Something that I found very interesting as I was preparing for my trip to Jordan, Israel and Egypt was the fact that very few people asked me why I was going. You might say, “It’s a no-brainer—you’re a pastor, you should go to Israel—it’s the Holy Land after all.” But why go? What is the purpose of a trip to the Middle East?
I think that for some people there is something very powerful about being where Jesus (and Paul and Moses and other biblical heroes) was. To go to the Jordan River and see the spot where Jesus may have been baptized is, for some, a deep spiritual experience. Some even go so far as to be baptized or re-baptized in the Jordan River, hoping for a deeper connection with Jesus. During the week before Easter Jerusalem is flooded with pilgrims who walk the Via Dolorosa, the path that Jesus (again supposedly) traveled as He carried His cross to the place He was crucified. We ran into huge crowds of people at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, many of them standing in a line for over an hour to spend a few seconds in the spot where Jesus may have been buried. Others prayed passionately as they touched the stone slab that may have held the body of Jesus as it was being prepared for burial.
I have to be honest with you. That sort of thing doesn’t do much for me.
I don’t doubt that it is very moving for some, but I worry sometimes that when we treat these places as “sacred sites” we end up treating the place itself as if it had magical powers—as if something happens just because we are there. Or we act as if our prayers are more likely to be heard if we pray in Jerusalem rather than Grand Rapids. It’s a problem when we treat good things from God as magical (read the story of how Hezekiah had to smash the bronze snake that had saved the people of Israel in the desert because they were treating it like magic in II Kings 18:1-4).
So why did I go to Jordon, Israel and Egypt?
For me, the greatest value of the trip was in a better understanding of the culture, the geography, the lay of the land of the Bible. Being there helped Biblical stories and Psalms come alive. Walking down the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem wasn’t special for me because Jesus had walked that route. It was important to me because it gave me a sense of how long the journey would have taken and what Jesus would have been seeing as He came into Jerusalem. For me this journey made the story in Luke 19:41-44 come alive. That’s the story of Jesus coming into Jerusalem and weeping over the city. As He sees Jerusalem, Jesus speaks these words: “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes…because you did not know the time of your visitation.” Seeing the springs of Ein Gedi was important to me not because David had been there (though that’s cool to think about), but because it gave me a sense of the safety David found there (and in God) when Saul was chasing him (I Samuel 23:29).
So what about you?
If you’ve gone to the Holy Land, why did you go? If you’d like to, why do you want to go? What was or would be the most important part of such a trip for you?
Middle East Travels (III) – you’re here, my friend