For me there were times in Israel when I felt something like being star-struck. It felt like the time I met Billy Joel (thanks Nerine!). I was already a fan, but it is different when you’re actually in their presence at the concert, and different again when you are talking to them face-to-face at the piano bar afterwards. Of course I’m already a fan of Jesus, I know Him in a spiritually intimate way. But as someone interested in the historicity of his incarnation on earth, that history was literally tangible when I was actually standing in those places!
- To reach out and touch the place on earth where the Son of God was born, as The Son of Man (see above pic taken from my iPhone).
- To stand in the threshold of the same synagogue in Capernaum where Jesus taught and did miracles, and see how close Peter’s house is (pic 2)… Sure there is now a church hovering over the house, but the house is still there. That’s where real people lived and Jesus moved and had his physical being!
- To put my hand on the rock of the very area where Jesus sweated blood in agony for me – all of us – and the load of sin he would bear. This took me back emotionally to the very same feeling I had the first day I consciously trusted Jesus for myself, overwhelmed with gratitude that he would do all this “for me.” I even had the very same tears of sorrow & joy flowing down my cheeks.
- To stand in the Garden Tomb and touch the place where The Resurrection happened!* I felt the excitement in a fresh way. Wow!
The tangible nature of it is the thing for me. “That’s where! There it is, just like the Bible says!” Star-struck is the closest I can come to describing that feeling. You see, I believe all this Jesus stuff because it is true. Not because it is convenient or comforting or beneficial to society – all those things are only so because of the truth of it!
How do I know it’s true? The history matches enough with the archeology, & with my experience (spiritual, relational, and practical), & with scientific evidence (if not all interpretations of that evidence), to be evidently true!
And when you have known this truth for some decades, after a while you get comfortable with it. So to be confronted with the truth of it in this present & tangible way, well the awe of the truth of it hit me all over again. There were other insights from the trip.
- Geting a sense of size and scale. Distances are different in the Australian mind. When we travel, we imagine100s or even 1000s of km. In Israel, it’s all walking distance. Sometimes a footy-kick away.
- A sense of topography. To “go up” to Jerusalem is quite literal, almost fantastical. Especially on the road up from Jericho near the earth’s lowest place (Dead Sea) in the desert. In a short upward drive, the climate changes, the land quickly becomes green as it is cared for in a different way, until you continue up through a tunnel and suddenly there is a glistening Jerusalem nestled upon a range of lush hills. It feels almost magical to experience that arrival.
- I felt the vibe of prayer amongst the hasidic Jews at the Western Wall, the modern Pharisees. They were peaceful, devout, spiritual, and all about the Temple. As I went to the Wall to pray, I felt our profound difference: that the Temple is not to be the centre of faith, but Jesus is. In grief that this Wall was both a symbol of faith in God and yet a side-track from God’s purposes on earth, all I could pray was, “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” I knew I meant something different than those around me. And yet the in some way, the same.
- I learned a lot about Herod The Great, and more about why it was so incredibly offensive to the Jewish Leaders for Jesus to dismiss The Temple. It had only just been built. It was the biggest Temple ever! It was The Fulfilment of their faith! And they were on top of the heap! As far as they were concerned, everything they had prayed for had just come true in their time! And Jesus arrives at this Zenith, and says it is nothing?!!
- I sensed the people. Sounds weird I know, but you know the feeling you get around different people and in different neighbourhoods? Well I felt different things in different places. Some felt truly spiritual, and welcoming. Some felt suspicious and hard. Some felt distracted and secularized. Some felt tender and lost. Some felt childlike and happily peaceful. Some felt bitter and hostile. More tangibly, some came from a Bedouin mindset of living lightly on the land. Others from a mindset of cultivating the land, digging, collecting water and irrigating. This is humanity.
- We got an inside view on some of the “border troubles” in the Golan Heights. We were just going for coffee and the view of Mt Hebron into Lebanon and Syria, but the UN observers were there too. It was the day a battle broke out between Syrian rebels and the Syrian army. Because neither side wanted Israel involved, the action was strictly contained within the particular border zone. We were quite safe even though we were just 1200 meters from it and could hear the gunfire and bombs. People fighting and dying while we watch with coffee in hand! School kids coming to watch, oohing and ahhing like fireworks night! For Aussies this safety next to war was absolutely surreal, we didn’t know how to react. But surrounding Israel, this is life as usual!
No doubt more insights will seep out over time. It has taken me a week to be able to articulate this much. I had no fixed hopes of what I would find or experience on this trip, I wasn’t trying to achieve or construct anything. I was simply open to what is there, and maybe that’s why I came home with such a sense of reality. So if I was star-struck just being in the place where Jesus historically stood, imagine how I’ll be when I’m finally seeing Jesus face-to-face on the other side of the veil!
You can see more pics in Geoff’s Israel albums on facebook here.
And a 16 minute podcast here.
* I also visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Traditional site of the Resurrection of Jesus. There were people clamouring to step in to see the place where he rose again. I am not studied enough to declare one location over the other.
But the contrast between the two locations for me symbolised two kinds of faith, and it tickled me to think that God allowed it to be this way.
One kind of faith trusts God via the Tradition. “Helena said it happened here, The Church says so, so the Garden Tomb must be wrong.” I could feel a grasping clamour, and see it in the faces of the faithful. At the place of The Church Tradition I felt a kind of harried neediness to see and touch this icon. Many of these people would see the Garden Tomb as an unnecessary side-track from Traditional faith. I did not feel the need to join the queue, since my faith is in the One who rose, not the place it happened. (And my curiosity was outweighed by my Aussie impatience with queues.) Yes, there is a case that it could have happened here, but I don’t have to touch the place for it to be real to me. Whereas many of these people did “need” to do that, almost in a way similar to the Western Wall…
The other kind of faith trusts God via Scripture, more independently of The Tradition. So it did not phase us when Gordon discovered the Garden tomb and crucifixion site under layers of dirt in the 1890’s. There is some evidence that this was the actual place, so it is equally visceral to be there. However among the people present, I didn’t experience the same sense of grasping clamour to “touch the icon.” They seemed open to new archaeological findings, and their living faith in Jesus was foremost rather than faith in the tradition or location itself.
NB: The Mt of Olives 1 km east of the Temple, is a third worthy option for the crucifixion/burial/resurrection. Archaeological evidence for the Red Heifer site is yet to be explored and is built-over in a fairly Arab precinct.
Why would there be ambiguity about the location of such a central event in our faith? Well, it seems none of the early writers felt it necessary to record the place in a way that would be unambiguous to the 21st century :-). It was assumed that people knew the place of the Skull, Golgotha. Then around 70AD, when Rome razed The Temple and Jerusalem to the ground, successive Caesars cracked down on Jews and Christians, and by the time the dust settled in 325 AD after Constantine “Christianized” Rome, centuries had gone by and the ground had changed quite a bit more. Jerusalem’s walls had even shifted.
Why would God allow this ambiguity? If you trust God through the Tradition, there is a place. If you are more skeptical, then archeology has made some findings to seriously consider. [And if you are a scholarly adventurer, there’s a third option to explore.] Either way I’m sure God does not want us to put our faith in icons, stones, or locations, any more than in the Temple. And so, especially for this event – the central event of our faith, the cross and resurrection – God might have deliberately allowed the location to be ambiguous for us. Clear enough for us to know it was historical, but unclear enough for us to not make the place more important than the events.
The same could be said for all of Israel.