Sermon for the Second Sunday in Advent (Midweek Service), December 12, 2018 – “Christ comes in Glory” (Luke 21:25-36)

“The Last Judgment” (1557) by Hubert Goltzius (1526-1583), Limburg Museum, Venlo, Netherlands

This sermon is the second part of a sermon series preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church in Fairfax Station, Virginia, titled “Advent with Martin Luther,” exploring themes found in Luther’s 1540 Church Postil concerning the readings from the One-Year Historic Lectionary.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

“Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden!”  So did the prophet Zechariah proclaim the manner in which our Lord and King would come to claim his throne at his first coming in our readings from last Wednesday.  But our Gospel from the 21st Chapter of Luke today treats a different coming than Christ’s first triumphal entry into his capital city on that fateful Sunday nearly 2000 years ago—Christ’s coming to reclaim Creation in-full on the Last Day.

This second coming will be very different than his first coming as king.  There will be no crowds, no strewn garments, no donkey, no riding in humility.  Jesus tells the disciples that the second advent will be one characterized by signs and phenomena throughout creation.  There will be signs in the heavens— the sun, the moon, and the stars will be affected, and while Luke does not report what will happen to them, the Apostle Matthew writes that the sun and moon will darken and the stars will fall from heaven (Matt 24:29).  These will be signs that the last day is nigh, and that the King of Creation’s return is imminent. All people will be frozen in terror; the fear and terror of hell will consume some of them, and the powers of the heavens, either the heavenly hosts themselves or the powers by which God holds all parts of the universe together, will be shaken.  And when this all happens, the King will return to finally toss death out of his kingdom. All people will see on this last day “the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory” (Luke 21:27). And this second coming will be one where his kingship is undeniable. No longer is our king robed in the simple garb of a carpenter, but in the flowing cloth-of-gold of a king, a victorious monarch returning to his kingdom to take his place upon his throne.

And when these things happen, our Lord reminds the disciples— and us— to “straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”  Our redemption, our Redeemer himself is coming when these things happen! And at his coming, all sin, death, and hell will be destroyed forever.

But how can one look up when the world is gripped by terror?  How can one look to the coming of our king “[i]f the whole world is terrified at that day, and hangs its head and looks down out of terror and fear” with raised heads in joyous expectation (Luther 1, 47)?  Luther says in his notes on this reading in the Church Postil:

…All of this is spoken only to Christians who are truly Christians, and not to heathen…true Christians suffocate in great temptations and persecutions from sin and all kinds of evil, so that this life becomes bitter and loathsome to them.  Therefore, they wait and long and pray for redemption from sin and all evil— as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come” and “Deliver us from evil”. If we are true Christians, we will earnestly and heartily pray this prayer. But if we do not pray heartily and earnestly, we are not yet true Christians.

If we pray correctly, then we must regard these signs, however terrible they are, with joy and longing, as Christ exhorts: “When these things begin to take place, look up.”  He does not say, “Be filled with fear or hang your heads,” for what we have prayed for so earnestly is coming. If we earnestly want to be freed from sin, death, and hell, we must desire and love this coming….Therefore, we should be careful not to hate or dread that day.  Such dread is a bad sign and belongsto the damned, whose hard minds and hardened hearts must be terrified and broken if they are to improve. But to believers that day will be comforting and sweet.1

This day will be a day of joy for Christians who have faith in Christ, but it will be terrible and terrifying for those who have put their trust in other gods or in themselves.  They will be shaken in their sin. They will not see Christ as their king, but their conqueror. They will not rush forward to meet him with joy when he comes, but rather cower in terror, because they preferred to ignore or reject the signs and testimonies of their coming king in favor of others.  As with the Pharisees and Sadducees who chose to look for a different king than he who came humbly into Jerusalem, those who dread the signs of Christ’s coming reject his promises and will be subject to his judgment. Rather than fleeing their sin and seeking to overcome it, they nurtured it, and so when the last day comes and Christ returns in his glory, instead of joy at seeing their coming savior, they will feel fear and dread because they will lose that sin that they nurtured.  They will not see Christ as their loving Lord come to redeem them, but instead as someone come to upend their lives and destroy them, to take from them rather than to give them everything. They do not wish to repent, but rather desire that such a day never come. Their faith is not in Christ as king and redeemer, but in the world, and because of that, they will not “have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place.”

