A Pilgrim’s Journal
While participating in The Salvation Army Central Territory’s 2015 Biblical Education Tour, held earlier this year in Israel, Rob DeGeorge, resource coordinator for the territorial officer resource and development department, emailed daily observations and heartfelt inspirations from the Holy Land.
We arrived in Tel Aviv late-afternoon Tuesday to balmy weather and a warm reception from our guide, Hanna. Eager to set out, we made our way to Joppa, Israel’s ancient seaport, to experience the beauty of the Mediterranean Sea and streets brimming with life.
We observed several couples snapping wedding photos on Joppa’s streets and docks. Hanna explained the Israeli tradition of Tuesday weddings reflects the double portion of “good” declared by God on the third day of creation. A double portion of God’s goodness was evident to us that evening as we listened to scripture read in the shadows of Simon the Tanner’s house. We’re filled with anticipation for more of His goodness over the following days.
On our first full day we slipped up the coast from Netanya to Caeserea. A cool sunny morning was just the refreshment needed to soak in the reality, “We’re really here!” In Caeserea we saw the imprint of Roman culture which provided the stage for spreading the gospel to the known world.
In Megiddo, we worshipped on the mountain where Elijah challenged the people to choose whom they will serve. God demonstrated He always shows Himself in the midst of the droughts of uncertainty.
In Nazareth, we experienced a taste of Jesus’ life: His daily work as one who labored with His hands, His vigor as we traversed the rugged terrain of His hometown, and His life in community through a recently discovered wine press from which He most likely shared vine harvest celebrations with family and friends.
As we drank in the richness of all we were experiencing, we paused at the top of Mount Precipice where (tradition has it) Jesus was taken by Satan to be thrown off the cliff. Hanna pointed out that from this vantage point in Nazareth, the history of God’s covenant with mankind was seen in every direction. Although it was on mountain tops and valleys where men and women did great things in service for God, it would be Nazareth—and more specifically the Nazarene—who stood in the center of it all.
That evening as we sang, “Lord, let your light shine on us…that we may be saved, that we may have life,” it was hard not to sense we’d caught yet another glimpse of that Light—Jesus, God’s way for mankind—who not only saw the view from Mount Precipice but the world!
As the sun rose we found ourselves on the Sea of Galilee. So much of what we’d reflected on in scripture took place right on these very shores. This was the place where Jesus calmed the seas and walked on water to stretch His disciples’ faith. It was near Tabgha where He fed more than 5,000, and in Capernaum where He preached and healed often. On these shores He reminded Peter that his promise to love God with heart, mind, and soul was less about his own shortcomings and more about affirming the authenticity of his faith as he set out to carry on Jesus’ ministry.
Our guide Hanna said Jesus preached 80 percent of his sermons in this area whether it was referred to in scripture as the Sea of Chinnereth, Lake Gennesareth, the Sea of Tiberias or the Sea of Galilee. For Jesus, this was His home. His imprint was everywhere and His impact palpable, whether it was in the midst of His calming presence on the Sea of Galilee, the gentleness of His loving grace when Peter was restored or the powerful reality as He spoke in the Capernaum synagogue as the One Who is the Lord of Creation, who redeems and restores. We could sense His closeness, His graciousness, His life; in His presence we were blessed. This was our morning and evening—and it was very good!
We had an extraordinary day of highs and lows (literally!) visiting the Mount of Beatitudes, Chorazim (the city Jesus cursed), the Tel Dan heights where Abraham rescued Lot and Jeroboam built a high place of worship, and Caesarea Philippi where Peter confessed Christ and Jesus was transfigured.
As we encountered the life and ministry of Christ, we couldn’t help but feel Israel’s pain echoed in our guide Hanna. The world of Israel and Christ speaks in vibrant hues of grace and faith, as well as shades of struggle and pain. It’s a rugged but good land filled with much sorrow. Because today is the World Day of Prayer, that pain reminded me of Psalm 122:6 imploring us to pray for the peace of Jerusalem. This is fitting because currently it’s Purim, Israel’s celebration of Queen Esther’s intervention on behalf of the Jewish people from their destruction plotted by Haman during the Persian captivity. It’s a reminder to all those since who’ve sought to annihilate God’s people.
In the midst of the tension between such wonders of God’s grace and the difficulties facing His people daily, stood Jesus—the epicenter of hope—on a hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee. He spent most of His earthly time in this region, bounded by Magdal, Chorazim and Bethsaida, and on the Mount of Beatitudes, the region’s geographical and spiritual center from which the heart of Jesus’ teaching flowed.
Standing on that hillside filled us with awe but also challenged us. What do we do with this Jesus? Some, like Chorazim, chose paths leading to destruction. Others, like Peter, confessed Him as truth. The question continues to challenge us.
Our day began at the Spring of Gideon, which led to the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized and Bethlehem where He was born. Our visits to the Jordan River and Bethlehem’s Shepherds’ Field were especially impactful. It seems no coincidence these places are completely “other”—deeply tied to the divine in Christ.
At the river we joined with brothers and sisters in Christ from all walks of life in heart- penetrating moments of deep longing and joy as we encountered Jesus in the place where He was affirmed as Son by the Father and anointed with the Holy Spirit.
In the Shepherds’ Field chapel, we were struck with renewed awe at the angels’ announcement of His birth. The acoustics of our voices filled the chapel with strains of “Gloria in excelsis deo” and “Alleluia, Holy, for the Lord God Almighty reins.” It left us breathless with the wonder of the power of His presence.
With already so much of Him in all His Glory made known to us today, we ended it with hearts and faces turned toward Jerusalem where tomorrow we’ll experience the fullness of His humanity and surely our own.
