Joshua 4: 1-14; Mark 1: 9-14
We have returned from a pilgrimage with no substitute. No book, no film, and no photographs will adequately tell you about the land of Israel and Palestine that has been known as holy. But we will give you some eyewitness news about the land claimed by God long ago; the land Moses saw as he looked across the Jordan River from Mount Nebo. He would not make the journey, but Joshua did, taking the city of Jericho for God. That city is the oldest in the world, with archeological evidence of more than 23 civilizations that have lived there since 8,000 – 10,000 years before Christ!
Our journey did not make us cross the Jordan. Thirty religious pilgrims started our journey by boarding our bus company of choice called “A Touch of Class” in the back church parking lot on Tuesday morning, July 8th. Some knew each other well, while others were meeting for the first time. We traveled safely to the Orlando airport where, at the gate, we met three more of our travelers: a new associate travel counselor and her parents from our tour company, Educational Opportunities in Lakeland, Florida. We flew on US Airways to Philadelphia where we met our final four travelers. Then the thirty-six were together, and we boarded our next US Airways flight to Tel Aviv Israel. The flight was not full, perhaps due to the media coverage that made it seem unsafe to be traveling there. We flew for just over 11 hours, grateful for the extra seats beside us to stretch out and rest. Upon our arrival at Ben Gurion Airport, a man who would be our guide, our shepherd, and our friend greeted us. His name was Mike, one of EO’s top guides. We learned that he is a Palestinian Christian with a license to also travel in Israel, something not every Palestinian can receive. His warm smile, his humor, his great English (one of four languages he speaks), his theological insights and his archeological knowledge made him the perfect guide. In every city he knew someone, and he could meet a stranger and make him an instant friend. Mike was but one of the reasons that this was the best Holy Land trip out of 5 that I have taken. Another reason was the permission I received from EO to custom-make this trip in July over eight days instead of the usual seven. Another reason I loved the trip was how much daylight we had. And a final reason was that the crowds and busses were few! This was the low season in the Holy Land so we were able to see all the sites with little or no wait time, compared with our last trip when, for example, we had a two hour wait just at the place in Bethlehem where Jesus was born. This time the weather, though hot, was drier than Florida so all our group enjoyed perfectly dry days and clear skies. The weather forecast for rain: zero!
This time, the first time ever, our group stayed three nights in Bethlehem in a place called the Angel Hotel, a charming small lodge owned by a widow. She, her father in law, and her three grown children cleaned, cooked and staffed the desks. It was amazing! The food was fresh, plentiful, and colorful; the rooms were clean and comfortable; and we grew fond of our hosts. Each night we sat out on a beautiful moonlit veranda in Bethlehem, feeling no mosquitos, no heat, and hearing no threatening sounds. It was the most peaceful place (among many) that we found on our trip. But you wouldn’t know it from the stories often reported in the US. Mary and Joseph might have found no room at the inn, but we found room and to spare. And we grew so grateful to this family who worked hard and showed us hospitality that we left gifts for them when we departed. Each time we left Bethlehem to go to Jerusalem, and each time we returned, we had to go through a security checkpoint. High walls surround Bethlehem. But as usual with Educational Opportunities tours, the guards just waved our bus through the checkpoints. The founder of EO, the late Dr. Jim Ridgeway, was given a recognition by the Israeli and Palestinian governments as a peacemaker. EO is highly regarded, in part because they have a mixture of guides and drivers who are Jewish, Muslim, or Christian; and either Palestinian or Israeli. Wherever we went, our driver Hazim, or our guide Mike, knew someone and could speak that language.
Can you believe we got to see the place where Jesus was born? All faiths since the second century agree on that location. We saw the shepherd’s fields and imagined how frightened shepherds might have received such news of a Savior being born long ago! And we sang and read scripture everywhere. It is unforgettable to sing “Silent Night” in the stable where our Lord was born.
We stayed in a simple hotel in Bethlehem, a nice hotel on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and an elegant hotel in Jerusalem. In Joshua’s day, he claimed Jericho; none of us will forget that way some in our group gave the devotion there and then led us in singing “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho” right on the top of Tel Jericho! And off to one side were the Judean hills where Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness. We traveled to Caesarea, a city standing to this day because of Herod and his Roman building expertise. Both Peter and Paul had significant events happen there. We visited the mountain palatial home of Herod: the Herodian, and his fortress known as Masada. We climbed Tel (which means man-made mountain) Megiddo, the traditional site of Armageddon and learned why people think the world could end there. We went to the top of Mount Carmel and saw the site where Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal. I was especially moved to sea a Carmelite Monastery on the top of the mountain, the group associated with St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, two people I studied for my doctor’s degree. We ate in traditional Jewish Kibbutz camps, in dining rooms, or in simple lunchrooms, loving the fresh vegetables and enjoying falafels and shawarmas.
