Thanks for joining us on this devotional tour of the Holy Land. To see a few highlights of our trip together, take a look at this short video below, as our worship leaders from the trip, Lucas Elder and Gary Marini, lead us in a closing song. Then read on to hear a touching story of God’s faithfulness to those who put their faith in Him.
I was telling a group one time that they should try to go to Israel if they ever got a chance. My son Lucas added: “Don’t just wait till you get a chance. Make a chance! Do whatever you can do to get there. It’s worth it!” He’s right.
So I’d like to tell you just one more story as we close, a story about “making a chance.” While I usually try to shorten stories to make them as concise as possible, I think this one is best told with all the details in tact. I believe God has several things He might want to speak to you through this story, so I pray that you’ll be blessed as you read it.
As we began talking about going on this trip to Israel, a woman from Malawi named Esther had written to me, saying that she wondered if I thought God would ever make a way for her to visit Israel someday. She said she simply began crying every time she read the word “Israel” in some of the devotionals I had written and shared over the Internet. Knowing that she lived in Malawi, and knowing the situation for many who live there, I wasn’t sure what to say. I began to pray about how to respond to her email, thinking that I’d say, “I believe that God can make a way, but I’m sorry I can’t help you myself.” As soon as I said those words in my mind, however, I felt God say, “Yes, you can help her.” I said, “No, I can’t.” He said, “Yes you can.” I said, “No, I can’t!”
I had been planning this trip to Israel for the past 3 years, and our whole family had been working and saving money so that my wife and I and our four oldest kids could go with us. We barely had enough money at that time for just one of us to go, let alone six. So when God said I could help Esther get there, too, I really didn’t know what to do. So I wrote back to her and said simply that I believed God could make a way, and I’d be praying along with her.
As the summer went on, I kept reading the words of Jesus to His disciples from Matthew 14:13-21, when 5,000 people were gathered together on a hillside at dinnertime. Jesus told His disciples: “You give them something to eat.” I could imagine what the disciples must have felt. They said that not even eight months wages would give everyone even one bite, so how could they feed them? All they had was five loaves of bread and two fish from a boy’s lunch.
Yet I was puzzled why Jesus would ask them to do something impossible if He didn’t think they could do it. didn’t think they could possibly do. Unless, of course, they could do it, and they just didn’t know how. I kept asking God, “How? How did Jesus do it? And how can we do it when You ask us to do something that seems impossible to us?”
So I studied that passage over and over, trying to see how Jesus did it. He simply gave thanks to God, broke the bread, and had the disciples start passing it out. Somehow there was enough food for all 5,000 to eat till they were satisfied and still have twelve baskets full left over.
As I shared this dilemma one week with a youth group, some of them came up to me afterwards and said they’d like to help with Esther’s ticket. I tried to decline their money, because I didn’t want them to think I was telling them the story in order for them to give money for the trip. I was just sharing with them the puzzle of how to do what God asks us to do when we think it is impossible. Several of them insisted, however, saying that they felt God really wanted them to give the money to help with Esther’s trip. By the end of that week, I had received just over $300—enough to make the deposit on the trip for Esther to come with us. But I still needed more than 10 times that amount to pay for her whole trip, plus I still had to pay for my own family to go. I didn’t tell Esther about the money yet, nor the deposit. I just told her that I was still praying for her, and asked if she could get her passport information to me in case God were to make a way for her to come with us.
As the trip got closer, I just couldn’t let go of the idea that God wanted me to help Esther get to Israel, but I still didn’t know how. So I sent out a note to some others who also read my weekly devotionals on the Internet, letting them know about the situation. We received about a third of the total needed for her trip from that appeal. Another man donated about a third of the cost to cover her airfare from Malawi, and Lana and I put in the final third, as God was also working at the same time to help the six of us going from our family to pay for our trips, too. I told Esther the good news, that God had made a way for her to join us. By the time we left, everyone’s ticket was completely paid for! This was astounding!
But then we got to Israel. We were supposed to meet Esther at the airport, as she was to arrive on a flight about twelve hours earlier. But when we got there, we couldn’t find her. We paged her several times over the airport intercom, we checked for phone messages and email messages, looked in all the waiting areas, but couldn’t find anything about where she might be, or if she even made it on her flights. We finally had to leave the airport, knowing that I had at least sent her the names of the hotels where we’d be staying at before we left, and hoped that she would catch up with us.
But she didn’t. She called us the next day from an airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Although she had made it all the way to the airport in Israel, they had denied her entry into Israel, saying that it was too questionable about how she came to know us through our Internet ministry, and why the rest of the group wasn’t there to meet her in Israel when she arrived. Although she tried to explain it to them several times, and she was even still in the airport when our flight finally landed twelve hours later, she wasn’t allowed to call or email or make any contact with us. (To the credit of the airport security in Israel, they run a very tight ship and for very good reasons. We appreciate that they take their job so seriously or otherwise no one would be able to travel in and around Israel at all.) But since Esther did not travel together with us into the country with the group, she was questioned more strictly and finally put on a plane, headed back to her home.
