Israel Travel Journal

Day 9:

Today is the last day of our pilgrimage, and we have come full circle. We have seen Bethlehem where Jesus was born, Nazareth where he grew up, Galilee where he spent 2-1/2 years of his public ministry, the Jordan River where he was baptized, the wilderness where he was later tempted by Satan and we ended our day at the Garden Tomb, one of the two locations where Jesus was believed to be buried. More on that in a moment …

Our first stop after a morning off was Bethany, where many significant biblical events took place. Sadly, as with a number of towns in the West Bank, Bethany was filled with trash, and people parking on sidewalks, having no problem blocking streets with their parked cars. It was here where Mary, Martha and Lazarus lived, where Lazarus was raised from the dead, where Simon was healed of leprosy, and where, at a dinner gathering with Martha serving, Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive ointment six days before he was crucified. 

Kimberly shared from this scene of how Mary, being still before the Lord, was able to sense what was about to take place, and where Martha on the other hand was busy serving. She reminded us of how easy it is to be distracted with so many things, even good things, that we can miss being still before the Lord listening to and worshiping him.

We then made our way through the traffic-filled streets of Jerusalem up to Caiaphas the High Priest’s house. While I thought we were just going to see the remains of his house, what we saw, I was not prepared for. Walking through the church that now sits on the site, we made our way down a narrow pathway to the “prison” where Jesus spent his last night. It was a cave underneath Caiaphas’ house where they would have lowered Jesus down by rope into a cavern, where in utter darkness and pain, Jesus awaited his death on calvary. We read from Psalm 88, which depicts the scene, then sat in silence. You could almost hear tears dripping on the cold stone floor.  

We then walked back up to the courtyard where Peter denied Jesus three times and we could see the remains of the path that led to the cross. For me, it was one of the most moving moments of the trip. We then boarded the bus for our final destination which was the Garden Tomb. After seeing the potential spot where Jesus was crucified, then his tomb, we then walked a few feet where we had an Ash Wednesday service culminating with communion. What a way to end our journey! We were reminded that the story of Scripture began in a garden (the Garden of Eden) and ended in a garden with the resurrection. Praise God for the new life that he brings to us!  

With a farewell dinner on a rooftop hotel looking over the beautiful city of Jerusalem, we were off to Tel Aviv for our overnight flight home. It is hard to put in words the work that the Lord has done in each of our lives! My prayer is that he will continue to reveal himself to us as we enter into this season of Lent leading us to the great celebration of EASTER!

Day 8:

It is hard to imagine that this trip could get any better, but today it did. Read on and you will see…  

We had another early wake-up call at 5:30 a.m. then off to the bus by 7. We headed back out to the desert traveling south along the Dead Sea, which its actually a lake. It is the lowest point in the world sitting 1,400 feet below sea level. Our first stop was Masada. Masada sits on a mountain over looking the rugged desert and the Dead Sea. It was a fortified palace built by Herod the Great in the first century BC. Zealots later occupied the great fortress. After the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, 10,000 Roman soldiers marched to Masada to suppress the final Jewish stronghold, where all but a hand full of Jews chose to commit suicide rather than to become enslaved by the Romans.  

We then traveled north along the Dead Sea to Engedi (spring of the wild goat). As we were driving to the entrance of this site, we saw a number of ibex (wild goat). We got to get off the bus, take pictures and feed them. They seemed to love Cheeto Puffs, thanks AJ! Engedi is a lush oasis in the middle of the hot rugged desert. There is a spring that continues to water this part of desert. It is marked by it’s many caves and beautiful waterfall. It was here where David wrote Psalm 42. Many of you will be familiar with these words; “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.” (Psalm 42:102) 

It was also here where Saul and David encountered one another in a cave. David has the opportunity to kill Saul, but chose not to saying “I will not put my hand against my lord, for he is the Lord’s anointed.” (1 Samuel 24) What humility David displayed when encountering the man who was out to kill him. David did not lash out in retaliation against the one who was against him, but trusted in God’s sovereign purposes. What a reminder to me that when there is conflict among fellow Christians or even when we get under one another’s skin, what a difference it makes to see them as made in God’s image, anointed with the Holy Spirit and trusting that the Lord is at work in the conflict.

We then took the short drive to Qumran, where in 1947 the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. During the Jewish revolt against Rome in 66 AD, the Essenes, a Jewish sect living in Qumran who spent their days translating Hebrew manuscripts, placed the scrolls in clay pots and placed them in caves to protect them. They remained there until 1947, when a shepherd found them in a cave after one of his goats wandered into a cave. 

