All posts by jimmorrow

Eclipses, God, & the Bible

Today, the U.S. will experience the first total solar eclipse since 1979.
Inevitably, the solar eclipse has brought on conversations about the end of the world in some Christian circles.  After all, the scripture says that “in those days, following that distress, ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’”  —Mark 13:25.
That’s super clear about the matter, isn’t it?  Maybe not.
Total Solar Eclipse

You might remember just a few years ago, some prominent Christian leaders made quite a few dollars writing books about how the lunar eclipses of that year fulfilled biblical prophecy that the world was going to end.  How did it turn out? The world is still spinning they are a good bit richer.

I can understand why people are eager for Christ to return.  When he does, he sets all things right and the Kingdom of God will reign over all things.  That means the restoration of all things and not the destruction of all things.  We’re doing a good enough job destroying things on our own.  The return of Christ sounds great, especially when there is so much suffering and evil in the world.  One of the classic prayers of the church is, “Come, Lord Jesus.”

I can also understand why people dig around in the Bible to pull out individual verses and try to apply them to the things going on around them.  It means a lot to us when the Bible applies directly to our lives.

However, using the Bible to scare the world about a solar eclipse represents a poor reading of the Bible.  Here are a few reasons:

1.  Solar eclipses happen regularly.

According to, “Approximately once every 18 months (on average) a total solar eclipse is visible from some place on the Earth’s surface.  That’s two totalities for every three years.”

Our brothers and sisters in Christ have experienced many solar eclipses throughout history.  Similarly, our brothers and sisters in Christ across the world have experienced them in their own locations.  To think that the Bible tells us something about an eclipse only when “we” can see it is quite egocentric.

2.  Searching the Bible for end-of-the-world predictions misses the point.

We already know the end of the story–we proclaim it in the communion liturgy: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”  Yes, the Bible talks about the close of this age and the beginning of the age to come.  But you’ll find much less about worldwide destruction than you’d think.  Instead, you’ll find good news about a new creation!

The minor prophets (Hosea – Malachi) regularly talk about the “Day of the Lord.”  Yet, every time they do, the purpose isn’t to give us inside information about future world events, but to call us to holiness of heart and life.  Jesus even says, “…about that day or our no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father….  Therefore keep watch….” (Matthew 24:36, 42).  The point is that keeping the end in mind urges us to live fully in Christ today.  To search the Bible for codes and hidden prophecies is to miss this important point.

3.  Assuming that we’ve discovered something about the Bible that no other generation of Christians could find isolates us from the faithfulness of God in the church that has gone before us.

It’s neat to think that there might be hidden codes in the Bible that we can uniquely discover.  Yet, God has chosen revelation as God’s modus operandi.  God has revealed Himself throughout history, in the scriptures, and most fully in Jesus Christ.  God doesn’t form elite societies of people that have secret hidden knowledge (that would be Gnosticism).  Instead, God has fully revealed God’s self so that all might take part in the Kingdom of God through Christ.

We are not the first generation or the only culture that has handled this sacred text.  In fact, we only have it because the faithful church of the past has passed it down to us.  Let’s not fall into the trap of assuming that we have some superior insight that the church has never had before.


So, instead of embarking on a treasure hunt for verses that confirm our view that things are rough out there, let’s relish the moment.  Let the amazement of the vastness of the world overtake us.  Consider the majesty of God who sets the moon and stars in their place, the planets in their orbits, and orders the universe. Consider the graciousness of God that invites us to experience this amazing event.
And if you’re looking for a passage from the Bible to read today, try this one:
“LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory in the heavens. Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger. When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor. You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet: all flocks and herds, and the animals of the wild, the birds in the sky, and the fish in the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas. LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”
‭‭Psalm‬ ‭8:1-9‬ ‭NIV‬‬
(And, please, don’t look directly at the sun.  Your Bible-reading eyes will thank you.)

On Pilgrimage: Bethany, a Place of Friendship

The city of al-Eizariya is roughly 2 miles from the city of Jerusalem on the eastern side of the Mount of Olives.  It is the likely location of the biblical village of Bethany, a place of friendship for Jesus.

