Easter

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The Garden Tomb just outside the walls of Jerusalem.  This is one of two possible sites that is believed to be where Jesus was buried after his crucifixion.  The evidence was compelling, but whether this was the true site or not, the tomb here at least provided a visual for where Jesus was buried on that first Good Friday.

After the story was recounted and the evidence was presented to us, we had a chance to look inside the tomb.

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Above all else, the evidence that was most pronounced to me was that it was empty.  When they discovered this tomb, this burial place had a pillow cut into the rock and the foot carved out – signs that it was a finished burial place.  The one next to it, in contrast, had not been completed.  Two burial places in this tomb, only one completed.  It was prepared for someone, but it was empty.  It was empty!

This completes the story.  The punishment for our shortcomings is death.  God loved us so much that He said, “Whoa, you all are in a predicament that you cannot escape on your own.  Tell you what, I will take your punishment for you.”  In the most awful death, Jesus died on the cross for our sins.  He was buried.  Three days later, Jesus conquered death.  He left us with an empty tomb and gave us a victory that we could never earn on our own.  We don’t deserve it, but this victory is ours for the taking.

This grace and mercy, this unfailing love, this hope, this victory and promise of an abundant life…this is Easter!

(Here is one of the songs we sang in church this Easter morning.)

Keep Watch

Today begins Holy Week.  The events celebrated this week are the most critical of the Christian faith.  Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (our Palm Sunday), the Last Supper, the Crucifixtion, the Resurrection – these are no small potatoes.  One of the powerful moments during Jesus’ final week on Earth occurred in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26).  Just before he is given over to his enemies who eventually crucify him, here in this garden Jesus tells his friends how heavy his heart is because he knows that he will soon bear the sins of the world on the cross.  He knows that death is closely upon him.  He sobs.  He prays.  Three times he lets God know that he doesn’t want to go through with this, but in those same moments he surrenders his will and says, okay, if this is really your plan, God, then I’m in.

April’s masthead shows olive trees from the Garden of Gethsemane that breathed the same air that Jesus did.  When we walked through this olive garden on our trip to Israel in November, I wanted so badly to hear these centuries-old trees tell the story of what they had seen, of what they had heard.  I cannot imagine the overwhelming sorrow of that night with Jesus.  But I hope someone told those trees that night to keep watch, because just beyond the darkest event in history comes the most remarkable, the most beautiful, the most powerful event this Earth has known.  Keep watch, good news is coming!

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Gethsemane

The grass never sleeps.
Or the roses.
Nor does the lily have a secret eye that shuts until morning.
Jesus said, wait with me. But the disciples slept.
The cricket has such splendid fringe on its feet,
and it sings, have you noticed, with its whole body,
and heaven knows if it ever sleeps.

Jesus said, wait with me. And maybe the stars did, maybe
the wind wound itself into a silver tree, and didn’t move,
maybe,
the lake far away, where once he walked as on a
blue pavement,
lay still and waited, wild awake.

Oh the dear bodies, slumped and eye-shut, that could not
keep that vigil, how they must have wept,
so utterly human, knowing this too
must be a part of the story.

~Mary Oliver

Hope

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The Valley of Megiddo in Israel.  In Hebrew it is called Har Megiddo, what we know as Armageddon.  It is 50 miles long and 50 miles wide.  Here is where the Bible says the battle will take place (Zechariah 12:11, Revelation 16:16) between good and evil, between Christ returned and the Antichrist.  Christ prevails in this battle (Revelation 17:14), and then in Revelation 20 it explains that after this Christ will reign on Earth while Satan is captive.

For a thousand years the Earth will have the privilege of knowing and living with a perfect government, made perfect by an omnipotent, omniscient, holy leader.  After Satan’s imprisonment during this thousand years, he will be released and will build up one last army to fight against Christ.  As depicted in Revelation 20, Satan and his army will lose this final battle and will be forever separated from God and God’s faithful followers.

Did you hear that?  Even with a perfect government in place Satan will be able to gather people who willingly choose to fight against the ruler, against Christ.  The problem has never been a poorly run government or an economic bailout or an unmerited war or an incapable leader – even in a perfect government people will revolt.  The core issue has always been and will always be the heart of man.  We are fallen and imperfect.  Our human sinful nature is in conflict with what is right and true and holy.

Today was a monumental day in our country.  We inaugurated the 44th President of the United States of America.  Today we inaugurated the first black President of this nation.  The events were impressive as usual, though there was an added flare of emotion as this marks another ‘first’ in U.S. history.

I did not vote for Barack Obama.  I do not agree with most of his policies and have a different philosophy on the role and purpose of government.  I will, however, do my best to respect him as our President.  I will try my best to submit to his rules and laws as long as they do not compromise my adherence to God’s highest authority.  I pray that the decisions President Obama makes will ultimately bring blessings upon our country.