On the first morning in Galilee, in perfect weather, we sailed on the Sea of Galilee. One among us said it was the best Sunday morning of her entire life! And it was. We prayed, we sang, we heard a spiritual message, and then we stopped all motors and music and heard the waves gently lapping up on the sides of the boat. We were there; in the Bible story; imagining that we were among the Twelve. It was extraordinary. And this is what our guide Mike urged us to do and be: be Galilee, not the Dead Sea. What did he mean by that, not only for us, but also for you today? The Galilee receives and gives; it receives water from the Jordan River that is fed by springs and the melting snow on the top of Mount Hermon. The sea is fresh water so the region can receive drinking water from it. But it also produces an abundance of fish which we had the privilege of trying. The Galilee also produced disciples and a place of peace and recreation. The Galilee is living and alive. We were challenged to be alive, to share, and to receive. By contrast the water from the Galilee continues down the Jordan River and into the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea has no outlet. It is extraordinarily salty and can support no life in or around it. It takes, but does not give. One in our group actually swallowed some of the water while floating on the Dead Sea. She had to seek assistance from a lifeguard. There is no life in the Dead Sea. There is abundant life in the Galilee. “Be Galilee” we were commissioned. And I commission you with that today. It is the way of our Savior who taught others how to be fishers of men and women. There on the edge of the Galilee we were privileged to have member of our group lead devotions on the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, the Feeding of the Five Thousand, and at the place where our risen Lord saw his disciples again and undid Peter’s denial of him by asking him three times, “Peter, do you love me? If so, feed my sheep.” There is a sermon from Jesus in just those two sentences. Do you love me? If so, then feed my sheep. We saw what could happen to a group that was fanatical and closed off to others. They were called the Essenes. And although from them we now have The Dead Sea Scrolls, they died out after one generation. They were not life like the Galilee. And on our way to the airport on the last day we toured the Jerusalem Holocaust Museum, being reminded of what misguided, twisted evil can do. We chose life instead.
There is plenty more to tell and some of our travelers will share their impressions in a moment. Every traveler who wished to do so offered a devotion of a prayer, a hymn, scripture, and reflections at some holy place. But for now I want to close by telling you about the Jordan River, the river described in both Scripture passages today. It’s not like the Mississippi or the Nile; it’s a river known as the boundary between one country and another; from one land to a holy land; or from an earthly life to a heavenly life as depicted in spiritual songs. For the first time in my five trips there, we went to the actual spot on the Jordan River where we believe John baptized Jesus! I donned a Baptismal gown and went into the Jordan River, and each of our travelers stepped into the edge of the Jordan and let me pour water on their head saying, “With this water, I re-affirm your baptism in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” And two in our group chose a full immersion re-affirmation! That was so special too, saying the same words, but having their robed bodies go under the water and come back up. The day, and the event, was unforgettable. And to cap off our pilgrimage we had communion in a garden near a tomb next to a skull-like rock formation that could have been where our Lord was crucified, laid to rest, and from where he arose to eternal life!
So friends, as our guide and others told us several times a day, that is a Holy Land. Long before Jesus, God claimed that land to be holy. Yes it is true that there is passion and there are clashes. But you should know that as we traveled—as you heard threatening report after threatening report—we never felt unsafe. It was as if we traveled in the loving hands of God. We came to learn and to pray, to see holy sites and other cultures with wonder and respect. It has felt that same way every time I’ve gone. If you are physically able to go to this great land through our Tour Company, go with confidence regarding your safety. It is not all strife and bombs and blood. There are hospitable Christians, kind Muslims, and welcoming Jews. Please put that imprint over the images that bombard us on our news channels. That land is still filled with wonder, with history, and with holiness. Now thirty-six of us are ambassadors, not only of the Good News of Jesus Christ, but the eyewitness news of how gladly we were greeted and how much we experienced. Ask us about our pilgrimage! And, perhaps because of our words, or the reading of your Bibles, you will reaffirm your conviction to be a disciple of light and love.
Jeffrey A. Sumner July 20, 2014