From Israel

water-from-a-rock

Water from a Rock

img_5470Stunning in beauty; yet, harsh in reality. During the first few days of our recent Biblical Study Tour to Israel, we spent time in the Negev – the wilderness. We actually walked where the children of Israel walked for 40 years as they wandered around the wilderness coming out of Egypt and before entering the Promised Land. It is truly wilderness – hot, dry, very little rainfall and barren. Yet, God provided for His people for 40 years. Each day God gave them manna “bread” from heaven, quail, as well as water from a rock. It is incredible to see these places in the wilderness where these natural springs come flowing out of a huge rock. They are rare, but they are there. When the people needed water, God would call Moses to “strike” (or “speak to” – important to do what God tells us) the Rock. And, God would bring water to sustain His people back then – just like our God sustains us today.

img_5466Actually, much of Israel resembles this. The area around the Galilee is beautiful and can be lush (no wonder Jesus spent so much time there), but the rest of the country resembles the terrain of the wilderness more than it does the Galilee. Jerusalem is like this, the Dead Sea and the Judean wilderness. So, why did God choose this place for the Promised Land? Why did God call Abraham to this land? Why did He make this the most coveted of all the land for His people?

Well, first of all, this is the most strategic land in the world. It sits as a “land bridge” between Europe, Asia, Africa and India. It is the home of the most ancient spice routes. With the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea and the Dead Sea, it has served as a huge commercial route for all time. Almost every major army has come through this area, with more battles being fought at Megiddo, the Valley of Armageddon, than anywhere else in the world. In fact, the last battle of history will occur in this place.

img_5479Secondly, there are a lot of natural resources. While the terrain is difficult, there are still places of great vegetation. From the springs of the Jordan River in the north, to the Sea of Galilee and the well-watered areas all the way down to the Dead Sea, it truly can be a “land flowing with milk and honey.” There are huge contrasts, yet sustaining provision. While none of it is easy, it is all there. It is beautiful and bountiful. But, still there are better nourished places in the world that are much easier to grow and develop.

So, why this place? When we asked our guide, Yoni, here was his response:
“What is so promising about the Promised Land?” reading Isaiah 45:6 while viewing the Judean wilderness after our camel ride. “In English it is very poetic, ‘so that from the rising of the sun to the place of its setting men may know there is none besides me. I am the Lord and there is no other‘ (NIV). However in Hebrew the verse actually says “כי אפס בלעדי“ or transliterated, ‘ki efes biladai” which literally means ‘you are nothing without me.'” In other words, we are zero without God and he gave his people a land where they would often be reminded of their frailty and need of constant Heavenly help. If he had chosen someplace like Tahiti, people would have quickly forgotten about God. It is a simple formula.

img_5475God wants us to trust in Him. As God brought the children of Israel out of Egypt and led them to the Promised Land, He met them to say, “Don’t forget Me” when you come into the land – Deuteronomy 8. God is always drawing us to Himself. Even in the hard times, these are reminders of how much we need the Lord – and how God will take care of us – even providing water from a rock.

One of our team members, Matt Huitt, wrote:

“I was struck by how we kept seeing all those man-made irrigation techniques and it brought to mind Isaiah 41:17-20 ‘The poor and needy search for water, but there is none; their tongues are parched with thirst. But I the Lord will answer them; I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them. I will make rivers flow on barren heights, and springs within the valleys. I will turn the desert into pools of water, and the parched ground into springs. I will put in the desert the cedar and the acacia, the myrtle and the olive. I will set junipers in the wasteland, the fir and the cypress together, so that people may see and know, may consider and understand, that the hand of the Lord has done this,that the Holy One of Israel has created it.'”

We stood on the physical rock where our spiritual rock, Jesus, was struck, where “blood AND WATER” flowed out when the centurion pierced his side with a spear. Soon, in the new heavens and new earth, drip irrigation and step irrigation and any other source for capturing water won’t be needed. Just as Eden was watered by a river, so the whole earth will be watered by the new Jerusalem when God rights all wrongs and makes all things new.

Wherever you are in the journey of your life today remember that God can and will provide water from a Rock. He is with you and He is for you. Hold on to Him. Don’t forget about Him when things are plenty, but always remember He is the Source of all good things in your life. He doesn’t want you to be complacent. He always wants you to trust Him and need Him. Think about all He has done for you today. Especially, water from a Rock.

