This past Sunday at Gateway Church in South Austin, I shared about our trip to Israel and the West Bank.
Listen to the Message Here:
Check out pictures and read all about our Trip Here:
Read the Message Notes Here:
A team of us from Gateway Church in Austin traveled 25 hours one way from Austin, TX to Tiberius, Israel. For five days we visited some of the places Jesus walked, and for five days we helped at a camp with Palestinian kids – some Muslims and some Christians.
Sonya, Christa, Noel, and Dario represented you really well!
Our hope was to serve others and grow in our faith.
Traveling to a place new to us all can certainly help us in our efforts of growing.
Part of the excitement for us was to be where Jesus was.
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.
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.
I heard a phrase I had never heard before but makes a lot of sense: “Ethnic Christians”
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.
Let me share a story that came alive being in the place where it happened.
Here I am a long time ago in Galilee Far, Far Away
Actually just a couple of weeks ago.
Maybe you know the story of Peter.
It was on this beach that we think Jesus invited Peter to follow him (along with other fishermen). It is believed that here Jesus walked along the shore and called out to Simon Peter and Andrew who were casting their nets into the lake. Walking along, Jesus saw two other brothers, James and John who were preparing their nets with their father Zebedee. Jesus called all of these men to follow him.
The beach is near a popular fishing spot of the locals because of its famous “seven springs,” Heptapegon (today called Tabgha). Algae grows in this part of the lake due to the warmer current which attracts fish plus the shape of the harbor. For thousands of years, this is where fishermen come to fish.
Peter followed Jesus until Jesus was betrayed by Judas. That night Peter denied Jesus. Jesus died on the cross. Rose from the dead. Appeared several times. In fact 500 eyewitnesses still alive when John wrote his Gospel.
One of those appearances in John 21. Jesus told Peter to throw his net into the lake. Peter resisted because he is a fisherman and he had already tried.
By the way, we do this all the time. We feel we are the experts and remain narrow minded when the One who created us has something better for us.
Then Jesus shared a meal with Peter. Three times he asked him “Do you love me?” Three times Peter responded with “Of course I love you.” Jesus restored Peter. He gave him the chance affirm his faith and devotion three times just as he had denied Jesus three times.
Think of how personal this is. On the same beach Jesus invited Peter to follow him, Jesus restored him.
These are volcanic rocks that Jesus walked on!
How has God been pursuing you?
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 got 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.
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.
Consider the proximity of the Mt of Olives to the Garden of Gethsemane and the view of the Temple from the Garden.
It is in the Mt. of Olives that Jesus taught the disciples to pray. It was in the Garden of Gethsemane where the disciples fell asleep instead of praying.
Jesus could see the Temple and the gates through which it was prophesied when he returns he will enter the city.
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)
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 there, we were 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 and the Palestinian territories 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 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.”
Stereotypes disappear in the context of friendship.
I am not sure if you know much about the Israel and Palestinian situation, but what we hear on the news is just a tiny glimpse of the whole story. I am far from being an expert, but I can tell you there are amazing and lovely people in the West Bank. There are lovely and amazing people in Israel. In many ways, they have far more in common than they realize just as we have far more in common than we realize. One interesting moment came when our host pointed out that even though we considered our team ethnically diverse, he felt the kids just saw all of us as Americans. They didn’t see the distinctions that we see.
If we are honest, the same could be true for us and and our experience of the Jews, Israelis, Muslims, and Christians we met. They all were born into a difficult situation. They all love their home. They all eat lots of hummus. In the chidren, we did not see the distinctions that they can see.
Part of what intrigued us about taking this particular trip was to work with a team who is trying to bring peace. They follow Jesus. Some are Palestinian. Some are Israeli. They host a camp bringing Jewish and Palestinian teens together to learn how to be peacemakers. The camp we attended brought Palestinian kids – both Muslims and Christians together for a week with the theme “Living Together.”
When I have mentioned we spent 10 days in the West Bank, people have looked at me like we were crazy. In fact, many trips of Israel no longer include Bethlehem as a stop because it is on the other side of a wall Israel built in the name of security. And there are people that choose terrorism. There are also people who just want to raise their kids in a safe and loving environment on both sides of the wall.
Here’s how complicated this is:
- One tour guide refers to the West Bank as a place to avoid because it is under Palestinian Control.
- Another tour guide refers to the West Bank as a great place to visit but it is under Israeli Occupation.
What helped our families feel better that we were going to the West Bank was that even Rick Steves’ talks about it as a good place to visit when traveling to Israel.
On both sides of the wall, I saw kids who reminded me of our kids. They loved ice cream. They loved playing. They loved each other.
One moment during the camp which really struck me was when the kids started to learn a cultural dance called Dabke.
Here’s a wedding video I saw online to get the feel for what it could be:
Here is the version the teens did at our camp:
Here’s me and a little guy named Mohammad dancing the Dabke:
Mohammad is the son of the janitor at the Center where the camp was held in Nablus. He wanted to do the dabke with me:
We did this for about 30 minutes – 2 different days. It was fun for about 3 minutes. Seriously though, what a beautiful world where an American pastor who follows Jesus can dance with a Palestinian Muslim kid named Mohammad for 30 minutes.
What will the future be like for Mohammad, the son of a janitor who lives in the West Bank?
Will Mohammad find peace and hope and even faith?
I can trust God with Mohammad and all the kids I met. There are people there representing him. God is pursuing all of them.
What can we do living so far away?
When I am overwhelmed by the needs of the world around me, I often think of a verse. “To the one much is given, much is expected.” In other words, those of us with privilege can be a part of serving those who do not have privilege.
If we can surrender all to Jesus here, we can become all God wants us to be. The world needs us at our best!
Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead to give us life and freedom, and we can bring that life and freedom to the world around us!