#128. Journey to Jordan: John the Baptist

 Photo by Pam VanArsdall

There is this man I have never met but heard often of his life and legacy on earth before he died.

It was on day seven that I found myself alone at the top of a place called Mukawir, a fortress belonging to Herod Antipas where John the Baptist was imprisoned and then killed. I had come to Jordan to help in the filming of a short piece on the Biblical sites of Jordan. Every day held some new adventure and it was the most I had ever been in the front of the camera. However, day seven proved to be the most memorable of adventures. Just me, on top of the ruins of a fortress and a drone filming me overhead. Somehow we had managed to choose a time in which there were no other tourists. Mukawir held an incredible view of the Dead Sea and on a clear day, the towers of Jerusalem. I had time to worship and be with Jesus after filming my scene. I stood looking out into the sea and down the hillside to the various caves that John the Baptist was believed to have been held. 

A cave wouldn’t have been unfamiliar to this man as he had been known to call a cave his home. Jesus called him, “the greatest of men.” A simple life he led and yet supposedly some scholars argue that he was treated well in captivity as Herod Antipas carried some fear/respect for John. But the thing I wondered most is not found in any document or Bible verse. What were John’s final thoughts before his life was taken? It was so quiet on top of that mountain. Just the wind was all that I could hear. As I reflected on the famous life taken at the very spot I stood, I was humbled. John lived and died for a cause greater than himself. I can imagine he suspected he would die and that he felt his cause and message worth the cost.

John the Baptist was a man who had been given the job of preparing the way for Jesus. This job had required consistent preparation, waiting, hoping and trusting. Finally, the day comes and Jesus walks down the hill and is baptized by John. Then shortly after this event, John is arrested and placed in prison (Machareus/Mukawir).

Once again, he is waiting and hoping and trusting. At one point, he even sends his disciples to check that Jesus is in fact the Messiah. 

In reflecting on this man’s life and important role in preparing people for one of the greatest gifts the world would ever receive, I was humbled. To be standing in the place where this man breathed his last breath made me realize how easy it is to become disappointed or disillusioned when waiting and hoping seem to stretch out longer than we anticipated. To trust as deeply as John did, to the point that he dedicated his whole life to the mission of preparing the way for Jesus, required sacrifice and absolute surrender to God. And maybe his final thoughts were on the deep hope he carried of a greater understanding of things yet to come.

“….we who have taken refuge may have powerful encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us, which we have like an anchor of the soul, both firm and steadfast, and entering into the inside of the curtain, where Jesus, the forerunner for us, entered, because He became a high priest forever….”

Hebrews 6:18-20

A Million God Stories is a Christ-centered ministry which offers a platform for Christians from all streams of Christian faith to give praise for how God has worked in their lives. Christ heals in infinitely creative ways and we acknowledge that His way of helping may differ from person to person.

#127. Journey to Jordan: Mt. Nebo Encounter

 Photo by Pam VanArsdall

I stood on Mt. Nebo in the spot where God showed Moses the promised land that he would never enter. My heart was filled with wonder at the thought of Moses’ journey of faith in God and in the promise of a nation.

Moses has always been one of my favorite characters in the Old Testament. Perhaps it’s because I can identify with him in the fight against slavery. He was an abolitionist, used by God to free the Israelites from captivity in Egypt. Moses faithfully led the Israelites for years in the wilderness.

The Israelites’ journey and their struggle to trust God is often a great parallel to my own journey of faith. The children of Israel struggled to trust God. They complained, doubted God, and at one point thought that slavery in Egypt was better than freedom in the wilderness. Yet in all of that, God provided everything they needed to live.

So many times, I have found myself struggling to trust God in the unknown seasons. Fear has sometimes become more comfortable than faith, but just like the Israelites, God has always provided for my every need. He patiently leads me out of the wilderness of fear, doubt, insecurity, and discouragement and into freedom.

I wonder if Moses was disappointed to not enter the promised land? He fought hard to free his people, so maybe leading a great nation toward freedom was enough.