Bethany Sign
A sign offering scripture and devotion to Bethany’s visitors.

While some may question that this is the site of Bethany of the Bible, Christians have been worshipping in this place for centuries.  It is the site of a cavern tomb that many believe to be the tomb of Lazarus whom Jesus revived from death (John 11).  Interestingly, CNN’s series, Finding Jesus, focused on Lazarus just a few days ago.  As I watched clips, I found myself saying, “I was just there!”

Bethany was the home of Simon the Leper (Matthew 26:6-13). The home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus (Luke 10; John 11-12; etc). The likely site of Jesus’ Ascension (Luke 24; allusions in Acts 1).

Sanctuary of Bethay
The Sanctuary at Bethany with artwork that commemorates Jesus’ friends, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.

Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, were dear friends of Jesus.  We can see this when Lazarus dies in John 11.  The sisters send for Jesus to come at once saying, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”  Also, we can see the depth of their relationship again in the short verse, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35).  We see the depth of human emotion that Jesus felt at Lazarus’ death.  Some scholars believe that Lazarus is the unnamed “Beloved Disciple” of the Gospel of John.

lazarus tomb
The Entrance to Lazarus’ Tomb.

When Jesus travels to Jerusalem, he stays at the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.  This is explicit in John 12, when Jesus comes to their house 6 days before his final Passover.  It is at this time when John reports Mary anointing him with perfume–an act that Jesus interprets as a burial anointment.  A similar story is recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, but this time at the house of Simon the Leper (also in Bethany) and with a stranger anointing him.  Maybe they both happened.  Maybe the different writers remembered it differently.  Who knows?

What we do know, however, is that, for Jesus, Bethany was a place of friendship.  For many years, when Jesus would have made his regular required trips to Jerusalem, he likely stayed with his friends in Bethany.  He would have gotten to know them well over the years.  Similarly, they would have shared meals, religious fellowship, and ever-growing friendship.

Bethany is a place for friendship.

When we visited the site of Lazarus’ tomb, I remembered the miracle of him walking out of the tomb.  I remembered that I was standing in very close proximity to where Jesus spent his last days and where he likely ascended into heaven.

All of these things were very meaningful to me.  Yet, it was Jesus’ friendships that moved me that day.  Jesus wasn’t a lone ranger.  He had deep, meaningful relationships with people.  He was formed in community and continued to be formed in community.  And he was vulnerable with those who were close to him.

My Bethany

I visited Bethany with friends.  Some of the most intense, formative, and meaningful experiences of my life were lived with Mike, Meg, and the people of the Isle of Hope United Methodist Church who were my fellow pilgrims on this journey.  I had made new friends, too.  Those who I met and got to know on our travels.

Additionally, I thought about how God has continued to bless me with new friendships.  Over the past 3 years, I have developed deep and meaningful friendships with the members of the Lyons First United Methodist Church.  Nearly 2 years ago, I had the blessing of forming a Study, Sabbath, and Service (S3) Group with 7 other young pastors in our Annual Conference.  This has been a deep blessing to my life.  Additionally, there are 2 particular men who have become brothers to me in recent years.

Lone Ranger to Community

To be honest, there was a time when friendship wasn’t a priority for me.  I filled my life with apprenticeship in ministry, seminary, and focusing solely on excellence in ministry.  While those are noble things, this is not the model that Jesus lived.  Life without valuing my meaningful friendships left a deep emptiness in my life.  I learned along the way that discipleship requires friendship.  The Christian faith is a relational one, and while solitude and discipline are vital parts of our spiritual formation, community is a means of grace that cannot be dispensed with (for me, at least).

In community, I learn about myself; learn to receive grace;  and practice vulnerability in a safe environment.  This vulnerability leads to deeper communion with God and a greater capacity to love (which I am sure that my family is grateful for).

Friendship challenges me. It brings me comfort.  I have trusted people who can lovingly reflect back to me what I am putting into the world and can gently guide me into the deepest paths of love and away from self-deception.

Bethany was a place of friendship for Jesus.  A place of vulnerability, joy, and grace.  I am thankful that God has given me a Bethany of my own–deep and lasting friendships.