But what about the Christian who still feels fear at the thought of that day?  What of the Christian who, in the struggle with his or her sin feels some fear at the thought of the great and terrible events surrounding the coming of Christ in his glory?  Perhaps you feel this fear, this pang at the thought of his coming. There is good news in the midst of Christ’s warning to the disciples that we can put our trust in. He tells them, and us, that the One who comes in glory is their “redemption,” not their condemnation.  Luther explains this beautifully:

Without a doubt, He has spoken this comforting word also for the fainthearted who, though they are godly and prepared for the Last Day, are yet filled with great anxiety and [thus] hinder their desire for this coming…therefore, He calls it their redemption.  For at the end of the world, when sin will so terribly hold sway, and along with sin the second part (the punishment for sin with pestilence, war, and famine) will also hold sway, it is necessary that believers have a strong confidence and comfort against both afflictions: sin and its punishment. Therefore, He uses the sweet word “redemption,” which all hearts gladly hear.  What is redemption? Who would not gladly be redeemed? Who would desire to remain in such a desert, both of sin and of punishment? Who would not wish an end to such misery, such danger for souls, such ruin for man— especially when Christ so sweetly allures, invites, and comforts us?2

This is a promise in which the terrified conscience can take comfort and refuge.  Christ will not abandon those who hear the words in this promise and trust them, even if their sinful flesh quivers at the thought.  From him flows the faith to believe that this terrible and glorious king, our God in the flesh returning from the heavens, is our redeemer and savior, the one who will end all sorrow and fear and restore us to life and joy.  Faith in Jesus, faith that he is who he says he is, our redeemer and savior, makes it possible for all who trust in him, however weak our faith may be. Even a little faith, a faith that cries “Lord I believe, help my unbelief,” when praying that God’s “kingdom come” and his “will be done” puts a person on the right track to receive Christ with joy when he comes again in his glory.  The faith he gives to us when he comes to us (and not we to him!) allows us to indeed look up when the heads of all around us are cast down in terror and fear, and to joyfully look to his coming and receive him in the air when he comes. Trusting in his promises, we can see the Son of Man coming with power and great glory, straighten up and raise our heads, and know that our redemption is drawing near!  Amen.

1 Martin Luther, A Year in the Gospels with Martin Luther: Sermons from Luther’s Church Postil, ed. Benjamin Mayes, trans. James Langebartels, vol. 1 (Saint Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 2018): 47-48.
2 Martin Luther, A Year in the Gospels with Martin Luther: Sermons from Luther’s Church Postil, 2018: 1:49.

Sermon for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, September 23, 2018, Proper 20 – “The First Shall Be Last” (Mark 9:30-37)

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Preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church, Fairfax Station, Virginia.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

The disciples probably thought that he wasn’t making a lot of sense, but then again, a lot of what he told them didn’t seem to, at least to their unschooled fishermen’s minds.  What on earth (or heaven!) did Jesus mean by “the Son of Man is being turned over to the hands of men, and they would kill him, and, he, having been killed, would rise after three days?”  And why did he not want anyone to know what he was up to? Peter, James, and John had all seen him transfigured, standing between Moses and Elijah, and God had spoken to them–they heard the voice of the Father!–and told them to listen to Jesus’ words, that Jesus was his Son.  And before that, Peter had confessed that Jesus was the Messiah. But what did he mean when he said that he would have to die? He’d said it before, and he chewed Peter out for denying that it would ever happen. He even called Peter Satan for saying this! But still, all this talk of his death was unsettling before.  It’s not like Jesus hadn’t said things that were unsettling. He had already told a crowd of people to eat his flesh and drink his blood, though the disciples understood what he meant there. The implications of this, though, were far stranger than that. He was going to be seized by people, killed, and then come back from the dead?  Nothing like this had ever happened before, and how could he know this? Better not to ask him but go on as if nothing will change. He couldn’t have been serious, could he? The disciples didn’t want to entertain such thoughts even though they were not new.