I couldn’t believe it when she told me the story over the phone and I began trying to think of anything else I could do. We had come too far in getting her to this point that I didn’t want to give up on it, even though she was already headed on her flights back home, now waiting in Ethiopia to change planes back to Malawi. I called the immigration office at the Addis Ababa airport to ask if she could be put back on the plane to Israel, that we would meet her at the airport when she arrived and try to provide whatever documents they needed to verify that she was on our tour, but they said there was nothing they could do for her. She had been officially deported, and they were to put her on a flight back to Malawi the next morning. After several calls to several different people at the immigration office, I couldn’t get any farther. I went to bed that night wondering why God had brought her so far, only to have her turned back in the end. It was 4 in the morning by this time, and I couldn’t think of anything else to do, so I finally slept.
When I woke up a few hours later, I updated my wife Lana on the situation, and asked if she could think of anything else we could do. She remembered that a friend of ours had a daughter who had just come home from serving a year in Ethiopia as a missionary, and maybe she would have a contact who could help us out. I didn’t know what they could even do, but I felt I had to pursue any possible option that was still open to us, as I felt it was the Lord who had put it on my heart to try to get her there in the first place. So we texted our friend’s daughter back in Chicago, who texted us back with the phone number of a pastor she knew in Addis Ababa. I was astounded that we knew someone who knew someone who lived in Addis Ababa at all!
And I couldn’t believe it when we called him and he immediately said that he would do whatever we needed him to do, just let him know. It was such a surprise that my wife and I both cried at the thought that someone would take a call from complete strangers and would be willing to drop everything and go to the airport right away. He was a busy man with a large congregation and they had just gotten out of some special weekday services they were holding. It was beyond what we could have imagined someone doing for us in this situation. It still makes me cry to think of it—a brother in Christ willing to help out another brother, simply because we have the same Father. So he went to the airport that night, along with a pilot friend from his congregation. Unfortunately they weren’t able to find Esther there. We were all disappointed, but we didn’t know what else to do.
In the mean time, I had also talked to the tour company who helped us arrange the whole trip, and they said they could try to fax a letter to immigration in Addis Ababa, saying that Esther was indeed part of our tour, and that she was an invited guest as part of our group. I called the immigration office again, saying that we’d try to get a letter to them if they could just let Esther stay at the airport another 5-6 hours, as it was the middle of the night back in the States, and the tour offices wouldn’t be open yet for another several hours. They granted our request and didn’t make her get on the next-scheduled flight to Malawi.
So we got their fax number and the tour company tried several times to fax the letter—but the fax wouldn’t go through. As the day went on, the rest of our group in Israel continued on with our tour, now sitting in a garden in the city of Capernaum, a site where Jesus had done some incredible miracles. I updated the group on Esther’s situation, and we all prayed that someone would be able to get that letter through to the immigration office. I didn’t have the heart to call the pastor in Addis Ababa again, but Lana did, so she tried to call him. None of her calls would go through. We sat down again and prayed. Our time was running out.
At the very moment that we sat down to pray, my phone rang. It was the pastor from Addis Ababa! He said he had just been to the airport again to try one more time to find Esther, taking some of his church members with him, this time one who worked at the airport. They had found Esther! They were calling us to see if there was any possibility we could fax him a letter from the tour company saying that she was with our trip! It was the very thing we were trying to do, but he didn’t know it, and I didn’t know he had gone back to the airport again! I called the tour company who found a way to finally email to the pastor, who printed it out and took it back to the immigration office at the airport. I also instructed the tour company that if they needed to buy another ticket for Esther to get back to Israel, to go ahead and buy it and charge it to my account, up to $1,000, withhout having to try to call me. We didn’t have time to wait for any more calls. I just wanted the ticket waiting for her at the airport if she needed it. I didn’t have $1,000 to spend on her ticket, but that’s the number that came into my mind while I was on the phone, and what I felt I should say.
The pastor was able to get the documents to Esther, and the immigration office said she could get on a plane back to Israel. The tour company agency found the cheapest ticket they could—it was $992, just $8 under the limit I had given them, so they bought it and had it waiting for her at the airline counter.
As I went to bed that night, exhausted not only from the recent days’ activities, but also from the months leading up to this moment, I went to lay down and felt God said, “You passed the test. Enjoy the rest of the trip.” I wasn’t sure exactly what test I had passed, but I was thankful that it was all working out. Even though Esther wasn’t yet back in Israel, I felt like I had done the utmost of what I could possibly do to get her to Israel, as God had called me to do.
