A few weeks ago, Sara and I got in an argument. It lasted the better portion of an hour. The lively discussion was centered around whether we were going on a trip to Israel or a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
In case you’ve ever wondered, this is the sort of stuff we argue about, and I did receive permission to share this story… and I did win the argument.
We had this disagreement because we had different expectations for the trip. Sara is going on this trip with a blank slate, where I bring my memories from when I visited the Holy Land at age 15.
I will never forget that experience back in 1999. What was most striking to me then was actually how disappointed I was. Day after day, I visited locales that were recreations, commemorative church buildings, or shrines.
Thrilled to see a stable in Bethlehem, I found a church building with marble floors, elaborate paintings, and gold-plated ornaments. We visited an upper room, much like the one Jesus might have used. We visited a garden tomb, resembling Joseph of Arimathea’s. Even while walking along the Old City wall contemplating all this, I was told that the wall dated back to the sixth century AD, some 500 years after the events of the Bible. Exasperated, I complained to my mom, “Is anything here actually from Bible times?”
I was crestfallen. I had come to the Holy Land, expecting to see living, historical proof of all the most famous places in the Bible. Little did I know at the time, most of Jerusalem had been utterly destroyed by Roman invasion in AD 70.
So why do we go to the Holy Land, then? Why not make a “Holy Land, USA” in Orlando, with replicas, rides, and attractions?
As I mentioned in Sunday’s sermon, we believe in the doctrine of the Incarnation. Jesus is God incarnate, God in the flesh. We believe that God actually entered into a particular time and place in human history. Through Jesus, God dwelt in our midst during the years 4 BC to AD 29 (roughly). He lived under Roman occupation near the Sea of Galilee. He was a Jew and he followed typical Jewish customs.
This has profound implications. Since Jesus lived in a particular context, we know that God is interested in the particular, not just the universal. God is interested in our context, here and now. God uses particular people in particular times to do work that changes history. This work transcends its context, impacting more than those directly involved.
As I’ve reflected upon my first trip to Israel, I’ve come to think it’s a good thing we don’t know exactly where every event in the Bible happened. It forces us to place our trust in God instead of our own intellect and knowledge base. Consider the Temple Mount, one of the places in Jerusalem we do know with certainty. Jews, Muslims, and Christians have fought over it for centuries.
Isn’t it amazing how God can work in a particular context while simultaneously transcending it? So I’m going to Israel with different expectations this time. Once again, I’m thrilled to go. Rather than imposing my own expectations on Israel, I’ll go with an open mind. I’ll consider how what God did in these places 2000 years ago still speaks to us today.
Austin D. Hill