Stories of Old and New Testaments come to life on trip to Holy Land
By Mike Haynes
My biggest surprise when I visited the Holy Land for the first time last month had less to do with faith than terrain.
Israel is a lot more vertical than horizontal. Or at least Galilee and Jerusalem are.
Green hills rise above the Sea of Galilee as a tourist boat crosses
on Feb. 15. A group sponsored by Amarillo’s Washington
Avenue Christian Church also took to the water, locally
referred to as Lake Tiberias. (Photo by Mike Haynes)
Yes, the area around the Dead Sea, south toward Egypt and east toward Jordan turn into desert – some flat and some mountainous – which is how I had pictured the land where Jesus walked. And west toward the Mediterranean turns into coastal plains.
But much of the region where Jesus spent his time is lushly green with steep hills and valleys. In fact, to walk from place to place in Jerusalem itself – or in Nazareth or Bethlehem – the disciples would have climbed hills and descended into valleys. There’s a reason the site of the second Jewish temple is called the Temple Mount and across the way is the Mount of Olives.
As our Amarillo tour leader said, Jesus and his followers would have been in good shape.
Members of an Amarillo tour group line up on Feb. 20 to enter
the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, one of the two main sites that
many believe could be the actual site of Jesus Christ’s
burial and resurrection. (Photo by Mike Haynes)
Such mundane, physical realizations are one reason the stories and events in the Old and New Testaments do come to life when you stand in that small Middle Eastern country. I had read and heard that Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount, but when you stand at the top of a slope next to the Sea of Galilee which provides excellent acoustics, you can picture the Beatitudes actually being voiced there.
When you look at the remains of a stone house in Capernaum that archeologists are pretty sure is the house of the apostle Peter or his mother-in-law, you know that the man who also was God had to have been there, too.
My wife, Kathy, and I were blessed to be able to visit those sites and many more with 73 other people, mostly from Amarillo, on a trip sponsored by Washington Avenue Christian Church. For most, it was our first journey to Israel.
Getting there and getting home certainly was a challenging journey for about half of us who
Visitors from Amarillo view the remains of a stone house in Capernaum
Feb. 15 that many archeologists believe was the home of the apostle
Peter or his mother-in-law and if so, a certain site frequented
by Jesus of Nazareth. (Photo by Mike Haynes)
Once we reached the Tel Aviv airport and then our hotel in Tiberias, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, the spirit of that land fell upon us. An Amarillo Sunday school teacher later asked me if I could spend a month in one location
that we visited, where would it be?
I answered the Sea of Galilee, actually a lake, where Jesus walked on water and
around which much of his ministry centered. Modern buildings are clustered
around some of its waters, but many of the green hills and rocky beaches have
been left untouched. It’s easy to imagine Peter, John and the rest hanging out below
the hazy sky that hung above us in our short time there.
This view from the Mount of Olives shows the Old City of
Jerusalem with terraces and Islamic graves leading up
to the Temple Mount. (Photo by Kathy Haynes)
I don’t see how a Christian could visit Israel without having some kind of spiritual experience. My thoughts about the vertical hills of the north and the horizontal desert of the south led me to metaphors for our relationships: vertical with God and horizontal with other people. A Jerusalem hotel Bible study led by a woman in our group was more meaningful. Her prayer and scripture reading had led her to impress upon us the need to consider how the trip would affect our lives when we returned to Texas.
We were tourists, and we bought T-shirts and olive wood souvenirs. We floated in the Dead Sea. We learned a little about the current state of Israel, its relationship with the Palestinians and the concrete walls that help keep the peace. But we also were pilgrims, people who travel to a sacred place as an act of religious devotion, as one dictionary puts it. Some of us were rebaptized in the Jordan River. We prayed before every bus trip and silently at the Western Wall.
A scene of hills and forests is shown from the Yad Veshem
Holocaust Memorial on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, a view
not expected by many Bible readers who imagine
Jerusalem as desert-like. (Photo by Kathy Haynes)
In the past 2,000 years, churches have been built at many of the sites that are believed to have been important in Jesus’ life – for example, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the church next to the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem. Who knows whether the actual tomb of Jesus, from which he was resurrected, is under the elaborate Church of the Holy Sepulchre or is 1,100 yards away, where the Garden Tomb looks just as we imagine the entrance cut out of a hill where a round stone was rolled away? No matter where it happened, we were close to it.
If you can, go see Israel for yourself. It’s inspiring to walk where Jesus walked.
But if you don’t make it there, don’t worry. More important is to walk with Jesus wherever you are.