Bethlehem–Not What I Was Expecting

Day Five  (Like I said earlier… it was a really full day)

In the late afternoon, we visited Bethlehem. The name brings to mind the incredible account of Jesus’ birth—shepherds in the fields, a humble manger, the Magi coming from the east. You know, Silent Night and such. What a difference several centuries has made. In order to enter Bethlehem, you have to go through a huge military checkpoint, since it had been a place of considerable violence.

When you get to what is believed by many to be the actual site of Jesus’ birth, it’s in the middle of a busy inner city, with thousands of visitors to the site. On the site, a huge church has been built, where the Christmas midnight mass occurs—the one you’ve probably seen on TV.

So you wait in line for potentially hours, to enter into the cave area. As you can see from the photos, it has been made into a bit of a religious shrine. Here’s the supposed spot of the manger.

Those are candles in the back. And here’s the supposed place of Jesus’ birth.

Lots of people were kissing the spot, kneeling before it, etc. It honestly felt a bit weird. Not what I had hoped for or expected.

I prefer to think of Bethlehem and Jesus’ birthplace as Luke describes it in chapter 2. Jesus came to earth in a simple, humble way. No fanfare or crowds; born in a place animals were kept, because there was no room in the local inn.  Our Prince of Peace.

My Trip to Israel–Jericho (Day Five)

Day Five Continued….

We hopped on the bus and headed to Jericho. Yes, the actual city of Jericho. I didn’t realize that Jericho is thought by many to be the oldest city in the world. Here’s a photo on site of a building/house that is believed to be 10,000 years old.

Can you imagine that? This thing was built 6000 years before Abraham was born. Incredible. Here’s a video clip where you can see ruins from the old city of Jericho and in the distance, you can see the mountain where it is believed that Jesus experienced the devil’s temptation (Matthew 4).

Cool story about Jericho. Years ago, a famous archaeologist came into Jericho and after years of digging, came to the conclusion that there never was any wall to the city. Which would certainly make the story of Joshua’s conquering of the city inaccurate. This news was widely reported and caused many to question the validity of the Biblical text. But years later, another archaeologist proposed a different theory. What if the walls of the city were not as we would expect (ie stone upon stone) but instead were built with columns and between the columns were placed stones made of sand—so that when the column would fall, all the stuff in between would easily follow? That’s exactly what he discovered. Instead of stone walls, he discovered columns. There was a wall to the city!

As our tour leader, Tom Doyle, says about archeology, “An absence of evidence does not indicate an evidence of absence.” Just because a dig hasn’t discovered something, doesn’t mean we must conclude the Biblical account didn’t happen. This has been proven over and over again. Scholars will doubt a particular Biblical text simply because there is no specific archaeological evidence only to later discover the text was indeed accurate.

Here’s another example we came across a few days ago. For many years, it was believed that there was no such person as Pontius Pilate, because there had been no archaeological discovery indicating it. But later, in Caesarea, an inscription was found specifically referring to Pontius Pilate. Here’s a photo from the ruins in Caesarea showing a replica of the inscription found.  Over and over again, the Bible has been shown to be historically accurate.

My Trip to Israel–Day Five

Another interesting (and really full) day. Started by going to a place called Beth Shan…which is a REALLY old city. As you can see from these pictures, it was quite a location during the Roman occupation, with mosaic streets, columns, an incredible amphitheater.  From a Biblical perspective, prior to Roman occupation, it is of interest because it is the portion of land in which that the tribe of Manasseh didn’t  drive out the Canaanites (Joshua 17:11,16). God had promised to give it to them, but they decided it was too dangerous—translated: it required too much faith.  I wonder how many blessings  we miss out on simply because they involve taking God at His word, believing what He said and that feels risky and challenging to us?

Another interesting thing happened in Beth Shan. When King Saul was defeated in the battle at Mount Gilboa, the Philistines took his body and hung it on the gates of their city, which for the Israelites was the ultimate act of shame. (I Samuel 31:10-12) In fact, some valiant Israelites went in under cover of darkness and recovered the body for a proper burial. Nonetheless, it was an incredibly low point for the nation of Israel—they had asked for a king and it had not turned out well. Even though Saul looked from the outside like the perfect king, he was incredibly insecure and ended up turning to a witch for help before his last battle. Not good.

The good news, of course, is that God had David in the wings, man after His own heart and very soon, Israel would be at the height of her strength and glory under David’s leadership and God’s blessing.