It was in Qumran where our guide pointed out the importance of this particular region biblically. This was the area where John the Baptist likely lived. As we looked around, we could see where Jesus was baptized in the Jordan by John. Just on the other side of the mountain range was where Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness. It was near here where Elijah was taken up to heaven in a chariot. As we looked across the Dead Sea, we could see the hills of Moab where Ruth and Boaz met. The list could go on and on, but pretty amazing to be able to see where so many important events took place in the Old Testament as well as in the New testament. 

We then traveled to the Dead Sea, where we got to float! From there we went to Jericho, which is the oldest city in the world. We saw part of the original wall dating back some 8,000 years! This is also the place where Moses, with many Israelites standing on Mt. Nebo, looked across the Jordan into the Promised Land. Jericho is a true oasis in the middle of the desert, being a lush farming community. Jericho was also the city that the Israelites conquered by marching around it seven times. It is the location where Zacchaeus climbed on a sycamore tree to see Jesus passing by, and it is where Jesus healed blind Bartimaeus. As you can see, so many important events happened in Jericho.  

Our final stop for the day was just over the mountains from Jericho, the wilderness where Jesus spent 40 days fasting and then being tempted by Satan. This was the most sobering place to see. A true desert wilderness, no trees, just rugged dry land with a few spots of vegetation highlighting the mountains. As we stood, somewhat speechless, we could see a barren valley below, with a small stream running though it. This is where David wrote Psalm 23. We took a moment to read the psalm and ponder what it must have been like for David and Jesus to spend time in this wilderness. Looking toward the west, we saw the sun setting behind the Mt. of Olives in Jerusalem. Rays of light beamed from the Mt. of Olives, reminding me of Jesus’ victory over the darkness. I told you … it was quite a day!!

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Day 6:

As I sit down to write this, I don’t know where to begin. This was one of those days where we saw so much and encountered the presence of the Lord in so many ways, that it is hard to articulate, but i’ll try. 

We woke up as a beautiful sunrise welcomed us to a chilly Jerusalem morning. We began our day at the Mount of Olives over looking the Old City of Jerusalem with the Temple Mount in clear view. From there, we could see the original city of David which is just south of the old city. We walked the steep narrow path that Jesus road the donkey on Palm Sunday, passing the spot where Jesus looked out and wept over Jerusalem, then on to the Garden of Gethsemane. It is difficult to feel the intensity of the scene where Jesus agonized over what was ahead for him, with so many tourists around, but we were able to take a few moments to be still and take it in. 

I read from Luke 22:39-46 and spoke about how Jesus fully surrendered to his Father’s will. When we surrender things to the Lord, we often think we are giving up so much, yet the reality is that Jesus gave his life for us. Surrender leads to death and death leads to resurrection. The great irony of the Gospel is that true life comes from surrender. We then boarded our bus and headed to Bethlehem, crossing into Area A (the West Bank). We toured the Church of the Nativity, build in 333 AD, the oldest church in the world. This church was built over the cave where Jesus was likely born. Yes, I said cave. Jesus was not born in a farm stable like we often picture it. The people in this region lived in caves where one level was for the family and the bottom level was for the animals.

From there we took a short ride to the Shepherd’s field, where the angel appeared to the group of shepherds the night Jesus was born. Kimberly led us through Luke 2:8-20. She reminded us that the angel appeared to lowly outcasts of society trending sheep who would be used for the sacrifice in the temple. They would soon walk the short distance to see the ultimate Lamb of God who would take away their sins and the sins of the world! We went in the Chapel of the Shepherd’s Field where AJ led us in singing the Doxology. It was a taste of the glory that the Shepherds must have experienced as the heavens opened and the heavenly hosts praised God saying; “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased.”

Leaving the Shepherd’s Field, we then headed back to Jerusalem to see the Upper Room, the place where Jesus celebrated the last supper with his disciples and where Pentecost took place. A number of people felt the presence of the Holy Spirit in that place. Hold on … the day was not over.

For me, the best was yet to come. A number of our group headed back to the Old City passing through the Jaffa Gate to attend a worship service at Christ Church Anglican. It was a spirit-filled, dynamic service with people of many nations worshipping together. As worship began, I realized that our 11 a.m. service at St. Andrew’s had just begun. I felt like we were caught up in the Spirit worshipping as one, though we were half way across the world. What a way to end the day!

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Day 5:  

We awoke this morning to a beautiful fog over the Sea of Galilee with lines of geese flying close to the calm water. What a stark contrast to the storm over the water the day before. We left the Sea of Galilee heading south along the Jordan River Valley toward Jericho. It was the path that Jesus would have likely taken many times. When traveling they would walk up to twenty miles a day. 

