Scripture reading–John 5: 1-15
Today was an amazing day.
We always begin with a scripture reading relative to what we will see that day and a devotional from Pastor Brian. The scripture verses talk about miraculous healings that Jesus did in Jerusalem. The religious leaders wanted to limit the power of God through Jesus. They were threatened by Jesus and jealous. They saw rules in black and white, but didn’t see the grace and mercy of Jesus.
Pastor Brian asked how many times we try to put God in a box? How many times do we not trust or believe He is big enough or powerful enough to help us? He challenged us to allow the Holy Spirit to open our hearts and minds to experience all of God’s fullness.
We left Tiberius and traveled inland towards Judea. At first we saw date palm trees which are a symbol of life. They are pollinated by hand and take nine months to bear fruit. Date palm trees live 80 to 100 years and turn to ash when they die. Sounds a bit like us as humans.
Soon we were in the wilderness which is truly desolate for miles and miles. We came to the spot in the Jordan River where John the Baptist taught and it is believed to be close to the spot where Jesus was baptized. Pastor Brian invited all of us into the river to reaffirm our baptismal vows. As we walked towards the river, we saw a white pigeon on the ground–a special sight! The ceremony was very moving.
From here we began our journey up to Jerusalem. On the way, many of us prayed the prayers of ascent which they did in the Bible–Psalm 121 through 134. As we came into the city, Johnny played the beautiful song “Jerusalem” sung by Pavarotti.
Our path to the old city took us through a cemetery up to the Lion’s Gate which is also called the Sheep’s Gate or St. Stephen’s gate where Stephen was stoned.
The Virgin Mary’s parents were Anne and Joachim. Her father worked in the area of animal sacrifice outside the temple. Her mother was barren until Joachim prayed and promised the Lord he would dedicate any child to the temple. This explains why Mary found favor with the Lord.
Church of St. Anne honors Mary’s mother and is built over the traditional place of Mary’s birth. Because of the extraordinary acoustics, many tourists take advantage by singing. We came upon a group of tourists from Japan singing beautifully. After they left, we also sang praises to God.
Outside the church is the pool of Bethseda where Jesus healed the lame man who had been waiting 38 years.
We also encountered our first Israeli soldiers here. Uniformed and armed, they were quite friendly, even inviting some of our group to have pictures with them.
We left Jerusalem and traveled towards the West Bank territory (occupied territory) where Bethlehem is located. We stopped for lunch and did some shopping for olive wood nativity and other carvings to avoid the two to three hour line at the Church of the Nativity.
Three denominations share the Church of the Nativity over the place where Jesus was born–the Greek Orthodox, the Roman Catholics and the Armenian Orthodox. They are all allowed private prayer time in the church when the site is closed. Inside this vast area is decorated with ornate huge chandeliers and dozens of hanging oil lamps.
In contrast to the church, the manger is a humble, simple cave. I can’t imagine Mary delivering her first child in this dark, dreary place. Jesus was most likely born in September or October because the sheep raised this close to the temple in Jerusalem would be sacrificial lambs for the fall holy days.
We all stood at the back of the viewing area and sang “Silent Night.”
Many archeological finds are best guess scenarios since the evidence or historical records are not 100 percent accurate. This is not the case for the Nativity. In 135, early followers of Jesus were flocking to the site of His birth. Jews were also coming to the temple in Jerusalem to worship on their holy days. Emperor Hadrian, like many Roman rulers throughout history, despised those who didn’t worship the Roman gods. He built a temple to Adonis over the site. This is verified by the historian Justin Martyr (100-165) in his writing “Dialogue with Trypho” and also by Greek philosopher Origen. When Emperor Constantine (327-529) sent his mother Helena to build churches and bascillicas where significant events of Jesus occurred, she easily found this site after learning of the history.
The first church was destroyed in the 6th century by the Samaritans and rebuilt in 565. It is the oldest church in Israel having been saved from the Persian invaders by the Wise Men. Yes, the same wise men that visited the baby Jesus. On a far wall in the church was a painting showing the Magi “from the East.” The artist had painted their faces to resemble those of the Persians. Even though they didn’t know,the significance of the painting, they decided not to destroy the church since their faces looked the same.
With the Jewish Sabbath beginning soon, I thought I’d share a few cultural facts we are learning about our Jewish friends. All of the restaurants at the hotels are kosher. This means there can be no dairy products in the area where food is cooked. One evening a young woman was walking into the dining room with a cappuccino and was told she couldn’t enter because it contained cream. Of course there is no pork anywhere. Even McDonald’s in Israel do not serve cheeseburgers. The restrooms are on the floor above or below the floor where the food preparation takes place.
The Jews have a broad definition of “work” which cannot be done on the Sabbath. At sunset on Friday, a couple of the elevators in the hotel in Jerusalem switched to “Shabbat” elevators. These elevators stopped on every floor and opened so that no one had to “work” to push the button. We visited a Jewish prayer room on the sabbath and I wasn’t allowed to write notes because this also was considered “work.”
Lord Jesus, thank you, not only for suffering and dying for us, but for leaving the majesty of heaven to become human. Thank you for humbling yourself to be born as a bay in a manger. Thank you for living a life on earth and facing trials just as we do so that we can be assured you understand all our needs and challenges. Help us every day, Lord, to trust how big and gracious and amazing you are and that your blessings are never ending for those who believe in you. In your name we pray. Amen.