I will not, however, join the voices that deify him.  There has been so much talk of hope around this election and this President.  I understand the desire to have a competent government that generally serves its people well, but in what exactly are we being asked to place our hope?  Hope in an imperfect government?  Hope in an imperfect man?  I can’t hope in that because I know it will inevitably leave me disappointed.  I am not trying to be cynical, but am merely acknowledging that no mere man and no one administration will ever wash away the world’s problems or the country’s problems.  Rather, my hope is in the One who can make this promise —

He 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. Revelation 21:4

President Obama is intelligent and well-spoken.  He will be a face of endless opportunities for children that think they have limits – they will think about what could be instead of simply what is now.  But there is only one perfect and holy One that can save me from my fallen, sinful state and there is only One that can uphold such lofty promises as offered in Revelation 21:4.  My hope is in him.

Show me your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths; guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long. Psalm 25:4, 5

Helena Is My Homegirl

We’ve been home from Israel for a week now, but I’m still reflecting on our days there…

On our first day of traveling around the Sea of Galilee, there was a slice of me that wished the churches at the sites we visited weren’t there. I could’ve done without the buildings and the tourists and the souvenir shops. That rock that marks where Jesus took five loaves of bread and a couple fish and fed 5,000 people – yeah, I don’t need the church and the famous mosaic around it. They are beautiful in their own right, but let me see the rock as it was nearly 2,000 years ago in the open air. Let me sit on it and feel the same breeze that came in off the Sea of Galilee that the crowd felt, and let me close my eyes to see Jesus in that moment. I don’t need the pews and the stain glass to make this a worshipful site.

Then I got some perspective.

In 326 AD, Queen Helena of the Romans and mother of Emperor Constantine took a Christian pilgrimage to the land of Israel. Constantine insisted that she be protected as she journeyed, so thousands of Roman military went with her. As she traveled, she asked, “Where did Jesus do this?” and “Where did Jesus do that?” When she was shown a historic site, she ordered a group of soldiers to stay behind to build a church there.

In the case of the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000, as implied thousands of people were first-hand witnesses to the location of the event. In fact, crowds of people often watched Jesus, listened to him, followed him, and believed in him. Here are just a few of the dozens of examples that evidence this throughout Jesus’ ministry –

“Even as he spoke, many put their faith in him” (John 8:30).

“Meanwhile, when a crowd of many thousands had gathered, so that they were trampling on one another, Jesus began to speak…” (Luke 12:1).

“For he healed many, so that those with diseases were pushing forward to touch him” (Mark 3:10).

“Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many people saw the miraculous signs he was doing and believed in his name” (John 2:23).

“Then, because so many people were coming and going that [Jesus and his disciples] did not even have a chance to eat, [Jesus] said to [his disciples], ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.’…But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them” (Mark 6:31, 33).

“When they heard all he was doing, many people came to him from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon” (Mark 3:8).

Not only were there many witnesses at the time of Jesus, but these events were well documented in both Biblical and non-Biblical accounts. Three hundred years after Jesus’ time the people of Helena’s time were able to identify where many prominent events occurred. Here’s an analogy. In the United States, it is impressive to see a battlefield from the Civil War or to stand in Independence Hall where our forefathers adopted our Declaration of Independence 232 years ago, but we don’t question the sites of these events. They didn’t happen in our lifetime or our grandparents’ lifetime or even the generation before that. No one around us today was alive in 1776 and there certainly weren’t any computers or telephones or any sort of technology to spread the word of the momentous occasion taking place in Independence Hall. Three hundred years in some contexts is a long time, but in identifying major historical milestones it’s relatively short, particularly for sites that are well documented.

Well, thank God for Queen Helena. Not only did her church planting prevent the construction of WalMarts and Jiffy Lubes on these most precious places, but it also provides additional evidence and validity to the stories of the New Testament. Suddenly my perspective of these 4th century churches all over Israel was one of appreciation and reflection. Suddenly I was able to close my eyes and let each site become a worshipful, meaningful place.

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Two thousand years later in a land far away from Israel, people live as though Jesus’ existence were a matter of opinion. This is not like choosing to believe in the existence of Santa Claus; this would be like choosing to believe in the existence of George Washington. No one in Jesus’ time doubted his existence. No one doubted that he said what he said. When the followers of Jesus wrote the New Testament, it would have been so easy for the naysayers of the time to dispute what was written if the events of Jesus’ life were not written factually. They wanted to prevent the spread of Christianity and discrediting the New Testament would have been a quick and simple way to do it. But those opposed to Jesus didn’t do that. They couldn’t do that. Jesus claimed to be God and the Messiah. His opposers hated this concept so much that they crucified him for it and they martyred those that preached Jesus’ message, but they could not ignore the reality of the events. They didn’t like what was happening, but they couldn’t just dismiss it as fiction.

Likewise, we may not like history, but we can’t deny it or redefine it. Fact: Two thousand years ago this man named Jesus spoke to thousands. He preached to thousands, he fed thousands, he healed thousands, he claimed to be God and a Savior for all mankind, and he died on a cross because of his proclamations. This aspect of the story is non-negotiable.

But we do all have a choice. Jesus repeatedly claimed to be the Savior for the sins of the world and claimed to be the only way to heaven. He was either telling the truth or he was very wrong. Choice: Do you believe what he said?  Can you defend your choice?

A Brady Bunch Of Sorts

What is it like to travel around the Middle East with a group of 83 people?

Sure, there are those moments when the line for the women’s restroom becomes unnerving or you swear that you are going to use your camera as a weapon the next time someone’s big noggin jumps into your viewfinder just as you press the shutter release. You have to wait while the couple with the Baghdad citizenship takes extra time at the border crossing in to Jordan, and the buffet lines at times make you want to use the dinner plates as Ninja throwing stars for those people that take more than ten seconds to dump some pasta on their plate.

But then there’s the guy who makes you laugh almost every time he talks because of his nasality and ridiculous stories. He’s worn an original Rambo t-shirt 40% of the trip and proclaimed divine healing as he’s been able to walk without his cane. Now if only God would heal the (self-reported) leprosy on his back side.

There’s the woman who told us about her prophetic dreams, and the kind lady who let us borrow her towel at the Dead Sea so that we didn’t have to rent one for $10. Thank God for the friendly military couple who had the same camera that we have, but who also had the wherewithal to bring their battery charger with them on the trip. We met another woman who was one of the creators of The Jesus Film, a film that has been translated into over a thousand languages and has been shown in over two hundred countries so that literally millions of people around the world could learn about the story of Jesus. Over a plate of falafel I learned that a former news reporter currently living in Virginia went to my Alma mater, used to live within twenty minutes of where I live now, and has a close friend who attends my church. I enjoyed the conversation with the gentleman who writes about photography and had some good insight on getting in to the business of stock photography.

I was inspired by the eighty-year-old woman who handled every physical challenge with relative ease and without complaint. More impressively, I could not resist observing the wonderful way she interacted with her spirited mentally retarded daughter.

Speaking of not resisting, I had to be careful not to get caught staring at this man. If I were a doll maker I would design a doll after his face. A big, plush, stuffed Chinese baby boy doll.

A non-spastic Whoopi Goldberg was always handing out compliments. She was so genuine, yet I knew she couldn’t mean what she said. How did I know this? Well, my first clue was when she said that she liked my cooking even though she had never even met me before. She kept me smiling when she saw us in the morning and shouted, “Hey, Pennsylvania!”

We shared dinner twice with a sweet couple. The wife could usually be found asking questions to whomever she was talking to or fervently jotting down notes. At first her husband seemed like he didn’t care or wasn’t tracking with any given conversation, but then, slowly but surely a comment would pour out of his mouth like honey and you knew that he was both following along and enjoying himself. His whole body laughed when he did. I loved that.

The stories go on and on. People are unique and interesting and funny. So much to learn and enjoy from a group.

Lon and our Israeli guides did an amazing job making 83 feel like 10. Shuffling on and off buses, in and out of hotels, and through sites was almost always quick and fluid. People in the group were kind, patient, and usually very considerate. There were few times where we really felt the weight of 83.

On Monday after visiting Lithostrotos, the group entered St. Anne’s Church in Old City Jerusalem. The church was built by the Crusaders to commemorate what had happened just outside the church a thousand years before their time – this was the site of the Bethesda Pools where Jesus healed the crippled man (John 5). We sat in the pews of St. Anne’s and I prepared for Lon to give a little blurb on the historical data, the Biblical story, and the relevance of this story to our lives.

Once he started talking though, I strained to understand him through his profound echo. Having been here many times before, he quickly acknowledged the reverberation and explained that this church was horrible for preaching. It was horrible for preaching, but it was great for singing. With that invitation we all sang praise songs and hymns together. Rambo fan, doll-like, elderly, requiring special needs, serving in the military – a group from all over the country with 83 very different walks of life sat together as one congregation. I know for a fact that not every one in the group was a top-notch vocalist, but you would not believe the unity, perfect pitch, and harmony in our song. At this moment any less than 83 would have been too few. I didn’t want the singing to end. It was a glimpse of the unceasing worshipful song in heaven and I thought – okay, I’m starting to get how this can work for eternity.

Holy Ground

On our first full day in Jerusalem (Monday, November 3rd), we boarded our buses punctually at 7:30 am, knowing very well that Lon had no problem leaving us behind if we weren’t ready to go on time. “The early bird gets the schnitzel,” he would say. He was right. Countless times we were the first tour group to many sites, and as we left other groups arrived. I didn’t mind the brief moments of crowdedness as we waved good-bye to the several groups that poured in to small spaces. For this convenience, I willingly shifted from night owl to early bird on this trip.

I hadn’t had a chance to read over the itinerary for the day. We were going in to Jerusalem, of course, but I didn’t know what sites were ahead of us. Our bus ride from hotel to Old City Jerusalem was short. Ezer announced over the bus PA that our first stop was Lithostrotos, and he explained that this translated to “paved road.” I was half listening.

As we filed off the bus and through the bumpy, cobbly streets of Old City, I hoped my camera battery would make it through the day. I wondered how my outfit looked on me. I hoped lunch wasn’t too late on the schedule because I skipped the free hotel breakfast that morning. Don’t slip on these uneven steps and have a (second) embarrassing fall. How did I let so many people get in front of me? Where are we going anyway and why is it taking so long to get there?

We eventually entered this tiny little church-like thing that was built in to a wall. I usually take a picture of the outside sign of the sites that we see, but too many people were in the way this time and frankly, I didn’t understand the importance of this Lithostrotos thing. I knew that every site we had seen so far had been astonishing, so it’s not that I was cynical about this one. I just didn’t catch the significance of this place, and I couldn’t imagine how it would be able to impress me more than other places we had already seen.

Low ceilings, narrow walkways, dark. As we wound our way passed another group, through hallways, and down stairwells, I had to remind myself out loud that I am not claustrophobic. Finally, all 83 of us plus guides stacked in to small, dim quarters. Once we settled, Lon turned to those on his left and said to them that they were standing/sitting on the floor of the original Antonio Fortress. We were below the city of today, standing in the city of two thousand years ago. Antonio Fortress is where Pontius Pilate tried Jesus. Pilate found no basis to convict Jesus of any crime, but the Jews insisted that he be crucified. Here on this floor Pilate had Jesus flogged but declared again that he had no basis for a charge against him. The Jews shouted, “Crucify, crucify!” As Lon retold the events, he had my closest attention.

Lon turned to his right, where Brian and I stood, and he said, “And you, you all are standing on the very street – the Stone Pavement – where Pilate gave Jesus over to the Jews to do with him what they wanted. Here Jesus carried his cross on the way to Calvary. You are standing where Jesus walked with the cross. You are standing on holy ground.”

Lon went on to give more details about the area and their historical relevance – the Romanesque grooves in the stone pavement, and so on – but he didn’t say as much as he had at other sites. He didn’t need to. My heart swelled and my eyes filled. I was so humbled by and grateful for and overwhelmed at the events that took place here. Right here. I heard one man saying after we left the site that this was the most important moment of his life. Another woman said how emotional she had become here. Biblical knowledge and emotional sensation collided with a spiritual presence. There was not a soul in the group that was not feeling the power of the moment, the power of this holy ground.

It is hard to vocalize when you have been silenced, nevertheless we mustered our voices together and sang:

We are standing on holy ground
And I know that there are angels all around
Let us praise, praise God now, praise him anyhow
For we are standing in his sweet presence
On holy ground

And then we sang it again:

We are standing on holy ground
And I know that there are angels all around
Let us praise, praise God now, praise him anyhow
For we are standing in his sweet presence
On holy ground

Thank God for the undeserved sacrifice that took place on this holy ground.

(John 18, 19)

A Promised Land

Last night, Brian and I boarded a massive, double-decker jet and flew halfway around the world to Israel.

This tiny scrap of land about the size of New Jersey is celebrating its 60th birthday as a new nation this year.  Ever since its rebirth, Israel has been a political and religious battleground.  Enemies within the country fight for territory.  Middle Eastern neighbors surrounding Israel would be pleased to remove this country from the map.  In fact, the battling over this land began long before 1948.  Disputes trace back to the Biblical accounts of Genesis and continue through the Old and New Testaments.  So much attention given to a land whose size pales in comparison to the countries around it.  It has hardly known a time of quiet and stillness.  Yet, amidst the wars and the invasions and the changes of power, over two millennia ago a baby was born in Bethlehem who forever changed the face of this Holy Land.  He was Jesus, the Prince of Peace.  Such a good and perfect gift in Jesus arriving in such a tumultuous place.

This vacation, although I have brief moments of concern for plummeting myself into a contentious part of the world, I am mostly just thrilled to celebrate the life that offers peace and hope to a struggling world and to examine the events of Jesus’ time where they actually occurred.  As we left the Tel Aviv airport earlier this evening and boarded our bus for the 2-hour drive to Tiberias, Lon Solomon prayed, among other things, that we would have a life-defining experience on this trip.  You know, if we are following hard after Jesus, I’m wondering if it’s even possible not to have a life-defining experience.