A team of us from Gateway Church in Austin traveled 25 hours one way from Austin, TX to Tiberius, Israel. For four days we plan to visit some of the places Jesus walked, and for four days we plan to help at a camp. (For more, see Peace in the Middle East?).
Our hope is to grow in our faith and to serve others.
Traveling to a place new to us all can certainly help us in our efforts of growing.
The story of Jesus is the greatest story ever told!
The story of a hero who comes out of nowhere and willingly sacrifices His life for the sake of others resonates so deeply within us.
In fact, it seems all our stories simply echo or repeat the story of Jesus.
How many of our novels or films tell this same story?
What’s fascinating about Jesus is that we can visit where He lived, walked, taught, ate, laughed, healed, died, and even rose from the dead.
We cannot visit Tatooine, The Matrix, Krypton, Amazonia, Hogwarts, or Asgard, but we can visit Bethlehem, Nazareth, Galilee, and Jerusalem.
Jesus is not a myth or a legend. He is a real person who can change our lives.
Even before our time of exploring has begun, a few things have struck me about this trip that are parallel to our spiritual journey.
Thoughts on Our Spiritual Journey:
1. Matters of faith are deeply personal.
Throughout the world, there is a worldwide religion known as Christianity. For many, Christianity is an identity and not necessarily a way of life. In other words, many people claim to be Christians but they identify that way because that’s how their parents I identify themselves or that was how they were raised.
Some consider themselves Christians because of their nationality or politics.
Some consider themselves Christians as a way to describe that they are not Muslim or Buddhist or any other religion or worldview.
Beyond the religion, I have found something so much more satisfying and so much more life-giving.
Jesus did not come to start a religion but to bring us into a personal relationship with God.
Now, this may seem far fetched or even presumptuous, but consider this idea that Paul, a religious zealot turned church planter, presented to the very spiritual and philosophical people of Athens.
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. – Acts 17:24-27
Consider that claim! God is not held hostage by temples, nor does He want our religiosity. Instead, God gives life to everyone and puts each of us in the exact place on the planet and time in history that gives us the best opportunity to discover a relationship with Him!
This means we cannot live vicariously through others. God desires to be our Heavenly Father. There are no spiritual grandchildren. Like a foster child in middle school, we get decide if we want to be adopted. Each of us must choose whether we want a relationship with God or not.
2. Spiritual Growth requires discipline.
I had such high hopes and genuine plans to prepare. This is my first time to Israel, and I may never have the opportunity to return. Even still, I never was able to do all the research I wanted or even read the stories from the Scriptures in all of the places we would be visiting.
Instead, distractions have gotten in the way.
Distractions allow us to keep from doing the hard work we know we should do.
The news, sports, politics, busyness all remain excuses for not getting up earlier, going to bed earlier, turning off the television sooner, or putting my iPhone on airplane mode more often.
Some of these things may be good or even really important. To be honest, I am eager to learn more about the politics of the Middle East that I might know better how to navigate politics in the USA.
However, I am in the land where Jesus walked for just a few days, and I still find myself on news sites rather in the Scriptures.
There are no short cuts to spiritual maturity.
Often I find myself growing in my faith further and faster in three scenarios:
- Crisis forces me to take my faith more seriously. I pursue God out of desperation. Reading the Scriptures, prayer, seeking counsel from others become essential rather than optional.
- Stepping out in faith. Obeying a prompting from God puts me in a position where I need God to come through for me.
- Choosing to fast from something distracting for a season for a particular situation or person. Choosing a more selfless path puts us in the same situation where we are more dependent on God than we normally might be.
All three of these experiences put us in a position to trust God more. We are tapping into the faith muscle. We are more desperate for God’s help.
In that context we grow.
At Gateway Church in Austin, one of our slogans remains: “No perfect people allowed.” This does not mean “Come as you are and stay as you are.” Instead, we are giving ourselves permission to be honest and authentic with where we are in our spiritual journey so we are free and able to make progress.
It is good to be content but it is not good to be complacent.
It is good to be honest about our doubts, struggles, and even skepticism, but we should not remain stuck there. We need to acknowledge our doubts and then look for answers.
We need to pursue God so that we can move beyond where we are now. Where we are now is just scratching the surface of what God has for us – no matter where we might be.
- God is “able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Eph. 3:20).
- God’s thoughts and ways are beyond our thoughts and ways (Isaiah 55:8-9).
- God has prepared for those who love him “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived” (1 Cor. 2:9)
3. Evidence is in the eye of the beholder.
Recently I have thought a great deal about a quote I read by novelist and screenwriter Andrew Klavan from his book called The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ. He writes:
“God is not susceptible to proofs and disproofs. If you believe, the evidence is all around you.
If you don’t believe, no evidence can be enough.”
In just our first full day here, we have been amazed at how the entire world seems to be represented in their pursuit of Jesus. From as far North as Norway to as far South as South Africa, from the Far East (Singapore, the Philippines, China, Korea, India) to the Western Hemisphere (Canada, USA, Mexico, Brazil), we have met so many in just the dining room at our hotel in Tiberius – a city Jesus never visited!
Even still, so few in Israel follow Jesus. The Christian population of Israel and the Palestinian Territories remains incredibly low. The people who meet the 3.5 million tourists who come to see the holy sites each year, do not seem open to the message of faith, love, and hope that began on their land.
And the nations surrounding the place where Jesus walked among us are some of the least likely to follow Jesus.
Even Christians (sometimes especially Christians who think they have all the answers) miss the message God continues to try to share.
As Wayne Stiles said in his book Walking in the Footsteps of Jesus: A Journey Through the Lands and Lessons of Christ:
“Walking the land Jesus walked offers little more than dirty feet
unless the lessons of those sacred places find their way into our hearts.”
Roadblocks to Progress:
- Have you ever had doubts about God?
- Ever wonder whether there was more evidence to help?
- Most importantly, do you have an open heart and open mind to consider the evidence?
- Are you willing to put in the work to find out more?
If so, consider the following articles as food for our your soul, nourishment for your journey:
Did Jesus Even Exist?
What proof do we have outside of the writers of the New Testament?
Consider this thought from John D. Morris, Ph.D.:
“Is it reasonable to expect such artifacts or inscriptions? After all, the man Jesus was not a prominent governmental leader. He was essentially an itinerant preacher, with few possessions, and eventually suffered the death of a common outlaw. Would the Romans have recorded His life or death with an inscription or statue? Certainly not.
Actually, Jewish archaeological evidence of the entire period is rather sparse. There are the remains of large and extensive Roman cities, and adequate inscriptions of leaders, including Herod, Pilate and Festus. There are also influential Jews such as Caiaphas, but almost nothing can be found recording the lives of ordinary individuals. And remember that in A.D. 70 Jerusalem was totally destroyed by Titus. What may still exist is buried under the thriving modern city. Certainly the odds are against an artifact’s survival.”
Did Jesus Really Perform Miracles?
Did the Places Mentioned in the New Testament Exist?
If so, was the Bible accurate in its description?
If you have an open mind and open heart, travel with us to consider what we can discover from the life of Jesus….