Today, we began our Advent/Christmas series on characters around Jesus’ birth with the story of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. Based on Luke 1.5-25, 53-80, you can listen to the message here:
Posted by Jeff on December 6, 2013
Today is the Feast of St. Nicholas among our high-church friends, a day when the church marks the remembrance of a church leader whose heart for giving has become legendary…so legendary that, like many stories, it has been warped and changed into something it was never intended to be.
Think about it: the figure of Santa Claus is not a Christian symbol of giving, but an icon of hope for commercial endeavour. Had there been no St. Nicholas to morph, there would be no “Black Friday”, the day retail businesses begin to make a profit for the year. It is no small irony that Black Friday occurs the day after American Thanksgiving, when over 300 million people set aside time to be grateful for all that they have, only to be enticed by sales to trample over people to get – what? – more.
St. Nicholas was not about more. And St. Nicholas did not give only to “deserving girls and boys”. No, Nicholas’ benevolence stretched beyond adding to the storehouses of the deserving to meeting the basic necessities of the truly needy.
For many in North American society, Jesus’ birthday celebration has become an opportunity to accumulate more rather than to extend grace and kindness to others, as Nicholas did.
I encourage you, today, to celebrate the feast of St. Nicholas by treating Advent and Christmas as seasons not of spending money immoderately, but of extending grace lavishly.
Jesus said, “Take care! Protect yourself against the least bit of greed. Life is not defined by what you have, even when you have a lot” (Luke 12.15, The Message).
By the way, thanks to everybody who prayed for my wife and me while we were in Israel. We arrived home safely last night, and are still processing the trip!
Posted by Jeff on December 3, 2013
Today, we spent most of the day in the old city of Jerusalem, and in some important Christian sites. We began at the Western Wall, where faithful Jews come to pray; it is the only area of the Jerusalem Temple still standing, and faithful Jews pray there, nearest where the Holy of Holies once stood in the temple. Then we went through some tunnels once used for the conveyance of water, seeing some remarkably old architecture.
We visited the pools of Bethesda, where people went to receive ritual cleansing and healing. A very old church building stands near there, the Church of St. Anne, which has gorgeous acoustics. We sang a few hymns there, and listened to the echo! (You can watch a video of our singing here, courtesy of one of my colleagues on this journey.)
We crossed the Kidron Valley to visit Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed to be released from the cup of suffering, and where he was ultimately betrayed by Judas. We visited the church which stands where Jesus would have been tried and beaten by Caiaphas, including a dungeon in which Jesus may have been housed for his flogging.
We then walked the Via Dolorosa, tracing the steps where Jesus carried his cross toward Golgotha, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The rock where Jesus was crucified remains exposed within this church, and the tomb in which he was buried can be seen from within the same church complex. Many go to visit the rock of Calvary and the tomb, though, of course, Jesus is not there.
Where he did appear, the Upper Room, was another place we visited. The Upper Room was turned into a Christian synagogue not long after the resurrection (probably after the destruction of the temple in AD 70). We know it was a Christian synagogue because it was shaped like a synagogue, and instead of being oriented toward the temple, it was oriented toward the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site where the crucifixion took place! After the conquering of Jerusalem by the Muslims, it became a mosque, and now is largely guarded by the Israeli ministry of religion as a tourist site. It was quite moving to sing God’s praise in the very room where Jesus and his friends had their final Passover meal together, and where the Holy Spirit descended on the first believers; the birthplace of Jesus was Bethlehem, and the birthplace of the church is the Upper Room!
It was a busy day, and we were glad to get on the bus to travel back to the hotel after what I’d call the longest 7 km walk of my life. But it was a very special walk indeed.
Posted by Jeff on December 2, 2013
Yesterday, we began our day with a visit to the Bible Lands Museum, including the Shrine of the Book. This place boasts a 1:50 scale model of the old city in the time of the second temple, and is very impressive (though, alas, a bit too big to add to my HO [1:87] scale railway empire).
The Shrine of the Book holds several of the fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls on permanent display, as well as the scroll of Isaiah, which was preserved in its entirety. Many of the scrolls which were fragmented were cut up by the Romans when they overtook the Essene communities at Qumran; the Isaiah scroll was not found by them, so it survived intact.
Later, we went to the Old City and explored some ancient aqueducts, watercourses prepared in Canaanite and Davidic times as well as in the time of Hezekiah. Their versions of sewer and water mains built the foundation for what allows us fresh water intake and adequate drainage of waste today. At the Bible Lands Museum, we saw two sections of a water “pipe”, cut out of stone. These were shaped square stone sections that fit together, with a groove on one end and a flange on the other. Remarkable engineering for thousands of years ago!
