“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning…The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” John 1:1-2,14 (NIV)
(The Sea of Galilee - where Jesus walked on top of the water and where Peter's lack of faith caused him to sink)
I said I would write a blog about our experience in Israel, and it’s taken me a few weeks to even start this article. To say I was overwhelmed would be an understatement. I knew the list of places we would most likely visit, and I was prepared to soak up as much of those experiences as possible. I wasn’t prepared, however, for the beauty of the land, the modernization and westernization of the economy, the commitment to thousands of years of tradition and the extremely close proximity to danger in which Jews and Christians live and work every single day.
During my time there, I posted a few pictures and tried to express just a small portion of what we were experiencing each day. There was one day, however, that I decided to leave out a very poignant and emotional stop on our tour. Bethlehem. And not for the reasons you may suspect. I posted pictures of our tour through the Shepherds Cave and of the chapel erected and dedicated to that spot. I collect nativities from all around the world and totally enjoy seeing how different cultures create the same scene of a stable, Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus and the animals. Depending on the country and culture, they can look extremely different. What better place to get a nativity than in Bethlehem! I couldn’t wait to pick one out. Again, what I thought I was prepared for was far from reality.
When we arrived at the Bethlehem border, our bus stopped, and we had to pass up our visa’s showing that we were American tourists. Our Israeli tour guide was not allowed to cross the border because Bethlehem is under Palestinian control, and Israelis are not allowed inside. A Palestinian Christian tour guide took over for the day. Once inside, we stopped at a Baptist church. This was on Saturday morning, so no services were being held, but we were told someone would meet us inside. We all filed in and sat down in the pews. The pastor welcomed us and began telling us his life’s story: He was born into a Muslim family, the youngest of ten children. As a young boy, he found an Old Testament and began reading it in secret. He was fascinated with the stories and began to determine that they were all pointing to someone. So, he made it his mission to find a New Testament. He continued reading and came to the realization that Jesus Christ was the Messiah. He gave his life to Jesus and was so excited about this newfound gift that he ran and told his mother. She told him he must keep it secret as not to jeopardize the lives of their family. He agreed. But after a few days, he said he just couldn’t keep this Good News inside, so he started telling his older brothers and sisters about this Jesus. Over the next 27 years, he converted his entire family. He told us that it took his oldest brother the longest, but that he just wouldn’t give up on him. After this brother became a Christian, he became just as outspoken as his younger brother, so much so that one day he was assaulted and attacked by Muslims, beaten and stabbed to death. Sometime later, this very pastor was exiting his vehicle in front of his home when he was shot four times in the chest. His family rushed him to the hospital where they were told by the doctors that he would die. “But”, the pastor said, “God told me I would live.” After he recovered, he resumed preaching and telling his community about Jesus and his Gospel.
Shortly thereafter, during his sermons on Sunday evenings, Muslims with loud speakers on the outside of their pickup trucks would drive in front of his church building and broadcast their call to prayer so loudly that his congregation could not hear him talk inside the building. It was a great deterrent to his members and to him. He was extremely saddened and prayed to God about what he should do. He told us, “God said to me, ‘Get bigger speakers’.” So he did. He put speakers on the outside of his church building and broadcast his sermon up to 1.2 kilometers away! Talk about boldness! The next morning he started getting phone calls from the people living within the neighborhood of his church. They were thanking him for his message. Wow! He said his congregation started increasing in number, and now they have around 300 members. His church building has been bombed fourteen times. He ultimately decided to stop replacing the windows and just bricked over them. But he never stopped preaching. His grown son was severely beaten and thrown into a dumpster to die, but someone heard him and rescued him. Neither one has ever stopped preaching. In a country with only 1% Christians, this man and his family are making a difference for the Kingdom of God. And they are not afraid to do it. They are living one day at a time in service to their King, Jesus the Messiah.
Just a couple more things he told us that helped us to understand this culture: Bethlehem has a 30% unemployment rate. This congregation’s unemployment rate is 65%. This is due to the sheer fact that they are professed Christians. Because of their poverty, not many people have cars, so this church runs a bus ministry. However, due to so much unrest in the city, sometimes the buses cannot get into certain neighborhoods to pick up their members, so many people go for long periods of time without the support and encouragement from their fellow Christians. Much of this church’s financial ministry goes to putting food on the table of their own members.
(Our tour group listening to the story of this man's life.)
During the first few minutes of his talk, I became very emotional. I felt much admiration for this man. He has suffered so much pain and loss, yet he was not being quiet about his love for his Savior. He could not keep it inside him. He refuses to do so knowing that the next moment may very well be his last. By the end of his talk, I felt convicted but energized at the same time. This man’s actions and love for his fellow citizens made me question my own life. How can I be afraid of anything?! I live in a country where I have never been physically attacked for my faith in Jesus Christ. My children have not been beaten because they love Jesus. My husband can go to work; we can eat at restaurants; we can travel freely through our city, state and country with no fear of being persecuted because we are Christians. Yet, how much do I speak of my Savior? How many people do I tell on a daily basis about the gift of Christ? Not enough. Sure, I may get a few hateful comments on my Twitter or Instagram. But when I compare that to this man’s life, I have no excuse. None!
Please remember this pastor, his family and his congregation. I was told I could include his name in my posts, but I am just too afraid for him, obviously more afraid for him than he is for himself. I shouldn’t be afraid to tell anyone about my faith. I’m NOT afraid to tell anyone about my faith. I am a child of God. I am a daughter of the King of Kings. He is my Lord! Not because of anything I did. I am not worthy. I am nothing. He is everything.
John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, put it like this in John 3:30, “He must become more; I must become less.”
Referring to the title scripture above, Jesus is God. He was with God the Father from the very beginning. He became flesh and lived among humans. He ate like us, slept like us, made friends and relationships like us, laughed and cried like us. Yet, he never sinned. He wasn’t just “a good man”. He was THE MAN. He was God. He IS GOD! He chose to walk that dark and bloody path being beaten and spit on and tortured. He could have called all of his angels, the angels that have worshipped him throughout all time. Don’t you think they were waiting, anticipating, hoping for that precise moment when they would be let loose to come to his rescue? To release their Master from his anguish? To slaughter all those who were causing him to suffer? But Jesus never called them. He went through all that pain for me. For you. For the entire world. But that isn’t the end to that story. Praise God that the Father raised Him from the dead! The tomb was found empty! He lives today! And the best part of this story is that He will take me up to heaven to live forever with him!
So much of the culture in Israel does not acknowledge this. They worship their Father in Heaven. It’s wonderful to watch their dedication to tradition and commitment to their customs and to their families. But make no mistake about the Messiah. He’s real. He came. He lived. He died. He was buried for 3 days. And he rose from the dead and lives now! God delivered his people through his son Jesus. There is no reason to wait anymore!
John 14:5-7, “Thomas asked, … so how can we know the way?” Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, then you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”
I also was not prepared for the longing and love I feel for Israel’s people to come to know Jesus as their Lord and Savior.
(Walking beside the Sea of Galilee - where Jesus sat down and taught his disciples in Matthew 5-7)
Do you know Jesus? The book of John is a good place to start getting to know him. He longs for you to know Him. His arms are open for you.
Please don’t wait. The next moment may be your last.
(Jase and I have decided to financially help this pastor and the Christian people of Bethlehem. If you feel led to join us, please go to www.onekingdom.org. Click "Donate". Choose "Other" from the dropdown menu and write "Bethlehem Baptist Church" to specify. They will make sure your donation gets to this church. Thank you!)