We began the final day of our pilgrimage early with mixed feelings; anticipation of the climactic conclusion of our journey and sadness that we would soon be parting ways. We headed out at 5:30 AM to walk the Via Dolorosa, the way of suffering which marks the traditional route on which Jesus carried his cross to Golgotha. It was powerfully moving to reflect on the various aspects of Jesus' suffering as we made our way through the maze of city streets, drawing ever closer to the site of Jesus' crucifixion. After breakfast we returned to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built 1600 years ago to mark the actual rock of Golgotha and the nearby rock-cut tomb of Jesus. As we began to make sense of this complex building we peeled back the layers of history until we could see clearly the setting in which Jesus gave everything to redeem the world and conquer death! After spending some time in the courtyard of a nearby monastery reflecting on the meaning of Jesus' death for us personally, we headed outside the city to a lovely park where we explored the family tomb of Herod the Great. It is the finest example of a first-century rolling stone tomb that we have and it provided a great opportunity to understand Jesus burial and resurrection more clearly. We shared a final time of worship together, praising God for this great victory that he won through Jesus' resurrection and asking him to help us return home with the love and power to share all that we have experienced in these two weeks. The afternoon was spent with last-minute shopping trips and visits and then we gathered at our good friends' restaurant for a closing dinner before saying our goodbyes. We parted knowing that we have formed a bond that will last a life-time ... Thanks for joining us via this photo blog! Why not consider joining us for one of our pilgrimages in 2016?
Jesus spent day after day teaching and healing in the huge courtyards of Herod's Temple Mount, until the day of Passover came and then he made special provisions to celebrate this covenantal meal privately with his closest friends inside the walls of Jerusalem. Jesus sent two of his disciples into the city with nothing more than instructions to look for the unusual sight of a man carrying a water jar and follow him, because he didn't want anyone to prevent him from celebrating this most important of Passovers with his disciples. Today we visited the remains of that secret location on the southwest hill of Jerusalem and reflected on the meaning of Jesus' reinterpretation of the bread and wine of Passover in that Upper Room. From there we headed down into the Kidron Valley and up to the Garden of Gethsemane, just as Jesus did with his disciples. There we pondered the incredible surrender Jesus demonstrated when he admited his desire to avoid the suffering of the cross, but chose to submit anyway. From this powerful spot we retraced our steps across the Kidron Valley following the route Caiaphas' soldiers would have taken Jesus to a mock trial at the home of the High Priest, also up on the southwest hill of the city. From there we continued north to the site of Herod's Palace where Pontius Pilate would have been staying for the festival and where he finally condemned Jesus to death, in spite of the clear evidence of Jesus' innocence. It was an intense day as we considered Jesus' willingness to allow sinful men to judge him, the only truly innocent man who has ever lived, but we know it is just preparing us for the powerful conclusion of our pilgrimage that awaits tomorrow ....
For most of the week leading up to the tumultuous final events of Jesus' life on earth, he and the disciples were staying with the extended family of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in Bethany and would walk over the Mount of Olives each day to spend time in the huge Temple courtyards, where Jesus was teaching, healing, debating with the religious leaders, and engaging with the crowds. We spent the twelfth day of our journey exploring the massive precincts of Herod's mind-boggling Temple Mount and took an exciting trip via subterranean tunnels to the Pool of Siloam where Jesus sent the formerly blind man to wash. We had the opportunity to examine the gigantic outer walls and gates of the Temple Mount which constituted the greatest engineering achievement of the ancient world. We explored the extensive archaeological excavations that have illuminated many details of the Temple from the time of Jesus and took a trip through the long underground tunnel underneath the Muslim Quarter that exposes the entire Western Wall to modern visitors. After a delicious Arabic lunch under ancient stone arches, we headed to the south end of the original City of David where some of our group braved the 3/4 mile long tunnel dug by King Hezekiah in the 7th century BC to protect Jerusalem's water supply. We all met up where Hezekiah's Tunnel empties the water of the Gihon Spring into the ancient Pool of Siloam where Jesus sent the blind man to wash the mud from his eyes and he came back seeing. To top it all off, we returned to the Old City via a recently discovered water drainage tunnel that ran underneath the very street this formerly blind would have used to return to the city to tell the good news of Jesus' healing! Tonight we are going out on the town for a little Jerusalem nightlife....