Our first stop was at Beit She’an, a settlement which began in late 5000 BC. In the battle of the Israelites against the Philistines on Mount Gilboa, the bodies of King Saul and three of his sons were hung on the walls of Beit She’an. In Roman times, Beit She’an was the leading city of the Decapolis. After leaving Beit She’an, we traveled south, leaving behind the lush green terrain of Galilee and entering into the desert where John the Baptist lived and baptized Jesus in the Jordan River. With many of our group ready to be baptized in the Jordan, we had to go to plan B because the river was so high from all of the rain that we could not get in. We hope to give it another try in a few days.  

We then had lunch at an Israeli kibbutz in the West Bank. Quite an experience seeing what life in a close knit community was like. Every meal is done in a cafeteria style way with long rectangular tables throughout the dining room. It is a radical way of living life in community, but I could not help but think we could learn a few things from them in our western individualistic ways.

We then made our journey through the desert up to Jerusalem seeing many shepherds with their sheep and camels along the way. As we drew near to Jerusalem, our driver played The Holy City, and as we came out of the tunnel we saw the most breathtaking picture of the city draped in white limestone with the Dome of the Rock sitting on top of the Temple Mount. Pretty sobering to think that it was here that our Savior gave his life so that we could receive life, rose from the grave so that we could live resurrected lives covered by his grace. I am coming to realize that everything Jesus did was to show us the Father’s great love for humanity.

Our journey today reminded me of the seasons of life that we all go through. Seasons that reflect the lush beauty of Galilee with its green hills to the dry arid desert where we cry out for the presence of the Lord, then up to Jerusalem where we learn to die to ourselves so that we can experience the glory of resurrection. Such is the cycle of life!  We ended our day with worship and sharing what the Lord has been showing us. It took us thirty minutes to try and find the room that the Hotel reserved for us. Picture 37 people going up and down the elevator multiple times trying to find the room. When we finally did, it was on the top floor where we had to go through a gray steel door, then a solid wood door only to find that they put us in a room with no windows, which was next to the boiler room!

What better way to experience the fire of the Holy Spirit than next to the boiler room. We were not going to let anything get in the way of praising the Lord for what he has done and what he is showing us. 

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Day 4:

We woke up to one of the most beautiful sunrises. How could it not be beautiful being on the Sea of Galilee? It brought new meaning to Lamentations 3:22-23 “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” Needless to say, I can only imagine the praise Jesus gave to his Father as he watched a new day come into being, knowing the new life he would bring to countless ordinary people around the region of Galilee.

Our first stop was to the Valley of Doves, a narrow valley below the imposing cliffs of Mt. Arbel in Galilee. Jesus walked through this narrow path after he was rejected in his home town of Nazareth. It was a path that he often traveled on. We then made our way to Caesarea on to the Mediterranean Sea. This was an ancient port built by Herod the Great between 22-10 BC. It was like being in Rome, though we were in the Middle East.

Both Peter and Paul spent time in Caesarea. When Peter had a vision from the Lord in Joppa, he was called by God to go to Caesarea to the house of Cornelius, a Gentile (Acts 10). This was the place where the Holy Spirit fell on the Gentiles, showing that the gospel is for all nations! We prayed that the Holy Spirit would come and fill us afresh with his presence and power to be about the mission he has for each of us. 

Paul was in prison in Caesarea for two years before traveling to Rome. I was struck by the way the the Lord used that time in Paul’s life to indoctrinate him into Roman culture before he was to preach the gospel in Rome. What a picture of the way that God uses all things in our lives for his glory and our good, even when we don’t understand why we are going through what we are going through. When we think we are in a waiting period, God is using it to do a work in us and to prepare us for what is ahead.

A highlight was to run into T.J., the founding pastor of St. Andrew’s, and his wife, Reese, who were leading a group from South Carolina.

Leaving Caesarea, we headed to Megiddo which was one of the most strategic locations in the ancient world. People traveled through Israel because it provided a land bridge between Asia, Africa and Europe, and they traveled right past Megiddo. The Egyptian King Thutmose III (1480 BC) once said that “to capture Megiddo is to capture a thousand towns.” Megiddo was built and destroyed more than 20 times. Megiddo sits above the valley of Jezreel where major battles were fought between 3500-586 BC. The Greek name for Megiddo is Armageddon, where the final battle between Jesus and Satan will take place. Through a devotion at that site, were were reminded that though we face battles every day, Jesus fights for us and he will win the ultimate battle at the end of time. We can have great confidence that it is the Lord who goes before us and fights for us, as he did on the cross! 