Israel: The Day My Heart Broke

This post is part of a series exploring my recent trip to the Holy Land.

There’s something about coming to the end of your own resources that gives God room to speak and work in your life. By Monday, we had been traveling for a week. Every bit of it was amazing and exciting; but I was tired. Not overwhelmingly so, but tired enough to welcome a bench on the path and a moment to sit alone for a second. I was coming to the end of my own resources and there wasn’t enough espresso in Jerusalem that would replace a nice long nap.

Ramp to the Temple Mount
Approaching the Temple Mount. The Wailing Wall is below.
When My Heart Became Heavy

We woke up at 5:15 a.m. and got on the tour bus by 7 a.m. It was important to get an early start because we were going to the Temple Mount. We would have to go through a security checkpoint in order to get there. Also, we wanted to beat the crowds.

The Temple Mount is the location where the Jewish Temple was built. It was built on Mt. Moriah, where Abraham had prepared to sacrifice his son, Isaac, before God intervened by sending a lamb for the sacrifice (Genesis 22). Around the time Jesus walked that ground, Herod the Great had greatly expanded the grounds around the temple. He added to the courtyards around the temple, building up the top of the mountain with retaining walls. Today, some of these walls still stand.

Portions of Herod’s Western Wall are still accessible today. Residential buildings and earth cover other parts of it.  (It is worth remembering that Jerusalem is a living city, continually building on the foundations of it’s past inhabitants). The Western Wall Plaza is the section of the wall known also as The Wailing Wall. It is the place that is in the closest proximity to the most scared area of the Temple, the Holy of Holies. Therefore, it is a holy site. Daily, Jews come to pray at the Western Wall.

The appointed time for organized prayer at the Western Wall had begun as we arrived at the security checkpoint for the Temple Mount, located above the wall.  We heard the prayers and chants of those leading prayer; and we heard whistles, too. People blowing whistles. Our tour guide didn’t seem disturbed. It was a normal occurrence. But it was disturbing for some of us, so we asked about it. “Probably another protest,” he said, as we walked up the ramp, over the prayerful, and toward the Temple Mount. I’m not used to the counter-melody of prayer and protest.

People have asked me if I saw a lot of guns on my trip. That’s partly because this region of the world has a reputation for militancy. We saw a few here and there, mostly because every Israeli citizen, male and female, spends time in the military. On the way to the Temple Mount–that’s when we saw the presence of arms.

Along the way, we saw a sign with a rule put forth by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel:

“Announcement and Warning. According to Torah Law, entering the Temple Mount area is strictly forbidden due to the holiness of the site.”

Why? Because it is unclear as to which part of the Temple Mount is the site of the Temple and, in particular, the Holy of Holies where only the chief priest was allowed to go.

This is an interesting sign because there is another point of tension: the Temple Mount is currently the site of the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque. Mount Moriah, today, and for the last few centuries, is a Muslim holy site.

Police and armed guards patrol the Temple Mount. While it is under Israeli sovereignty, Muslims have religious sovereignty. Therefore, it is lawful for Jews (typically reformed Jews who would be less inclined to heed the Chief Rabbinate’s warning) to visit, but not to pray. The police will stop a Jewish person from praying on the mount. They will also stop any visitor whose appearance or actions don’t demonstrate proper decorum.  (This is why the women in our group had their heads covered with scarves).

At one point, we saw a group of Jewish visitors walking the Temple Mount. They walked in a square, with an Israeli police escort on each corner. Guards eyed them continuously as they walked by.

We could hear the prayers below at the Western Wall; we heard the whistles; we saw the guards; and we heard the history. At some point, the minarets called out the start of prayers for the Muslim people.

“If anything were to happen, it would happen here,” our guide said of the geopolitical and religious tension.

That tension was palpable, even on a day of relative peace like that Monday. It was a somber morning for me. My spirit was heavy. Not with questions of the veracity of the Muslim faith or the Jewish faith; or with presence of one religious group or another on the Temple Mount. Not because I had a sense that anyone was approaching their stance in anything other than their own good will according to their own beliefs. My spirit was heavy because I was in a place that illustrated the brokenness, division, and tension throughout the world

The place we walked is one of the most contentious places in the Middle East, if not the world. It is the cradle of religious, geopolitical, and cultural differences. As such, it is rife with tension and has been for many, many years.