Our first day back in Jerusalem was filled with new experiences and insights as we retraced Jesus' steps into Bethany, over the Mount of Olives, and into the Holy City on Palm Sunday. We started in the ancient city of Bethany, just 1 3/4 miles east of Jerusalem, where Jesus had a kind of second extended family with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Near the tomb where Jesus called Lazarus back to life we also reflected on Mary's decision to choose the better part by sitting at Jesus' feet and her bold act of devotion when she anointed Jesus with expensive oil. On the Mount of Olives we visited the ruins of the great church built by Constantine's mother Helena and recounted the teaching Jesus gave on this ridge overlooking the city, promising his return in glory at the end of history. We then had a time of worship in the place where Jesus wept over the city and proceeded to walk the very route down the mountain that Jesus and his disciples followed as crowds of Passover pilgrims shouted "Hosanna!" After a tasty lunch of shewarma and middle eastern pastries, we headed over to the Pools of Bethesda and saw how much the archaeological discoveries there confirm and illuminate John's account of Jesus healing the paralyzed man. As we sense the conclusion of our spiritual journey drawing closer we are aware that the most dramatic and significant events of Jesus' life are still to come ...
Jesus lived his life with a very intentional rhythm of rest and work, what he called "abiding" and "bearing fruit." In addition to their daily and weekly rhythms of abiding, Jesus would occasionally take the disciples away to places where people would not recognize them, so they could rest and be open to fresh revelation from God. Today we said our goodbyes to the beautiful Sea of Galilee and headed further north to some of the places where Jesus took the disciples away on these abiding retreats. Our first stop was the Jewish Zealot town of Gamla, built on the steep sides of a dramatic promontory for extreme defensiblity. A strenuous hike took us down the steep ravine, across the saddle, and into the walled city which the Romans breached during the First Jewish Revolt. We visited the fantastic first-century synagogue there and envisioned again the settings where Jesus preached and healed so often on the Sabbath. From Gamla we drove through the dramatic Golan Heights to the northern tip of Israel where we visited the ruins of Caesarea Philippi with its complex of pagan temples built around the spring of the Jordan River. After a picnic lunch beside the flowing waters of the spring, we took a hike down into the canyon where we were rewarded with view of the most beautiful waterfall in the entire region. It was in this area that Jesus asked his disciples, "Who do you say that I am?", a question all of us would do well to ponder! Like Jesus, from there we "set our faces toward Jerusalem" and have now arrived back in the Old City where we have taken up residence once more at the cozy and picturesque Lutheran Guesthouse. Tomorrow we head to Bethany to retrace Jesus' triumphal entry to the city on Palm Sunday....
Today we continued our journey in the Footsteps of Jesus by visiting more of the sites around the Sea of Galilee where Jesus carried out his mission. We started by climbing the narrow path up to the highly defensible Greek city state called "Hippos" in Greek and "Susita" in Aramaic. Although Hippos is not named specifically in the Gospels, it is one of the ten powerful city states that made up the coalition known as the Decapolis, the regions of which Jesus visited from time to time. As we explored the incredibly impressive ruins of this wealthy pagan city, we reflected on how Jesus engaged with people of every kind of background and proclaimed a Kingdom that was not just for his own people, the Jews, but was for every person on the planet! From Hippos we went to Bethsaida, the recently excavated Jewish fishing village originally situated on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, where Philip, Simon, and Andrew came from originally. We saw extended family homes (oikoi) where people shared life and a common vocation together, including an extended family whose business, just like Simon and Andrew's, was fishing. We finished the day with a visit to Chorazin, another Jewish town around the lake where Jesus taught and healed. There we were reminded that Jesus has made it possible for us to become a part of God's extended family and that he has prepared a place for us in that family, both now and forever.
