After talking about my experience in Israel with family and friends I have come to the conclusion that I should describe my trip as having three layers. Some locations only seemed to have one layer, very commonly they had two, and places like Jerusalem clearly displayed all three. One layer of history, a second layer for the life and times of Jesus, and the third displays the present population of Israel.
Layer one, the history of the land Israel sits on, the thousands of years of building kingdoms and empires. Battles fought and the land conquered. Looking at Israel on the satellite view of google maps and seeing the green area of the Promised land surrounded by dessert. It is no wonder that God gave this place to the Israelites and no wonder nations around them desire to take it away. It was captivating to see the remains of ancient cities. Stone walls, mosaic floors, theatre seating and marble pillars. - These cities coming in different styles and different layers as generations and conquering nations occupied and abandoned and rebuilt over those who had lived there before them. And probably romanticizing too easily the lives that lived in these places because of how grand they still appear. I am still no expert in this area but I did enjoy seeing and learning about this history.
One of the most significant places to me that we visited that I will place in the history layer of the trip was on the Mediterranean Sea at the ruins of Caesarea. The city built by Herod the Great around 20 BC. This was the location where, in Acts 10, the first Gentiles received the Holy Spirit and were baptized so from here I left with a hugely grateful heart. If the gospel had not also been also for the Gentiles, for all nations, I would not have made this trip at all and I would not know Jesus.
The second layer of my trip was the most anticipated and the most significant. This is the layer of the life of Jesus. The land Jesus walked on and taught on. The land He loved and called home.
During our four night stay in Tiberius on the Sea of Galilee, a favourite location of Jesus, it was insightful to travel from there to Nazareth, to see the house Mary lived in when she was told she would be the mother of Jesus and then to the house where Jesus grew up. I loved to picture a toddler size Jesus running up and down those steps. I appreciated the visit to the hometown of Jesus and have a bit of an Jesus-time view of this town at the Nazareth Village Museum. Hometowns are special whether we always appreciate them or not so it was nice to walk the modern day streets of Nazareth just to have that little extra bond factor with the Lord. It was also nice to see the churches built over top of the two houses in order to preserve and respect the game changing events that took place there. I admire the heart behind building these places.
As we traveled to the sights around the Sea of Galilee, I very much enjoyed getting the chance to sail in a beautiful wooden boat over the water Jesus walked on! Getting the chance to sit on the shore in places Jesus sat with His disciples, multiplied the loaves and fishes, and next to the town of Capharnum, the centre of Jesus’ activities in Galilee, where Jesus taught in the synagogue and where to this day the wall of Peter’s home still remains.
I wasn't sure what we where seeing when we arrived. I saw a few steps up into a octagon shaped church. I walked in and, there in the middle was a glass floor with a octagon stone wall below. After reading the posted sign and realizing this was Peter's house - the home Jesus entered and healed Peter’s mother in law! - the tears just filled my eyes. Within this small stone circle, my Jesus had been. Because this was day two of the trip and the first place I could place Jesus' footsteps in a specific spot, I was taken aback and then I tried in my human size brain with my English vocabulary to figure out how I was feeling or what I was feeling. It’s not really possible to fully explain. I walked over to the synagogue and needed to pause before stepping in. How was I worthy to walk where Jesus walked? He is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords and He stood here and taught in this synagogue. I have never felt reverence or awe as big as I felt it there. I wondered if I needed to take off my shoes or cover my head, or stay on the outside looking in. But then with the gentle nudge of the Spirit, permission to enter, I walked through the synagogue with praise and thanksgiving that God would send His Son to earth in human form for the sake of a relationship with me.
After our adventures in the Northern part of the country we started our journey towards Jerusalem. Just like Jesus, leaving behind the beautiful area of Galilee, now also a favourite of mine, towards the final days in Jerusalem.
Oh Jerusalem and the journey of Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday in a matter of hours. To say I was excited about this part of the trip would be a complete lie. Every part of my insides was anxious about walking the final steps of Jesus' life on earth. I know the end of the story, I know Jesus could not be held by death but I can't make it though a Good Friday service, an Easter service or even writing out this paragraph without tears, let alone standing on the very streets Jesus carried the cross, and next to Skull Hill where He took the sins of the world on Himself. At the garden of Gethsemane I was beside myself thinking of the agony Jesus was feeling as He prayed there before His arrest and then the heartbreak of betrayal. And I empathized with Peter's desire to stop the madness and protect Jesus. And although mixed in the tears of sadness were also tears of gratitude, I still hate that sin . . . the sins of the world . . . my sins, caused my Jesus to be mocked and beaten and crucified.
We stood outside the tomb where Jesus was buried. I knew it was empty. I live each day with hope because it is empty. I didn’t expect this but I needed to pause before entering in. I stood in the shoes of John, the beloved Disciple. Arriving at the tomb first but waiting before going in. There are no words descriptive enough that I have thought of yet to fully describe the emotions I felt standing by that tomb. Jesus went in dead. He lay there for three days. His friends beside themselves in grief waiting to return after the Sabbath to cover Him with spices and perfumes. In this tomb Jesus sat up, the resurrected Lord, swinging His feet around and standing up. Where I stood in that tomb, Jesus took His first steps as the risen Lord, moving the stone away and stepping out into the Garden where Mary would later see Him. Reading through the end of each gospel is now so different. Having walked in that place brings a greater understanding and reality to the story I have believed by faith since childhood.
So the second layer of the trip, the Jesus layer. The greatest portion and the hardest to grasp, understand, and explain.
The third and final layer of this trip is the history of God’s chosen people, the Jews, and fitting that together with modern day Israel. This is the layer that surprised me the most as I found a new desire for a heart like Jesus in a matter that is too great for me to understand and too political to sum up.
Walking through a holocaust memorial museum and reading about those terrible years and the six million Jewish people who were murdered was not an easy task. Knowing that after this awful point in history Israel was reestablished as a nation is somewhat comforting as Jewish survivors started to make their way back to a land they called home but had not lived in for thousands of years. It’s no surprise though that not everyone is happy about this but from comfortable Canada, it shouldn’t be so easy to pick a side to stand with.
It is a fight over land. I feel I had an advantage in starting to understand this layer of the trip because of my time in Northern Ireland. A religious conflict that is all about politics and two groups of people laying claim to some land. But again I say, it is not easy to understand, it is not easy to pick a side.
Old Jerusalem itself has a Jewish quarter, a Muslim quarter, a Christian quarter, and an Armenian quarter. Not equal in size but labeled this way. The divide and conflict is obvious as you walk through each area and notice the change in souvenirs on the shelves. A cry to have visitors stand with Israel in the Jewish quarter, then a cry to have visitors stand with Palestine in the Muslim quarter. My heart broke for the anger and hurt these residences live with and the discontent that follows them because they feel an injustice has been done and that they have a loyalty to fight for. I didn’t expect to see the people of Israel so personally or to have a heart of love so big for them. Although I did pray daily for the Lord to speak to me, challenge me, and show me what He had in mind for my trip. It should not surprise me that part of that answer was seeing the people as He sees them.
I realized as I walked through Jerusalem, on the emotional sped up journey of Holy Week, that I was also growing a heart that has no desire to pick a side. The conflict in the Middle East is very complicated and there is no easy answer for peace. . . but actually there is. Jesus. The prince of Peace. I gained a greater understanding of scripture like Galatians 3:28 for example. Saying, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” And that is my prayer after my trip to Israel. That all will know Christ and have a relationship with Him. The most searched for and significant layer of life.