Sunday, February 5, 2017

Best. Trip. Ever.

A view of the stream bed where David chose 5 stones
--> "If you could go anywhere in the world, where would it be?" I asked Thomas, years ago, before we were married.

He didn’t miss a beat.  “Israel” was his immediate reply.

Israel?  I thought.  What’s the rush to see Israel?  I’d been to Asia and several European countries.  I wanted to see all the British Isles before I worried about seeing Israel.

But, since going, I have to say my recent trip to Israel was the best trip of my life.  While I’ve only been to sixteen other countries outside the States, I would have to say I love Israel best. 

There’s an electricity in the air, an all-things-Jewish feeling that one gets who experiences the culture first-hand.  A land of immigrants who long to be there, many of whom have voluntarily arrived to build up a land that is rich in God’s blessing--who understand, to some degree, the biblical past and embrace whole-heartedly the Jewishness of the future—so many people share this vision of hope.  The Temple Institute, whose employees are carefully investigating the correct dimensions of each piece of temple furniture, portrays the vision of an Israel where, once again, a temple will be rebuilt.

Israel stands as an island in a sea of Islamic nations.  It serves as a beacon of hope, of democracy, of freedom.  And, for the believer, it functions as a very real picture of fulfilled prophecy.  These are God’s chosen people.  This is the Promised Land.  And so many of the Jewish people there get it.  Their embrace of God’s plan to inhabit this land is seen all around.

At the beginning of the Snake Path that leads up to Masada
Traveling during the Bush years throughout Europe, I saw numerous anti-America signs.  Not in Israel.  Nearly every shop we went to was selling the t-shirt that read, “Don’t worry, America:  Israel is behind you.”  Several Jewish people that I met commented positively on the recent inauguration and election. 

How different it was the very first morning, arriving back in the sleepy Midwestern town of 7000 where I live and heading to the coffee shop to wake myself up after a very short night, to hear an elderly woman remark, “Any real news?  Nothing happens here.”  She was trying to locate a newspaper other than the town’s insignificant one. 

In Israel, the center of the world, terrorism threatens; here, soldiers and police openly carry machine guns on their person.  The morning before, I had looked about the lobby of our hotel and saw twenty soldiers, preparing to embark on a mission, each of whom carried a machine gun, slung from the shoulder.  We felt safe, knowing that they would protect us if danger threatened.

Outside a gas station, armed security guards stand on duty.
 Tears budded in the corners of my eyes at various, unforeseen moments throughout the trip.  The first time it happened was in the plane, on the way to Tel Aviv.  Throughout the plane stood various Orthodox Jews, moving back and forth, prayer books in hand.  So many Jewish people flew with us on that flight and I was seated next to a girl who, leaving her fiancé in the United States, was going to be getting married in Israel, with a traditional Orthodox Jewish ceremony, within the month. 

We had a wonderful conversation, and I shared with her my love for the Jewish people.  She was eager to get out of Israel and away from her very orthodox family.  The rules had seemed oppressive.  She was drawn in by America, where, on the streets of Manhattan, Orthodox Jews wore their yarmulkes openly.  The tolerance she felt in America trumped the alienation from other cultures she felt at home.  She’d even met several Arab friends in America, she told me—and they were really nice girls.  Why did her people and their Arabic neighbors always have to fight? She lamented.

But Israel wants peace.  “Shalom,” they say in greeting.  “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem,” they quote.  They’ve willingly given up territory with Muslim neighbors just to have peace, and yet many countries in the Arab world refuse to acknowledge their existence or even their right to exist.  We passed by what the new media reports as “refugee camps” and were shocked to find that those Palestinian refugee camps sport no tents:  these built-up towns, though dirty (certainly more so, in comparison to Jewish-dominated towns) were a far cry from “camps” for refugees.

The entrance to the cave (now a church building) where Christ was born
What made this the best trip ever?  Knowing that I was in the very place that God had chosen for Himself.  Knowing that these people are the ones God has chosen, the apple of His eye, the care of His heart.  I could finally visualize Zion, see the Valley of Jezreel, locate features of Jerusalem with my very own eyes.  And getting to know Jesus and His first-century followers better. 

Now, as I open the Scriptures, I see many more places than I ever did before.  I view the landscape; I see the towns; I consider the cultural significance in a way I didn’t realize was possible.  When I read of Peter and Mary Magdalene, I feel they are my friends:  I was at Peter’s house and saw the streets of Capernaum.  I was in the synagogue at Magdala and stepped on the streets that Mary Magdalene once did.

“As a result of this trip,” our guide told us, “you will come to know Jesus in a deeper way.”  I didn’t believe his statement at first:  I’ll admit, I was skeptical.  After all, isn’t the Bible sufficient for all understanding?  Yes, it is.  But putting the Bible in its context in a way this trip did—that did reveal Jesus to me in a new way.  And our guide, also a student of the Bible, was able to help us connect Jewish symbols and images of Christ’s teaching to the land we saw before us.

Our guide encouraged us to read Mark on the plane ride home—“It’s only sixteen chapters,” he reminded us.  And, as I did, I could visualize Capernaum, where Peter lived and Jesus stayed.  I could see Jarius leaving the synagogue and the woman in the crowded street touching the hem of Jesus’ garment.  Now, as I hear or read Scripture, I find myself seeing the place it was written and finding this perception of the geographic and cultural context of Israel revolutionizing my understanding of the Word.

And when I got to the end of Mark, the words of Jesus, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (verse 15) took on an even greater significance, for they reminded me of what I had just seen:  the physical location of His crucifixion, burial, and resurrection; the physical place of His birth; His mother Mary’s home in Nazareth, the synagogue where He taught.  And now, having walked in His footsteps, having seen His vision for the world, having experienced, to some degree, the Scriptures come alive like never before, I too long to take His precious, life-giving Gospel to every individual the world over.  It is His plan of redemption for all mankind.

Hiking into a water vat
In the next articles, I plan to chronicle for you my adventures in detail.  This was the best trip of my life, and I highly recommend that every student of the Bible take this trip—and do so while you’re young.  That way, you can hike up Masada, like Thomas and I did.  You can wade through Hezekiah’s Tunnel. You can trek down the steps to the water shaft at Megiddo.  (As the youngest members of the group, we took advantage of the extra hiking opportunities, which others had difficulty managing.) 

So go to Israel.  Start saving now.  Within the next couple of years, Thomas may be leading a group.  I know that I, for one, can’t wait to go back to the place that’s central to God’s plan, the beautiful gem of Zion, the land of Israel.

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