Monday, June 19, 2017

Not Saying Good-Bye -- Just, "See You Later", Jerusalem!

Our wonderful faith pilgrimage of the Holy Lands comes to an end tonight as we board our plane for our home sweet homes in the U.S. The 8-hour difference in time should have us back on central time zone around 1:45 pm tomorrow afternoon. In the meantime, we are all reflecting on this most amazing journey that took us, not only where Jesus walked, but today's adventures took us to 1251 BC when Joshua led the Israelites in their conquest against Jericho....and WON! Thanks be to God for our forefathers who didn't have the many proofs of faith like we have today, yet they were obeying God in the midst of conflict and peril, and they prevailed.

Our travels, up to now, have taken us to the lush gardens at the Mount of Beatitudes, the Garden of Gethsamane and its beauty, the Mount of Olives (of course there are plenty of Olive Trees there), and the splendor of the Sea of Galilee. But, this day, we experienced the heart of the wilderness. We witnessed the change of topography as our motorcoach drove out of Jerusalem to the desert. You can see in these photos how dry the land is....but out of what seems nowhere, is the Jordan River. What a thrill to start our last day with such a place of monumental importance to our Christian faith. Fr Paul read from scriptures in Matthew, Luke and John about this "desert man", John the Baptist, who seemed to be one of those "Hail, Fire and Brimstone" kind of preachers. Matthew 3 says "In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance."

Lord, have mercy! He certainly "told it like it was", didn't he? I reread those scriptures as I typed this post, and I thought how alive those words are to me now that I've seen and been to those places -- the wilderness of Judea, Jerusalem, Galilee AND the Jordan River, and here's the next part of that scripture that we encountered today, as we were able to join with Christ in His baptism. WE WERE THERE!

Matthew 3:13 "But then in the midst of John's preaching and teaching, when Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented. As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

As we left the motorcoach and approached the Jordan River, of course, there were doves that made me think of the one that descended on Jesus at his baptism. Since all of us, in our group, have been baptized, Fr Paul led us in a renewal of our baptism vows, then, with an olive branch, doused it in the river and sprinkled us all with it. What a holy moment it was, but that wasn't enough for some of us -- we just had to get into that river -- at least to get our feet wet! It was a sacred, beautiful, and scorching hot in that desert!

From there, we travelled pass Mount Nebo where in Number 13, we learn that Moses looked at the Promised Land and sent over spies to check it out. Though they came back with the best of the fruit of the land, they also came back with a negative report "There are giants in the land and we look like grasshoppers compared to them." Thankfully, Joshua didn't see the negative situation, he saw the possibilities with God's help.....and we see the conquest and destruction of the walls of Jericho by Joshua and the Israelite army as they marched around the city 7 times and those walls came tumbling down (roughly around 1251 BC).

Jericho was a wonderful place for our morning Mass and communion at the Church of the Good Shepherd. Our tour guide, Ramone, had just spoken to us about how Jesus was referred to as the Good Shepherd who so lovingly leads his sheep to green pastures. Of course, our scripture reading was from Psalm 23 -- "The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want....." I can imagine that walking through this desert was a work out for the shepherds and the sheep in Jesus' day. Seeing the beautiful painting over the altar of the church of Jesus as the Good Shepherd certainly gave us a visual of His loving and tender care for us.

In Jericho, we had a look/see at the ancient sycamore tree. The Book of Luke tells the story of Zacchaeus, who climbed a sycamore tree to see Jesus as he entered the city of Jericho. Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector and a rich man. He was also fairly short. He tried to get a look at Jesus but couldn't see him over the heads of the crowd, so he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore to get a glimpse. Some have claimed that the Jericho tree is the oldest existing sycamore, and possibly even the one that Zacchaeus climbed. This type of sycamore tree is unique to Israel, growing only in the Jordan Valley and along the Mediterranean coast. It has low branches, which can easily be climbed. Ramone pointed it out to us and reminded us that when Jesus saw Zacchaeus in the sycamore tree and told him He was going to dinner at his house, Zacchaeus gave up his "shifty" taxing schemes and salvation came to he and his whole household that day. Also, blind Bartimaeus was healed by Jesus as He was leaving Jericho. Ramone pointed out the Mount of Temptation to us (where Jesus was tempted by Satan) as we stood over the ground where the walls of Jericho fell. That desert region surrounding Jericho and the Jordan can appear so barren and empty and the idea that Jesus spent 40 days in this area living just on water (and we complain living in comfort of fasting for a day or two!!) Such monumental times in our history. We learned that Jericho is the oldest city in the world.

Then it was off to a great lunch at an Aramaic restaurant and we had makloba (makloba means "upside down"). The meal of rice and chicken and spices are prepared in a huge pot and then it's flipped over and served. It was delicious! As we came out of the restaurant, a young boy was outside with his camel. Of course, some of us just had to have our "camel" experience! I found out, with a little urging by the boy -- he can bolt out with a fast gallop. I had to get the boy to slow down Charlie the camel", but we watched that boy get on the camel and he took to the road like lightning. He knew that we were headed to the Mount of Temptation so he got there before we did and more people had their experience with Charlie the camel, too! Quite a little business that boy has!

The finale of our trip was to the Dead Sea where many of our pilgrims just had to have their Dead Sea experience. The Dead Sea (the Sea of Salt) is surrounded by the stunning desert. We learned that the shores of the Dead Sea are the lowest point on the surface of the earth, and the saline water of the lake gives lead to the name ‘Dead Sea’ because no fish can survive in the salty waters. The other result of the salty water of the Dead Sea are their renowned health and healing properties and the unique feature that one can float naturally in them. That's exactly what happened for those who took the plunge...rather, ...buoy experience. You just can't dive in those waters -- or neither would you want to because of its saltiness. A few of us only walked out into the water and lathered up with the mud. It was blistering hot in the desert -- when we took our shoes off to walk to the water, it was like a hot stove. We had to wait to take our shoes off at the water edge! What an experience!

So wrapping up this incredible experience, I pause to find the words that could adequately convey my heart. We have to remember that there is a living context to the sights and sounds of these Holy Lands. The Holy Land isn’t a theme park created for Christian pilgrims. I assure you of that, but these places were just words on the pages of Jesus’ life before to me. The stories I read in scripture, the stories I learned from my Sunday School teachers, and my pastors were beautiful, but like a puzzle, the pieces didn't really connect visually. But then and now, I've been to Israel and it's all changed. While we've been to holy places, touched and seen holy things, and heard many, many scriptures and overviews of where we've been, my final analysis and conclusion is this. Almighty God became human flesh via the incarnation of His Son, Jesus Christ. He was a real man who was tempted in all points as I have been tempted. Without a doubt, I know He lived, He died, He was buried in a tomb and He was raised from the dead and ascended into heaven and is now seated at the right hand of the Father. Not only do I know He lives because I sense Him in my heart, I know He lives because I've been to the empty tomb. I do hope that you'll be able to make this pilgrimage some day, but if you don't, our NEW Jerusalem is on the horizon, and if you turn your life over to our Risen Lord, confess Him as Lord and Savior, get baptized in YOUR own River Jordan and join our great big family in our home sweet home in the New Jerusalem some day. What a reunion that will be!

Revelations 21 -- Then I (John) saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

I love you, Jerusalem!!! See you later!!