We stood by the site of the pool of Siloam, where the blind man washed the mud Jesus put over his eyes, so he could see. We came up from there to the base of the Western Wall of the temple. The size of the stones cut to build that place were as remarkable as Josephus said they were! To stand on the remnants of the temple steps, where Jesus himself stood to teach, was a moving moment. Those steps were cut in such a way that you could never run up them; each step had to be purposeful. I think this was done by design, to make the ascent to the temple a prayerful act.
From there, we said good-bye to our tour guide for the rest of the day, and carried on into Palestinian territory, into Bethlehem. We stopped at the Nissan family shop, a souvenir shop specializing in hand-carved olive wood objects, while we waited for our Palestinian tour guide to take us to the Church of the Nativity. This visit was quite interesting, as we were able to see some ancient art in the building, and visit the grotto where many believe Jesus was born (directly on the spot). It was under this building, in a cave, where Jerome translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin.
Another long, but immensely interesting day!
Posted by Jeff on December 1, 2013
Yesterday, we left the serene shores of the Sea of Galilee and headed south. (Actually, those shores were not all that serene; there was a wicked wind storm going on, despite the clear skies, and had we had our boat ride on the lake that day, it would have been cancelled.) The night before had not been kind to me; multiple power outages left me awake at 3:00 a.m., unable to return to sleep.
Our journey south led us to Judea, via territory that is owned by Israel but largely occupied by Palestinian people. We passed through a ‘check point’, and while it looked like a border crossing in some respects, all we had to do was slow down; people coming out, on the other hand, were being interrogated. This is a very complicated land, politically.
We stopped first at the site where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist in the River Jordan. At this point in the river, flowing south from the Sea of Galilee, it is actually quite deep. I don’t think that’s always the case, but it really depends on the rainfall. There was a marker on the wall above the water where, in January of this year, the water crested – and it was probably fifteen feet higher than it was as we witnessed it.
The Orthodox, especially, consider this a holy site and have church buildings erected nearby – both in Israel and in Jordan, which is directly on the other side of the river. On both sides, structures have been erected to allow for pilgrims to be baptized (or, often, baptized again) in the very place where John baptized Jesus. Our leader pointed out a set of stone stairs on the Jordanian side which were put in place as early as the 300s, marking this spot as a pilgrimage site from the very early years of the church.
It was interesting that at this Christian religious site, both Israeli and Jordanian soldiers were present, with the Jordanian soldier being more obvious, right down near the water, automatic rifle in hand. These two nations seem to get along well right now, but this unique place along the border is perhaps the weakest spot in terms of the simple ability to gain entrance from one direction or the other. One could walk through the water from one side to the other without being carted off by the current without great difficulty – as long as one wasn’t afraid to face the barrel of a gun upon ascent.
From there we continued south through more Palestinian settlements – a lot of vegetable growing happens in this area, thanks to irrigation – and stopped at the caves of Qumran. When that Bedouin shepherd threw a rock into a cave back in 1947, he expected to hear a bleat, not a crack. What he discovered were clay jars filled with scrolls and fragments which contained almost the entire Old Testament, along with a number of other significant historical writings. These were stored there for safe-keeping by the Essene community, a sect of zealous Jews that died out in the early years of the last millennium. What those scrolls did for biblical scholarship was nothing short of amazing, proving that the faithfulness of scribes and God in the maintenance of the integrity of biblical documents was greater than any had imagined.
Following this historically and religiously significant stop, we visited that most unique of tourist sites, the Dead Sea. The mineral content of the Dead Sea is such that it can house no life, and the water’s ‘heaviness’ enables anyone – even me! – to float effortlessly. The shore has such a coating of salt on it that it looks like a thin, sugary icing. But just being near the water and licking your lips assures you that it is decidedly not sugary. The mineral content of this water is such that if you don’t shower off when you get out, you’ll regret it until you do! Folks with a variety of skin ailments find the waters of the Dead Sea quite soothing. While there’s nothing especially faith-filled about a trip to the Dead Sea, it is one of those unique opportunities that ought not to be missed if one is travelling in Israel.
Continuing south, through the Judean desert, we came upon a large rock overlooking the Dead Sea: Masada. It was here that Herod had a great palace. Jewish zealots overtook the community, and when the Romans went to retake it – building a ramp that was a feat of engineering for its day – the occupiers decided to kill their own rather than be taken back into slavery. A few women and children survived to tell the story, recorded in the writings of Josephus. Masada remains today as a symbol of Jewish nationhood and pride, despite its history. Our tour guide gave a very impassioned testimony of how he sees Masada as an Israeli.
