A Breathtaking Stage
After Jesus was baptized in the Jordan, the gospels record that he immediately was driven into the desert for forty days. For those forty days, he was tempted by Satan. He was attended by angels. He played with animals. And out in that desert place, for forty days, Jesus fasted.
You can go to this place today, or at least close to it. A modern pilgrim can see the Greek Orthodox Monastery of the Temptation hanging on the side of a cliff. And after a quick cable-car ride, one can stand 1100 feet above the Jordan Valley where the famed river empties into the Dead Sea.
From this vantage point, Jericho comes into view. The place of our Lord’s Baptism, too. On a clear day, you can even see the top of Mt. Nebo where Moses witnessed the Exodus of the Israelites from the other side of the Jordan. Its peak rises up in the east some 3300 feet above the surface of the Dead Sea.
The view is, in a word, breathtaking.
Recently, I took a group of pilgrims to this lofty height. We saw it all laid out before us like a vast stage on which the great drama of God’s work unfolded. There’s a moment in this drama near the end of the ministry of our Lord Jesus that most readers miss; it is revealed only by the land itself.
One Last Pass
In Mark 10 and Matthew 20, we read the story of Blind Bartimaeus. Who doesn’t know the story?
“Lord Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me,” the man says. Jesus calls the man to come. He comes. Then Jesus asks a question he has asked others before, a question that cuts through all our vanities: “What do you want me to do for you?” And the beggar knows what he needs. He says, “Let me recover my sight.” This was not a man blind from birth. He wants to recover what he previously had. He wanted to see again.
And he does.
We usually stop there and think about the “moral” of the story. The blind beggar was persistent, and so we should be, too. He was obedient when called to come forth, and so should we practice obedience. The meaning is plain enough for us to see.
But there’s a critical detail that is easily overlooked when you aren’t seeing the story from high on top the Mount of Temptation.
The gospel writers note that Jesus met the blind man as he was leaving Jericho. Seeing the land stretch before you, you realize that this encounter occurs as Jesus is taking one last pass through the place his ministry began some three years earlier.
Jesus has come directly from the place of the Transfiguration to the north in the Galilee, and he is making his way toward Jerusalem and what he knows will be his inevitable death. It is in this ‘in-between time’ before his final week that Jesus walks through the ancient town of Jericho. He now comes to the other side of the town.
Off to his left, he could have seen the place of his water and Spirit baptism by John and recalled again his Father’s voice: This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased. To the right, he would have seen again that barren wilderness and the forbidding cliffs, remembering again the treacherous promises the Devil whispered in his ear. Behind him, in the town that had been cursed by Joshua, Jesus had brought blessing to the most egregious of sinners, the short man in the tall Sycamore tree, Zacchaeus. Jesus is at the lowest spot on the planet when he starts his ascent to Jerusalem. Ahead of him, in the City of David, a Cross awaits.
But just before he starts going up to Jerusalem, on his last pass through the Jordan and the places he has been before, Jesus encounters Blind Bartimaeus, a beggar on the outskirts of this dusty town.
Reading the story from Mark’s Gospel, while standing on that Palestinian platform perched 1100 feet in the air, I saw before me, not only the breathtaking expanse of the valley land, a dead salt sea, and timeless desert mountains. I saw a stage. This ancient land was a stage. And looking at the sun-baked earth, the even the stage itself spoke into the familiar story of the blind man: Jesus didn’t merely perform a healing here, he made his last disciple here. I’d never thought of it that way before. I had always read the story in total isolation from its context and its location. But here in Jericho, it was obvious that the last person on earth to become a disciple was the famed Son of Timaeus, Blind Bartimaeus.
Jesus tells the man, “Go your way.”
And Bartimaeus did; he decided then that he would follow Jesus. He could see our Lord with his newly-restored sight, and he chose to follow Him…to Jerusalem and to the cross.
He said, in as much to the Lord, “My way is now Your way, Master.” He was the Last Disciple of Jesus.
The Fifth Gospel
This discovery has transformed how I read this passage, but I shouldn’t be surprised. My wife and I have been traveling to the Holy Land since 1994. Each time we travel here, our encounter with the land fills out the gospel story for us in ways we could have never anticipated.
We will be returning in January 2020 and we would love to have you join us.
In an article in Christianity Today, David Neff wrote about the power of the archeological digs in Israel:
Over the past century, archaeologists have repeatedly confirmed and illuminated the historicity of the biblical record. Although, as Calvin taught us, we trust the Bible because of the inner witness of the Spirit, having physical evidence that confirms the historical context of God’s saving acts bolsters our faith.
In my decades of journeying to the Holy Land, I have found that to be true many times over. And we keep returning to this place for the same reason we return to the scriptures year after year: this land helps us know and remember the saving acts of God that are made visible if only we have the sight to see.
And sometimes, like Blind Bartimaeus blinking in the bright noon sun, what we see and what we experience here calls us once again to follow Jesus.
The Rev. Canon David Roseberry and his wife Fran lead annual tours to the Holy Land. Their next trip will be in January 2020.
There are steeply discounted prices for those in congregational leadership. All lay people are invited to come as well. The experience is unforgettable. Visit LeaderWorks.org for more information.