As we moved into the second week of our journey in the Footsteps of Jesus, we began to explore some of the sites where Jesus carried out his mission and trained his disciples to do the same around this beautiful lake we call the Sea of Galilee. Our first stop was the meticulously rebuilt early Byzantine church which is right next door to where we are staying here in Tabgha. This area still today, as in the time of Jesus, is incredibly lush due to the seven springs which water the grass and trees in the area. It is not hard to see why Jesus often brought his disciples to this area for times of abiding and rest after seasons of busy and fruitful ministry. An early tradition places the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand here, marked by an ancient stone and a famous mosaic of the five loaves and two fish. After reflecting on the disciples participation in this amazing miracle we headed up the hill to the traditional location of the Sermon on the Mount and visited the Church of the Beatitudes surrounded by meticulously tended gardens. From there we went to explore the brand-new excavations at Magdala, the hometown of Mary Magdalene along the shore of the lake. The recently discovered first-century synagogue there is the most important biblical archaeological find of this century and was certainly one of the synagogues Jesus preached in. It was amazing to see the intricately carved table there, knowing Jesus would have laid the scroll on it as he unrolled it to read the text he was preaching on! We finished another incredible day with an intimate Communion service at a gorgeous lakeside chapel in Tabgha and a refreshing swim in the lake near our guesthouse...we couldn't be more grateful!
When Jesus left his hometown of Nazareth, stinging from the rejection of his village and his extended family, he went straight to Capernaum, a fishing center on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. Earlier, at the time of his baptism in Judea, Jesus had met five men who lived in Capernaum. Because they seemed to be particularly open to him, Jesus decided to go to their town and see if these guys would become not just friends, but followers who would build a new kind of family with him. So we too went to Capernaum and had the amazing opportunity to see the remains of the synagogue where Jesus preached and healed, as well as the home of the extended family of Simon and Andrew where Jesus lived and redefined what a family is meant to be. As we studied the layout of the house and how it illuminates the various Gospel accounts of what happened there, we started to see the profound implications for our own family life and the mission God has called each of us to as well. After a time of worship and reflection there by the lake in Capernaum, we headed out for a boat cruise on the lake to see things from the perspective of the fishermen who became the core of Jesus' spiritual family. Our cruise ended with a visit to see the first-century boat discovered on the shores of the lake just 30 years ago, exactly the kind of boat Jesus and the disciples used here. This day of amazing experiences challenged us to ask ourselves if we are building the same kind of extended spiritual family on mission that Jesus did.
After five days spent exploring Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, Bethlehem, the Jordan River, and the Judean Desert, we said our goodbyes to the Holy City and headed north to Jesus' hometown in Galilee. Nazareth is a bustling Palestinian Christian city today, but was a small, insignificant Jewish village while Jesus was growing up there. When Jesus returned home after his baptism and testing in the desert, not only did the people of his village reject his vision of God's promise for all people, but even his extended family refused to stand with him. It was amazing to see the archaeological remains of first century Nazareth under the beautiful modern Church of the Annunciation and then to see the historically accurate reconstruction of daily life in the time of Jesus at Nazareth Village. After taking in the vistas of the Jezreel Valley from Mount Precipice and pondering the meaning of Jesus' rejection in Nazareth, we went to visit the impressive ruins and mosaics excavated at the nearby cosmopolitan city of Sepphoris, where Jesus and his extended family would have worked as builders. Heading north and east we crested the ridge of Arbel and were greeted with sweeping views of the beautiful lake we call the Sea of Galilee, which will be our home for the next four days!
Our journey in the Footsteps of Jesus continued today as we visited the places where two crucial events took place which launched Jesus from obscurity to the center of the public stage: his baptism by John in the Jordan River and his time of testing in the nearby desert wilderness. We visited the traditional site of Jesus' baptism just outside of Jericho and reflected on the powerful statement of Covenant identity the Father gave as he poured out his Spirit on Jesus. We had an opportunity to get into the river and reflect on the meaning of our own baptisms in this special place. Then we headed west into the forbidding Judean desert and hiked to the ancient Monastery of St George, which clings to the cliffs of the Wadi Qelt in the region where Jesus spent his forty days of fasting. After a vigorous hike and a visit with the hospitable monks of St. George's, we moved to a breath-taking desert overlook for lunch and a time of worship. As we gazed out over the desert where Jesus wrestled with the devil himself and came out victorious, we considered what it means to engage in our own spiritual battles by exercising the authority given to us as sons and daughters of the King. As if all this weren't enough, we topped off the day with a visit off-the beaten path to the ruins of Herod's winter palace outside of Jericho.
