Pilgrimage to Israel #4
It has been a while since I last wrote about my time in Israel, and I was part way through a series of posts on it at the end of last year. I was reflecting on it yesterday and thanking God I was able to go and come back before COVID shut everything down.
One of the highlights of the trip, and it was really all just one big “highlight”, was our time at the River Jordan.
I had been to this particular site before on my last journey to Israel, but this time it was particularly special.
The River Jordan is biblically significant for a number of reasons, and is mentioned throughout the Old and New Testaments.
For example, Joshua led the people of Israel across the river.
When the priests who carried the ark entered the Jordan River, as their feet touched the water’s edge (The Jordan River overflows all of its banks daily during the harvest season.), 16 the water flowing downstream from above stood still in a single location, a great distance away at Adam, a city near Zarethan. The water that flowed south toward the sea in the Arabah (that is, the Dead[a] Sea) was completely cut off. So the people crossed opposite Jericho. 17 The priests who were carrying the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord stood firm on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan River, while all Israel crossed on dry ground until the entire nation had finished crossing the Jordan River.
Joshua 3:15-17 (ISV)
And in the New Testament, we see John baptising in the same river. Jesus Himself was baptised there.
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan
Mark 1:9 (ISV)
I am not certain what the scene would have looked like for Jesus and John at Christ’s baptism. I can only imagine it was very different to the site where pilgrims visit the river today.
You arrive and move through a fairly sizable complex, complete with gift shop, and emerge on the other side on the banks of the river. It is fairly commercialised, with many jetties stretching along the water’s edge for pilgrims to use for baptism or to just wade in the shallows. There are a number of shops or stall selling various things.
Like many places in Israel, tourism has touched these sacred places and it is both sad and understandable at the same time. As much as I would like to arrive at such places and have them exactly as they would have been for Jesus or the early church, the tourism at least indicates people want to visit these sites and that they hold particular importance.
On our visit, the site seemed particularly busy. It was certainly busier than the last time I visited. Our group sought a free jetty to use to be able to access the water, but at first could not find one.
I am not sure who made it possible, but our group was led away from the main area and around a corner. We walked through a small garden and then entered a sort of pavilion with a basic roof and bench seating right down to the water’s edge.
It was quiet and peaceful, and we essentially had the place to ourselves for a good period of time. We held a short service, and then many just sat in the quiet. Others ventured down to the river and were baptised or just paddled.
The sense of peace grew, and it soon became apparent that it was more than just a natural peace. God was present with us in that place, and even those who wouldn’t call themselves “believers” experienced that profound sense of peace.
I will try to describe the scene so you can build a picture in your mind’s eye.
There was a shallow incline down to the water with a few bushes growing along the line of the bank. On the opposite side of the river, many trees grew giving the water a green hue. It was lovely and sunny, and almost no breeze as I recall. Many just sat in the presence of God, while others explored the water.
As I write this now, I don’t remember if we sang or not. Perhaps only during the short service itself and not afterwards. One lingering memory is that of a brightly coloured Kingfisher bird swooping down over the slow currents and reminding us how God’s creation cannot help but show His glory.
Was Jesus baptised in this exact spot? It is unlikely to be honest, but it was easy to imagine it. The bird, also, reminded us how the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus as a dove at His baptism.
The crowds only a few hundred yards away were forgotten and the only word I can use to describe it was “peaceful”. I am always a bit cautious about experiences where we say we “felt” God, as God is ever present with us and we should never chase an experience. We can worship God whether we feel Him or not. Additionally, “feel” is never reall ythe right word. Feelings are fickle and changeable, whereas God is not.
Whatever it was that made us more aware of God’s presence in that place, I am extremely grateful for it.
As wonderful an experience as it was, what is important is to experience Jesus in your life on an everyday basis. It is not everyday we find ourselves resting on the banks of the Jordan where it might be rather easier to encounter God. It is more difficult while doing the washing up or chasing the children around the house.
But Jesus is with us in the ordinary everyday as much as anywhere else.
And remember, I am with you each and every day until the end of the age.
Matthew 28:20b (ISV)
Wherever you find yourself today, take a moment to enjoy the presence of God. You may not “feel” anything but you can trust that He is right there beside you.