Desert Wanderings | February 19, 2017

“What did you come out into the desert to see?” (Matthew 11:8)

The Jordan River is not half as impressive as it must have been when Jesus went there to be baptized by John. It stretches about 10 feet wide now, and acts as the natural border between Israel and Jordan. We were reminded about this fact as soon as we arrived to see armed soldiers standing guard on our side of the River, as well as when we descended down to the banks to see their Jordanian counterparts on the other side patrolling as well. Although I was struck by the supposed contrast of this scene, I recalled the soldiers which came to John to be baptized, “and what must we do?” The country was war-torn then as well. Some things don’t change.

Although the River was not an impressive sight, what was absolutely impressive were the great number of adults being baptized in the waters. Songs and prayers in many languages were being sung by various different church groups as their members descended into the cold waters to join their lives to Christ. Right next to us where some Orthodox Christians from Ukraine who we had met in our hotel in Jerusalem a few evenings before, they were a group which was pretty hard to miss, continually singing through meal times and generally “living life large.” They were replaced by another Orthodox group, perhaps from Russia or Romania. Although the political situation was tense, it was clear that this river and these waters were the common inheritance of the saints, the people of God from across the world, and that is a very hopeful and joyful thing indeed.

 

 

We took our place within these eclectic surroundings and once again renewed our baptismal promises to Christ, to join our lives to Him and to turn our backs on the devil and his falsehood. The priests sprinkled us with water from the Jordan, and with this new beginning we returned to the very same desert that Jesus walked through after His baptism in those waters. Although, I’m sure seeing it from the comfort of an air-conditioned bus was a little bit different than His experience.

“So he ran on ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, for he was to pass that way.” (Luke 19:4)

Jericho. There is good evidence to suggest that this is the oldest city in the world, dating back as a city settlement 10 000 years. Volunteer excavations were underway when we arrived and it was striking to see the age of the “old sections” of the city. Of course, with a city of this age, “old” is a relative term. This was the city that Joshua fought his famous battle in, where the priests and Levites marched around the walls with the Ark and the city walls fell, opening up the conquest of the promised land.

We know that as Jesus passed through He met some interesting characters as well. A blind beggar, Bartimaeus, sat close to the gate begging (Luke 18:35-43). Bartimaeus made such a scene when he heard that Jesus was passing by, that the crowds told him to be quiet, but Bartimaeus didn’t listen, and instead shouted all the more loudly! He was not going to be cowed by the crowd into losing his chance of meeting the Lord. Jesus stopped on the road and healed him and Bartimaeus continued with Jesus as a disciple.

As they continued on their way they heard the laughter, murmuring and taunting of the crowds as they mocked “that greedy little tax collector Zacchaeus.” As they got deeper into the crowds they heared the people say some nastier things about this “chief sinner” who was “silly enough to climb a tree!” They must have been completely and utterly stunned into silence when Jesus invited Himself over to his house for dinner that evening!

Do I have the courage and faith to “rise above the crowd” the way Zacchaeus and Bartimaeus did in their desire for Jesus? Do I accept His invitation to “follow Him” knowing it might bring ridicule, misunderstanding and scoffing from “the group?” 

“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1)

Jericho today is a large city of about 15 000 people sprawled out on the valley floor surrounded by desert mountains. One of these mountains is home to “The Mount of Temptations” Greek Orthodox monastery. Instead of climbing all the way up there we had the luxury of a cable car which gave us a wonderful panoramic view of the valley city below.

 

 

As we approached the monastery at the top we noticed caves where hermits had lived throughout the centuries, praying in silence and solitude, repenting of their sins and importing God’s Grace for the world.

 

 

Once we arrived on the mountain we passed through a small restaurant and up to the entrance of the monastery steps. We were amazed to actually find it open, an event our guide told us, was very rare indeed! We went inside and proceeded along a narrow hallway between the cliff-face and the modern day cells of the monks. Even in the desert a sense of peace and beauty filled this place of prayer, with green plants which were dutifully cared for by the monks.

 

 

On our way by we noticed a gate had been opened which lead into the hermit cave of St. Chariton of Palestine, one of the founding Fathers of monasticism! His cave consisted of an antechamber and a hidden tiny inner chamber which was already filled with icon cards and petitions from various pilgrims who had visited this holy cave.

 

 

Traditionally, this is the spot where the devil tempted Jesus, and our Lord, through fasting and praying the scriptures, overcame him. At the end of the monastery (even though there is a higher point we never got to) there was a church for the monks which included the traditional rock on which the Lord sat when He rejected the temptation to “turn the rock into bread.”

 

 

Climbing back down from the heights and looking over Jericho in the valley below we could almost hear a whisper in the wind “all this will be yours then, if you worship me.” At the beginning of His public ministry the devil tempted Jesus to turn Him from his salvific mission, one which would require terrible suffering, humiliation and death. Jesus could have been the most powerful earthly king, but instead He chose to die for me and for you.

Some reflections from the Pilgrims:

We visited the church of the tomb of Lazarus but did no go to see his tomb. I learned Lazarus was resuscitated versus being resurrected and transformed.

It was very special to recite the  renewal of Baptism at the Jordan river. It was strange to look across the river and look into another country, Jordan.

The highlight was going up by cable car to the mountain of temptation. We saw the secluded cave rooms of the monks and the view was beautiful. Seeing the monastery brought back discussions we had with Fr Mike when we were reading The Way of the  Pilgrim and the  Jesus Prayer book. It brought those discussions about the monks and prayer to life. There were some beautiful frescos.

The Dead Sea experience was a wonderful experience. It was incredible how easy it was to stay afloat!

Fr. Michael Bombak

About Fr. Michael Bombak

Fr. Michael Bombak is the Assistant Pastor of St. Josaphat Cathedral in Edmonton Alberta. He is also a school teacher and a father of four.