How do we begin to comprehend the unfathomable mystery of the eternal Creator of the universe setting aside his glory, emptying himself, and entering into his creation as a vulnerable child? One way is to visit the historical places connected to this momentous birth and prayerfully reflect with others on the events that happened there. And so we began our exploration of the life of Jesus by visiting the cave in Bethlehem which the earliest records indicate was the place where Mary gave birth to Jesus and laid him in a manger. We drove outside the bustling city of Bethlehem to reflect and worship on the serene hills of the Shepherd's Fields where the angelic hosts proclaimed the glory and good news of this history-changing birth. After an amazing middle eastern feast, served to us by an extended family of Palestinian Christians in the village Bet Sahour, we finished our day by climbing up the Zealot tunnels into Herod's mountain fortress called Herodium. There we noted the profound contrast of a king willing to kill babies to keep his desperate grasp of power and a King willing to lay down his life in order to give away his power to those who would use it for good.
Today we dug further into the world into which Jesus came by exploring two key sites along the Dead Sea occupied by the Essenes and the Zealots, Qumran and Masada. The Essenes were the Jewish separatists of the first century who tried to prepare the way for the coming of two Messiahs (!) by pursuing a strict communal lifestyle of ritual purity in the desert. The Zealots were the Jewish nationalists of the first century, seeking to overthrow the Roman oppressors through violence and insurgency. As we explored these amazing sites we were struck by the fact that Jesus was the true revolutionary who changed the world, not by withdrawing from it or imposing himself on it, but by laying down his life.
In our first full day walking in the Footsteps of Jesus we dove deep into the fascinating sights, smells, and sounds of the ancient Old City of Jerusalem where we are staying. Our goal was to gain a deeper understanding of the world into which Jesus came by visiting some sites connected to the two most influential religious groups of Jesus' time, the Saducees and the Pharisees, along with their rulers, the Herodians. We gawked at the massive scale of Herod's Temple Mount, power seat of the Saducees, and had a chance to actually visit the enormous courtyards in which Jesus taught. We hiked up the Mount of Olives for a panorama of the mountain where Abraham proved willing to sacrifice his son Isaac; the city which David captured from the Jebusites and made his capital; the city where Solomon built the first Temple; the city where Jesus suffered, died, and rose again to change our lives forever. After a delicious lunch at a favorite restaurant in the Old City we visited the Jerusalem Museum in the Tower of David for a brilliant overview of the various historical periods of this most amazing and bewildering of all cities ... it was simply more than our hearts or minds could take in ... not to mention our feet!
It is always an exciting and sometimes intimidating prospect to travel halfway around the globe to meet up with people from different countries and continents and pursue a spiritual journey that followers of Jesus for two thousand years have spent fortunes and risked their lives to undertake: walking in the historical footsteps of Jesus. Thankfully the cost and challenge of such a pilgrimage have been greatly reduced in modern times, but it is still quite a trip! And so it was with gratitude that every person in our group gathered in the spacious lounge of the Lutheran Guesthouse tonight to get to know each other and begin this spiritual adventure. A few of us who arrived last night had a chance to do some exploring earlier in the day ... here are a few shots from Day One as our adventure begins!
By dinnertime all the members of our group had assembled and we enjoyed a delicious dinner together at the Lutheran Guesthouse, our unique accommodations inside the ancient walls of Jerusalem. After dinner we had a chance to begin exploring the ancient city of Jerusalem together with a visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which marks the site of Jesus' death and resurrection, and the Western Wall of Herod's great Temple Mount. We are hoping for a good night's sleep as our body clocks adjust to as much as a ten-hour time difference. We will need all our energy for tomorrow as we begin exploring the world into which Jesus was born. Thanks for your prayers. Please post comments and check back daily!
We reluctantly woke to our final day of this amazing journey wishing it wasn't coming to an end. Or maybe our reluctance was just that we woke up so early! We headed out at 5:30 AM to walk the traditional route of the Stations of the Cross along the Via Dolorosa. Although this is probably not the historical route on which Jesus would have carried his cross, it was powerful to walk this path that followers of Jesus have taken for over 1500 years.
After breakfast we visited the Citidel which is built on the ruins of the great palace that Herod the Great built on the southwest hill of Jerusalem. It was here that Pontius Pilate would have been staying during his visit to Jerusalem during the Passover and it was the courtyard of this palace that he would have condemned Jesus to flogging and crucifixion.
From there we traced what is most likely to be the actual route Jesus would have taken as he carried his cross to Golgotha. Turning down David Street we then turned onto Muristan Road, passing through this arch (below) which stands roughly where the gate in the city wall stood where Jesus was led outside to be executed.
