What joy for those whose strength comes from the Lord,
who have set their minds on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
When they walk through the Valley of Weeping,
it will become a place of refreshing springs.
The autumn rains will clothe it with blessings.
They will continue to grow stronger,
and each of them will appear before God in Jerusalem.
O Lord God of Heaven’s Armies, hear my prayer.
Listen, O God of Jacob. (Ps. 84:5-8)
Having waited many years to see if the Lord would open the way to go to Israel, it suddenly happened! I went without any specific agenda, eager to see how the Lord would shape the time. It was a great privilege to begin my trip where it all began in Nazareth. I was staying with Bill and Marie Kirk, who have been ministering for the past couple of years to Christian Arabs in a Baptist Bible seminary. Their apartment enjoys a spectacular view over the city, which I appreciated enormously.
Early on my first morning they introduced me to the Chemin Neuf French Catholic charismatic community, who have built a remarkable centre, which not only includes an excavated house (quite possibly one of Jesus’s closest neighbours) but no fewer than four beautifully remarkable widescreen cinemas they have sculptured out of the ground.
As a means of outreach they have written an incredibly powerful multimedia film of the life of Jesus, set to moving sound and visual effects. Each part of the film lasts about a quarter of an hour, at which point you move from one cinema to another. It is an extremely moving experience; and a double joy for me to be able to go back again a couple of days to spend time with people whose roots are closely associated with the evangelistic Catholics I used to work with in Paris nearly forty years ago.
Amongst other highlights from my time in Nazareth I spent some considerable time in a chapel and a really wonderfully peaceful garden run by Italian Little Brothers of Jesus which were founded by Charles de Foucauld, to imitate the hidden life of Jesus in prayer and work.
I have long been familiar with Charles’ ministry among the Tuareg people in the Sahara, but I did not know that he had also lived for a while in Nazareth, or that there was a community there in his name. It lies behind high walls immediately off an exceptionally busy main road; the gardens are a haven of peace where the Lord’s presence is very close, and which are always open for people to come to.
I also greatly appreciated a visit to the Nazareth replica first century village, where a man who was staying with Bill and Marie was working as a volunteer.
Trip to Mount Carmel
The standards of driving in Israel are distinctly alarming. The nation agreed in the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War that their principal sin as a nation was the standard of their driving – they’ve had plenty of time to get worse since then! I must admit I was less than dismayed to discover that I was unable to hire a car because of Yom Kippur. (I had been warned by several people that if I drove on that particular Sabbath, Orthodox Jews would stone the car).
We therefore went by bus to the beautiful heights of Mt Carmel, to visit the centre I have long heard about. It was very special to spend time sharing in fellowship and over a meal with the leaders there – and lovely to discover that the leader had read my book Ravens and the Prophet, which of course is based around long distant events on Mount Carmel and how these can be significant in our own walk with the Lord today
They are doing a wonderful work from this place, ministering to different groups of people right across Israel, and carrying out much outreach to drug addicts along Teen Challenge lines, with which they have had close contact. It was a really rich time of fellowship together.
Yom Kippur itself does not really feature in Nazareth, where something like 65% of the city are Muslim, and virtually all the rest Christian. Relationships between the community appear ok on the surface – although tensions do arise from time to time, and there is a huge Muslim billboard panel very close to the place where Mary received her visit from the Angel Gabriel, vividly highlighting the verses in the Koran which deny that God has a son as a direct challenge to the Christian message.
By coincidence, the Yom Kippur Day of Repentance and Atonement coincided for the first time in thirty three years with Eid, one of the principal Muslim festivals. The minarets were louder and busier than ever broadcasting at triple fortissimo over the city by day and by night! (Arabic of course is very much the principal language spoken in Nazareth).
Capernaum and the Sea of Galilee
The next bus we caught was to the city of Tiberius, which serves as a jumping off point for exploring the region around the Sea of Galilee where Jesus’s ministry began. Despite the searing heat I was glad we had no car and were on foot. After visiting the site of the loaves and fishes, it was great to spend time at the place where Jesus met with Peter after the resurrection, and restored him to his ministry. It was a peaceful place despite the thronging crowds of eager pilgrims from around the world.
As a generalisation one could say that those in tour groups from Western Europe tended to have grey hair, whereas the multitudes from India, Malaysia and the Philippines and so on are much more likely to be full of faith and vitality and to be in their twenties and thirties. We even met Filipinos who are conducting a wonderful underground ministry in Saudi Arabia!
The walk from there to Capernaum was particularly moving. I was sad that my camera ran out of battery power just as I arrived, and so I was unable to take any pictures of what proved to be a most moving and memorable time, sitting overlooking the lake in the region immediately surrounding Simon Peter’s house. The sense of the Lord’s presence was highly conducive to prayer!
From there we walked up a long soil track to the site of the Mount of Beatitudes – which gave me a renewed sense of admiration for those who remained so long in the heat of the day to listen to the Lord Jesus and to receive His ministry!
What diligence people showed in wanting to listen to Jesus for such a prolonged period of time in those pre-café days. I can’t imagine how they endured the heat for so long!
As I was witnessing to a young person on the way back down, the sheer privilege of being able to come to these sites hit me anew. Some people are reluctant to go to Israel, in case the experience does not live up to their expectations. I can only say that I found it immensely enriching.
It felt entirely appropriate that my short trip, which had begun in Jesus’ birthplace of Nazareth, continued through the principal places in Galilee where Jesus exercised his ministry, before taking in the heights of Carmel, should culminate in Jerusalem, the place not only where Jesus suffered but to which He will return.
Meeting Francis and Sally Prittie at the bus station was a really memorable moment, having been heavily involved with them during our many years together ministering with Message for our Times, before they moved into Ruach, the house we had been living in in Shetland. They are benefiting greatly from an arrangement that permits them to spend three months each year in a flat in a house right next door to the President of Israel’s own villa. They made me incredibly welcome!
They have absorbed the culture deeply, honouring the best of Jewish traditions, but very much in the name of Yeshua. As many have found before, discovering all about the Hebrew roots of our faith is an inspiring process! Of this couple who just love to seek the Lord it can fairly be said, “What joy for those who can live in your house, always singing your praises.” (Ps. 84:4)! Being involved in prayer and worship again with them in Jerusalem was very old times renewed.
Within minutes of arriving they swept me off to a prayer meeting of highly dedicated intercessors, who are deeply involved in “redemptive” work of redeeming the legacy of some of the serious failures on the part of the British during their tenureship of the land both before and after the Second World War.