I want to try and write on a socio-political study trip as a religious experience. Not so surprising when the destination of the trip is given away in the less than cryptic post-title. And not surprising when you get to travel and meet with with incredible people of faith.
It’s a trip I’m still trying hard not to recover from. Green hills in a Galilean winter surround a blue lake. As you get off a coach you step out of a bewildering contemporary political landscape and, with a little imagination, find yourself at His feet. ‘Blessed are…’ the familiar words repeated throughout the Mount of Beatitudes… Well blessed am I – to be here.
Communion taken outside, after Christ’s words are considered, in a place you can easily imagine him not just ministering in his official tour of duty, but happily retreating to with friends during his years as a carpenter in Capernaum.
A first century boat rediscovered, with layers of repairs in varying woods from the region still evident, is nicknamed the “Jesus Boat”. Could it be the boat that survived the storm because its sleeping inhabitant awoke and hushed the storm to silence? Whether this or not, its dimensions and simple design evoke almost memories of the man we glimpse in our heart’s own longings, standing to preach and calling fishermen to come follow him.
The lake seen from a hillside, seems still and beautiful now. I think to myself if I were going to ‘incarnate’ from a heavenly home, this would not be a bad way to spend my intervening years as I wait for my ‘time to come’. Beauty upon beauty, and we scarcely mind singing ‘O sabbath rest by Galilee’ with more regularity than the latest hit chorus marketed at a conference, because here it is clear that the Dear Lord and Father of Mankind can indeed forgive our foolish ways, reclothe us in our rightful mind leading us into ‘purer lives His service to find, and in deeper reverence to praise.
Those by the Syrian sea may have followed in simple trust, but the hustle and bustle of following one setting his face on Jerusalem must have been overwhelming for country folk. Even Capernaum’s commercial trade running across the empire could not have prepared anyone for Passover in Jerusalem, nor the sheer relief of completing a two or three day trek through the desert (if coming from Jericho) and seeing the golden temple shining in the sunlight. Imagine yourself, sitting on the Mount of Olives overlooking Temple Mount, the 250,000 person capacity platform on which the great temple of Herod was built. You can quickly see the attractiveness for a small town carpenter in retreating back out to the hillside night after night. Green hills surround you in each direction as you lie back in an olive grove and consider the stars. Sanity returns after the barricading noise of tradesmen, infused with the stench of sacrifices and the industry that supports them. And past the temple you can glimpse the place of the skulls, Golgotha – and picture Calvary’s tree. It’s not hard from here to get “Jerusalem fever” and imagine those last great days like you were there…
In Jerusalem you are far closer to Bethlehem than the Nazareth where you grew up. This occupied city has been your place of constant pilgrimage for at least 17 years, and your place of triumphal entry on a colt just a few days before. You’ve caused a commotion here on more occasions than one, and by the great golden vine on the city wall pronounced yourself the true Israel, the true vine. You’ve wept over this city, which has murdered the prophets, from afar, and tomorrow you too go up to die there.
Clearly visible to you from the rock on which you sweat your blood, with an escape route behind you blocked only by your God-given purpose and direction, you make your resolution once more ‘Not my will but yours be done.’ A friend stops by to betray you with a kiss, other friends fall away, dishonoured and one even de-robed in the night, so eager is he to escape your side. Promises that they will never leave you or forsake you have never been clung to by you. You know there is a more fundamental forsaking yet to happen. That is what makes you sweat blood.
A Via Delarosa begins for you not with tourist souvenirs ‘Guns and Moses’ emblazoned on teeshirts, next to olive wood cross and the obligatory Coca Cola, but with a barracks whipping designed to put an end to all but the most hardy of lives. A climb ensues that tourists shake on, and you fell on again and again. Finally a hill-top is ascended, nails are driven in and you are lifted high surrounded by criminals no longer common, but about to be immortalised in the greatest story ever told.
It is finished, and the temple curtain crashes down, torn in two, a precursor of greater destruction you prophesied so accurately, and an immediate unleashing of a power that brings dead saints back to life. A tomb that can’t contain you is sealed up and guarded, and then thrown wide open days later as you also prophesied.
Ascended. Angels tell your followers not to look to the skies for you, but to wait for the Spirit you also prophesied would come. Pentecost. You are alive again in 3000 of your people and the numbers game has begun. Great things are yet to come, and they begin there in Jerusalem with hapless has-beens turned into defiant generals of our Kingdom proclaiming a risen Christ even unto death…
Back in 2019, you the tourist/pilgrim snap out of Jerusalem fever, because the show and the coach must go on… older treasures are to be explored… the ancient site of Shiloh where the Tabernacle rested for 390 years or so, the mountains of Bethel and Moriah where the Patriachs received world changing promises, the little town of Bethlehem where the incarnation unfolded are all still to come… but as you retreat away from that centre the next day and step your foot on an uncovered 1st century pavement, and climb the ramp to Temple Mount, you wonder if Jerusalem Fever will ever really leave you. He is here. He was here and He will be here again. It feels an incredible privilege to even know His Name.