(A quick work of explanation for the blog. I couldn't update the blog at our last hotel spot, so I had to save the posts and put them up all at once.)
We are not yet fully home, but we landed in Philadelphia last evening. Slept the night at my sister’s house and we are preparing to go to church with them this morning. Afterward, we’ll drive to Clearfield where I will drop of my mom and then catch up with my family at a nearby cabin for two nights away before returning to work on Tuesday morning. I am eager to see my family and looking forward to being with my church family again for the Easter week.
Mom did a great job on the trip. She was determined to see it all and she did just that. At times she needed a little boost, but she made it to the end of the road. I really admire her courage to go and her perseverance. It was not an easy trip, but it was a wonderful one. It was an incredible privilege to see Israel -to view the ancient ruins of Biblical cities and to immerse ourselves in the modern country that is making fertile lands out of the desert. We caught a glimpse of the conflict that mires the region and have renewed concern for complexity of the issues there. We are led to pray for the ministry of the Prince of Peace. May his gracious rule bring true “Shalom” to this troubled land.
The Empty Tomb
Our tour concluded with visits to both the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Garden Tomb. Visitors to Jerusalem know that they represent two very different options for locating Golgotha and the tomb of Christ. Of course, neither site can be confirmed. The first cathedral was built by Constantine in the 4th century, apparently on the location of a former chapel which commemorated the supposed location of the crucifixion of Christ. It was destroyed and rebuilt many times over the years, but is still a magnificent structure. Archaeologists have shown that there are tombs in the area which date to the first century, but beyond that nothing is certain. It is difficult to locate anything in a city that has been destroyed and rebuilt so many times.
By contrast, the Garden Tomb is a more recent discovery. British archaeologists in the 19th century noticed a rock structure that looked suspiciously like a skull. Since the Gospel accounts speak of the location of the crucifixion as the “place of the skull” (Golgotha) it was an intriguing find. The proximity to the road and the city gate fits the Biblical description and nearby excavation revealed an ancient vineyard. Further excavation uncovered an tomb that was cut into the rock and closed by a rolling stone. Unfortunately, the tomb has been determined to be from earlier than the first century. It is too old to be the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea.
To their credit, the guides at the Garden Tomb don’t over-sell their case. Our tour was led by an Arab Christian from the nearby Palestinian village of Bethlehem. He not only shared information about the location and about first century practice, but he read to us from the Scripture. “The important thing,” he said, “is not where the tomb was, exactly. The important thing is what it means. The tomb means that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whosoever should believe in him would not perish but have eternal life.” I think that the words of Scripture spoken by the mouth of our Arab brother meant more to me than anything I saw at that location.
In a similar way, my thoughts on the tomb of Jesus were shaped by an offhand comment from our tour guide. Our guide for the week was a Messianic Jew that grew up in the Soviet Union before immigrating to Israel. He clearly loved Israel and was fiercely proud of his people. But he had come to know Messiah Jesus while in Russia and brought his faith with him to the Holy Land. His encyclopedic knowledge was paired with wit and love for the Lord. Sometimes his off-hand comments were more memorable than anything else. At one point he tried to describe what we would see when we entered the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. He was animated by the details, but he knew that this historic location touched on the heart of the Christian faith. I will end with his words.
“Inside the large dome of the church is a small dome. It is like Russians dolls – one inside the other. The people wait in a long line for hours to enter the smaller chapel. And inside the chapel what they think is the tomb. And the people wait for hours to go in and when they do, they look around and see that Jesus is not there.” And in a moment, his voice rose as he progressed from the technical description to proclaim his faith. “Jesus is not in the tomb… He is Risen!”
That alone was worth a trip to Israel.
My former post was about diversity among Christians, but that is only part of the story. Jerusalem is a 5,000 year old city and it contains layer upon layer of religious expression. Today it is still a very important religious city for the worlds three largest monotheistic religions. Jews, Christians and Muslims consider it to be a place of great importance. The Old City of Jerusalem is divided into sections of Jews, Muslims and Christians - all of whom trace their lineage back for hundreds of years in the city. Currently, the city is under Jewish control, but that has only been the case since the 6 Days War in 1967. In the tentative balance of Middle Easter politics, the local people navigate the delicate relationships which characterize their daily life.