Looking out at the vast view of Mt. Nebo toward Jericho and beyond, the word freedom came to mind.

Freedom is a word that I feel I so often take for granted. Over the years, God has taught me the power of freedom when He called me to be a voice in the social justice movement.

I thought I had a good grasp of the word freedom, until I spent a day in Jordan visiting the baptismal site of Jesus and the place where Moses stood to look out at the promised land—two places representing promises made and promises being fulfilled.

To walk where Jesus actually walked and remember why He walked the earth truly captivated my heart. Bethany Beyond the Jordan and Mt. Nebo represent the journey of slavery to freedom.

To anyone reading this, do you feel stuck or enslaved to an idea or a lie about yourself or God? How has your journey from slavery to freedom been? Maybe fear has been your captor? I don’t know what point of your journey you might be in, but I do know this: He created us to walk in the freedom of the promise of being His sons and daughters.

As we pulled away from Mt. Nebo, tears came to my eyes as I realized that I had left a part of myself on top of that mountain. The encounter I had with God, looking out on the same vista as Moses did so many years before, changed my life. I felt challenged to surrender every fear and doubt to God.

In that moment with God, on the same mountain where Moses once stood, my heart was renewed at the reminder of the goodness of God. 

A Million God Stories is a Christ-centered ministry which offers a platform for Christians from all streams of Christian faith to give praise for how God has worked in their lives. Christ heals in infinitely creative ways and we acknowledge that His way of helping may differ from person to person.

#126 Journey to Jordan: God Is Love

Photo by James Ramos

It was golden hour, sunset in the Wadi Rum desert of Jordan. Our small group of Christian pilgrims traveled over sand dunes in the open bed of a small pick-up truck at a speed that both terrified and thrilled me. The sun was hot on our faces, sand beating and stinging our skin. My eyes wanted to close to shut out the sand, but I didn’t want to miss a moment of this otherworldly place, the indescribable beauty of it. The truck stopped and we got out to watch the sun melt into the vast, orange, sandstone mountains. I felt so small. Praise for God, who created this great cathedral of sand and stone, rose inside of me.

Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. 

Psalm 90:2

Darkness fell and we continued our journey to a Bedouin campsite. In the distance, white lights twinkled from the caves in the side of the mountain, homes to some of our Bedouin hosts. Bedouins are nomadic people who raise livestock in the deserts of the Middle East. They have inhabited this land for over 2,000 years. These kind, hospitable people prepared a feast for us—meat and vegetables cooked in a pit three feet under the earth, coffee brewed with cardamom over an open fire, crackling in the cool desert night. After dinner, we wandered beyond the campsite into the black darkness of the night, nearly bumping into a camel resting nearby. We laid down in the sand and gazed at the splendor of the night sky. I have never seen such a sky… so clear, so vast, so many bright, twinkling stars, even shooting stars. And again, I felt so small. A great sense of awe came over me, a deep appreciation of God as Creator of the universe.

Over and over while on this trip to the Holy Land of Jordan, I have asked God to reveal to me what it is that He would have me to learn about Him. What I have felt as I have traveled this beautiful Holy Land is a deep sense of His greatness and power. Although our human minds are unable to comprehend this completely, God has given us a glimpse of Himself in His creation.

And God has also revealed Himself to us in the life of His Son, Jesus. When we visited the baptismal site of Christ at the Jordan River, an expert explained the history and geography of the area. He shared that the place where Jesus was baptized, where He began His ministry, is the lowest place on earth. Of all the places Jesus could have begun His ministry, why the lowest place on earth? Perhaps to show us there is no depth that He will not reach to find us, to love us, to save us. No one—NO ONE—is so low that Christ cannot save him.

Lowly seems to be a theme throughout the life of Jesus. He was born in a lowly stable among common farm animals, the child of poor parents who fled with Him to become refuges in a foreign land. At the end of His ministry, He took on the lowly posture of a Gentile slave, humbly washing the feet of His disciples, providing a model of humility and service for us all. He was unjustly treated as a lowly criminal and endured a humiliating and excruciating death for our sakes because of His love, God’s love for us.  

