A week in the Holy Land

Well, just over five days, actually. The occasion was the baptism of two friends from Westlake Church in Switzerland, where we worked for seventeen years. Tom had come to faith in Christ from a Jewish background: his story is remarkable, with his parents having escaped Hitler’s holocaust and made it to America.

We travelled out on Easter Monday, via London, and arrived in Jerusalem in the evening, in time to eat at the hotel where we were staying, just a short distance from the Old City.

Tuesday was spent around Jerusalem, starting with a panorama from the tower of our hotel. From there, it was off by taxi to the vantage point of the Mount of Olives to the east of the city. Our walking tour included the Garden of Gethsemane, where olive trees still grow, and the Via Dolorosa, the presumed route taken by Jesus in the hours up to his crucifixion. The path took us past the old pool of Bethesda (‘Do you want to be made well?) and through the narrow streets with their little shops. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre marks the alleged site of Jesus’ burial, though there is an alternative site, the Garden Tomb, which we visited later in the week. Later in the day we went back further in history with a glimpse of Nehemiah’s walls and a visit to the City of David, with Hezekiah’s tunnel. We took a tunnel journey of our own from the Pool of Siloam (‘Go, wash!’) up to the vicinity of the Western Wall.

Many Jewish men, women and children gather here to pray. The Islamic Dome of the Rock sits on the site of the Temple Mount and the Western Wall is as close as Jewish worshipers are able to get to the place of the old temple and the place of the presence of God.

Throughout the week we had the privilege of being accompanied by Josh, an outstanding Jewish guide with a wonderful knowledge of the places and times we visited.

Wednesday – our second full day – was baptism day. We went down from Jerusalem to Jericho (how many preachers have preached on that phrase?), where we headed north towards Galilee. I should mention that we stopped off at the site of the Inn of the Good Samaritan where it only costs a couple of coins to stay (kidding). The site that is understood to be the place of Jesus’ baptism is on the river, close to the Sea of Galilee. Being baptised there is actually very popular and the place is well equipped: changing facilities, white robes for hire or purchase, steps down to various baptismal spots. Apparently we could even have used the services of a pastor for the occasion! The fish made way for us as we went into the water (chillier than you might think!). And there, where the Lord Jesus submitted to all righteousness, my Jewish friend Tom and his wife, Cathy, declared their faith in that same Lord Jesus.

After lunch (St Peter’s fish) in Tiberias, we went on to the Mount of Beatitudes and then down to Capernaum on the shore of the Lake. The remains of Peter’s house are visible as well as the ruins of an ancient synagogue (remember the centurion whose charity financed the original?).

Tom and Cathy left us on Thursday to back to Switzerland and after a visit to the Garden Tomb, we headed south with Josh. There were two stops in the desert: Masada, a massive cliff plateau where Herod the Great built himself some opulent accommodation and site of the famous last stand of Jewish resistance to the Romans who had destroyed Jerusalem in AD 70. The second stop was Qumran, home of a Jewish community and the place where, in 1948, a shepherd stumbled on a collection of scrolls that had been stashed away in a cave. Thousands of fragments were eventually discovered, some reflecting the life of the community, but many that contained portions of Scripture. Among the discoveries was a complete scroll of the book of Isaiah.

One further stop on the way home – back up to Jerusalem – was the desolate mountainous desert area where Jesus is believed to have been tempted.

On Friday we left Jerusalem for Tel Aviv. On our way we stopped at Yad Veshem, Israel’s memorial to the 6 million victims of the Holocaust. Preparations were underway for this year’s Memorial Day which takes place tomorrow (Monday). Sculptures around the stage area depict the victims in the Warsaw Ghetto. There is also a dramatic memorial commemorating a million children who were murdered in the atrocity. A second stop was the Israel Museum, home to a magnificent outdoor model of Jerusalem at the time of Herod.

From here it was west to the city of Caesarea. Modern Caesarea is one of the most upmarket areas in Israel – including a golf course. Ancient Caesarea, home of Cornelius and thus a significant landmark in the story of early Christianity, was built by Herod – a place by the sea, including his own swimming pool.

The modern city of Tel Aviv is 50 kilometres or so to the south, and it was here that we spent the weekend. Our hotel, with an ocean view sat on the southern edge of the city, not far from the port of Jaffa (Joppa). Friday night was the eve of Sabbath (Josh, as an observant Jew, had left us to be back home in time) and dinner in the hotel saw various Jewish families celebrate a meal together. It was fascinating to discover that the hotel had a Sabbath elevator – stops at every floor and has to be called by a non-Jew: observant Jews will not activate electricity on the Sabbath.

Which meant that there were some items not available for breakfast the following morning – items, like omelette, that required to be freshly cooked. Not that we starved!

On the last evening of our visit we headed into Jaffa. There are still plenty of boats in the harbour (Jonah) and Simon the Tanner’s house still stands, though we didn’t make it onto the roof!

Is there any other strip of land on earth with so much history? A land of contrasts – old and new, religious and secular – and conflict. Israel.

Today has been a travel day. Taxi to the airport and a journey on to Germany via a brief transfer in Istanbul. I am writing this as we approach Munich. From there, we head down towards the Austrian border for a four day retreat with some pastors from a network of international churches in Europe.

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