Visiting Israel

(Okay, nothing controversial today, I promise!)

For the last week, I have been remembering a wonderful trip I took, exactly four years ago, to Israel.  It was truly, to use an overworked phrase, a life-changing experience.

I almost didn’t get to go.

Early in the summer of 2008, there was an announcement at Beltway, the church where we attend, about a trip to Israel in February, 2009. The cost would be about $3000.  I didn’t have the $3000 – at the time, I didn’t even have the $100 I needed for the deposit, but I began praying, and asking God if I was supposed to go on this trip, and if so, how was I going to pay for it?

By the time I got my trip deposit together a couple of weeks later, I was told that the trip was full, but that a dozen or so reservations were probably going to be cancelled, so my name was first on the list of “alternates.”  I talked with the trip secretary again a few days later, and she told me that a spot had opened up for me to go.  I gave Pastor David my deposit check the following Sunday at church, and he said he would get me signed up.

The next morning, he sent me an e-mail.  Yes, he said, I was confirmed for the trip.  And what is more, he said, was that “an anonymous friend” had come forward and wanted to pay the cost of the trip – the entire $3000.  To say I was stunned would be a gross understatement.

DSC02433For the next several months, I read the pre-trip material and attended the team meetings.  Finally, the day came for us to load up.  A bus ride to DFW, a flight to Atlanta, a flight to Tel Aviv, and there we were – I was in Israel!

Our first stop was in Akko, on the coast in the far northwest corner of the country.  Akko is a very ancient city, referenced in the Hebrew text of Job 38:11.  In NT times, it was known by the name of Ptolemais – Paul went through it towards the end of his 3rd missionary journey, heading towards Jerusalem – Acts 21:7.  The city was a major port for the Crusaders, conquered by the English King Richard the Lionheart, retaken by the Muslims, and later the site of one of the few defeats ever suffered by Napoleon.

All that to say, it’s kinda historic.

While we were there in that region, we visited several Messianic synagogues where we have friends.  What a blessing to get to meet these precious brothers and sisters and pray with them!  It was a time of wonderful fellowship and mutual encouragement, with worship services sometimes held in three different languages.  Besides Akko, we also visited Haifa and Nazareth.

During some free time one evening, with our bus driver’s help, I was able to get to a train station and ride a passenger train a few miles down the coast, then take another train back.  (You knew part of this story would involve a train ride, right?)

Next we went down the coast to Caesarea, the man-made port city constructed by Herod the Great, then on to Mt. Carmel, to the area where Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to a contest (I Kings 18), then across the country through the Jezreel Valley to Megiddo, and on to our hotel on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.

IMG_2465February 10 was my favorite day in Israel.  We started out driving up to the top of the traditional site where Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount.  It was very cloud and misting rain that day, but this picture shows the side of the mountain sloping down to the Sea of Galilee below.  Then it was on to the coastline itself, to the area where it’s believed that Jesus cooked breakfast for the disciples after His resurrection  (John 21), and then He and Peter went for a walk along the beach – “Feed my sheep.”

IMG_2520We went to Jesus’ adopted hometown of Capernaum next.  Words cannot really describe how special this part of the trip was for me.  We know about more miracles per square foot that took place there, than any other place In Israel.  The synagogue leader’s daughter, and the woman with the issue of blood.  The centurion’s servant, and the paralyzed man whose friends lowered him down through the roof.  Peter’s mother-in-law, and a miraculous catch of fish.  And on, and on, and on – yet most of the people did not believe.  (This picture shows David leading us in our morning devo, in a little park just outside the ruins of the synagogue there.)

Something very special and personal happened to me while we were there.  I began to think about all that Jesus did there, and all the stories from the Gospels – inviting Peter and the others to become “fishers of men,” visiting Matthew’s tax collecting booth, teaching in the synagogue, and more.  Capernaum is not a very big place – the entire village would easily fit on the campus of ACU – and all the spots where these things happened were just yards from where I was standing.  Here’s the weird part: it was almost as if I could see the faces of all the Sunday School teachers that I had when I was a kid, and I could almost hearing them telling me those stories again.  And here I was, standing in the midst of where all those things happened.

I had never felt the Spirit of Jesus more keenly than I did in that moment.

communionWe were in Israel for almost two weeks.  We also visited the Jewish fortress of Masada, the oasis at En Gedi (one of King David’s favorite places!), and the Dead Sea.  Of course, we toured Jerusalem, prayed over Holy City from the ancient ramparts, went to the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane, and walked the Via Dolorosa.  We saw the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Gordon’s Calvary, and shared communion outside the Garden Tomb.

It was a great trip, and I’m ready to go back.  There’s some places I want to see again, and lots more places that I want to visit.  For those who say, “Oh, I’d never go – it’s much too dangerous” – not so.  The most dangerous part of the trip was the bus ride on I-20!  If you stay out of the West Bank and Gaza, stay with your tour group, you’ll be fine.

I believe every Christian should go to Israel at least once, if possible.  It will make the Bible come alive in ways you never imagined.  And maybe it will renew your faith to a deeper level than you ever thought possible.

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