Both the traditional and historical route of the Via Dolorosa lead us to the same place: the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This confusing, complex, and profound church challenge the pilgrim to dig through layers of ancient buildings and modern religiosity in order to find the true meaning of this unique place. Although some have denied it, the archaeological, biblical, and literary evidence combine to give us nearly complete certainty that this is the actual location of Jesus' death on the rock of the Golgotha and his burial (temporarily!) in a newly cut tomb.
We had visited the Holy Sepulcher several times during our stays in Jerusalem, but now we dug into it's complex and fascinating history. Exploring every nook and cranny we saw both the historical context of Jesus' death and resurrection as well as the history of devotion by the hundreds of thousands who have literally risked or given their lives to come and pray in this place.
As we reflected on Jesus' death and resurrection here we couldn't help remembering how Jesus had entered into the extended family of Peter and Andrew and transformed their family business ("I will make you fish for people"), but then eventually invited Peter and the other disciples to enter into his extended family business which was building ("On this rock I will build my church"). Jesus predicted that the Psalm would be fulfilled in him: "The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone." It didn't escape Peter's notice that Jesus was crucified on a large outcropping of stone that was literally rejected by the builders! No wonder he wrote later, "Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God's sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house" (1 Peter 2:4-5).
We headed out of the Old City through Jaffa Gate and visited the family tomb of Herod the Great in a nearby park. This offers us an amazing example of a rolling stone closure in a tomb from the time of Jesus. After the hustle and bustle of the tomb in the Holy Sepulcher, this gave us space to reflect on Jesus' resurrection and celebrate the victory that he has won for us!
It was bittersweet as we celebrated Easter in the very city where the Good News was first proclaimed, but also realized that our unique journey was coming to an end. As we listened to what God was saying it became clear that this was not the end, but just the beginning of what God was going to do in us and through us in light of all we experienced in these two weeks!
One of the unique features of our last day in Jerusalem was the growing excitement and preparations that were being made for the historic visit of Pope Francis on Sunday and Monday. Everywhere we went we saw signs of the local Palestinian Christian community welcoming the Pope to their city. While we were enjoying our last dinner together at a favorite restaurant in the Old City, the Patriarch of Constantinople, the leader of the Eastern Orthodox Communion, arrived with a much fanfare and a parade of religious dignitaries. Malcolm managed to snap a picture of him as he passed by the window next to our table!
In the midst of all the excitement we enjoyed a final meal together at Versave, the excellent restaurant owned and run by the extended family of our dearest friends in Jerusalem, the Katanashos. As the time came to say our goodbyes, the Australians invited us Americans to visit them in Perth, and we in turn invited the Australians to visit us in America. We have truly become a spiritual family through these profound experiences and it has been such a blessing to share this journey together.
After lots of hugs and goodbyes we each made our way to Ben Gurion Airport to fly east and west to our respective homes. We all agree walking together in the footsteps of Jesus was an experience we will never forget and will change the way we follow him in our own homes and families. Thanks for all the prayers and support! Come join us next year for the experience of a lifetime ...
As we have been following Jesus through the final events of his life on earth, we get a growing sense that our unique journey in this amazing place is also drawing to a close. Today we reflected on the Last Supper Jesus shared with the disciples before his arrest and crucifixion by visiting the Upper Room.
This medieval structure has been built over the ruins of two churches which in turn were built over a large first century house in this southwest part of ancient Jerusalem. This was the area where the wealthy upper class lived. Archaeology and ancient tradition both point to this being the location of the house of John Mark, his mother Mary, and their extended family. It was amazing to realize that this was not only the location of the Last Supper, but also where the disciples gathered on the Day of Pentecost to be filled with the Holy Spirit! We sang and prayed that God would feed us and fill us with his Holy presence as he did those first disciples.
From the highest point in Jerusalem we took the route Jesus and his disciples followed as they made their way into the Kidron Valley heading toward the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives. It was along this way that Jesus gave the disciples some of his most powerful teaching, including the image of him as the vine and us as the branches. We decided there must have been vineyards planted on these slopes which Jesus used as visual aids for this amazing teaching!