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Preparing Your Heart for Worship

Psalm 120-134 are known as the “Songs of Ascent.” These 15 psalms hold a special place in the heart of worshippers. Back in the Old Testament, there were 3 special feasts that God called the people to observe. Regardless of where you lived, you were to travel to Jerusalem in order to worship God at the Temple. The Feasts were Passover (remembering how God delivered His people from the bondage of slavery under the Egyptians by sending the death angel. All the Israelite homes covered by the blood of the lamb where “passed over” by the death angel), Pentecost (this was when the crops were planted and the recognition that God would bring the rain) and finally Tabernacle (this called the people to live in boxes, remembering their time in the wilderness and how God provided for them. This also celebrated the harvest that had just come from God our Provider).

Every feast, people would travel with their family and friends from small towns throughout Israel to Jerusalem. Jerusalem sits high on the mountains, and it is beautiful. There would be an “awe” for the weary travelers that would lift their hearts and spirits as they approached the Holy City. As they came to the Temple, they would begin to worship.

jerusalem_temple_stepsThere were 15 steps that led from the Court of the Gentiles into the Court of the Women at the Temple. God resided in the “Holy of Holies” at the center of the Temple. Only one time a year could someone enter into God’s Presence (The Day of Atonement as the High Priest offered sacrifices on behalf of the people). Otherwise, the worshippers would gather in the Court of the Gentiles, the Court of the Women, the Court of the Men or the Court of the Priests. Therefore, all Jews would come up these 15 steps as they entered into the Temple.

The Songs of Ascent were sung as the people walked up these steps. Psalm 120 was sung, and then the family, friends or individual would take a step up. Psalm 121, and then a step up. 15 steps. You can imagine, by the time they had sung these 15 Psalms and climbed up these steps, they were ready to worship!

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We did this at our most recent staff meeting. Together, our staff team started at the back of the room, read a Psalm and took a step. Someone read Psalm 120, then we all took a step. Next, another person read Psalm 121, then another step. Psalm, step. Psalm, step. Psalm, step. By the time we finished Psalm 134, “Praise the Lord, all you servants of the Lord who minister by night in the house of the Lord. Lift up your hands in the sanctuary and praise the Lord. May the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth, bless you from Zion,” we were ready to worship! We then responded in corporate worship, and it was powerful!

So often on a Sunday Morning, we come with so many distractions. We are late for church, wrestling with kids, or focused on seeing all our friends. Many times our minds and our hearts are far from God until we walk into the main room. Yet, there is power in preparation. When we take the time to prepare our hearts, we are so much more apt to experience God in worship. Do you come to church distracted or prepared? We are meeting with the King of kings and the Lord of lords. There is a call, and a responsibility, to prepare our hearts before our bodies arrive. We would not think about walking into a business meeting unprepared or a school classroom, and yet we are meeting with Someone so much more important. One who loves us, but also One who is worthy of our time, respect and best.

Begin to prepare your heart for worship and watch your spiritual life come alive. Take some time to read through the Songs of Ascent. Try reading Psalm 120-134 this coming Sunday before you arrive, and see the difference in your experience with God.

Israel Biblical Study Tour – Part 2 – Jerusalem

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Our Biblical Study Tour continued from the Sea of Galilee down the Jordan River to the Dead Sea (the lowest point on the earth), back up to En Gedi and then we began our ascent into Jerusalem. As we drove up Mt. Zion we read the songs of ascent (Psalm 120-134). These are wonderful Psalms that the Jews would sing as they entered Jerusalem for the three annual Feasts.

Personally, I find Jerusalem to be the most incredible city in the world. It is the home to three major world religions – Christianity, Judaism and Islam. In the heart of the Promise Land, the city’s history is rich with archeological sites everywhere. We are constantly discovering more about the people of the past as we study this city at the heart of the Biblical narrative. Abraham met here with Melchizedek, the King of Salem (Jerusalem), and then offered his son Isaac to God in one of the most powerful times of surrender and sacrifice here on Mt. Moriah. The tribes of Benjamin and Judah could not conquer this city because it was so advanced and well-fortified, but David conquered it and made it the capital of all Israel. Solomon, David’s son, built the Temple here. All the kings of Judah are buried here. God saved the city from the Assyrians, but God gave His people over to exile to the Babylonians in 586 BC. The people returned and the second Temple period began in 516 BC. The Greeks took the city, the Jews took it back, and then the Romans finally conquered it and King Herod began to rule. Herod added to the Temple area. Jesus came to Jerusalem often – He was dedicated here and He taught here. He was killed and then conquered death in this city. He ascended into heaven just outside the gates. The church was born on the southern steps at Pentecost here in Jerusalem. The early church thrived, and God moved. Persecution came and the disciples took the Gospel to the ends of the earth from this place. The Romans tore down the Temple in 70 AD…then came the Byzantine era, the Muslims, the Crusaders, the Turks and today Israel. Also, most people believe this is the city where Armageddon will take place. And, ultimately, Jesus will come again through the Eastern Gate. It is a holy place.

