Saturday, November 27, 2010

Lessons From Israel - Part 5

On Saturday, October 23rd, we spent most of our day in the Judean wilderness. We visited Qumran, the Essene community where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. Next, we hiked the En Gedi, the hills wherein David spent much of his time hiding from Saul (and where he wrote many of his psalms). And, we went to Masada, the fortress in which almost 1,000 Jews killed themselves, believing it was better to die as freemen than to live as slaves of Rome.

It turned out to be a very emotional day as we considered what it must have been like for the Essenes living in the dry hills of Qumran, separated from friends and family; for David living in the caves of En Gedi, running for his life from an insane king; for the Jews who desperately tried to fight off the Romans but who eventually took their lives at Masada. As we walked through these various places, it was almost as if one could see the faces and hear the voices of those who had once lived there, suffering so intensely under evil regimes . Yet, there were also all around us signs of hope.

At En Gedi there is a narrow stream that runs through the rock creating one stretch of green among the dry hills and caves. Because of the sharp drops in the landscape, that one narrow stream becomes a three-tier cascading waterfall. It’s no wonder David found refuge in that place. When we reached the third and highest waterfall, our group paused to enjoy the view and to hear the reading of Scripture. I was asked to read a couple of the psalms that David had written in that wilderness place. I read Psalms 57 and 63. In them David wrote words such as these:

Psalms 57:1 – “Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me, for in you my soul takes refuge.
I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed.” (NIV)

Psalms 63:7-8 – “Because you are my help, I sing in the shadow of your wings. My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.” (NIV)

As I read those psalms, there in that place, I can’t help but think of the great struggles the people of God have faced throughout the centuries. Yet, because of writings such as David’s, God’s people have always lived with faith and hope. Even to this day David’s words help us to pray, reminding us that truly, God is merciful, providing refuge and help to his children in need.

So, if you find yourself in the midst of a struggle – a wilderness place - I would suggest that you read each of these psalms in their entirety. Allow God’s Word to encourage your faith and renew your hope. And, know that you can take refuge in the shadow of his wings.

Have a great day!

-Pastor Tim Harris

Friday, November 19, 2010

Lesson From Israel - Part 4

I will never forget my first glimpse of Jerusalem. It was Thursday, October 21st. We had spent the earlier part of the day traveling the country – a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee, the ruins of Capernaum, a first century lunch in Nazareth, Caesarea Maritime on the Mediterranean. Finally, as the sun was beginning to set, we made our way up to the top of the Mount of Olives. As we reached the top of the mount, suddenly the city of Jerusalem appeared. There before us, was the city that I had read of so many times; the city that is central to both biblical history and prophecy; the only city that is called, the “Holy City.” And, there it was now before me, the sun glistening off of gold domes; the walls looking strong and proud. What a spectacular sight!

The next day we returned back to the Mount of Olives, once again late in the day. Again we took in a breathtaking view of Jerusalem. This time however, rather than driving down towards the city, we took the path that Jesus would have taken many times, descending towards Gethsemane (which is really more of an olive grove than what we would call a “garden”). We paused at the point at which it is supposed Jesus paused to weep over the city. We soon arrived in Gethsemane, taking time to remember Jesus’ final time there, spending some time in prayer – each one under their own olive tree.

Thus it was that, we experienced almost simultaneously both the glory of Jerusalem and the sadness of Gethsemane. In a short time I sensed that my emotions had swung from the awesome delight of seeing the “holy city” to great heaviness as I thought of Jesus praying in that garden. I recalled that, it was there that Jesus had cried out to his heavenly Father with sweat like drops of blood bursting through his forehead, praying, “ Father if you are willing take this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42 - NIV) It was there that Jesus wrestled with the pain and suffering that was about to come. But, it was also there that the Father ministered to his Son. As Luke wrote, “An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him.” (Luke 22:43 – NIV) What a beautiful picture of the faithfulness of God the Father ministering to Jesus in his time of great anguish!

Gazing at the “holy city” from the Mount of Olives is truly a spectacular sight. We’d all love to live in moments like that one (I know I would). But, the truth is, life is not just about the spectacular moments. Our lives include not only mountain top experiences with great visions of glory. There are times when life leads us into some Gethsemane experiences – those heart-wrenching moments when sorrow is prominent; times when we realize the future before us is a difficult one; times when we must wrestle with whether or not we will truly trust God with our lives. It is in the midst of those Gethsemane experiences that, like Jesus did, we too ought to feel free to cry out to God, expressing our anguish and pain and fear while at the same time, asking him for his help and strength. It is during those times that we learn what it truly means to submit ourselves to God’s will for our lives. And, we must not forget that, no matter how dark the situation before us may be, God will always be faithful to minister to us and help us in our time of need.

If today you are on the mountain top, rejoice in the goodness and glory of God. If, however, you find yourself in Gethsemane, put your trust in God. He will be faithful to see you through.

“But the Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen and protect you….” (2 Thessalonians 3:3 –NIV)

Have a great day!

-Pastor Tim Harris

Friday, November 12, 2010

Lessons From Israel - Part 3

During our time at the Sea of Galilee (also called, Lake Tiberias), we spent one of our days traveling through the “north country” visiting the ruins of a number of cities that are mentioned in the Bible. It was quite a day as we visited places, some of which were 3,000-4,000 years old.

