On Sunday, June 3, twenty-two intrepid travelers boarded El Al Airline for a 14-hour flight to Tel Aviv, Israel.
It was the beginning of a pilgrimage, and what was to follow was an incredible 10 days filled with new sights, sounds and experiences.
In Israel, the stories we have read in Scripture take on a whole new meaning as we literally “walk where Jesus walked.” But we want our pilgrims to also experience Israel as a modern country, not just as a museum. Where Jesus walked people still walk, laugh, work, and pray. Our pilgrimage began in Galilee where Jesus’ ministry was focused; we spent time in Capernaum, the home base of His ministry, we read the Sermon on the Mount right outside the Church of the Beatitudes, we sailed across the Sea of Galilee and visited the ruins of Magdala where Mary Magdalene came from. But we also met with an Arab Christian entrepreneur in Nazareth and connected with the struggles of Palestinians to make their way in the modern state of Israel. And we spent time at a Baptist High School in Nazareth, where Arab Christians are teaching and ministering to the largely Arab population of Nazareth, preaching boldly the Gospel of Christ. We visited the Tel Dan nature reserve and reconnected with the time of the divided kingdom of Israel; the time of Jeroboam, Ahab and Elijah. We visited Mt. Bentaal, a de-commissioned army bunker right on the Syrian border where a great tank battle was waged between Syrian and Israel in 1973. We held a baptism service on the Jordan River where people had an opportunity to be baptized for the first time or renew their commitment to Jesus.
Then we traveled south to Masada and climbed the Roman ramp to the top of Herod’s fortress where 900 Jewish zealots took their own lives rather than subject themselves to Roman slavery in 70 AD. We visited Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. We visited the oasis of Ein Gedi where David hid from Saul when he was trying to kill him. We floated in the waters of the Dead Sea and then started that sacred trip “up” to the city of Jerusalem.
It's an amazing experience when you come out of the tunnel, look to your left and see the old walled city of Jerusalem below you. We continued our pilgrimage, starting at the top of Mount of Olives and stopping in Gethsemane to remember that night of great anguish in the life of our Savior. We walked through the city gate, down the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which most probably sits over the historical site where Jesus was crucified, buried and rose from the dead on the third day. We went out to Gordon’s Calvary, outside the city walls, and, in sight of the Garden Tomb, we celebrated Communion. Since it was Ramadan, the Temple Mount was closed to visitors, so we walked the temple steps that Jesus would have walked and gazed up at the huge stone platform that Herod the Great had built to contain the temple during Jesus’ time. We prayed at the western wall, the closest that the Jews feel they can get to the Holy of Holies from Solomon’s temple. We hiked through the ruins of David’s Jerusalem, built by him after he had claimed the city of Jerusalem from the Jebusites. We walked through King Hezekiah’s water tunnel, built 40 feet underground to bring water into the city when it was threatened with siege by the Assyrians. So much more we did in this city than can be shared here.
We visited Yad Vashem, the Israeli holocaust museum in Jerusalem, and then traveled up the coast to the ancient seaport of Ceasarea built by Herod the Great, where a great many events from the lives of Peter and Paul took place. We finally reached the modern city of Tel Aviv, went to Jaffa to visit the house of Simon the tanner, and enjoyed one evening of the sights and sounds of that amazing city, and then, after a great final meal, boarded the plane to fly back to Los Angeles.
The pilgrimage was over, but the experience remains something that will continue to change us forever. Mostly we will remember that there is a place where all this happened; it isn’t a fable, it’s a narrative grounded in reality and history, and now a treasure all the more grounded in our hearts.