It was alive and filled with potential energy. And it weighed on me. I brought up the rear of the group and had very little to say as we toured the area.

When my Heart Broke

A tour doesn’t always offer time for reflection or decompression. We have a lot to see, we have appointments at sites, and the Holy Land is a living place. So we immediately left the Temple Mount and began our tour of the Via Dolorosa, the path that Jesus walked, carrying his cross, on the way to his crucifixion.

We began at the Antonia Fortress which adjoins the Temple Mount. This is the place where Jesus received his sentence and his cross. We journeyed down to the basement where the guards would have kept watch over prisoners. The pavement in this area is dated to the time of Jesus. It is one of the few places where we can say, with some level of certainty, these exact stones touched Jesus’ feet.

The Via Dolorosa would not be a reflective experience. As it was in Jesus’ day, it is lined with active shops and residences. Tourists and residents make the path busy.  So, knowing that for many of us, this was the most important experience along our tour, we insisted on taking a moment to reflect and prepare in the basement of the Antonia Fortress.

There, in one of the rooms where Jesus may have awaited his cross, we sat and read Luke 23 and then sat in silence. I had no indication that I would feel anything. I was tired, burdened, and ready to get started. But there in that silence, I recognized the tension that I felt in that square footage had been felt for thousands of years. Religion, politics, power, and culture had clashed in this place over and over and over again. They clashed when Ciaphas, Herod, Pilate, the crowds, and Jesus met there.

When Jesus stood up in this place, he rose from the last time that he would sit during his earthly life. From here he would carry his cross, sometimes falling, but never sitting in rest, to Golgotha. To be crucified. To die.

Slowly the tension built in my spirit. Slowly the tears filled my eyes. But suddenly the sobs wracked my body.

I had no more energy to hold it back. I didn’t want to weep. I definitely wasn’t interested in people seeing it. But I was at the end of my resources, and God was using that moment to minister to me in the heaviness of my spirit.

The tension that I felt there exists in the world. It exists in our own land. In our own lives. Within each of us. But it doesn’t have to overtake us. Because one day, it all fell upon a man and crushed him. He was buried. And he rose from the dead. And he spoke to a man named John and said:

“[God] will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away…. See, I am making all things new.” (Revelation 21:4-5).

The cracks in a broken heart can make room for God to work grace in our lives. And, just as they have in the city of Jerusalem, God will continue to build new things on the rubble of our brokenness. What God builds is good.

Emotionally and physically tired, yet comforted and blessed, we continued our journey on the Via Dolorosa.

Dust: Living Lent with God & Others

Dust“From dust you were made, to dust you shall return.”  This is the message of Ash Wednesday; the entry way to Lent.

This is a universal truth and message.  Regardless of your station in life;  your socio-economic status; or how well-liked or despised you are: we are but dust.  We are mortal.

We spend a great deal of energy in our lives running from that fact.   Pursuing money, influence, quality of life, and health.  There is nothing wrong with these things.  However, we must be careful that they don’t create a false impression that we are any better off because of them.

Yet, the truth is that all of us were created by God.  We are not self-made people.  Also, we will one day die.  Nothing we can do will change that fact.

In short, Lent reminds us that we are on a level playing field with every other human being.

Before we get the impression that this is bad news, let’s remember the Good News.  The second declaration of Ash Wednesday is: “Repent and believe the Gospel.”

In the same way that God gave us life, we find that God gives us new and everlasting life through Jesus Christ.

What Can We Do?

So, while we remember that we are dust, we can renew our attention towards Jesus Christ.  Therefore, we can give less energy to those things that we can’t take with us beyond the grave and give more energy to the One who truly fulfills our lives.

Second, we can consider the way that view and treat other people.

In a world where we disregard people based on political opinion, whether or not they are poor, and what people look like, we can instead find our common ground give our differences to God.  We are all in the same boat with one way to life.

