Monday, March 17, 2014

Israel--My favorite things, part I

The hill that might be Golgotha: Note the two "eyes" of the skull overlooking the Garden Tomb.  The "mouth" once visible is now covered by a city street.

 Earlier, I listed all the stuff I saw and experienced on my ten-day trip to Israel (see Israel--a ten-day adventure).  Now, I’d like to focus on my favorite experiences in the Holy Land.  These are the things I would most like to see again, and would most highly recommend to anyone traveling there.  It was hard to limit myself to just ten, but over the next two posts, I’d like to list my ten favorite things, in no particular order.  

               The Garden Tomb: Hands-down, this was the most meaningful place for me.  The traditional site for Christ’s crucifixion, burial and resurrection is inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  It is an ancient church that is an impressive site in its own right.  There is a shrine over the place where the cross was thought to be planted and another over the grotto where the resurrection is thought to have occurred.  The church has existed for over 1500 years.  Kings have been consecrated here.  To this day, pilgrims come from thousands of miles away to pray at the Anointing Stone, which they believe to be the very rock slab that Jesus’ body was laid upon as it was prepared for burial.  The problem is…I don’t believe it.  The Church is a site of profound veneration, but I doubt seriously that this was where my salvation took place.  I will not take the time to explain here, but you can examine the arguments online easily.

"Calvary" at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  Note the person kneeling beneath the table in the foreground.  He is praying over a hole some believe is the place where Christ's cross was planted. 

               The Garden Tomb was discovered in the mid-1800s.  Observers noted a small hill just outside the city gates (Scripture says Christ was crucified outside the gates) that appeared to be shaped like a skull.  Excavations revealed an olive press that dated to the first century AD, and a nearby tomb cut into the limestone.  Today, the Garden Tomb is administered by a British ministry.  Our guide at the Garden Tomb was Graham, a retired pastor from Liverpool (Yes, he went to school with two of the Beatles, though he didn’t say which two).  As he said, “This may or may not be the exact place where Christ was crucified, buried and raised.  The important thing is that it did happen.”  Sitting in that quiet place, I could picture my Lord dying for me.  Walking into the small tomb, I saw the groove where the stone would have been rolled into place.  I saw the chamber where the body would have lain.  If it didn’t happen here, it happened in a place much like this. 

The Garden Tomb
The groove where the stone would have been set, sealing the tomb.  Someone was buried here in the First Century.  It may have been Jesus.
Interior of the Garden Tomb.  Looking past the bars, you see two burial chambers, one on each side.  As I took the picture, I was standing where Mary Magdalene first saw the angel; and where later Peter and John would have stood, examining the discarded grave clothes.

                      Christ Church: It’s not so much the place as the person I met here that makes this one of my favorite locations.  Christ Church is the oldest Protestant church in the Middle East.  Our tour leader, Tim, had arranged for us to meet there with a Messianic Christian, Linda Cohen.  Linda was actually born and raised in New Jersey, in a conservative Jewish family.  When her mother died on Rosh Hashanah, she began to question her faith in God.  She had a friend who was a strong Christian, who invited her to church one Christmas Eve when she was seventeen.  Her first experience of Christian worship was very moving; these people seemed to really know and trust God, rather than simply repeating ancient rituals.  She began attending a Bible study with her friend during college.  Eventually, she prayed, “Jesus, if you’re real, please show me.”  Jesus took away the profound pain she felt over the loss of her mother and other loved ones.  Linda now works for an organization called The Church’s Ministry to Jews (CMJ).  She has lived in Jerusalem since 1999, and considers it her home.  There are now 15-20,000 Messianic Jews in Israel, and although the overall number of Christians in the Holy Land is declining, CMJ is seeing significant growth and openness among Jews in recent years.    
               Hezekiah’s Tunnel: When the fierce Assyrian army threatened to besiege Judah some 700 years before Christ, righteous King Hezekiah knew that if the Jews were to survive a long siege, they would need a water source.  So he ordered a tunnel to be dug funneling the waters of the Gihon Spring beneath the walls of Jerusalem and into the city.  We walked Hezekiah’s tunnel.  It is nearly 600 yards long, filled with water that is shin-deep (it came up to my thigh at one point).  It took us 23 minutes to walk the entire distance.  The tunnel is narrow—my shoulders nearly touched on both sides—and short—I had to stoop for over half the walk.  It’s also pitch dark; we had to carry flashlights.  It’s not a place for claustrophobics. But it was a fun, unique experience that I heartily recommend.  

Inside Hezekiah's tunnel.  Note how narrow it is, and the depth of the water.

               The Valley of Hinnom: It’s ironic for this site to make the list.  The Valley of Hinnom was the site of child sacrifice to the false god Molech during the Old Testament era.  They also called it Topheth, place of the drums, because the worshippers beat drums to drown out the screams of infants being cast into the fire.  As we stood overlooking that valley, I thought about Solomon, once so wise and close to God, watching as his own infant sons were killed there, sacrificed to the beliefs of his pagan wives.  It made me think about how easily we can allow sin to take us places we never thought we’d go, cause us to make decisions which would have been unimaginable before.  I pictured young King Josiah smashing idols and purifying the Valley hundreds of years later.  And then I pictured Jesus standing over the valley, talking about the fate that awaits those who reject God’s grace.  By then, the Jews had transformed Hinnom into a dumping ground for garbage and the bodies of the unclaimed dead.  There, the fires never went out.  The stench must have been unimaginable.  In the Aramaic that Jesus spoke, the place was called Gehenna, and Jesus used it as a metaphor for Hell.  Today, Gehenna looks like any other valley.  But Christ’s words about it remind us that everyone will spend eternity somewhere.  That knowledge should motivate us to share His love with people who haven't experienced it yet.   

Gehenna today

               Mount of Olives: Jerusalem sits on a hill overlooking two valleys-The Valley of Hinnom and the Kidron Valley.  Across Kidron stands the Mount of Olives.  This is where Jesus taught His Olivet Discourse, about the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the Day of Judgment (Matthew 24-25).  On the backside of the Mount is the ancient city of Bethany, where Jesus stayed at the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha during the week of His crucifixion.  Somewhere on the Mount of Olives was a garden of olive trees called Gethsemane (“Olive Press”).  And Jesus was standing with His disciples on the Mount when He ascended into Heaven.  We walked up the Mount and saw how very steep it is.  Jesus was in good shape to make that trip every day during Holy Week.  We saw His view of the city of Jerusalem as He made that walk.  We saw a Jewish cemetery there, where visitors have placed rocks on the vaults (rocks are more permanent than flowers; a sign that someone has visited).  And we remembered that Christ is coming back, the same way He left us from that Mountain.  On that day, graves won’t hold His people.  

The view Jesus would have had walking to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives.

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