Friday, 17 June 2022

The Last Day

Today I woke early (though not intentionally) and so decided to watch the sun rise over the Sea of Galilee. 

Worth it! 

After breakfast we set off for Nazareth were we were given a tour of the site where the village farm from the 1st century has been excavated and partially re-created, along with people acting as if they were 1st century Nazarenes.

Today Nazareth is a large, affluent city, but in Jesus's day it was a small village with a communal farm growing wheat for the community, an olive grove for making oil, and a vineyard with wine press. Looking at the environment Jesus grew up in it is easy to see where many of his parables and word-pictures came from. 

We then spent some time in downtown Nazareth. The city is 30% Christian and 70% Muslim and so, it being Friday, there was an open air Islamic service going on. Hundreds of men gathered to chant set responses and then they listened to a sermon. I also listened to the sermon but didn't understand anything, so now I know what its like for WCF Sunday by Sunday! Having said that, can you imagine what it would be like to have open air gospel services in Britain every Sunday?

Our last stop was Meggido, which is a key, strategic plain overlooked by a 'tell'. A tell is an artificial hill made up of layers that have been created through history by people building on the ruins of the previous owners. Archeological digs at Tel Meggido have revealed 30 distinct layers, showing just how desirable this particular site was. 

What made it so valuable? All trade between Egypt and Mesopotamia had to pass through the plain of Meggido, and whoever held Tel Meggido could charge a road tax! 
As a result, Meggido was the location of a huge battle in the 15th century BC between Egypt and an alliance of Cananite kingdoms who were ultimately defeated. The battle was so devastating  that in the New Testament the name of Meggido has been modified to Armageddon, and is referenced as the place where the final battle between God and His enemies will take place. The last day of history will come, and the good news is that God's victory is a certainty. 

And that's the end of my tour of the Bible lands. It's been an amazing opportunity to fill in so many gaps in my understanding, and to go from reading about something to seeing and experiencing it has been well worth it. It has been a privilege to be here and I'm truly grateful for the opportunity, and to WCF for releasing me to take a Sabbatical so I could come.

I look forward to using the phrase 'when I was in Israel' every sermon from now until the end of my ministry! 

Thursday, 16 June 2022

The Golan Heights

The Golan Heights is the area to the North East of the Sea of Galilee. Today we toured in the coach around a number of the significant sites in the area.

We started with Hazor, a fortress which pre-dated Israel's entry into the land. When Joshua led the people across the Jordan and Jericho fell, word got out that they were on the march and so Jabin, the king of Hazor, formed an alliance with the surrounding kings in order to fight against the Israelites. Joshua's army defeated the alliance, then Joshua attacked the fortress of Hazor and burned it down (Joshua 11:1-11). The excavated ruins of the fortress show foundation stones that have cracked due to the intense heat of being burned. The stones above the dark line are later building works on top of the burnt fortress.

Next stop was Dan in the far north. Dan was one of the twelve tribes and was awarded this territory in the North, but then failed to hold that territory, so they had to move down south, to the West of Jerusalem. Part of the problem was that the city of Dan, in the North, became a centre of idolatry. 

This is the altar that Jeroboam set up at Dan for sacrificing to one of the two golden calves he made, because the Northern tribes were not able to access the Temple to worship God (1 Kings 12:26-29).

After this we went to Banias, which is a spring and the most important source of the Jordan River. The Jordan has always been incredibly important to the people of Israel in that it is their primary source of water. Banias is also a centre for the worship of Pan, one of the pagan gods that the people of the time looked up to.

We then travelled a short distance to Caesarea Philippi, the town that grew up around the spring of Banias. It is also a town that Jesus visited with His disciples, and has a temple grotto to Pan carved out of the cliff face. It was in this town that Jesus asked the disciples who they thought He is, and Peter said "You are the Christ" (Mark 8:27-30). The penny had finally dropped for Peter.

We moved on to a place on the border with Syria where we could look out and reflect on the tensions that have taken place between between Israel and its neighbours. The Golan Heights used to belong to Syria, but Israel captured the region in 1967. Israel has this incredibly diverse history, giving us the prince of peace, but never seeming to be far from war.

We headed back to Galilee and, after a few members of the group had a swim in the lake (to cool off in the 39 centigrade heat), we went to the Garasenes - which was a gentile area in Jesus's day. We stopped at the spot that is traditionally thought to be where Jesus met the demon possessed man called Legion. The man was in a state of uncontrollable suffering due to possession by multiple demons. Jesus cast those demons out into a herd of pigs, who ran down the slope and into the water. The man was then fine, in his right mind, but the people didn't like this and asked Jesus to leave their region (Mark 5:1-20). Jesus brings blessing, but is not always welcome. 

Wednesday, 15 June 2022

The Sea of Galilee

The Sea of Galilee is a really peaceful lake, which was not the case in Jesus's day. In the first century there were 26 fishing ports around the edge, and lots of towns and villages living off of the fishing trade. 

