Caesar Resort Hotel, Tiberius, Israel
On the shores of the Sea of Galilee
Today we hopscotched across northern Galilee, visiting the valley beneath Mt. Arbel where Jesus would have walked on his journey from Nazareth to Capernaum. Then we saw the amazing "Jesus Boat," an actual fishing boat dating from the time of Christ that was pulled out of the mud of the Sea of Galilee during a drought period in 1986. Abed then took us on a tour of an Israeli kibbutz, explaining the unique way of life for those living in these voluntary collective communities. Then we went to Church of Beatitudes, a lovely Catholic church overlooking the northern end of the Sea of Galilee. No one knows if this is the mountainside where Jesus actually gave the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), but as with so many other sites in the Holy Land, if this isn’t the exact spot, we know we're i'n the neighborhood.'
From there we ventured north and east into the rugged Golan Heights, an area once controlled by Syria but since 1967 controlled by Israel. Anyone visiting the region can see the strategic nature of those mountains. Whoever controls the Golan Heights controls northern Galilee. We saw many bombed-out Syrian bunkers and signs warning us not to venture onto the fields because they are still filled with live Syrian mines that have never been defused or exploded. Stopping for lunch at a restaurant in a Druze village, we enjoyed a unique creation called Labneh, a large half-moon sheet of thin bread covered with sour cream and olive oil mixed with oregano and several other spices. They roll it up like a burrito and heat it on a flat, circular grill. Simple but very tasty. Tomorrow Abed says we will sample St. Peter's Fish. Then it was on to Caesarea Philippi, a beautiful spot located where a stream of clear water flows from the base of a massive cliff. Originally it was a center for the worship of the Greek god Pan. For Christians it holds huge significance for it was here, in this remote location, that Jesus asked his disciples, 'Who do people say that I am? 'and then "But you--who do you say that I am?" (Matthew 16:13-19) When Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God," he was the first apostle to openly profess his faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God from heaven. Peter and his bold confession became the rock upon which Christ continues to build his church today. Peter spoke for himself and for all the apostles, and he stands in the place of every believing Christian who unashamedly professes Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. "It all started right here," I told the group. "Without Peter's courage, and the courage of others who followed his example, there would have been no Christian church." As rain started to fall, we made our way to Dan to see the restored altar built by Jeroboam who introduced idolatry into the northern kingdom (1 Kings 12:25-33). I think Mark and Nick had a better time exploring the nearby abandoned Israeli bunker. We drove by Hazor but didn't get out because of the rain.
Finally we ended up at the baptismal site a couple of miles below the southern end of the Sea of Galilee. This spot is well-chosen because it is peaceful and secluded and the river is slow moving and not very deep. Tens of thousands of pilgrims from around the world come here to be baptized every year. For $6 you get a towel, a white robe and a baptismal certificate. Sometimes when I've been here, the tour buses are backed up as one group after another goes into the water. Some groups baptize several hundred at a time, often accompanied by preaching and singing. On the two previous tours I have led, the water was always fairly warm. Not so today. This is January in Israel and the water felt ice cold to me. It was easily the coldest water I've ever baptized in. The man running the baptismal area said, "It's so cold even the Russians are complaining about it." Plus it was in the late afternoon and had just rained. But nonetheless ten people from our tour followed our Lord in the waters of baptism:
Even though it was cold and uncomfortable, no one complained or backed out. I had a hard time keeping my balance because I was in bare feet on the slick, uneven river bottom but everything went well. The folks clapped after every baptism, and there were tears of joy and commitment as I baptized my brothers and sisters in the Lord.
Tomorrow morning we take a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee, then we visit Capernaum, the little fishing village that was Jesus' headquarters during much of his earthly ministry. Then I believe we are heading to the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee to visit the site where Jesus cast the demons into the pigs (Mark 5:1-20), then it’s on to Beit She'an, site of some amazing ruins from the Roman period. We will wind up our day in Jerusalem. On a purely personal note, Mark and Nick and I are hoping to find a place where we can watch the Chicago Bears-New Orleans Saints game on TV. Kickoff will be 10 PM Jerusalem time so it won't conflict with anything on the tour. As we were leaving the Church of the Beatitudes, someone spotted Mark's Chicago Bears sweatshirt and said, "How 'bout those Bears?" Then he added, "Go Indy." Football fever has gripped the Holy Land.
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