Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Three Days in Jerusalem

Alright, truth be told, I always try to end my Israel trips in Jerusalem.  There is just something so powerful about capping a visit to the Holy Land with arrival and touring in Jerusalem that is hard to explain if you haven’t done it.  Every stop has its highlights and the excitement and learning grow along the way, but it comes to a boil in Jerusalem, where you are confronted with powerful evidences of biblical reliability over and over again.  You walk the streets of the Old City on pavement stones from the time of Jesus on your way to places you know he walked and stood.  You see places you’ve read about in Scripture, you discover locations and geography that explain things you’ve read in the Bible, and you cannot escape thinking about spiritual realities in a city that has been claimed by three major world religious systems.  The history is palpable, the culture is explosively diverse, and the chance to experience Israel’s spiritual capital in both its ancient and modern neighborhoods ought not to be missed. 
Thus far we have done just about everything you might associate with a visit to the city, and what we haven’t done yet we’ll do in our final day tomorrow, it seems.  Standing on the Mount of Olives, walking the Palm Sunday road, praying and singing in the Garden of Gethsemane, visiting nearby Bethlehem, and catching up with Shaban, my favorite Old City shopkeeper, were highlights of day one.  Visiting the Western Wall, a walk through the Western Wall tunnel, visiting the city of David, hikes through either Hezekiah’s or a Canaanite Tunnel from Gihon Spring, and experiencing Yad Vashem—Israel’s Holocaust memorial—were day two’s highlights.  The Temple steps and Temple Mount, followed by visits to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and a closing communion in the Garden Tomb marked the last day.  I can barely get that list typed without being overwhelmed by the remembrances or anticipations that come with each.  How do I describe how you feel seeing a stone pavement where Jesus was mocked and tortured for me?  There is nothing I can say that is serious or powerful enough.  And it is like that all day, every day here.
It is moments like this that keep me leading trips and encouraging people to come if they can.  There simply is nothing like what you experience when you are here.  And it is frustrating to try to explain that to others who haven’t had the experience.  So, I think I will just leave it with this—I am so blessed to be here and to have the privilege of sharing it with those who are here.  
Our group on the Mount of Olives, half way down the Palm Sunday Road
Now I’m in the airport, awaiting our flight home.  It’s late, I’m tired, and we have a 12 hour flight to Philadelphia next.  But it is all more than worth it, and the dominant feeling I have and that will carry through the next weeks is wonder.  It is truly “wonder” full to be here, and if the Lord tarries, I hope to visit here again.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Galilee to Jerusalem

Going through Solomon's gate in Megiddo

We left our kibbutz by the sea in Galilee this morning for our travels through the central part of Israel, along the coast, and then up to Jerusalem.  Our first stop today was very un-touristy, even though it is a national park—Harod Spring is where Gideon tested his volunteer army by seeing how they drank water to determine who and how many men God would allow him to use in the battle against the Midianites—found in the book of Judges.  There was no big build up or hype, just a spring between the places where the Bible says the armies were encamped.  Still pretty cool to see.

In the waterworks tunnel built in the time of Ahab, Megiddo
Our next site certainly did have a lot of hype—when you visit Megiddo and look out on the valley it borders, you can’t help but think apocalyptically.  Twenty five civilizations came and went, and were gone a long time before the excavations began here, but what a treasure trove of history was found here.  The city was vital to Egypt, to Solomon, to Ahab, and others—each made their mark.  Ahab’s water system is a marvel of engineering, and Solomon’s stables are impressive.  But looking out on the Valley of Armageddon one cannot help but be sobered by the predictions that invoke it regarding the great battle at the end of the age.
Our next stop was the site of another battle—this one between Elijah and the prophets of Baal.  Mt. Carmel provides a vista from which you can see much of the land of Israel, but it also reminds us of the challenges faced when our vision fails to see anyone else who stands with us in standing for the Lord.  Elijah was alone in his contest, but he was not really alone—and later chapters reveal that there were still 700 who had not bowed the knee to Baal. 
Lunch was found on the way down Mt. Carmel at another Druze restaurant—it was a falafel feast—schnitzel for the timid and taste challenged!   I cannot get enough of falafel, hummus, tahaina, and the Middle Eastern salads and olives.
Bill likes falafel!
Onward we traveled to Herod the Great’s capital of Caesarea Maritima.  This city was the seat of Roman power in Judea, and was one of Herod’s many marvels of construction—he built cities that he named after his benefactors, but it was really all about him.  They were magnificent, though.  The site was later a Byzantine city and a Crusader fortress.  But I like Caesarea because it is the home of the Gentile inclusion in the church—the conversion of Cornelius marked the full reception of Gentiles as Gentiles into the New Covenant people!
Our last stop before arriving in Jerusalem was the Elah Valley, where David fought Goliath.  It’s a farm field today, and certainly has nothing to mark it as significant.  But Israel learned, at least momentarily in that story, that there was a God in Israel who did great things and could be counted on.  May we not forget the lesson they forgot! 
Our group in an arch of the Herodian aquaduct, bringing
water 6 miles via gravity flow to Caesarea