The day included a hike at the Dan Nature Reserve which led us, not only along one of the main tributaries to the Jordan River, but to one of the “high places’ built by Jeroboam. It was a religious site used by the kings of the northern kingdom as a place of worship in order to keep their people from going to Jerusalem for worship. For these kings, political power, economics, and pragmatism was more important than the worship of God.

We went to Caesarea Philippi, a Roman city that was filled with temples to their pagan gods, the largest of which was to the god, Pan. The temples were built along a huge rock cliff. On one side of the cliff there is the mouth to a cave, thought to be by the Romans an entrance into the place of the dead (i.e. Hades). I can only imagine what it must have been like in Jesus’ day as probably hundreds of people came each day to the temples, bringing their offerings to the gods that they had created. We were reminded there of the extent to which people will go in their worship of the gods of this world.

We also visited the ruins of two cities in which Jesus spent much of his time and did many of his miracles, Bethsaida and Chorazin. These were Jewish cities whose people had many encounters with Jesus during his life and ministry here on this earth as Jesus walked their streets, taught in their synagogues, and healed their sick. Yet, it was these same people whom Jesus condemned for being religious yet not having enough spiritual insight to repent of their sin and to recognize whom he truly was.

At the end of the day, as I sat by the Sea of Galilee reflecting on the places we had been, I realized that together they revealed a cross-section of much of humanity: (1) religious people who fail to see with spiritual eyes; (2) hedonistic people who worship the gods of their making – i.e. the gods of this world; (3) pragmatic people who are more concerned with power, politics, and economics than they are with worship of the one true God. Of course, throughout the centuries there have always been these types of people. Such is the case even today.

At the same time, however, I realized that there have always been those with hearts towards God, people who have been ready to worship and serve him alone. During Jeroboam’s time, there were those who refused to do as the king told them, choosing instead to obey God. In the New Testament we read of Greeks and Romans who were searching for the true God. They were called “God-fearers.” Many of them eventually put their faith in Jesus. And, although the majority of people at Bethsaida and Chorazin rejected Jesus, we know that there were many who heard Jesus’ call, and followed him. Yes, there have always been those who have wanted something more than religion, material goods, worldly pleasures, political power, etc. There have always been those whose hearts have longed for a kingdom different than the one that this world has had to offer.

The book of Hebrews describes those people for us: “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth….they were longing for a better country-a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.” (Hebrews 11:13-16 – NIV)

Each of us needs to ask ourselves, which kind of person am I? Am I merely religious or truly spiritual? Have I given my heart over to the gods of this world or to the God of heaven? Is my life about the kingdoms of this world or about the kingdom of God?

Have a great day!

-Pastor Tim Harris

Friday, November 5, 2010

Lessons From Israel - Part 2

After having spent a couple of days in Jordan visiting places such as Petra and Kerak Castle, on October 19th we crossed back into Israel by Jericho. After visiting the ruins at Jericho and Beth Shean, we drove to the Sea of Galilee (Lake Tiberias). There, in the late afternoon, we sat on the shore by an ancient jetty, one which gives evidence to a fishing industry having been on this part of the lake. It is said that it was probably there that Jesus first met his disciples such as Peter, James, John, and Andrew. And, it was most likely at that spot (or one very nearby) that the risen Christ met his disciples, after the disciples had spent the night fishing with nothing to show for it.

I remember on that particular day getting choked up twice. The first time was when we were crossing back into Israel from Jordan. For some reason, it felt like I was coming home. There was almost a sense of relief as the young man took my passport and welcomed me back into Israel. I realized that day that, I was probably the first person in my family (i.e. the Jewish side of my family) that was in Israel in probably 1,000 years or more. To me, that was a very significant thought. For some reason, in God’s providence, I was there walking the land that God had promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I was in the land that Moses had longed for. I was in the land for which Joshua and so many others had fought. It struck me that this was a great privilege to be able to visit this land which God had chosen for his people. The thought of it moved me to tears.

The second time I was moved to tears that day was by the Sea of Galilee. As I began to walk down towards the water, I could see in my mind’s eye Jesus, at the start of his ministry, calling his disciples to follow him and then, after his resurrection, sitting with his disciples by a fire, eating some freshly cooked fish, and asking Peter that penetrating question, “Do you love me?” As I stood at that spot, looking over the glistening waters of that famous lake, I was overwhelmed to think that I was standing where Jesus once stood in all of his resurrection power and glory. As I walked the shore, I heard the questions being asked of me, “Will you follow me?” and “Do you love me?”

As Christians we can get side-tracked by all kinds of things that pull us away from the most basic and most important parts of our faith. That day I was reminded of the connection we have with God’s people, going all the way back to Abraham, as we give ourselves to following Jesus, and just how significant that connection is. And, I was reminded of the great necessity for love to become intertwined with our faith. For we have not put our faith in a mere object but in a person, the person who has loved us like none other has ever loved us. Thus, time and again we must hear and respond to his call, “Follow me.” And, time and again we must answer the question asked by our Lord, “Do you love me?” Ultimately, our commitment to and love for our risen Lord Jesus is what being a Christian is really all about.

“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ….Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens but fellow citizens with God’s people….” (Ephesians 2:13, 19 – NIV)

Have a great day!

-Pastor Harris