Most of those towns and villages have gone now. But, imaging the busy shore life and easy travel by boat from one town to another, its easy to see why Jesus chose Galilee to start His ministry, and to choose His first disciples who were, of course, fishermen.

We set out early from our hotel to catch a boat from Tiberias. The boat is an approximate recreation of a first century boat, perhaps like the fishing boats that people like Peter, Andrew, James and John would have used for their trade. 

Jesus was sleeping in one of their boats on the evening when a storm nearly swamped them. Jesus needed to be woken up to rebuke the wind and waves, and bring instant peace to the lake (Mark 4:35-41). With the lake being the size it is, you can see why the disciples thought they were going to die in the storm. There would be no swimming to shore.

We set down near Capernaun and the coach,which had driven around the lake, met us there to take us to our first stop, which was Korazin. This is a town that Jesus rebuked severely along with Bethsaida: "Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago." (Luke 10:13). The town is now a ruin.

Then we moved on to Tabgha, which is the place where, according to tradition, the risen Jesus cooked breakfast for the disciples who had gone back to fishing. He then forgave and re-instated Peter as a disciple. There is now a Catholic church on the site venerating the rock on which Peter is believed to have been re-instated, a very important place for the Catholic church who see Peter as the first Pope.

After a lunch at Magdala, the place where Mary Magdalene came from, we went to the ruins of Capernaum. This is a really important town in the gospels as it was where Jesus lived while ministering in the towns and villages around the lake. There is a 4th century synagogue built on the remains of the first century synagogue. Jesus taught in the first century synagogue. (Mark 1:21-28). The people were amazed, and He immediately faced demonic opposition, which didn't slow Him down at all.

There is also a modern Catholic church in Capernaum. It is built on pillars above the ruins of a previous, 4th century church, which was also built on the ruins of a first century house which was believed to be the house Peter's mother-in-law lived in. Jesus healed Peter's mother-in-law when she was sick in the house (Mark 1:29-31) and this led to the people bringing all their sick friends and relatives to Jesus. Eventually He had to move on because He didn't have time to preach because of all the healing people wanted.

Tuesday, 14 June 2022

Goodbye Jerusalem

This morning we all packed up our suitcases and checked out of the hotel in Jerusalem that has been our base for the last week. We got on the coach to head north.

But first we got a taste of the wilderness, by going to a viewing point halfway between Jerusalem and Jericho. As we looked on the hilly desert we imagined the lonely traveller being attacked by thieves and left to die, but then rescued by the good Samaritan. We also thought about Jesus heading out into this very desert for 40 days to be tempted by the devil, but refusing to give in.

Then we visited Jericho itself, the oldest city in the world. Joshua and the nation of Israel marched around Jericho blowing trumpets, and the walls came crashing down. Some scholars have argued that the story of Joshua couldn't possibly have been true because the city didn't exist in those days, but now excavations in the centre of the modern city have found evidence of civilisation dating back for many millenia. The picture here is of the corner of a fortress dating back to 8000BC. It claims to be the oldest man-made structure in the world,

We then got on the coach and drove north, beside the route of the Jordan River, towards Galilee. On the way we stopped off at an oasis for a swim, and found that it was full of fish that liked to nibble at our feet when we were in the water. Its supposed to be very therapeutic, but is a bit alarming at first when you're not expecting it.

And then it was back into the coach to head to our new hotel by the shore of Galilee. Its a lovely, peaceful place - very different from Jerusalem. But will be fascinating to see over the next few days as we visited the places where Jesus spent most of His ministry.

Monday, 13 June 2022

O Little Town of...

It turns out that Bethlehem is not as little as it used to be. It is a thriving town of commerce, mostly built on tourism and religion. But more of that later.

Today started with a visit to the Israel Museum. The museum has a large outdoor model of what Jerusalem was like in the first century, before the Romans sacked it in AD70. It really helped to get a sense of where everything was in relation to everything else, and to see just how much the Temple dominated. Jerusalem wasn't so much a city with a Temple inside, as a Temple with a city around it.

And then we got to see a portion of the Dead Sea Scrolls. These portions of the Bible and other documents date back as early as 300 years before Jesus. They were found in a cave in Qumran, which I visited a couple of days ago, by a shepherd. The shepherd didn't know the importance of what he found and, because he was cold, he burned the book fo Esther to make a fire. Thankfully the other scrolls were preserved and can now be studied by scholars and seen in the museum by people like us.

From the museum we set off towards Bethlehem, but stopped first at the Herodian. This is another stronghold built by Herod the Great, like Masada that I talked about 2 days ago, but this overlooks Bethlehem. Herod was quite paranoid really. As the Israeli tour guide at the museum said "Herod is fascinating because he did many great things for the nation, but he was also mad." It was Herod the great who ordered that all boys under the age of 2 in the Bethlehem area should be put to death because the wise men told him that a new king had been born. No wonder he thought that people might be plotting against him - he brought it on himself! Joseph and Mary thankfully took Jesus to safety in Egypt, and only returned when Herod was dead. The Herodian is where he is buried.

