“In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don't.”
My friend Eric, a pilot for a commercial airline, offered to bring me to Israel. Eric is one of my training partners at the gym where I do Jiu Jitsu. When he first offered, I thought he was asking me to watch his kids at my house while he went. Then I thought he was asking me to watch his dog (my son has a dog watching business). Then when he clarified, I said, “you want me to come?” He said yeah! That was a couple of years ago, I think. Now I’m writing this on the plane ride home. We went. It still cost me quite a bit and we are sacrificing in our finances to make it happen, but it was worth it. It didn’t ruin my life, but it might ruin yours, if you go.
Israel is a unique place. It is roughly the size of New Jersey (the state) and in the north you have an area called the fertile crescent that is green and lush with vegetation. In the south, you have the Negev, and it is hard to exaggerate how harsh of an environment the Negev is. Sometimes you look out your car window and can’t see anything growing for what seems like miles upon miles. No grass, no trees, no vegetation. Of course, you also have the dead sea in the south as well. It is dead, and there is literally nothing that lives in that water…nothing!
Yet, in this narrow strip of land you have the major trade rout connecting that part of the world. One would think the importance of that has faded, but this trade route and the resources, especially those in the fertile crescent and the location of the Jezreel valley, have brought conflict because various nations want that land. The conflict between modern day Israel and the Palestinians who inhabited the land when the nation of Israel was established in 1948 wages on. Of course, it isn’t just about the land, there are religious implications as well. Megiddo has been rebuilt because of conflicts 26 times, as recently as World War 1 and as far back as the 15th century BCE. It is also the place mentioned in John’s Revelation as the place where Armageddon will take place when Jesus returns.
Surrounding Israel are enemies some of which have specifically stated their goal to extinguish the nation of Israel from the face of the earth. That’s not an exaggeration.
Yet, the home of the Jewish nation is also the destination of hajis and pilgrims of the Muslim and Christian faith as well. As a person walks through the old city of Jerusalem they are confronted with this stark reality rather quickly. The Dome of the Rock where a Muslim Mosque sits and is said to be the sight where Muhammed ascended to heaven is also the traditional sight where Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac and God provided a replacement. All of that is within a stones throw or two from the wailing wall (what is left of the west wall of the temple built by King Herod some 500 years before the time of Christ and destroyed in 70 AD by the Romans). Let’s just say all the necessary ingredients for conflict are present and everyone walks just a little on edge.
More could be said about the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and other things. It is hard to overestimate the degree to which these things are constantly present in Israel. Yet, Christians, Jews, and Muslims flock to this place year after year to complete their spiritual haji. My friend, Rula, lives in the old city and acted as our tour guide for two days during our trip. She is Arminian (not Jewish and not Palestinian). She speaks 4 languages fluently and can get around Jerusalem well. By the end of our time with her, she was calling me haji Johnny. Haji is generally a term used for Muslims who have completed a pilgrimage but is sometimes used more broadly. She, like a lot of people there, makes her living by working in the “haji” industry. The Catholics have made an industry out of burial sites, the site of Jesus birth, and many other “holy sites.” People come not only to see historical sites, but to touch the place where Mary spilled breast milk and a rock turned white. They touch or even lay on the rock and pray to Mary asking her to cure their infertility. Many claim it works including a friend of Rula.
Pilgrims and hajis don’t come just to see the sites, they come for miracles and spiritual experiences in their lives. Many flock to the site of Jesus’ baptism and get baptized and rebaptized in the Jordan river so they can gain some kind of “spiritual experience.” All of this is problematic to say the least. The relics of the Catholic church and the sound of John Tutsel’s voice are all but faint in the background.
There is certainly not anything wrong with experiencing spiritual highs as you stand in the synagogue that was built on top of the synagogue where Jesus spent time preaching, reading the sermon on the mount as you sit on top of the mount of beatitudes, or standing at the shore of the Sea of Galilee just behind Peter’s house and think about Jesus calming the storm or walking on water. It all happened their and it changed the course of eternity…literally. But, there is nothing magic about that dirt or that water or that air. It’s all just dirt, water, and air. It’s not the same dirt, water, and air that graced the feet and lungs of Jesus. And even if it was, so what. God doesn’t hear your prayers better if you are putting your hands on the wailing wall as I did (I even prayed) and His power to do miracles are not determined by geography. God’s work is grounded in history, but He is not limited by history. If you seek a spiritual experience in the Holy Land you might find it, but what about when you are sitting on the plane going home? What then?
If you are looking for a spiritual experience that will sustain your spiritual walk, don’t go to Israel. Don’t get me wrong, there is something amazing about visiting the Holy Land. I hope to go back, and I hope it will be sooner rather than later and last longer than this short trip. I hope you will get to go as well, but for the right reasons and with the right expectations. The truth is, God isn’t just at work in one magical location, He is at work wherever you live and wherever His people live. God works in the midst of your infertility, He works with the reality of your relationships, their financial struggles, your brokenness, and so on. Israel is a broken place and a site of conflict throughout world history. God is at work in your life, you don’t need a trip to Israel to experience the redeeming power of the cross and the empty tomb. Heck, we don’t even know for sure where the empty tomb is. Is it the Garden Tomb as many protestants believe or is it The Church of the Holy Sepulchre? Maybe it’s neither of them. Wherever it is, we have eye witness testimony in the gospels and epistles of the New Testament that confirm his resurrection and you have access to that. Further, you have access to the Holy Spirit who has sealed your eternal life.
My trip to Israel did bring to life Scripture in a new way as I stood close to the place where Jesus experienced the temptation by Satan to receive the kingdoms of the world if Jesus would just worship Satan. It brought to life the realities of the land and culture in which Jesus lived and worked, where Abraham obeyed God with Isaac, where Simon of Cyrene is through to have helped Jesus with the cross or where Jesus ascended to heaven. My trip grounded the historical reality of God taking on human flesh, living, dying, and rising to life, but the emotional high will fade. I will forget some of what I saw and experienced and I will return home to pay for my trip, help coach my son’s baseball team, go to the gym, and prepare sermons every Sunday in my local coffee shop. Just like I did before I left. I will see God continue to work in Lakewood, Colorado and in my own family and among my friends.
If you go to Israel and expect the emotional and spiritual high that will last you the rest of your life, you will be chasing another experience in a week, month, or year. It will ruin your life. If, however, you go to Israel in the hopes of grounding in history the work that Jesus has already done in your life because of the cross and resurrection and gaining insight into the Biblical narrative, then by all means have a good trip.
John Byrne is a pastor who has been spouting off his opinions his entire life (just ask his mom). This little blog is his venue for continuing in this tradition.