Living Lent

So, this Lenten season, I invite all of us to two things.

1. Renew our attention to Jesus Christ

2. Do our part to put away false distinctions between people.

For we are all dust.  And we will all return to dust.  No ideology or social status will change that. But repentance and faith add meaning to the life between the dust and everlasting life in resurrection.

Find the person that you might otherwise disregard.  Remember your common ground and remember this posture:  “The Christ in me meets the Christ in you.”

Sites of Holy Week

In Jerusalem our feet find paths that will be remembered forever.  Over the course of a few days, we journeyed the paths that Jesus took on the last week of his life.

We began our day on the Mount of Olives. The Mt. of Olives is on the other side of the Kidron Valley from the city of Jerusalem. Keep in mind, this isn’t a large distance. From the top of the Mt. of Olives you can see the the Eastern Gate of the City.

View of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives

From our place on the Mount of Olives, we began The Palm Sunday Path. This is the path Jesus would have taken as he entered Jerusalem.

Jesus stayed with friends (Mary, Martha, and Lazarus) in Bethany, a town 2 miles from the Palm Sunday Road.

The crowds gathered as Jesus approached the road down the Mount of Olives, across the Kidron Valley, and towards the East Gate of Jerusalem. Jewish tradition held that the Messiah would enter the city from the East Gate. This gate stood in line with the gates of the Temple and the Holy of Holies (the central, most holy section).

Beginning the Palm Sunday Path.

There at the beginning of the path, the crowds threw their cloaks on the ground before him shouting, “Hosanna!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Luke 19:37-39).

Along the modern-day path is the Church of Dominus Flavit, the church that commemorates he place where Jesus wept over Jerusalem in Luke 19.

Dominus Flavit

Dominus Flavit is built in the shape of a tear drop in memory of Jesus’ tears. While most churches in the area face to the east, this church faces west so Jerusalem, particularly the East Gate, can be seen by the congregation behind the altar.  There are two significant reasons.  

First, tradition held that the Messiah would enter Jerusalem from the East Gate.  This is likely the gate from which Jesus entered Jerusalem and the reason why the crowds were celebrating as he journeyed towards the city from the Mt. of Olives.  Second, is a modern reason.  Standing prominently above the East Gate is the Dome of the Rock, a significant Muslim holy place that dominates the Jerusalem skyline.  While sitting in the congregation of Dominos Flavit, the cross and the Eucharist on the altar stand in front of the Dome of the Rock.

We can see one of the reasons he wept when we look out at Jerusalem. The Temple Mount had been heavily built up by Herod the Great. It sounds like a great gift to the Jewish people, but it came with a cost.

Adjoining the Temple, Herod built the Antonia Fortress in order to monitor Temple activities. It was an architectural sign of the conflict of culture, religion, and power. Jesus looks out over Jerusalem, the Roman occupation, the religious corruption, and more and he weeps.

From here, we traveled to The Garden of Gethsemane.  On Thursday of Holy Week, Jesus walked this path from Bethany, where he was staying for the week, and asked his disciples to go ahead of him to make preparations for the Passover meal, which would be his last supper.  This passover took place within the walls of the city, just a 15 minute walk from the Garden of Gethsemane.  The current Davidson Center is the place where this supper is commemorated.  The Davidson Center is also the location of the Tomb of King David.  It is believed that the Last Supper took place in an upper room over the tomb of David.

The Garden of Gethsemane

I had the opportunity to give a devotion before we entered the Garden of Gethsemane.  I’ll share that devotion in a subsequent post.  

Gethsemane translates to “olive press.”  The garden is a grove of olive trees that were cultivated and pressed on site.  Today, the garden still hosts olive trees, many of them very old.  One in particular may date back to hundreds of years.

Gethsemane sits on the side of the Mt. of Olives.  As such, it is a rocky garden.  I had never really thought of it this way—I normally think of gardens as flat, cultivated places.  Yet the geography of the garden is quite rocky.  The Church of All Nations sits on the site of the garden.  


The inside of the church is breathtaking.  The church’s altar is built over the rock which is believed to be the place where Jesus prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42).