The next morning, our first stop on our tour “just happened” to be the site where Jesus multiplied the loaves and the fish to feed the 5,000—the place where Jesus had told the disciples to give the people something to eat, and the passage which had so inspired me all along. There we were standing on the same hill where that miracle from God took place. As I was looked up the passage again to read to our group that morning, I saw that it was told in several of the gospels, so I looked at each version to see which one to read. When I read John’s version of the story, I couldn’t believe it! In his version, when Jesus asked Philip where they could get food for all these people to eat, John added:
“He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what He was going to do” (John 6:6).
It was a test! And just as Jesus had tested the disciples by asking them to give the people something to eat,—when it seemed utterly impossible—God had tested me to help someone else in need when it seemed impossible, too. And God had told me the night before that I had passed the test. Hallelujah! And now He had brought me to the hillside where Jesus had given the disciples their test! God couldn’t have spoken more clearly to me if He had appeared in front of my eyes!
Later that afternoon, Esther arrived again at the airport in Israel, and this time she was allowed to enter the country. (The security people at the airport had asked her, “Why have you come back again when someone who is deported isn’t allowed to attempt to come back into the country again for five years, and now you’re trying to come back after only three days later!” Had I known that, I don’t know that I would have even tried to get her back in. Only God could have opened that door for her to return!) She met us at the hotel for dinner that night.
Over dinner with our group, Esther and I shared with each other all that God had been doing to make this moment possible. And that’s when the real clincher came.
Esther told me that from the very first day that I responded to her email, saying that I felt God could make a way for her to visit Israel someday, she said God spoke to her and told her she’d be coming this year, with us. Even when she was being turned away at the airport, she said she was praising God, that those had been the best few days of her life so far. Her mom had even called me during all of this to say that she wasn’t discouraged, that they were just going to thank God in all things in order to shame the devil. Esther said that from the very beginning, when she first started thinking about the trip, she wanted to pray that God would make a way for her to go, but that God had stopped her from praying. She said that God told her not to pray for the trip, but to simply give thanks for it. She was puzzled, but did what God said. In fact, as time went on she was tempted to ask others to start praying for her to be able to go on the trip, too, but that God had stopped her from telling even one person about the trip or to pray for her, but simply to continue to give thanks for it. She said she didn’t feel she was supposed to tell anyone about the trip until it was set. When she got my email asking for her passport information, and before I had even told her that people had begun to give money for her to come, she said she knew on that day that everything was set, and she could finally begin telling others about it.
I was stunned by what she said. Wasn’t that exactly what Jesus did on the hillside when He multiplied the loaves and the fish? He simply gave thanks to God, broke the bread, and asked the disciples pass it out. He didn’t plead for it, He just gave thanks for it! I looked at Esther and thanked her for being obedient to what God had told her to do. It had spoken volumes to me, answering a question that had been on my heart for months as I studied that passage trying to see what Jesus had done. I told her what God said to me about passing the test, and that I felt that she had passed her test, too ,because of her obedience. We both knew that while God would still use the rest of the trip to speak to us in many ways, that He had already done His greatest work in us already, that of increasing our faith in Him.
As if to confirm all that had just happened that day, when I got back to my hotel room that night and having shared all of this with Esther—even the part about authorizing the purchase of her second ticket for anything up to $1,000 when I didn’t know how I’d be able to pay for it—I checked my email before heading for bed. In my inbox was a note saying that a friend of ours back in the States had unexpectedly made an online donation of $1,000 to our ministry while we were at dinner that night! It was as if God were putting the icing on the cake, covering even the final detail of her trip.
I still don’t know how to interpret it all. On the one hand, it seems it wouldn’t have happened had we not prayed fervently and worked feverishly towards the goal, even day and night near the end. But on the other hand, God wanted to teach us something through what He called Esther to do: to simply give thanks for what He was going to give her. Or as my wife said while we were going through the whole ordeal, she felt that we were like the workers who helped to dig Hezekiah’s tunnel to bring water into the City of David. One team started digging from one side, and the other team started digging from the other side, and miraculously both teams were able to meet in the middle to complete the tunnel!
In any case, I hope that God will speak to you through at least some portion of this story. And for some reason, I don’t think this is the end of the story. It could very well be the beginning of some new ones! Thanks again for joining us on this incredible trip to the Holy Land!
Father, thank You for all the remarkable things we’ve learned from this trip to the Holy Land, and all the remarkable things you still want us to learn in the future. Give us the faith to step out and trust you completely for everything in our lives, giving You thanks, even in advance, for Your love and faithfulness to us. Thank You for sending Your Son to lead us in Your ways, and keep giving us the faith we need to follow Him every day, until one day He leads us on into heaven. In Jesus’ name, Amen.