We set off again but by now it was lunch time so we stopped to have lunch at a gift shop. It turns out that tourism is big business in the town where Jesus was born, there was even a nativity set worth $35,000.Finally we arrived at Bethlehem itself and made our way to Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity. This is the oldest site continuously used as a place of Christian worship in the world - that is it has been a functioning church since 326AD. What's more, it claims to house the very place that Jesus was born. How anyone in 326 would know that is not explained, but it is treated with deep religious reverence. A steady stream of people came into the grotto to kiss the place where 'Jesus was born'. They then made a donation and were given a certificate to show that they had done it.

Our final stop was a Christian bookshop. The shop is a remarkable place because, rather than sell nativity mementos, it simply exists to share the message of Jesus through the Bible. Set up in 2003 it also sells coffee, gives Bibles away free, and provides opportunities for people to ask questions about Jesus. It doesn't make any profit, but many people have come to faith through the work that they facilitate.

Sunday, 12 June 2022

The City of David

Today we visited the City of David, which is in the South part of Jerusalem. It is named City of David because it is where the original City of Jerusalem was when David ruled from his palace there. After David's time his son Solomon built the Temple just north of the City, and then the city expanded to encompass the Temple.

So, in the current set up the City of David sits within the Jewish quarter of the city, whereas up until now most of the sites we have seen have been in the muslim quarter.
Whilst we were there we had the opportunity to go along Hezekiah's tunnel, which runs under the city. It was contructed during Hezekiah's reign (2 Kings 20:20) in 702 BC to bring water into the city secretly to a resevoir inside the walls. This was done to protect the water supply against seige when the Assyrian army approached.

The tunnel is 533 metres long, which doesn't sound like much but took over 30 minutes to walk along. The whole thing is narrow - there's no way to get past the person in front or behind you. It is all ankle deep in water, and sometimes dips so that we were knee deep.  Also, there is no lighting - everyone had to bring their own torches. Not for the claustrophobic! But it was exciting to walk and wonder what it must have been like for the teams who cut the tunnel into the mountain rock all those centuries ago.

The tunnel emerges at the pool of Siloam - which was the reservoir inside the city walls. Its much smaller than it was, but was worth seeing and remembering the story of the blind man who Jesus healed by rubbing mud in his eyes and then telling him to wash the mud off in the pool of Siloam.

After this we went to the steps leading up to the temple entrance. Most of the steps have been re-built, but a few of the steps at the bottom were original first century steps - the same ones that Jesus would have used to enter the Temple. Now the steps lead up to a wall. The gate is blocked up.
Praise God that Jesus is the gate, and we can come to God through Jesus.

Saturday, 11 June 2022

My lowest point

We had a coach tour day today, starting with a 1 1/2 hour drive South to Masada, just South of the dead sea. Masada is a fortress built by Herod the Great on top of a 400m high outcrop of rock. After his death it wasn't used, until after the Roman's destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD, then some Jewish Rebel's used it as their base of operations. Eventually, in 74 AD the rock was surrounded by 10,000 Roman soldiers. The Jews chose to take their own lives rather than submit to slavery.

Next we drove up to En Gedi, which is an

oasis and nature reserve in the desert mountains of the Dead Sea. We hiked for about 20 minutes into the mountains in order to find a waterfall. It was worth it to see the end result. You can only imagine what it would be like for someone seeking to survive in the desert to discover a place like En Gedi, particularly when they are on the run.

En Gedi is in the Bible as the place where David was able to sneek up on King Saul, who he was on the run from at the time. David cut off a corner from Saul's robe to prove that he could have killed the King but chose not to. He was then filled with guilt over the whole business (1 Sam 24)

After this we moved onto Qumran, the place where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of ancient Biblical texts found in a cave at Qumran in 1947. The reason they were there was because a Jewish sect of scribes lived at Qumran. They maticulously made copies of the scriptures, which were held in the highest esteem. So, when the Romans were approaching and ready to attack, they hid their scrolls in a cave. Nearly 2000 years later a shepherd found the scrolls, and all in one go Biblical scholars had texts dating back to 1000 years before anything else they had previously had to work with.

After lunch at Qumran we moved onto a spot on the Dead Sea where bathing is allowed. Bathing in the Dead Sea holds two big disinctions: Firstly, when you get in the water you are at the lowest point on earth (1360 feet below sea level); secondly, the water is so salty that you can lie back and float. At least, that's what is meant to happen. When I got in I had the distinction of slipping and going full-immersion, which is not only very humiliating, but also stings the eyes, nose and throat as the salt water gets into everywhere. I immediately had to get out and shower myself down, then sat on the shore for the next 30 minutes waiting for my sore eyes and painful sinuses to recover. As I sat there I reflected on the fact that I had probably found the story which would become, out of all my Israel stories, WCFs favourite. My only regret was that no one took a photo of my lowest moment!