Pastor Mike reminded us that, just as olives were pressed 4 times to produce different grades of oil, at the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was pressed for the first time and sweat drops of blood.

As Jesus was in the garden, Judas led the chief priests, the officers of the temple guard, and the Jewish elders to arrest him.  They took him to the House of Ciaphas, the high priest.

The Church of St. Peter in Gallicantus stands over the site of Ciaphas’s house.  “Gallicantu” is Latin for “cocks crow.”  You may remember that it was outside of the house of Ciaphas that Peter disowned Jesus 3 times (Luke 22:54ff).  This is the location of the first part of Jesus’ trial.  Remember, he was tried by the Jewish priests, then taken to Pontius Pilate—the Roman prefect over Judea, and then to Herod Antipas—the tetrarch of Galillee who was in town for the Passover, before finally being sentenced by Pilate.

Luke 23 tells us that Jesus didn’t begin his official trial until daybreak the next day (Luke 22:66).  This means that Jesus was imprisoned for the night (at least a portion of it, depending on how long Jesus prayed in the garden).  Where was he imprisoned?

The traditional answer to this question, defended by archaeology, is haunting.  In the stone floor of the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu is a hole that peers deep into an small underground cave.  At various places around the church, we see mosaics of Jesus shackled with ropes tied around his torso.  Tradition holds that these ropes were used to lower Jesus deep into the cave below which acted as a maximum security hold for the temple guard.  As the council of priests questioned Jesus and deliberated before and during the trial, they would raise and lower Jesus into this cell.  This deep, dark, isolated cell is the place where Jesus spent his last night.

We went down, many flights of stairs, to access the cell.  It barely held all of us and, looking up, high in the ceiling, is the hole in the floor of the church, just large enough for the frame of a small man.  Inside this dark cavern, we read the words of Psalm 88:

“O Lord, the God who saves me, day and night I cry out before you. May my prayer come before you; turn your ear to my cry.  For my soul is full of trouble and my life draws near the grave.  I am counted among those who go down to the pit….  You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths.   Your wrath lies heavily upon me; you have overwhelmed me with your waves.  You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them.  I am convinced and cannot escape; my eyes are dim with grief.”

And, just yards away, Peter sat before a fire saying, “I do not know him.”

A rooster crowed.

And Peter went outside and wept bitterly.

Day 5:  Jericho

Do you remember the song?  

Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, Jericho, Jericho

Joshua fought the battle of Jericho

and the walls came a-tumbling down

Jericho is the site of the famous battle in Joshua 5, an early Israelite conquest after they crossed the Jordan River. It is also the home of Rahab the prostitute who was spared in the battle and is named in the genealogy of King David and Jesus. 

It is the place where the prophet Elisha purified the spring with salt. The water is still viable today and the reason that Jericho remains an oasis city. (2 Kings 2)

It is the place in Luke 19 where Jesus met Zacheus the tax collector and invited himself over for dinner.

The tree set apart to remember Zacheus climbing a sycamore to get a better view of Jesus.

Jericho Sits at the foot of the Judean Desert. Close by is Mt. Nebo, where Moses stood and looked out at the promised land. 

Jericho remains an oasis town. The fact that this area remains inhabited demonstrates the power of fresh water in the desert. It is under Palestinian authority and our bus was required to pass through check points to get there. 

We arrived the Tel of Jericho, an archaeological site discovered in the 1950’s. The excavated town dates back to Biblical times with finds that date back to 8,000 BC. Interestingly, the found the remains of wall, though it actually dates earlier than the time of Joshua. It should be an exciting find, but the excitement is tempered with the mystery: where is the location of Joshua’s wall?

The road from Jericho to Jerusalem is also a meaningful place in scripture. It is the place where Jesus set the parable of the Good Samaritan. It is also believed to have been called the Valley of the Shadow of Death as it is a highly dangerous path. 

Pilgrims on their way up to Jerusalem would have traveled the Jericho road in caravans. A monastery has been built over the old road and new roads have taken its place. 

