Why Olive Oil can make us better worshippers

Posted by Craig Borlase on 10 June 2014

I used to be an English teacher. Not a very good one, though. I taught like I played golf; all hit and hope. I put too much trust in the power of a decent pair of shoes and a nice looking bag and spent too little time down the practice range.  

As I taught, I amassed a longish list of Things I Found Hard To Teach. Colons and semi-colons, apostrophes of possession and even your basic paragraphs were all on the list, but right at the top was one that bugged me more than all the others; metaphors. No matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t seem to get the concept of symbolism across to five rows of badly-buttoned thirteen-year-olds. Even The Lion King couldn’t help me.

Me: What do you notice about the way that Scar is shown on screen?

Them: -

Me: What about the light? What do you notice about the light?

Them: -

Me: Can you see how he’s always in shadow?

Them: -

Me: And that’s been chosen for a reason. Yes?

Them: - 

Me: Can you guess what sort of reason that might be? Why is he in the shadows? Why is he always near the darkness? Why is he always in the shade?

Them: Cos it’s cloudy? 

I don’t imagine that teachers in Israel have this kind of problem. My guess is that they don’t face such a struggle to convey the idea that at times writers and painters and photographers and filmmakers and architects and singers and sculptors will all add elements to their creative work to help lead people towards a deeper engagement and a fuller revelation of their desired message. Surely those Israeli students would get why Scar’s always hiding from the light, wouldn’t they? 

All this was in my mind as I took a trip to Israel to visit a friend. He told me that in Jerusalem everything had meaning. 

‘Remember this place,’ said my friend on the first morning as we stood in a church that had made its home in a cave beneath the slopes of Gethsemane. ‘And remember that odd-looking hole in the wall.’

I did.

Fast forward 72 hours and that weird looking hole – about a foot and a half high, curved at the top but squared at the bottom – was back at the front of my mind and in front of my eyes. Only we were way outside Jerusalem now, somewhere near the border with Gaza.

We were in a cave that had been restored to show people what it might have looked liked when it was originally used a couple of thousand years ago. It was an oil press - a place where olives were turned into oil. Outside the cave, the info board explained that like all other oil presses of its kind, it would have been known by a simple name; gethsemane.

The way these presses worked was simple enough. First the bitter fruit is crushed beneath the stone wheel. The pulp is then placed in sacks and taken to the press, where increasingly heavy weights are added to the lever that is repeatedly press down on them. The first, and lightest weights gave the purest oil – the virgin stuff used for food or perfume. By the end the oil that flowed was cloudy and strong, best suited for burning in lamps to give light and heat. 

And this is where Jesus chose to locate himself on the night that he sweated blood over his decision to sacrifice himself for others. Gethsemane - the one a short walk outside Jerusalem - was the place where he was pressed out, where the crushing began and, ultimately, the start of the process that would allow the flow of something truly beautiful, sustaining, illuminating and fiercely powerful. 

And what’s all this got to do with worship? As my host and guide reminded me, there’s an arc back to the first book of the Bible in all this. A son, laid out, anxious about what might come next, anticipating the piercing of flesh by blade, yet trusting his father. 

It was Abraham and his son, Isaac – probably on a mountain not too far from the slopes on which Jesus began his passion – that performed a similar ritual. That ritual involved wood and a hill and a knife and the anticipation of blood, pain and death. And it involved God being in control and using the fear and horror of the experience to bring people closer to Him. 

It’s weird, but Abraham’s choice of word to describe what he was about to do with Isaac is the first of its kind in scripture:

On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance.  He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”’

[Genesis 22:4-5]

Was Abraham worshipping as he stood with a knife in one hand, a much loved son before him and the threat of death all around? You bet he was. 

We talk a lot about worship as a lifestyle. It has nothing to do with playlists or soundtracks, and even less to do with concerts and ticket sales. It’s about sacrifice. It’s about risk. It’s about choosing to trust God with the most precious things we have. It’s about the faith that out of the hardship and out of the pain comes something truly, powerfully divinely beautiful. And it can change everything.


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