Sermon: Reflections on the Holy Land

Delivered by the Rev. Roger Scott Powers at Light Street Presbyterian Church in Baltimore on Sunday, May 11, 2014
Psalm 122
Luke 19:41-44

For the past ten days I have been in Israel/Palestine with 100 Presbyterians from across the U.S., participating in a Mosaic of Peace Conference organized by the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program. I just returned last night after a 12-hour flight from Tel Aviv to Newark and a 2 1/2 hour train ride back to Baltimore. So, I am jet-lagged and sleep-deprived, but I wanted to be here with you for worship today, because I wanted to be able to share with you some of my experiences while they are fresh in my mind.

This morning I want to talk about what it was like to visit the Holy Land, to see the places we read about in the Bible, to walk where Jesus walked. Next Sunday, I want to talk about the contemporary situation in Israel/Palestine and share some of the stories I heard from Israelis and Palestinians who live there today.

My first general impression had to do with the geography of the place – the landscape, the physical terrain. It’s very hilly, even mountainous in some places. And most of the cities we visited were built on the slopes of these steep hills, a little like the city of San Francisco.

My second general impression had to do with the Holy Places associated with the Biblical accounts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Wherever something important was to have happened in Jesus’ life, you will find one or more churches, chapels, shrines, or monasteries built on that site. Some of the sites are traditional ones that have not been confirmed with archaeological evidence. Other Holy Sites have been confirmed as the actual historic sites through archaeological finds.

We visited the little town of Bethlehem, which today is a small city of 38,000 people, mostly Muslims, located in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. It is, of course, the birthplace of both King David and Jesus, the Prince of Peace. At the center of Bethlehem is Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity, the oldest church in the Holy Land, built in 529 AD. The church is built over a cave where it is believed Jesus was born to Mary. Most houses in the 1st century were two rooms built of stone with an adjacent cave that was used as a barn. Remember that according to Luke’s gospel, Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem for the census because it was Joseph’s hometown. They probably stayed with Joseph’s parents and stayed in the cave-barn, because there was no room in the guest room and because it gave Mary and Joseph some privacy as Mary went into labor. In the cave beneath the Church of the Nativity, there is 14-point silver star that marks the place where it is believed Jesus was born.

From Bethlehem, we went to the Jordan River, which now cuts a narrow muddy channel through the barren wasteland of the Judean desert. We visited the area believed to be where John the Baptist lived and preached, a voice crying in the wilderness, “prepare the way of the Lord.” And we saw one of the sites traditionally regarded as the place where Jesus was baptized. Christian pilgrims from all over the world were there to baptize new members and/or to remember their own baptisms. Bordered on each side by tall grasses and reeds, the site is also surrounded by a no man’s land fenced off with signs warning of landmines, as the Jordan River serves as the border between the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the country of Jordan.

Between this baptismal site on the Jordan River and Bethlehem is the small city of Jericho, an oasis in the hot, dry Judean desert, with some 25,000 inhabitants, mostly Muslims. At 1300 feet below sea level, it has the lowest elevation of any city on earth, and at roughly 10,000 years old, it is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. This is where the Old Testament says the walls of the city came tumbling down at the sound of Joshua’s trumpets, thoughthe crumbled city walls have thus far not been found by archaeologists. There is also a high mountain in Jericho, which is traditionally known as the Mount of Temptation. Twelfth-century Crusaders started the tradition that this was the place where Jesus must have been tempted by Satan. A Greek Orthodox monastery was built into the steep cliffs of the mountain in 1895. Tourists can visit the mountain on foot or by cable car, which takes you to a restaurant half way up the mountain.

Nazareth, the village where Jesus grew up, is far to the north in the hill country of Galilee, in Israel proper. Today it is a very congested city of some 65,000 people. In the center of the city is the relatively new Roman Catholic Basilica of the Annunciation, consecrated in 1969, built over a large cave believed to be the house of Mary, the mother of Jesus. This is where the Biblical tradition speaks of an angel appearing to Mary to announce the coming birth of Jesus. It was also probably where Mary, Joseph, and Jesus lived, after their return from Egypt.

Northeast of Nazareth is the Sea of Galilee, a harp-shaped freshwater lake fed by the Jordan River, about 13 miles long, 7 1/2 miles wide, and 140 feet deep. It is surrounded by mountains and valleys, which account for the rise of sudden storms, which Jesus’ disciples encountered. In 1986, during a severe drought, the sea level went down far enough to expose a 2,000-year-old wooden fishing boat preserved in the mud. This so-called “Jesus boat” is now displayed in a museum. It is 27 feet long, 7 1/2 feet wide, and 4 feet high, and could hold 4 fishermen.

The village of Capernaum, on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, is the place where Jesus made his home as an adult. This is the area where much of his public ministry took place. Unlike many other Holy Places in Israel/Palestine, Capernaum is no longer an inhabited city. It is now an archaeological site. Excavations have uncovered the first-century village, including the house of Peter. Also there are the ruins of a 4th-century limestone synagogue built on the black basalt foundations of what may have been the 1st-century synagogue where Jesus preached.

The traditional site of the Sermon on the Mount is the Mount of the Beatitudes, with a beautiful expansive view of the Sea of Galilee below. At the top is an octagonal chapel built in 1938 surrounded by beautiful gardens, where pilgrims can pray and meditate.

On the shore of the sea, is the Church of the Primacy of Peter, built in 1933 on the ruins of a 4th-century church. It enshrines a table rock associated with the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus written about at the end of John’s gospel, when the risen Jesus shared breakfast on the beach with his disciples and asked Peter three times if he loved him.

And then there is Jerusalem, a 5,000-year-old city built on a series of hills that is sacred to half the human race – Jews, Christians, and Muslims. The modern city of West Jerusalem, in Israel proper, has a population of about 800,000. The Old City in East Jerusalem, which has been occupied by Israel since the 1967 war, has about 35,000 inhabitants. The Mount of Olives is a high point just to the east, where you have a breathtaking view of the Old City of Jerusalem, particularly of the Temple Mount, where the Jewish Temple once stood. It was while walking down from the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem below that Jesus wept over the city, saying “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” Some two thousand years later, Jesus’ words remain as true as ever, for Israel/Palestine is a very troubled place. I will say more about the contemporary situation there next Sunday.

Near the base of the Mount of Olives is the Garden of Gethsemane, which means the garden of the olive press. There are olive trees there that are more than 2,000 years old – some of the same trees that Jesus saw when he prayed there with his disciples before entering Jerusalem for the last time.

The Via Dolorosa, or Way of the Cross, is venerated as the route Jesus walked, carrying the cross, from the place of his trial and condemnation to the site of his crucifixion and burial. There is no telling what the actual route that he took was. The present route is a tradition that came out of Medieval Europe and jelled in the 18th century. At the end of the Via Dolorosa stands the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built in the 11th and 12th centuries. It is the fourth church built on that site, the earliest dating back to the year 326. It is believed to be the site of Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified, and the site of the tomb where his body was laid and from which he rose. Inside the church are multiple chapels and altars maintained by six ancient Christian denominations, the Roman Catholic Church and five Eastern Orthodox denominations: Greek, Egyptian, Armenian, Syrian, and Ethiopian. Frequent quarrels between the different denominations resulted in the key to the church being given to two Muslim families 800 years ago. To this day, the descendents of those two Muslim families unlock the church each morning at dawn and lock it up again at sunset.

As you can tell, visiting the Holy Land was a very full and rich experience for me. After ten days there, I will never read the Bible in the same way again!