And then he hits them with a new thought.  They’d been arguing while hiking through Galilee to Capernaum about which one of them was the greatest.  A pretty silly conversation for grown men to be having, all things considered. But they had been bickering like schoolboys about it, and Jesus now knew how childish the whole thing had been.  So he told them: “if somebody wishes to be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”  What did that mean?  And what did he mean when he told them to receive a child in his name?  Everyone knew that, while a blessing, children weren’t that important; they were kind of a drain on resources since most of them died young, and you didn’t pay them much heed until they were old enough to help the family.  Did the disciples have to serve even little urchins like this kid now? What was Jesus talking about?


One of the things you learn at seminary when reading the Gospel of Mark is that St. Mark constantly emphasizes the sheer inability of the disciples to understand what Jesus tells them about himself.  They never seem to get it, even after they acknowledge that they believe and trust what they have seen Christ do before their very eyes. They come across as immature, stupid, foolish, argumentative, silly, and even cowardly.  Remember, it’s in Mark where one of the disciples runs away naked from Gethsemane because he loses his tunic during the arrest. In our Gospel reading this morning, we see that the disciples are unable to grasp what Jesus has told them, even though Jesus has said it before.  Or if they understand it, they have trouble accepting it as true and don’t trust Jesus, even though they have seen proofs of his work and who he is. But the cause of their inability to trust Jesus is made plain when they argue about who is greater. The cause of this is the sin of Adam, the first sin, which afflicts all of mankind; that sin which asks “Did God really say that?” and which drives one to seek glory for the self rather than to give glory to God.  Just as Adam made himself a little god when he trusted his own judgment over God’s, so do the disciples seek glory and prestige for themselves over each other when they desire to be “first.” In fighting about who is greatest, they feed their egos. They think they’re special, that they’re “somebody.” In feeding their egos, they fail to keep any of the Law of God. In putting themselves before their compatriots, they violate that commandment which Jesus elevates to a position second only to loving the Lord–they fail to love their neighbors as themselves, and thus they fail to love God.  And on account of their sin, they aren’t “somebody.” In fact, they’re nobody, and Jesus tells them as much. “If somebody wishes to be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” The greatest on earth, the one who desires fame and fortune, will not be the greatest in heaven–far from it, and that one will not be “least of all” as Jesus describes it.


Like the disciples, you and I often find ourselves wanting to be first and greatest.  We want renown, we want power, we want to be “somebody.” We want to be liked.  According to a demographic study of American economic brackets developed by Experian Information Solutions, the defining consumer group here in Fairfax County and Northern Virginia as a whole is what is called, “American Royalty.”  Maybe some of us fall into this group–affluent, savvy with savings and stocks and taxes, well traveled, expensive import cars, and partakers in conspicuous consumption–not out of a desire to be social climbers, but because we like nice things.  We buy name brands, high quality merchandise, because these things give us status. People tell us how great our hair looks, how neat our cars are, how much they like those shoes or wish they could afford this tool. And we like to hear it.

We’re like Tevye in The Fiddler on the Roof, singing about what life could be like, if we were a wealthy man. Most tellingly he sings, “The most important men in town will come to call on me. / They’ll ask me to advise them / Like Solomon the wise. / ‘If you please, Reb’ Tevye, / Pardon me, Reb’ Tevye,’ / Posing questions that would cross a rabbi’s eyes!”  We want to be the first and greatest, the one with status, the one people look up to and see as an authority, even if we don’t know what we’re talking about. The accolades and compliments feel good, and who doesn’t love being the center of attention sometimes, or all the time?

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But when we focus on being first, we forget God.  When it’s all about “me”–when my feelings, my happiness, and my status become the focus, God no longer is.  I forget that I am accountable to him. I forget his law–I might even think that it doesn’t apply to me, that I’m somehow, on my own, special.  But in reality, I am a sinner. I am accountable to him. His law does speak to me. “The Law of God is good and wise / And sets His will before our eyes, / Shows us the way of righteousness, / And dooms to death when we transgress,” goes the opening stanza of number 579 in our hymnal.  And on my own, left to my own devices, I am nothing; I am less than nothing. A worm, and not a man, because the sin in me that feeds my ego and makes me want to be first and to have special privileges strips me of any standing I have. We are all afflicted in this way.


