This time last week I was in Jerusalem. A city which, by anyones standard, is unique. I doubt that any other city, anywhere else in the world, can claim such a rich mix of cultures living together. No other city can claim to have its level of importance among three of the world’s biggest religions. And no other city can claim to be fought over so much. The air, when you’re there, buzzes with an indescribable energy. As if only the smallest of sparks could erupt into the darkest of events. There is a feeling of anger, just hidden out of sight, as if you could see it if you were only able to stretch up on your tiptoes. And yet, as a foreigner, there is never the slightest sense that you are anything other than totally safe. Police and barriers magically move out of your way, all people smile and welcome you and fights will part to let you though. I would encourage anyone, of any faith, or none, to visit. But, while it was fascinating and enlightening, that’s not why I went and not what I’ll remember most.
I can’t say I ever really thought of myself as the kind of Christian that goes on pilgrimage. But, I can’t deny, that I’ve changed over the years. Of course, I know, like all good Evangelicals, that God is everywhere and can never, nor could ever, be confined to a building, or place. I know that. I believe that. The whole world is God’s. But, as with most things, I’ve begun to realise that … well … it’s not quite as simple as that.
Let me give an example. Not far from where I live, in Bristol, is the first Methodist Chapel ever built, where John Wesley preached and huge revival happen. Many people came to believe in Jesus. Any non-Christian could walk in, look around and, at best, admit it’s an interesting piece of history, but that, it is, nevertheless, just a building. And, of course, they’d be right. It is just a building. And yet, any spiritually mature Christian will tell you that there’s something else. That, somehow, in a way that can’t really be put into words, you can “sense” more. You can sense that God has worked there, that His purposes have been worked out in a unique way. God can be felt there is a unique way. It’s not scientific, and I’d never bother trying to defend it to a non-Christian, but it’s true nonetheless. Does that mean God is more in that building than anywhere else? Of course not! But it’s still true. And that truth is but a fraction of what can be sensed in Israel.
God is just as much here, in my sitting room, as I type this, as he is in Israel, or in Jerusalem. And yet, when there, you “sense” the incredible truth that God has worked there in THE UNIQUE way, in the ultimate revelation of himself, the Word made flesh. And, as you stand in these places, the presence of God is almost tangible. It may not be scientific, or “provable” and yet, nothing could be more true.
I couldn’t possible describe everything we did, or every thought I went through, while on the trip, so I will content myself with simply listing what we did with the odd thought or reflection.
We flew into Tel Aviv, built around the old town of Joppa, where Peter had his vision in Acts 10.
Followed Peter’s route (although, with the wonders of a minibus, much quicker 😉 to Caesarea. Had a paddle in the Mediterranean, next to an aqueduct built by Hadrian. Then walked though the ruins of old Caesarea, including seeing the place where Paul was tried and made his speech in Acts 26.
From there we went to Megiddo (or Armageddon as it’s better known), which was built by Solomon and, depending on how you interpret Revelation, the place of the final battle (Rev. 16). We walked through the underground water system before heading on to Nazareth, the town in which Jesus grew up.
In Nazareth we visited the Church of the Annunciation, where tradition states the angel Gabriel visited Mary, although archaeologically the best that can be said is it’s in the right town! The church itself was not to Western tastes (like many of the churches in Israel!) and hard to “access”. However, under the church were the ruins of 1st century Nazareth and I was struck just imagining Jesus running around as a little boy, falling and scrapping his knee.
From there we moved on to Tiberias, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, which was to be our base for the next few days.
The day started with us visiting the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes, where tradition states Jesus fed the five thousand. The historical evidence is questionable, but it clearly happened somewhere in that area. From there we walked to Capernaum, the home of Peter, Andrew, James, John and Matthew, and where Jesus lived during his ministry. There, with extremely strong archeological evidence, can be found Peter’s house, where Jesus healed his mother-in-law (Lk 4). For the first time I knew myself to be standing where Jesus stood and felt overwhelmed by the sensation.
We then went to the shore of Galilee, next to Capernaum, where Jesus called the disciples to follow him.
After this we drove to Tel Dan, where one of the three sources of the Jordan can be found, and walked up the mountain to view the high place set up by Jeroboam in 1 Kings 12, before going to Caesarea Philippi, a pagan temple, by which Peter made his confession of Christ. The final visit of the day was to the river and water falls of Hermon.
