from us to earn his favor.


And we can react the same way Mary reacted, with praise and thanksgiving for the wonders he has done, is doing, and will do, in us.

Later when she visits her cousin Elisabeth, Mary bursts into a song we know as The Magnificat, the Latin word for “magnify.”

“My soul magnifies the Lord,” she sings. Her lyrics are rich with imagery from the Old Testament and focus on God’s grace to the unsuspecting and weak.

You can sing the same song, and for the same reason. Paul’s words in Ephesians about God’s grace to all of us sound a lot like Mary’s response:

All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms… Even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes… This is what he wanted to do, and it gave him great pleasure. So we praise God for the glorious grace he has poured out on us… He has showered his kindness on us… Ephesians 1:3–8 NLT


It’s interesting for me to trace the influence of first-century lives by the popularity of names two millennia later.

No one names their kid Herod. Or Pilate. Or Archelaus or Antipas, two of Herod’s surviving sons who had hoped to further the family dynasty (“Archelaus Schlaepfer” — now that would be a mouthful).

But names in the extended family of Jesus? Mary, Joseph, James, Elizabeth, David… Their popularity demonstrates their influence.

In the end, it would not be the power-mad king in the impregnable fortress who furthered the dynasty, but the pregnant teenager in the tiny village. The meek would outlast the mighty.

It was a pattern Mary’s son would continue. In the disciples he chose, the missionaries he deputized, the miracles he performed, he kept choosing the poor in spirit to confound the proud and powerful.

He chooses the least likely suspects. Like you and me. That’s the good news of grace. What’s your response?

Why art thou troubled, Herod? what vain fear
Thy blood-revolving breast to rage doth move?
Heaven’s King, who doffs himself weak flesh to wear,
Comes not to rule in wrath, but serve in love;
Nor would he this thy feared crown from thee tear,
But give thee a better with himself above.
Poor jealousy! why should he wish to prey
Upon thy crown, who gives his own away? — Richard Cranshaw 2


Why do you think God chose to enter the world through a person of no apparent significance? What does this teach you about God? How does it impact you to know that “you have found favor with God”?