As I leave the Holy Land, I am struck by the contrast of God’s greatness and the humble life of His Son on earth who came serving, healing, and saving us. “Who are we Lord that You, in your infinite greatness and power, are mindful of us?” (Psalm 8:4). Perhaps the question is not who are WE but who is HE? And the answer I believe is this: GOD IS LOVE, and this too is so vast, so great, so powerful that it is beyond all human comprehension.

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:38–39

A Million God Stories is a Christ-centered ministry which offers a platform for Christians from all streams of Christian faith to give praise for how God has worked in their lives. Christ heals in infinitely creative ways and we acknowledge that His way of helping may differ from person to person.

#124. Journey to Jordan: Like the Man at Gadara

 Photo by Michelle Scaperlanda McWay

Today we traveled north from Amman, Jordan to Umm Quais, known as the city of Gadara in the New Testament. Garda was one of ten cities in the Decapolis, a group of ten cities where Jesus and his disciples traveled to preach the Good News.  Seven of these cities are in Jordan, one is in Syria and two are in Israel. To reach Gadara, we drove along the Gilead mountains, the hill country where Jacob fled with Rachel, Leah and his children from his father-in-law, Laban. There Laban overtook Jacob but the two made peace as Laban heeded God’s warning to “Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.” (Genesis 31:24)

I looked out of the window on our journey towards Gadara and took in the low ranges of the Gilead hill country.  Save the occasional tree or rock, mostly these mountains looked barren, covered with a tan-colored dirt and no water in sight.  I wondered what it was like for Rachel and Leah to pack up everything and leave their family, to travel with their children across these mountains fleeing from their father. And what about Jacob? God had told him “Go back to the land of your father and to your relatives and I will be with you.” (Genesis 31:3) Was Jacob excited to see his family back home? Was he fearful of Laban tracking him down even though God had promised to be with him? He may have been afraid, but Jacob obeyed God. He trusted God and God was faithful to him.

I suspect my experience is similar to many American Christians. We have heard the stories from the Holy Scriptures many times – from our early years in Sunday School, from our pastors in Sunday service, from our own personal study of the Bible. With this has come a comfortable familiarity with the stories. I am a visual person and being here in the Holy Land of Jordan, seeing where the stories unfolded… it is surreal. I can now put real images of the setting with the words on the pages of the Bible.

Before our trip to Gadara, I read the three accounts of the miracle Jesus performed at Gadara (Matthew 8:28-34, Mark 5:1-20, Luke 8:26-39). I prayed the Lord would show me what He would have me to learn about Him. When we arrived at Gadara, we walked through the remains of the city, down an ancient road paved with smooth, rectangular tiles. At the road’s end was a spectacular overlook with a view Israel, Syria and the Sea of Galilee below. Also in view was the cliff that scholars believe to be where Jesus cast out a legion of demons from a man notorious for being violently tormented by demons for years. The man lived among the tombs and had been bound hand and foot with chains but even the chains could not bind him. Jesus cast the demons into a herd of pigs that ran off the cliff into the Sea of Galilee below. Afterwards, the man, dressed and in his right mind, pleaded to go with Jesus. But Jesus said, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” The man obeyed and “all the people were amazed.” (Mark 5:19-20) Perhaps the testimony of this man had something to do with the formation of the ancient Christian church we walked through, near the cliff where the miracle occured. There is power in our testimonies. Jesus knew this when he told the man to stay and share his story.

On the way back to Amman, I thought of my own demons…. shame and anxiety chief among them. Christ has delivered me from these ruthless tormentors, exchanging unexplainable peace for relentless angst and undeserved grace for my shame. Like the man at Gadara, the Lord has had mercy on me and done much for me. I am made new because of Him.

A Million God Stories is a Christ-centered ministry which offers a platform for Christians from all streams of Christian faith to give praise for how God has worked in their lives. Christ heals in infinitely creative ways and we acknowledge that His way of helping may differ from person to person.