In the Crusader gatehouse, Caesarea
Our hotel in Jerusalem is a short walk from Jaffa Gate to the Old City, and many took advantage of that closeness tonight.  We have great days ahead here in Jerusalem!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Lower Galilee and Nazareth

The view of the Sea of Galilee from our room
Millers on the Sea of Galilee
Today was one where we were seeing the ministry of Jesus in just about every place we went.  We started the day with a visit to the Jordan River, and while we know it may not have been the site of his baptism, it is one of the few spots where you see enough water to baptize in that river--the old gospel songs talking about the "mighty Jordan" were obviously written by people who had never seen it.  Yet it was a defining border for the land and a place Jesus must often have seen.  He also spent a lot of time in our next site--the Sea of Galilee itself.  We had a beautiful hour on the water reflecting on some of Jesus trips from the very spot we left and returned.  We had the added blessing of a Messianic Jewish boat captain who led us in singing praise and worship songs after our Bible study.  Following our return we saw a boat recovered from the shoreline of the Galilee that came from the time of Jesus and his disciples--we saw what their boats must have looked like.  And then we visited the traditional sites of the Sermon on the Mount and the feeding of the five thousand.  And finally we ended our morning with a visit to Capernaum--Jesus' adult home and site of so many of the events of the gospels.

Even our lunch had a biblical flair, as we went to a restaurant run by a former fisherman who served us St. Peter's fish--the staple fish that comes from the Sea of Galilee.  I don't know if the disciples had it with garlic sauce, but it was excellent!  It was quite the experience for us all.

Seeing some of the recovered artifacts from Capernaum
After lunch, we traveled to Nazareth, where we viewed the much-changed city of Jesus childhood.  Nothing is the same, and we used a nearby hill to view the city and see a better representation of what the scene must have been when his hometown was ready to kill him (Luke 4).  Then we got a much better view, as we went to the Nazareth YMCA and saw their "Nazareth Village" a recreation of life as it was in the 1st century.  What an informative and helpful stop.  Run by Arab Christians, we had the chance to consider not just the stones of the past, but consider Jesus' living stones--his followers--as they shared with us the story of the Savior's life as a child.

An amazing and full day, and now we move into our final leg of the journey as we travel tomorrow through the center of the country and end up in Jerusalem.
Nathan and his St. Peter's fish!
Jerry at the salad bar!


Friday, November 25, 2011

From Bet Shean through Upper Galilee

The "cardo" (main street) of
Bet Shean
Well, today started early, but that isn't as big a deal when your sleep cycle is still adjusting (or in my case completely whacked).  We had breakfast and were on the road by 7:15 am to head to Bet Shean, my favorite excavation in Israel due to its size and scope.  This city of the Decapolis looks as if it should have been in Italy or Asia Minor, but it was in the middle of Galilee--small wonder that it was sometimes called "Galilee of the Gentiles."  The Roman architecture and order reminds you that this was occupied territory in Jesus' time and that pagan religion and culture competed with Jewish devotion to God in the land.

Leaving these magnificently restored ruins, we headed north, all the way up to Tel Dan--the remains of the ancient city that was the northernmost referent for the land--as in "from Dan to Beersheba."  We did it backwards, but arrival in Dan meant seeing this ancient city from the period of Joshua and Judges.  Dan is a reminder of the failures of the people of Israel, from the tribe of Dan's failure to possess its inheritance, to their idolatry as they conquered this city, to Jereboam's introduction of idolatry as he divided the Israelite kingdom from the Temple.  But from a city that turned to paganism we went a few miles to a pagan city where the Lord Jesus took Simon Peter's confession and turned it into marching orders.  Caesarea Philippi was only a few miles from Dan, and in front of the Temples of Augustus, Pan, and Zeus, Jesus told his disciples that the offensive strategy of the church would overtake the gates of Hades itself--significant in that Pan was one of those who was linked with the guardians of the underworld.  What a contrast!