A, much-needed, lighter day, beginning with a swim in the Sea of Galilee and an attempt to “re-create” the scene of Jesus walking on water, rescuing Peter (Jn 6).
After popping to dipping our feet into some natural hot, very hot, springs, we brought some lunch and hired a boat to sail on Galilee. I was then able to go and see the remains of a 1st century boat, just like the ones used by the disciples, and the boat Jesus preached from (lk5, as well as various other things, like calm the storm etc).
At this point we left Tiberias and, after going round Galilee, headed South. The first stop was Kursi, where Jesus met “Legion”, cast him into the pigs and they ran into the sea (Mk 5). This was followed by a visit to the Yardenit, the Baptismal sight on the River Jordan (although all the evidence suggests that Jesus was baptised much further South than this!)
From there we headed to Kokhav Hayarden, a 12th century Crusader castle, giving fantastic views over Israel and stopped for lunch at Shacney, swimming in the most idealic hot spring pools, which stretched for, what seemed like, miles. After lunch we travelled further south, and watched as the terrain changed from the lush green of Galilee into the hard desert of south Israel.
The last stop was at the Dead Sea, experiencing the unique experience of bobbing in the buoyant waters. However, as we did so the most incredible sand storm hit and we were forced to evacuate at high-speed and run for cover. Even the locals hid from the raging weather, and the morning saw trees uprooted and furniture disappeared. However, we settled into the nicest hotel of our trip (although only for one night!)
We rose early, to climb Mount Massada and see the sun rise. Mount Massada contains the ruins of one of Herod’s winter palaces and is known for being the final place to fall to the Romans in 74AD. After returning and getting breakfast we headed to En Gedi, the oasis in the desert where David hid from Saul in 1 Sam 24.
The day then saw us visiting Qumran, where the Dead Sea scrolls were found and where, some argue, John the Baptist was associated. We then arrived in Jerusalem and three of us went for a walk and got hopelessly lost in the most sparkling, exciting, intriguing city I’ve ever been privileged to experience.
After the evening meal we were taken, for the first time, to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Now, explaining this experience is difficult, to say the least. Firstly, the historical, archeological evidence for this church being the correct place for Jesus’ death and resurrection are very strong. But, much more obvious when you turn up, to western eyes, the place is hideous. So awful. And yet, I have never sensed the presence of God so much in one place. God seemed to be almost tangible as I fell to my knees in worship and awe. Trying to reconcile the two emotions was “interesting”. I then visited Jesus’ tomb, also in the Holy Sepulcher and final found myself weeping.
As I lay in bed that night, reflecting on the experience, I realised that my first reaction was stupid. I felt that they had taken something beautiful and changed it into a monstrosity. I felt that a beautiful green hill, with a nice cross on it, would be a much better aid to worship God. But then the very obvious and simple truth hit me that it wouldn’t have been nice at all! It would have been smelly, bloody, sticky and full of death. The rough wooden cross would have been covered in congealed blood. And it is to this ghastly place that I am called to worship, where my God chose to demonstrate His love for me.
We began the day at David’s tower. While tradition places the event elsewhere, the archeological evidence indicates that this was the place of Jesus’ trial before Pilate. Next to this spot stands Christ Church, the Anglican church in the area. The group then walked around the top of the city walls, with the legend who is Gordon Wenhem (the organiser of our trip, renowned Old Testament scholar and general amazing man) pointing our various sights as we went along: including Gahena, which in the first century was a rubbish dump and is the world used for “hell” in the New Testament.
I guess “hell” is actually rather nice!! We then went to see the Western Wall, the most holy sight for Jews, being one of the walls to the Old Jewish temple, from Jesus’ time. We were all able to go down to the wall and speak to some of the orthodoxy Jews there.
After stopping for lunch we headed to the Mount of Olives, which is now covered in graves and, at the very top, houses. After watching an Arab demonstration, called for an Arab only Jerusalem, we headed back down the hill, following roughly the route of Jesus on Palm Sunday (you could even hire a donkey, if you wanted to!!). On the way down we stopped at the Church where Jesus wept, which tradition states is the place Jesus wept over Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (Lk 19). The last stop before heading back into the Old City was at Gethsemane, where a small garden can be found if some very old trees, as well as a very evocative church.
Every Friday in Jerusalem the Franciscan Monks lead the Via Dolorosa, the way of the cross, the traditional route which Jesus took from his trial with Pilate to the cross and tomb. While archeology indicates all but the last few stations are in the wrong place (and many of the stations have no scriptural or historical evidence anyway!) it was still quite powerful to join with so many brothers and sisters to remember Christ’s passion.