A little side note: There is more than one famous being standing in this picture. In addition to our tour guide, Jason Elam (former kicker for the Broncos), the tree is also famous. It was used in the movie Jesus Christ Superstar in the scene where Judas hangs himself. It’s quite a sight—the lone tree on a huge hill.

From there, we went to a really fun spot—the actual place where Gideon’s army was reduced to 300. It’s a great story found in Judges 7—how “fearful” Gideon was called by God to lead the Israelites to break free from the Midionites harassment.  He had an army of 32,000 but God told Gideon that was too large. God wanted to make sure Gideon knew the battle was the Lord’s. So initially 22000 are told to go home. But that was still too many with which to fight. So they came to a spring to get some water. And God said, “Anyone who bends down and drinks the water by cupping it in his hands will stay. Everyone else can leave.” That left 300 men. God was really making his point in a fairly dramatic way, huh?

So we got to visit the actual spring where the separating occurred. Here’s the spot:

and here’s me in the water (I know, a bit cheesy—but hey, I’m at the actual spot so why not?) Aside from the cheesy photo, what an incredible place to remind us that God loves to do great things with our little. When we wholeheartedly offer to Him what we have, He adds His part and great things can happen.

My Trip to Israel — The Sea of Galilee

Day Four–Part 2

We spent a few hours this afternoon on the sea of Galilee. Here are a couple photos, one with Jason Elam, the former Denver Bronco. The other….of just plain old me.

The Sea of Galilee—it is really hard to describe this body of water in terms of what it does to your soul. There is something so tranquil, peaceful, full of awe and reverence, about this body of water—Not because of the water or the setting, but rather because of the One we know who ministered there. We took a boat out on the sea of Galilee. Just an hour earlier, we had been hit with a fairly nasty storm—lots of rain and wind—which I had heard the Sea of Galilee is known for. Now I know it’s true. But by the time we left in the boat, the entire squall had cleared and beautiful sun had replaced it.

Our boat captain was playing worship music and it was perfect for the setting. I took some video footage of the view from the boat looking toward Capernaum and the area Jesus taught the Sermon on the Mount.

We later discovered that many of us on that boat, while the worship music was playing, were thinking about the miracles that had occurred on these waters. Jesus walking out to the boat in a storm and bidding Peter to come join Him, or Jesus being asleep in the boat during a storm and when awoken, simply said “Be quiet,” and the storm ceased. As you are out in the middle of this beautiful body of water, those are the thoughts that fill your mind and heart with such a love and appreciation for this Jesus who continually is calling us to not be afraid, but to trust Him instead. Even when the waves look overpowering, He is still in charge.

I kept thinking “He was here. He walked on this water. He spoke the beatitudes on the near shore. He, THE He of the universe, was here.” I didn’t want to leave.

My Trip to Israel–Day Four (Part 1)

Day Four November 9th, 2012

Today our focus was on area surrounding the Sea of Galilee, specifically on the north end. It is there that Jesus spent the majority of His ministry. We started the day by going to a scenic overlook that gives an incredible view of the Sea of Galilee. Just below us here is the town where Mary Magdalene was from.

After that initial look, we then visited the area where it is believed that Jesus taught the Sermon on the Mount.

As you can see, there is a Catholic church on the site—plus lots of rules about areas you can go in and can’t go in. I was trying to find a quiet spot—and succeeded, only to discover later that it was a forbidden area. So I guess I broke the “law” while meditating on the Beatitudes.  Interesting.

The view of the Sea of Galilee from there is spectacular.

So after settling into my illegal spot, I decided to read out loud the entire Sermon on the Mount. It was a cool experience….to be reading about God taking care of the flowers of the field with flowers all around me, and to hear birds chirping as I read about God taking care of the birds of the air. I especially enjoyed reading the Lord’s prayer–a prayer that is so meaningful to me in my prayer times with the Lord—and realizing that this was very likely the spot where Jesus first taught us to pray that way.

We then visited Jesus’ home town—a place known as Capernaum. It is no longer an inhabited town but rather is another site for a Catholic sanctuary. While it’s easy to get frustrated at all these churches built on holy sites, it is helpful to remember that, given the nature and volatility of the region, these churches provide protection against these holy sites being desecrated from militant Muslims who don’t share the same value.