Day 5: Songs of Ascent

Jerusalem sits at the heart of the world’s three major religions. For Jews, it is the city of David, the place where the temples stood, the site of David’s tomb, etc. For Muslims, it is the site where Abraham nearly sacrificed his son (in the Muslim understanding, this son would have been Ishmael instead of Isaac) and the site the Mir’aj, where Muhammed ascended into heaven and returned with instructions to pray the 5 prayers. For Christians, Jerusalem shares the importance that it does in the Jewish faith, but it is also the sight of the crucifixion, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ. 

Jerusalem is not only the home of these sites, it is also the cradle of the central differences and conflicts between cultures and religions. I’ll share more about this in my post about our visit to the Temple Mount. 

Jerusalem has been an active city since its founding by King David over 3,000 years ago. It is a living tel, built up over years as one society builds upon the ruins of another. 

For the same amount of time, Jerusalem has been an holy site and destination for pilgrims. 

In the Book of Psalms, there is a segment of Psalms known as “The Psalms of Ascent,” Psalms 120-134. These Psalms are songs sung by ancient Jewish pilgrims as they ascended to Jerusalem for the three pilgrimage festivals (Passover, the Feast of Weeks or Pentecost, & the Feast of Tabernacles).  The are travel songs. Songs that take the soul on the same journey that the feet take–the journey up to the holy city of Jerusalem. 

Whether you were traveling from the north or the south, you would ascend to Jerusalem as it is built at a high elevation. 

As we rode our tour bus towards Jerusalem, we read from the Psalms of Ascent and sang hymns of joy. 

I rejoiced when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord.” –Psalm 122:1

It was unexpected, the way it came over me. It had been a long ride with a number of stops along the way. My mind was on the agenda for the day and what dinner would be. 

Money Mike, our wonderful bus driver, turned on another song just as we approached a tunnel. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” it sang in the darkness of the tunnel. As we emerged into the light in the other side, the city stood there with its bright white limestone. The Temple Mount coming into view. And from nowhere, tears came. 

Yes, the day has come when we worship not in this mountain or that but “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:21-24).  But this is the land  the Lord walked. The city of his Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension. 

I wept because it seems my soul has taken the same journey that my feet have taken. A journey that puts all else aside and seeks to draw close to God. 

Day 4:  Blessings, Ministry, & the Sea

Mount of Beatitudes

The Sermon on the Mount is one the major discourses or teachings of Jesus recorded in Matthew (chapters 5-7).

The Mount of Beatitudes, on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, is the site of this teaching.

The mountain offers gorgeous views of the valley below and the mountains that surround them. Mt. Tabor, one of the believed sites of the Transfiguration, is visible right next to the Nazareth Range where the city of Nazareth is visible.

Our team in worship on the Mount of Beatitudes.

One of the most moving experiences of my life was having the opportunity to read the Beatitudes aloud for our group on the Mount of Beatitudes.

Church of the Multiplication

Each gospel contains the story of the feeding of the 5,000. The Church of the Multiplication, also known as the Church of the Heptegon (Seven Springs), stands in an approximate area of this miracle. This site has stood in memory of this event since the time of the earliest Christians.

Under the altar is the rock that tradition remembers as the one where Jesus put the baskets down. In front of the altar is a Byzantine era mosaic of the fish and the loaves.

Primacy of Peter

This church marks the location and memory of Peter’s reinstatement in John 21. At the foot of the Mount of Beatitudes, this area was also a highly productive fishing area.

A large rock marks the site where Jesus and the disciples had breakfast. The rock itself continues into the church.

The Sea of Galilee

Up to this point, we have spent our entire trip around the Sea of Galilee. Our hotel, located in Tiberias, sat on the shoreline. Every morning, we saw the sun rise over the sea.

We capped off our experience by boating on the Sea of Galilee. From the boat, we saw the mountains and lands that we had visited throughout the week.

In 1986, the Sea of Galilee had low water levels. Two brothers found some Roman nails in the uncovered mud. This led to the discovery of the remains of a 1st century fishing boat of the type that Jesus and the disciples would have used on the Sea of Galilee. After painstaking excavation, the boat was unearthed and preserved in a museum.