At the Western Wall, the Muslim call to prayer, the Christian church bells and the groaning prayers of the Jewish people rise together into the air of this contested city.
First a quick review. On Wednesday we saw Masada and En Gedi as we made our way to Jerusalem. Upon entry we went to the City of David and sloshed through Hezekiah’s Tunnel. Yesterday we started at the Western Wall, viewed the excavations under the city, then crossed the border into Palestinian controlled Bethlehem. We returned to see the traditional locations of Caiaphas’s house and the upper room. Today we did a walking tour of Jerusalem, starting with the Mount of Olives, into Jerusalem and the pool of Bethsaida and then along several stops of the historic Via Dolorosa, all the way to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. We then concluded with a tour of the Garden Tomb and walked back to the hotel.
A couple of stories from this time demonstrates the tense nature of inter-religious balance.
On Thursday we closed our day today with a visit to an old site that commemorates the last supper. It is highly doubtful that this marks the actual location of the last supper, but the building has been venerated for that purpose since at least the time of the crusaders and maybe before. Almost unbelievably, it is located on top of what the Jewish people recognize as the tomb of King David. The small building which contains the purported sarcophagus of David is filled with praying rabbis and is considered to be the second holiest Jewish site in the city. During the time of Turkish rule, the hostilities surrounding the use of this location created enough tension that the local Muslim ruler attempted to solve the problem by turning the building into a Mosque. That was not a great plan. After the city returned to Jewish control in 1967, you can imagine the problems that ensued. One location is considered a significantly important holy site by three religions. As we entered, our tour guide warned us: "The rules are very strict here. You cannot pray out loud, you cannot sing. You must be careful. We do not want to start a fight."
On Friday I was struck by a vivid picture of these converging and conflicting religious streams. The Via Dolorosa is the supposed route that Jesus took as he endured suffering and rejection on the way to the cross. Some of the sites reflect Biblical stories and some are extra-biblical. Given that the city was so often destroyed and rebuilt, it is hard to know with any certainty where particular things were located. It is also interesting that the route progresses through the Muslim quarter of the city. The street vendors and narrow corridors make the route feel both foreign and ancient.
We ate lunch on a corner where the Via Dolorosa turned onto a larger thoroughfare. The corner had one of many outposts of soldiers with the Israeli Defense Force. Military service is mandatory for all citizens (male and female) and many of the soldiers are in the late teens and early twenties. The larger street (by Old City Jerusalem standards) in front of our café was a major passageway for Muslim worshippers to access the Mosque on the Temple Mount.
At the beginning of our lunch the call to prayer echoed through the streets as Muslims streamed down to the mosque. Throughout the meal, Christian pilgrims continued to pour down the Via Dolorosa. Eastern European women with their heads covered in scarves, and priests in long flowing black robes trekked in the ancient pathway of Jesus. During the meal, several young Palestinian men were pulled from the street, questioned and searched. A reminder of the continued police presence in this conflicted land.
At the end of the meal, the flow of Muslim worshippers reversed course and moved backward, away from the Mosque. Now the two streams were moving in opposition. In front of our tables, the throngs of Christian pilgrims jostled with Muslim worshippers, under the watchful eye of the Israeli police. Distinct clothing marked the contrast in these great monotheistic religions. M-16’s and police baracades were a reminder of the ongoing hostilities. It was a picture of the conflict and the struggle to coexist in this ancient land.
The Mountain of the Lord
One of the most surprising aspects of this trip is the incredible diversity of life here in Jerusalem. That is happening on so many levels.
First, there is an remarkable diversity of Christian pilgrims in the city. Tour buses full of African Christians and Europeans from the former soviet block countries jockey for position in the park lots of the ancient churches. Tonight, as I write in the lobby of our hotel I watched a group of Italian priests receive an introduction to the hotel. After their departure the room fills with Korean women in the 50's and 60's.
This morning I was asked to give a short devotional during our bus ride and I read from Isaiah 2:2-3. City Reformed people will know that we did a 6 week blog series based around those verses last year. Today I saw the most vivid depiction of God's people as we toured the Holy sites of the city.
It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it,
and many peoples shall come, and say: "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths." (Isa. 2:2-3)
Today I saw people from every continent flowing to the mountain of the house of the Lord. Literally.