Tired from a long day, we made our way up to Jerusalem, through a traffic jam – in the middle of the Judean desert! – and arrived at our hotel for the night. I remarked to myself that hearing the whine of the bus engine as we climbed our way into the Holy City gave me a fresh appreciation for the Psalms of Ascent. People really did have to climb a long way to get to Jerusalem!
Posted by Jeff on November 30, 2013
Today, we travelled all the way to the top of Israel, to its borders with Syria and Lebanon, getting a great view of Mount Hermon. Some 3000 metres above sea level, it is the highest point in the area and is a significant landmark. Our tour leader remarked that it was the first time he had seen Mount Hermon without snow on it.
Along the way, we began our day with a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. Because every journey seems to have a soundtrack, the ship’s captain played praise music for us while we sailed. For a few moments, however, we stopped the boat, silenced the engine and the music, read Scripture and took in the sights around us. Within such a short distance, we could see several sites that involved significant moments in Jesus’ life and ministry: the place where he named Peter “Rocky”, the synagogue and Peter’s mother-in-law’s house at Capernaum; the place where Jesus performed the miracle of feeding the five thousand. It is moving, to say the least, to walk where Jesus walked.
Travelling up the Golan Heights, our tour guide told us about the political aspects of the acquisition of this land, and how Syria left it filled with land mines. In several places, viticulture has taken over, and the mines have been replaced with vines! However, there is still a very obvious military presence there. The United Nations has a base quite near the border.
We visited Caesarea Philippi, where Jesus challenged his disciples – amid the pagan temples – to identify the Son of Man. Flowing by, sourced by the melting snows of Hermon, was the beginning of the Jordan River. ”How good and pleasant it is,” wrote the Psalmist, “when kindred live together in unity! It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the bear, running down on Aaron’s beard, down upon the collar of his robes. It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion. For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore” (Psalm 133). The Dew of Hermon, via the Jordan, eventually flows south toward Jerusalem!
After Caesarea Philippi, we went to Dan, and saw two ancient gates, including the so-called Abraham gate, which is over 4000 years old. Four Thousand Years! And it’s only in the past 15 years that this has been discovered. When Abraham accepted God’s call to come to the promised land, he will have walked past that gate. Unbelievable. But oh, so real.
Real: that’s what a trip like this does for the Bible. It makes it real. That’s what it’s doing for me.
Posted by Jeff on November 30, 2013
Today, we left Akko, the port city that was known as Ptolemais in Bible times, and headed south, through Haifa, to the ancient city of Caesarea Maritima where Herod the Great had a palace (and where the only archaeological evidence of the existence of Pontius Pilate may be found). There are some remarkably well preserved ruins there, including part of the hippodrome and most of the theatre. What is even more remarkable about this place is that it was only uncovered in the 1950s; a farmer was tilling his ground, and got stuck on something. When he uncovered what it was, it began an archaeological dig that revealed some amazing pieces of the puzzle that is the history of the Holy Land
From there we visited Meggido, a strategic battle site in the history of this land, and one which John was probably envisioning when he depicted the battle of Armageddon in the book of the Revelation. From the top of this hill, you can see a long way; we walked uphill a long way, too! And we descended all 183 stairs to an ancient aqueduct that ensured the fort was not cut off from needful fresh water. Then, we climbed another 80 stairs to get back to ground level. A pretty fair workout for us all.
From Megiddo we went on to Nazareth. What we picture in our mind’s eye as a little hick village in the middle of nowhere is now a bustling city of some 75,000 inhabitants, virtually all Arabic in race; there are some Christians – perhaps 20 percent, but almost everyone else is Muslim. We visited the first-century depiction of Nazareth Village, a project begun by the YMCA that is now its own foundation. The folks who put this on are not kitschy about it at all, but there is a sense of authenticity about this ‘museum’.
We then visited the Mount of the Beatitudes, where pilgrims remember the time Jesus spoke the Beatitudes, recorded in Matthew 5. We have no way of knowing if it was the actual place where he spoke the words, but it is a place where that is remembered. From there, we watched the sun set over the Sea of Galilee.
Tonight, we are staying at a kibbutz on the south shore of the lake. A serene place indeed!
(Tried to post this last night, without success. This morning, the sky is clear, there’s a gentle breeze, and the roosters across the road are crowing with great vigour!)