Day 4: Remember Your Baptism

The passages about Jesus’s baptism are by far the most meaningful passages in my life. For many reasons. 

Recorded in Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11 and Luke 3:21-22, each account tells of Jesus being baptized in the Jordan River by his cousin John the Baptist. When Jesus came up out of the water, the Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove and the voice of the Father spoke from heaven saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

We visited two sites on the Jordan River–one close to where the Sea of Galilee flows into it and the other further south, in the desert, where it is likely that Jesus was baptized. The river is much smaller than I’d imagined, having grown up on the St. Marys and Crooked Rivers in South Georgia. It’s also muddier than I expected. I had always imagined Jesus being baptized in crystal clear waters; not muddy waters. There are some good lessons in that. 

No matter my preconceptions, these ancient waters reminded us all of our baptism and the voice from heaven that speaks of our belovedness in Jesus Christ. 

At both sites, people from many Christian traditions were being baptized and remembering their baptisms. Priests sprinkled and sprayed congregants with hyssop branches dipped in the river. Pastors immersed. Others poured and sprinkled from the shore. 

A light-hearted debate arose on the group about whether or not Jesus was immersed. The scripture does, after all, say that “he went up out of the water.” Interestingly much of the ancient art that we have seen so far illustrate Jesus standing upright in the Jordan with John pouring water over his head. Similarly, we saw people being sprinkled while standing in the river. Guess what they had to do afterwards? They had to come up out of the water!  

It really is a light-hearted conversation for many of us because United Methodists, despite popular belief, recognize all 3 modes of baptism: sprinkling, pouring, and immersion. 

Either way, at Jordan River, we felt the weight and glory of our baptism and joined together in a service of baptismal remembrance and reaffirmation. 

Why a service of baptismal reaffirmation and not simply getting baptized again?

Our United Methodist understanding of baptism holds that baptism is effective when it is administered and is not repeated. I’ll save the long explanation for later, but even if we are baptized as infants or have fallen short of our baptism, our baptism still holds true. While we may often fail our covenants and promises to God, God never fails God’s promises to us. And in baptism God makes the promise that we are his beloved children and a part of his family known as the church. 

As we shared in this service, some chose to remember on the shore. Some in the river. I had the joy of sharing the service with the Revs. Mike Ricker, Meg Procopio, and John Haney. 

At the end of the remembrance service, I was able to share a special and holy moment with Mike as we led each other in remembering our baptisms–pouring water over the other while standing on the Jordan River. 

Our group didn’t see any birds that day. No doves. But we did remember the voice that speaks continually into our lives: “You are my children, whom I love; in you I am well pleased.”

Day 4: Galilee’s Gospel Triangle

Jesus spent the beginning of his ministry in the northern region of Galilee, named for the Sea of Galilee which is the largest body of fresh water in the Middle East.

After Jesus’ temptation and a tough homecoming to Nazareth, Jesus made his home in Capernaum (Matthew 4:13).

We visited the site of Capernaum, a town mentioned many times in the scripture. For example, Mark 1:21-34 tells of Jesus casting an evil spirit out of a man in the synagogue. He then visits the home of Peter’s mother-in-law, whom he heals of a fever. After the sabbath ended that day, the whole town gathered at that house, bringing the sick to be healed.

The remains of the synagogue still stand in Capernaum. The building that currently stands is built upon the foundations of the synagogue that stood in Jesus’ day. Some of the foundation is still visible.

What is striking to me is that the house of Peter’s mother-in-law is mere yards away. The remains of a first century insula, or common family home, still stand. An octagonal church was built over the site by the Byzantines. A modern church is built over this site today. It is unique in style, built high above the ground with glass in the floor to see the stones of the house on which crowds stood as received healing from the Lord.

We visited the remains of the town of Korazim, spelled Chorazin in the New Testament. It was one of the three cities or villages where Jesus taught, known as the “Gospel Triangle” (also Capernaum and Bethsaida). Built in the Sea of Galilee, the buildings were made of a black basalt.

The Moses Seat of the Korazim synagogue.

Korazim is mentioned in Matthew 11:21 where Jesus pronounces word in unrepentant cities.