|Bethlehem as seen from Herod's Winter Palace. The red-roofed houses in the foreground are an Israeli West Bank settlement.|
Here are the rest of the best things I saw and experienced on my recent trip to Israel:
Bethlehem: There is much to see in Jesus’ birthplace. The Church of the Nativity is the main attraction. This Orthodox Church claims to be built on the site where the Christ child was born. Adjoining it is the Catholic Church of St. Catherine, from which Midnight Mass is broadcast around the world every year on Christmas Eve. And there’s the Milk Grotto, a small church where Mary, Joseph and Jesus—according to a legend not found in the Bible—stopped on their way out town. There are also Solomon’s Pools, the tomb of Rachel and the cave where St. Jerome translated the Vulgate. Those things, while interesting, were not as meaningful to me as an insight I had while in the place where Christ was born:
I must admit, it didn’t look the way I imagined it when I sang “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” There is great poverty in the town, which relies on tourism for most of its economy. Bethlehem is in the Palestinian territory known as the West Bank. Although it’s only 5 miles from Jerusalem, it took us quite a while to get there. We took a public bus to the security fence separating Israel from the West Bank. We walked past the hundreds of Palestinian men waiting in line to be passed through the gate so they could get to work; something they must do every day. As we visited Herod’s Winter Palace, which sits on a hill high above the town, we could clearly see an Israeli settlement, the cause of intense anger in this region. I thought about how the world hasn’t changed all that much in 2000 years; on the night Jesus was born, Herod loomed (literally and figuratively) over this small town, and would soon unleash horrific violence on Bethlehem, ordering the slaughter of its infants in an attempt to eliminate the Messiah. Human politics and ambition will always seem to trump grace; but two millennia later, we know who prevailed between Herod and Jesus. Grace is intrepid. Tyranny cannot stop it. While I was thinking about that, someone pointed to the hills nearby, where shepherds were tending their sheep.
|O Little Town of Bethlehem: Not the way I pictured it.|
Dead Sea: It was cold the day we visited the Dead Sea, so I almost backed out. But friends who had been to Israel before me had told me I HAD to get in. They were right. When I sat back into that water and fel5 like I was sitting in an easy chair, my brain didn’t know what to do with that information. It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. Another memorable experience from that same morning: We were standing in a desert field, looking at the backside of Masada (the fortress that overlooks the Dead Sea). Suddenly, a small truck drove up. The man inside warned us to leave quickly; the wadis nearby were flooding, and we would be stranded here if we didn’t get out soon. It only rains around 3 times a year in this region; we just happened to visit on the day after a heavy rain. We quickly got into our cars and hit the highway, which was already beginning to flood. We made it across, but were glad we didn’t wait a few minutes more. It seemed like the kind of thing Jesus would have told a parable about: When God tells you to move, don’t tarry even a minute. Do the right thing, and do it now.
|The flash flood that almost got us.|
Capernaum: The hometown of Peter and Andrew, James and John, and the base of so much of Jesus’ ministry sits right on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. A house that very likely belonged to Peter has a church built over its top. It has a glass floor, so that worshippers can look down into the house where Jesus and the disciples likely slept, ate and learned together. Just a few yards away are the ruins of the synagogue. Mark 1 tells us on one Sabbath near the start of Jesus’ ministry, He went to that synagogue to teach. While in the middle of His sermon, a demonized man stood up and began to shout at Jesus. The Lord rebuked the demon and cast it out. After the service was over, Jesus walked to Peter’s house and healed his mother-in-law, who was lying sick with a fever there. That was just the beginning; Jesus did numerous amazing things in Capernaum. Do a quick search of Capernaum in your Bible. It is mentioned more times in the Gospels than any other city besides Jerusalem. No wonder there is a sign outside the town that says, “Capernaum, the town of Jesus.” But later in His ministry, Jesus condemned Capernaum (Matthew 11:23-24). Although they had witnessed so many miracles and spent so much time around Jesus, they had not changed their hearts. He said that it would be better on the Day of Judgment for the citizens of Sodom than for those of Capernaum. It is a poignant reminder that those who have the most access to Jesus can often be the most unrepentant and far from God. Would God say that about American Christianity? One wonders…
|This may have been Peter's house. It was built in an octagonal shape.|
|The synagogue in Capernaum, as seen from Peter's house.|
|The church suspended over Peter's house.|
Megiddo: According to Revelation, this hill will overlook the climactic battle that will end the present age. Armageddon is “hill of Megiddo.” The fortress of Megiddo has been destroyed and rebuilt twenty-five times through the centuries. The Jezreel Valley below is the site of numerous huge biblical events, including Gideon’s miraculous victory over the Midianites. As I stood atop the highest point of Megiddo, I thought about the future as well as the past. And I had a stunning 360 degree view of Israel.
The Sea of Galilee: Jesus spent so much time on and around the waters of this lake. Here, He stilled the storm and walked on water. He sat in a boat just off the shore and taught the crowds. He recruited Peter with a miraculous catch of fish. And following His resurrection, He appeared to the disciples on the shoreline while they were in the water after a long, fruitless night of fishing. Our group went out on a boat. Tim invited me to share a devotional, and it was my great privilege to teach the Word of God on the Sea of Galilee. As we headed back toward the shore, I kept thinking about Jesus standing on dry ground, John looking at Him and saying, “It is the Lord,” and wonderful, impulsive Peter jumping into the water to swim to Him. I need to have that kind of love for Jesus.
|Sunset over the Sea of Galilee|
|My "St Peter's Fish" dinner at a restaurant on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. It was delicious, even if it was probably imported tilapia.|
|A once in a lifetime experience: Teaching from the Word on the Sea of Galilee. God threw in the rainbow because, well, that's how He is.|