As then day continued, we made our way to Nazareth, the home town of Jesus. We visited the Church of the Annunciation, which sits above the ruins of the home where Jesus grew up. In the Gospels, Nathanial asked; “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” In it’s day, it was a small insignificant town of just over 200 people. How ironic that it was there that the King of kings grew up. God loves humility. Today, Nazareth is a city of 250,000 people whose drivers are ten times more aggressive than drivers in Texas and who have no problem parking in the middle of the street or on sidewalks right upon to a shop’s door! Our bus driver Money Mike was amazing navigating the winding roads of the city. I still have not found out why he is called Money Mike. Our day ended at Cana where Jesus turned the water into wine at a wedding—his first miracle.

Off to meet some of our group to unpack the day then to bed.

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Day 3:  

This day began at 3:30 a.m. listening to the waves on the Sea of Galilee when Kimberly and I looked at each other and said, “Are you awake?” Needless to say, we were up and going! After a wonderful breakfast feast, we were off for our day of sightseeing around the Sea of Galilee. The first stop was the Mount of Beatitudes, the location on the northern part of the sea where Jesus likely gave his famous sermon in the mount. After a reading from Matthew 6, I shared how through this sermon, Jesus longs to reach our hearts and show us the heart of God.

We then traveled north to Tel Dan. Tel Dan is one of the largest ancient tels (man made hill) in Israel, with the remains of a 5000 year old city. The height of the city’s development was during the Canaanite and Israelite periods. Jeroboam, who became the first king of the divided northern kingdom of Israel, went to Dan and made a golden calf for the people to worship. What a reminder of how prone all of our hearts are to worship things that we create.

We then walked and saw the original gate of the city of Dan dating back to Genesis when Abraham traveled to that city after God had called him to leave his land and journey to the new land the Lord had for he and his descendants. We were reminded that just as Abraham was called to leave the familiar and follow God, so too are we. We talked about where God might be calling us to leave the familiar behind and encounter him in new and fresh ways.  

After a tasty lunch of St. Peter’s fish from the Sea of Galilee, we then went to the location of the feeding of the 5,000—Peter’s rock, where Jesus reinstated Peter (John 21) after denying Jesus before the crucifixion. We then traveled to the ruins of the city of Capernaum “his own town” (Matthew 9:1) where Jesus spent much of his public ministry teaching, healing and doing many miracles. It was also the home of Peter and a number of Jesus’ disciples. After teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum, Jesus went to Peter’s house and healed his mother in law. We saw the remains of that house which later became a house church after Jesus’ resurrection. Walking around the remains of that city reminded me that Jesus still heals and does miraculous things today!

We then boarded a boat on the Sea of Galilee. What an experience! As we boarded, we could see a storm coming from the north and the sun shining in the south.  All of a sudden it got very dark and windy and the storm came with great force, heavy rain and wind and hail as we docked. In the midst of all off this we saw the most beautiful rainbow over the sea as the skies began to open. The storms of life come to all of us, but what we saw today was testimony that the Lord is always in the storm and he is always faithful to his promise. We ended the evening with worship and sharing what the Lord showed us today. I wish you could have heard the stories. Just as God was at work in Abraham’s life, so he is in ours today! [excerpt]

Travel Day…

[excerpt] This morning, we began our journey to the Holy Land. Our day of travel began at 10 a.m. meeting our group at the Little Rock airport. Our travel agent, Mitchell, said he had never seen a group so on time as ours. I wonder if that will continue the rest of the trip? We met more of our group in Atlanta, where we had a five-hour layover. Lots of eating, reading, sitting and walking. Some even decided to race each other up and down the long corridor to help pass the time. Then on to NYC. A tired group boarded the plane in NYC to Tel Aviv for the 101/2-hour flight. We awoke to a beautiful sunset over the Mediterranean Sea. 

Upon arrival in Tel Aviv, we met Louie, our tour guide, and “Money” Mike, our driver.  Not sure why he is called “Money” Mike, but plan to find out. We boarded our bus for the two-hour drive from Tel Aviv to Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee. We traveled along the Via Maris (way of the sea) which was built on the ancient trade route, dating from the early Bronze Age, linking Egypt with the northern empires of Syria and Mesopotamia. They held dinner for our late arrival at the hotel. A tired but excited group went straight to the dining room for a delicious buffet of Mediterranean cuisine, then off to bed. Looking forward to seeing a beautiful sunrise on the Sea of Galilee.

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