What is it about this place that pulls us into its presence? How do we explain this mysterious force that draws us, this mystical call that beckons us, this ethereal conviction that persuades us to go to a country where there is a constant travel advisory and family and friends worry about our safety? Why do we pay thousands of dollars to fly 6,000 miles to a troubled land full of jagged rocks, barren wilderness, and intense political division?
Of all the places on the face of the earth, why this land? The answer is found not in where we go, but why we go; not in our destination but our determination, for we go not as tourists, but as pilgrims, we are not on holiday but on a holy journey. We travel to Palestine, not because it is the nation of Israel, but because it is the Holy Land, the land of the Bible.
To understand the power that draws us to the distant land, we must understand the nature of holiness. We stand on the Mount of Olives not merely to marvel at the beautiful vista, but because the crucible of the Passion is played out before our very eyes. Our physical eyes see the glowing Dome of the Rock, but our spiritual eyes see the majestic Temple of Jesus’ day. We can visualize the palm fronds and hear the shouts of “Hosanna” as the humble man from Galilee rides a donkey through the Golden Gate into the Holy City.
We walk into a Byzantine church, stand in a menagerie of jostling humanity, listening to a cacophony of languages, all clamoring to reach one spot that rests down steep steps through a narrow door in an ancient cave. We kneel down to touch a slimy rock as millions have done before us, touching the rock in Bethlehem where God knelt down to touch the earth 2,000 years ago. And when we do—we feel the power, we are overcome with the mysterious presence and we know why Simon Montefiore wrote that this land has become “the essential place on earth for communication between God and man.”
Isn’t God everywhere and can’t we communicate with God anywhere we may be? Of course we can. And for that very reason I resisted traveling to the Holy Land for many years. But when I did make my first journey over 20 years ago, I experienced the reality of “Sacred Space,” of what Montefiore calls “Holiness.”
As we sailed in a little boat on the Sea of Galilee a gentle breeze caressed my face and suddenly I was overcome with a powerful sense of contentment, fulfillment, and peace—what the Bible calls “Shalom.” I had the strange sensation that I had been there before. Then I realized that indeed I had been there on the Sea of Galilee my entire life. From the time I was a small child in Sunday School, to a teenager on a mission trip, to a college student studying religion—this was my spiritual center. I had traveled half way around the world to come home.
Montefiore wrote: “Many atheistic visitors are repelled by this holiness, seeing it as infectious superstition in a city suffering a pandemic of righteous bigotry. But that is to deny the profound human need for religion without which it is impossible to understand Jerusalem. Religions must explain the fragile joys and perpetual anxieties that mystify and frighten humanity: we need to sense a greater force than ourselves.”
And that is what two dozen of your friends and neighbors recently experienced; “a greater force than ourselves,” as we traveled to the Holy Land on a pilgrimage of faith. From a stirring sunrise over the Sea of Galilee, to the cold waters of the Jordan River rejoicing in baptisms, to the lonely and chilling pit where Jesus was held at the house of Caiaphas hours before his crucifixion, to the tomb that remains as empty today as it was 2,000 years ago, the force of life and light inspired and illuminated our dynamic pilgrimage. And we echoed the proclamation of Jacob centuries ago, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.”