So if we go back to the disciples, those bewildered disciples, what are they to do?  Jesus caught them having an ego-battle, indulging their desire to be someone. I think Jesus had been preparing them with the answer all the way from Galilee.  “If somebody wishes to be first, he must be last of all and servant of all,” he tells them in Capernaum. They don’t realize it, but he has been telling them how one does this.  “The Son of Man is being turned over to the hands of men, and they would kill him, and, he, having been killed, would rise after three days.” The One who is first before all is going to give up his life for the many and rise again after three days in the tomb.  He will suffer, willingly, unto death, for the sake of all people so that they might be saved from that sin that lives within them. He will take that sin–all of it–and truly become last; as the Apostle Paul says, “he will be made sin who knew no sin.”

While it isn’t recorded in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’ remarks to the disciples about dying and rising and his discussion with them in Capernaum about becoming the least of all and servant of all is equivalent to his telling the disciples about the sign of Jonah in Matthew and Luke’s Gospels.  Here we see that Jesus is the the opposite of Jonah, the prophet who thought he knew better than God and ran when he was asked to serve his neighbor, and whose commemoration day was yesterday, September 22.

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Jonah resting under his weed, waiting for God to smite Nineveh.

We know Jonah’s story–in his flight across the Mediterranean, his ship encountered a storm that God had stirred up to call him back.  So to save the ship, the sailors threw him into the sea and the storm was calmed. God then sent a giant fish (dag gadol) which swallowed Jonah, and he spent three days and nights living inside of it, praying to God for deliverance until it spat him up on dry land.  Even after being saved, Jonah grudgingly did as God directed him, preaching repentance to Nineveh–that’s modern day Mosul for those of you who served in Iraq–but still hoping to see them destroyed, not trusting in God’s compassion.  But Jesus is not like Jonah. Though Jonah was metaphorically dead in the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights, and though Jonah didn’t want to be in there and desired instead to flee to Tarshish, Jesus willingly subjected himself to death for three days, and willingly became the servant of all when he took on mankind’s punishment.  He had no desire to see mankind destroyed like Jonah did. He became least of all and servant of all, and, so doing, saved all.

The disciples may not have realized it, but this is what Jesus was telling them.  He is the greatest who will become the least.  He is the perfect servant of all.  And he entreats them to follow him.  They cannot perfectly follow him in this way, but they can trust him.  And when they make themselves least–when they submit their egos and drown their Old Adams in repentance because they trust that Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of Man, will do what he says–then they can be servants of all, even the servants of a small child, who in the eyes of many of them was truly the least.  And when they do that, when they trust their Lord, they receive the promises of God. Then they are covered in the blood of his sacrifice.  Then they are truly “somebody.”


And we, too, become “somebody” when we trust in the work of Christ, the Son of Man who is given into the hands of men, killed, and then rises from the dead on the third day.  His death on the cross is the greatest act of service any of us could ever receive. He did it entirely for us.  We have received the promise of salvation and eternal life from him, and now, washed in his blood in baptism, we are no longer nobodies.  We are somebody because when God looks upon us, he doesn’t see the sinners that we are. He sees his Son in our place, who took our sins from us and crucified and buried them with him.  Washed in his blood and receiving the benefit of his sacrifice, we can now be servants of all. Faith in his work makes this possible. As Luther says in his treatise On the Freedom of the Christian, “[A]s our heavenly Father has in Christ freely come to our aid, we also ought freely to help our neighbor through our body and its works, and each one should become as it were a Christ to the other that we may be Christs to one another and Christ may be the same in all, that is, that we may be truly Christians….”  You and I can serve our neighbors in love because Christ loved us so much that he gave up everything to save us. Living humbly with Christ’s promises, repenting daily, and being servants of all, we become least of all in Christ, but clothed in his righteousness, before the Father, we are first.

Brothers and sisters, that is a beautiful truth that we all, professor, pastor, fisherman, and everyone in between, can grasp and cling to.  Amen.