As we ascended the base of the Mount of Olives we came to the ancient Garden of Gethsemane. The monks here have tended these olives trees for hundreds of years. Gethsemane means "Olive Press" and indeed archaeologists have discovered first-century olive presses in the nearby caves of this area. It is a fitting setting to imagine Jesus under tremendous pressure as he faced his impending suffering and death.
Beside the ancient grove of olives trees stands a beautiful church designed to recreated the setting of the Garden of Gethsmane at night while Jesus was praying to relinquish his will to the Father's. Each of the columns mimics the trunk of an olive tree and the mosaic dome depicts the branches of the trees with the starry night sky beyond. The purple windows create a sense of twilight and all point toward the huge rock on which an ancient tradition says Jesus prayed.
After reflecting on Jesus' humanity as an example of ultimate submission for us to follow, we headed back the way we came down the Kidron Valley, retracing the path Jesus would have been taken by the soldiers who arrested him on behalf of the religious leaders. This route took us back to the southwest hill of Jerusalem to the ancient remains of another upper class house in this neighborhood.
Although archaeology can't confirm this as the exact spot, the Armenian Orthodox House of Caiaphas is certainly located in the very same area where the High Priest called together certain members of the Sanhedrin to condemn Jesus in a sham trial. As we sought shade in the arches of this courtyard we couldn't help but identify with Peter who stood in a courtyard in this very area and denied Jesus three times just as his Rabbi foretold he would. On our way back the Guesthouse for lunch we paused at the site of Herod the Great's huge palace to reflect on the trial of Jesus before the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate who would have been staying there for the Passover.
After lunch we got in some much-needed shopping and then returned to the Lutheran Guesthouse for a wonderful Seder Dinner recounting Jesus Last Supper. The wonderful staff here put on all the trimmings for us and served delicious lamb! After the meal we sang worship songs and shared Communion with each other. We ended the night by sharing with one another the deep love that has developed among us in just two intense weeks. We all agree that we have become a spiritual family following Jesus together! We headed off to bed to get some sleep before our 5:30 AM walk on the Via Dolorosa tomorrow morning ... hard to believe it will be our last day on this incredible journey!
Today we explored the amazing complex that Herod the Great built around the Temple in Jerusalem which formed the heart of the spiritual life of Israel and the primary setting of Jesus' ministry in Jerusalem.
We started by exploring the extensive Temple Mount excavations along the southern end of the western retaining wall which Herod built to support the huge courtyard he built around the Temple. It was amazing to walk on the actual paving stone of the first century street and know that this was the actual street Jesus and the disciples would have used on the way to and from the Temple!
Next we took a guided tour of the fascinating tunnel the Israelis have dug along the full length of the Herodian wall north of the famous Western Wall plaza. We saw how the successive occupants of this part of the city built an extensive series of huge arches to bring their homes and buildings up to the level of the Temple Mount, thus obscuring most of the Western Wall.
In this tunnel we saw stones from the "master course," a course of stones double the size of the already huge "normal" Herodian stones. In fact one stone is ten feet tall, ten feet deep, and over forty feet long, weighing about 500 tons! For comparison the stones in the Egyptian pyramids top out at about 40 tons ....
After the tunnel we had a private virtual tour of the Temple from Jesus' time using a cutting edge digital model of the Temple with breathtaking detail and accuracy. It put us right in the Temple complex as it looked 2,000 years ago! Then we visited the southern end of the Temple Mount, again walking on the very steps Jesus and the disciples would have taken every time they went up and down from the Temple.
Continuing along the southern wall we saw both the Double Gates and the Triple Gates along with the many "mikvoth," ancient Jewish ritual baths. Before a worshiper could go into the Temple Courts and make an offering, they were required to purify themselves by immersing in water, the precursor to our practice of Baptism.
We found a great little place for lunch before heading back out for a visit to the top of the Temple Mount. This area was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70, left desolate by the Byzantines in the fourth century, and then developed into a Muslim religious complex by the Muslims in the seventh century. Since both Jews and Muslims claim this as one of the holiest places in the world, it is a very contentious spot and subject to lots of security restrictions. After waiting in a long security line, we manged to make it to the top and enjoyed about 45 minutes of exploring this amazing place.