But diversity among Christians is only part of the story. Jerusalem is a 5000 year old city and it contains layer upon layer of religious expression. It is a very important religious city for the worlds three largest monotheistic religions. Jews, Christians and Muslims consider it to be a place of great importance. And that is not an easy arrangement. The Old City of Jerusalem is divided into sections of Jews, Muslims and Christians - all of whom trace their lineage back for hundreds of years in the city. Currently, the city is under Jewish control, but that has only been the case since the 6 days war in 1967. In the tentative balance of Middle Easter politics, the local people navigate the delicate relationships which characterize their daily life. At the Western Wall, the Muslim call to prayer, the Christian church bells and the groaning prayers of the Jewish people rise together into the air above this contested city.
One particular story demonstrates the tense nature of this balance. We closed our day today with a visit to an old site that commemorates the last supper. It is highly doubtful that this marks the actual site of the last supper, but the building has been venerated for that purpose since at least the time of the crusaders and maybe before. Almost unbelievably, it is located on top of what the Jewish people recognize as the tomb of King David. The small building which contains the purported sarcophagus of David is filled with praying rabbis and is considered to be the second holiest Jewish site in the city. During the time of Turkish rule, the hostilities surrounding the use of this location created enough tension that the local Muslim ruler attempted to solve the problem by turning the building into a Mosque. That only made it worse. After the city returned to Jewish control in 1967, you can imagine the challenge of balancing these three different expectations. This one location is considered a significantly important holy site by three religions - with a long history of conflict. As we entered our tour guide warned us: "The rules are very strict here. You cannot pray out loud, you cannot sing. You must be careful. We do not want to start a fight."
This sign was on the wall:
Day 5: The Wailing Wall
Today we visited the most important place for modern Jewish people. The Western Wall, known as the “Wailing Wall” is an exposed portion of the ancient temple mount from the time of Christ. When the temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD the walls around the base of the temple mount were all that remained. The Western Wall is particular important because it is close to where the Holy of Holies would have been inside the temple.
Until 1967, when Jerusalem was controlled by Muslims, the Jewish people had very little access to visit any of their holy sites. This fairly small section of the original temple mount was open to Jewish people one day each year. It seems to symbolize both their access to God and their vulnerable national identity. But because they believe that the temple was meant to be a “house of prayer for all people”, the Western Wall is open to be of all religious faiths. As moved closer to the wall, we became more than tourists – we became participants.
Like other holy sites, appropriate dress was required. For the Catholic sites that means that men take off their hats. At the Jewish sites men have to cover their heads. Free yarmulkes are available for all who wish to approach in prayer. It took a moment to figure out how to make it sit properly on my head. It was early in the morning, so it seems that the crowd was smaller. I threaded my way through the rabbis praying with their disciples and approached the ancient stones. This is all that remains from the temple. Huge stones that are worn by sun and rain and countless people.
As I placed my hands, then my forehead on the wall, I felt that the rock was cool to the touch. The wall was enormous. Hebrew prayers filled the air. A general murmur rose above the crowd. I felt small. And somewhat insecure. Had I covered my head properly? Was it ok for me to come close to the wall?
I suppose that some of the insecurity rose from the experience of being on the “turf” of another religion. But I think some of it was bigger than that. The purpose of the temple is to show God’s holiness. His “otherness”. His bigness. And our consequent smallness. Modern western culture does not emphasize this aspect of the divine. Our secular culture seeks to eliminate God altogether, or at least minimize his presence. Even Christianity in the west tends to focus on making God accessible.
But this is not the God of the Bible. The New Testament is rooted firmly in the old. We are told that we can approach God’s throne in prayer with confidence – not because God is small, inconsequential and cuddly. But we are invited to approach God’s throne in prayer with confidence because we have been cleansed by the sacrifice of Christ. Our confidence does not lie in God’s smallness, or in our own preparations. But our confidence lies in the mediation of Christ.
I don’t want to diminish our confidence in prayer in even the smallest degree. But I do hope to retain this fresh reminder of God’s grandeur. I think of the words of the book of Hebrews:
Therefore, let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire. (Heb. 12:28-29)
Matt Koerber is the senior pastor at City Reformed Presbyterian church. This is his personal blog that he also asks guest writers to participate on.