And now, may the peace which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

“The First Shall be Last” By Vicar Nils Niemeier Mark 9:30-37 09_23_2108 from LSLC2012 on Vimeo.

Great Stuff from Luther

From a letter to Margaret, Princess of Anhalt, in 1538:

“We who believe on Him should by all means be confident, for we know that we do not belong to ourselves but to Him who died for us.  Therefore if we are sick, we are not sick unto ourselves; if we are well, we are not well unto ourselves; if we are in troubles, we are not in troubles unto ourselves; if we are glad, we are not glad unto ourselves.  In a word, whatever happens to us does not happen to us but to Him who died for us and has made us His own.  In like manner, when a pious child is sick or suffers from some trouble, it is sicker to the parents than to itself; its trouble strikes the parents harder than the child, because the child is not its own but belongs to the parents….He on whom we believe is almighty.”  (W-Br 8, 190—E 56 xli—SL 21 b, 2221)

cited in Plass, E. What Luther Says (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2006): 1228.

A great discussion of how Jesus may have looked according to images and evidence from the First Century

Header Image: Jesus and the Woman with the Issue of Blood, Catacombs of Marcellinus and Peter, Rome (Wikimedia Commons)

Joan E. Taylor has written a neat little article on how Jesus may actually have looked, just in time for the Easter season, in the Friends of ASOR (American Schools of Oriental Research) March 2018 newsletter.  Here’s an excerpt, but read the whole essay in order to get a good idea of how First Century Jews dressed and adorned themselves and how images of Jesus changed from earliest Antiquity to the Byzantine and later periods:

The earliest extant images of Jesus in Roman catacomb paintings show him as a teacher/philosopher or magus (wonder-worker, with a wand), dressed in the common clothing of the time for a man: a knee length (essentially sleeveless) tunic (chitōn) and a long mantle (himation). He is also beardless and short-haired. We see this in the depiction of Jesus healing a woman with an issue of blood (Mark 5:25-34) in the late 3rd century Catacomb of Peter and Marcellinus.

Jesus was recognizable in these portrayals not because of how he looked but by what he did. The Gospel stories were so familiar to the viewers that they recognized Jesus from what was being shown. Still, for people today, this image of Jesus seems strange. When a picture of Jesus was discovered last year on a 4th/5th century glass paten (Eucharist plate) found in southern Spain, one of the things the media was most interested in was that Jesus was beardless.

Did Jesus actually have a beard? As a kind of wandering sage, I think he would have had one, simply because he did not go to barbers. This was also the common appearance of a philosopher; the Stoic philosopher Epictetus considered it appropriately natural. He did not have a beard just because he was a Jew. A beard was not distinctive of Jews in antiquity. While by the time the Babylonian Talmud was written in the 5th-6th centuries beardedness might have been common for Jewish men (b.Shabbat 152a, ‘The glory of a face is its beard’), it was never identified as an indicator of Jews in the 1st century. In fact, one of the problems for oppressors of Jews in the Diaspora was identifying them when they looked like everyone else. However, the Jewish men on Judaea Capta coins (issued by Rome after the capture of Jerusalem in 70 CE) are bearded but with short hair; this is probably how Romans imagined Jewish men in Judaea, even if in the Diaspora a Jewish man may have looked like every other guy.

So what did Jesus really look like? Jesus wore normal clothing, unlike John the Baptist;  John’s clothing was sufficiently unusual and Elijah-like to be mentioned (Mark 1:6: “And John was wearing camel hair and a skin girdle around his waist.”)  So what was normal for men of 1st-century Judaea?

Important insights into dress and appearance are gained by studies of the Egyptian mummy portraits from the 1st century BCE to the 3rd century CE. These portraits depict a style of clothing and hair that was probably universal in the eastern Mediterranean, including in the region of Judaea. This is also clear from the archaeological discoveries of Masada and the Judaean Desert Caves. The clothing of rich people was mainly distinguished by expensive dyes and fineness of the cloth, but the actual styles were quite similar.

