Israel
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A truck stop sign flickers on, inadequate defense against the gathering dusk. The counter girl lights a cigarette and watches the tour buses leave.

Israel.

Church, pub, party—walk into any place people are gathered, mention the word Israel, and watch the place split like the Red Sea. Think what you will about the Old Testament prophets, but Zechariah nailed it 2,500 years ago when he predicted Israel would one day be a thorn in the world’s side. Still, it’s hard to imagine a country so small it could take a bath in Lake Michigan being a constant news headline. And yet, there it is. 

Israel is nothing if not polarizing.

For most, opinions about the place are shaped by what channel they watch or internet feed they gravitate to. Lord knows, there are no end of options. The truth is, Israel is a dichotomy to the extreme. Unique on the planet. David’s harp holding down the root chords to Robert Johnson’s blues. The place wrecks and uplifts, breaks and inspires. It leaves no wiggle room. It demands attention.

Israel is beautiful. Israel is vibrant. But Israel isn’t clean. Far from it. Israel is sin, redemption, passion, and blood. At its heart, it’s human and filled to the brim with the world—people of every religious, social, and political bent. The very ones God loved so much that He sent His Son to die for. Israel is a Palestinian kid on an apartment roof in the old city. It’s the Jewish vendor in The Shuk, cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, haggling with a housewife over the price of a fish. The guy in front of a desert gas station flirting with the female tourists and hawking rides on his sleepy-eyed camel. Pilgrims soaked in vibrating ecstasy marching the Via Dolorosa…

Israel is messy. 

Because Israel isn’t the story of a place, it’s the continuing story of God’s interaction with mankind. 

Tongues of Men, Tongues of Angels

His accordion breathes and top-hatted busker sings a Dylan tune by the stairs leading down to the Mamilla Mall. His English is broken, but his fingers know the words…

Hebrew as a language is an interesting animal. Written right to left, spoken in every direction imaginable, it jangles, pops, and growls. It’s a good language. A language that carries its own weight. A tongue birthed expressly to communicate all the passion, joy, and pain of this human existence.

Every good tourist, no matter the destination, does his best to collect three or four good local words. Shalom is the granddaddy Holy Land-tourist word of them all. Packed into brains about the same time extra socks are squeezed into carry-ons. And as soon as the plane sets down, the shalom-ing begins.

For the most part, Israelis Shalom right back. And so it should be. Shalom means peace—the one thing most longed for across the human spectrum. And this tiny slice of the globe has known war, or the threat of war, for much of its inhabited existence. The prophets referenced the coming Messiah with the name Sar Shalom—The Prince of Peace. Shalom speaks to the reality God longs for us to know. In fact, it reveals the very heart of God. 

And God is at the very heart of Israel.

Back on the Bus

Sightseers trot after the tour guide’s flag in a rush to see the Western Wall. A vendor by the Jaffa Gate smiles and nods and hopes they’ll buy some bread… 

A narrow visit? Maybe. But God can work with narrow. On or off the well-worn tourist path, no one leaves this place untouched.
Over three million people visit Israel every year. They pour enough money into the economy to make tourism one of the country’s top sources of income. Most pilgrims join tours specifically tailored to their particular worldview. Bus routes crisscross; careful bubbles of contained culture passing each other on the road. Jewish tours enjoy the modern mayhem of the beach cities. They visit Masada, the Western Wall, and Yad Vashem—Jerusalem’s Holocaust Center with its museum and memorial. Catholics track the shrine-topped sites deemed historical by Constantine’s mother on her pilgrimage to retrace the steps of Christ. Protestants and evangelicals ride tour boats on the Sea of Galilee and sing songs at the Garden Tomb. Each group clinging to its perspective tour guide’s flag like an umbilical.

A narrow visit? Maybe. But God can work with narrow. On or off the well-worn tourist path, no one leaves this place untouched.

Beautiful Ruins

A barbed wire fence with a yellow ‘Danger, Mines!’ runs tracks along the road. An Arab boy watches over his father’s sheep and waves at the passing motorists…  

Near the Syrian border, a spring feeding the headwaters of the Jordan River wells up from the ground. 

Caesarea Philippi—a beautiful ruin.

In Jesus’s day a massive temple extended from a cliff face here. Early worshippers called the temple the Gates of Hell, believing it was a passage to the underworld. It was to this oasis of misplaced piety that Jesus brought His disciples and asked them a question. “Who do men say that I am?”

They hemmed and hawed, offered various answers. But then Jesus cut straight to the heart. “Boys, who do you say that I am?”

Peter stepped up. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

“Blessed are you, Peter… On this rock I will build My church and the Gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.” 

The church Jesus is actively building in the hearts and lives of His followers is a beautiful and eternal thing. It will stand because He is faithful even when we’re faithless. Loving even when we’re unlovely.

What a thought! The Gates of Hell—a picture of every false god and worldly system—crumbles against God’s crashing waves of grace.

Israel 

A riot of stars swirls above the Negev. An American tourist grumbles because she can’t get cheese on her Big Mac. An IDF soldier stuffs a tiny paper prayer between the stones of the Western Wall…Israel.   

Ancient and modern. Glorious and broken. Filled to the brim with beautiful ruins. 

Some are piles of stone. But most are flesh and blood. And should you ever choose to walk those ancient paths yourself, you will count yourself among that number. It’s like Moshe, a shop owner in the Jewish Quarter will tell you, “If you’re here, you were invited by God.” 

But if you do go, take some time to step off the bus and listen closely.

Because this is Israel.

Where the soft winds of Lebanon rattle through olive trees, ripple the dry grass, and whisper, "Who do you say that I am?"