BCM Tour Group 2011 on Mt. of Olives overlooking Jerusalem
Somewhere in my childhood, I know I heard more than once the lyrics of this classic Bill Gaither hymn. But I'd forgotten them until on the flight home from Israel last week a seatmate [thank you, Corrie!] passed me the earpiece to her MP3 where the song was playing. I'd never been to the Holy Land before, never expected that in this lifetime I would ever walk the physical earth where my Savior walked. I never even really thought it would make any difference. After all, I had a Bible and a vivid imagination. I could picture well enough the settings and stories of Christ's life.
But of course I couldn't, and all who ever said to me, "You won't understand until you've been there," were right. From March 28-April 9, 2011, I was privileged to take part in a Holy Land tour sponsored by the ministry of which my husband serves as president, BCM International. With a total group of 33 people, we toured Israel from Caesarea and Tiberius to the Golan Heights and ancient city of Dan to its southernmost city of Eilat, crossing the border there into Jordan to visit Petra.
My husband Marty and I with tour bus
We saw Megiddo, stood atop Mount Carmel, sailed the Sea of Galilee, visited Masada, the Dead Sea. For four days, we explored the sights, sounds, and smells of Jerusalem where Christ spent His final days. We prayed at Gethsemane and broke the bread of Communion at the Garden Tomb.
Garden of Gethsemane
Place of the Skull, Golgotha
Nor did we focus only on a Biblical past. Since junior high, when I'd first read Leon Uris' The Exodus and O Jerusalem, detailing the rebirth of Israel as a nation, I'd wanted to see for myself just how Israel had developed since independence in 1948. While I'd followed the news of that region all my life, the reality I encountered was not at all what I'd expected. Those who told me before this trip that I'd never be able to truly describe it to others, that they in turn would have to see for themselves, were right. Seeing Israel for oneself, I can say now, will permanently change one's perspective on Scripture, prophecy, politics.
And so like others, I come back to urge my friends and family, "If at all possible, you must go see for yourself." But here are a few high points that struck home to me I'd like to share:
Outside the Garden Tomb
Israel. It is such a small country for such a rich and tumultuous history! Smaller than the state of New Jersey, only 424 kilometers (263 miles) from north to south, averaging less than 50 miles wide with more than half its land area a waterless desert, Israel is only a diminutive blot on a map of the Middle East, its territory less than 1-100 that possessed by Arab neighbors all around. Why did God choose such a tiny spot on the globe, instead of the mighty Roman, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Egyptian empires, in which to step into human history?
Communion Service at Garden Tomb
Perhaps because within the microcosm of such a small nation, one single Life walking its dusty paths, speaking and healing in its small villages and towns, turning upside-down its social, political, and religious structure, could have a far greater impact than in an empire's capital? A life-changing impact that would multiply until a small nation's borders could no longer contain it, and the world as we knew it would be changed forever?
Valley of Samaria from Mount Carmel
Mount Carmel: I pictured a mountaintop, but not one rising as a citadel in the midst of the vast plain of Jezreel where it sits. Meaning that when Elijah faced off with King Ahab and 400 priests of Baal, it wasn't just those on Mount Carmel who could witness it, but every town and village down on the plain would see that strike of lightning with which Yahweh proclaimed victory over Baal. What a show that must have been!
Sea of Galilee
Galilee: I never pictured the Sea of Galilee as sitting in a bowl with lush, green hillsides rising up from its banks like a natural amphitheater. So when Jesus 'went up on a mountainside and sat down' [Matthew 5:1], all the villages, fishermen, and farmers roundabout could see Jesus and the crowds even from across the lake and hurry around the shoreline (or on a boat) to hear His preaching and bring their sick to be healed. The Dead Sea: Okay, floating in the Dead Sea truly is indescribable. The closest comparison I can come up with is being a multi-limbed beach ball. Even trying to stand up is a challenge. Jerusalem: Coming up from the barren, empty desert that is the Negev and Sinai peninsula into the green, forest-clad mountain valley of Jerusalem, one understands for the first time how beautiful this land must have appeared to the tribes of Israel after wandering forty years in the wilderness.
Jerusalem's forests and hills
Nor did I picture how mountainous Jerusalem is, its original walled expanse rising up the hillside with Mount Moriah (temple site) at the highest point, its neighborhoods, dense forests, and gardens today cloaking peaks, ridges, and valleys where Jesus once walked and preached through small villages and countryside. The Psalms now come alive when they speaking of "let us go UP to the house of the Lord."
Steps leading up to Herod's temple at time of Christ
Mount of Olives: I never imagined that standing on the Mount of Olives, Jesus and His disciples could see directly from that one spot the Temple on Mount Moriah across the Kidron Valley, the entire city of Jerusalem, the plains of Judah, the hills of Samaria, and even beyond Israel's borders. Suddenly Jesus weeping there over the city of Jerusalem and later telling His disciples from that spot to take His Gospel to 'Jerusalem, all Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth' has a much richer meaning. And why on all the planet He would choose this beautiful spot for His return to earth one day [Zechariah 14:4] now makes total sense.