Nathan (and all of us) paid attention to the little red
triangle signs on the Golan Heights that said, "Danger-
Mines!"  Not something you see on tour every day.
We had some non-biblical experiences as well, from our visit to a Druze village for lunch (what incredible Druze pita and falafel--the schnitzel was good, too), to exploring a Syrian bunker on the Golan Heights, to a visit to an olive oil factory and some sampling!  All in all a great day as Shabbat (Sabbath) begins this evening.  Our only "Black Friday" experiences were in buying some products at the Olive Oil factory, but we were there in a private tour, so we had no crowds!

Today we are also helping John and Judy Bigelow celebrate 50 years of wedded bliss.  You can wish them a Happy Anniversary when they get back!  We did tonight at dinner!

John and Judy Bigelow on their 50th wedding anniversary,
Tomorrow we continue exploring Galilee, with an emphasis on sites of Jesus' ministry in the region.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Giving Thanks on Tour

Dead Sea at sunrise
Well, it is not exactly a normal Thanksgiving when you are a) out of the country, and b) on a fast paced tour.  Our day started early as we had much to do before too much daylight was lost.  We were up, had breakfast, and were out on the bus by 7:30 am to depart from the Dead Sea to head to Masada, the fabled site of Jewish resistance to the Romans.  Half of our group climbed the snake path, while the rest of us watched them briefly as our cable car zoomed by on the way to the summit.  But way to go, climbers!  You accomplished the climb. We smelled better the rest of the day.

The Hanging Palace at Masada
Masada is sobering as one considers its history, breathtaking as one studies Herod's intricate buildings and artistic touches preserved through 2,000 years, and stunning as one puts these two together in this incredible setting.  I never visit this place without reflecting on the conditions faced, the choices made, and the "what ifs" that come to mind.

We went to En Gedi next, the storied oasis of the desert mentioned throughout the OT, beginning in Genesis.  Most famous as the place where David could have killed Saul but spared him while hiding in a cave, the wildlife and waterfalls are a treat to see.  Our family has now taken our third picture at one particular spot at the middle falls.

The ladies especially enjoyed a stop at the Ahava factory, where cosmetic products from Dead Sea minerals are made and sold, but then we all profited from our visit to Qumran.  I love looking at Cave 1 and having Hezi recount the story of how the thousands of Dead Sea scrolls came to light through a Bedouin shepherd boy's throwing a stone and providentially breaking a piece of pottery.  Amazing confirmation of the trustworthiness of Scripture's transmission came through such a simple act!

We stopped in Jericho and saw the tel that holds what remains of the ancient city--so much could be found there, I think, if more excavation were done.  We also made a quick stop at the sycamore tree held to be the tree of Zacchaeus--I suppose it might be, but I wouldn't put too much stock in the identification.

The falls at the oasis of En Gedi
It was a long drive to our hotel afterward, but we got in before 6 pm, ending a long but joyful day.  And I must say, that in addition to many blessings that I have reflected on while riding through Israel today, one of them has been seeing these things with Kathy, Christine, Nathan, my brother's family, and the members of my church family and my Jesus family.  And I also have given thanks for the many of you back home--some of whom will be reading this.  I am a blessed man, especially because I am a son of our Heavenly Father and saved by the work of my Lord Jesus.  Today, I traveled in places He traveled, but someday I will walk with him on a new Earth, a new Promised Land.  What a great hope to have!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Day One--From Beersheva to the Dead Sea

Tel Beersheva
Hotels in Israel typically serve very generous buffets for breakfast, and today was no exception.  We were well fueled for our first day of touring with our guide, Hezi.  This is my 3rd tour with Hezi, and I appreciate his hard work and devotion to getting us what we would like to have.  Today he helped us accomplish all our stops and just a little more.

An ibex along a pathway at the
 David Ben Gurion Memorial
We began by heading to Tel Beersheva, the mound containing the remains of the "city" of Beersheva dating back to before the time of Christ.  However, the site is more significant than that, as the place where Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob saw significant events.  We focused on Isaac's personal reaffirmation of faith followed by his receiving the confirmation of God and others that God truly was with him--even pagans seemed to see he was blessed before he did!

We traveled on to Kibbutz Sde Boker, a place where the desert actually does bloom!  This kibbutz captured the spirit and dream of David Ben Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, who believed that bringing the desert of the Negev to life was the key to his new nation's survival.  He died there, and is buried nearby, in a site overlooking the wilderness of Sin, a rugged area mentioned as a part of Israel's journey to the Promised Land.  Seeing that terrain made you wonder how Moses could have led the people through such difficult and desolate regions, and made the need for manna absurdly obvious!