The main features of the Temple Mount, or Haram es Sharif as Muslims call it, are the two large mosques which dominate the Jerusalem skyline. The golden Dome of the Rock is the most famous and, not surprisingly, it is built over a huge rock which forms the peak of this mountain, called Zion and Moriah by the Jews. This rock was the threshing floor of Aruna which King David bought around 1000 BC and formed the floor of the Holy of Holies in the first Temple which David's son Solomon built here.
As if all this weren't enough, most of us continued on to the City of David, south of the Temple Mount, and explored the ancient water system built by the Jebusites and King Hezekiah. We waded through the cool waters of the Gihon Spring which flows through a half mile long narrow tunnel which King Hezekiah had dug to bring water inside the city walls when facing an Assyrian siege. This water flows out of that tunnel into the Pool of Siloam. The pool from Jesus' time has recently been discovered and we had a chance to sit on its steps and read John's account of Jesus healing a blind man by sending him to wash in this very place!
On our way back from the Pool of Siloam, we took some different routes. Some of us took the long way back and walked up the Hinnom Valley where we passed The Potter's Field, traditional site of Judas suicide and burial. We convinced a Greek nun to give us access to the monastery grounds where we were able to investigate a complex of tombs from just before the time of Jesus. It was a foreshadowing of the tomb we will be visiting in two days which was only inhabited for three days!
We only have two days left on our adventure in the Footsteps of Jesus and we are enjoying every minute of it! Thanks for all the prayers and support ....
Last night we set our faces toward Jerusalem and returned to our cozy rooms at the Lutheran Guesthouse in the Old City. I woke up this morning to the sunrise on the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Church of the Redeemer ....
This morning we headed out to Bethany, home to Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, Jesus' closest friends in Jerusalem. We used to walk over the Mount of Olives to this little village, but now the Israeli Separation Wall makes that impossible and we have to drive for miles to get around the wall. Sadly, this means the people of Bethany are even more impoverished than before because hardly any visitors make the effort to get there. We visited the lovely modern church that is built over the ruins of two ancient churches which commemorate the things Jesus did in this village. On each of the four apses there is a beautiful mosaic depicting Mary sitting at Jesus feet while Martha worries, Mary anointing Jesus with expensive perfume, Jesus raising Lazarus from the grave, and Jesus telling Martha he is the resurrection and the life. We sang a couple of songs in this acoustically live church, followed by reading, reflecting, and praying as we do at most sites.
No trip to Bethany is complete without climbing down into the tomb of Lazarus and calling each other to "Come out" of the tomb! We don't know for sure if this is the actual tomb, but we do know this is the cemetery where he was buried. It is amazing to realize Jesus' authority and power over death has been given to us as well!
After departing Bethany we drove back around the wall to the top of the Mount of Olives to remember Jesus' dramatic entry into Jerusalem with his disciples. He seemed to intentionally set it up so he could fulfill the prophecies about the coming of the Messiah King to Jerusalem as a public announcement of his true identity. Of course Jesus' Kingship was radically different from the people who were shouting "Hosanna" which is why Malcolm explained we should call it Jesus' "Ironic Entry" rather than his "Triumphal Entry"!
After visiting the remains of the Constantinian church on the Mount of Olives and enjoying a time of worship and teaching, we escaped the heat with a lovely lunch at a rooftop restaurant overlooking the Holy City. Everyone seems to enjoy the variety of traditional Middle Eastern food as well as the more familiar fare we have been eating ....
We decided it was time to record the "beautiful feet" that have been walking in the Footsteps of Jesus! Everyone has been amazing with all the walking and climbing of stairs and hills we have been doing.
After lunch we went to explore the site of the Pools of Bethesda. These twin huge water storage pools built by Herod the Great were fed by a long-distance aqueduct and supplied water for the Temple rituals. It had become a pagan healing shrine at the time of Jesus which explains why so many sick and lame people were gathered there looking for healing as recorded in John 5. Jesus went there and showed amazing mercy to a paralyzed man who couldn't even say what he wanted. We reflected on God's unconditional grace to meet us where we are.
On our way back to the Guesthouse we threaded our way through the crowded market street (Suq) of the Old City and stopped to by some traditional Middle Eastern sweets for our late afternoon wine party. It's not all hard work on this pilgrimage!
Today we said good by to the beautiful Sea of Galilee and headed north as we explored some of the territory where Jesus used to take his disciples away on times of retreat. Our first stop was the dramatic first-century town of Gamla.