Old City with Mount of Olives in background
Bethlehem Bible College: Bethlehem, part of the West Bank under control of the Palestinian Authority, though only a few kilometers from Jerusalem, bore no resemblance to my imaginings of the birthplace of Christ. To my surprise considering the news, the passage between the two was a matter only of a peaceful and nonintrusive security checkpoint, the city on one side as prosperous and busy as on the other. Byzantine and Crusader churches covered any remains of a first-century town of David. Our visit to Bethlehem Bible College was more exciting to me than walking around the Church of the Nativity. Witnessing living, present-day followers of Yeshua Mesias carrying the Good News to the land of Christ's birth was far more inspiring than ancient cathedrals.
Bethlehem Bible College Campus
Forests, Fruit, and Flowers: "I will make rivers flow on barren heights . . . I will turn the desert into pools of water . . . I will put in the desert the cedar and the acacia . . . I will set pines in the wasteland" [Isaiah 41:18-19].
Every 19th century description by travelers to Palestine, as it was called then as a province of the Ottoman Empire, portrays a desolate wilderness, completely deforested with virtually no green at all. I'd read as a child of the reforestation projects and reclamation of wastelands pioneered by the returning Jewish 'aliyah' in the decades prior and following Israeli independence in 1948. So I was curious to see how those projects had developed. I did not expect the sheer extent of change I would see. Thick forests of pines, oaks, eucalyptus, olive orchards and fruit-bearing trees cloaking every mountainside. The flat plains that had been wasteland and swamps a century ago now kilometer after kilometer of wheat and barley, olive trees, fruit plantations.
Fruit orchards of Hula Valley, Galilee, once wasteland
The nation of Israel farms its land cooperatively, its people living in cities and towns, mostly climbing up hillsides, to leave all available farm land for cultivation. They have pioneered the efficient use of drip irrigation, salt water desalination, and other water projects to make the waste lands bloom. What astounded me most was driving through a cut in the hills. At first glance I thought narrow ledges climbing the cliff-side held wild brush. Then I realized they were planted with herbs--rosemary, sage, mint, etc. Every inch of land is utilized.
Wheat fields in Galilee
Even in the desert, one passes kilometer after kilometer of tall date plantations and hi-tech greenhouses that use underground water sources to grow flowers and vegetables. Whatever one's politics, there is no denying the incredible transformation the nation of Israel has accomplished with its scant square miles of territory--and what its neighbors have NOT done with exactly the same resources and many times more territory.
Negev Desert Greenhouses
Security: I don't know why I was expecting high walls with barbed wire, lots of soldiers with guns, a hand always on my purse and an eye over my shoulder. Perhaps because this is exactly what I've encountered in too many of the poorer nations I've traveled around the planet. I did not expect the complete lack of tension, freedom of borders, and virtual invisibility of security measures our group indeed encountered. Even the border crossing into Jordan was less complicated than boarding a plane in New York or Miami (the only place we even had to watch for pickpockets was the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem's Old City). Passing from Israeli territory into the West Bank was a pause at a highway intersection, the Arab neighborhoods of Ramallah overlooking our Jerusalem hotel no less prosperous-looking nor walled-in than those on the Israeli side. We saw far more IDF [Israel Defense Force] young soldiers on educational tours at Biblical sites than on duty.
Looking across Israeli fields into Syria from Golan Heights
And yet Israel is so small that we stood at times on hillsides where we could see at once into Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt, a reminder that the country is ringed by enemies that seek its annihilation. While we were there, a missile from Gaza blew up a school bus on a road we'd just traveled, an Arab-Jewish spokesman whose virtual reconstruction of the Temple at the time of Christ we'd watched in Jerusalem was murdered by Islamic extremists for teaching peace to Arab school children. Just across from our Jerusalem hotel, a bomb had gone off shortly before our arrival. While regretting the tensions and injustices felt by both sides, I had to wonder if my own country would react with as much calm or restraint in the same circumstances as we witnessed in Israel. I could go on forever, but I will not try the patience of readers by doing so.
Date plantations in desert on Negev-Jordan border
Did I come back from Israel completely changed forever? I couldn't really say. But impacted profoundly--a definite yes. I will never read Scripture in the same way. I will never hear the news in quite the same way. I come back with at least some small understanding of the passionate love and pride Israelis have for the soil they've reclaimed. The complexity of this small nation's problems and place in world history and politics. The impossibility of true solutions until hearts are changed on both sides and brought into reconciliation, Jew and Gentile, through the love of Yeshua Mesias, Jesus Christ [Galatians 3:28; Ephesians 2:11-19].
New Jerusalem from our hotel
Above all, I come back with a fresh burden on my heart to pray for the peace of Jerusalem. May the peace of God transform the hearts of its inhabitants. May the sheltering arms of El Shaddai protect its neighborhoods from enemies. May the day come soon when it will truly be what it was meant to be, but has not yet been in its history: a place of peace, of worship, and a light to all the nations of the earth.