Posted by Jeff on November 29, 2013
I’m writing from my hotel room in Akka, Israel, not far from Mount Carmel – the site where Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal. My wife and I actually visited that site today. Remarkable!
We’re part of a clergy study tour group, led by a friend and colleague of mine who has much experience and expertise in so doing; it was great for us to be able to get ourselves to the airport in Toronto and consign ourselves to his care, without a worry of our own, for the 8 days we will be away.
One of the things that I noticed right away on our flight was the disproportionate – though not surprising – number of Jewish people aboard. It was the first day of Hanukkah, so presumably, some folks were coming to Israel to celebrate the Festival of Lights. Several of our fellow passengers were Rabbis; it was fascinating to watch them rise with the sun (which happened early, since we were travelling eastward), put on their prayer shawls and phylacteries, and offer their morning prayers, facing Jerusalem. There is a sense in which watching these men in their very public devotion and dedication encouraged me in my own “public display of affection” toward the Lord. Of course, Jesus told us to pray in secret (Matthew 6.6), but too often, we offer no indication that we have a life-changing faith we practise. How can you display your affection for God in these days?
When visiting Mount Carmel, I was reminded of the story in 1 Kings 18 of the time the prophets of Baal, a false god, were teaming up with Ahab and Jezebel, the king and queen, to discredit Elijah and bring disrepute to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God showed his power by sending fire from heaven not only to consume an offering, but to soak up all the water that had been poured on and around it. It really was a remarkable story, and a remarkable scene to stand at. We were shown the place where Elijah killed those prophets. The very spot where the showdown took place has been, for over 150 years, the site of a monastery, in an order named for its location: a Carmelite community. There still are monks there today.
What if we brought these two ideas together? What if we displayed our affection for God through a demonstration of his power? It wouldn’t have to be fire from heaven; it could be something as simple as loved shared where it seemed least likely, or a hand offered in the midst of a busy life. It could also be something decidedly flashier, but it wouldn’t have to be – it would just need to be consistent with who you are in Christ and how you serve him faithfully.
So what power will God demonstrate through you?
“You are the God who performs miracles; you display your power among the peoples” (Psalm 77.14).
Posted by Jeff on November 28, 2013
After a slightly bumpy but otherwise uneventful flight, we had a safe landing at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. People started clapping as the wheels touched down, and I was thinking, Don’t clap yet! We’re travelling down the runway at 200 miles an hour! Clap when the plane stops…on purpose!
I discovered that even with 120 volts to plug in my CPAP machine, I can’t sleep sitting up in confined quarters (and Air Canada’s seats are not exactly roomy). As a result, I’ll be running on fumes for the rest of today.
It was fascinating to see so many Orthodox Rabbis rising to pray toward Jerusalem at various times, especially as the sun rose (which, when you’re flying eastward, catches up with you quickly!). It prepared us, I think, for what we will see.
We won’t know, though, until our fellow traveller who has been detained is released so we can get on the bus and get going!
Grateful for God’s grace and travelling mercies.
Posted by Jeff on November 27, 2013
Later today, my wife and I will embark on a pilgrimage, a journey neither of us ever expected to take. We are going to visit the Holy Land.
We will fly directly from Toronto to Tel Aviv, and immediately get on a bus to begin our tour, hitting the ground running, so to speak. We are travelling as part of a clergy tour; it will be led by a friend and colleague of mine, who has taken such trips many times before. I look forward to arriving at Pearson Airport and consigning myself to his care, knowing that we will be in good hands.
We will visit many biblically significant sites: the place where Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18); the sea of Galilee, where Jesus and the disciples spent so much time; the Dead Sea, in the caves above which were found the Dead Sea Scrolls, which have added so much to biblical scholarship; Jerusalem, where the temple was; Nazareth, where Jesus grew up; and Bethlehem, where he was born. At this moment, it seems surreal that we will walk where Jesus walked.
As it turns out, we will be there for Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights. While this may make for more crowds, it will also make for a more joyous atmosphere; seeing joy on the faces of people is always infectious, so we expect to see an added cultural dimension as a result of the timing of our journey.
It really is a pilgrimage: it is a religious journey. It is a trip which, for me, has one sole purpose: to make the Bible three-dimensional. To be able to see, in my mind’s eye, the place about which I am preaching from Scripture should, I hope, make me a better communicator of God’s truth.
Please keep us, and our group, in your prayers. Ask God to grant us safe travel both in the air and on the ground, and ask the Lord to give us both a meaningful experience and the opportunity to slow down enough to take it all in – and rest! And watch this space for updates, time and WiFi permitting.