Built on a rocky promontory with steep valleys on both sides, Gamla was designed as a town that could be defended like a fortress. Perhaps the strongly nationalistic residents remembered what the Romans had done to populations that did not submit to their rule and they were determined to resist the might of Rome.
When the Jewish Revolt broke out in 66 AD, Gamla quickly became a stronghold of the Zealot rebels, so it is no surprise that Vespasian's Roman army attacked the city within the first year of the revolt. They undermined a tower, breached the city wall and slaughtered the inhabitants or drove them to suicide. After a strenuous hike down the saddle of the hill, we climbed to the top of the main defensive tower of the city wall for an overview of this dramatic site.
Of greatest interest to those who follow in the Footsteps of Jesus, Gamla boasts ruins of the oldest and largest first-century synagogue uncovered so far in the Holy Land. It was amazing to sit on the stepped seats and wonder if Jesus' preached in this very place as part of his travels which the Gospel writers tell us included every town in Galilee!
From Gamla we headed further north to the ancient site of Banias which was called Caesarea Philippi in Jesus' time. This was a major site of pagan worship which Herod's son Phillip had made the capital of his territory. From a large cave dedicated to the god Pan, flowed a powerful spring that is still the source of the Jordan River. It was here that Jesus took his disciples on a retreat and asked them that all important question, "Who do you say that I am?" By virtue of divine revelation Peter exclaimed, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."
When we hiked down to the nearby waterfall, the largest and most beautiful in this part of the middle east, it was easy to imagine why Jesus would bring the disciples here for a time of refreshment. It was a reminder that we need intentional times of abiding where we can be refreshed and be more receptive to God's revelation.
Today we continued exploring the towns around the Sea of Galilee where Jesus carried out his mission to bring the Good News of the Kingdom to all people. We started by visiting Bethsaida, the hometown of Peter, Andrew, and Philip where Jesus healed the blind man with the use of his own saliva.
As we walked on the actual first-century streets of Bethsaida we had one of those moments where we knew historically and archaeologically that we were literally walking in the footsteps of Jesus and the disciples! We saw the remains of the home of an extended family (oikos) whose family business was fishing. It was amazing to know that this is exactly the kind of home where Jesus built a new kind of family on mission. After reading the account of Jesus healing the blind man in this village, we prayed with greater faith for those in our group who are suffering from various ailments. It is wonderful how quickly we have become an extended family of Americans and Australians following Jesus together ...
From Bethsaida we headed to the nearby first-century village of Chorazin. Although Jesus is reported to have visited and ministered in all the towns of Galilee only three are named specifically: Capernaum, Bethsaida, and Chorazin. Here we saw an amazing third-century synagogue which was probably built over the synagogue where Jesus would have taught. Of special interest for us is the unusually large extended family home that has nineteen rooms which all connect to the same huge courtyard--a mega-oikos!
We enjoyed another delcious picnic lunch in the shade under the trees in Chorazin and then had a time of worship, teaching, and prayer together. We reflected on Jesus promise form John 14 that our Father's house (oikos) is so big that there is a room there for each of us ... what a gift to be a part of the family of God!
Two days earlier on our boat trip we met a wonderful guide named Joe Safir who is originally from Perth, Australia (like half of our group) and immigrated to Israel forty years ago. He lives on a kibbutz on the eastern shore of the lake and offered to meet us for our visit to the ruins of a great city of the Decapolis named Hippos (or Susita). Joe's kibbutz is minutes from this site and he has been part of the archaeological dig going on there each summer.
Hippos is situated on the top of ridge that extends out from the slope on the eastern shore of the lake, flanked by steep valleys on each side, making it a highly defensible city. It was one of the ten large Gentile city-states that were scattered across eastern Galilee at the time of Jesus and had formed an alliance with one another. It was in this area that Jesus healed the Gerasene Demoniac and showed mercy to Gentiles even when he and the disciples were on a retreat for rest and abiding.
In addition to walking the well-constructed streets we saw giant temples, a huge central square, an amazing water system, a wine-making facility, and massive Byzantine churches, all ruined by a devastating earthquake in AD 749. It was a special treat to visit Hippos with Joe who was so familiar with its history and passionate about the significance of every stone!
Tomorrow we will reluctantly leave the shores of this beautiful lake and head north to Caesarea Philippi before turning south and making the journey back to Jerusalem ....