Moving on, we went to a Bedouin village setting where we were entertained and fed by our host, Salim.  He told of Bedouin life and customs, sang a few local songs, and played his coffee grinder!  You'll have to ask about that one.

Doing what you do
 in the Dead Sea
We drove on to look at the Mizpe Ramon crater, a massive hole in the ground that speaks of the incredible power of water to change a landscape (I'm thinking Flood here).  More Genesis came into view as we arrived at the Dead Sea.  Now a mineral spa resort, the area is a stark reminder of God's judgment as one contemplates the cities buried under the water near the southeast shore.  Our experience was much different as we stayed in a resort style hotel.  We didn't just float in the sea, but also took advantage of heated mineral and freshwater pools in the hotel's spa.  Then it was a great dinner and time in conversation before heading to bed--which I am about to do!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Journey is Underway!

Well, we arrived in Tel Aviv this afternoon after a very good flight from Philadelphia--made better by the fact that I actually slept quite a bit.  We were met by those joining us from other places, and then by our guide, Hezi, and our driver, Rami.  These men will accompany us throughout our journey in Israel.  Today was about getting here and getting to our first night's hotel in Beersheva.  This ancient home to Isaac and his family will be ours tonight.  We've had a good meal and now are beginning to fade away, thanks to time changes and time changes.  Tomorrow will be our first day of touring.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Off to Israel

Well, I am sitting in the Columbus airport, waiting for a slightly delayed flight that still will get us to Philadelphia 3 hours before we catch our next flight to Israel.  15 of us are here, 6 more will join us in Philadelphia, and 7 will meet us in Tel Aviv for this tour.  For the first time, we are beginning in the desert south of Israel, staying the first night in Beersheva, Isaac's abode during much of his life.  I'm anxious to get there again--this is my tenth trip.  Even so, there are places we will see this time that I have not seen before.  As we leave, I'm rejoicing in the good report from our Harvest Offering.  As of this morning we are around $$62,000, meaning all but one of the projects are funded, and my prayer is that the next few days and weeks will see the final project completed!

I am hoping to have access to blog, and maybe even post a picture or two each time--but I make no promises!  Pray for us, if you are not too jealous, that God will use this time to deepen our understanding of His Word as we walk the land of the Bible!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

More on fasting: The "Daniel Fast"

(This is some of the "more information" I promised in the post from Sunday, found here. )

There is a significant amount of material on the web and other sites related to the "Daniel" fast, named for the biblical prophet who in Daniel 1 and 10 used this particular diet.  The first time was to test God's faithfulness to Daniel and his friend's obedience in following Hebrew dietary laws.  The second was to discover the meaning of a vision he had received from God.  Daniel fasted for three weeks, and so this fast is often for that duration.

A Daniel fast is simply choosing a vegetarian (or possibly "vegetation"--that is, anything that comes from the ground) and water diet.  Some use juices as well.  It would involve no dairy and no meat.  It is often used for a period of seeking God, not just a day or two of fasting.

I spoke with someone today whose former church used to use this any time they faced a significant decision or development, with very affirming results.  This is not to say you must, but only that this is another aspect of this wonderful "tool" called fasting that is available to help you seek God.

One other thing--go to the main church website here and follow the links to the audio or video of the message if you didn't hear and would like to, or need a refresher.  And you can also follow the links to find my sermon notes as well (just like always).

Claiming that Jesus is still dead...

An amateur archeologist with a desire to prove Jesus is still in the tomb has announced more on his supposed "discovery" of the tomb itself in a location no other scholar supports. Todd Bolen, from The Master's College and the Israel Bible Extension writes about it at the Bible Places Blog here.

And for those interested this blog has a wealth of information about archeology today in the Holy Land.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Resources On Fasting

For those who would like to consider more seriously how to go about fasting, the following resources are helpful, though I issue my standard disclaimer--not everything everyone says in every resource is correct--I agree with much of what is here, some of it may be debatable, and none of it should supplant the clear teaching of the Word of God!

That said, here are three helpful resources to begin.  I will add to this list as the need or opportunity may arise.

God's Chosen Fast, by Arthur Wallis, 1968, reprinted 1997, Christian Literature Crusade

Bill Bright, founder of CRU (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) was a regular practitioner of fasting, which may explain some of the remarkable ways God used him and his ministry.  He offers very practical instruction in this article, including his recommendations for undertaking a lengthy fast.  It has some good teaching, a few overstatements (that was Bill Bright's way), and some very clear "how-to" instructions.

Jonathan Edwards on fasting and prayer

This should get you started if you desire to do so.