After dinner (where we saw an “altercation” between an Israeli guard and an Arab!) we went back to the Western Wall to see the Jews “welcome in the Sabbath”. A wonderful, loud, joyous celebration and a privilege to see.
We got up early in order to catch a bus into Palestine, heading for Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity. After entering the church through a tiny hole we had to join a three-hour long queue. It really was incredible. Numerous people tried to persuade us to pay them in order to jump the queue and go round the back (making the original queue even longer). As we neared the entrance the group was separated in the pushing, shoving, elbowing crowd forcing its way into the tiny door into the “grotto” where Jesus was born. While it seems it is the right place (although I think the claim to know the exact spot Jesus was born on is unlikely, in my experience of seeing child-birth the ladies “aim” is not that accurate!!), by the time I got there I was not in the most “worshipful” mood. However I placed my had on the spot (during the 20 second moment you’re allowed after the 3 hour queue!) and thank God for the miracle of the incarnation.
I then grabbed a friend and we found a quieter corner to pray in together. After losing another friend when we got out (turns out they’d closed the grotto and she’s spent an hour crushed up against the door) and eventually tracking her down we had lunch and headed back to the bus and back to Israel. The bus journey demonstrated to some small degree the disgraceful way in which the Palestinians are treated, as they were forced off the bus to be searched (we nicely stayed in our seats).
Back in Jerusalem some of us headed to the Garden tomb, an alternative sight for the crucifixion and resurrection, which has no historical claim but really is very pleasant. I found it very strange. I looked right, just like the pictures in the Good News Bible when I was growing up, but I felt nothing. However, others did find it helpful.
The last stop of the day was a Bethesda, where Jesus healed to paralysed man (Jn 5). We then had dinner and went to look over the Old City from the top of the Austrian Hospice.
We had intended to visit the dome on the rock, but the queue was so long we would have missed church. As such we went into the Jewish quarter and viewed an old Roman road.
For church we went to Christ Church, the Anglican church in Jerusalem and, after lunch, caught the bus to the Israel museum. The highlights being the most amazing model of Jerusalem during the second temple period (i.e. the time of Jesus) and seeing the Dead Sea scrolls. Although there was a lot else to see which was well worth the visit.
During dinner a protest march of militant Jews went through the Old City, and all the Muslim shops closed up and we were hidden inside our restaurant.
On our last day in the Holy Land I felt I had to get up early and return to the Holy Sepulcher to pray. I found it quiet, before the queues and noise of the pilgrims and was again reduced to tears by the presence of God in that place. I bowed down and prayed, overcome by the significance of the place. What happen there changes everything. Not least me. If what had happened there hadn’t happen, I wouldn’t be me. I may look like me, but I wouldn’t be me. I wouldn’t think the same, or act the same. As I stood there, looking at the place where Jesus died, to make atonement for the sins of the whole world, words failed me and tears were all I could offer.
I was then privileged to find that an english speaking service was beginning and I was able to join in. There I stood, feet away from the spot where Jesus died, eating the bread and drinking the wine, a communion I will never forget.
I then went back to the hostel and had breakfast, before slipping off to revisit the Church where Jesus wept and the Garden of Gethsemane. As a group we then went to the Dome of the Rock and saw some wonderful Bar Mitzvahs on their way to the Western Wall. The Dome of the Rock was huge and spacious, a real contrast to much of the Old City and well worth a visit. I then went to Hezekiah’s tunnel, an old underground tunnel, built by Hezekiah, to bring water into the city. You start at the remains of King David’s palace and emerge at the Pool of Siloam (Jn 9). A wonderful end to the trip. We then met of the Austrian hospice roof, did a bit of last-minute shopping and caught the taxi back to the airport to fly home.
Words cannot express what the trip has meant to me. Not only was I lucky enough to make new friends, and have some great laughs. Not only was I lucky enough to go for a fraction of the price of most people. Not only was I lucky enough to go with a biblical scholar, who knew what he was talking about. I was also lucky enough to be hit by the simple, but profound, truth that God became one of us. Walked around as one of us. Stood in real places, lived in real places and ultimately died in a real place. To stand where he stood and walked where he walked in physical terms, which I hope will enable me to stand where he would stand and walk where he would walk in my everyday life.
Thank you God for coming to us, for offering yourself. I humbly offer my self back to you.