The fact that Capernaum is in ruins is interesting, given the fact that Jesus Himself rebuked Capernaum for not believing in Him, even though they had seen numerous miracles. “And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.” Matthew 11:23-24. Wow. Had Sodom seen the same miracles Capernaum had witnessed, they would have repented. How tragic that Jesus’ home town refused to believe in Him.

We stood on the foundation of a synagogue that was likely the one Jesus went to while He lived in Capernaum. Another structure was later built on this site, but the dark foundation stones would have been the ones in Jesus’ day.

To think that this was the spot where Jesus worshipped when he was growing up. This was the place where in Mark 3 Jesus healed a man with a shriveled hand. Imagine, the God of the universe visiting us in this way. This region of Galilee was actually known as kind of backwoods area—not nearly as sophisticated as Jerusalem. [Sort of the way Fort Collins folks look at us in Greeley :)]

Which makes Isaiah 9 even more fascinating. Seven hundred years before Jesus was born, Isaiah prophesied “Nevertheless there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past He humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future He will honor Galilee of the nations, by way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan…For to us a child is born, to us a Son is given and the government will be on His shoulders.” Galilee had been a place of dishonor but God was about to change all that. Enter Jesus.

The fact that Jesus came from Galilee and that He didn’t hobnob with the religious elite (or the politically powerful) again speaks volumes to us about how God does things—through the weak and despised things of the world. “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the deep darkness, a light has dawned.”

Into our darkness, into our shame, Jesus enters. What an amazing Savior.

My Trip To Israel–Day Three

November 8th, 2012

Another amazing day. We started the day by going to Caesarea, which is where the gospel first came to the Gentiles. In Acts 10, we read about how Peter went to the home of Cornelius (who lived in Caesarea) and as he was preaching to them, the Spirit of God came upon the hearers. Even against Peter’s own internal objection, God’s message was clear—the gospel was intended for Jew and Gentile alike. The location of this event was significant. Caesarea was the Las Vegas of its day—decadent, immoral, a wild vacation spot.  And it was here God said, “This good news is for all.”

What in important reminder to all of us—God’s heart is to get the gospel to all, which means going into places of darkness. Our tour guide let us know that one of the places where the gospel is growing the fastest is in Iran. It is estimated that there are 1 million believers I Tehran. One million! Apparently God is able to move in people’s lives, no matter who happens to be in power.

Here are a few photos from Caesarea: the Coliseum, in which they still have concerts today.

King Herod built a palace there along the Mediterranean Ocean, with his own swimming pool.

And check out the where they held chariot races. No wonder this was Herod’s favorite vacation spot!

This photo shows the place where Paul defended himself in front of King Agrippa in Acts 25:13ff.

One of the highlights of this day was going to Mount Carmel, where Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal (See I Kings 19). What an amazing view from the top of Mount Carmel. Check it out on this video clip:

Another mountain top experience today was to go on the Golan Heights, which Israel took back control of during the six day war in 1967. During our visit on the Golan Heights, we stopped to pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ in Syria, a country that is in great distress. From our vantage point, you could see the western edge of this nation. (We actually heard mortar fire while we were here, then discovered the next day that Syrian rebels had fired on the Golan Heights. You can see the Israeli soldiers in the photo.)

One final experience today—going to Caesarea Philippi–an area at the time known for paganism and idolatry. Here’s a photo of an area where a pagan temple was located.

It was in this area of religious pluralism that Jesus asked Peter “Who do you say that I am?” (See Matthew 16) His answer, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”, was spot on and represented the “Rock” upon which Jesus would build His church. In the midst of the literal rock of a pagan temple, Jesus declares that He is building upon His own rock. The gates of hell will not prevail against it.

Bottom line—God is at work. He is building His church—in the midst of decadence, idolatry, persecution.

My Trip to Israel–Day Two

Day Two  November 7th, 2012

Today we had the awesome privilege of visiting two very significant sites. First, we went to Shiloh. I had no idea how important Shiloh is in Israel’s history. It was the capital of Israel before Jerusalem. This is why the ark of the covenant was placed at Shiloh for 369 years. Shiloh was where the Israelites gathered with Joshua to divide up the Promised Land before entering in to possess it. (See Joshua 18:1, 8-10). It also was the spot upon which a significant war was averted when the twelve tribes decided to talk to each other instead of jump to all sorts of assumptions. (See Joshua 22:10-12).

