Holy Land tour leaves Mt. Vernon pastor in awe
MT. VERNON–Tim Burgess went to the Holy Land expecting to see the sites and stories he’s studied for years to come alive. Although he does have a better feel for biblical geography and fulfilled a dream of walking where Jesus walked, he was more struck by the lack of life and joy at one of the world’s most popular pilgrim destinations.
“I thought when I got there that it was going to be all about ‘being there,’” said the pastor of First Baptist Church, Mt. Vernon. “But the longer I was there, the more I realized that it’s not about a place. For the Muslim it’s Mecca, for the Jew it’s the Temple and for the Catholic it’s iconic places. For me, it’s Christ.”
Likewise, while he gained many insights into the Bible and saw the setting first hand, the biggest lesson was a mere reminder of the truth of God’s great gift.
“All in all what I learned most is that my salvation is not determined on a place,” Burgess said. “I saw so many people going to what they called holy places, but my Christianity is not bounded by a place. It is all about a person: Jesus Christ.”
A man Burgess had discipled years ago who is now living in Qatar invited him to tour the Holy Land. The next thing he knew, Burgess was landing in Amman, Jordan, for a 10-day trek through that country and Israel. The pair had no tour group and no guide.
Just 10 days, two countries, a paperback book of hints and “a couple of guys getting into trouble,” Burgess said.
Starting from Amman, the duo made their way along the Dead Sea toward Lot’s Cave where they looked out and saw Sodom and Gomorrah. They then went to Bethany on the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized.
It was here where they got their first taste of “getting into trouble.” There on the bank next to the blue and white Israeli flag was a green flag.
“We asked what that flag meant and they told us it meant we were in a war zone. It was just part and parcel of the trip.”
Something similar occurred when Burgess was looking at a shepherd and his flocks up in the Golan Heights.
“I wandered out toward him and all at once there were live minefield signs everywhere,” he said. “It was only funny after it was over and I tiptoed out, stepping on rocks when I could.”
Burgess and his friend followed the King’s Highway east of the Dead Sea, the same route the Crusaders took as well as children of Israel in the Exodus. They stopped at several castles, including the site where John the Baptist was beheaded.
“We saw his cave prison,” he said. “It was just one of those ‘wow’ moments.”
From there they crossed back into Jordan and traveled via camel to Petra before riding a bus back to Jerusalem to stay in the Old City.
There they saw the Mount of Olives, Golgotha, the Garden of Gethsemane, and the old Herodian stones that would have made up the now-buried streets where Jesus walked.
“One of the great things about being in Jerusalem was just getting the geography down,” Burgess said. “I could see where the Temple Mount is, and how long it would have taken for Jesus to walk to Bethany or to where Mary and Martha lived.”
Burgess and his traveling partner viewed the Dead Sea Scrolls, then traveled to Galilee, Tiberius and Capernaum, all three of which are not exactly major tourist attractions.
“There’s nothing to do there but look, imagine and read the Scriptures,” he aid. “It’s just so surreal, you almost have to pinch yourself.”
Burgess said he made contacts during the trip and hopes to lead a group from Mt. Vernon back soon. Until then, First Mt. Vernon will just have to settle for a few extra tidbits in his sermons.
“I can still see the places,” he said, “and I can still smell them. This Sunday when I preached on the cross, I could see and smell Golgotha. It changed my life.”