Most men wore a simple short tunic (chitōn), finishing around the knees, as Jesus is depicted wearing in catacomb art. Men were supposed to be ready for action – movement – so they did not usually have long robes; the high status longer garment sometimes worn by the elite advertized leisure. To be really active you would ‘gird your loins’ by tucking your chitōn up by pulling it through your legs and tying it.

chitōn invariably had two bands of color that ran from the shoulder to the hem, front and back. These are seen in many examples from excavations in sites close to the Dead Sea, where textiles have been well preserved, especially from Nahal Hever and Masada.

On top of the tunic a man would wear a himation or mantle, a large piece of woolen material color. A woman who wanted to be healed touched Jesus’s himation (Mark 5:27). There was also a type of fine linen mantle/wrap called a sindōn, but Jesus only wore one of these in death (Mark 15:46).



Unearthing the World of Jesus


Synagogue at Magdala (Photo by Yadid Levy, Smithsonian Magazine)

In January, Smithsonian Magazine ran a great article on excavations at Magdala and Bethsaida that bring new evidence to light concerning the world of 1st Century  Galilee.  Below is an extract; click through the link at the bottom to read more.



Ariel Sabar, “Unearthing the World of Jesus”

The IAA archaeologists had mucked around on Solana’s 20 acres for a month and found little. “Almost done?” he’d ask, emerging in his clerical robes from a shipping container that served as a makeshift office. “I have a budget! I have a timetable!”

In truth, the archaeologists didn’t want to be there either. Summer temperatures had ticked into the 100s, and the site prickled with bees and mosquitoes. They’d say shalom, they assured the priest, as soon as they checked a final, remote corner of his land.

It was there, beneath a wing of the proposed guesthouse, that their picks clinked against the top of a buried wall.

Dina Avshalom-Gorni, an IAA official who oversaw digs in northern Israel, ordered all hands to this square of the excavation grid. The workers squatted in the mealy soil and dusted carefully with brushes. Soon, a series of rough-cut stone benches emerged around what looked like a sanctuary.

It can’t be, Avshalom-Gorni thought.

The Gospels say that Jesus taught and “proclaimed the good news” in synagogues “throughout all Galilee.” But despite decades of digging in the towns Jesus visited, no early first-century synagogue had ever been found.


For historians, this was not a serious problem. Galilean Jews were a week’s walk from Jerusalem, close enough for regular pilgrimages to Herod the Great’s magnificent temple, Judaism’s central house of worship. Galileans, mostly poor peasants and fishermen, had neither the need nor the funds for some local spinoff. Synagogues, as we understand them today, did not appear anywhere in great numbers until several hundred years later. If there were any in Galilee in Jesus’s day, they were perhaps just ordinary houses that doubled as meeting places for local Jews. Some scholars argued that the “synagogues” in the New Testament were nothing more than anachronisms slipped in by the Gospels’ authors, who were writing outside Galilee decades after Jesus’s death.

But as Avshalom-Gorni stood at the edge of the pit, studying the arrangement of benches along the walls, she could no longer deny it: They’d found a synagogue from the time of Jesus, in the hometown of Mary Magdalene. Though big enough for just 200 people, it was, for its time and place, opulent. It had a mosaic floor; frescoes in pleasing geometries of red, yellow and blue; separate chambers for public Torah readings, private study and storage of the scrolls; a bowl outside for the ritual washing of hands.

In the center of the sanctuary, the archaeologists unearthed a mysterious stone block, the size of a toy chest, unlike anything anyone had seen before. Carved onto its faces were a seven-branched menorah, a chariot of fire and a hoard of symbols associated with the most hallowed precincts of the Jerusalem temple. The stone is already seen as one of the most important discoveries in biblical archaeology in decades. Though its imagery and function remain in the earliest stages of analysis, scholars say it could lead to new understandings of the forces that made Galilee such fertile ground for a Jewish carpenter with a world-changing message. It could help explain, in other words, how a backwater of northern Israel became the launching pad for Christianity.

But on that dusty afternoon, Solana had no way of knowing this. He was toweling off after a swim when an IAA archaeologist named Arfan Najar called his cellphone with what seemed like the worst possible news: They’d found something, and everything Solana had worked and prayed for these past five years was on hold.

“Father,” Najar told him, “you have a big, big, big problem.”

Read more: Smithsonian Magazine, Unearthing the World of Jesus