In Jerusalem, we walked the Via Dolorosa (the Way of Suffering) as we followed Jesus from his arrest, sentencing, flogging, death and resurrection. From Caiaphas’ house to the church of the Holy Sepulchre, we contemplated the price Jesus paid for our sins. We studied how the people lived in the day of Jesus and even before in the time of David. We looked at how the people would prepare themselves to come to the Temple through purifying their hearts and their bodies. Even today to see the Jews at the Western Wall reminds us of confession and repentance. The time in Jerusalem challenged us all to be people who take God, His Word and worship seriously.

Two things really impacted me in Jerusalem:

First, we went to the Holocaust Memorial. It is difficult to describe the emotions walking through and seeing the video testimonies, the pictures and hearing of the 6,000,000 Jews who were killed during this tragic time in history. But, it wasn’t just Jews. It was gypsys, it was the mentally & physically handicapped, and homosexuals – anyone deemed to be “less” and a “drain” on society. My heart broke. I fought back the tears thinking these are the ones Jesus came to love. God loves all people. I walked through with our team and with a group of 15-16 year-old students from a school. I couldn’t help but think that I was reading about their grandparents and relatives. This could have been them.

But, what really got me was the Children’s Memorial. This Memorial was built by the Spiegel family – you may recognize the name from the Spiegel catalogs. The parents escaped the holocaust, but their 5 year-old son was taken from them. You walk inside of this pitch black pyramid-shaped building. Although it is crowded, no one said a word. Inside were simply five small candles to represent the five years of his life. However, they were surrounded by thousands of mirrors, so that these five candles translated into 1.5 million – one light to represent every child killed in the Holocaust. As you walked through, over the speaker they were reading the names of the children, their country and their age – Maria Gerski, Poland, 3 years-old. Yohan Strauss, Ukraine, 4 years-old. As a parent, I could barely control my emotions. What would cause someone to do this? And, what would I have done if I lived back then? Would I have been what they call a “righteous gentile?” Would I have given my life to stop this?

From the children’s memorial and the overall museum, you come out – not into darkness and despair, but you exit through wide entrances that overlook Jerusalem and freshly planted trees. The idea is that evil doesn’t win. The story isn’t over.

Maybe in your life there has been tragedy and disaster. But, listen, that is not the end of the story. God is at work. And, where there is God, there is hope. In our brokenness, we can be made new. Out of the darkness, comes the light.

Many of our ancestors went and fought against this evil and for freedom for the prisoners. After the war, Israel became a state and many Jews returned to the Promise Land. Today, Zechariah 8 and many other OT prophecies are coming true as children are playing in the streets. The story is not over. God is making something new there and in your life as well.

The Memorial exit has a verse – Ezekiel 37:14

“I will put My Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land.   Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.”

And, God did it. In 1948, Israel became a state and God brought the people from all over the world back to their own land. Today, Israel is thriving. Trees are planted, Old Testament prophecies are coming to fulfillment, and people wonder if the Messiah is coming again soon.

And, God still does this. Through Jesus Christ, God puts His Spirit in us and we become alive.

Second, we concluded our Biblical Study Tour at the Garden Tomb. Unlike the crowded Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Garden Tomb is more what you imagine after reading the Biblical accounts. It is in the middle of a beautiful rich man’s garden, outside the city gates, near a hill that looks like a skull, with a large (empty) tomb, and a channel for a stone to be at the entrance. As we walked into the empty tomb, a peace enveloped each of us. Our Savior is not dead – He is alive! We do not come lay flowers, but we come to be encouraged because Jesus conquered death and made a way for us. We sat down in a little cabana and shared Communion. We prayed, sang, and worshipped our Risen Savior. It was truly a little taste of heaven in a place that God loves.

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If you ever get the chance to go to the Holy Land – Go! We will be going back in 2015, so start saving now. Once you go, you will never come back the same. As Moshea, our Jewish friend said, “God invites each one of His children to come to His land. You will not know why until you get here, but then you will always be changed.” Thank You, Father, for Jesus, and for keeping Your promises to Your people.

Israel Biblical Study Tour – Part 1

Right now I am on a Biblical Study Tour in Israel with a team from our church. It has been incredible to see the Bible come to life!  We are walking where Jesus walked, seeing where He lived and ministered, reading Scripture, sailing on boats, exploring archaeological sites and asking God’s Spirit to grant us wisdom and understanding of His Word and of His heart.

