By Karen Jurgens
About nine years ago I experienced a trip of a lifetime. Landing at the Israeli airport in Tel Aviv seemed like a dream where the pages of my Bible came alive and allowed me to live inside those stories.
Our tour began in Tiberias, a town nestled on one edge of the Sea of Galilee. After a good night’s sleep my jet lag lifted, and reality hit. Drinking early morning coffee on the balcony of my hotel room, I gazed past the sunrise and across the sea to Jordan’s distant shore. White doves floated in azure skies, making the experience surreal. It was like stepping into another dimension. Although Jesus’s physical presence in this town had been absent for more than two thousand years, this was a place where Jesus had walked, and I could feel His eternal presence.
The first day we took a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee, followed by a fish dinner on the shore. It made Scriptures come alive as I remembered stories of His disciples pulling in their nets bursting with fish, or waking Jesus during a storm, or Peter walking on the sea at Jesus’s command.
Especially wonderful was visiting Capernaum, a town Jesus cursed because the Jews had refused to believe in Him. We walked through the ruins of the synagogue where Jesus preached, climbed the hill where He delivered the famous Sermon on the Mount, and visited Peter’s house where the Lord healed his sick mother-in-law. The little Catholic church built next to the sea was full of that same sweet peace, and His Spirit whispered that we stood on holy ground.
Ascending to the top of Masada, a fortress erected by Herod the Great, also proved incredible. Its stunning panoramic view surrounded us as we walked through the ruins, sat in the remains of a temple, and listened to the story of how 960 Sicarii rebels had exhaled their last breaths there. What these Jews had experienced as they waited to be overcome by their enemies kept swirling through my mind. How frightening!
Would a trip to Israel be complete without a dip in the Dead Sea? We changed into swimsuits and took the salty plunge. No worries if you couldn’t swim because it’s impossible to sink! Some people smear on the mineral-rich sea mud and soak for hours to gain maximum benefits. The strong residue left on your skin feels like a rubber glove, but it comes off after a good, soapy scrubbing.
Have you been baptized in the Jordan River? Many tourists can’t wait for the chance to follow in Jesus’s tradition when John (the Baptist) baptized Him in those waters two thousand years ago. What an awesome experience!
Do you enjoy museums? We toured several sites, including Qumran. About 75 years ago shepherds discovered 981 Qumran Caves Scrolls. Viewing some of these ancient holy documents behind glass cases was a rare privilege.
Another interesting place was the Holocaust Museum. Each room, nook, and cranny held displays that related a story of the past. Families, torn apart and shattered, told their individual stories through audio-visual and written displays. A separate building honored the children, and a recording eternally repeats their individual names 24/7. Specks of light like stars shone in the darkness as tourists walked through the narrow corridor, representing each precious life.
I was especially anxious to visit Bethlehem. Jews are not allowed to enter it anymore, so our guide exited our tour bus, and a Christian Arab replaced him. He led us to the famous Church of the Nativity. We descended a staircase to the bottom level where a huge star marked the spot where Jesus was supposed to have been born. I imagined the divine scene with cattle lowing around the straw-filled manger, flanked on either side with Mary and Joseph worshipping the newborn King. It was a moving experience.
During our tour, Christian tourists were allowed entrance into the area outside the Temple Mount. The golden Dome of the Rock could be seen almost anywhere in Jerusalem. It was fascinating to see the vast space next to the Dome and realize that the third Temple is prophesied to be built there someday soon. In the Jewish part of the Old City, we saw artisans inside a glassed area working on the golden menorah for use in this third temple.
In the Old City, we reverently traced the steps where Jesus bore His cross on the Via Dolorosa. From the Antonia Fortress to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, nine stations mark the Trail of the Cross.
Next was the Garden of Gethsemane, on the Mount of Olives. After prayer in the grove of ancient trees, we had a service inside the church grounds. Then we walked down the road descending into Jerusalem, retracing Jesus’s steps as He rode on a donkey. I imagined the palm branches waving and the cries of “Hosanna! Hosanna in the Highest!”
Afterward, we visited what may have been the Upper Room and enjoyed a time of praise and worship. We reveled in what it must have been like during Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles that day.
Prayer at the Western Wall (or Wailing Wall) was another moving experience. The stones seemed to vibrate with God’s holy presence as I laid my hands on them and prayed. I wrote my requests on a slip of paper, rolled it, and wedged it between the rocks.
The highest climax for me was entering the garden tomb, the Protestant holy site, and witnessing its empty grave. Our tour concluded with holy communion as we remembered Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. I am convinced that He is alive! Everyone says that you’re permanently changed after visiting Israel. And that was absolutely true for me. I’ll never be the same.
Writing Prompt: If you have been to Israel, write about your most meaningful experience. If you haven’t but would like to go someday, write about what you are looking forward to seeing the most and why.