What’s fascinating about the site of Shiloh is that there are some hills on the east side that provide a natural  amphitheatre, which explains how on earth thousands  of people could gather in one place for an event like those described above.

Shiloh also was the place where Hannah poured out her heart to God, desperately asking God to remove her barrenness. When her son Samuel was born, she  dedicated him to serve the Lord, under the mentorship of Eli the priest. It was there at Shiloh the boy Samuel began to hear God’s voice. (See I Samuel 3). What an amazing experience to stand on the very ground where Samuel first heard the whisper of God.

Here’s a brief video I took at the site:

The second place we went was to an overlook in Samaria where we could look out and in one view see Mount Moreh, where Abraham got his first look at the land God had promised him. (See Genesis 12:6-8).

At the same overlook we could see the city of Sychar (which was the city the woman at the well came from) plus the location of Jacob’s well—upon which an Islamic church is now built.  Given the political situation, those were not sites we were able to visit up close.

My Trip to Israel–Day One

I just returned yesterday from a 12 day trip to Israel. It was an amazing experience. Each night when I would go back to my hotel room, I would write about that day’s experiences and reflections. So I’m posting these sequentially–with photos and videos of various spots. Hope you enjoy…

Day One—Tuesday November 6th

Just arrived in Tel Aviv. Met our main tour guides—Tom Doyle and Jason Elam (yes, the former Bronco kicker).  Got through the passport person with no problems (which is a huge praise since I had a Syria stamp in my passport and had been warned I would probably be interrogated—she only asked me two questions, none related to Syria). We took a van to our hotel, which is in the West Bank. The only Jewish hotel in the West Bank.

On the way, one of our other tour guides—Sean— gave us a brief history about the West Bank—how the land had been Jordan’s from 1948 to 1967. During the 6 day war in which several countries attacked Israel, Israel won and took possession of the West Bank (which is the Biblical region of Judea and Samaria.) In the late 2000’s, Bill Clinton helped pass the Oslo accord, which divided the west bank into three regions. One Palestinian only, one Jewish and Palestinian, and one Jewish. Apparently it hasn’t worked too well, as revealed by the violence that has occurred over the past decade. But things seem better now, according to our guide.

Sean is a house church planter in Israel. His strategy? Plant churches the way Jesus describes in Luke 10 (Imagine that). Find a person of peace who will open their home. Begin to build a relationship, pray for the sick, cast out demons…and watch God work. He has 18 house churches and has seen 250 healings in the past few years. He told me about his mentor in India who has planted 280,000 house churches. Unbelievable.

Am just now hearing the Muslim call to prayer. What a sad thing—to be in the very land where Jesus walked, and to have so many—Jews and Muslims alike—missing the transforming power of our Messiah.

Election Do’s and Don’ts

It’s that time of year…when people are running for office, emotions are running high, and political commercials are running constantly. In the midst of this highly charged environment, it becomes challenging for us as Christ followers to know how to respond. So here are a few Do’s and Don’ts that I would offer:

Do’s:

Do Vote. We have an incredible opportunity to express our opinion through voting. Be well informed about the issues that are of concern to you and vote your conscience.

Do Pray for Our Leaders—and not just those with whom we agree. I Timothy 2:1 “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”

Do Demonstrate Love and Civility When Dialoging With People from an Opposing Side. We are called to love, always.

Do Remember Government’s Role. Scripture is clear. The purpose of government is to establish and promote justice. (Romans 13) It is not to promote the gospel. That is the church’s job and we achieve it through love and truth, not through the electing of certain people to office.

Don’ts:

Don’t Live In Fear—Regardless of the outcome, God is still in control and He is still orchestrating His purposes. As I said earlier, God’s purposes are not primarily accomplished through political power. Jesus’ kingdom advances through things like service, love, generosity, and openhearted dialog.

Don’t Let Anger Settle Into Your Heart—If we’re not careful, we can find ourselves easily lapsing into feelings of anger toward people we’re not voting for. It’s one thing to disagree about a policy or position. It’s another thing to feel animosity or hatred toward another human being.

Don’t Let Your Political Perspective Cause Distance In Your Relationships—Paul said in I Corinthians 9:22 “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” Paul always had at the forefront of his mind and heart his ultimate calling—to communicate the good news of the gospel. He refused to let anything get in the way of that ultimate goal. We would be wise to do the same.