Center of the Universe: Israel 2018
After spending two days in the area around the Sea of Galilee, yesterday we turned south and followed the Jordan River valley all the way to the northern tip of the Dead Sea, at which point we turned west and began the climb up to Jerusalem. In roughly 15 miles you go from 1400 feet below sea level (the lowest point on earth) to 2400 feet above. As you move south from Galilee you transition out of the fertile plains and valleys of northern Israel and enter into a desert environment, all within the span of less than 120 miles. The desert land along the Jordan River in south Israel, known in the Bible as the Negev (or Negeb), is rugged and wild, and yet stunningly beautiful. As they’ve done for millennia, Bedouin tribesmen herd their sheep through the rugged terain, though it is hard to see exactly what those sheep are eating.
The entrance into the city of Jerusalem is simply breathtaking. The natural beauty of the place is enough by itself to evoke awe, but when you stop to consider all that has happened in this relatively small range of hills, you struggle to find words. Historically speaking, there are billions of people world wide who trace their cultural and religious identities to this place. Spiritually speaking, the series of events that brought salvation to the world happened in the patch of earth I am looking at as I write these words. It feels like this is the center of the universe.
This morning we began the day with a visit to the Garden of Gethsemane, where we were privileged to share together in a very intimate service of communion. Several people wept as we shared the bread and the cup to remember the sacrifice of our Lord, which began in the late night hours of that first Maundy Thursday night, somewhere within the vicinity of where we were sitting. From there we traveled to see the ruins of the palace of the High Priest Caiaphas. Jesus was likely held captive in the dungeon beneath that palace after being arrested in Garden. We gathered in that pit and read from Psalm 88. From there we boarded the bus and headed over to Bethlehem, where we visited the shepherds’ fields and the Church of the Nativity, which is literally built over the place where tradition says Jesus was born.
Of course, because this is Israel, it is impossible to escape the harsh political realities that define this troubled land. Bethlehem is in the West Bank, which is under Palestinian control. Israeli citizens cannot pass into Bethlehem (or anywhere within certain regions of the West Bank) without mountains of paperwork and prior authorization. Meanwhile, Palestinians in these areas cannot pass into Israeli territory. So, our tour guide (who is an Israeli Jew) departed us this afternoon, and we were handed over to a Palestinian Christian who guided us through our visit to Bethlehem. Whatever your view of middle eastern politics might be, it is quite moving to have a Gentile of Arab descent describe the history of the place of the birth of Jesus, who came to be the savior of all.
The attached photo shows our group gathered in one of the caves along the edge of the fields outside of Bethlehem. This is the kind of place where shepherds would have gathered with their sheep to gain shelter from the elements.