We have spent the first several days in the Galilee area. We flew into Tel Aviv and spent the night on the Mediterranean Sea. The next day, we began our tour at Caesarea which was a thriving area back in Jesus’ day. We explored one of Herod the Great’s palaces and talked about life back in the first century. This is also the place where on of Herod’s sons died because he thought he was a god (Acts 12:20). In addition, many believe this is where Paul was on trial and even made his appeal to Caesar (this took Paul to Rome and we have many letters from Paul while he was in prison there). Finally, we discussed the ramifications of the Council that took place here in 198AD in which the Gentile Believers began moving away from many of the customs and commandments that the Jewish Believers practiced. This still has implications for us today; for example, observing Easter instead of Passover, observing the Sabbath on Sunday instead of Saturday and even what we eat. Team-Caesarea-Theatre

From Caesarea we headed to Mt. Carmel. This was incredible as we stood on the place where Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal. At this place, Elijah stood up for God and God won a great victory over the pagan god of that day. God rained down fire from heaven and Elijah killed 450 prophets of Baal. God was drawing Israel, His people, back to Himself. From Mt. Carmel, we looked over the Jezreel valley where Scripture teaches Armageddon will take place. We looked at different Biblical passages on this subject and reflected back on all the battles that have already been fought there. Overall, I am simply thankful to be on God’s side!

As we pressed on, we came to Nazareth, the boyhood town of Jesus. We discovered that Jesus may actually have worked with stone instead of wood. Stones are everywhere in Israel, and there is a strong possibility that Jesus was a stone mason (carpenter). Whether working with wood or with stone, I know Jesus was great at His craft!  Also, we saw a wedding at Cana of Galilee and thought about Jesus’ first miracle.

Yesterday, we hiked up to the head-waters of the Jordan River. The places up here in the northern part of Israel are so beautiful – no wonder Jesus spent most of His time in this area! As we hiked to some waterfalls, we spent time contemplating Psalm 42. The waters of Mt. Hermon create the five major tributaries to the Jordan. Water is so precious in the country, and Jesus’ declaration of being the “Living Water” resonates with people both physically and spiritually. Also, at Dan, we went to an archaeological dig that discovered a Gate-of-Three-Arches-in-City-of-Dancity gate dating back to the time of Abraham. It is very likely that Abraham saw these gates when he first came in the Promise Land from Ur of the Caledeans. Incredible to see this!

After all of this, we traveled over to Caesarea Philippi where Jesus asked His disciples the famous question, “Who do men say that I am?” (A question that each one of us will have to give an answer.) Peter’s statement, “You are the Christ,” becomes the great confession of the church. It’s powerful to be standing where Jesus talked about His church. After all this, we headed to the Mt. of Transfiguration. As we read the corresponding Scripture, we thought about the day we will all see Jesus in His glorified body.

Today, we toured a first century synagogue in Capernaum. This synagogue was just down the street from what many believe to be Peter’s mother-in-law’s home. If this is so, then this is most likely the very synagogue where Jesus first taught. When the people heard him they exclaimed, “What is this? A new kind of teaching and with authority.” We looked at the parallel between “What is this?” in Mark 1:21-22, and where it was first said in the Old Testament. “What is this,” is the same phrase the people used when God sent them manna. The parallel is that Jesus’ teaching is the Bread of Life for us. His teaching is our sustenance. In addition, we looked at other correlations between Mark 1-9 and the book Exodus.

From Capernaum, we went to the place of the Feeding of the 5,000 and then the Mt. of Beatitudes. As you look at these places, you can easily see how Jesus could have talked to such large crowds with the slop of the hills and the acoustics of the surroundings. We meditated on these passages and thought about the miracles and the blessings that Jesus still brings into our lives today. From here, we went to a church built over the site where people believe Jesus reinstated Peter. As we reflected on John 21, the story came alive: Jesus on the shore, the disciples in a boat, Peter swimming to shore and Jesus meeting him with grace. I am so thankful for a Savior who comes to us. Even when we blow it, like Peter did by denying Christ three times, Jesus extends to us His love. When we experience this kind of love, then we, like Peter, are commissioned to share His love with others (“Feed My Sheep”).

After visiting this side of the Sea of Galilee, we took a boat ride back across to the other side. While on the boat, we re-read the passage of Jesus walking on the water to the disciples. When you see the topography, you can understand how storms can come up quickly on the Sea of Galilee. These guys were fisherman, so this storm must have been strong because they were all afraid. We contemplated how Jesus comes to us in our fears. He steps into our life and calms our storms. I am so thankful for God’s Presence in my life.

Later that evening, we shared one of the highlights of our trip. At sunset, we had the privilege to baptize three people from our team in the Jordan River in the Sea of Galilee. With our whole team surrounding them in the water and praying over them, we baptized these three just as Jesus had been baptized. One of them in particular I had been praying for over the last five years. It was truly amazing! In addition, a young couple on our team, who met at church about a year ago, got engaged in the morning. Overall, it was really incredible! I am so thankful for the way God meets us as we follow Christ.

Stay tuned for part 2 as we head into Jerusalem…

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