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem…how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings…” (Luke 13:34, NIV). We spent two days walking the Passion Week steps of Jesus. We began by overlooking the Kidron Valley from the Mount of Olives where Jesus wept for Jerusalem then prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Our time in the garden was gripping. We considered the trials of our own sufferings in light of those Jesus wrestled with and chose to bear. His commitment led us to the upper room where He shared his last meal with His disciples. As we considered how Jesus became the Passover lamb of the New Covenant, the reality of His sacrifice made even deeper impressions in our hearts.
The temple, its steps and the City of David began to come to life for us as we made the connection between Jesus, His believers and the temple. Today the anticipated building of the third temple is fulfilled by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in His people. Even more so, with Christ as the cornerstone and each of us the completion of the line of priesthood, we know we belong to Him.
On the second half of our journey retracing the Passion Week steps, we went from the Garden of Gethsemane to the house of Caiaphas, the high priest, then to the Ecce Homo arch in the Antonia Fortress where Jesus’ trial is believed to have started and where Pilate declared, “Behold, the man.” We then walked the Via Dolorosa, lined with shops, merchants and customers as it would have been for Jesus, to the place of His crucifixion and burial outside the city walls.
Throughout these two days we learned the history of Jerusalem from the time when King David overtook Jerusalem from the Jebusites (who said the blind and the lame could defend the city against Israel), to the transformation of the city’s walls by endless streams of conquering armies, at one point leaving a handful of women praying relentlessly at a portion of the western wall believed to be closest to the Holy of holies.
At face value, it might be hard to argue for hope considering all that God’s people have endured. But, as Hanna shared with us today at the pool of Bethesda, Jesus’ healing of the blind man echoes the spiritual challenge of the Jebusites. They believed themselves invincible to God’s people, forgetting it was God who would be making a way for them.
In the same way, the utter humiliation Jesus suffered along the Via Dolorosa would seem to some a “crushing victory.” With every step, He not only was rejected, condemned and sentenced to death by the leaders, but mocked and ridiculed by the merchants and customers lining the streets. And, it wasn’t just a handful of people; the entire Jewish nation had come to Jerusalem for Passover. It might have seemed a complete defeat to them, but God made a way; what followed was a crushing and complete victory for all who believe. “O death where is your victory, O death where is your sting?”
Today we traveled to Masada, En Gedi, Qumran and the Dead Sea. Land was the focus of our reflection today because these were like no other places we’d visited so far. Deuteronomy repeatedly refers to Israel as a “good land,” but at first glance here it doesn’t seem so. The land looks harsh, unforgiving and stubborn. The heat is penetrating, the soil often resistant and resources elusive. To describe this land as good seems almost sarcastic or worse. However, we had to remember God called the land good.
Reflections of that goodness struck us today as we considered how the desert land at the Masada fortress could provide and sustain life; how the En Gedi desert spring (which emerges from bedrock 25 years later after falling as mountain rain) sustained David when he fled from Saul, and how the caves at Qumran provided a haven for the Essene community so they could preserve scripture offering hope for generations to come.
That’s precisely what this land offers: hope. Not just hope for good farming or comfortable living conditions; when this land produces, it reflects the life-giving promise of the One who gave it and called it good.
We spent our final day in Israel processing, evaluating and taking inventory of all we’ve experienced. In a few short hours we’ll awaken to make the long but welcomed journey home. How fitting that we should end our time here visiting the Temple Mount followed by the (second) garden tomb location.
It was fascinating to watch the Muslim patrol officers at the Temple Mount determine the appropriate modesty of our dress. They were followed by a cluster of women shouting, “Allahu akbar,” at people of faiths not their own. At the other end of the spectrum, the guide at the garden tomb welcomed us warmly and afterward asked if we were Christians.
The two sites struck us as a world of contrasts: one that restricts and confines, the other welcoming unconditionally; one that seeks to protect, the other seeking to selflessly give; one characterized by hostility, the other by grace and peace.
It’s naive to think these experiences represent all individuals within their respective faiths, but it did make us reflect on who we’re called to be in Jesus, He who suffered the most public of humiliations, beaten, stripped naked and displayed on the side of the road close enough to be abused and mocked by passersby. The garden tomb guide reminded us that the words spoken by Jesus on the cross were like no others uttered by those suffering crucifixion. His were for the sake of love and forgiveness, and that is what we must take away with us.
Like the unfinished excavation sites we explored, the gospel of grace and love wasn’t finished at the tomb. In fact, it had just begun in those who believed and carried it to the corners of the globe. Our days in Israel remind us that, like these ancient sites, we too are unfinished works of grace sent to fulfill what was started at the cross. We have the confidence that He who began a good work in us is faithful and will bring it to completion.
Arriving safely back in Chicago, we now begin the task of reconnecting with the world we left behind while resisting the temptation to let our experiences in Israel remain memories.
Yesterday on our last encounter in Israel, we visited Beit Guvrin-Maresha, the site of an active archaeological dig that left a big impression on us all. Over 2,000 years old, this community self-destructed under the threat of siege. Using the most basic of tools to uncover what had been lost to time, it was amazing when two of our people discovered a complete plate. Each of us were just as excited, however, as we recovered our own bits and pieces of the past. The care, effort, and enthusiasm of the group was only paralleled by the joy of recovering what once was lost, truly becoming a treasure in the hands of the workman.
Returning home to our families and ministries, we can’t help but remember there are undiscovered treasures in our communities. People left broken and buried by the circumstances of life, just waiting to be discovered by humble workmen with simple tools of grace and the love to recover what once was lost.
We’re ready to roll up our sleeves once again knowing that although the task is bigger than any one of us, we commit to our portion of it with the sweet inspiration of joy in both the work and the reward, no matter how seemingly large or small. What matters is the lost is found.
Additional sights from the 2015 Biblical Education Tour: