Wednesday, July 16, 2014


Earlier on our trip we went to Venice, which I then thought was the most incredible place I had visited. While I love Venice, for me, Jerusalem now takes that place after we entered through the Jaffa Gate (the Left).

It is impossible to sum up a visit to Jerusalem in a few words. It is amazing. Here, religion and politics have collided for centuries and this continues in the present.The Temple Mount is extraordinary. 

You see Jews rocking before a wall which once formed the western side of the base of the temple, praying in grief for the loss of a building. They are pleading for the coming of Messiah and its restoration. Yet, Messiah has come. He has formed a temple of people, not a physical building. God’s people no longer need such a building. In the ancient temple was the Holy of Holies where the High Priest could enter once a year to atone for the sins of the people. Now, in Jesus, anyone can enter by faith, forgiven, and stand before God freely in intimate relationship. We don’t need a building. We don’t need a priest. We don’t need a priest. We have a high priest, one after the order of the Prince of Peace (Salem), Jesus, he has opened up a way to God that does not require a temple.

You see the separation of men and women before God, which I found annoying. The men's section is way bigger, with a lovely internal chapel. Above the women's prayer area is the makeshift bridge to the Temple Mount itself. We got in, but only after a very angry German tour guide went off at our tour leader for claiming the front spot in the queue. He embarrassed himself completely, but then it is a place of passion.

You can enter yourself and pray, it is open for prayer (except for most Palestinians who are imprisoned behind a wall). As you enter you see as sign which highlights Isa 56:7 (right). I kept thinking of Jesus, as he cleared the temple, citing this text with Jer 7 critiquing Israel's failure. 

There are books for the faithful to use in prayer and worship -- none are the NT or Quran of course.

Then you can enter the Temple Wall Tunnels which are now tunnels, but in Jesus' day were the path going along the western wall. You can pray at this now subterranean wall putting prayer requests in the clefts of the rock. 

All that said, the Mount is dripping with significance. It is where Melchizedek prince of Salem (peace) ministered and Abraham was prepared to offer Isaac. For Jews the rock of Mt Moriah is the first rock of creation. For Muslims it is from where Muhammad left on his heavenly experience. It is deeply contentious. Some Jews and Christians want to rebuild a temple here. Thankfully most repudiate the idea. Any move in that direction means the war to end all wars.  

On top of the Mount, where the Temple once stood, are mosques. I kept wondering what it felt like to be a passionate Jew and see this – Israel is still being trampled by the Gentiles. Muslims claim this space due to its relationship to Muhammad’s vision and its importance in the story of the prophets of Allah. Jews cannot visit this area, because of concern they may accidentally violate the holy of holies, the site of which is uncertain. 

The Temple Mount symbolises the fervour and futility of religion and concern for holy space whereby one place is more important than another. Indeed, we saw that fervour while we were there as a group of Palestinian Muslims swept through its lower courts protesting.

The Christian Gospel rightly understood opposes racism, sexism, and placism. All places are sacred. All are equal before God. All are one in the new Temple, Christ, and his people formed on the cornerstone. No need for all this concern over a mount. Wars have come and more await us because of false ideas of this space. So sad, so sad.

Then there is the Mount of Olives. What a space. Again, religions collide. Jews await their Messiah coming to this place. Hence, the tens of thousands of graves all over its slopes which give the mount a grey desolate look from afar. Muslims believe Muhammad left earth to heaven from the Mount, and to here he will return. 

Christians claim Jesus left from here (the footprint, right), and to here he will return. Wow!

Then there is the Church of the Beatitudes, where Jesus supposedly taught his disciples the Lord's prayer. This is historically dodgy, but the church is great and you can read the Lord's Prayer in a multitude of languages including Maori.

On the slopes of this mountain was heard one of the greatest prophecies of history; as Jesus looked upon the Temple Mount and predicted its complete destruction (Mark 13 – the Olivet Discourse). This was fulfilled dramatically in the Roman wars (66-70 AD). Jesus’ people missed his call to move beyond ethnocentric election privilege, violence, and a spacism based on Temple, and were destroyed by the Romans. Jesus himself is the Temple, and we are to yield to him and enter his people by faith, and we are his people – wherever we are. 

As you move down you come across a little gem, a tomb of the prophets (Zechariah, Haggai, and Malachi). It is a fascinating little tour of the place where the prophets of the Second Temple are laid.

I was deeply moved by the Church of the Dominus Flevit where Jesus as he looked out over the Temple Mount wept over Jerusalem's failure to heed him. No doubt Jesus could see the destruction coming and his heart went out to his people who he came to save. 

You get to visit the Garden of Gethsemane, which is beautiful. The ancient olive trees are fabulous, some of which may be grown from trees that witnessed Jesus' torment. Here God the Son cried out to his Father to grant him release from the torment of crucifixion he would soon face, and yet yielded to God’s will. Of all the biblical places I visited this moved me the most as I considered Jesus on his face pleading with God for release from the horror of the cross to come. Yet he rose and yielded and now the world has hope. Wow!

Then there is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. What a church! Amazing art, especially the mosaic that meets you as you enter telling the story of Jesus' final moments.

On this trip I have seen the two of the most astonishing churches I know (the other is St Peters, Rome). The La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is an amazing architectural statement of worship to God. Yet the Holy Sepulchre transcends it, not for its architecture which is very interesting shaped around the places of Jesus’ walk to the cross, his death, and resurrection, but for the power of its story. You walk in and after the mosaic greets you, you see a rock where it is said Jesus was laid for anointing.

You climb up and worship at the spot of his crucifixion.

You descend again and enter the tomb, or what is left of it. Deep!

Nestled behind the Jesus' tomb is the astonishing jewel of the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, who gave up his first tomb for Jesus. At each spot there are lines of pilgrims who kneel, touch and kiss the spots. That is comforting at one level; faith is still alive on planet earth. Yet it is also disturbing, for Jesus transcends all this and can be touched anywhere. 

You walk to the Church by wandering the Via Dolorosa from what was once the Fortress Antonia beside the Temple, past the spots where Jesus fell or Simon took up his crossbar or Veronica wiped his face (not sure on this one). Finally, you enter into the church through other churches to the point where Jesus’ walk of pain ended in death, burial, and an empty tomb. Wow! So deep. So challenging.

Then, if you prefer you can visit the Garden Tomb. Here, you see a hill shaped like a skull, and a tomb. Whether it is authentic, which is highly questionable, it is a place of quiet, gardens, ideal for reflection.

The Upper Room we visited above the tomb of David was fascinating. It is unclear whether this is an authentic site; but if it is it is astonishing that it is sited above David’s tomb. Reading the Gospel accounts Jesus was intentional about using this site. Was it because of its link to David – the new David had come? Who knows? In this room Jesus and his Twelve at the final Supper. Here, the Spirit descended on God’s people and the Church exploded into life and mission replete with Pentecost power.

We also visited Zedekiah’s Cave, where Solomon quarried rock for the first Temple and where it is said Zedekiah’s tears fall for Babylon’s destruction.

A visit to David’s city was fantastic. We got to walk through Hezekiah’s Tunnel, an astonishing feat of engineering and a brilliant experience. More than that, there are excavations of Jerusalem at the time of David replete with archaeological remains that vindicate Jeremiah’s account of the fall of Jerusalem. You see the 3000 year old wall of the city of David. 

Then there is the rich story of Jerusalem since the days of Christ. The 33 conquests. Its time under Rome, various Islamic dynasties, Crusaders, Britain, Jordan, and present.

Make sure you pop into the Austrian Hospice for something to eat and drink, and get up on the roof for the amazing views.

There are the four quarters, which are fascinating. You learn how it is that alongside the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim quarters bustling with markets and life, is the Armenian Quarter. 

Something to do with the women that the Crusaders picked up on the journey to deliver the city. The city is a labyrinth you could explore all your life.

I love Jerusalem. It perplexes me. I can’t help thinking that the world will culminate around this place. There is so much at stake for Israeli, Arab, Muslim, and Christian. 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

A visit to Bethlehem, Where Jesus was Born

After our time at the Sea of Galilee, we drove to Jerusalem and dropped off the car. While we were able to drive the rental into Bethlehem, we would not be covered by insurance and the company could not help us if we got in trouble. So we took a taxi to the Bethlehem Bible College (right). This is a Palestinian Christian college very close to the wall, about half an hour walk from the centre of town. 

The people of the college are courageous people, strong believers in peace, people who stand for Christ in a most difficult environment. One senses the forces of Zionism and Islam crushing them. They are imprisoned inside the wall which towers over the town (left). They cannot leave without documentation.

Bethlehem is very different to the Jewish cities, and more like Nazareth. It is peopled by lovely friendly people who love to say “welcome” and engage you in conversation. They are delighted if you are staying in the town, and without doubt the friendliest place we visited in Israel. On our first walk we hung out with some disabled people in a spontaneous moment of dancing and fun (right). 

We also met a couple of young guys who were sad for their country and are heading overseas to get away (left). They spoke of their desire for peace, their love for the Israelis, but the problem being the leaders. There was also Muhammad who has a garage by the wall. There used to be a road to Jerusalem there but now it is closed. His business is on the rocks but he soldiers on.

We walked to the centre of town to visit the Church of the Nativity (right). That meant a walk through the market, which was awesome. It is chaotic, cars fitting in tiny streets, people selling their wares, vendors calling out, arguments over deals, and noise! It was cool! The people welcomed us warmly, not just to make a sale, but simply because we were there.

The Church of the Nativity is getting rebuilt internally which was sad. 

We used a local guide, a Cantor of the Church. That was inspired because he got us through the queues, and sang for us. He then invited us to a Greek child-baptism at which he sang (right, the cantor is tucked in beside the guy with the blue shirt). 

We got to see some hidden areas like the tomb of the children, where a whole lot of children’s skeletons are found. It is believed by some that these were the children Herod killed. Not sure about that but very sobering

The nativity area itself is interesting. We saw the supposed spot where Jesus was born (right). 

We also where he was laid in a manger, and where the magi bought gifts (left). 

We got to see these spots thanks to our Cantor, whose name by coincidence is Jesus!

We also visited the Milk Church (right) where it is said that Mary dropped a bit of milk and the stone is white and where there is a picture of Mary breastfeeding (left). I found this all a bit weird--not Mary breastfeeding, but the whole church site and dropped milk.

Other key sites we visited were Solomon’s Pools, an amazing set of three pools built under Solomon, meaning near 1000 years before Christ! They are fantastic (right and left). A number of Palestinian kids have drowned in them, so they are barred.

We also visited the Herodium, one of Herod’s palaces on top of a hill. Here we see again the influence of Herod the Great. Amos’ hometown Tekoa lies beside it (right), which fascinated me. It is a long way from the north where he was sent to prophesy

The views are extraordinary. 

There is a theatre, which faces toward Jerusalem (right). 

There are lots of ritual baths (like the one on the left), we find in all of Herod’s places. 

There is Herod’s grave (right). 

This is a great site.

One more thing. This is very near Bethlehem. It makes sense that the edict to kill the children of Bethlehem was enacted from here. Joseph didn't have long to get his family out and head to Egypt.